By: Holly Horning
I know it’s just the beginning of the season, but hope springs eternal after watching multiple Tigers perform some amazing defensive plays on Opening Day. Three of them made the national media highlight reel. This is what a team destined to play October baseball is supposed to do, isn’t it?
It only took 15 years (give or take a couple of weeks) for the Tigers to get serious about the importance of defense. I’ve never understood why it appears architect and owner didn’t get together during the planning of Comerica in order to sync the ballpark’s dimensions with the strengths of the players Mr. I and Dave Dombrowski tend to collect.
A huge ballpark, with cavernous outfield, cries out for fleet-footed, sure-handed youthful outfielders who can easily roam the endless grass – or at the very least, have infielders who channel their best Brooks Robinson (or, if you prefer, George Kell) to keep batted balls from going beyond the bases.
But instead, we had outfielders whose best years were behind them. Infielders were big and slow – better known for their bats instead of their gloves. Infielders who were moved to unfamiliar positions in order to accommodate other big bats with even worse defensive skills. And for the past two years, the Tigers had infielders who ranked dead last in two different defensive positions.
In the fifteen years since Comerica opened, the Tigers earned last place performances in team defense for three of those years. For ten years, they ranked 9th through 13th. And in only 1 year did they rank 4th. No wonder they didn’t do well in the World Series. When a team has poor defense, little to no speed, and the bats get shut down, no one can win with pitching as their only viable weapon. (Please, let’s avoid starting any bullpen discussions.)
The first glimmer of hope came late in 2013 with the acquisition of Jose Iglesias followed shortly by the reassuring trade of Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler. As it turned out, only one of those players impacted the team last year.
But in the winter of 2014, it appeared the Tigers finally realized that great defense is just as important as the lumber. Iggy has returned to pair with Kinsler and don’t be surprised if they turn out to be MLB’s best double-play combo this year with at least one defensive award when the year concludes. The last Tiger to win a Gold Glove was Placido Polanco in 2009, who then left the team after that year.
We will be marveling over Iggy’s antics and talking a lot about him this year. Tiger fans, be prepared to be thrilled by performances that don’t involve a ball being hit over a wall. And isn’t it nice that this is the year both Tram and Iggy rejoin the team?
But the delivery and dedication to defense was made official when Gose and Cespedes arrived to solidify the knowledge that great teams have to be strong from catcher to center fielder and every position in between those two. With the addition of McCann and his strong arm in throwing out base stealers, the Tigers are the strongest up the middle since………since……….when?