by Holly Horning

The Detroit Tigers were in the news a lot over the past 5 days.

But not for the reasons you might think.

There’s a lesson here that can – and will – be applied to today’s Detroit Tigers.

But first, the background.

A number of baseball analysts were consumed with how Dave Dombrowski was rebuilding the Phillies and pointed out that he’s doing the same thing he did with Detroit when he was the GM.  Collecting mashers who are slow and defensively challenged.

The Athletic wrote: We mention that because his vision for those Tigers was quite similar: a fearsome offense that ranked in the top two in runs scored in both seasons. High-end starting pitching fronted by Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer. A roll-the-dice bullpen. And a defense that ranged from adequate at best to shaky at worst, at pretty much every position.”

Last year, the Phillies had MLB’s worst defensive record.  They are expected to double down on that and finish even worse this year with a “roster of DHs”.

So why am I bringing this up?

So we can understand where the Tigers have to go this year in order to improve in the standings.

For all the talk about the starting rotation, offense and a bullpen, not enough fans are actually focused on defense as being a major factor in taking a team into October.

And the best way to measure defense is by using the stat Defensive Runs Saved (DRS).

DRS measures the number of runs a player saved or cost his team on defense in comparison to an average player. A negative number means he cost the team runs.  A positive number means he saved runs.

Some of baseball’s analysts have repeatedly brought up the Tigers from the mid- 2010’s as an example of a team loaded with talent but with horrible defense.  Evidence shows that few teams make it into the playoffs with shaky defense. And none of those teams end up winning the ring.

The last team that did make the playoffs with bad defense?  The 2013 and 2014 Tigers who had an astounding  – 59 DRS and  – 61 DRS respectively.

It wasn’t just the bullpen, folks.

Now, let’s dig into the most recent numbers Detroit has been putting up.

First of all, the last time the Tigers had a positive defensive number was 2011.  A decade ago.

In 2012, the team ranked #24 out of 30 defensively.

They ranked in the top 10 for 2006 but near the bottom in 2008. In 2013, they were again near the bottom, costing their team over 70 runs.  The same for 2014.

That’s not a formula for winning playoff games.

In 2017, the Tigers took a deeper dive defensively.  Their DRS was  – 115.

As a basis for comparison, the top defensive team in 2019 saved 105 runs.  The Tigers were dead last, costing their team  – 111 runs.  The #29 team saved over 50 more runs than the Tigers.

And if you break DRS down by position, the Tigers finished #29 or #30 in almost every category.

Now let’s see how the Tigers have done since A. J. Hinch and his coaches came on board by comparing the 2019 team with that of 2021. (Not using the Covid-shortened year of 2020 for obvious reasons.)

Defensively, the Tigers improved significantly at the pitching, 2B, 3B, SS, LF and RF positions.

They regressed at C, 1B and CF.

However, while there’s improvement, every single defensive position cost their team runs.  In other words, every position was below-average.

Despite the improvement, Detroit ranked 28th in MLB for catching, 29th at first base, 28th at shortstop and 29th at centerfield.

Only 8 players (mostly pitchers) finished in the positive numbers.  But not by much. Most of them had a  +1 DRS.

Five players had a 0 DRS.  A whopping 19 players had a negative DRS.

Only 1 infielder finished with a positive DRS.  Jake Rogers, who is out recovering from Tommy John surgery.

The worst defensive player on the team?  Willi Castro, the only one in negative double digits.

The Tigers finished the year sitting at #26 with a DRS of  – 36.   MLB’s best team had a  +90 DRS.

There’s still a very loooong way to go.

There were 2 high points though.

The Tigers finished #3 in DRS last year while employing the shift.  However, after 2022, the shift is going to be greatly modified so the Tigers are going to be pressured to compensate for losing it.

And they finished #1 in MLB for best defensive outfield positioning.  You can send your thank you notes, flowers and chocolates to George Lombard who is the one responsible.

This should put to rest once and for all the belief by some that coaches don’t matter.

Given all of these stats, it’s now clear why the Tigers signed a new catcher and shortstop.  And why they signed who they did.

Tucker Barnhart has won 2 Gold Gloves.  In 2020, he had a +9 DRS despite it being a shortened season.  No Tiger in any position has come anywhere near that number.

Javier Baez has won 3 Fielding Bible Awards and he is an elite defender at both SS and 2B.  He is also one of the top leaders in collective DRS, saving +6 to +10 DRS per season.

With these 2 signings, Jonathan Schoop should hopefully be able to move back to 2B when Spencer Torkelson makes the roster.  Schoop has been a positive defender at 2B, but not at 1B.

Catcher….shortstop….. second baseman…..

… and centerfielder.  The last piece of the puzzle for strong defense up the middle.

Will it be Riley Greene’s this year?

Hinch is the first manager in ages to place a priority on defense.  And Al Avila is the first GM to understand the importance of DRS which is why he went after Barnhart and Baez.

The Tigers still have a ways to go in order to field a strong team but if they can help other players work towards positive defensive runs saved this year and get the team to break even overall defensively, it will be huge progress.

Willie Mays said it best:

“Defense to me is the key to playing baseball.”

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  1. Tom Verduchi said it best when he said Detroit stole Barnhart quickly and slyly. He said Barnhart was so good defensively because he is so subtle that the umps don’t realize he stole the pitch. It was said that Eduardo was promised by AA that he would have the defense to back him up before he signed.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Holly, another collection of great observations. Years ago we had a SS (the name escapes me) who hit well and didn’t make a lot of errors. Back then a friend told me: “Tony the reason he doesn’t make a lot of errors is because he doesn’t get to most of the balls hit near him.” With defense it’s sometimes hard to detect if anything is really wrong, glad the Tigers are learning.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Detroit had porous defense and a bad bullpen back in the DD days but they had offensive problems too. All sluggers in a lineup leads to winning some games 8-3 but also losing games 1-0 when the sluggers don’t connect.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is a great analysis which shows how analytics really can contribute to an understanding of the game without degrading it. My hope is that some organization will hire George to manage and that Hinch’s Tigers will become an incubator of managers, and we will someday say so and so comes from “the tree of Hinch”!

    Liked by 6 people

    • Hi, Tommy – Towards the middle of the blog, I summarized what every player, including pitchers, did last year. The good – of which there was no one – and the bad. It’s really not as important to know what individuals’ DRS is, but rather the DRS of each position given that multiple players are in clouded in that figure. – Holly

      Liked by 2 people

  5. The strain bad defense puts on a pitching staff can’t be ignored. No pitching to contact, but more emphasis on strikeouts and getting cute by hitting corners. This results in more pitches thrown, a worn down staff, and can lead to arm injuries if guys overthrow trying to get batters out on their own.

    Liked by 6 people

    • How many times have we seen on sports center a clip of an outfielder pulling in a long fly ball, a couple of runners on base, and two outs? Then the camera shifts to the pitcher’s relieved face. That’s the baseball I like to watch.

      Liked by 3 people

  6. Metrics are a new path for me when evaluating players, especially defensive numbers, (I tend to rely on the eyeball test).So, Holly, I wondered where you stand on OAA (outs above average) v.s. DRS (defensive runs saved) for evaluating players defense?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wish there was a way to incorporate the offense into the defensive metrics Holly refers to here. WAR stats don’t do it for me. Also, not knowing anything about DRS, it seems to me to be subjectively calculated. Error’s I can understand. But range? Positioning has to play into it and that is on the coaches.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I don’t have a problem with manipulating hard data and associating the result with success or failure However, the subjective component is the problem I have with some of these other numbers., It still leaves me feeling uneasy about them.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. This is an excellent analysis and I think it illustrates that this team is most definitely moving in the right direction. I personally give 90% of the credit to Hinch but I will also give Avila some credit for listening to the advice that he is most certainly receiving from AJ.

    Liked by 3 people

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