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Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire embraced the shift with success in 2018

Ron Gardenhire and the Tigers did a fine job with positioning in 2018.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at New York Yankees Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

Attention was largely focused on the Detroit Tigers’ lack of impactful bats and struggles in the pitching staff this season. That makes sense. Until a team has the bats and arms to compete, their fielding seems less consequential.

As a result, the defense didn’t get a lot of attention this year, other than the ongoing struggle to find a positional home for Nicholas Castellanos. Still, it was painfully obvious at times how many subpar defenders the Tigers had on the field. It may surprise you to find that they actually graded out respectably as a group. The Tigers were 18th best in baseball in terms of defensive runs saved (DRS). They were 14th in ultimate zone rating (UZR). By just about any metric that attempts to quantify defensive impact, the Tigers were in the middle of the pack.

Obviously the contributions of players like JaCoby Jones and Jose Iglesias helped outweigh some of the bad, but there was another interesting factor at work. After spending a year with the shift-crazy Arizona Diamondbacks as bench coach, Ron Gardenhire came to Detroit and committed the Tigers to the shift this season, and did so with a lot of success.

Tigers pitchers faced 6,130 hitters during the 2018 season. Overall, they allowed the opposition to post a .327 wOBA, the seventh-worst mark of any pitching staff. However, with a shift in play, the Tigers were — allow me to pause and invite you to hold onto something — the best team in baseball. They allowed opponents a measly .272 wOBA with either a traditional or non-traditional shift employed by the defense.

Best teams vs. the shift

Team wOBA
Team wOBA
Detroit Tigers .272
Chicago Cubs .275
Baltimore Orioles .275
Tampa Bay Rays .276
Oakland Athletics .280

Overall, the Tigers had a shift on against 1,366 hitters this season. That’s only the 14th-most in baseball, so it’s not as though the Tigers went crazy and were shifting on everyone. However, in 2017, they only shifted 757 times, and allowed a .352 wOBA when they did. That’s fairly horrific. So they did invest more heavily into the shift, with far greater success under Ron Gardenhire. More specifically, they used the shift more effectively than any other team, which is a credit to the front office, the coaching staff, and the players.

It also suggests that they should be even more aggressive in how many hitters they shift against going forward.

Against right-handed hitters, the Tigers didn’t shift as much as other teams, checking in at 21st in shifts applied. Still, they used them well. Right-handed hitters posted a .271 wOBA against Tigers pitching with a shift employed. That’s especially impressive when you realize how bad Detroit was without a shift in play. The Tigers were eighth-worst in baseball by wOBA against right-handed hitters overall. Righties are more difficult to shift on than left-handed hitters, but when the Tigers saw the opportunity to use one, they had a lot of success.

The pitching staff was a disappointment overall. The second base position was more poorly manned than under Ian Kinsler’s watch. Jose Iglesias graded out above-average at shortstop, but less so than in previous seasons, playing 125 games for the Tigers. Yet they were able to limit opposing offenses with a shift on better than anyone. That would seem to a be a point in the favor of both the coaching staff, and the Tigers analytics and advanced scouting departments. Imagine how bad things may have gotten for the pitching staff if they had gotten it wrong.

Ground balls are the key

The issue for the Tigers in 2019 is seen in the shift data provided to FanGraphs from Baseball Info Solutions. By definition, shifts are ways of positioning infielders, and so they relate to ground balls almost exclusively. Yet the Tigers pitching staff induced the fewest ground balls in baseball in 2018. They were the only team with a ground ball rate under 40 percent, checking in at 39.6 percent. With weak defenders slated to play in the corner outfield next season, getting more ground balls would seem a point of emphasis for the Tigers next season. But they are going to need the personnel to take advantage of them via the shift.

In the end, the essential problem with the Tigers defense is that a handful of top performers accounted for just about all of the defensive value. At the same time, they are going to have at least two well below-average defenders roaming Comerica’s outfield lawns next year. Jose Iglesias and Leonys Martin are presumably gone, and while JaCoby Jones was the premium defender on the 2018 roster, his weakness offensively badly undercuts his value in terms of run prevention, and it’s difficult to play him on an everyday basis. The Tigers will have opportunities to bolster some of their roster holes this offseason, but they need to be able to take advantage of positioning the way they did in 2018, or they pitching staff is going to have to take a real step forward.

If the Tigers can combine good defensive positioning with effective pitching, tuned to both the park and the defense, they can make up for a weak unit individually to some degree. This season, Ron Gardenhire heavily committed the Tigers to the shift, and did so with a lot of success. Unless the Tigers substantially boost their talent pool defensively during the offseason, they are going to need to do it again in 2019.