Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 9/18/12

There exists the perception that the Detroit Tigers are just this total disappointment. The Tigers, you’ll recall, came into the year looking like the favorites in the AL Central, and now it’s the middle of September and they’re three back of first. They’re about as far out of the wild card as the Padres are, which means for the Tigers it’s probably division title or bust. They won’t play the leading White Sox again down the stretch. Many thought the Tigers would be able to coast to the playoffs, and now the Tigers are fighting for their very playoff lives.

Truthfully, I’d say it’s less about the Tigers being surprising, and more about the White Sox being surprising. Major media types liked the Tigers because of their stars, but check out those linked projections above. Statistically, the Tigers didn’t look like an elite team, and they’re on pace to win 85 games. People just didn’t expect for the White Sox to give them such a push.

And you could argue that the standings don’t reflect actual team performances to date. The White Sox are three games ahead of the Tigers in the Central, but the White Sox have posted an OPS 19 points higher than the OPS they’ve allowed, while the Tigers have posted an OPS 32 points higher than the OPS they’ve allowed. That’s the fifth-best gap in the AL, behind the Rays and ahead of the A’s. The rest is basically sequencing and over a large enough sample you’d expect this stuff to even out. The Tigers are in a desperate situation, with dwindling playoff odds, but as a team they have played fairly well.

And they have played fairly predictably. Entering the year people had their general ideas of what the Tigers would be, and here’s where the Tigers rank in the American League in various team-level categories:

wRC+: 4th
Baserunning: 11th
Rotation FIP: 1st
Bullpen FIP: 7th
UZR: 12th

The Tigers were supposed to be able to hit, and the Tigers have hit, with Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera leading the way. Alex Avila has dropped off, but Austin Jackson has taken a step forward, and so the Tigers’ offense has more or less been what it was supposed to be. Baserunning hasn’t been a strength, but no one thought it would be, and it hasn’t been a crippling weakness, because it’s baserunning. You can only make so much of a difference when you’re running the bases.

The Tigers were supposed to be able to pitch, and the Tigers have pitched, getting great work out of the rotation. Look at that again, if you need to — the Tigers’ rotation has the lowest FIP in the American League. Justin Verlander, naturally, has been outstanding, and Max Scherzer just struck out the mailman. The rest of the crew has been fine and the Tigers haven’t really needed to lean on any depth. The bullpen has been neither a strength nor a weakness, which makes it acceptable as bullpens go.

So a big problem’s been defense, which literally every person on Earth saw coming. The Tigers have allowed the AL’s highest BABIP, and though they’re 12th in UZR, they’re 15 runs behind 11th. Fielder has started 144 times at first base, and Cabrera has started 138 times at third base. Issue identified, right? Didn’t everyone know at the time of the Fielder signing that defense would be sacrificed?

Well sure, but there’s a funny thing about the Tigers’ team defense: the infield hasn’t really been the problem with it. Everybody assumed, and perhaps rightly so, that an infield with Fielder and Cabrera at the corners would be a nightmare, but here’s the 2012 UZR split:

Tigers infield: -2.2
Tigers outfield: -27.0

Early in the season, I wrote about the Tigers’ miserable defensive performance against groundballs, which I mostly pinned on the infield. They’ve gotten so, so much better ever since, boosted no doubt by the acquisition of Omar Infante. Nobody would tell you that Fielder or Cabrera ought to be Gold Glove candidates, but as a unit, the Tigers’ infield has been just fine, at least if you believe in UZR. And it seems to me there’s little UZR can get way wrong when evaluating an infield.

The outfield has been a defensive catastrophe, more than five runs worse than any other AL outfield. The difference between the last-place Tigers and the first-place Angels, by UZR, works out to nearly 60 runs, or nearly six wins. The Tigers have allowed the highest BABIP on line drives in baseball, and though I know you’re tempted to blame this all on Delmon Young, Young hasn’t played a lot of outfield in a while. He’s actually seventh on the team in outfield innings, at 226. UZR thinks he’s responsible for just a small fraction of the overall negative.

The guy UZR really hates is Brennan Boesch, and while I don’t want to get too deep into talking about single-season UZR, I’ll note that Boesch has batted 500 times and owns a -1.1 WAR. In retrospect, less Boesch and more someone else might have the Tigers in first, in a tie or by themselves. That’s speculation. Let’s forget about Boesch and focus on the overall picture: the Tigers’ defense has indeed been a weakness, but the numbers suggest the weakness hasn’t been in the infield, but beyond it.

First and foremost, that’s interesting, because that isn’t how things were supposed to work out. We can’t say anything conclusively, because UZR isn’t proof of anything but what UZR thinks. This might be sort of encouraging for the Tigers going forward, as playing Fielder and Cabrera in the field every day hasn’t held them back too bad. The Tigers aren’t thinking about the future, though, as they’d really prefer to have a better present. To that end, I might advise playing a little less Boesch, but I’m just a guy with a computer and access to stats. Boesch could conceivably go on to save the whole season, because the less time there is left, the less the numbers really matter.

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