June 23, 2014 at 1:00 am

Kurt Mensching

Tigers have key decisions to make about their below-average defense

Torii Hunter's fielding percentage this season is .968 -- far below his MLB career average of .991. (Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News)

We don’t really talk much about fielding.

We like to talk about pitching. Momentum is only as good as your next day’s pitcher, former Tigers manager Jim Leyland would say. Or we emphasize the impact of the bullpen.

We like to talk about hitting. Let’s see what the middle of the order can do. Surely every time Miguel Cabrera or Victor Martinez steps to the plate, something good is about to happen.

But what happens when, after the pitcher and batter have done their work, the ball is put in play?

Well, we tend to ignore that aspect of the game until a boneheaded error or a game-saving catch is made.

We should probably talk about fielding a little bit more, especially in Detroit, where it’s been a bit of a letdown compared to expectations.

In the past week, we’ve watched the Tigers face two teams that are near polar opposites in the field, and the effects were clear.

The Royals seemed to rob hit after hit, run after run, helping Kansas City to take three out of four games at Comerica Park. How frustrating was Alex Gordon in the outfield?

Then you watch the Tigers play the Indians, with shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera making errors and center fielder Michael Bourne throwing the ball off-line or watching as it bounces out of his glove entirely. The Tigers swept that series.

It would be oversimplification to say the results of a game or series ride on how well a team plays in the field, but those little plays all add up. They end rallies. They buy the pitcher a little bit more time on the mound.

By one popular sabermetric measure, Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 games (UZR/150), the Royals are the best fielding team in baseball, rating 18.4 runs better than average, per Fangraphs. The Indians rank 29th, at 13.7 runs worse than average.

It turns out the Tigers are a lot closer to the Indians than they are the Royals, which comes as no surprise to anyone who has watched Detroit lately.

The outfield has been disappointing. Torii Hunter is downright awful. Austin Jackson has shown he doesn’t have the ability he did a two or three years ago. Rajai Davis confounds with his routes to the ball.

Third baseman Nick Castellanos has been below-average at third. Andrew Romine was not the pure-glove shortstop we expected and lost his job, as did Alex Gonzalez before him.

Only second baseman Ian Kinsler has shined, with Miguel Cabrera about average at first base.

In other words, we’re seeing the cost of losing shortstop Jose Iglesias for the season and outfielder Andy Dirks for the first half of it.

By that UZR/150 measurement, the Tigers rank 27th at 8.7 runs worse than average. They’re making life a little more difficult for their pitching staff.

Another way of looking at it: About 69.4 percent of balls put in play are turned into outs. The team ranks 26th in that defensive efficiency category, per Baseball Prospectus.

Any way you measure it, they’re just not good, and that has to change.

Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowksi and manager Brad Ausmus have some tough decisions to make about their roster over the next five weeks or so.

Can they afford to keep playing the woefully-fielding Hunter in right field if he’s not hitting? And how long can they keep sending Castellanos out to third if he is below average as a fielder and starts to struggle again at the plate? Is Eugenio Suarez the answer Romine and Gonzalez failed to be at short?

The Tigers will be active at the trade deadline -- they always are. When looking for improvements, they might find adding a better fielder to the mix provides just the help this team needs.

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

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