November 25, 2013 at 12:48 pm

Kurt Mensching

Coaching, roster moves prove Tigers placing higher value on saving runs

Ian Kinsler's defense was worth 11 runs in 2013, per Baseball Info Solutions' Defensive Runs Saved Above Average stat. (Tony Gutierrez / Associated Press)

Two moves last week, on the surface unrelated, show that the Tigers may be turning one of the team’s greatest weaknesses into its strength, and saving money while doing so.

The first came Monday with the announcement that Matt Martin would be named the team’s “defensive coordinator.”

The announcement noted the seemingly football-sounding position would be used to assist manager Brad Ausmus in on-field arrangements and in coordinating scouting information with pitchers, infielders and outfielders.

The second bit of news was just as big a surprise on Wednesday, when the team confirmed that first baseman Prince Fielder would be sent to Texas in exchange for second baseman Ian Kinsler.

That largely overshadowed the Martin news, as you would expect when a pair of star players owed more than $200 million between them are exchanged.

Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski largely painted the move in the context of flexibility, and most took that to mean the financial flexibility created because the Tigers save $76 million over the coming seven years by making the trade.

But the other half of that is added roster flexibility. It turns out having Fielder, Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez all in the same lineup created certain defensive challenges for Detroit. Who would have guessed it? Oh, yes: everyone.

Of course, you don’t need advanced defensive statistics to understand moving Cabrera across the field to third base to make room for the immobile Fielder caused issues, but let’s look at them briefly anyway.

Defensive efficiency is a quick metric for that and easy to grasp, as it essentially it tells you how often a defense turns a ball put into play into an out.

Not making outs is obviously a problem, because it means even when a pitcher throws what he wants, he still may not get an out for the effort.

Detroit went from a middle-of-the-road defensive efficiency of .708 in 2011 down to a pallid .693 in 2012 with Fielder and Cabrera manning the corners, along with Jhonny Peralta at shortstop and a revolving carousel of second basemen. Detroit essentially held pat in 2013 at .694. That was good for 27th of the 30 MLB teams, per Baseball Prospectus.

Which brings us back to the Tigers’ decisions last week: working to improve the defense, through both the coaching and the personnel.

Martin should help with that. Former Tiger Gabe Kapler wrote about Martin in Baseball Prospectus in August: “In 2011, I was in camp with the Dodgers and witnessed Matt impacting players for the first time since he mentored me in 1998. He bounced around the desert complex assiduously overseeing every infielder with the same care. ... Every infielder I poll tells me the same thing: Matt’s knowledge and understanding of infield mechanics is second to none.”

Combining Martin’s knowledge with that of infield coach Omar Vizquel, as well as Martin’s ability to filter scouting information and advanced statistics to create useful reports, and you’ve got a recipe the Tigers hope can take opponents’ runs off the board.

Add a few changes on the field to that and you’re bound to have improvement. For instance, Kinsler’s defense was worth 11 runs in 2013, per Baseball Info Solutions’ Defensive Runs Saved Above Average stat. Outgoing second baseman Omar Infante was worth minus-5. Fielder was worth minus-13 at first in 2013; Cabrera was worth minus-18 at third. That’s a pretty serious deficit the Tigers were running and shows defensive problems were mostly in the infield.

Moving Cabrera back to first, a position he was only a little worse than average at -- as well as bringing in a more capable third baseman -- can save the Tigers additional runs, as can an entire season of excellent young shortstop Jose Iglesias.

In an offseason marked by eye-popping salaries being given to free agents, the Tigers might just have found the formula for improving while actually saving money: by keeping their opponents off the board.

To paraphrase Ben Franklin, a run saved is a run earned. Finding it hard to add many to their ledger this offseason, the Tigers hope to help their run differential by saving some instead.

That’s what last week’s moves taught us.

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