Catching Fire: When is it okay to stop short?


A quick glance at the Detroit Tigers’ seemingly unremarkable current record– 33-31, good enough for third place in a tight AL Central pack– likely would fail to reveal the fairly high degree of volatility that has defined the first two months of the team’s 2016 campaign, including long losing streaks punctuated by spurts of blowout wins and more changes in the pitching staff than, seemingly, in the last three years combined.

All of this– the pitching changes serving as a positive reminder of the relationship between rotational and bullpen depth–  largely has distracted from the things that haven’t changed since the season began. One is the catcher position, which I’ve contended since season-preview time is ripe for an in-season upgrade if this team is going to continue to pursue a championship. Recent numbers only serve to confirm this:



What this graph and this chart from this recent article illustrate is that Detroit has operated under a severe strike-zone disadvantage thus far in 2016. As the breakdown chart shows, the blame for that disadvantage falls at the feet of their (catching) defense. We knew James McCann and Jarrod Saltalamacchia were bad pitch framers. Now we can begin to see the relative consequences of that weakness.

Another thing we can and may want to do at this juncture is ask whether it’s time for a change at the shortstop position. When the Tigers traded for Jose Iglesias as a replacement for the then-suspended Jhonny Peralta in 2013, we figured they were acquiring a defense-first short stop with a probably unsustainably high batting average.

Almost three years later, that basic assessment remains essentially correct. Iglesias wowed early and often with highlight-reel plays in the field and keeping his average up at the plate, hitting .300 again in 2015 after missing all of 2014 with ankle injuries. He was an All Star last year, whatever that means anymore, but 2016 is shaping up a bit differently.  

Most obviously, Iglesias’ lingering offensive value has evaporated. What little power he contributed in 2013 and 2015 is gone (.303 SLG), and only a strange, newfound ability to draw walks is keeping his OBP above .300, his .245 batting average doing him no favors.

Those buoying walks may not last, though, given recent evidence of a decline in plate discipline:


As a general rule, swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone (O-Swing%) isn’t a good idea, and, when a hitter does that about as often as he swings at pitches in the strike zone (Z-Swing%), as Roughned Odor lately has been doing, it suggests his approach at the plate is not ideal. Iglesias hasn’t been as bad as Odor over the last month, but holding the number-two position on this dubious leaderboard isn’t a positive resume-builder. His batting profile also makes him something of at outlier among this group, most of whom are slugging at least .400 this year. Weak hitting minus plate discipline equals offensive trouble.

A different perspective on Iglesias’ plate discipline yields a couple interesting observations, at least one of them hopeful:


The above graph includes all of 2015, Iglesias’ only full season with the Tigers, as well as his to-date games from the current year. The first thing that stands out is that Iglesias was swinging noticeably less overall, at least to start the season. He swung at about half of all pitches he saw, regardless of location, for most of 2015, a rate that has dropped by about ten percent in the early going this season. I don’t know whether this is the result of a conscious change, or, if so, what it means. (It may explain, or at least correlate with, his early season boosted walk rate. Of course, simply not swinging is not, alone, a good strategy for sustaining a high walk rate, since pitchers quickly will catch on.)

The more hopeful observation comes from the very latest data points on that graph, which show his O-Swing% in steep decline, matched with a steadying of his Z-Swing%. As is apparent from the graph as a whole, these swing rates fluctuate over time, sometimes moving in concert, sometimes moving away from each other, and sometimes converging. The recent drop in O-Swing%, though, is an encouraging trend as Iglesias tries to find his way at the dish in 2016

Somewhat less obviously, Iglesias’ flashy glove game may have some holes in it too. To begin with the anecdotal: call it confirmation bias, but ever since I read this article, it seems like I notice Iglesias miss an apparently makeable play on a ball hit to his right (i.e., between the usual third baseman and shortstop defensive positions) once a game. On the other hand, defensive metrics love him so far this year, with a would-be career best in FRAA (6.3), and his best UZR (4.9) and UZR/150 (10.7) numbers since 2012. Of course, when he was passing the eye test on defense in 2013 and 2015, those metrics hated him, making it tough to know what to make of them now.

The cause (and, really, the actual existence) of this apparent fielding weakness is a mystery to me, but I don’t think it’s unfair to say that there’s room for Iglesias to improve his defense, and that continued defensive improvement may be a necessity if he wants to stick in the majors. After all, his few days of slapping his way to a .300 batting average may be behind him.

Meanwhile, utility player BrandonIngeDonKellyAndrew Romine sure seems like he’s been solid this season, doing everything in the field except pitching and catching and offering switch-hitting capabilities on offense. Sure, some of the same cognitive biases that have me noticing every Iglesias miss in the field probably are involved in the formation of my impressions of Romine this year as well, but (an early inning misplay on a ball in center field last night aside) he has looked very comfortable in the field and seems to be hitting better than his utility/bench status might suggest. Is it time for Romine to supplant Iglesias as the starter at short?

In the words of Lee Corso, not so fast, my friend. Iglesias never will hit like Peralta, but his .250/.314/.313 makes him look like a healthy Troy Tulowitzki at Coors Field next to Romine, who has a meager .162/.279/.216 line. Romine’s fielding numbers– 1.0 FRAA, -0.5 UZR, and -21.4 UZR/150–  also do him no favors.

What have we learned here? 1) Even with a decline in offensive production and a possible hole in his vaunted defense, Iglesias clearly has been the better player than his potential replacement, Romine, through the first third of the 2016 season; and 2) I shouldn’t try to watch HGTV/Law & Order and scout shortstops simultaneously. The Tigers are doing just fine at shortsop, with Iglesias placing them right in the middle of the pack at the position by total value (sorted fWAR for AL shortstops, minimum 100 plate appearances):


If the team is going to make a mid-season upgrade, there are more fruitful targets than short.


Catching Fire: Heading for the exit velocity – 5/17
Catching Fire: Boy, the starters need to carry that weight a longer time – 5/3
Catching Fire: Who’s Number Two? – 5/2

Statements both obvious and only slightly less obvious about the Detroit Tigers’ finances
Shift the shift: Victor Martinez and counter-strategies
Feel like they never tell you the story of the Gose?
Getting to know Jordan Zimmermann in context
Highlights from MLB Network’s visit to Detroit Tigers spring training
2016 Detroit Tigers Season Preview: They’re Not Dead Yet


3 thoughts on “Catching Fire: When is it okay to stop short?

  1. Pingback: Catching Fire: Pelf on the shelf | ALDLAND

  2. Pingback: Catching Fire: The Tigers are not Utilitarians | ALDLAND

  3. Pingback: Catching Fire: Mike Drop | ALDLAND

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