2013 Detroit Tigers May be Haunted by Poor Defense

Detroit Tigers first baseman Prince Fielder

Once a week, or so, I think about October 2012, and how my beloved Tigers made it to the World Series once again, only to be swept away in four games by what appeared to be an inferior team in the San Francisco Giants. My head drops low, my eyes glaze over, and somewhere in the background music of my psyche, sad strings play a devastatingly melancholy harmony.

This happens, as I said, once a week, or so. It’s not just last October I think about, it’s October 2006 as well. The Tigers made it to the World Series for the first time since 1984, and were unceremoniously tossed aside, 4-1, by a vastly inferior team in the St. Louis Cardinals. Jim Leyland was beaten by his old friend Tony LaRussa, Brandon Inge was the last to strike out, and Ivan Rodriguez was the last to leave the dugout, while a sea of red flurried in celebration inside Busch Stadium.

That makes the Tigers 1-8 in their last nine World Series games, against teams they should have outpitched and outhit. The problem is, pitching and hitting aren’t the only facets to the game. Teams that make the playoffs have solid defense, as the Tigers learned in their ’06 and ’12 World Series losses. In that first Fall Classic, Tigers pitchers committed five errors, one in each game, and gave up seven unearned runs as a result. Most of these errors were throwing errors. Nothing like this had ever been seen in the history of the World Series.

It can’t be argued that the Tigers poor defense cost them in the 2012 World Series, but it can be argued that the Tigers’ poor defense is what caused them to win only 88 games during the regular season, with the best hitter in baseball, and arguably the best pitcher in baseball. With the rise of a talented young Royals team, and perennial division contenders in the White Sox, 88 games may not be enough for the Tigers to win their third consecutive AL Central division crown.

At the start of the 2012 season, much of the talk was about whether Miguel Cabrera could satisfactorily man third base. Cabrera was adequate this year, with a fielding percentage of .966 and 13 errors, mostly of the throwing variety. However, his range at the hot corner is nothing special. Luckily for Cabrera and the Tigers, his bat more than makes up for this.

Next on the list of defensive liabilities is Prince Fielder, who, also makes up for his poor defense by his strong bat. Fielder committed 11 errors in 1,372 chances, which gives him a respectable .992 fielding percentage, but like Cabrera, the issue of range leaves more to be desired.

Another place the Tigers have struggled defensively is at shortstop. Jhonny Peralta came off an All-Star 2011 and the Tigers made the right choice to retain him for 2012, or did they? Peralta fell back to Earth quite harshly in 2012, batting only .239 with 13 HR and 63 RBI. Unfortunately, he didn’t make up for it with his defense until the playoffs when he made some spectacular plays that kept the Tigers in games. During the regular season, Peralta fielded .988 at shortstop and committed seven errors in 595 chances. Those numbers don’t seem all that bad, but anyone watching him play on a regular basis knows that Peralta simply doesn’t have the range that most Major League shortstops do.

With the Tigers deadline-signing of Omar Infante, it was perceived that the hole at second base was filled, but Infante played uncharacteristically poor during the second half, giving up nine errors on 274 chances (.966 fld pct.)

The Tigers seem stacked offensively for 2013, and adding nine-time Gold Glove award winner Torii Hunter to the outfield will help them a bit on the defensive end, but until the Tigers upgrade to a more athletic shortstop, infield defense will continue to be an Achilles heel for Detroit. The fact of the matter is that Fielder and Cabrera are not going anywhere.

The Tigers are reported to have interest in moving RHP Rick Porcello, but the market for shortstops might not yield anything worth giving him up for.

In 2012, Peralta’s BABIP (Batting average on balls put in play) was .275, which is well below the average. It’s very likely that this number will rise, and Peralta will see more success at the plate in 2013, but if the Tigers choose to keep him, they will be sacrificing infield defense.

For now, the Tigers defense will have to rely on outfielders Austin Jackson, Torii Hunter, and the strong arm of Alex Avila behind the plate.

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Tomas Laverty
Tomas Laverty, frequent contributor to the MLB section, runs a Detroit web design company called Detroit Spaces.