DETROIT, MI: Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers checks his hand after a throwing error to first base during a game against the Seattle Mariners at Comerica Park. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
The Detroit Tigers' defense might actually be a little better than expected this season, but it still might cost them the AL Central.
This one's a two-parter, in which there's a mea culpa and some concern-trolling, albeit of the well-founded variety. It has to do with the Detroit Tigers and their defense.
The mea culpa first.
Miguel Cabrera isn't that bad at third base
As you might expect, different defensive metrics have different takes. FanGraphs has him down as -6.3 runs in the field this season, which would be the third-worst in the majors among qualified third basemen. According to range runs, he has some of the worst range in the game. But Defensive Runs Saved has him as a totally neutral third baseman. The anecdotal evidence is inconclusive, of course, as he'll make plays like this to make you cautiously optimistic, and then he'll make plays like this, that jibe with your expectations.
But I was expecting a disaster. Like, an emergency meeting called in the front office before April was over. Tarp-related errors. Rosin bags swallowed. I was expecting Cabrera to make the experiment look completely untenable, like Todd Hundley in the outfield or Mike Piazza at first base. Not only was it going to be untenable, it was going to be an obvious failure right away. It was going to combine two generations of defensive stats -- ye olde fielding percentage and advanced metrics -- into one of history's greatest defensive monsters.
Instead? You know, whatever. He's not great. He isn't good. But he's a third baseman. That is, he isn't a DH playing third base in a way that embarrasses third basemen and designated hitters alike. He's … you know, whatever. Which was about the best-case scenario coming into the season. And when it comes to his clankmittery? It's much less of a problem than anyone could have expected.
Miguel Cabrera errors at third base:
2008: 5 (in 14 games)
Errors are kind of like batting average in that you'll lose money trying to bet on them every year, so this might not be indicative of a sure-handed Miggy. But it's encouraging for a team that's building around an idea that it can have Cabrera, Prince Fielder, and Victor Martinez all in the same lineup for the next couple of years.
The Tigers still have defensive issues
It's the dangedest defensive alignment I've ever seen. The defensive metrics agree that Jhonny Peralta has been average to above-average, and the addition of Omar Infante has helped the infield defense a great deal. Austin Jackson is something of a wizard in center. So up the middle, the Tigers are sound. Old-timey baseball wisdom suggests that a team needs to worry about being strong up the middle before anything else. The Tigers are there.
But the corners are something else. Cabrera might not be that bad relative to expectations, but he's almost certainly a below-average third baseman. He pairs with Prince Fielder to make the worst first/third defensive combo in baseball. Delmon Young wears cleats with honking bike horns on the top, and he's still played 27 games in left. Andy Dirks and Quentin Berry grade out to average at best.
The real surprise? Brennan Boesch is one of the worst defenders in baseball according to UZR, defensive runs saved, range runs, plus-minus runs saved … everything. And he doesn't pass the eyeball test, either. Kurt Mensching of Bless You Boys offers the following description:
…he's rather unimpressive in the outfield. On the bright side, he's better than Delmon Young.
Damning with less-than-faint praise. The worst part is that Boesch isn't hitting, either.
The corner positions are impressively unimpressive with the glove, and it might explain why the Tigers have the worst batting average on balls in play in the American League. When it comes to individual BABIPs, Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello have the two worst marks in the major leagues. Justin Verlander's is still low, though it's still 33 points higher than last year's mark. It's all added up to a Tigers team that's almost certainly allowed more runs than they should have.
For next year, it shouldn't be as big of an issue. The whole point of moving Cabrera was to stack the lineups with as many bats as possible, and when Victor Martinez is healthy, there will be a reason for Cabrera at third. And with Omar Infante signed through next season, the offseason priority is probably going to be a corner outfielder, possibly one with a modicum of range. They should get better next year -- defensively in the outfield, and offensively at DH. which is supposed to justify the Cabrera-at-third experiment.
Right now, though, it might be costing them the AL Central. Cabrera at third gets Delmon Young in the lineup, which is a lose-lose proposition. And all of those runs lost from the corner positions over the last 128 games are probably worth an extra couple of games in the standings, which is exactly the margin between them and the White Sox.
There might be some easy fixes in the offseason, but right now, the Tigers could sure use a couple of those runs back.
(And if Victor Martinez coming back means that Delmon Young is a starting left-fielder next season… forget everything up there. Delmon's shoes will honk into the Detroit sunset. But the Tigers are too smart for that, right? Right?)