Tigers’ defense is letting them down late in games

Jhonny Peralta's defensive ability isn't well measured by his errors or fielding percentage. His limited range hurts the Tigers, especially late in close games.

Jhonny Peralta’s defensive ability isn’t well measured by his errors or fielding percentage. His limited range hurts the Tigers, especially late in close games.

If, like Rod Allen and Mario Impemba, you want to believe the Tigers are a good defensive team, there’s nothing stopping you but the facts.

Similarly, there’s nothing stopping you from believing the Tigers have a decent closer just because sometimes the hits off Jose Valverde land in gloves instead of the seats.

For weeks, the Fox Sports Detroit TV announcers kept crowing that the Tigers had the fewest errors in the league, and that proved they must be a great defensive team, as if fielding percentage were a meaningful measure of defensive prowess. It hasn’t been, at least not for the past 30 years, since Bill James arrived on the scene.

It’s really quite simple: in order to be charged with an error, you have to reach a batted ball. And if you have poor range, you don’t get there. Without good range, you’re usually handling relatively easy chances, so voila, fewer errors.

Sabermetricians haven’t agreed yet on one definitive measurement for defense, but that doesn’t mean the tools they currently use aren’t a vast improvement over fielding percentage.

So let’s use both the old and new tools to examine the Tigers’ infield, which is the leading suspect here.

At the end of May, according to ESPN.com, Detroit had a decent infield if you measured it with the highly flawed, old-fashioned tool, fielding percentage. Prince Fielder (.996), Omar Infante (.986), Jhonny Peralta (.986), and Miguel Cabrera (.961), were 17th, 18th, 13th, and 14th respectively among all MLB regulars at their positions: in other words, all resting in the middle-of-the-pack.

But if you look at the other two defensive stats used by ESPN.com, the picture is gloomier. In defensive WAR (wins above replacement), Fielder is -0.8 (tied for 27th out of 30). Infante is 0.4, tied for 8th. Peralta is 0.5, or 13th. Cabrera is -0.5, which leaves him tied for dead last.

As far as range factor, the tally is: Fielder next-to-last, Infante 18th, Peralta 17th, and, as you might expect, Cabrera last.

What these numbers, taken together, tell you is that the Tigers are average up the middle, better at second than at short, and statuesque at the corners (not in the sense of beautiful, but with the meaning of largely immobile).

This doesn’t mean that Cabrera and Fielder don’t occasionally make nifty plays, because they do, or that their prodigious offense doesn’t trump their defense, because it certainly does. It just means that a lot of grounders get through the holes on the right and left sides of the infield and, especially for a ground-ball pitcher like Doug Fister, that’s going to cost something.

In the outfield, the picture is murkier. Andy Dirks is one of nine MLB left fielders who hasn’t yet made an error this season, he is 9th in range factor, and tied for second in defensive WAR at 0.4 (these are surprisingly good numbers). Austin Jackson’s numbers are surprisingly poor, and so are Torii Hunter’s (they each have a -0.3 WAR and below-average range so far this season). But these defensive metrics are rather unreliable for outfielders. Jackson and Hunter are surely better fielders than Dirks, based on past seasons. In any case, there’s not much concern about the outfield defense, once Jackson returns — it is at least average-to-good.

But what about that porous infield? Given the lack of range in the inner pasture, the Tigers could use a defensive “closer.” Ramon Santiago is neither young nor a legend with the leather. The Tigers could use a great defensive shortstop to help protect late-inning leads. (The need is even more pressing at third base, but I doubt Jim Leyland would ever consider taking Cabrera out of a game.)

Fortunately, shortstops with better-than-Jhonny range abound, including two within the Tiger farm system: Eugenio Sanchez and Dixon Machado. Sanchez needs another season in the minors to get ready for 2014, when odds are he’ll be the Tigers’ starting shortstop when Jhonny’s no longer on the spot. But the very rangy defensive whiz Machado can’t hit a lick, so why not promote him now to be a late-inning replacement who will never even come to bat unless there’s a disaster? Surely the team could spare a bullpen arm (most of those guys pitch twice a week at most), or even do without Santiago, to open up a roster spot.

The Tigers need to augment their championship-caliber starting pitching and everyday lineup with complimentary players who can nail down victories, both in the bullpen and on the infield. If it were up to me, in fact, with a lead in the late innings I’d put a Machado at short and move Peralta to third, where he belongs. The massive upgrade in range on the left side of the infield would surely pay off in a few wins.

In the meantime, Mario and Rod can keep citing those fielding percentages. Nobody else who understands baseball does, but hey, they’re paid to talk, and talk is cheap.

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About Michael Betzold

Author of Queen of Diamonds: The Tiger Stadium Story and other books, former Detroit Free Press reporter Michael Betzold always wore #4 to honor his first hero, the "Sunday Punch," Charlie "Paw Paw" Maxwell.