Defensive Woes Shift to the Outfield

It's no secret that the Tigers infield defense over the last few years was, to put it nicely, an issue. During the offseason, they made some changes out of necessity and some by design which helped them upgrade on the corners without losing much, if anything up the middle. The infield defense, the bane of Rick Porcello's existence, is respectable in 2014. The outfield defense, however, is not.

On the infield, Nick Castellanos has been better than expected at third, offering an upgrade over Cabrera who moved across the diamond and offered an upgrade over Prince Fielder. Danny Worth and Andrew Romine haven't been Jose Iglesias, but they're good enough at short while Ian Kinsler has played well enough to make Tigers fans forget the loss of Omar Infante.

But while the problems with the infield defense have largely been solved with those moves, the outfield defense has become a larger problem in its own right.

There are a number of ways to measure the problem, although if you've watched a high percentage of the team's games this year, you probably don't need much evidence that the defense has been poor. The Tigers' outfield has been worth a collective -15 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and -6.2 Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR). That's 5th worst in DRS and 7th worst in UZR in all of baseball (all numbers entering Monday).

People are often skeptical of modern defensive metrics, and they are less reliable in small samples than other stats, but the Tigers outfield issues are plenty evident when you slice and dice their performance in other ways. Revised Zone Rating (RZR) which simply measures the rate at which balls into a particular defensive zone are converted into outs ranks the Tigers outfield 28th as a unit at 86.7 percent.

Pull it apart further to the simplest of measures, the Tiger are allowing the 5th worst Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) on fly balls in all of baseball (using the BaseballSavant.com classification). The Tigers outfield defense isn't good.

You can chalk this up predominantly to the performance of Torii Hunter, who has been worth -12 DRS and -6.5 UZR all on his own. Replace Torii Hunter with an average right fielder and you've got a pretty average outfield, but it's worth pointing out that J.D. Martinez and Tyler Collins have good ratings in very small samples while Rajai Davis and Austin Jackson are both average or a touch below average this year.

It's important to remember that these numbers compare a player to the average player at their position, so Jackson isn't a bad outfielder, he's simply playing like an average to slightly below average centerfielder. He's not grading out well, but he's being compared to Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Trout. That passes the eye test for me, as Jackson remains a good outfielder, but doesn't get to the ball the way he did during his first couple of seasons. Some of this is route running and some of it is his questionable ability to execute over the last few feet of tracking a slightly difficult ball.

Davis is a classic example of a guy who proves that good speed doesn't make you a good outfielder, ala Quintin Berry. His arm has actually been a nice surprise, best exemplified when he nailed Lonnie Chisenhall at the plate in that series in Cleveland we all want to forget. But Davis has been a bad route runner this year despite his elite speed. I spoke with someone who watched him regularly in Toronto and they didn't think he was as bad as he's been this year, which bodes well for the future, even if he's not going to be a huge asset out there.

Which brings us to Hunter. It's easy to paint a picture where Jackson and Davis aren't having great years because of a couple of bad reads and that they'll be much better going forward with Davis moving close to average and Jackson moving a few runs better. You can't dream on Torii Hunter like that.

Hunter's been the worse defensive outfielder in baseball, if you believe defensive metrics at all. He has the worst DRS and 4th worst UZR, but all four guys worse than him by UZR are playing centerfield, which means after the positional adjustment based on the difficulty of the position, Hunter winds up last again. Using the same fly ball BABIP classification as earlier, Tigers right fielders rank 29th in baseball, and almost all of that is Hunter. That number is a little fluid because the definition of "right field" and "fly ball" varies based on the source you use, but I've seen other numbers which make Hunter look even worse.

To fans who have watched all season, this isn't shocking news. Hunter's range is gone and his routes and first step don't save him. He misses the cutoff man and he wastes time deking runners who know he's not going to catch the ball. Don't get me wrong, playing the outfield every single day is tough when you're 39 and the last two seasons don't erase what Hunter was capable of in his prime, but he's no longer a competent defender. I wouldn't want to see how the new MLBAM player tracking system would rank Hunter's route efficiency.

This puts the Tigers in a pretty tough spot for a couple of reasons. First, the Tigers pitching staff, now that Rick Porcello doesn't put everything on the ground and Drew Smyly is in for Doug Fister, is fly ball heavy. As a pitching staff, they're 6th in baseball in fly ball percentage and the starters rank 4th. The pitchers get strikeouts and fly balls and the outfielders, especially the right fielder, isn't turning those fly balls into outs at the rate at which they need to be.

The other problem is that there's nothing you can do with Hunter this year except keep playing him out there. He's a prime candidate to move into a DH role, but the Tigers have one of those and he's doing a pretty nice job, and they also have first base pretty well occupied. Hunter has nowhere to go other than a corner outfield spot and the bench. He's not getting on base very well (.310 OBP), but he's hitting for enough power (.173 ISO) that you're never going to bench him, especially because the impression among many is that he's still a good defender. Nothing in baseball survives as long as a player's defensive reputation. If you win one Gold Glove in your twenties, you can pretty much ride that for your entire career and Hunter won many, many Gold Gloves.

But the defense has been bad enough to wipe out his offensive contributions. The best hope is that Hunter won't be this bad going forward and that he can provide some value to the Tigers in the last year of his deal in Detroit.

Despite a bad week for the Tigers, they're still in a comfortable position in the division and in the league, but problems like the quality of their outfield defense could be the difference between a good season and a great one. Getting Andy Dirks back in a few weeks should help and a deadline deal could be in the works, but the best way for the Tigers to fix this shortcoming is for the outfielders to run better routes. You can't get faster, but you can get smarter. It's not an easy thing to do, but there are only so many extra hits you can watch fall in.


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