A year removed from one of the most disappointing seasons since, well, pick your least-favorite SNL cast, the Detroit Tigers are back on top in the AL Central. With a middle-of-the-pack offense, the Tigers have been doing it with improved pitching and, just as importantly, stellar defense. Flashing the leather is the latest little black dress of team construction – just take a peak at these defensive rankings for the current front-runners in the AL Central and AL West (all 2009 statistics through June 10th):

                        AL            AL
Year  Team    UZR/150* Rank   PADE** Rank Record 
2008  Tigers    -6.5   14(T)  -0.5     8   74-88
2008  Rangers   -6.5   14(T)  -3.4    14   79-83
2009  Tigers     7.6    1(T)   2.0     1   33-26
2009  Rangers    7.6    1(T)   1.9     2   33-25

*Mitchel Lichtman's Ultimate Zone Rating, normalized to 150 games

**BP's Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, measuring the efficiency
  with which teams turn batted balls into outs

Defensive metrics don’t always agree, but in this case you can easily get the point: 1st is good, 14th is bad, up is down, black is white — both teams have witnessed exceptional defensive improvement so far in 2009.

A lead actor in the Tigers’ turnaround has been versatile veteran Brandon Inge. Usually typecast as a good-looking glove man with a declining bat, Inge has been pulled from behind the plate and re-installed at third base, turning in the solid defensive performance we’ve come to expect (21.1 UZR/150, 2nd best among AL qualifiers at the hot corner). But surprisingly, his slumbering bat has come to life, leading AL third sackers with 13 HRs and posting a terrific .279/.383/.517 batting line. Seemingly past his offensive peak, most pre-season projections expected Inge’s bat to continue its precipitous decline, following the standard player aging curve. Now 32 and in his ninth season as a Tiger regular, can it be true that Brandon Inge is aging in reverse? To figure that out, you’ll need to hear the whole story.

Charles Brandon Inge was drafted by the Detroit Tigers in the 2nd round of the 1998 First Year Player Draft. A second-team All-American shortstop at Virginia Commonwealth University, Inge had also performed as the team’s closer. His gritty 1997 season for the Bourne Braves in the wood bat Cape Cod League, where he was named an All-Star and showed surprising pop by leading the league in extra base hits, had raised his scouting profile nationally. Prior to the ’98 draft, Baseball America had painted Inge with the “gamer” brush, describing him as a “classic overachiever who knows how to play and gets the most out of his ability.” BA didn’t consider Inge to be a first round talent, but his strong arm both in the field and on the mound made him a “valuable two-way player who could go either way.” Even as a collegian, versatility was Brandon Inge’s stock in trade.

Yet it probably was a bit of a shock when the Tigers immediately informed him that henceforth he would be a catcher, a position he had never played. “Welcome, son. Here’s your $450,000 bonus check. Now get ready to be sore every day for the next decade or two.” In Inge, Detroit’s GM Randy Smith saw a player with a strong arm, soft hands, an iffy bat, and not enough quickness to play in the middle infield – a scouting report as apt today as it was then. But more importantly to an old-school organization like the Tigers, as Assistant GM Steve Lubratich later told Baseball America, Inge was stuffed to the gills with “the type of makeup you look for in a catcher.”

Forging a major league catcher can be a long, grueling process, and the Tigers hoped Brandon Inge had the moxie to see it through — but it didn’t take long for his iffy bat to be exposed as even iffier:

Year  Team        Level  Age   PA  HR   BB%    K%    AVG/ OBP/ SLG   ADBSE* 
1998  Jamestown   SS-A    21  215   8  7.9%  24.7%  .230/.312/.419   Blurp! 
1999  West Mich.  Lo-A    22  402   9  9.7%  21.6%  .244/.320/.403   Vronk!
2000  Jax'ville   AA      23  330   6  7.9%  22.1%  .258/.313/.409   Flrbbb!
2000  Toledo      AAA     23  208   5  7.2%  24.5%  .221/.280/.379   Ouch!

*ADBSE: Appropriately Descriptive Batman Sound Effect

Here we see a young player with a dash of power, a dollop of patience, and not enough contact skill to avoid being pummeled by better pitching. Yet the Tigers were happy with Inge’s progress – his hitting woes were being overshadowed (and excused) by his near-immediate mastery of the tools of ignorance. Questions about his arm were answered when he threw out 43% of attempted base stealers in ’99, and the organization was encouraged by his game-calling and leadership skills – marveling at how the young man seemed wise beyond his years. So they tinkered with his swing (eliminating a high leg kick and helping him develop a shorter, inside-out stroke to make him less pull-happy) and trundled him off to the California Fall League late in ’99 to work on his approach, fingers crossed.

In those magical six weeks out west something appeared to click, as Inge won the league’s batting title by hitting .407 with power. And before you could say “sample size”, the Tigers declared victory over the gremlins in Brandon’s bat and skipped him up to AA for the 2000 season. He didn’t hit much in Jacksonville, even less in Toledo, but the club had seen him hit once, and that was what mattered. Meanwhile, his defensive reputation continued to grow, earning Baseball America’s imprimatur as the #1 prospect in a weak Tiger organization, and #67 in all the minors. BA‘s writeup came with a warning: “The Tigers might not want to wait for his defense, but they need to let him develop as a hitter.” And with that in mind, the Tigers looked set to send him back to Toledo.

But in the offseason Detroit had swapped catcher cards with the Astros, trading a near-mint Brad Ausmus (back when that was cool) for the long-ball stylings of Mitch Meluskey. But Meluskey turned out to have a soft corner, injuring his shoulder right before opening day. Having already learned not to bet the farm on Robert Fick‘s spectral catching bona fides, the Tigers decided to value Inge’s catch-and-throw skills ahead of Javier Cardona‘s more potent minor league bat. So the 24-year old ex-shortstop found himself putting down fingers for Jeff Weaver on opening day 2001, making the lesson of Brandon Inge’s minor league career pretty much the gamer’s creed: work hard, stay healthy, and when they tell you something, say “yes sir.”

To no one’s surprise, Inge didn’t immediately light it up at the plate – of his 35 starts through June 2nd 2001, he was lifted for a pinch-hitter 17 times. Though continually happy with Inge’s defense and moxie, the big club wanted more offense and decided to try another spin on the Robert Fick Catching Carousel. Inge’s playing time dwindled, and then a dislocated shoulder caused by a home-plate collision kept him off the big league roster until September. But by then the Tigers would have rather watched a 36-hour “Charles In Charge” marathon than one more inning of Fick behind the dish — so despite flailing away at a .180/.215/.238 clip, Brandon Inge was now ensconced as Detroit’s starting catcher, a position he’d hold for two more seasons:

Year  Age PA  HR  BB%    K%    AVG/ OBP/ SLG   EQA  WARP  wOBA  WAR BABIP 
2001  24  202  0  4.5%  21.7% .180/.215/.238  .144  -0.1  .193  N/A  .230
2002  25  351  7  7.0%  31.5% .202/.266/.333  .214   0.7  .263  0.2  .272
2003  26  366  8  6.8%  23.9% .203/.265/.339  .219   1.6  .264  0.2  .243

Quick stat notes: Tom Tango’s wOBA (weighted On Base Average) is similar in use (though not in calculation) to EQA – it normalizes offensive production as a metric scaled to be similar to OBP; WAR is Wins Above Replacement, similar in use to WARP – it measures a player’s total contribution compared to an imaginary replacement-level player. But regardless of whether you prefer your stats in Betamax or VHS, you can see these are not impressive numbers – hardly better than replacement level, even for an AL catcher. The effect a catcher has on a pitching staff is famously difficult to quantify (though some of the best and brightest have tried), but it’s difficult to imagine any combination of game-calling skill, catcher defense and makeup that could be smeared over those offensive numbers to make them pretty.

Let’s pause here to pay some respect to Brandon Inge’s 2003 season. Gallons of virtual ink have been spilled describing the Tigers’ 43-119 nightmare, so I don’t need to pile on – but consider that Inge had to witness it all up close and personal, squatting in full equipment during that endless, humid Detroit summer, taking foul balls off the mask while trying to coax a few more wins out of a pitching staff with only 60 career starts under its belt. I guess that’s when the “makeup” really gets tested.

But Inge’s days starting behind the plate were suddenly over, as the Tigers brought in veteran catcher Pudge Rodriguez for the 2004 season. Inge was made the backup, and Alan Trammell moved the 27-year-old (plot point alert!) around the diamond, playing him at all three outfield positions before settling him in as the everyday third baseman. And suddenly Brandon Inge began to hit:

Year  Age   PA  HR   BB%    K%     AVG/ OBP/ SLG  wOBA  WAR   150* BABIP 
2004   27  458  13   7.3%  17.6%  .287/.340/.453  .340  1.6  -17.5  .322
2005   28  694  16   9.3%  22.7%  .261/.330/.419  .324  3.4    5.9  .315
2006   29  601  27   7.4%  23.6%  .253/.313/.463  .330  3.8   13.3  .284
2007   30  577  14   8.5%  29.5%  .236/.312/.376  .304  1.8    8.7  .308
2008   31  407  11  11.0%  27.1%  .205/.303/.369  .297  1.3    8.4  .248
2009   32  236  13  12.2%  28.4%  .279/.383/.517  .386  2.7   21.1  .328

*3b only. Note that UZR is not calculated for catchers.

So we see a career high .340 wOBA (basically league average) in the traditional Age 27 Peak Season, the same year Inge stopped catching, and then slowly decreasing wOBAs up through 2008. What caused all this? Notice that Inge’s BB% went up a little but not drastically, and his K% dropped in his peak 2004 then rose to its former level – this tells us his approach didn’t significantly change. Most of the increase in SLG and OBP is due to higher batting averages – and this coincides with a dramatic and sustained increase in BABIP (which, for hitters, can be a repeatable skill). Note also the big drop in BABIP during 2008 – a year which found Inge once again spending considerable time behind the plate. So the career arc on display here (peak at 27, slow decline) is quite common, but the sudden, sustained increase in offensive value driven by higher BABIP suggests something else is afoot — to me, it looks like Inge was miraculously cured of a case of “the squats”.

Studies have shown that catching a lot, or even catching at all, has a detrimental effect on a player’s offensive production. Take a look at Inge’s career splits through 2008:

Position   G    AB    AVG/ OBP/ SLG 
Catcher   376  1149  .199/.260/.330
Other     645  2112  .257/.327/.425

Clearly Inge has hit better when not catching. But that’s not a fair comparison – most of his games at catcher were prior to his peak, so of obviously you’ll see lower production. For a better comparison I took Retrosheet data from the two seasons in which Inge spent significant time both behind the plate and out in the field (2004 and 2008), and split his numbers three ways:

        While Catching
Season   AB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG 
2004    103  .243/.286/.408
2008    138  .174/.272/.312
Total   241  .203/.278/.353

        Day After Catching
Season   AB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG 
2004     64  .406/.435/.641
2008     33  .242/.359/.364
Total    97  .351/.407/.546

        Any Other Day
Season   AB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG 
2004    241  .274/.338/.423
2008    176  .222/.317/.415
Total   417  .252/.329/.420

Beware the small sample size, but for those two seasons Inge performed significantly worse in each slash stat when catching than when playing other positions. Interestingly, his numbers were best on days he played other positions after catching the day before – maybe it’s akin to feeling tremendously good right after you’ve been sick.

Though moving him back to third has likely boosted his offense, Inge’s .279/.383/.517 line this year doesn’t jibe with the rest of his career arc. As Marc Normandin recently noted, Inge’s batted ball data this season is out of whack:

         LD%    GB%    FB%   HR/FB   IFH%  BABIP
2009    15.3%  41.7%  43.1%  21.0%  15.0%  .328
Career  18.1%  39.8%  42.0%  10.5%  7.3%   .289

Maintaining a .328 BABIP would be a career high, despite a substandard line-drive percentage. The rule of thumb has been (LD% + .12) = Expected BABIP, so I’ll say he should really have a .273 BABIP – although work is being done in this area, some of it by people you know. But clearly Inge’s BABIP is well above expectations, as he’s being helped by a ridiculous infield-hit percentage and a crazy high HR/FB ratio. His hot start should help him exceed his 2009 projections (PECOTA predicted .244/.321/.415, which is actually a little higher than Marcel, Oliver and CHONE, though lower than ZiPS) – but the Tigers might as well stencil “Warning: Regression To The Mean In Progress” on the back of his batting helmet.

PECOTA stamps Inge with a Similarity Index of 56, meaning his typology is very common and thus his future easier to predict – and PECOTA predicts a slow, ongoing decline. I see no reason to disagree. Catchers don’t age well, while athletic players do – since Inge has been both we can split the difference. While his continued plus defense and positional flexibility will make him a valuable (and often undervalued) player, it turns out the Brandon Inge case isn’t that curious after all – the arrow of time points the same way for everyone.

Thanks to Fangraphs for UZR, wOBA, WAR, batted ball and projection data, Retrosheet for positional splits and box scores, and D.Ross for access to his voluminous hard-copy prospect library.