March 26, 2013 at 1:00 am

Kurt Mensching

Web gems might be hard to find, but Tiger defense will be better

The Tigers can slug. They can pitch. But can they field?

Well, answering that question isn't quite so easy.

Fielding was the Tigers' weakest link in 2012 — by a long shot.

Capable fielders with the ball hit into their zone, too many Tigers players lacked the range to make outs of apparent hits.

The infield featured houses at the corners and trees in the middle with only Austin Jackson in the outfield featuring above-average ability. That hurt pitchers up and down the rotation, but none more than groundball tosser Rick Porcello.

You could argue it didn't hurt the team much overall: The Tigers, after all, did reach the World Series. When they got there, a lack of hitting, not fielding, became the team's downfall.

But the defensive side of the game still matters, especially over the course of a 162-game season.

The Tigers should be better in the field in 2013.

Miguel Cabrera has a year of experience at third base to lean on. Omar Infante has a reputation as a solid defender at second base, although he did have a few hiccups during his first few months back in Detroit.

Still, Infante or Ryan Raburn? Yeah, there's no debate.

Torii Hunter in a corner-outfield spot is a darn sight better than the immobile duo of Delmon Young and Brennan Boesch.

But it's not enough to assert things these days. Some numbers, estimates though they may be, should be attached.

Defensive metrics are the holy grail of baseball nerdom. We know that the traditional stats are not all that telling.

Fielding percentage, for example, might make you think a statue that catches every ball hit directly to it is a better defender than a player who reaches more balls but makes the occasional error.

The sabermetric stats, while better, are not necessarily perfect, and plenty of debate can be found about which is best. But there's no reason to let the search for perfection get in the way of using something better.

The Tigers were about 30 runs worse than an average defense — 28 worse by Defensive Runs Saved and 32 worse by Ultimate Zone Rating, as listed at Fangraphs.com.

Their team Defensive Efficiency ranked 28th in baseball, as they turned 69.3 percent of balls in play into outs.

Over the course of a season, a slick fielding team that is otherwise equal to a poor-fielding team can expect to win three, four, maybe five games more. It may not sound like much, but during the last week of the season the number will loom large.

Digging deeper in the stats to find the Tigers' particular problems, you'll find the worst positions to be the corner outfield spots owned by now-departed players Boesch and Young.

Infield problems were of course both corners, with second base coming out around average after Infante rescued it from Ramon Santiago, Raburn and friends.

How much better was Infante than the others? He has a positive DRS of 2; the rest totaled -10. Over the course of a season, Infante could save the Tigers 10-15 runs by that statistic.

How much better is Hunter than Boesch? The latter managed -8 DRS in 910 innings in right field. Hunter was +15 with the Angels. That's a 23-run turnaround.

In left field, Andy Dirks had +3 DRS in 464 innings in 2012. Young and Berry combined for -4 in 662 innings. So again, over the course of a season you're talking a turnaround of +10 should Dirks earn most of the innings at the position.

Keeping in mind these are estimates and that no defensive accounting system is perfect, you still come to the same conclusion. The Tigers went from being substantially below average to possibly a bit above average. Either way, they got better.

That may not be enough to help Porcello greatly. You'll notice most of the improvement occurs in the corner outfield, and much will still come down to whether Miguel Cabrera shows improvements at the hot corner.

It would be silly to say defense will be a team strength in 2013 — it won't.

But it certainly should not be the weakness that it was in 2012. Serious improvements have been made.

Kurt Mensching is the editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (blessyouboys.com). He can be reached at bybtigers@gmail.com.

With Torii Hunter taking over in right field, Jim Leyland might go through fewer Marlboros in 2013. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News
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