The Detroit Tigers had the third best pitching staff (overall) in the American League in 2012 and 2013. They had the second best offense in the American League in 2013 and the fourth best (by OPS+) in 2012. That combination should land you close to 100 wins each season, right? But the Tigers won 93 games in 2013 and 88 in 2012. Those totals are not terrible by any means and got them to the post season. The missing ingredient has been defense.
The idea for this post came from a conversation between Neal Kendrick (@neal_kendrick) of High Heat Stats and Jacob Smith (@JTD_Smith) that started with this tweet:
AL pitching leaders in fWAR for 2013 1. Max Scherzer, DET 2. Anibal Sanchez, DET 3. Felix Hernandez, SEA 4. Justin Verlander, DET
— Neal Kendrick (@neal_kendrick) January 26, 2014
Think about that for a second. Their starting rotation featured three pitchers in the top four in the American League. And Doug Fister was eighth! Their fifth starter, Rick Porcello, is a ground ball pitcher that needs fielders to field his batted balls.
How did that staff ever lose? They lost, at least in part, to fielding.
In the old school way of looking at things, the Tigers' fielding would have looked great. Hey, they finished with the least amount of errors in the AL and the highest fielding percentage. The trouble is, we now know that fielding percentage is nice if you are getting to a lot of batted balls. But when you are not, you have a lack of defensive efficiency no matter how good you are at catching and throwing the ball.
In 2012, the Tigers were next to last in the AL in defensive efficiency. In 2013, they were tied for tenth out of fifteen teams. In 2012, the team as a whole had a -31 runs below average according to Baseball Info Solutions. In 2013, that figure was worse and ended up at -64 runs! That is between five and six wins of bad defense. While we are not dealing with direct cause and effects here, it is a coincidence that adding those lost wins gets the team pretty close to 100.
Who is to blame for this lack of focus on defense for the Tigers? It is easy to blame Jim Leyland because he is gone now. But you have to give him some of the focus. Leyland wanted as much offense in the lineup as he could possibly stack. He would bring outfielders to play second base. You have to give part of the blame to the general manager and owner who signed the biggest free agent regardless of what it meant for the offense.
Whatever the case may be, it looks like the organization is finally paying some attention to defense. The Ian Kinsler for Prince Fielder was one example of sacrificing a little offense to get much better defense. The move also allows Miguel Cabrera from third base, where he was a disaster last season, to first base, a position he is much more capable of playing.
If you look at just the infield (the outfield is okay), you have the following improvements from last year again based on Baseball Info Solutions and a projection of what will happen in 2014:
First base: Fielder to Cabera: -10 runs to -3.
Second base: Omar Infante and others to Kinsler: -7 to 12
Third base: Cabrera to Nick Castellanos: -15 to -5.
By my count, that is an improvement of 46 runs just in the infield. The infield improvement does not only improve the infield but also the pitching. The biggest beneficiary will be Rick Porcello and his 50+% ground balls. But it will also help the entire pitching staff.
The one question, of course, is how much offense the new infield will cost. Most feel that Iglesias' offense was a fluke last year. We don't know yet how Castellanos will fare at the Major League level. And you have to wonder how much Kinsler will dip leaving the friendly conditions of Texas.
Kinsler is a loss in offense compared to Fielder and Castellanos (naturally) will not equal Cabrera offensively. But even if the Tigers lose twenty runs of offense, that is more than doubled by the improvement of the defense.
You have to wonder if Iglesias and Castellanos struggle early on offense what the Tigers will do. Hopefully, the Tigers will stay with it. The team has come close to the promised land in the last two seasons. Perhaps with some defense, they can make the last hurdle to get there.