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Tigers’ 2015 wish list must include better defense

by | Oct 18, 2014 | Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments

Did you ever notice how words that begin with “D” are rarely sexy? Divorce. Disappointment. Disillusion. Death.

On the other hand, words beginning with “O” have more appeal. Optimism. Opportunity. Opulent. Ooh-la-la.

Still, when it comes to sports, a “D” word often is the difference between champions and runners-up. “Defense.” And while the glitzier “offense” draws more attention, Tigers fans better hope Dave Dombrowski puts his emphasis on better fielding next year.

Because that can get you over the top.

Look at this year’s playoffs.

The Kansas City Royals, undefeated in eight postseason games, are in the World Series. They’re not much in starting pitching. Hardly a Murderers’ Row in the batter’s box. But they play great defense. You’ve likely seen replays of third baseman Mike Moustakas flopping into a dugout suite to catch a foul ball in Game 3 of the ALCS. Or centerfielder Lorenzo Cain as a human highlight reel — diving for fly balls, chasing down line drives. Or Alex Gordon, the leftfielder, making three great plays in the Game 4 clincher Wednesday, including crashing into a fence to steal extra bases from Baltimore’s J.J. Hardy.

These guys literally save runs. How long has it been since a Tigers outfielder changed the score with his glove? Or even pegged anyone at the plate?

Conversely, the St. Louis Cardinals made one bad defensive play Tuesday night in the NLCS, when pitcher Randy Choate threw wild to first base. It allowed a run to score and the game was lost, 2-1.

So far this season, 14 playoff games have been decided by one run.

You think defense affects the outcome?

Love for the glove

The Tigers need to get better defensively. They have a fine second baseman now, Ian Kinsler, and most people rank Alex Avila as a top-flight defensive catcher, although he still allows too many stolen bases for my liking.

After that? Not much.

Want proof? Baseball America asked every major league manager to rate MLB players in terms of specific skills. In the American League this year, the Tigers had a first-place winner in “best hitter” (Miguel Cabrera) and “best strike-zone judgment” (Victor Martinez), with Cabrera also ranking second as “most exciting player.”

The Royals and Orioles, meanwhile, didn’t show up in the top two of any hitting category.

But on defense? Kansas City had the “best defensive catcher” (Salvador Perez), “best defensive first baseman” (Eric Hosmer), “best defensive shortstop” (Alcides Escobar) and “best defensive outfielder” (Gordon.) All told, the Royals and Orioles had seven guys combined in the top three of eight defensive categories.

Is it an accident they just played for the pennant?

When Dombrowski was asked about his priorities in improving the team this week, he told the media: “I guess I’d probably say three things … one is solidifying our centerfield situation … secondly, our bullpen … and thirdly … a left-handed hitter in there somewhere.”

Even though it might have been implied, I would feel better if he actually said the “D’’ word.

D can change a game

Now, it’s tricky balancing hitting and catching. That’s true. There’s no point in having great defense and losing games, 1-0. But as Moustakas and his four postseason home runs prove, even lousy hitters can get hot.

Lousy fielders don’t suddenly get good.

The Tigers ranked in the lower half of major league teams in fielding this past year. But it’s more than statistics. It’s more than errors. It’s game-changing plays that don’t easily show up in statistics.

How many balls squirt through the Tigers’ infield for hits that might be outs with better, quicker fielders?

How many pop flies that “drop in for a hit” could have been caught by outfielders with better eyes and a quicker jump?

It’s the plays that aren’t made that lead to big innings as much as the ones that are. If shortstop Jose Iglesias comes back healthy next spring, that’s huge for shoring up the infield. But Nick Castellanos must improve at third, and the outfield remains a big issue.

Yes, relief pitching — another form of defense — is a top priority. But its practitioners are unpredictable. Great defensive players don’t change.

In recent years, Tigers fans have spent a lot of time marveling at the hitting power of guys like Cabrera, Martinez, Prince Fielder, Magglio Ordoñez.

We all love the long ball. But if we really want to see a World Series win, we’ll spend more time gushing over that throw from centerfield that nabbed a guy at home plate, or that impossible diving grab that started a double play.

After all, “Defense” may not be sexy, but it’s better than another “D” word.

Defeated.

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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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