The best defense

Defensive metrics have evolved considerably as the charting of batted ball types and locations has become common place. PMR, UZR, and the like give us a much better understanding of defensive value, but what about past years. What about the years where there is play by play data, but not with the same level of documentation afforded over the last few years? Sean Smith has devised a way to cull through retrosheet data and present historical fielding data.

With this data in hand, we can take a look for some of the best Tigers defensively. The data doesn’t cover all-time, because retrosheet goes back as far as 1957 with play by play data. Smith has compiled the data for 1957 to 1986, so for at least that 30 year run we can see which Tigers were best at patrolling Tiger Stadium.

The players are ranked by runs prevented.

Best defensive seasons

First a look at who had the best individual seasons by position:

Position Player Season Runs
1B Enos Cabell 1983 18
2B Lou Whitaker 1982 16
SS Ray Oyler 1967 17
3B Aurelio Rodriguez 1972 13
LF Willie Horton 1969 14
CF Chet Lemon 1984 20
RF Al Kaline 1958 22

Lifetime achievement award

Now a look at the career run value saved defensively by position:

Pos Player Runs
1B Norm Cash 36
2B Lou Whitaker 77
SS Trammell 44
3B Tom Brookens 50
LF Charlie Maxwell 34
CF Chet Lemon 56
RF Al Kaline 103

Al Kaline and Lou Whitaker not only rate as the best Tigers defenders at their respective positions over that time span, they rank as the best in all of baseball by this measure.

Whitaker’s double play partner, Alan Trammell tops Tigers shortstops. Ray Oyler bested him on a runs per year basis (16 runs per year versus 7 for Tram), but his bat and .251 career slugging percentage couldn’t keep him in the lineup enough.

Norm Cash saved the most runs at first base, but it took him the equivalent of 9 full seasons to do it. Jason Thompson finished within 2 runs of Cash, but did it in less than 4 full seasons.

Those who saw Aurelio Rodriguez rave about his performance at the hot corner. But at least by this measure Tom Brookens gets the better of him, and by a considerable margin. Over their careers Brookens only had an edge of 3 runs, but he did it in less than half as many chances.

Willie Horton narrowly edged out Larry Herndon in left field. Horton had an additional half season worth of chances, but the two were quite comparable – but I think Willie had him beat with his arm (which this doesn’t measure).

Edit: goof on my part with the data. It was Charlie Maxwell who beat out Larry Herndon. Horton, despite having a very good season in left, actually rated pretty poorly for his career. Rocky Colavito was a solid fielder and deserves some mention here as well.

Chet Lemon is really the only defensive center fielder of note for the Tigers during those years. Unless you count Ron LeFlore and his -52 runs as being of note.

Other stuff

If you have specific research requests, either about Tigers history or the current team, please let me know. I’ll do my best to turn it into content. I have play by play data back to 1980 loaded and ready to go. I also have all of the pitch f/x (enhanced gameday) pitches stored in a database as well. I’m always looking for new ideas.

11 thoughts on “The best defense”

  1. I’d be curious to see where Fryman fits in at third. I know you only did ’86 and back so he didn’t come up but he was a good defensive third basemen. Although part of his strong suit was a strong arm which you said this doesn’t measure but he was very accurate too.

  2. So the numbers confirm what we saw with our eyes with Kaline — that’s comforting. What about Mickey Stanley? I always thought that he, like Kaline, positioned himself well, ran good routes and didn’t make mistakes. Did he not cover as much ground as Chester?

  3. Skyking 162 did a similar study, ranking the best fielders at each position in all of baseball historically. They actually had Whitaker at +113 runs, which was the best for a 2B. Kaline had the best single season at RF with +22. You can check out the link here:

    They also had a nice little Tram/Lou feature, posted here:

    I don’t know if bilfer has linked to these before, but it’s pretty interesting reading.

  4. As they say on another site: Damn Interesting!
    I’d like to see a Ryne Sandberg (sp) vs. Lou Whitaker

  5. I wonder if you could do anything on Ty Cobb Sam Crawford or Gehringer finding out arm strength/accuracy, fielding skills and range comparing them to their contemporaries…

    Also another thought in my mind that I would do except I have no idea how to collect the data would be to look at Inge’s 2006 season.

    Comparing his 2006 range to other top notch seasons because I don’t know how many I’ve seen that were even close (granted I’m not very old, but do watch quite a bit of baseball)

    In any event I wish I would have seen Kaline play. Was he that fast? All I’ve heard about his his rocket for an arm in RF.

  6. Al Kaline was my hero, David. I absolutely loved him as a young lady. Yes, he was all the things you read and hear about him.

  7. Between Sean’s TotalZone and SG’s work on compiling STATS zone rating numbers since 1987 (that’s why Sean stopped TZ at 1986), you’ve got full data for the past 50 years. No, neither system is as good as UZR, but they’re better than nothing (or next to nothing, like I consider gold gloves and fielding percentage.) Links to the fielding data I use (50 years of range, catcher career numbers, four years of outfielder arms, six years of UZR) are at this page:

  8. David –

    There really isn’t the a means to analyze the old timers, beyond what is already done at this time.

    Sky –

    Thanks for the info. I’ll probably readdress this and add in SGs work as well.

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