Defense could be costing Tigers AL Central lead over White Sox
BY JOHN GROCHOWSKI For Sun-Times Media September 17, 2012 11:20PM
CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 16: Don Kelly #32 of the Detroit Tigers is unable to catch a ball hit for an RBI triple by Carlos Santana #41 (not pictured) of the Cleveland Indians to tie the game in the ninth inning on September 16, 2012 at Progressive Field in Cleveland, Ohio. The Indians defeated the Tigers 7-6. (Photo by David Maxwell/Getty Images)
Updated: October 19, 2012 6:15AM
A close playoff race can turn on just about anything. Divisions are won and lost on offense, with pitching and with defense. In the case of the Detroit Tigers as they battle the White Sox down the stretch in the American League Central, it’s defense that’s the big problem.
Through their 5-4 loss Monday to the White Sox that put them three games back in the division race, the Tigers have allowed 67 unearned runs, 16 more than the league average. That’s not good, but it’s also an incomplete story. Players who make a bunch of errors but have great range and make more plays than others still can save more runs than they allow.
One measure is runs saved, created by John Dewan at Baseball Info Solutions, a sabermetric stat I mentioned earlier this season in connection with Cubs second baseman Darwin Barney. Barney leads all major-league position players with 33 runs saved.
Velocity and location is tracked for every batted ball. Factors include range for all non-catchers, good plays and misplays, bunt defense, double-play ability, outfielders’ arms, how well pitchers and catchers control the running game and an earned-run adjustment for catchers.
Do the Tigers have the range, arms and playmaking ability to offset their errors and unearned runs?
No. They fare even worse when you look at those factors. Runs saved is set up so that the league average is zero. The Tigers are last in the AL at minus-36 in the list at billjamesonline.com.
What if they had a league-average defense and had allowed 36 fewer runs? We can use the Pythagorean won-lost record for that. The Tigers’ 77-69 record is right on their Pythagorean projection based on 654 runs scored and 616 runs allowed. At 80-66, the Sox are just one game off their Pythagorean mark of 81-65.
With a league-average defense and 580 runs allowed, the Tigers’ projection would be 82-64. That’s a five-game swing because of defense, one that would have had them leading the Sox by two games instead of trailing by three.
Regardless of whether there was actually a five-game swing, the Sox would be looking a much tighter squeeze down the stretch if the Tigers were better at turning balls in play into outs.
The Sox, by the way, come up as almost exactly an average team on defense. They don’t make many mistakes. Their 63 errors are the second-fewest in the AL, and they lead the league with only 26 unearned runs allowed. They don’t come up as strong on range and other measures, but they are on the positive side with one run saved. Shortstop Alexei Ramirez is their individual leader at plus-11, while first baseman Paul Konerko is at the other end at minus-14.
The Toronto Blue Jays lead the AL at plus-61, which can’t save the season for a team that allows more runs than it scores. But the Tigers have shown enough offense and enough pitching to win, but they don’t have a defense of that same caliber.