When the Tigers lost 3-1 to the Mariners on Wednesday, I couldn't get it out of my mind that a decent left fielder would have caught the looping Josh Wilson single that fell in front of Carlos Guillen. It was bad enough that Wilson's single - and Guillen's less than stellar outfield defense - allowed the game's first run to score. An exclamation point was put on the play when Ichiro lifted a Verlander fastball over the right field wall to give the Tigers a 3-0 lead.
What should have been a harmless, lazy third out turned into a three run, two out rally. It also turned out to be a pretty harsh lesson in the value of outfield defense as the Tigers couldn't manage much offensive output against Ian Snell and the Mariners' bullpen and those three runs would be enough. To be fair to Guillen, he did provide the Tigers' only run with a homer to right and his recent offensive production is why the Tigers are willing to risk his questionable outfield defense.
That cause me to look at some numbers and I was startled to see just how much of a mismatch the Tigers' outfielders are with the Tigers' starting rotation. Right now, the best outfield the Tigers can field is obviously Curtis Granderson in center, Clete Thomas in one of the corners and either Ryan Raburn (if Thomas is in right) or Magglio Ordonez (if Thomas is in left) in the other. My defensive metric of choice, UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating), has Granderson (-0.9 UZR/150 or runs saved per 150 games' worth of innings with throwing factored in) as about average for a center fielder, Clete Thomas (22.9) as an excellent defender in either corner, and Raburn (-1.0) and Ordonez (0.3) as nearly average. Most Tiger fans would balk at the idea of Granderson only being average in center field, but even if you bump him from average to good the best outfield the Tigers can assemble is just pretty good.
That's frustrating when you look at the ballpark they play half their games in and their starting rotation. Jarrod Washburn, Justin Verlander and Edwin Jackson are all flyball pitchers. If you sort major league pitchers eligible for the ERA title by flyball percentage (something the wonderful site, fangraphs.com, allows us to do), those three are all top fifteen. The only reason Armando Galarraga isn't thrown into the mix is because so many of the balls in play against him are line drives. This is a team that would be very well served by the kind of slick fielding outfield Jarrod Washburn took advantage of in Seattle.
Alas, the team is struggling to score runs so most nights we're not going to see the best outfield defense Leyland can muster. He's going to push for extra runs and that's going to mean more of Magglio in right and Carlos Guillen or sometimes Marcus Thames in left. Supposedly, Aubrey Huff could be in the mix as well, but I hardly think he'll turn the tide toward better defense. I think that's going to lead to a lot of fly balls where the camera cuts back to a Tiger starter with a look on his face that says, "Huh. I thought that was going to get caught."
Now I realize at this point this can be little more than a disappointing realization. We're in the latter part of August and with very few exceptions the roster the Tigers have is the roster they will either win or lose the division with. Hell, they already have six to seven outfielders on the team. If they call up Wilkin Ramirez (not a defensive solution himself), Brent Clevlen and/or Casper Wells, it's not like any of them are going to pull down a lot of playing time.
That leaves us with two things to take away from these realizations. First, the Tigers need to find the right balance between offensive production and outfield defense this season. If they're going to rest Granderson, do it on a night Rick Porcello is starting or make sure you replace him with Clete Thomas in center. I was relieved today to see Thomas in center even though a lefty is on the mound. I'd prefer to never again see the outfield Jarrod Washburn had behind him in his first start with the Tigers - Wilkin Ramirez in left, Ryan Raburn in center (!) and Magglio in right.
A similar suggestion would be to try to put Clete Thomas in left field when Washburn is starting. I say that because teams are going to load up with right-handed hitters on those days and that's going to make the left fielder almost as important as Granderson in center (when he's in center). Those are just a couple ideas, but the general point is to make sure we're not selling out run prevention in the efforts to get run production.
The other thing we need to take from the rotation/outfield defense mismatch is changes need to be made for next year's roster. I think we can safely assume Verlander, Jackson and Porcello will all be back next year. If the Tigers are going to fill the other two spots with flyball pitchers, they need to plug in some guys who can properly cover the outfield. It looks like we're pretty much stuck with Ordonez and Guillen so the fourth and fifth outfielders need to be gazelles. If that doesn't happen and the Tigers are going to stick with guys cut from the cloth of Raburn and Thames, the fourth and fifth starters had better get a lot more ground balls than Galarraga and Washburn.
I realize it's a strange time of year to be talking about 2010 rosters, but I think it's the perfect time to think about problems with the current roster. Hopefully, thinking about fixes now will prevent us from making similar realizations during next season's pennant race.