One of the knocks on the recent versions of the Tigers was that they were terrible at infield defense. It’s hard to argue with that very stringently. Cabrera was bad. Fielder was bad. Peralta and Infante were somewhere around average for their position. Together, that isn’t a great group and the estimated cost of that group compared to a perfectly average bunch is in the neighborhood of 30 runs or three wins per season. Those estimates aren’t perfect, but they are a reasonable starting point.
This is an exercise, not anything definitive, so take the precision with a grain of salt. In 2013, Cabrera was about 17 runs worse than average at third, Fielder was something like 5-10 runs below average, and Infante and Peralta were both within four or five runs of average depending on the stat you prefer. The defensive metrics I’m referencing are Defensive Runs Saved or Ultimate Zone Rating, which each assign run values to defensive plays relative to the performance of a league average player at that position. Zero is average for the position and every ten runs above or below average is roughly equal to a win.
What we’re after here is how the Tigers defense will look in 2014 with a new player at every position. Cabrera will be back at first, Kinsler will play second, Iglesias at short, and someone at third – potentially Castellanos and potentially Mr. Outside Hire. Let’s develop a range of estimates for each player and then combine them to get a sense of what we might be dealing with. These ranges are my estimates based on UZR/DRS data from the last three years and additional information gathered using defensive efficiency numbers and visual scouting.
Miguel Cabrera – First Base
Cabrera is an interesting case because of the injury, but I’ll assume that he’ll be healthy by the time the season starts. During his career at first base, Cabrera rated out as a slightly below average fielder with fluctuations on both sides of zero. His ability to turn batted balls into outs was below average, but he became reasonably good at turning double plays from the position and brings a pretty good set of hands to the position. We have to factor in that he’s two years older, but also that he has been working to get better at a tougher position.
Run Estimate: -8 to +5
Ian Kinsler – Second Base
Kinsler’s story is interesting because UZR and DRS can’t seem to agree if he’s an average defender or a pretty good one. Kinsler has solid range but probably misplays balls a little bit too often. Thirty is in his rear view mirror, but he remains a solid athlete who shouldn’t be in for a rapid decline.
Run Estimate: -2 to +8
Jose Iglesias – Shortstop
Iglesias is a wizard with the glove, but we have very little major league data with which to judge him. UZR loves him at short with DRS thinking he’s around average. Neither loved him at third, but again, we’re dealing with 1,000 sporadic innings at multiple positions. The scouting reports on Iglesias are sparkling giving him plus marks for range and elite grades on his arm and hands. I’ve heard plenty give him 80 grades (the highest possible) for his defense and my personal observations concur. He’s one of the best in the game right now. I asked Mark Anderson of BP and TigsTown if he thought he was better than Andrelton Simmons, and his answer was an emphatic, “Absolutely.”
Run Estimate: +5 to +15
Nick Castellanos/Someone Else – Third Base
We don’t really know who will man third base, but the leader right now is Castellanos. The most recent evaluations of his defense at the corner weren’t great, but enough people said they thought he could stay there that I’m not going to estimate a crazy, disaster number. He has some raw skills, but his footwork needs improvement and he hasn’t played there in over a year. With some effort, I can easily see him getting himself to Cabrera or better levels in 2013. It’s hard to judge an unknown, so I’ll simply tack on a few positive runs to account for the possibility they sign a good defender at the position.
Run Estimate: -15 to +3
Totaling those estimates up, we find a range of -20 to +31 runs. That’s a wide range, but these are the outer bounds of the estimates. The Tigers infield was something close to -30 last season (-20 if we’re being generous), so this looks to be a ten run upgrade even if things don’t go terribly well. At the outside, it could be a sixty run improvement, which is about six wins in the standings, but even at the lowest estimate, they’re most likely getting better.
Granted, we’re dealing with estimates based on imperfect measures, so you have to look at this skeptically. It’s possible that the Tigers have added somewhere between one and six wins of value by improving their defense. They will certainly be giving some of that away on the offensive side as they drop from Peralta to Iglesias and Fielder to Castellanos, but it’s hard to imagine a world in which the defense doesn’t get better.
The Tigers starters are strikeout pitchers so infield defense isn’t as valuable to them as it is to others, but Fister and Porcello put the ball on the ground a lot, which means better defense should bring their RA9 or ERA numbers closer to their true talent FIP numbers in 2014.
League average BABIP on ground balls in 2013 was .241. For the Tigers it was .266. For Fister it was .295. For Scherzer it was .280. Defense isn’t something we can break down into tiny samples with great success, but the Tigers allowed way more hits on ground balls than average last year and that number is probably going to go down in 2014. There are a lot of moving parts, but the Tigers defense should be better off having made the big trade.