No Spin Mizer: If the glove doesn’t stick, we must acquit; or, Spin Doctors: Tracking possible reactions to MLB’s announced crackdown on pitchers using foreign substances

On June 2, 2021, MLB’s rumored crackdown on pitcher use of foreign substances took a significant step toward reality. That morning, USA Today published a story describing the enforcement of the policy as “imminent.” The same day, four minor-league pitchers who had been ejected from games during the preceding weekend for using foreign substances received ten-game suspensions.

MLB pitchers, it seemed, took note. To many, Gerrit Cole, now the top starter in the New York Yankees rotation, has become the face of elite spin rates, and he was continuing to earn that reputation in 2021. In his first start after June 2, however, his spin rate plunged.

Trevor Bauer, the defending NL Cy Young winner now pitching for the Los Angeles Dodgers, forced his way into the group of spin-rate leaders last season following years of public comments criticizing pitchers who used foreign substances to increase their spin rates. Like Cole, Bauer saw his spin rate plummet after June 2.

Another leader in this category in recent seasons is Yu Darvish, now a starter for the San Diego Padres. Unlike Cole and Bauer, Darvish appeared unfazed by the June 2 announcement, at least judging by the relative consistency in his spin rates this season.

Since the June 2 announcement and enforcement of minor-league suspensions, MLB yesterday announced that it would apply the ten-game-suspension policy to major leaguers as well, with a progressive-discipline scheme for repeat offenders.

While a variety of factors can affect measured spin rates, it’s difficult to interpret the spin-rate dips from Cole and Bauer in their post-June-2 starts as anything other than an acknowledgement of the use of substances that go beyond providing the sort of control-improving grip that even batters appreciate from a safety standpoint and facilitate extreme spin rates (Spider Tack has become the brand name associated with that latter variety of substance). Cole and Bauer don’t come to this point by the same route, however. Bauer’s well-documented history of criticizing Cole and his former teammates in Houston for what Bauer strongly implied– and later seemed to demonstrate in a live-action experiment– were artificially high spin rates arguably places him in a different category than others in this conversation. On the other hand, perhaps he’s just more media-savvy. Should it make a difference if Bauer publicly changed his game to capitalize on and make a point of highlighting MLB’s underenforcement of foreign-substance rules, while Cole did, well, whatever this is?

Nor can we draw any firm conclusions from Darvish’s spin-rate graph. Not only did Darvish’s RPMs not drop after June 2, but they continued to climb. Was he undaunted by the “imminent” threat of enforcement, and, if so, why?

All of this brings us to Casey Mize’s start last night, immediately following MLB’s declaration that it would begin enforcement of its zero-tolerance policy against major-league pitchers. In his short professional career, Mize has not been a high spin guy, nor has he been publicly associated with what he calls the “sticky.” Which is why he was so upset when an umpire forced him to change gloves during the game:

Mize was walking off the mound following the first inning of his start on Tuesday in Kansas City against the Royals, when John Tumpane stopped him for what looked like a friendly conversation.

According to Mize, Tumpane said Mize’s glove was too light-colored.

Mize said the glove, which he’s worn for every one of his big-league starts, was originally charcoal-colored, but may have faded a bit in the sun.

“He said the gray color was too light,” Mize said.

Color judgement aside, Mize was most angry because Tumpane’s order came on the same day that Major League Baseball announced a widespread crackdown on the use of sticky substances that some pitchers have used to help them grip the baseball and increase the spin rate on their pitches.

“I assume everyone thinks that I was using sticky stuff now, which I was not,” Mize said. “So I just thought the timing of it was pretty (expletive), honestly. The umpires need to get on the same page, because I’ve made 12 starts (in 2021) and everybody was fine with (the glove). Or John Tumpane just needs to have some feel and just let me pitch with the glove that the other team did not complain about. (Tumpane) brought it up himself. John’s a good umpire and a very nice guy. But I mean, just have some feel for the situation because I hate that I’m in a position now where I assume everyone thinks I was using sticky when in reality, that was not the situation at all.”

First, for visual illustration, some relevant images of Mize’s mitt:

Without more information, this seems like a questionable decision by the umpire, and, whatever his motivation, the decision did drag Mize into the broader conversation about foreign substances. So what do the spin measurements say about Mize’s pitches? Most obviously, he operates in a much lower band of RPMs than the likes of Cole, Bauer, and Darvish. That alone may be more than enough for many to exonerate him. And while Mize’s average spin rates did decline between his May 28 start and his June 3 start, the magnitude of the change was negligible relative to those Cole and Bauer exhibited. If his data suggest anything, it’s that Mize is telling the truth.

However irked Mize was after being forced into a mid-game glove change, it did not appear to alter his performance. He completed 6.2 innings, threw a season-high 103 pitches, and allowed three runs on the way to a 4-3 Tigers win in Kansas City.

To this point in the season, Mize has been the best of Detroit’s young pitchers, and he trails only Spencer Turnbull in WARP. He’s following up an interesting if inconsistent debut in 2020 with across-the-board improvements in major statistical categories. While veterans attempting to be crafty and the commissioner’s office duke it out over Spider Tack, here’s hoping Mize can avoid that fray and continue to find his footing as a leading member of Detroit’s rotation.

RKB: Shifting the D to See Whether Analytics Drives the Motor City’s Baseball Team

The Detroit Tigers have the reputation of being a team late to baseball’s new analytical revolution, but they quietly have been making front-office hires (no, Brad Ausmus did not count) purportedly to try to catch up in that area, and there’s evidence that it’s happening. For example, two weeks ago, something occurredfor what I believe to be the first time in Tigers history, when manager Ron Gardenhire cited input from the analyitics department– excuse me, “analytic department”– as the reason for a decision he’d made:

If you’re excited — or angry — about seeing Jeimer Candelario in the lead-off spot Wednesday night, then feel to credit — or blame — the Detroit Tigers analytics department.

Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said the recent spate of roster changes prompted a consultation with the club’s analytics and research department in an effort to find an ideal batting order.

“We did some research and the analytic department put all the data in there to try to see what gives up our best opportunities,” Gardenhire said. “(Candelario’s) name came up first as lead-off.”

Just the one analytic so far, but it’s a start. Now that we know the Tigers have sabermetric analysts and those analysts convey strategic input to the coaching staff, it’s fair to inquire into the quality of that input. As it turned out with respect to the above example, Candelario only hit leadoff for two games, and while he performed well (four hits, including a double and home run, and two strikeouts in eight plate appearances), it did not seem to be a part of Gardenhire’s long-term plan. Very likely coincidentally, the team lost both of those games, and Gardenhire moved Candelario back to fifth, where he’s hit for most of the season, for the next game, a win. As Lindbergh and Miller’s The Only Rule Is It Has To Work reminds, it’s one thing to develop sabermetrically informed strategies and another to implement them with coaches and players. (And, as beat writer Evan Woodbery pointed out in the article quoting Gardenhire, Detroit didn’t have many good options for the leadoff position anyway.)

More recently, Tigers observers and fans have cited with excitement a data point on defensive shifts an FSD producer pointed out over the weekend as more good evidence in this area, even suggesting that the team was becoming a leader (first place!) in the realm of new analytics-based strategy:

The irony of the timing of this was that it came as lead Baseball Prospectus writer Russell Carleton was in the process of dismantling the notion of the shift as a useful defensive strategy.  Continue reading

RKB: A Second Look at MLB Pitcher Casey Mize

The week of August 16 was as exciting a stretch of days as fans of the Detroit Tigers have had in a couple years. After sleepwalking through an aimless rebuilding process with lows as low as those of Houston’s famous tank job but without the Astros’ supercharged turnaround to competitive status, concern was growing that the organization might be starting to feel a little too comfortable in the increasingly populated sub-mediocre wilderness. Yet, to fans’ surprise and pleasure, General Manager Al Avila treated everyone to a one-two-three punch of debuts, allowing everyone an up-close look of the future of Detroit baseball. On Monday, Isaac Paredes, whom the Tigers received from the Chicago Cubs along with Jeimer Candelario in the trade for Alex Avila and Justin Wilson, started at third base following Candelario’s move to first after the injury to C.J. Cron. On Tuesday, left-handed pitcher Tarik Skubal, the Tigers’ ninth-round pick out of Seattle University in the 2018 draft, got the start. And on Wednesday, right-handed pitcher Casey Mize, the first overall pick in that same 2018 draft, had his turn.  Continue reading

RKB: 2020 is the Season: Turn, Turn, Turnbull

Thoughts on Detroit Tigers prospect Spencer Turnbull - Minor ...

I can’t believe I burned that headline on what’s going to be such a modest batch of information, but I can believe that Spencer Turnbull has found his way to the top of the Detroit Tigers rotation this year. I don’t think any serious baseball fan still thinks about pitcher wins and losses anymore, but Turnbull obviously was much better than his 3-17 “record” in 2019. 

The exciting news is that he’s been even better than expected so far in 2020. With a 2.78 ERA/2.85 FIP, he’s the best Detroit pitcher by fWAR (0.7) and bWAR (0.6).

MLive Tigers beat reporter Evan Woodbery noted this morning that Turnbull’s likely to regress as the season proceeds, and he’s right: there are some signs pointing in that direction. Woodbery points to SIERA, an ERA estimator, which sees Turnbull as about two runs worse than his current ERA. To that I would add Turnbull’s .283 batting average on balls in play, which is about fifty points lower than his 2019 BABIP and seems likely to increase. His DRA, 3.56, also pegs him as a little worse than his ERA and FIP suggest, though still clearly the best among the current rotation.

There also are signs these good results might stick, though. Here’s a FanGraphs/RotoGraphs report from yesterday, which highlights Turnbull alongside Trevor Bauer as two pitchers who have produced significantly increased movement on one of their featured pitches. For Turnbull, it’s his slider, which has been his main out pitch:

Last year Turnbull’s main strikeout pitch was his slider which had a 15.3 SwStr%. That isn’t the greatest number to have as your main swing and miss pitch. He already has a really good four-seam fastball so pairing it with a true swing and miss pitch was the key to Turnbull having a better 2020 season. So far this season Turnbull’s slider has a 26.5 SwStr%. It also has a higher O-Swing%, better wOBA against, and better ISO against. But again, small sample size so we have to look deeper to make sure this is indeed legit.

To start, Turnbull increased his sliders RPMs. It has gone from 2,438 RPMs in 2019 to 2,533 RPMs this season thus resulting in more movement. His slider movement went from having an overall movement of 3.3 inches to 3.9. He did this mainly by increasing its horizontal movement. Something he seems to be working on in the past three years. Its movement in inches starting in 2018 went from 2.29 to 3.07 and now to 3.51. 

The increases in spin rate and movement on his slider show that Turnbull still is developing, refining, and improving his arsenal, and they constitute evidence that he may be ready to outdo the performance levels his past baselines suggest.

One other thing I’ve been wanting to document this year is the way Turnbull mixes speeds. The graph below plots the velocity of every pitch he threw in his first start of the 2020 regular season. In five complete innings, he only allowed three hits (just ten total balls in play) and recorded eight strikeouts, and it was clear that he had the Cincinnati batters off balance all day. This yo-yo velocity chart is a big part of the reason why.

Of course, Turnbull’s stay atop the Detroit rotation might not last long. Focusing on the positives in that regard, ostensible number one Matthew Boyd could recall the location of home plate at any moment. Even more exciting possibilities are the arrivals this week of highly anticipated pitching prospects Tarik Skubal and Casey Mize. Skubal is scheduled to make his first major-league start tonight, followed by Mize’s debut tomorrow night. Could we be witnessing the emergence of a 2013-era rotation in the Motor City? That’s an extremely high bar, but there’s no reason not to permit yourself a little bit of excitement during these rebuilding times.

______________________________________________

Previously
RKB: 2020 Detroit Tigers Season Preview – UPDATED PECOTA Ed.
RKB: 2020 Detroit Tigers Season Preview – Spring Training Ed.
RKB: 2020 Detroit Tigers Season Preview – Payroll Ed.
RKB: 2020 Detroit Tigers Season Preview – PECOTA Ed.
RKB: How does new Detroit Tiger Austin Romine relate to his teammates?

Related
Breakout prospect Tarik Skubal earns his first shot at the majors – Bless You Boys
The Call-Up: Tarik Skubal – Baseball Prospectus
The Call-Up: Isaac Paredes – Baseball Prospectus
Meet Isaac Paredes, the 21-year-old who is patient, punctual and experienced beyond his years – MLive

Tilde Talk: The Empty Ureña Suspension

Atlanta Braves rookie outfielder Ronald Acuña, Jr. has been on a tear. Entering last night’s game against the floundering Fish, he had just become the youngest player (since at least 1920) to homer in four straight games, joining Miguel Cabrera as the only two twenty-year-olds to accomplish the feat. He leads all rookies in slugging percentage. He’s amazing, and he’s a big part of the reason why the Braves have reclaimed first place in the NL East.

The Miami Marlins stink. Their new ownership group, led by Derek Jeter, has spent its inaugural year at the helm casting off virtually every remotely valuable member of the team, which has a .390 winning percentage in 2018 and is unlikely to compete in any respect for years to come. I didn’t call the Marlins franchise a tax shelter, but somebody else might.

The Marlins pitching staff isn’t really getting anybody out, as a -180 run differential somewhat suggests. Only the Orioles and Blue Jays have been worse in that regard, and they spend a lot of time in the AL East getting beaten up by the Red Sox and Yankees juggernauts. If you care about ERA, the Marlins have the worst such mark (4.85) in the National League.

Acuña has enjoyed an extreme degree of success, even by his standards, against Miami: .339/.433/.714 (201 wRC+). They just can’t get him out, at least as the rules of baseball define that term, especially lately. In the first three games of the four-game series with the Marlins that ended last night, Acuña reached base ten times in fifteen plate appearances, which included four home runs and a double.

The Braves’ half of the first inning last night began like this:

I’ve watched Jose Ureña’s first pitch from last night, which came in at about ninety-seven miles per hour, as well as his subsequent reaction to his pitched ball hitting Acuña on the arm, about a dozen times. There is no doubt in my mind that Ureña took the mound last night with the intent to hit Acuña with his first pitch and did what he intended to do. The umpiring crew apparently agreed and ejected Ureña after that first pitch.

For those unfamiliar with Ureña, a collection of humans that, prior to roughly twenty-four hours ago included very nearly the entirety of the human species, he is a twenty-three-year-old pitcher who has spent all four years of his major-league career with the Marlins, mostly as a starter. Among regular starters, Ureña has been one of the harder throwers in 2018, but there’s little else remarkable about him. The current season has been the best of his career so far (1.7 WARP to date), and there’s a not-unreasonable argument that he ought to be done for the season.

This evening, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred decided to suspend Ureña for six games and fine him an undisclosed amount of money. Suspensions for this sort of thing often are of the five-game variety. For starting pitchers, five-game suspensions really are one-game suspensions, because most starting pitchers only pitch once every five games. It’s a bit of a charade by the Commissioner’s office.

Manfred has not released an explanation of his somewhat unusual decision to push Ureña’s suspension to six games, but it’s reasonable to assume that he wanted to appear tougher to avoid the usual critiques of the standard five-game suspension. It’s readily obvious, of course, that, for starting pitchers, a six-game suspension suffers from almost precisely the same practical defect that attends a five-game suspension. Indeed, as reporters immediately noted, it’s a very real possibility that Ureña won’t even miss his next start.

This isn’t the first time Manfred has acted in a way he knows is purely symbolic and entirely without practical consequence. It’s becoming a bad habit of his, made all the more frustrating by the ready availability of effective alternatives. Here, if Manfred really wanted to communicate a message to players that he will not tolerate intentional, unsportsmanlike behavior like that Ureña exhibited last night, he could have done any of the following:   Continue reading

WTF: Castellanos Reality Check

When it wraps up next month, the 2018 season almost certainly will have been the best of Nicholas Castellanos’ six-year career. The twenty-six-year-old already was positioned to take on an increased leadership role entering this season, and that responsibility has fallen even more squarely on his shoulders following a season-ending injury to Miguel Cabrera in June. Castellanos is younger than many of his newer teammates, including Niko Goodrum, Mikie Mahtook, and Ronny Rodriguez, but no one– with the exceptions of Victor Martinez and Jose Iglesias (by less than a month)– on the Detroit Tigers’ current forty-man roster has a longer major-league tenure with the Tigers than Castellanos. With Cabrera out and Martinez fading into retirement (but see), Castellanos is what qualifies as this team’s veteran leader. And yes, I realize he won’t even hit arbitration until next year.

Emerging along with his clubhouse status is his bat. By whichever offensive metric you prefer, Castellanos is having a career year at the plate: 120 OPS+; 121 wRC+; .303 TAv. While his BABIP is elevated (.354 in 2018 versus a .330 career average), there is reason to believe that this level of production from Castellanos– again, just twenty-six– is real. Continue reading

Saving Detroit: Tigers Notes, 8/8/17

detroit tigers notes

While trades– including a trade of Justin Verlander– technically remain a possibility at this point in the year, it looks like the Detroit Tigers will content themselves with playing out the final two months of this season with their current crew and an eye toward the future. For this site, that probably means that the pages of this season’s Tigers diary will be a little emptier than they might be if the team were more aggressive in the trade market or competing for a playoff berth. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t interesting items to track, though. Here are a few:

    • Justin Upton: As highlighted here last week, Upton’s been trimming his bugaboo strikeout rate, but he’s continuing to strike out in bad situations. Since that post, he’s appeared in six games and added four two-out strikeouts to his total, pushing him into a tie for eleventh on the MLB-wide list (minimum 100 two-out plate appearances) in 2017. With 3.6 fWAR, Upton continues to be the team’s best position player by a comfortable margin, as well as its best overall player. In that post last week, I speculated that Upton is unlikely to opt out of his contract this offseason due, in part, to a weak market for corner outfielders with his profile. Over at The Athletic’s new Detroit vertical, Neil Weinberg is more optimistic about Upton’s open-market prospects, calling the “odds that Upton opts out . . . quite high.”
    • Miguel Cabrera: I’ve been working up a full post on Cabrera’s tough season, which has a good chance to be the worst of his career. (For a forward-looking analysis, my career comparison between Cabrera and Albert Pujols is here.) Besides the obvious drop in production, one thing that jumps out is his batting average on balls in play, which, at .296, is below .300 for the first time ever (career .345 BABIP). Last month, Weinberg did the logical thing and dove into Cabrera’s swing profile and batted-ball data tabulated by StatCast. The problem, from our perspective, is that there isn’t a ton there. Cabrera continues to rank high (currently number one, minimum 200 at bats, by a large margin) on the xwOBA-wOBA chart, an indication that he’s making good contact despite poor results. From watching games this season, it seems like Cabrera turns away from inside (but not that inside) pitches more often than in years past, which makes me wonder if he simply isn’t seeing pitches as well. (Weinberg noticed that he’s swinging less often than usual at inside pitches.)
      When observing the decline of a great player, it can be fun to take a break from the dissection to remember his youth, which the remarkable achievements of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper gave us occasion to do today:

Continue reading

Man vs. Machine

pujols cabrera

The great Miguel Cabrera is thirty-four years old. His team, once a surefire contender, is stuck in neutral, and Cabrera, their ostensible offensive engine, has only been slightly above average at the plate (108 wRC+, which would be the worst of any of his seasons since his rookie year (106 wRC+)).

It looks like we are seeing the beginning of Cabrera’s inevitable decline, which has observers taking stock of Cabrera’s likely legacy and projecting his place among the greats once he puts that magic bat down for good. For example, Yooper David Laurila included this observation in a recent edition of his Sunday Notes column:

Lou Gehrig had 8,001 at bats, 534 doubles and 493 home runs. Miguel Cabrera has 8,028 at bats, 533 doubles, and 451 home runs.

The day before, conversation on Fredi the Pizzaman’s Pizza Cave Podcast turned to Cabrera as the panel debated whether he would join Albert Pujols in the 600-home run club. (Pujols, whose major-league debut came two years before Cabrera’s, passed that milestone on June 4 of this year.) That discussion prompted a broader one about both players’ achievements and legacies.

Here’s a quick graph to introduce and orient this comparative analysis:

chart-2

By aligning the two players’ offensive performances (measured by wOBA) to their individual age-seasons, we can develop a rough snapshot of their careers at the plate. This graph illustrates a couple of significant trends. First, it’s easy to identify the clear tipping point in Pujols’ career, which very clearly has two distinct halves. Second, Pujols came out of the gate hotter than Cabrera, who needed a couple years to ramp things up. Both achieved production levels that make them generational talents, but when it comes to counting statistics (like career home run totals), the gap in those early years may be what will end up separating these two in the final analysis. All players eventually decline, but that just means it’s going to be tougher for Cabrera to make up for his comparatively slow start now.

pujols cabrera hr career

Again, this graph compares Pujols and Cabrera by aligning their career seasons. Even though they’ve accumulated homers at a similar rate, merely keeping pace in that regard likely won’t be enough for Cabrera in light of Pujols’ head start unless Cabrera has more years left in his tank than Pujols has in his. And right now, that first part– keeping pace– isn’t looking so sure for Cabrera. Here’s the same graph as the one above expanded to include 2017 numbers:

pujols cabrera hr career

This comparison to Pujols thus suggests that Cabrera is unlikely to reach the 600-homer benchmark for two reasons: 1) a slow start and 2) what looks to be an early– relative to Pujols– decline. None of this is to say that Cabrera can’t or won’t reach 600 home runs. Comparing him to the most recent guy to do it suggests that, absent some change, he’s unlikely to get there.

That change could come in the form of a late-career rejuvenation. Cabrera’s capable of ripping off amazing offensive tears, and he certainly could do that again. It always has felt a bit odd to think of Cabrera as unlucky, but there continues to be evidence that Cabrera’s offensive numbers should be even better than they already are based on the quality of contact he makes. A third change could be a positional one. Just as David Ortiz extended his career by becoming a full-time designated hitter, the thought is that Cabrera could alleviate some of the strain on his body by being relieved of his defensive obligations.

All of this is relative, of course. Failure to accumulate 600 home runs is no indictment on a player or his legacy. Only nine players ever accomplished that feat, and three of them are Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, and Sammy Sosa. Three more of them are Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, and Willie Mays.

 

While we’re here, two concluding notes on the overall comparison between Pujols and Cabrera. The first, which came up on the podcast episode linked above, involves postseason success. As a rookie, Cabrera was a member of the Florida Marlins team that won the World Series in 2003. Pujols was a member of the 2006 Cardinals team that swept Cabrera’s Tigers in the World Series, as well as the 2011 World Series team that beat the Rangers in seven games. Pujols also has been a better hitter in the playoffs, though both have been significantly above average (164 wRC+ vs. 136 wRC+). Postseason appearances are significantly team and context-dependent and involve small samples (seventy-seven games for Pujols and fifty-five for Cabrera), but it’s something to mention.

The second is a total career assessment. Neither player is retired, obviously, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take a peek at what their legacies look like right now. One way to do that is with JAWS, an analytical tool designed to assess Hall-of-Fame candidacy. Its creator, Jay Jaffe, explains:

JAWS is a tool for measuring a candidate’s Hall of Fame worthiness by comparing him to the players at his position who are already enshrined. It uses the baseball-reference.com version of Wins Above Replacement to estimate a player’s total hitting, pitching and defensive value to account for the wide variations in scoring levels that have occurred throughout the game’s history and from ballpark to ballpark. A player’s JAWS is the average of his career WAR total and that of his peak, which I define as his best seven years. All three are useful for comparative purposes, as Hall of Famers come in different shapes and sizes. Some—Hank Greenberg, Ralph Kiner, Sandy Koufax, Jackie Robinson—dominated over periods of time cut short by injuries, military service or the color line. Others such as Eddie Murray, Don Sutton and Dave Winfield showed remarkable staying power en route to major milestones. While it’s convenient to believe that every Hall of Famer must do both to be worthy of a bronze plaque in Cooperstown, they can’t all be Babe Ruth, Ted Williams or Willie Mays, or the institution would merely become a tomb, sealed off because so few have come along to measure up in their wake.

For the purposes of comparison, players are classified at the position where they accrued the most value, which may be different from where they played the most games, particularly as players tend to shift to positions of less defensive responsibility—and thus less overall value—as they age. Think Ernie Banks at shortstop (54.8 WAR in 1,125 games there from 1953 to ’61) as opposed to first base (12.8 WAR in 1,259 games there from ’62 to ’71). A small handful of enshrined players, including pioneers and Negro Leaguers with less than 10 years of major league service, are excluded from the calculations; Satchel Paige and Monte Irvin, for example, had major league careers too short to use as yardsticks for non-Negro League players.

By JAWS, Pujols and Cabrera both are clear Hall of Famers even if neither ever played another game, but there’s a clear separation between the two. JAWS has Pujols as the second-best first baseman ever, trailing only the aforementioned Gehrig, while Cabrera currently slots at the eleventh position, right next to Jim Thome (another one of those 600-HR guys). Pujols has two more years under his ample belt than does Cabrera, and neither is done playing. (This probably is a decent place to note contract details: Pujols has four more years on his current contract, while Cabrera has at least six.) As with the home-run chase, so too with overall career value: Cabrera has a good bit of work to do if he’s to catch Pujols.

The book is not closed on either of these two great baseball stories. Pujols and Cabrera have yet to author their final chapters. The balance of their works likely are complete, however, and from that we can make educated predictions. Both have their high points and distinct achievements, but it looks like Pujols’ early peak will prove a little too high and too long for Cabrera to close the gap. Here’s hoping I’m wrong.

Saving Detroit: Reliever Relief

krod1280_puet24kh_yf9khwjd

Despite being pretty good at almost every aspect of building a winning baseball team, the Detroit Tigers have, for years, had as difficult a time finding a reliable closer as the Cleveland Browns have finding a quarterback. Even reading the names Jose Valverde and Joe Nathan is enough to make most fans shudder, and, unfortunately, it’s come time to add Francisco Rodriguez to that list.

There were reasons to be hopeful when Rodriguez came over to Detroit before last season. Even though, at thirty-four years old, he wasn’t the fire-breathing, overpowering force he was in his younger days, it looked like he’d traded some heat for wisdom and found a way to continue to succeed as he aged. The active saves leader did pretty well last year, and, even if there were some missteps in key moments, it was hard to be too disappointed with the overall body of work. He even seemed to help teach manager Brad Ausmus a helpful lesson about bullpen management, as Ausmus slowly broke out of the conventional mold and began using Rodriguez in high-leverage four-out situations rather than rigidly reserving him for the ninth inning alone.

Baseball famously is a game without a clock (at least for now), but humans lack such an exemption, and the clock appears to have run out on Rodriguez in his age-thirty-five season. After single-handedly blowing two games over the weekend, it sure seems like Rodriguez has turned into a dip-filled pumpkin. By one measure, Win Probability Added, he’s done more to help his team lose than any other reliever than all but one other reliever in baseball.

It’s tough to pinpoint exactly what’s wrong with K-Rod this year. His velocities are down a little bit, but they’ve been going down pretty much steadily over the course of his career. That’s nothing new, and it’s why he started prioritizing offspeed pitches over his cooling fastball as he got older. Other indicators, including location, pitch usage, and release points, all look as reasonably expected. The results don’t lie, though; batters are absolutely hammering him this year:

krod mapsIt looks like he’s throwing to the same places– low, and in/away– he usually has, but with much less success. It’s hard (for me, at least) to pinpoint with these various advanced tools exactly what’s happened, but it’s clear that Rodriguez no longer is fooling batters, a veritable death knell for deception-reliant pitchers like him. The way batters consistently chased– and, more often than not, missed– his diving, low and away pitches is something I marveled at last year, my first really watching him and his seemingly simple approach. For whatever reason, though, they aren’t even remotely fooled this year, as the below graph of Rodriguez’s out-of-zone swing rate from a FanGraphs article posted this evening shows:

screen-shot-2017-05-07-at-9-24-12-pm

The Tigers’ margin for error this season is extremely narrow, and Rodriguez just cost them two wins on an important West-Coast roadtrip. They don’t have time to let Rodriguez find himself in game-ending, high-leverage situations. Ausmus needs to rearrange his bullpen immediately. It already was a thin crew, but the status quo won’t do. It’s time to promote the Wilsons and find out if the rest of this motley bunch can handle a heavier load.

Is the next Mike Trout already in Detroit?

mlbf_554824983_th_45

He’s only twenty-five years old, but Mike Trout is the best player in baseball today and one of the best ever. There’s only one of him, though, and he’s under contract with the Angels through 2020, which means that your team can’t have him anytime soon, and, unless your team is the Yankees or Dodgers, it probably can’t afford him once he hits free agency either. If you don’t and won’t ever have Trout himself, your only option is to make like the post-Jordan NBA and find the next Trout. Everybody wants to be like Mike.

The Detroit Tigers, for example, really could use a guy like Trout. They haven’t done much this offseason, and they’re in need of a center fielder. Of course, they had a decent center fielder in 2016 in Cameron Maybin, but the team “traded” him to the Angels as soon as the season was over and, surprise, the Angels didn’t send Trout, who also plays center, to the Tigers in return.

While the hole in the middle of the outfield currently remains unaddressed (the team’s very recent acquisition of Mikie Mahtook notwithstanding), another anticipated outfield move that Detroit has not yet made is trading right fielder J.D. Martinez, who will be a free agent after this coming season. Martinez has been very good since the Tigers acquired him from Houston, and, assuming he returns to form following his elbow injury last season, he will earn a payday next offseason beyond what the Tigers likely will want to offer.

Before Martinez inevitably departs the Motor City, it’s worth taking another look at what exactly the Tigers have in their young right fielder, and, bold as it may seem, asking whether he’s the next Trout.

On one hand, the answer obviously is no. Martinez, in his best season, was, by whichever WAR metric you prefer, about half as valuable as Trout was in his best. There also is the matter of age: while we’d expect The Next Trout to be younger than Trout, J.D. is four years older than Mike.

On the other hand, anyone who’s followed Martinez’s career knows that he was reborn as a hitter after he left Houston for Detroit, creating a bit of deception in his developmental track (I’m sure he doesn’t spend much time thinking about those first three MLB seasons), even if the aging clock ticks on.

Imagining, for purposes of this strained and fabricated narrative, that this “young” Martinez was coming up behind the more experienced Trout, we might also notice that the two outfielders have similar batting profiles.

This afternoon, Baseball Savant creator Darren Wilman tweeted a link to a chart comparing hitters according to their batted ball exit velocity and slugging percentage:

scatter

Right there next to each other at the top of the curve are Trout and Martinez. (Click below to see more precise indications of their positions.)

Everyone knows Trout and Martinez are power-hitting outfielders, but I still was surprised to see how close Martinez was to Trout on this graph. Martinez’s overall value suffers because he plays an easier position than Trout, and, although his defense showed marked improvement in 2015 (before the improvements evaporated in his broken-elbow season last year), plays it less well than Trout plays his. Still, if I’m Martinez’s agent, a chart showing that my client hits– in terms of exit velocity and extra bases– just like Trout is going to be on page one of the Boras Binder I’m distributing this offseason. And if I’m Tigers GM Al Avila, I’ll make sure every potential trade partner this summer catches a glimpse of it too.

Sure, some still want Detroit to make another all-in push in 2017, but the proverbial contention window is hanging as heavy and tenuously in its frame as it ever has for this crew, and it’s tough to imagine a world in which they can retain Martinez. In five years, after seeing him mash in pinstripes or Dodger blue, Tigers fans may look back and see Martinez’s delayed, Trout-esque offensive prime as one of the largest costs of their now-overleveraged roster.