The Detroit Tigers had a largely successful 2013 season, reaching the ALCS for a third straight year and losing to the eventual champion Red Sox. They relied on two things to win games: great starting pitching, and Miguel Cabrera. Even though he faltered toward the end of the season and into the playoffs with an undisclosed injury, the Tigers’ top hitter provided a ton of value in the 2013 season, over a quarter of their 26.5 team hitter WAR, which was 6th in baseball.
But since the Prince Fielder contract was signed after the 2011 season, Cabrera’s been playing out of position at third base. That was his original slot, of course, but as he enters his mid-30s it’s pretty clear he doesn’t have the ability to man the hot corner every day; Tigers third basemen were 24th in defensive runs in 2013, and Cabrera on his own was 19th-worst in the majors.
The man who replaced him at first, Prince Fielder, is no great shakes himself, 7th-worst in MLB. Overall, Detroit was well below average at 24th in the majors in defensive runs, actually a step up from 29th in 2012.
However, the Tigers pitching staff is supposed to make up for the defensive deficiencies via the strikeout. Theoretically, if a team generates a lot of strikeouts, their defensive shortcomings won’t be such a problem; it doesn’t matter if Adam Dunn is playing shortstop when the ball doesn’t get put in play. Detroit’s pitching has struck out more batters per nine innings from 2012-13 than any other staff, so they’ve got the arms to back up the strategy.
Still, it’s clear the fielding is hurting. Not only are Detroit’s defensive runs in terrible shape, they have a .309 BABIP from 2012-13, second-worst in the majors (only the Rockies have allowed a higher rate of hits in play, and in the spacious Coors Field that’s not very surprising). No doubt a large part of that rate is the poor defense, especially at the infield corners.
The question is, do the strikeouts make up for the defense? In other words, are Tigers pitchers doing enough via the K to allow thumpers with iron gloves like Cabrera and Fielder to play the field?
Let’s start with how much the Tigers’ defense has cost them in terms of hits. We’ll use the Tigers’ BABIP against MLB average; it’s true that there are factors at play in BABIP that aren’t defense-related, but with 6,000 batters faced per season by Tigers pitching and about 85-90,000 across the American League, there’s enough variation in talent and luck to consider most of the difference due to defense. Assisting this theory is the fact that the Tigers’ defensive issues are consistent with their poor BABIP over two years.