Saving Detroit: Even the umpires just wanna go home

Not a good showing for the Tigers tonight in Kansas City, where they backed starter Michael Fulmer with three errors, spotting the Royals a 4-0 lead after one inning, and an 8-0 lead after the third. Although Detroit managed to halve that lead with productive (if inefficient) sides of the fifth and sixth inning, the relief corps had their collective finger blown out of the hole in the dike, giving way to a 16-4 loss. By the time the ninth inning mercifully rolled around, there was zero chance of a Tigers win; indeed, it had been that way– literally– since the middle of the eighth inning, and functionally at least since the bottom of the sixth inning.

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This makes it hard to blame the home plate umpire, Mark Ripperger, for wanting to end things early. On the fourth pitch to Jim Adduci, who was batting for Detroit with two outs in the top of the ninth, that’s exactly what Ripperger did:

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Ripperger put everyone out of their shared misery with that called fourth strike on a pitch that was comfortably out of the zone. As a historical, practical matter, it’s true that the strike zone for left-handed batters tends to expand on the batter’s outside edge, but the call that ended the game looks like an outlier even when placed in context with the other calls Ripperger made during plate appearances by left-handed hitters tonight:

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Here’s how it looked on MLB.com’s rendering:

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Finally, here’s a very chunky GIF made with freeware I’ll never use again, which shows things in the light most favorable to Ripperger:

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Not egregious, probably, but erroneous, and seemingly out of character for Ripperger, at least tonight. With the game outcome already chiseled in stone, the officiating crew probably just wanted to go home, and they probably weren’t alone in that desire. Soon, one imagines, it will be time to say goodnight to this season.

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Previously
Saving Detroit: Yo, a J.D. Martinez trade comp – 7/19
Saving Detroit: Martinez trade triggers premature referendum on Avila – 7/19
Saving Detroit: Michael Fulmer has righted the ship
 – 6/27

Saving Detroit: Tigers in Retrograde – 6/19
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

Related
Is the next Mike Trout already in Detroit?

Saving Detroit: Michael Fulmer has righted the ship

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Michael Fulmer is the defending American League rookie of the year, and he’s showing no real signs of a sophomore slump. That’s good because it means he’s continuing to perform at a high level. It also is good because there was some concern that his rookie success wasn’t sustainable. The basis for that concern was the gap between his ERA and his defensive-independent pitching statistics (“DIPS”). Jeff Sullivan raised the issue late last season:

It sure is tough to trust the legitimacy of Fulmer’s ERA-FIP gap. Certainly at least to this extent. I don’t think he’s demonstrated that he’s “earned” it. You might counter that Fulmer should get more credit, given the Tigers’ defense; they’re 28th in DRS, and 23rd in UZR. But it’s important to remember that defenses don’t play exactly the same every day behind every pitcher. Bad defenses can look good, and good defenses can look bad. As a comparison, think about lineups and run support. The Red Sox are the Red Sox, right? But Rick Porcello has a run-support average of 7.0 runs per nine. Eduardo Rodriguez has a run-support average of 3.0 runs per nine. Baseball’s weird. Just because the Tigers don’t have a good defense doesn’t mean they haven’t had a good defense behind Michael Fulmer.

Fulmer finished last season with an ERA of 3.06, which would have been third-best among qualified AL pitchers had he thrown enough innings to qualify (he was three short), and a FIP of 3.76. Following the general principle that DIPS (such as FIP) are more reflective of a pitcher’s true talent than ERA, Fulmer’s negative ERA-FIP gap suggested that he wouldn’t be able to sustain his low ERA going forward.

In fact, Fulmer’s successful results have continued. Through June 25, his 3.29 ERA places him in the top ten among qualified AL pitchers, and he’s been the fourth most valuable pitcher by fWAR across both leagues.  Perhaps even more significantly, he’s doing all this with a positive ERA-FIP gap. Even better, he seems to be doing it without significant alteration to his approach. The only noticeable change I detected there was an increase in velocity, which will be interesting to monitor down the stretch in light of some of the concerns voiced last season about fatigue and endurance.

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For context, this table (data pulled from FanGraphs) shows all qualified pitchers currently running positive ERA-FIP gaps:

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Viewed this way, Fulmer’s differential doesn’t look all that impressive– it’s only the third-best gap among his own teammates! The point, though, is the trend. Last year, he had one of the worst ERA-FIP gaps, which is what prompted Sullivan’s concern about Fulmer’s potential for future success, and there he is, near the bottom of the list of qualified pitchers from the 2016 season:   Continue reading

Shift the shift: Victor Martinez and counter-strategies

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The defensive shift– repositioning infielders from their conventional locations in response to a particular batter’s hitting tendencies– may be the most significant development in baseball defense since pitchers started actually trying to miss bats with their pitches. The basic idea is that defenses can take advantage of certain hitters who are known to possess extreme tendencies in terms of batted ball direction by loading up their infield defense in line with that batter’s tendencies.

David Ortiz is a decent example of a batter with a definite tendency to hit the ball in a particular direction. Here is a spray chart showing where he hit every ball during the 2012-2014 seasons:

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Ortiz is a top-tier power hitter, so it isn’t surprising that he’s peppered the entire field. Focusing on his ground balls, though, reveals a pretty strong tendency to hit grounders to the right side of the infield. Opposing teams noticed and began to counter Ortiz defensively by shifting against him.

Probably the most common way to arrange a defensive shift is to move the second baseman into shallow right field, move the shortstop to the first-base side of second base, and shade the third baseman heavily toward second base. Teams also employ less and more extreme variations of this basic shift. Because a fielder needs to remain close to first base, teams almost exclusively shift to overload the right side of the infield. This, in turn, means that teams almost always shift, if at all, against left-handed hitters, who, as a population, generally hit the ball to the right. Ortiz is a lefty, and his spray chart evidences the expected pattern.

No player faced a full defensive shift more than Ortiz in 2015, when opposing defenses shifted on more than sixty-three-percent of his plate appearances. The most effective antidote for the shift is a bunt to the exposed third-base side, but Ortiz, now at forty years old and at least 6’3″ and 230 pounds, has not been the bunting sort of late or, really, ever. He’s a big, left-handed power hitter in the last year of his career, and, as concerns the defensive shift, he’s just going to have to take his lumps.

A little further down that list of 2015’s most-shifted appears Victor Martinez in the #22 spot. Martinez spent much of 2015 injured, so he only made 485 plate appearances, seeing a full shift on roughly forty-three percent of them. Like Ortiz, Martinez is heavier, slow, and hits from the left side, and his 2012-2014 spray chart shows similar batted-ball tendencies to Ortiz’s:

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One way in which Martinez is unlike Ortiz, though, is that, while both bat left-handed, Martinez also bats right-handed. Continue reading

Getting to know Jordan Zimmermann in context

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I’m going to continue to link to this baseball-season countdown clock in the introductions to my baseball-related posts this month because it’s an easy way to ease into the subject matter while framing the content that follows as timely, topical, and fresh (regardless of its actual timeliness, topicality, or freshness).

The Detroit Tigers added a number of new players this past offseason in attempts to replace departures from and fix preexisting holes in each portion– offense, starting pitching, relief pitching– of their roster. Having already discussed the offense here, my focus here is on the new addition likely to have the largest effect on the pitching staff: former Washington Nationals starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann.

As demonstrated last week in his spring training interview on MLB Network, Zimmermann has the personality of a post-Lions Silverdome hotdog, but the Tigers didn’t sign him to a five-year contract so he would challenge Miguel Cabrera in the joke-telling department. All the team is asking Zimmermann to do is replace David Price’s position in the starting rotation, which, sure, Jordan, you can borrow this book of limericks.

Zimmermann is unlikely to be mistaken for Price, but a recent comparison with another Vandy alum, Sonny Gray, can serve as an entry point to the new Tiger’s recent performance. Continue reading

Window Shopping: oY?

The notion of a “platoon split” refers to the fact that, on average, batters have more success against opposite-handed pitchers than they do against same-handed pitchers. Thus, right-handed batters generally fare better against left-handed pitching, and left-handed batters generally fare better against right-handed pitching. If you think this sounds like some Monty Hall voodoo, take a look at the numbers. It’s one of the oldest tricks in baseball.

Occasionally, however, a player will buck the trend and find himself with a reverse platoon split, meaning that he hits same-handed pitching better than opposite-handed pitching. Such appears to be the case this year for Detroit outfielder Yoenis Cespedes.

The 2015 season is shaping up to be a career-best for Cespedes. Here are his current offensive numbers:

yo2015His 3.2 fWar is good for twenty-second overall, and his 120 wRC+ (a comprehensive measure of offensive value) is third-best on his team, behind only Miguel Cabrera and the sensational J.D. Martinez. Pretty good.

What’s lurking behind those numbers, though, is something seemingly odd and definitely obviously foreshadowed by the words in this post you’ve read so far: a reverse platoon split. Cespedes bats exclusively right-handed, but, contrary to the long-prevailing trend, he has much more success against right-handed pitchers than left-handed pitchers. These are his current splits:

yo2015splitThese numbers aren’t even close. Continue reading

Shane Greene Outduels A.J. Burnett as Tigers Hurdle Pirates to Avenge Only Loss

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After the Pittsburgh Pirates handed the Detroit Tigers their only loss of the 2015 season on Monday afternoon, Detroit sought and found revenge against Pittsburgh Tuesday night. The Tigers’ first seven games were marked by nearly unbridled offense (+32 run differential, second only to Kansas City and, excluding third-best Oakland (+28), not close to anyone else), but they looked to their defense for a bounceback win in game eight. Starting pitcher Shane Greene, making his second start for the Tigers after his acquisition from the Yankees during the offsesason, was excellent. In particular, Greene was highly efficient, averaging just over ten pitches per inning for eight innings of three-hit, no-walk, shutout baseball. Not-insubstantial credit for his performance is due to key defensive plays by Jose Iglesias, Ian Kinsler, and J.D. Martinez. (Greene, who was making his first-ever plate appearances as a major leaguer, was generally ineffective with his brand-new Louisville Sluggers, but no one should care because this from his mother was adorable.)

Pittsburgh starter A.J. Burnett also had a strong outing, but he could not keep the Tigers at bay forever. The visitors broke through with one run in the seventh and, thanks to some heads-up baserunning by Iglesias, an insurance run in the ninth. Joakim Soria retired the Pirates side in the bottom of the ninth to seal the win.

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A minor subplot during this pitchers’ duel was the seemingly vertically compressed strike zone of home-plate umpire David Rackley, who had little interest in labeling anything up in the zone a strike. I was watching the Pittsburgh broadcast via MLB Network, but even I had to agree with the Pirate faithful that Rackley was robbing Burnett, who was throwing plenty down and away, when he even tried to go up in the zone. Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle certainly thought so, and after Rackley sided with the batter on a second or third Burnett pitch that really appeared to be in the zone, Hurdle started hollering at Rackley from the dugout, and Rackley tossed him as Jim Leyland watched from the front row.

Taking a fresh look at last night’s pitches this morning, it appears that my eyes did not deceive me, and Hurdle et al. were justified in their complaining:

burnettpitchplotI’ve circled in blue what I believe to be the Burnett pitch that immediately preceded the Hurdle ejection. Looked like a strike last night, and it looks like one today too. In Rackley’s limited defense, he wasn’t really calling any high strikes, but that defense isn’t much of a defense at all in the broader scheme of things. Consistency is important, but an umpire’s imposition of his own personal, deviant strike zone really isn’t.

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Our 2015 Tigers series, Window Shopping, will begin in earnest very soon. Consider this post a prequel, and until I can get the engine revved up, I encourage you to enjoy this 2015 Tigers season preview to which I contributed in significant part.