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The Tigers’ defense was above average in 2018

Detroit ranked well defensively at most positions relative to the rest of the league.

New York Yankees v Detroit Tigers - Game Two Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

The Detroit Tigers fielded the worst lineup in the American League in 2018. Their starting rotation was below average, and their bullpen improved, but still left much to be desired.

Not great, right? Well, here is a bit of encouraging news: The Tigers’ defense was above average overall, as well at most positions, when compared to other teams in the American League.

The Tigers ranked no worse than fifth of the 15 teams in the American League at all but one position, according to The Fielding Bible’s Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). Detroit ranked closer to the middle of the pack more frequently as measured by Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), with their team defense coming in fifth place.

Bless You Boys is recapping the performances of each Tigers player on the season, so we won’t dig deeply into individual defensive performances. Many of those players accumulated only small samples at various positions, but a look at the position over 162 games should give us an accurate idea of how the team fielded each position.

First, the stats

For purposes of these rankings, we will look at how the team performed with all the players who played at a given position over the course of the season using the following metrics.

Defensive Runs Saved: Defensive Runs Saved, or DRS, tells you how many runs better or worse that player has been relative to the average player at his position. A +5 DRS at third means the player is five runs better than the average third baseman.

Ultimate Zone Rating: Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) is an advanced defensive metric that uses play-by-play data recorded by Baseball Info Solutions (BIS) to estimate each fielder’s defensive contribution in theoretical runs above or below an average fielder at his position in that player’s league and year. UZR measures each play and applies it to a context neutral situation.

Revised Zone Rating: While not as commonly cited as DRS or UZR, Revised Zone Rating (RZR) measures the percentage of outs recorded by a player divided by the number of balls hit within a pre-defined zone for his position. The zone is defined as the area where at least half of the players in the league at that position would convert the ball to an out. It does not measure the speed of the ball or the positioning of the player. It is a good measure of how well a player makes the routine and average plays at his position.

Out of Zone Plays (OOZ): OOZ uses the same zone as RZR and counts the raw number of players that are made outside of that zone. Since it is a counting stat — unlike those above, which are percentage metrics — it can not be added to the other metrics to provide a single metric.

So, how did it go?

Here is a chart displaying how the Tigers ranked as a team and at each position using these metrics.

Detroit Tigers 2018 Defensive Rankings

Position DRS DRS Rank UZR UZR Rank RZR Rank OOZ Rank
Position DRS DRS Rank UZR UZR Rank RZR Rank OOZ Rank
1B 20 5th -9.6 15th 15th 8th
2B 30 4th -2.6 9th 8th 10th
3B 26 5th 1.1 9th 12th 10th
SS 30 4th 6.8 4th 3rd 9th
LF 39 2nd 2.5 6th 2nd 1st
CF 44 2nd 19.9 1st 1st 2nd
RF 10 9th -13.1 15th 8th 12th
C 25 4th -- -- -- --
Team 24 8th 5 8th 3rd 5th

Right Field. First, let’s tackle the bad news. Nicholas Castellanos is not a good fielder. After being relocated from third base, where he recorded historically bad defensive numbers — including allowing over 40 percent of balls through his zone — he is now ranked in the bottom section of defensive metrics in right field. Just how bad his defense ranks depends on which metric you are looking at, though. DRS has him ninth in the AL while UZR has him dead last in the league. Statcast also ranks him last in the majors among all fielders, at 25 outs below average.

Catchers are not measured by the typical UZR statistics used by FanGraphs, but the Fielding Bible does assign a number for Defensive Runs Saved, where the Tigers’ backstops ranked fourth in the league. At the most important defensive position other than the pitcher, the most important skills don’t translate into easily interpreted metrics. How well does a catcher call a game, or keep his pitchers in a rhythm?

In some areas where catching performance can be measured, Detroit allowed the fewest passed balls in the league. They made just three fielding errors, four throwing errors, and James McCann ranked second in the league by throwing out 36.5 percent of base stealers. We won’t get into pitch framing here [Ed.: But it’s not pretty].

First base was a weak spot for the Tigers defensively, according to UZR. Miguel Cabrera should be back in action in 2019, which should help — the Tigers ranked third in the league defensively at first base in 2017.

Another metric which only applies to first baseman shows the Tigers were last in the league with 20 “scoops” for the season in 2018. They were no better in that area the previous year.

Center field was the brightest spot for the Tigers’ defense in 2018. A combination made up mainly of Leonys Martin and JaCoby Jones has the Tigers ranked first in the league in UZR and second only to the Tampa Bay Rays in DRS. The Tigers easily led the league in RZR and were second in out of zone plays (OOZ).

Left field was a pleasant surprise for the Tigers defensively, where a number of outfielders combined to provide the league’s second-best defense according to both UZR and DRS. Jones combined with Mikie Mahtook and Victor Reyes in the left corner, with JaCoby putting up most of the impressive numbers.

Shortstop was another position of strength for Detroit, with Jose Iglesias holding down the position until late in the season. His defense will be missed at a key position.

It is noteworthy that the Tigers posted a positive number at every position according to DRS, and were below average only at right field and first base according to UZR. Both metrics show negative numbers where players, or teams, display below average performance at a given position.