Claws out: Tigers’ defense a highlight so far

April 12th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Jason Beck's Tigers Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

Rarely does a defensive trend show so simply, so frequently over the course of a game. But on Tuesday in Pittsburgh, the Tigers’ best offense was their outstanding defense.

From Riley Greene’s home run robbery at PNC Park’s left-field wall to Matt Vierling’s running catches in the gaps to Javier Báez making a diving stop up the middle to Colt Keith’s whirling throw to second for a critical forceout, Detroit kept close enough for a ninth-inning rally by denying the Pirates run-scoring plays.

“It’s great that we can do that,” Greene said. “We work at it every single day. You see us out there working, getting our early work in and everything. It pays off.”

It’s not only that game. While the Tigers’ offense has been slow to warm, their defense is hot.

The numbers are startling but consistent: Detroit’s defense has been outstanding. The Tigers entered Thursday tied atop or leading the Majors with six Outs Above Average, five runs prevented and an 85 percent success rate on defensive plays, according to Statcast. They’re making plays with a three percent added success rate, also tied for MLB’s best. By comparison, the Tigers finished last season ranked 20th in OAA.

Another defensive formula, Defensive Runs Saved, has Detroit leading the Majors with 12, according to Sports Info Solutions. The team was 13th at the end of last season with 22 DRS. The Tigers currently have positive DRS numbers at every position except first and third base. Those two positions were negatives for Detroit last year, too, but to much larger extents.

The overwhelming expectation was that Detroit’s defense would be better this year, but maybe not quite this good. Three big moves are key in the turnaround:

1) Meadows in center

This is a pretty good starting point. Parker Meadows arrived Aug. 21 with the potential for game-changing defense, and he rated at four Outs Above Average in just six weeks in center field. He worked last offseason and into Spring Training on getting better jumps, complementing his blistering speed, and he has made difficult plays look easy. He’s tied atop the MLB center-field leaderboard with two Defensive Runs Saved.

The domino effect from Meadows’ arrival is just as important. Greene rated average to negative in center field last year, but he rates as an outstanding corner outfielder. Greene’s four DRS lead all MLB left fielders, and he has a 95 percent success rate on plays in left field, compared to an 87 percent estimated rate based on probabilities.

“I feel like I have two center fielders with Parker -- well, Parker in general is like two center fielders -- and Riley,” manager A.J. Hinch said.

Moreover, Hinch has the potential to leverage that strength by playing Greene in the tougher corner from ballpark to ballpark. That has been left field at Comerica Park and PNC Park.

“The best configuration has Riley and Parker teamed up in the biggest part [of the outfield],” Hinch said.

2) Keith at second

The Tigers rated well at second base last year despite a rotation of players: Zach McKinstry rated at four Outs Above Average in just more than a quarter season there, and McKinstry became an AL Gold Glove finalist for utility players. Andy Ibáñez had four Defensive Runs Saved and two OAA. When the Tigers shifted Keith to second base full-time in the Minors and then put him in position to be the primary starter at second, they were perceived to be trading defense for offense. But Keith has been better than advertised in the field, rating at two DRS (tied for third among second basemen) and one OAA.

“He’s been really good,” Hinch said before last week’s home opener. “He’s put a lot of work in on making the routine play and then expanding his range.”

The Tigers have kept it simple with Keith, emphasizing making plays that come to him before getting into rangier ones. But he has rated well moving on plays to his left. Meanwhile, the stability at second has allowed Keith and Báez to quickly develop a rapport on double plays.

3) Cora coaching infield

The Tigers moved aggressively on Joey Cora in November when the Mets’ managerial change made him available, believing he could make a difference with their infield. Already, his imprints are around the field. Báez is consistently making better throws to first, where he was struggling with balls in the dirt to Torkelson last year. Keith has quickly fit in at second, and third base has become a better spot despite a rotation of players there, including veteran defender Gio Urshela. Most impressive, Detroit leads the Majors in converting ground balls into outs, according to SIS.