Saving Detroit: Tigers in Retrograde

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I thought we already covered this, Brad.

After a pleasantly surprising series sweep of the White Sox, the Tigers have lost eight of twelve and fallen to fourth place in the underwhelming AL Central. Rather than capitalize on a slow start by Cleveland, Detroit is struggling to keep its head about the .500 winning percentage waterline, and a deeper look into their 32-36 record suggests it’s an accurate reflection of who they’ve been to this point– no bad luck to blame so far. At least Victor Martinez is out of the hospital.

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Previously
Saving Detroit: Fixing Justin Upton – 5/31
Saving Detroit: Soft in the Middle Now – 5/30
Saving Detroit: Reliever Relief, Part 2 – 5/11
Saving Detroit: Reliever Relief – 5/8

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Saving Detroit: Reliever Relief, Part 2

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In the history of Major League Baseball, there’s only been one player with the first name Anibal. Anibal Alejandro Sanchez broke into the majors in 2006 with the Florida Marlins. He, along with Omar Infante, came to Detroit in the middle of the 2012 season in a trade. In 2013, his first full season as a Tiger, Sanchez produced by far the best season of his career (6.1 bWAR, 6.0 fWAR, 5.1 WARP). It’s been all downhill since then, though, and his move to the bullpen in 2016 seemed inevitable if only because he remained signed to a starter-magnitude contract that made totally cutting bait a pill too difficult to swallow. Sanchez didn’t make the transition especially well, however, and things have not improved in 2017. It’s come time for the Tigers to release this former fish.

After an especially bad weekend in Oakland capped a rough start to this season for incumbent closer Francisco Rodriguez, I (along with everyone else in the world) wrote on Monday that manager Brad Ausmus needed to demote K-Rod immediately. Ausmus agreed and did so, promoting Justin Wilson to the closer role, although the first run with the new top-line bullpen arrangement showed Ausmus still has room for improvement there. Dynamic, leverage-oriented bullpen management is pretty difficult to accomplish, though, and Sanchez has become a much clearer and more present danger to the team’s success than any further usage optimization of the capable portion of the relief corps.

Sanchez, as a converted starter who used to be good, would seem to be the optimal long relief guy, but he has foundered in that role, and if it seems like he gives up a home run every time he comes into a game, well, you’re not far off.

Last night in Arizona, Sanchez made his first appearance in over a week and immediately surrendered back-to-back home runs to the first two batters he faced. Although the Tigers’ offense had evaporated in the desert heat that night, those two homers Sanchez allowed felt like the real mortal blow that destroyed any hope for a comeback.

This is who Sanchez is at this point. Among qualified relievers in 2017, only one pitcher is allowing home runs at a higher rate than him (none have allowed more, total, than him), and Sanchez has been used more than everybody in the “top” twenty on that list. This now is an untenable situation, and it probably has been for some time. Continue reading

Saving Detroit: Reliever Relief

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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:

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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.

The arc of the ALDLAND universe is long, but it bends toward this weekend

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If there are two things I’ve written about with consistency at this weblog they are 1) the Detroit Tigers and 2) the Atlanta Braves’ foolhardy abandonment of their downtown home at Turner Field. Beginning tonight, and for the next two days thereafter, these two ALDLANDic worlds will collide when the Tigers face the Braves in the final three games ever to be played at the aforementioned Turner Field. More than anything, I am grateful that we will be able to attend each of these games, live and in person. These are critical games for the 2016 Tigers, teetering as they are on the edge of postseason qualification, and they are historic games for the City of Atlanta. I have little more to add at this juncture other than that I am very excited.   Continue reading

[UPDATED] Catching Fire: Mike Drop

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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.

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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.   Continue reading

Catching Fire: The Tigers are not Utilitarians

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In the late 1700s, Jeremy Bentham introduced the modern world to utilitarianism, a political theory organized around the “fundamental axiom” that “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.” Bentham believed that happiness is quantifiable (unit of measurement: util) and argued that governments should legislate so as to create the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people.

Utilitarianism has its blind spots and, at least at its Benthamite core, is subject to the conceptual critique that it prioritizes majority preferences over minority rights (a classic critical example here), as well as the practical one that utils aren’t as susceptible to arithmetic in the policy-making context as other measurements of value, like, say, dollars. One of Bentham’s students, John Stuart Mill, later updated and expanded utilitarianism in an attempt to address some of its critics, and although some of the theory’s broader ideas remain in the modern political milieu, utilitarian is viewed as a relatively primitive approach today.

Mike Aviles, Andrew Romine

The 2016 Detroit Tigers are, to some extent, a team out of time. They are neither aggressively modern (e.g., Tampa Bay) nor hopelessly mired in the past (e.g., Arizona). With the trade deadline rapidly approaching, they are neither obvious buyers (e.g., Toronto) nor obvious sellers (e.g., San Diego). Observers have been declaring for years that the team’s “window is closing,” while conceding that it still is open and may remain as such for another season (in which they will repeat their hand-wringing diagnosis all over again). Given their aging roster, though, time is something out of which this team may be running.

All of that leaves the Tigers with two utility players, arguably a practical necessity in an age of limited rosters and relief pitching specialization, Andrew Romine and Mike Aviles. Unlike Bentham’s utils, it is fairly easy– and easier than ever– to calculate how much these two utility men contribute to the team. Readers may recall Aviles’ preseason scouting report (sayeth BP: “Aviles is no longer useful in a baseball sense,” and “his inability to reach base . . . makes him a complete zero on offense, while what’s left of his defensive and baserunning abilities have become liabilities”) or this more recent peek at Romine’s poor offensive numbers. To keep this part of the offensive update simple, the palindromic Romine (73 wRC+) and Aviles (37 wRC+) have been decidedly below average and aggressively below average hitters, respectively, to this point. Aviles, who’s received twice as many plate appearances as Romine, has been worse than all but ten other batters in baseball (minimum 80 PA), and four of those ten no longer have major-league jobs.

Since spring training, manager Brad Ausmus has insisted that carrying two utility players is not redundant, but the question remains: do Aviles and Romine, together, provide utility to their team?

In one basic, immediate respect, the answer clearly is no. Continue reading

Catching Fire: Is Brad Ausmus Evolving?, Or, Evidence That Brad Ausmus Definitely Reads ALDLAND

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Although it did not happen precisely as I predicted, the Tigers scored enough runs off new Red Sox pitcher Drew Pomeranz to allow rejuvenated starter Justin Verlander to depart after the sixth inning with a 2-1 Detroit lead. The offense added insurance runs in the seventh and eighth, but, with Justin Wilson on to take care of the power portion of the Boston batting order in the bottom of the eighth, the situation quickly became dicey:

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Those skyrocketing green leverage index bars right before the red ones are what pop up when you load the bases before you get any outs. Not good if you’re on defense. Wilson secured the first out by way of a strikeout, but the next batter singled, driving in a run and narrowing Detroit’s lead to two, with the bases loaded and only one out. That will earn you your first red leverage index bar of the night.

Wilson always looks a bit fidgety on the mound, and with the home crowd mockingly chanting his name like they would that of a visiting hockey goalie who appeared to be cracking under pressure, Wilson mustered his second strikeout of the inning. The reliever appeared, if not relieved, then not unhappy when manager Brad Ausmus came out to fetch him, surrendering the ball without protest. The team’s closer, Francisco Rodriguez, would be coming in to attempt a four-out save.

Not three weeks ago, a nearly identical situation presented itself to Ausmus and the Tigers. They were on the road in Toronto– another team they’re chasing in the AL Wild Card race– that night, and Verlander left in the sixth inning with Detroit up one. That favorable margin held through the top of the eighth inning, and Wilson was back out to handle the bottom of the eighth. He quickly got himself in trouble, putting two men on base. The next two batters made outs, but Wilson walked the third, leaving himself with bases loaded, two outs, and the slimmest of leads to protect. Last night, Ausmus went to his surest option, Rodriguez, in that spot, but on that night in Toronto, he turned to Alex Wilson, a decidedly less sure option, who immediately proved as such by surrendering the lead for good.

At the time, I criticized Ausmus for the decision to bring in Alex Wilson instead of Rodriguez, as well as for his stated reason for making that decision:   Continue reading

Ejection Overruled: Evaluating MLB’s attempt to eliminate in-game dissent

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Following up on its poorly received press release in support of federal legislation designed to exempt minor league players from minimum-wage regulations, MLB has issued an edict to managers stating that manager arguments with umpires during games constitutes “highly inappropriate conduct” that “is detrimental to the game and must stop immediately. . . . Although disagreements over ball and strike calls are natural, the prevalence of manager ejections simply cannot continue. This conduct not only delays the game, but it also has the propensity to undermine the integrity of the umpires on the field.” MLB Chief Baseball Officer Joe Torre, who circulated the memorandum in question, added that the behavior in question constitutes “an express violation of the Replay Regulations, which state that ‘on-field personnel in the dugout may not discuss any issue with individuals in their video review room using the dugout phone other than whether to challenge a play subject to video replay review.'”

This pronounced proscription (or, at least, curtailing) of in-game arguments between managers and umpires invokes a number of related baseball issues including the i) length of games; ii) pace of games; and iii) scope and nature of instant replay review, to include potential review of ball/strike calls.   Continue reading

Catching Fire: Brad Ausmus is not saying, he’s just saying

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The Detroit Tigers were winning last night, but then they lost. This is not a new narrative for this team, for which unrecoverable, late-inning blown leads are a recurring symptom of an unstable bullpen that’s as much a part of this era’s Detroit baseball identity as Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander.

Incidentally, it was Verlander who started last night’s game, the first of a road series against the Blue Jays. He did well to hold Toronto to two runs, but he had to exit in the sixth inning, having thrown 103 pitches. At that point, the Tigers led 3-2. They extended the lead to 4-2 in the next inning, thanks to an Ian Kinsler RBI GDIP.

When Shane Greene allowed a run in the bottom of the seventh, Justin Wilson relieved him, getting two key outs and preserving what then was a 4-3 Detroit lead.

After newish Toronto reliever Jason Grilli made disappointingly light work of the meat of the Tigers lineup, Wilson came back out to pitch the bottom of the eighth. Allowing two quick hits that gave the Blue Jays men on first and third with nobody out, Wilson suddenly found himself in an extremely tight position. He did very well to strike out the always-dangerous Edwin Encarnacion for the first out of the inning, and a well-handled grounder by Cabrera allowed James McCann to employ a nice bit of pickle strategy to nab the runner on third, who had attempted to score, for the second out.

Two outs, but still, two on base. Make that three on base, after Wilson walked the next batter on five pitches. “Time for a new pitcher,” one person in our residence said. The other agreed, as did Brad Ausmus, who pulled Wilson for…Alex Wilson. That Wilson promptly allowed a two-RBI single, providing the Jays a 5-4 lead they would not surrender.

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Some immediately wondered why Ausmus turned to Alex Wilson in what, as illustrated above, was the highest leverage moment of the game (7.88 LI), rather than Francisco Rodriguez, who is the team’s nominal closer. K-Rod was very well-rested and has been performing very well in recent weeks. To all but the most rigid of old-school managers, this seemed like a fairly obvious move. Ausmus addressed the subject in his post-game media conference:   Continue reading

Catching Fire: Pelf on the shelf

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With the 2016 MLB season roughly one-third complete, this series has touched on possible changes the Detroit Tigers might make at the catcher and shortstop positions and now turns to the starting pitching rotation.

To begin with the good news about the Detroit Tigers’ pitching, we almost have to begin with the bad news, which is that the presumptive lock for an above-slot number three starter, Anibal Sanchez, was so bad through his first eleven starts that he’s been demoted to the bullpen. Another potential starter, Shane Greene, has continued to be unable to prove he can hold down a starter role, and still-semi-prospect Daniel Norris has battled injury and efficiency problems that, so far, have kept him in Toledo and out of a rotation spot in Detroit. Thankfully, Jordan Zimmermann and Justin Verlander have, for the most part, been very solid in the first two spots, and rookies Michael Fulmer and, to a lesser extent, Matt Boyd, have arrived this year as big-league-ready starters.

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A weakness common to all Tigers starters this year has been an inability to pitch late into games, but the arrival of Fulmer in particular has allowed the team to bolster an already-improved bullpen with extra tweener (i.e., not quite starter material yet/anymore) arms like Sanchez and Greene, with Boyd, who has been a bit homer-prone of late, a possibility to join them in the near future. Brad Ausmus and Al Avila have done a good job of rotating these arms through a suddenly thick bullpen, making frequent use of Toledo options where available, to the point that many Tigers fans are experiencing a creeping and unfamiliar sensation of actual comfort with their team’s pitching staff. These are strange days indeed.

If they want to return to the familiar, however, they need not look too hard, because every fifth game or so begins with Mike Pelfrey on the mound.   Continue reading