Tigers' six errors emblematic of their poor fielding, but not representative of it
The Tigers made six errors in their 14-8 loss against the Angels Tuesday night, the most in baseball since the Pirates made seven last September and the most in the American League since the Mariners made six in September 2011. No other team has had as many as five errors in a game this season. Of the Tigers six errors, four led to Angels runs, and two of those came in the Halos' eight-run fifth inning. That performance called attention to the Tigers' poor play in the field this season, which has been a large reason that they are again underperforming relative to pre-season expectations, but it was not a good example of it.
Even after last night's outburst, there are 22 teams in the majors that have made more errors than the Tigers this season. But only two, the Twins and Astros, have turned balls in play into outs at a lower rate than Detroit. Even when you adjust for their spacious home ballpark, the Tigers defensive efficiency ranks 27th in the majors (with the Rockies also slipping below them). The Tigers' problem isn't sloppy fielding, it's an inability to get to the ball in the first place.
This isn't new, the Tigers were 27th in park-adjusted defensive efficiency last year as well, but with Torii Hunter in right field and Delmon Young and Brennan Boesch off the team, the Tigers were supposed to be at least marginally better this year. Not so. If anything, they're worse, and you can see it most clearly in the impact their fielding has had on their starting rotation.
Why is Justin Verlander's ERA a run and a quarter higher than it was a year ago? Well, he's walking an extra man per nine innings and his velocity is down, leading to fewer pop-ups and more line drives, but that alone doesn't account for his .347 batting average on balls in play relative to a previous career rate of .285. Anibal Sanchez, prior to his shoulder injury, was a Cy Young contender despite his .332 BABIP (relative to a previous career rate of .305). Doug Fister's BABIP is .329, a career high (previous career: .288). Rick Porcello has shown great improvement this season by relying more on his offspeed pitches, posting career-best strikeout and walk rates and increasing his ground balls, but his BABIP is still above average at .313, showing no change from his previous career rate.
Only Max Scherzer has managed to out-pitch is defense, and he has done that in large part by keeping the ball away from his infielders, leading the team in both strikeout rate and fly-ball rate among pitchers with 20 or more innings pitched this season. Even then, the bulk of Scherzer's luck on balls in play has come on the road in a small enough sample (45 innings) that it could just be luck. At home, he has a pedestrian .294 BABIP and a 4.01 ERA.
The Tigers made a conscious decision to sacrifice fielding for hitting when they moved Miguel Cabrera to third base after signing Prince Fielder prior to last season, and that is exactly what has come to pass. Cabrera made two of the Tigers' six errors Tuesday night (both throwing errors in the eighth inning), and leads the team with eight, twice as many as the next sloppiest Tiger. Cabrera and Fielder have also combined to cost the team 1.6 wins in the field per Baseball Info Solutions' defensive runs saved, a performance that, in combination, almost completely negates Fielder's offensive contribution to this point in the season, which has been below his established level. Meanwhile, Victor Martinez, who is still owed $12 million for next season, continues to be the team's designated hitter despite hitting just .230/.281/.366 since the end of an even more dismal, homer-less April. The Tigers would be better off with either Fielder or Cabrera at DH and a replacement-level third baseman. Moving top prospect Nick Castellanos, currently hitting .296/.375/.476 as a left fielder with Triple-A Toledo, back to the hot corner could be one solution, one they may have already tried if the American League Central was at all competitive. Maybe Tuesday night's embarrassment will be the impetus the need.