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Improving Tigers defense may point the way forward

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Detroit is currently sporting its best fielding group since 2015.

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Despite the season being declared over before even beginning, the Detroit Tigers somehow find themselves in the division chase in the middle of June. Surely this will eventually change — probably very disastrously — but the team’s surprising “success” should not be overlooked.

What has led to the team’s exceeding of expectations is unclear; the offense is in within the bottom half of the league in runs and the starters and relievers rank in the bottom ten in ERA. Instead, it has been a combination of little things that has kept the Tigers afloat thus far.

Believe it or not, one of these components could be the defense. Long heralded as one of the Detroit’s biggest flaws, the gloves have been alright in 2018. Traditional stats have an acceptable view of the team, with a .986 fielding percentage ranking 10th and 149 double plays ranking 11th.

Deciphering advanced metrics

However, determining the real value of the Tigers’ defense must be done through the eyes of advanced metrics. The two main statistics in this area are Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR). Calculated using different factors, these stats naturally disagree at times, but in the right context they can be telling.

2015 was a great season for Detroit gloves, as the team ranked seventh in DRS and tenth in UZR. Players like Ian Kinsler, Yoenis Cespedes, and Andrew Romine all posted solid numbers that raised the team’s overall figure. However, the tide quickly turned as the Tigers tumbled toward the bottom of MLB in the seasons to come.

The 2018 season has seen a rebirth, however, as the Tigers sit at -6 DRS and 11.8 UZR. The DRS number may not seem great, but at 19th in baseball, this is a significant jump from back-to-back 29th overall finishes. Meanwhile, Detroit’s current seventh-ranked UZR would be its highest in years.

Contributions from all over

Ultimate Zone Rating is composed of many inputs, and most of them seem to like the Tigers. Jose Iglesias (seventh), Leonys Martin (12th), and JaCoby Jones (28th), all rank in the top 30 among all qualified defenders. Only Niko Goodrum and Nicholas Castellanos are real negatives weights.

The defensive values of these players cannot be overstated, especially considering the corresponding offensive challenges that often accompany them. On the one hand, Martin has been a revelation at the plate thus far. However, both Iglesias and Jones have struggled badly for long stretches, yet both have positives fWAR values because of their great defense.

The Tigers can only keep this up for so long, but perhaps there is still some life left. Even as the offense and pitching limp along, there are aspects that do not show up in the box score that could act as the new future of the team. Defense looks like a smart path as Detroit trends through this rebuild.