Sunday, August 17, 2014

Tigers Defense Is As Bad As It Looks

Tigers Third baseman Nick Castellanos is one of many who has contributed to poor team defense
(Photo source: Oakland Press)

Much has been made of the Tigers abysmal bullpen and for good reason, but that is not the only problem facing a team which now chases a division title which many assumed belonged to them.  Their offense has struggled in the second half and the pitching injuries have recently begun to pile up, but one theme that has stayed true all year as it has for the past few years is poor team defense.   

If you've watched a lot of games, you may have guessed that the Tigers have one of the worst fielding teams in baseball and the numbers back it up.  One of the simplest measures is Defensive Efficiency Ratio (DER) introduced by Bill James in the 1978 Baseball Abstract.  It is the percent of batted balls, not including home runs, which are converted into outs by a team's fielders.  The Tigers DER of .677 ranks 27th in MLB.

A more advanced measure is Total Zone (RTOT on created by analyst Sean Smith from play-by-play data. Total Zone considers the following items: plays made, errors, which fielder makes each out, balled ball type, which fielder fielded each hit, handedness of pitcher and batter and park adjustments.  Plays made above average are calculated and converted into runs using situational run expectancies. The Tigers rank  last in the majors with an estimated 60 runs below average.

Even more complex, although not necessarily more accurate than Total Zone, is the Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) statistic developed by John Dewan, owner of Baseball Information Solutions.  The DRS system breaks the field into small areas and determines the probabilities of players making plays in each area based on location, speed (hard, medium, soft) and batted ball type (ground ball, fly ball, line drive, bunt).

These probabilities determine how many outs each player was expected to make and how many he actually did make in comparison to the average player. At the end, plays made above or below average is converted to runs saved/cost.  According to DRS, the Tigers defense has cost them 42 runs this year which places them 28th in baseball.

Table 1 below shows that the Tigers rank very similarly on all three measures - DER, Total Zone, DRS - in both 2013 and 2014.  This tells us that their attempt to improve defense this year has not worked out too well.

Table 1: Tigers Team Defense: 2013 versus 2014

Total Zone
Data Source:

Total Zone and DRS can also be broken down at the individual level, although the player numbers tend to be less reliable than team numbers.  Table 2 shows how many runs individual fielders have saved/cost the Tigers based on these measures.  Both systems agree that second baseman Ian Kinsler (+10 on Total Zone, +15 on DRS) and catcher Alex Avila (+8 and +5) have been positive contributors defensively.

Most other Tigers are below average on these measures, the only exception being first baseman Miguel Cabrera who is +7 on Total Zone, but -1 on DRS.  Both systems say that third baseman Nick Castellanos (-17 and -23) and right fielder Torii Hunter (-13 and -15) have been awful defensively and you won't get many arguments from observers.  Outfielders Austin Jackson (-23) and Rajai Davis (-15) both do very poorly or Total Zone, but not quite as bad on DRS.

Table 2: Defensive Numbers for Individual Tigers in 2014
Total Zone
J. Martinez
  Data Source:

So, if your eyes have been telling you that the Tigers defense has been terrible, they have not deceived you. It's not likely to get any better this year and will probably be an area of concern once again this off-season.  


  1. Yeah I think these less-than-flattering statistics are just a byproduct of the team not being really sharp on general fundamentals across the board. There aren't a lot of elements of Tigers baseball that haven't been sloppy lately. Even some of the new stuff having to do with challenges has been a little peculiar at times, so now there's more things to gain a competitive advantage in for the teams that can figure out how to get things down closer to a science. But there's nobody to hold them accountable to perform and stay disciplined. There seems to be a hazy and negative attitude and general energy about the team and how they carry themselves. Hopefully Brad Ausmus can step up and inject some leadership and extra lessons on fundamentals or anything to change the mood and raise the players' and the fans' spirits. Even the fans seem to be getting more surly than I've noticed before in the past. .

    1. "Hopefully Brad Ausmus can step up and inject some leadership..."
      Don't hold your breath on that one TSE:
      His nickname isn't Smokey Jr. for nothing. If anything, he is even less demonstrative.

    2. Hope isn't inherently blocked by physical constraints, you simply only have to summon your courage and will for it to achieve it.



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