The Detroit Tigers' decision to put $214 million man Prince Fielder at first base instead of DH and move Miguel Cabrera, who last played third base regularly five years and fifty pounds ago, to the hot corner has some wondering whether Detroit's quest for maximum offense might produce the worst defensive infield seen in years.
Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer probably aren't too worried, considering both are high-strikeout hurlers who induce fly balls when hitters do make contact. But Rick Porcello and Doug Fister, who put the ball in play and on the ground much more often, might be sweating the prospect of pairing the plus-sized corner infielders with shortstop Jhonny Peralta and a combination of Ryan Raburn and Ramon Santiago at the keystone.
Porcello's punchout rate (13.3% of batters faced) ranked in the 18th percentile among starting pitchers (meaning he was worse than 82 percent of starters). Fister (16.7 K%) fared better, but he still placed in the bottom half (45th percentile). With few Ks, Porcello and Fister both ranked in the top 20 among American League starters in the percentage of pitches swung at put in play:
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And when batters put the ball in play against these two, it's often on the grass. Both had ground ball rates above the league average, with Porcello burning worms 54% of the time and Fister doing so 47%. Lots of balls in play, and lots of grounders: not a good combination for a club with four infielders whose best position is "hitter."
Porcello bore the brunt of sloppy infield D in 2011, as he had a .283 batting average on grounders put in play. That was 44 points above the league average for starters and was fourth-highest among AL starters (teammate Scherzer was third, though he had far fewer grounders put in play). Fister, by contrast, enjoyed a .196 BABIP on grounders while spending most of the season in Seattle. Suffice it to say, that's not likely to happen in 2012.
Miggy, Prince, Peralta and Raburn make for a formidable infield offensively, and their defensive foibles might not get that much notice on days when Verlander and Scherzer (second and 17th, respectively, among AL starters in K rate) are on the bump. But when pitch-to-contact, ground ball-centric pitchers like Porcello and Fister take their turns, look for lots of singles.