I went through our data and divided the information into six storylines to consider about the Detroit defense. A lot of this information is a starting point for discussions, and I’d suggest not viewing the numbers as absolutes, but as indicators.
1. Fielder rates poorly as a first baseman
Worst first basemen since 2006, Defensive Runs Saved:
Prince Fielder, minus-48 runs
Paul Konerko, minus-38 runs
Adam Dunn, minus-35 runs
Ryan Howard, minus-32 runs
Fielder’s defensive issues relate to a simple matter -- fielding batted balls in the areas in which first basemen record outs at least 50 percent of the time. This is covered in the Revised Zone Rating (RZR) metric. Fielder’s RZR since 2006 is .706, fourth-worst among those with at least 2,000 innings at first base.
Miguel Cabrera became a first baseman in 2008. Since then, he’s rated as having cost the Tigers 21 runs. In that same span, Fielder cost the Brewers 25 runs (though he had his best year in 2011, costing the Brewers just one run).
Fielder also does not fare well when it comes to video review. Baseball Info Solutions has video scouts who watch every play of every game and categorize plays as Good Fielding Plays (GFPs) and Defensive Misplays & Errors (DM&E).
Fielder’s 42 Defensive Misplays & Errors were the most in the majors in 2011 and his rate of one every 33 innings ranked ahead of only Daric Barton, Carlos Lee and Eric Hosmer among the 28 first basemen who played at least 500 innings. Fielder rates significantly worse than Cabrera, who averaged one misplay every 47 innings. Cabrera also made good plays more frequently. Here are totals of good fielding plays and misplays, prorated to 1,300 innings:
2. Cabrera didn't rate well at third base
In 2006 and 2007 while with the Marlins, Cabrera was credited with minus-25 Defensive Runs Saved, third-worst of any third baseman in the majors those two years.
Over the past two seasons, Brandon Inge, the Tigers' primary third baseman, has been an MLB average third baseman -- zero Defensive Runs Saved. Last season, Inge cost the Tigers two runs with his defense, the first season in his career in which he had negative Defensive Runs Saved,
3. Detroit's entire infield doesn't rate well
The Tigers were the only team in baseball for which every infield position produced a negative Defensive Runs Saved in 2011.
First base: minus-4
Second base: minus-9
Third base: minus-8
But, as their fans will note, that team did win the AL Central and play in the ALCS.
4. Second base might be the bigger issue
The Tigers used six second basemen in 2011, with Ramon Santiago and Ryan Raburn the only two who played more than 400 innings. In 777 2/3 career innings at second base, Raburn has been charted as costing his team 14 runs. In 1,384 2/3 career innings at second base, Santiago has been credited with saving his team 2 runs. Both are back in 2012.
5. Worst defensive lineup versus best lineup
As a hypothetical, if we made the presumption that the Tigers went primarily with an infield of Fielder, Raburn, Jhonny Peralta and Cabrera, and each of them performed to their career Runs Saved average, with Fielder and Cabrera playing 1,300 innings, and Raburn and Peralta playing 1,100 innings, here’s how they would fare:
1B Fielder: minus-8
2B Raburn: minus-20
SS Peralta: minus-3
3B Cabrera: minus-12
That gives you a combined total of minus-43 Defensive Runs Saved, not taking into account who would fill in for the remaining innings (or much range Cabrera is likely to have lost since 2007). That’s 20 runs worse than the Tigers infield positions combined for last season.
What would the difference be if the Tigers played Cabrera at first, Santiago at second and Inge at third, using the same basic principles (working via career averages)?
1B Cabrera: minus-5 (three runs better than Fielder)
2B Santiago: plus-2 (22 runs better than Raburn)
SS Peralta: minus-3
3B Inge: plus-8 (20 runs better than Cabrera)
The Inge hypothetical might be a little optimistic. He’s rated league average (0 runs saved) over the past two seasons. But it’s still significantly better than Cabrera.
6. Which Tigers starters are most impacted by infield defense?
The Tigers have a combination of pitchers who are reliant on the groundball and those more reliant on the strikeout and balls hit in the air. Here is the 2011 groundball percentage of their four top starters, with their ranking among all AL pitchers who faced at least 250 batters:
Where this move may impact Porcello most is when he gets a right-handed hitter to pull a groundball. We can dig deep into our stats to show that Porcello was among the most successful in baseball when he got hitters to do that.
Our Trumedia video evaluation tool is able to isolate chunks of the field and provide stats related to them. On balls hit to the area that starts with the traditional shortstop-third base hole and extends down the left-field line, the average right-handed hitter hit .300 when they hit a groundball. Those facing Porcello over the past two seasons were 24-for-102 (.235).