No, they are not currently atop the American League Central, let alone running away with it, as so many predicted. But at least one element of the Detroit Tigers' play here in 2012 meshes with the expectations going into the year. "We knew," manager Jim Leyland said, "we weren't going to win nine Gold Gloves."
And sure enough, no one's picking them to win nine Gold Gloves now. So the fact that the Tigers field what is considered by many metrics to be one of the worst defensive units in baseball does not qualify as a surprise. It does, however, qualify as a concern for a Detroit team that simply hasn't erupted offensively the way it was envisioned. To put it plainly, this was a team designed to outhit its fielding foibles. The idea was to have enough Silver Sluggers to account for the lack of Gold Gloves. The fact that the Tigers have just the seventh-most-productive offense in the 14-team AL proves that hasn't been the reality. And even if they do overtake the White Sox and win their second consecutive AL Central title, the Tigers' overall lack of defensive range could come back to bite them in the glare of October, just as it did in another one-run loss Sunday in Cleveland. Let's first acknowledge the positives. Miguel Cabrera, despite all that preseason handwringing, is not a total train wreck at third base. Generally speaking, he handles the balls hit at him, and he's even proven adept enough to make some of the tough backhands and off-balance throws that are a regular part of life at the hot corner. By no means is he above average, primarily because of issues with his range, but Baseball Info Solution's Defensive Runs Saved calculation gives him a neutral mark, and that's certainly better than many rival evaluators expected going into the year. More positives: Jhonny Peralta at short. Again, the range is not great, but he's made just five errors in 529 chances. And Austin Jackson is a special defender in center. Beyond that, though, the Tigers have several issues at hand. Second baseman Omar Infante has made some puzzling defensive miscues of late, including a costly fifth-inning error on a would-be double-play ball in Sunday's 7-6 loss to the Indians. Prince Fielder is more athletic than his body would lead you to believe, but he doesn't have a great deal of range at first base. Brennan Boesch, in addition to having a miserable offensive season, grades out as a defensive liability in right. And neither Andy Dirks nor Quintin Berry get particularly high marks in left. "When you talk about our range compared to somebody else's range," Leyland said, "it is what it is." It isn't pretty. Now, look, I recognize advanced defensive metrics are a pain in the brain when you just came here to read about baseball. Wish that we could take something so simple as fielding percentage as gospel (Detroit, for the record, ranks right in the middle of the pack in fielding percentage and error total ... but that's at least partially attributable to its range issues preventing the club from getting to as many balls as it should). But these stats do a decent job putting into numbers what our eyes have been telling us all year. If you've watched this Tigers team, you know that the seemingly simple conversion of balls in play into outs has sometimes been a struggle. The numbers bear that out. Look at what Baseball Prospectus has to say about Detroit. BP has a rating called Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, which takes the number of balls in play a defense converts into outs and adjusts them for park effects. In that PADE rating, the Tigers (minus-2.47) rank last in the AL and third worst in the Majors, ahead of only the Brewers (minus-3.34) and Rockies (minus-4.42). BP estimates that Detroit has cost itself somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 runs this year with its defensive play. To look at the not-so-dazzling defense from another perspective, consider this: Tigers opponents entered the week with a .307 batting average on balls in play. That's the third-highest mark in the Majors and the highest in the AL. Rick Porcello (.345) and Max Scherzer (.333) have two of the highest such marks among qualifying starters, and Justin Verlander's .270 mark is 34 points higher than last year. It comes down to that simple premise: Does Detroit convert balls in play into outs at a reasonable rate? The metrics, no matter where you research them, respond with a resounding, "No." In the aforementioned Defensive Runs Saved tally, the Tigers grade out with a minus-36 mark, which ranks last in the AL. You have to go back to 2003 to find a World Series team (the Yankees) that rated that low on that scale in the regular season. (Notably, Detroit's 2006 team that reached the World Series had a plus-50 mark that was among the best in baseball that season. But then a series of mental gaffes by Tigers pitchers on the defensive end arguably cost them that Fall Classic against the Cardinals.) Again, maybe these defensive issues are not enough to cost the Tigers a division title. The race with the White Sox figures to go down to the wire. But if the goal here is to win the World Series -- and I think owner Mike Ilitch would agree that this is, indeed, the end goal -- the Tigers better hope their bats come alive when it counts.