September 1, 2014 at 12:41 pm

Kurt Mensching

Tigers hurting without Jose Iglesias and his magic mitt

Combined with Boston and Detroit last season, Jose Iglesias hit .303 with an on-base percentage of .349. (Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News)

We knew the loss of shortstop Jose Iglesias would hurt the Tigers this year. By mid-April we saw just how much. By the end of August, the pain seems to be becoming too much.

Iglesias alone wouldn’t cure the Tigers’ ills -- at the plate or in the field. He wouldn’t have prevented errors by Don Kelly, Nick Castellanos and Bryan Holaday on Sunday, for instance. He wouldn’t have overcome a four-run deficit Sunday by himself. He couldn’t wave a wand and magically rid the injury bugs that have bit stars Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera and Anibal Sanchez, making winning all the more difficult.

But Iglesias would have kept shortstop from being the Tigers’ worst position in 2014 -- and in a division likely to be decided by a razor-thin margin, that kind of difference counts.

Wins Above Replacement may be the kind of statistic that gets under certain people’s skin, but it’s a good way to find themes and make general comparisons across teams.

The Tigers, after losing their starting shortstop early in spring training, have managed to get worse than replacement-level production out of the four players who’ve combined to step in.

Baseball Reference lists the Tigers at -0.4 wins at shortstop. That ranks 30th of 30 major-league teams. Only three teams, including Boston (0.0) and Milwaukee (-0.1), are at worse than replacement level at the position.

Eugenio Suarez has been a positive influence on the statistic at least. On the other hand, everyone else who has played the position performed below replacement level. Andrew Romine and Alex Gonzalez, both acquired after Iglesias’ injury to help stop the bleeding, along with Danny Worth, proved not to be the answer.

The problem hasn’t been so much in the field. Of course, anyone who replaced Iglesias would have been a dropoff there. Watching Iglesias in the field is to see baseball’s most aesthetic position played at among the highest possible levels. It is a thing of beauty few attain.

Suarez and Romine fall short of that ideal, but they at least play a little bit above average in the field.

Still you wonder how much a player with Iglesias’ range would have helped those around him perform at their positions by handling more of the real estate himself.

Relative to other shortstops in the league, the Tigers have combined to bat the worst with an on-base percentage plus slugging average (OPS) of just .584. For comparison’s sake, the league average is .667 and even beleaguered Tigers catchers have hit .679.

Suarez’s uneven season makes it difficult to say how he would rate had he been the starting shortstop all year. His June OPS of .849, over the course of a full year, would rank atop the list, his July OPS of .584 would have ranked last. His .699 OPS of August would rank in the middle.

If only we knew which were the real Suarez. But it’s never that easy. It isn’t with Iglesias either.

Iglesias batted .259 with .654 OPS in Detroit last year, which is probably more in line with what we should expect of him than the .330 average, .784 OPS he had with the Red Sox before the trade. But he, too, should fall somewhere in the middle.

Next year the Tigers will be much better off. If Iglesias is healthy and starting, he’ll have a good backup in Suarez. If not, at least the Tigers have a better starting point than they did this year.

Unfortunately for the Tigers, the absence of a quality shortstop more often than not in 2014 has been all too clear.

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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