UPDATE: Approximately seven minutes after we published this post, the Tigers took our advice and traded Aviles to the Atlanta Braves.
It’s reassuring to know that General Manager Al Avila has joined Brad Ausmus as an ALDLAND reader. If you would like to peer inside the mind of the Tigers GM, the original post remains below.
The clock is ticking louder than ever on the Detroit Tigers’ 2016 season, and, just at the very moment the team needs to be putting its best foot forward in an effort to win crucial games that will determine whether they make the playoffs, they are running out some of the worst lineups they’ve used all season.
Injuries are largely to blame for this untimely suboptimal roster utilization, as Detroit currently is without Cameron Maybin, Nick Castellanos, Jordan Zimmermann, Jose Iglesias, Shane Greene, and (sigh) Mike Pelfrey. In addition, Miguel Cabrera left last night’s game with what appeared to be a left shoulder injury, and his status is uncertain. Manager Brad Ausmus, facing this many significant losses, obviously is handcuffed– he has little choice but to lean, undoubtedly more heavily than he would prefer, on his reserves, backups, and alternates.
Modern MLB roster construction, with its emphasis on relief-pitching specialization, leaves little room for backup position players. The Tigers, like most American League teams, essentially have three: a backup catcher, and two other “utility” fielders, who can play a variety of positions whenever a regular starter needs a break, or as a defensive replacement late in games.
For Detroit, those two guys are Andrew Romine and Mike Aviles, and they aren’t very good. Back in June, when Iglesias was struggling, I wondered whether Romine, who appeared to be a very solid stand-in at short when given the opportunity, should take over the job? Nope. Back in March, before the season even started, I was worried about the scouting report on Aviles, which was starkly negative:
Aviles is no longer useful in a baseball sense[, and] his inability to reach base (.279 OBP from 2013-15) makes him a complete zero on offense, while what’s left of his defensive and baserunning abilities have become liabilities.
Harsh and, so far, accurate. Unsurprisingly, when both Aviles and Romine are in the starting lineup, Detroit almost always loses.
Leverage, in a baseball game, is a concept that describes the importance– in terms of outcome determination– of a given moment in a given game. Through the lens of leverage, I have been both critical and complimentary of the way Ausmus has deployed his relief pitchers this season. Leverage also can inform an analysis of pinch-hitter usage. When Ausmus called on Aviles to pinch hit in last night’s game, he did so in the highest leverage moment of the game: down one with two men on and two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning. Aviles popped up to the first baseman, ending the inning and extinguishing the Tigers’ chances of a comeback.
Again, injuries left Ausmus without many alternatives, and if, recognizing the significance of the moment, he was just doing something to do something by sending Aviles in to pinch hit, so be it. A plate appearance from the veteran Aviles probably was unlikely to end up much different than a third one from the man he replaced, rookie Dixon Machado. The notion of actively directing a poor hitter to bat in a moment of high importance is thought-provoking in days like these, though.
Earlier today, Ben Lindbergh argued that Baltimore reliever Zach Britton has a claim to the 2016 AL MVP award. To make that case, Lindbergh demonstrated that Britton had done more than any other player to help his team win games that mattered. Lindbergh did this by placing Britton’s performance in the context of the individual games in which Britton pitched– did Britton’s actions help or hurt his team’s chances of winning that game, and to what degree did they do so?– and then placing those games in the context of his team’s position in the playoff hunt. Viewed this way, Britton (excellent contributions to a good team in close contention) is more valuable than, for example, Mike Trout (superlative contributions to a bad team far out of contention). The metric that captures this contextual performance concept is called Championship Probability Added (cWPA), and Britton currently holds a commanding lead atop that leaderboard.
Like Baltimore, Detroit is playing important games right now. Last week’s losses (and Cleveland’s concordant wins) may have placed the AL Central out of reach for them, but these remain crucial days for the Tigers in the AL Wild Card hunt, as evidenced by the Championship Leverage Index (CLI), the component of cWPA measuring game importance:
(To again state the obvious: the injuries to Tigers starters are occurring at the worst possible time.)
Unlike Britton, however, Aviles is not helping his team win these important games. In fact, by cWPA, Aviles basically is the anti-MVP, ranking 1,212 out of 1,237 ranked players. (Sadly, two other Tigers, Pelfrey and Anibal Sanchez, have been even worse by cWPA than Aviles.)
As with Pelfrey, the Tigers need to drop Aviles as soon as possible, but their current circumstances do not allow them to do so. Unless the team’s en-masse health problems evaporate as quickly as they arrived, Detroit will make the playoffs or not on the performance of a mostly replacement-level lineup. The situation is unfortunate, but it’s a direct consequence of the way in which the organization has been constructed for the past few years: when everything’s going right, they can be unstoppable, but the team’s age and lack of depth mean that they have essentially no margin for error.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia is starting at first base tonight.
Checking in on Justin Upton – 8/11
The Tigers are not Utilitarians – 7/27
Is Brad Ausmus Evolving? – 7/26
Tigers offered another opportunity tonight against Pomeranz – 7/25
Brad Ausmus is not saying, he’s just saying – 7/8
Ian Kinsler is the San Francisco Giants of the MLB All Star Game – 7/6
Night of a thousand feet of home runs – 6/21
Pelf on the shelf – 6/16
When is it okay to stop short? – 6/15
Heading for the exit velocity – 5/17
Boy, the starters need to carry that weight a longer time – 5/3
Who’s Number Two? – 5/2
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