Sunday, June 23, 2013

Tigers Team Defense Still Lacking This Year

By most accounts, the Tigers were one of the weaker defensive teams in baseball last year, especially in the first half.  If you couldn't tell by observation, the statistics told the story as they finished near the bottom of Major League Baseball in all advanced team defensive metrics.  They have made moves in the past 12 months to shore up their defense swapping out Ryan Raburn, Delmon Young and Brennan Boesch for Omar Infante, Andy Dirks and Torii Hunter. 

Early this season, the new defensive alignment appeared to be working, at least based on observation.  In recent weeks, however, they seem to have reverted to their poor form of the first half of 2012.  Other than Infante, the infield is still greatly lacking in range and Hunter appears to have slowed down a step in right field. So, it appears the only above average defenders are Infante and center fielder Austin Jackson.  Individual defense is difficult to measure at this point in the season, but team defense can be gauged reasonably well now and that will be my focus here.

If you just look at errors, then there does not seem to be a problem.  The Tigers Fielding Percentage - the proportion of total plays ( putouts, assists and errors) which result in a putout or an assist - is .989 which is fifth best in the majors and up from .983 last year.  Fielding Percentage is a reasonable measure of sure-handedness, but it is not a complete measure of defense.  It penalizes players for their errors, but fails to dock them for balls they could not reach.   This is a problem because not getting to playable ball is generally as costly as making an error. 

A better measure of overall team fielding is Defensive Efficiency Ratio (DER), first introduced by Bill James in the 1978 Baseball Abstract.  The DER metric is the percentage of batted balls in play, not including home runs, which are converted to outs by a team's fielders. The Tigers have converted 69.1% (.691 DER) of batted balls in play into outs which is 29th in the majors.  Only the Twins are worse at .685.   

It is easier to turn a batted ball in play into an out in some parks than others, so Baseball Prospectus adjusts DER for ballpark with Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (PADE).  The Tigers PADE is -1.89 which says that they have been 1.89% worse at turning batted balls into outs than the average team.  That might not sound like a lot, but each percentage point is worth about 13 runs meaning that fielding has cost the team an estimated 25 runs above average.  They rank 28th in the majors on that statistic.

An alternative to DER/PADE is Total Zone Fielding Runs (Rtot) found at Baseball-Reference.  Developed by analyst Sean Smith, Total Zone considers the following: plays made, errors, batted ball type, handedness of pitcher and batter and park adjustments.  Plays made above average are calculated and converted to runs using situational run expectancies.  The Tigers are 35 Total Zone Fielding Runs below average which is worst in the majors. 

One more option is Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) created by John Dewan at Baseball Info Solutions (BIS). 
Using detailed play-by-play data recorded by BIS video scouts, this system breaks the field into small areas and determines the probabilities of players making plays in each area of the field based on location, speed (hard, medium, soft) and batted ball type (ground ball, fly ball, line drive, bunt).  The system uses these probabilities to determine how many plays each player was expected to make and how many he actually did make in comparison to the average player.  Plays made are then converted to defensive runs above average.  The Tigers have a DRS of 11 runs worse than average which is 21st in MLB.  

So, the three defensive metrics do not agree on the number of runs fielding has cost the Tigers, they all say the Tigers are in the bottom third of the majors defensively once again this year.  The Tigers are built around immobile sluggers, so there is not much more that can be done to help the defense at this time.  Fortunately, they generally have enough hitting and starting pitching to overcome their defensive failings.  At times, when the hitting or pitching is not clicking though, the poor defense becomes quite noticeable. 


  1. AnonymousJune 23, 2013

    Has there been any change in Peralta's numbers?

  2. Half year defensive stats for individual players are not very reliable, but Peralta is -4 on Total Zone and -2 on DRS.

  3. Hi Lee: Over the past few years we've seen more use of various defensive shifts. My impression just watching is that the Tigers do not put on shifts very often, but I have seen them do it a few times. Wouldn't you think that a defence like the Tigers - good hands, poor range - would be perfectly suited towards a more aggressive employment of shifts? I know our coach is JL and not Joe Maddon, but doesn't it make sense, if your team has poor range, to position them some place closer to where the ball is likely to be hit? Cheers.

    1. AnonymousJune 24, 2013

      Well sometimes we shift out of logical position, so it's a possible consideration to try it that way. I'm in on that.

  4. AnonymousJune 24, 2013

    Well this is just my opinion now, but I really think that the Tigers' chief problem at the core of specifics is fundamentals of baseball. They have for the last 10 years consistently shown a problem with this in terms of batting/defense/running and other various tactics.

    But in terms of Defense, we have a few weak areas that count against us. For one, we have Prince and Cabby who are primarily respected for their hitting prowess, and neither are elite defenders. Cabby can hold his own, but he's not special and his range and skills are very humanesque unlike his hitting skills. Fielder has shown many mistakes with positioning and reactions at playing the base well. I don't think we notice or care or teach that much about it, but it bothers me and there have been a few outs this year that he could have created that he passed up, and vice versa saves that he messed up.

    Then Avila has been adequate but he's no superstar defensively. I'm sure we have somebody in the minors or drafted now that have a better arm than him and better defensively. He and Peralta are definitely holding their own, but they aren't going to tip the scales. Combine that with the 2 big men that have concerns above mentioned and that doesn't leave you with many other places to pick up the slack, especially considering Hunter is losing a step and only getting older every day.

    But to me that's a separate issue because even if his defense was better it still befuddles my mind when thinking about the price tag he comes with. A whopping $26MM for 2 years and he only has a .411 SLG down from his career .464. And it might only get worse. Such a disaster of a move that never had a chance to generate value, and such a huge likelihood of being a major drain. Typical Tiger stuff.

  5. Kevin, I would guess that using the shift a little more often would be advantageous to any team, although can't prove it. The Tigers seem to be old school about things like that and don't like to rock the boat with experimentation.



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