The Tigers played their biggest game of the year today. A win would have brought them to within a game of the White Sox with sixteen to play. Instead, the Tigers are three games out after a crushing 5-4 loss at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago.
The key play of the game was a familiar sight. With one out and the bases loaded in the bottom of the fifth, the Tigers had an opportunity for a six-four-three double play which would have ended the inning. We've seen them fail in similar situations all year including four times in one inning yesterday. It happened again. This time shortstop Jhonny Peralta flipped the ball to second baseman Omar Infante who tried to make the pivot and throw to first with White Sox base runner Alex Rios sliding hard into second. The throw was bounced to first baseman Prince Fielder who couldn't make the scoop. The ball got by Fielder for two runs giving the White Sox a 5-4 lead they would not relinquish.
Infante was charged with an error on the play. It was a tough play due to Rios' take out slide, but Infante did hesitate briefly and it cost him by altering the throw. Fielder probably deserves more blame as he should have been able to make the scoop for the final out. At the very least, he should have kept the ball in front of him to prevent the second run from scoring.
Blame who you want, but turning double plays has been a challenge for the Tigers all year. Their 115 double plays is last in the American League and 22 fewer than league average. One reason for their lack of twin killings is that their pitchers strike out a lot of batters which means there fewer opportunities. Still, most observers agree that their inability to convert double plays cleanly has been one of the biggest problems with the team this year.
Add generally poor range around the infield and a first baseman who has a difficult time taking throws to the double play problem and you've got a team that gives up too many runs defensively. As a team (including all positions), they are currently last in the AL with -36 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), a statistic tracked by Baseball Info Solutions. In other words, Tigers fielders have cost the Team an estimated 36 runs compared to an average defense. The White Sox have a DRS of +1. The 37-run difference between the two teams translates into about four wins. Considering that the Tigers are three games behind, four wins is a lot.
I'm not sure how they can fix the infield defense with Fielder and Cabrera entrenched at first and third. While Cabrera has performed better than expected at third, he lacks range and could use the help of a more rangy shortstop. Peralta is steady, but doesn't cover enough ground which makes him a poor fit for the Tigers. I imagine they will renew the $6 million option on his contract because it's a good deal considering his offense. There is a good chance they will try to trade him and upgrade defensively at shortstop, but it's a little too early to know exactly who will be available.
Infante has shown good range at second, but has had a surprisingly difficult time making routine plays and accurate throws. He has a reputation as a good defender, so hopefully he fixes himself.
For now though, they are stuck with what they have. The season is not over, but it's going to be an uphill battle for a team that was supposed to cruise through the AL Central.