Saving Detroit: Yo, a J.D. Martinez trade comp

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Last night, I provided my instant reaction to the trade that sent J.D. Martinez to the Diamondbacks for three modest infield prospects. In that post, I considered what many are calling a “very light” return for the slugging outfielder in the context of another star-for-prospects trade made just days ago between the two Chicago teams involving starting pitcher Jose Quintana and suggested that a lesser return for Martinez was appropriate in light of his contract status (expiring), age, injury history, and inconsistent defense. I further suggested that, with multiple transactions still to be made over the next two weeks, it is too early for a referendum on Detroit’s general manager, Al Avila.

Avila is a first-year GM, but he worked alongside previous Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski for many years and is an experienced and well-regarded talent evaluator, so the job isn’t exactly new to him. Yet, in some Tigers fan circles right now, Avila is being pilloried as an unqualified, incapable rookie, while Dombrowski has never been remembered more fondly.

As I wrote last night, even if this trade becomes a blemish on Avila’s resume (the more thorough analyses of the prospects involved in the trade out this morning paint a more detailed picture but don’t really contradict the experts’ immediate reactions), it’s much too soon to declare him unfit for his current position. In addition to the Quintana trade discussed last night, though, there is another trade we can look to as a rough comparison between Avila and Dombrowski: the 2015 Yoenis Cespedes trade.

With the non-waiver trade deadline rapidly approach, on July 31, 2015 Dombrowski traded Cespedes to the New York Mets for two pitching prospects: Luis Cessa and Michael Fulmer. That trade, along with two previous ones that sent David Price to Toronto (for lefty pitching prospects Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd and Jairo Labourt) and Joakim Soria to Pittsburgh (for JaCoby Jones), surprised some Tigers fans, who were not necessarily soothed when Dombrowski described what looked to some like a sudden selloff as a mere “rebooting.” Not insignificantly, these trades immediately cost Dombrowski his job.

In isolation, the Cespedes trade– from Detroit’s standpoint– looks fairly similar to yesterday’s Martinez trade. Both players were on expiring contracts and thus guaranteed only to be rentals for the receiving teams (and an unusual clause in Cespedes’ contract actually made it less likely that the Mets would be able to sign him as a free agent, though Cespedes waived that provision and did remain in Queens). In the first half of 2015 (the split most readily available to me as a rough approximation of a snapshot at the trade deadline), Cespedes had a 121 wRC+ (45th among qualified hitters) and contributed 3.3 fWAR in 366 plate appearances. In the first half of 2017, Martinez posted a 156 wRC+ (would have been eighth among qualified hitters had he played enough to qualify) and contributed 1.4 fWAR in 215 plate appearances.

Cespedes memorably caught fire at the plate upon moving to New York, but he had been a lesser hitter than Martinez was over the same stretch– both in terms of a direct comparison and relative to his in-season peers– in 2017. Without a more detailed and complex analysis of the different trade markets in the different seasons, it’s difficult to say more about the two players’ relative value in this space.

The return for Cespedes– Cessa and Fulmer– was more lauded both at the time and now, in retrospect, than the return for Martinez. Fulmer immediately was highlighted as a significant prospect, and he turned in a full-season performance the following season that earned him rookie-of-the-year honors and some Cy Young votes, and he was named to his first All-Star team this season. (Cessa never played for the Tigers, who shipped him to the Yankees that offseason as part of a package that returned Justin Wilson, the team’s current closer and valuable trade chip.)

We don’t have two years of hindsight from which to assess the future development of Dawel Lugo, Sergio Alcantara, and Jose King, but, from my review of the assessments of these players by experienced prospect writers, it’s hard to see a Fulmer-caliber player among them. It remains too early to render significant judgments about Avila’s capabilities as a front-office leader, and Lugo, Alcantara, and King may have been the best available return for Martinez on the current market. To the extent Dombrowski’s 2015 Cespedes trade is an adequate comp for Avila’s 2017 Martinez trade, though, it’s not one that– in isolation– reflects especially well on Avila.   Continue reading

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Saving Detroit: Fixing Justin Upton

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When it comes to the 2017 Detroit Tigers, we are in full-on damage-control mode here at ALDLAND, looking high and low for fixes for everything from the bullpen to the infield defense. On an individual basis, though, no player seems to be the recipient of more scorn from those who express Tigers-related opinions on the internet than Justin Upton. The critical refrain, when it comes to the younger Upton brother, is simple: he strikes out too much.

I spent many of the pages of last season’s Tigers diary on Upton. Having watched him during his days as a member of the Atlanta Braves, I knew he was a good and exciting player, but also a streaky player, and I hoped that Detroit fans would be patient enough to see through the streakiness and hold out for the production, they generally weren’t. Some career-low offensive numbers in the middle of the season didn’t help his case, and people (this website’s readers excepted, obviously) mostly missed that, in the final analysis, his full-season production was almost exactly as anticipated: an above-average offensive profile with thirty-one home runs, matching a career high. Also likely to be forgotten is his hot September– thirteen home runs, .292/.382/.750, and 196 wRC+, basically Babe Ruth’s career line– that was the main reason the team was in contention entering the final series of the regular season.

The Tigers didn’t make the playoffs last year, though, and things are looking pretty bad right now, too, which makes it easy to continue to beat the Upton-strikeout drum. And look, he’s currently running a career-high 31.2% strikeout rate (ten percent above league average), which isn’t helping matters.

When it comes to Upton, though, it isn’t as easy as simply focusing on strikeouts. For example, he’s running a walk rate that’s substantially higher than last season’s, meaning that his BB/K ratio is in line with his career ratio. In general, though, this is what he does. Like many power hitters in today’s game, he hits a lot of home runs and he strikes out a lot. Strikeouts are frustrating, but harping on them, in Upton’s case, isn’t productive. As Dave Cameron discussed at FanGraphs today, Giancarlo Stanton has undertaken the sort of change Upton’s critics are demanding, dramatically cutting his K% and upping his contact rate. The result? A very similar, if slightly worse, overall offensive profile. Cameron explains:

To this point, the change hasn’t served to make Stanton better, just different. His 135 wRC+ this year is pretty close to his career 141 mark, as the reduction in strikeouts have also come with a small drop in BABIP and a continuing decline in his walk rate. And the latter is of particular interest, because it shows how differently he’s being pitched these days.

In his 2013/2014 heyday, only 41% of the pitches thrown to Stanton were in the strike zone, about as low a mark as pitchers will go for a hitter who doesn’t instinctively swing at anything out of their hand. This year, pitchers are throwing Stanton strikes 44% of the time, about the same rate they’re challenging Trevor Plouffe and Albert Pujols. Pitchers are coming after Stanton now, perhaps recognizing that maybe he’s not taking the herculean swings that he used to take, and the penalty for throwing him something in the zone isn’t quite what it used to be.

As his contact rate has climbed, Stanton’s doing less damage on contact than he used to be [sic], and perhaps not surprisingly, is now seeing more strikes thrown his way. These are all shifts more than total revolutions, as he’s still a power hitter who does a lot of damage when he hits the ball, but he’s now moved more towards the normal levels of contact and production, rather than being an outlier on both ends.

(emphasis added).

Could Upton stop striking out as much as he does now if he wanted to? Probably. Changes in approach have complex consequences, though, and the result of those consequences might not work a net positive on Upton’s production even if he pushed himself to a career low strikeout rate and career high contact rate like Stanton has. (It essentially is the Ichiro Suzuki home run question asked from the opposite side of the player comp spectrum.)

The broader point, I think, is one that came to me during my look at switch hitters’ approaches to defensive shifts last year: we should engage in player analysis with the initial assumptions that (1) the player is a skilled athlete capable of undertaking multiple approaches to his or her sport, and (2) the player intelligently approaches his sport by selecting the optimal approach, given his or her strengths and weaknesses, designed for performance at the highest possible level. This is a conservative outlook that essentially assumes that the player’s status quo modus operandi represents the player’s optimal modus operandi. Like the Tigers fans who assume they can fix Upton by telling him to strike out less, it’s easy to assume we know better. As more complex investigations often reveal, however, the player had it right all along.

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

Related
2017 Detroit Tigers Season Preview
Is the next Mike Trout already in Detroit?
A strategic switch to beat the shift?

Baseball Notes: Current Issues Roundup

baseball notes

Rather than my own attempt at fashioning a nugget of faux-wisdom, the purpose of this Baseball Notes post is to highlight a number of articles posted elsewhere addressing current issues in the sport.   Continue reading

One thing that is not among the Three Failures That Doomed Doug Melvin

Yesterday, the Milwaukee Brewers relieved General Manager Doug Melvin of his general managing duties. Today, Dave Cameron, writing for JABO, detailed “Three Failures That Doomed” Doug Melvin. (To save you a click: poor drafting, trading Zack Greinke for peanuts, and retaining a bunch of bad players.) One thing that is not one of the Three Failures That Doomed Doug Melvin is the simple fact that he looks like Kurt Vonnegut If Kurt Vonnegut Had Been Born And Lived His Life In Wisconsin.

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(Here note for the sake of completeness that Dave Cameron also is not one of the Three Failures That Doomed Doug Melvin.)

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Previously
Phil Jackson is Ron Burgandy?
Visualizing NFL Politics (Mike Smith is John McCain?)

Mr. Scherzer goes to Washington


Overnight, the long-anticipated news of this baseball offseason finally broke: The Washington Nationals won the Max Scherzer sweepstakes by signing the former Detroit Tiger to a seven-year, $210 million contract.

Scherzer made news last March when, heading into his final season before becoming a free agent, he turned down the Tigers’ six-year, $144 million offer to stay with the team. That failed (from the team’s perspective) dance fouled up a variety of personnel matters for Detroit. They had already traded Prince Fielder and much, but not all, of his contract to Texas and starter Doug Fister to Washington for figuratively literally nothing all probably in an attempt to clear the books for Scherzer’s new contract. When Scherzer balked at the offer, the team responded by giving Miguel Cabrera all the money. Last season got off to a rough start, and, at least from a business perspective, Scherzer was at the center of it.

Max probably was my favorite amongst a very likable group of guys playing for the Tigers over this last stretch of seasons. His relief appearance against Oakland in the 2013 playoffs always will be among my most favorite half-innings of baseball.   Continue reading

Baseball Notes: Rule Interpretation Unintentionally Shifts Power to Outfielders?

baseball notesInstant replay has been a leading topic of discussion across the baseball world during this young season. In an apparent attempt to reduce the use of replay challenges on infield double play attempts, MLB issued the following official rule interpretation statement:

Umpires and/or replay officials must consider whether the fielder had secured possession of the ball but dropped it during the act of the catch. An example of a catch that would not count is if a fielder loses possession of the ball during the transfer before the ball was secured by his throwing hand.

A baserunner running from first to second thus is safe if the second baseman drops the ball when attempting to throw it to first to complete the double play even though the second baseman cleanly caught the flip from the shortstop. (This video clip provides a clear and simple example of this scenario.)

As FanGraphs’ Dave Cameron realized, this seemingly innocuous rule interpretation actually carries sweeping implications for the defense’s control of the running game because it applies to outfielders as well as infielders. Cameron explains:

The drop at second base has no real impact on the runner’s decision making. The batter is sprinting down the first base line to try and beat out the double play, and probably will rarely even know the ball is dropped on the double play attempt. . . . 

That is absolutely not true with runners and outfielders, however; the decision of whether to advance or return to base is entirely dependent on whether the outfielder is ruled to have safely caught the ball. Runners are taught to get enough of a lead off the base to maximize their potential advancement in case the ball is not caught while still retaining their ability to return to their previous base if it is. When the ball enters the glove, the runner returns to their prior base in order to avoid a potential double play. Only now, the ball entering the glove is no longer the determining factor of whether or not the catch was made; that is now the ball moving from the glove to the hand.

A catch thus is not a catch until the receiving player secures the ball and then securely transfers it to his throwing hand. Cameron astutely realizes that there is room for exploitation here, and it comes in that second phase of the now more expansively defined catch process, the transfer to the throwing hand.     Continue reading

Baseball Notes: Lineup Protection

baseball notesPart of the perceived strength of last year’s Detroit Tigers offense came from the arrangement of the middle of the batting order: Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, and Victor Martinez; two huge bats following the biggest one in the game. The idea was that Fielder, batting fourth, “protected” Cabrera in the three hole because he was there to make pitchers pay if they wanted to simply intentionally walk Cabrera to mitigate his potent power, the same way pitchers treated Barry Bonds a decade a go. With Fielder there to “protect” Cabrera, the theory went, Cabrera’s offensive numbers should improve because pitchers would have to be more aggressive with him.

The lineup protection concept makes intuitive sense, but it has been a popular target for the sabermetric folks, who insist that “protected” hitters show no measurable improvement as a result of lineup protection. In light of Prince’s departure from Detroit, ESPN’s Jayson Stark, who surely knows much more about baseball than me, is the latest to take up the advanced statistical ax against the lineup protection effect:

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[UPDATED] Fistered: Tigers lose starting pitcher to the Nationals

News broke last night that the Detroit Tigers traded starting pitcher Doug Fister to the Washington Nationals, the team’s second major move of this young offseason. (They traded Prince Fielder to the Texas Rangers for Ian Kinsler last month.)

In exchange for Fister, the Nationals sent Detroit Steve Lombardozzi Jr., a utility player; Ian Krol, a left-handed reliever; and Robbie Ray, a left-handed starting pitcher in the minor leagues. Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski said that Krol “can step right into our bullpen and has the potential to be a No. 1 lefthanded reliever,” and he called Lombardozzi “one of the best utilitymen in baseball.”

It’s tough for me to evaluate this trade, because I’ve never heard of Lombardozzi, Krol, or Ray. I’m far from a league-wide expert on players, but that may be an evaluative statement, however. I know Dombrowski has committed to moving Drew Smyly into a starting role, but I thought it would be Rick Porcello, or perhaps Max Scherzer, who departed to make room for Smyly. The decision to move Fister surprised me, and although I don’t know anything about Lombardozzi, Krol, or Ray, I can’t help feeling like Detroit got too little in return for the very solid Fister.   Continue reading

Prince Fielder Signs with the Tigers

Dave Cameron, whose work I know and respect from the blog USS Mariner recently wrote this post in reaction to the Prince Fielder signing.  The gist of the article is that while Fielder’s signing, coupled with the presence of Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander, will make the Tigers a contender for the next few years, the Tigers will eventually regret the contract as Fielder ages and presumably declines in skill.
 
Dave Cameron’s a sharp guy, and he can do the math and work out the expected value of Fielder in wins to the Tigers next year and over the lifetime of his contract a lot better than I can, so there’s not a whole lot I have to say that he doesn’t say in that article.  In the end, I think the Tigers are incredibly short sighted for pulling the trigger on Fielder.  For this deal to be worth it, the Tigers absolutely must bring Detroit its first World Series championship since 1984.  A few division titles and a pennant or two aren’t going to cut it when Fielder is 34 and stumbling around the base paths en route to hitting 18 homers and batting .260.  The contract might not even be worth it if the Tigers win a World Series, if it cripples the franchise for years to come afterward (although given the fact that Detroit is now paying three players 20 million dollars per year, that is not a given).
 
Furthermore, as Cameron notes, this money could be better spent elsewhere.  He suggests Jose Reyes and CJ Wilson as two players the Tigers could have signed for around the same money they gave to Fielder.  Having watched the Tigers a lot in the past year, I felt they needed a pitcher more than they needed another impact bat going into 2012.  Obviously the injury to DH/C Victor Martinez changed that, however if I was Tigers GM Dave Dombrowksi, I would have signed a pitcher CJ Wilson and traded a couple prospects for a bat like Houston’s Carlos Lee who could help Detroit in 2012 without hindering the franchise’s ability to contend later on.  But perhaps there’s a reason that he is a major league GM and I am not.  I guess we’ll find out in four or five years.