When the Tigers Defense Attacked

When constructing his current roster, Dave Dombrowski (and Mike Ilitch) chose to prioritize offensive production, and were willing to sacrifice defense in several positions in order to get more thump into the line-up. Miguel Cabrera, despite being hobbled with injuries that leave him unable to run, is playing third base. He moved to third to accommodate Prince Fielder, who told the Tigers he didn’t want to DH when he signed a $214 million contract to play first base for them. And the Tigers weren’t overly interested in creating a long term logjam at the DH position, since they were already paying Victor Martinez a lot of money to serve as their DH once he returned from injury. The plan was always to fit these three guys into the same line-up, and in 2013, that’s what the Tigers have done.

In some ways, it’s not that hard to say that the plan worked. The Tigers won the AL Central again, and they’re now three wins away from reaching their second consecutive World Series. They finished second in the majors in runs scored, so the decision to give up defense in search of more offense was successful, at least in terms of maximizing run scoring.

But trade-offs work both ways, and while the Tigers reap the benefits of playing three designated hitters on offense, they also suffer the consequences of punting defense at the infield corners. For instance, I present the 9th inning of last night’s game.

After watching their bullpen blow a four run lead, Rick Porcello was trying to keep the game tied and push it into extra innings. Rick Porcello is a ground ball pitcher, and he started the inning facing Jonny Gomes. He got Gomes to hit a ground ball, but then, it all went really wrong.

Gomes

At full speed, it can appear that Gomes hit a ground ball in the hole between third base and shortstop, and then Jose Iglesias made a wild throw trying to do too much. But that’s not really the story of this play. Here’s a screen shot of where Gomes’ ground ball actually was when it left the grass and hit the dirt.

GomesGB1

That ball crossed the cut of the grass almost exactly at the point where a third baseman is positioned on a normal play. This wasn’t hit in the hole at all; this was a routine ground ball to third base. For reference, here is a screenshot of Cabrera fielding Jacoby Ellsbury’s ground out to third base in the bottom of the 1st inning.

Cabrera1

That ball was a one bounce chopper instead of a low grounder, but it was even further towards the second base bag, and it was entirely routine. Cabrera fielded it without any problem, took a few steps while gathering himself, and still threw out one of the fastest guys in baseball. A ball hit to that location, against a normally aligned infield defense, is a routine out.

But the infield wasn’t aligned normally in the ninth inning last night. The Tigers were playing “no doubles” defense, in which the corner infielders move closer to the line to give them a better chance to snag a shot that would otherwise go past them and get into the corner for extra bases. Fox didn’t show any camera angles of the no doubles defense alignment, so I can’t show you exactly where Cabrera was lined up on that play, but I did find a chart of infield positioning in a post written by Major League infielder Doug Bernier, illustrating the different defensive alignments.

infieldDepth

Obviously, an illustrative chart like this is not the final say on where players are to be positioned, but it gives you a pretty decent idea of where a no-doubles defender lines up relative to the norm, and helps explain why Cabrera wasn’t even close to a ball that was hit to what is normally straight away third base positioning. And this play also explains why some people jokingly refer to this defensive alignment as the “more singles” defense instead of using the “no doubles” defense moniker.

There are times when a “no doubles” defense is likely the right alignment, as preventing an extra base hit that could score a run from first base might be of vital importance. However, to start off the bottom of the 9th inning of a tie game, it would seem to me that simply preventing the winning run from reaching base would be of primary importance. Certainly, you don’t want the winning run to hit a double, but you don’t want him to hit a single either. Having the winning run on base is a bigger problem than predetermining which base he is standing upon.

But, we don’t have the data to prove that the “no doubles” defense is entirely the wrong call. It is possible that enough runs are saved by taking away potential extra base hits to make up for the extra singles that roll through the enlarged gap between the 3B and SS. My guess is it probably doesn’t actually save many runs, but without initial positioning data, our conclusion has to be somewhat muted. About the most forceful thing we can say is that, last night, the combination of a “no doubles” defense and a third baseman who can’t move gave Jonny Gomes an infield hit.

But the play doesn’t end there, and Gomes didn’t stay on first base. We have yet to touch on Iglesias’ throw that went into the stands and moved Gomes into scoring position. The throw was not anywhere near first base, and bounced before it got to its destination, so there’s no way to describe it as anything other than a poor attempt. Good intentions, perhaps, but bad execution.

Still, though, I’m not sure we can really blame Jose Iglesias for Gomes’ advancement, because this is how Prince Fielder decided to try and catch the throw on the bounce.

GomesGB2

That ball has bounced well in front of Fielder and is on its way back up towards his waist. Now, here’s the ball as it reaches Fielder.

FielderMiss2

Notice how, on the hop, you could see the back of Fielder’s jersey and the side of his arm? Now you can see his arm and a portion of the front of his jersey. And here’s Fielder a split second after the ball gets past him.

FielderMiss3

And now he’s facing us, because Prince Fielder’s attempt to scoop Iglesias’ throw included spinning out of the way of the ball. Had Fielder just used his ample size to shift fully in front of the throw, the ball would have hit him right around the waist and fallen to the ground in front of him. Instead, Fielder decided to try and catch the ball while rotating his body away from the path of the ball in order to not get hit by it. Maybe that’s just good old fashioned self preservation when there’s an object heading towards the general area of your groin, but on the baseball field, that’s some kind of terrible. It’s the 9th inning of a playoff game. Your junk will heal, and you’re probably wearing a cup. Take one for the team, Prince.

About 30 seconds later, Fielder did this.

Salty Fielder

At full speed, it looked like maybe the Boston crowd interfered with his ability to catch the ball and batted it away from his glove. So let’s look at where ball met glove.

FielderDrop

I’m sure having those fans in very close proximity made things a little more complicated than usual, and that’s probably a tougher play than it looks on TV, but that ball just clanked off of his glove because he closed it too soon. Had he kept his glove open an extra split second, the ball would have landed safely inside of it, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia would have been the first out of the inning.

Instead, the at-bat continued. And so Alex Avila asked Porcello to throw a fastball inside to Avila, as seen here.

AvilaMiss

Except Porcello threw a fastball way outside.

AvilaMiss2

This is, by any reasonable definition, a wild pitch. Porcello missed his target by several feet. The ball wasn’t anywhere close to Avila’s glove, and he had to reach across his body to try and catch it. But, again, there’s a distinct lack of footwork by a Tigers defender. Avila might not have been able to block that ball had he shifted his body weight and attempted to deflect it with his leg. It might very well have just bounced off his shin guard and ricocheted so far away that Gomes would have been able to advance anyway. This isn’t Fielder whiffing on the throw or the catch. But, this pitch wasn’t completely unblockable. It was a fastball to the wrong batters box, but had Avila tried to use his body to stop it instead of his glove, perhaps Gomes stays on second base.

Because he advanced to third, the infield had to come in. So this happened.

If Jose Iglesias is at normal depth, that may very well be a groundout. Instead, it’s a walk off win for the Red Sox.

The winning run reached base on a routine ground ball to third. The winning run advanced to second when Prince Fielder decided to spin away from a baseball being thrown to him. Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s at-bat continued because Fielder closed his glove before a foul pop up could actually go into it. The winning run advanced to third because Alex Avila couldn’t block a fastball that didn’t hit the dirt until it was past him. And then the winning run scored because that wild pitch forced Jose Iglesias to play in.

Defense doesn’t always cost you. The Tigers won a lot of games while punting defense at first and third base all season. Miguel Cabrera homered, and Prince Fielder doubled, and Victor Martinez doubled twice. Maybe even last night, trading defense for offense was a net positive. But it’s hard to not watch the bottom of the ninth inning and wonder whether this should be the last time the Tigers try and win the World Series with Cabrera at third and Fielder at first. There is a real cost to pay for having both of those players on the field, and the Tigers paid it in the 9th inning last night.





Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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joe
9 years ago

More DH’s.

Jack Z
9 years ago
Reply to  joe

Totally.