I hear it all the time, people citing fielding percentage and errors as an example of Detroit’s ineptitude with the glove. They have the 9th most errors in MLB and only two AL teams have more (the Indians and the Angels) and their fielding percentage ranks 23rd overall. Those numbers aren’t great, but what is more troubling is the fact that so many are still using those stats when there are so many betters ones easily available.
Play by play data that tracks hit direction and type of hit has been available for a number of years. This is data that has been collected by video scouts and stringers that aren’t making a nebulous judgment about whether or not the play should have been made. They are just looking at direction and how hard it was hit and whether or not the play was made. The data then tells the story of whether or not the play should have been made by comparing the play to all the other plays and how often they get made.
So let’s look at some of this objective data and see what the objective data says about the Tigers fielding. Baseball Prospectus lists the Tigers team defensive efficiency ratio (DER simply looks at all the balls in play and figures out the rate at which they were converted to outs) as 16th in MLB. On this measure they come up middle of the pack.
Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) has the Tigers at 10th in MLB at 13 runs better than a typical team. A similar system called +/- has the Tigers at 11th in MLB at 25 defensive runs saved.
Revised Zone Rating is similar to fielding percentage in that it expresses things as a rate or percentage, but it uses a much more logical denominator. Instead of using the denominator as the number of balls that a fielder touches, it uses the number of balls hit to a player’s zone. Therefore it isn’t rewarding the slow of foot for not even getting to balls. In RZR the Tigers are 6th in MLB.
While there is variation in the systems, I just presented 4 defensive stats that aren’t subjective. They weren’t manipulated by me to make the team look one way or the other. The worst of those 4 said the Tigers were middle of the pack. The other 3 said the Tigers were above average to good.
The only metric that says the team isn’t good with the leather is the one that is frought with the most problems in methodology. It is the one that is most subjective. The one that doesn’t measure an ability to get to balls. Concluding that the Tigers are a bad team because of fielding percentage would be an error in judgment.