DETROIT, MI: Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers misplays the ground ball off the bat of Alex Liddi of the Seattle Mariners at Comerica Park in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
The Detroit Tigers knowingly and willingly hurt their infield defense in order to improve the starting lineup. Guess how their infield defense has done.
Immediately, something seems amiss. I'm pretty sure the consensus before the year was that the Detroit Tigers would more or less run away with the AL Central. Right now the Tigers aren't in first in the Central at all, as they're looking up at the Cleveland Indians. So there is something surprising about the Tigers, and the "wholly" up there is incorrect and misleading. But this is an article about the Detroit Tigers' infield defense, and when you try to work in "Detroit Tigers Infield Defense", headlines get clunky, and nobody likes a clunky headline. It's the Detroit Tigers' infield defense that's been wholly unsurprising. Now you see where this is headed.
The Tigers' defense was a pretty hot topic before the season got started. It became a thing to talk about after Victor Martinez got hurt, and the front office turned around and signed Prince Fielder to a gigantic contract. One thought that maybe Fielder and Miguel Cabrera would split first base and DH. Instead, the Tigers committed to moving Cabrera back over to third base, where he used to be in his younger days. That was not an uninteresting decision, and while Cabrera approached the new task with all the enthusiasm that Hanley Ramirez didn't, lots of people questioned the wisdom.
With Fielder and Cabrera at the corners and Jhonny Peralta and other dudes up the middle, critics figured the Tigers' infield defense would be a mess. Not such a mess that it would bring the whole team down, but a mess nevertheless, hurting the pitchers and taxing the bullpen. The Tigers are a team of certain strengths, but the infield defense projected to be a real weakness.
We've got more than a month of baseball in the books, now. Numbers are starting to settle down, meaning we can take a look at how the Tigers' infield defense has performed. As expected, it's been Fielder and Cabrera at the corners, and Peralta, Ryan Raburn, and Ramon Santiago up the middle. If I were Leni Riefenstahl, I might indicate to you that the Tigers' infield defense has committed relatively few errors. If I were Leni Riefenstahl, I might leave you with the following highlights. Check out these highlights!
Look at all of those terrific or competent defensive plays turned in by the Tigers' infield! The Raburn one isn't particularly special, but it's also not particularly dreadful. Look at those clips and you might think, wow, I guess they've been all right!
When you've played more than a month of baseball, you end up with pretty highlights and ugly lowlights, no matter who you are or how good you might be. All of those clips were selected from the Tigers' video highlight page. We don't care about the highlights - we care about the overall performance. Do not be swayed by the .giftacular propaganda.
And about that overall performance - well, what do infielders do? Sometimes they field towering pop-ups. Sometimes they snare well-hit line drives. But mainly, they field or try to field ground balls. Pop-ups are infrequent, and infrequently challenging. Catching line drives has something to do with skill, but a lot to do with luck.
We care about how the Tigers' infield has done with ground balls. And to be blunt about it, the Tigers' infield has not done good work to date handling ground balls.
If you look at the entire league, batters so far have a .227 average on grounders. If you include errors, that mark goes up to .256. Basically, on average, about three-quarters of grounders have been turned into outs. The Tigers' infield, however, has allowed a .294 average on grounders, and .312 if you include errors. That .294 mark is the worst in baseball, above the runner-up Milwaukee Brewers. That .312 mark is the second-worst in baseball, between the Brewers and the Atlanta Braves.
We're dealing with a sample of a few hundred grounders. It's not an enormous sample, but it's big enough to show that the Tigers probably have a problem. No other team has done a worse job of preventing hits on ground balls. The Tigers are almost embarrassingly far away from the league average. Maybe they are embarrassingly far away from the league average. I don't know the Tigers' threshold of embarrassment.
So this article could've been titled The Detroit Tigers' Infield Defense Has Been What We Thought It Would Be if I wanted to write something accurate that no one would click. They've lived up to - down to? - expectations. Maybe they've even exceeded the negative expectations. I don't know if anybody ever put a number to how bad they thought the Tigers would be; I think the conclusion was just "they will be bad".
Maybe we're looking at some sample-size fluctuation. I assume the Tigers will finish with a lower batting average allowed on grounders than they have right now, because the worst mark a season ago was .268. That's a good distance away from .294. Perhaps more significantly, so what if the Tigers' infield defense has been bad? Why write about something you expected with great confidence? Hey, Matt Kemp has been a good baseball player, why not write about that next?
Indeed, it's hardly news that the Tigers' infield is porous. And the Tigers' porous infield won't be enough to ruin the team on its own. Their outlook now is about what it was at the beginning. But I guess if you were hoping for a miracle, there's probably not going to be a miracle. The Tigers knew they were probably sacrificing defense for dingers, and so far they've sacrificed defense for dingers. They can go ahead and complain about the defense if they want, but they damn well made their own bed.