The best of his kind: Farewell to Mr. I

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On Friday afternoon, Mike Ilitch, the owner of the Detroit Red Wings and Tigers, died at the age of eighty-seven. He was a Marine, a minor-league baseball player, and the founder of the Little Caesars pizza chain. In 1987, he bought the Red Wings, and he took over the Tigers (from pizza rival Tom Monaghan, of Domino’s) in 1993. He also rejuvenated the city’s Fox Theater and, much more quietly, paid for Rosa Parks’ housing for the last ten years of her life.

With the Wings and Tigers, Ilitch took over teams with great legacies that had fallen on hard times and built them into championship contenders by doing exactly what every fan hopes the owner of his or her favorite team would do: invest in the team with the goal of winning as much as possible as soon as possible. The results at Joe Louis Arena were unambiguous: four Stanley Cups and some of the best hockey teams ever assembled. While the Tigers couldn’t quite make it to the mountaintop, they have enjoyed a decade or more of top-tier competitiveness that included two World Series appearances, the first of which, in 2006, came just three years after the team lost 119 games.

Ilitch remained committed to his teams, and to his city, through thick and thin. Neil over at New English D recalls one of the more memorable examples of that commitment:

The defining moment will always be the beginning of the 2009 season. The Great Recession had rocked the auto industry and two of the city’s Big Three automakers had to be bailed out by the federal government to survive. General Motors had previously sponsored the center field fountain at Comerica Park but were in no position to spend a couple million dollars on advertising. Rather than selling the space to another company in some other industry, Ilitch put all three logos on the fountain with the message “The Detroit Tigers support our automakers.”

Things were dire around the country but especially in Detroit. The Tigers themselves were feeling squeezed due to decreased ticket sales and surely could have used the capital. In fact, that offseason they traded Curtis Granderson in part because they needed to trim payroll. A city that was once the engine of the American Century was teetering on the brink, but in that moment, Ilitch wasn’t thinking about the ad space. He was thinking about the organization’s role in the community. It’s responsibility to the community, even.
. . .
I have no idea if the free space actually helped the industry recover, but symbolism mattered. Mike Ilitch did right by his city not just when it was easy and when it made him wealthy, but also when things were tough.

As Mike Ilitch’s health waned in recent years, indications have emerged that his son, Chris, was taking on a larger role in the teams’ ownership, and there was some suggestion that Chris might have been behind the Tigers’ moves toward austerity that began with the unceremonious midseason departure of former GM Dave Dombrowski in 2015. It seems unlikely that Chris will continue his father’s free-spending ways, but, beyond that, there’s little public information to inform a prediction about the leadership style of the younger Ilitch.

Maybe it was because he was a self-made man, rather than an inheritor of wealth. Maybe it didn’t matter how he came to be in a position to own two professional sports franchises. From the fans’ perspective, it didn’t matter. What did matter was that Mike Ilitch loved his teams and his city and sought to do right by both by being the ideal team owner, someone who owned teams and financed them for success because sports are supposed to be fun. Today, teams are owned by conglomerates, publicly traded companies, and Wall Street ownership groups that, as often as not, seem to have priorities other than winning. To the extent he was of a kind, Ilitch may be one of the last of that kind, and his generosity will be missed.

Detroit Memorial Jam

Bob Seger is back with his first new song release in over two years. Seger, who hasn’t toured since 2015, just published “Glenn Song,” a tribute to Eagles co-founder and fellow Michigander Glenn Frey, on the first anniversary of Frey’s death. The two had a history of collaboration, with Frey backing Seger on the latter’s first national hit, “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man,” and Seger pitching in on the Eagles hit “Heartache Tonight” a decade later. Seger, now seventy-one, is in strong voice on “Glenn Song,” which is available for free streaming and download on his website.

Is the next Mike Trout already in Detroit?

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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:

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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.

Detroit Lions 2016 Wild Card preview

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Head coach Jim Caldwell has the Detroit Lions back in the playoffs for the second time in his three-year tenure. After ending the season with three consecutive losses, the Lions (9-7) will play the Seahawks tonight in Seattle in the first NFC wild card game, which kicks off at 8:15 Eastern on NBC.

Detroit’s playoff history in the Super Bowl era isn’t pretty. In the fifty seasons since the 1966 merger, the Lions have appeared in the postseason in just twelve of those seasons, winning just one game.

That one win, a 38-6 dismantling of the Dallas Cowboys on January 5, 1992, also was the last NFL playoff game hosted in Detroit, and one of only two ever in the Super Bowl era (not counting games, like Super Bowl XL, in which the Lions, obviously, did not participate).

The national press picked up on an interesting narrative following that win, which featured Barry Sanders, of course, and also Erik Kramer, whom they highlighted as “a strikebreaker,” or, in the words of Cowboys defenders Jack Del Rio (now the head coach of the Oakland Raiders, who have an AFC wildcard meeting with the Houston Texans this afternoon) and Tony Casillas, “a scab.” Kramer had played for Atlanta as a replacement player during the 1987 NFL strike, something that upset apparent union tough guys Del Rio and Casillas and, the New York Times postulated, Kramer’s ostensible supporters in the center of the UAW universe (“this grizzled, battered town, this blue-collar, lunch-bucket town”). The on-field performances by Kramer, who had claimed the starting job after starting the season as the team’s third quarterback, and Sanders that day erased any internal concerns that might have troubled the Honolulu blue and silver faithful, however. They also silenced Del Rio:

Del Rio kept up the verbal barrage during the game, or part of it, anyway.

“I didn’t hear him make any more remarks after the first quarter, said Kramer.”

Detroit only led 7-3 at the end of that first quarter, but Dallas already had amassed half of the points it would score all day. Kramer threw three touchdown passes, Sanders finished the day with a forty-seven-yard TD run, and the Lions defense even got in on the scoring action, when Mel Jenkins intercepted starting Dallas QB Steve Beuerlein and ran it back for six. By at least this one measure– Super-Bowl era playoff wins– then, Kramer might be considered the Lions best-ever playcaller.

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This time around, the Lions quarterback again is the lead story. Matthew Stafford has struggled somewhat since injuring the middle finger on his throwing hand (pictured above, both pre- and post-injury). He claims he doesn’t rely much on that finger for gripping the ball, but the injury can’t help. Nor do recent injuries to other key contributors like DeAndre Levy, Marvin Jones, Ezekiel Ansah, Travis Swanson, and Riley Reiff, all of whom are likely to be game-time decisions. It also is not clear whether the team has a running back, although the emergence of Zach Zenner has caught the eye of at least one Seahawk defensive lineman.

While Detroit’s nine wins came on the back of a weak schedule, the Seahawks (10-5-1) also had some bad losses this year, dropping games to the Rams and Saints and going 0-1-1 against the disappointing Cardinals. They are coming off a win in Week 17, but they barely scraped by two-win San Francisco. This has not quite been the dominant Seahawks squad of recent seasons. Still, they best the Lions in all of the usual statistical categories and are 7-1 at home, where the game will be played tonight. (The Lions were 3-5 on the road this season.)

Any pieces of good news at this point are going to be small, but a notable one is the absence of Earl Thomas, one of Seattle’s best defenders, who will not play due to a leg injury. Seattle’s aggressive defensive tendencies also may help twist this piece of seemingly bad news into good news:

Lions fans are upset because Brad Allen, who calls a lot of penalties and officiated two Detroit losses and no wins, will be refereeing this game. Caldwell isn’t worried about the NFL assigning Allen to this game, though, and neither am I, because I think, in general, playoff games are officiated differently; Allen will have a completely different crew under his supervision; and, despite Seattle’s 2-1 record in Allen games, Seattle’s defensive strategy shouldn’t mesh well with a referee who throws a lot of flags. Their “efficient-breach” approach allows them to be aggressive, because they know that, even if their defenders commit pass interference or defensive holding on most every play, the officials won’t flag it every time. It therefore might not be a bad thing if Allen and his crew called more penalties in this game, so long as they do so fairly.

Another matchup to watch will be the Detroit defensive line against the Seattle offensive line, the latter being the only real Seahawk weakness. In a disappointing year from Ansah, the Lions haven’t made waves in the pass-rush department, but a breakout day from the fourth-year defensive end could be a difference-maker today.

It’s going to be a long and loud afternoon in Seattle, where a wintry mix has been in and out of the forecast. It will be tough sledding for these battered Lions. Here’s hoping they find a new gear and, once again, give their fans a reason to celebrate in January.

The Red Wings have lost their championship identity

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Since the Detroit Red Wings returned to championship prominence in the 1990s following the hiring of head coach Scotty Bowman, the team has been known for its smothering style of play. In this modern golden age, the Wings won four Stanley Cups– 1997, 1998, 2002, and 2008– with legendary rosters, sure, but also by executing a theoretically simple and highly effective strategy focused on puck possession. Two decades before the concept would even begin to emerge in public hockey analysis, Bowman knew that puck possession led to wins.

In recent years, statisticians have made strides in tracking possession, something I’ve written about here a few times before:

A quick refresher on hockey’s new statistics: puck possession correlates more strongly with winning than do things like goals or shots; measuring possession in a fluid game like hockey is difficult; as a practical solution, Corsi and its less-inclusive sibling, Fenwick, are statistics that track certain, more easily measured events (all shots, including on-goal shots and missed shots, and, in Corsi’s case, blocked shots), thereby serving as proxies for possession and, therefore, indicators of team success. Once you get past the names (as the NHL is in the process of doing), the concept is simple.

The earliest season for which Corsi is available is the 2007-08 season. Fortunately for purposes of this post, that’s the last year Detroit, under the guidance of the Bowman Administration’s successor, Mike Babcock, won the Stanley Cup. Anecdotally, Babcock followed in Bowman’s possession-oriented footsteps, and the statistics agree: the Wings led the league by a wide margin.

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Today, though, things are different. Sure, Detroit hasn’t missed the playoffs since 1990, but it’s going to be another uphill climb to keep their historic streak alive, with current projections giving them just a 22.5% chance of earning a postseason berth. (Only three teams have worse odds right now.) It isn’t looking good.

Unsurprisingly (as a factual matter, anyway), puck possession has fallen off steeply this year, as compared with that last championship season. Here’s the same chart shown above for 2016:

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Under Jeff Blashill, Babcock’s successor, these really aren’t the same Red Wings. Here’s a broad visual of how well the team has controlled the puck during all seasons for which Hockey-Reference has Corsi data:

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The season isn’t yet half over, thankfully, but there is a lot of catching up to do if the team wants to leave its hallowed home on a positive note before making the move to the Hot-n-Ready Center next season.

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Related
Taking a pass on new hockey statistics
Bouncing puck: Passing, not shooting, is the key to scoring on the ice and the hardcourt
More on passing data and the shot quality debateHockey Prospectus
There’s no such thing as advanced sports statistics

Kate Upton has a point: Writers must do better with baseball awards voting (via Fox Sports)

111716-mlb-tigers-verlander-upton-pi-vadapt-980-high-75Kate Upton had a point. Her math is off, her facts are off, but she had a point.

Sorry, Kate, no writer should be fired for failing to vote for your fiance, Justin Verlander, for the American League Cy Young Award.

But, with all due respect to the Baseball Writers Association of America — of which I am a proud member — the omission of Verlander from the ballot by both Tampa Bay voters is indeed an indication that we can do a better job choosing the voters for our awards.

Judging voters too harshly is a slippery slope: I vehemently oppose penalizing anyone for holding an unpopular or even mistaken opinion. At the same time, it is the obligation of every voter to develop a sound rationale for his or her choices. Different answers are acceptable; it’s the process that matters.

The Tampa Bay voters, Bill Chastain of MLB.com and Fred Goodall of the Associated Press, cannot be held solely responsible for Verlander’s second-place finish, despite what Upton said in her epic Twitter rant Wednesday night. Verlander would have needed third-place votes or better from both to overcome Porcello – and seven other writers placed him fourth or fifth.

Chastain told the New York Daily News that he submitted his ballot with about a week left in the regular season; a curious choice, to say the least, when Verlander’s Tigers were still fighting for a playoff berth. Goodall, one of several AP writers who vote for BBWAA awards, does not solely cover baseball; he reports on a variety of sports in the Tampa Bay area.

Ultimately, though, each writer needs to take responsibility; if you are not prepared to engage in or capable of the necessary analysis, then don’t accept the ballot. Chastain and Goodall did not make indefensible choices — Chastain went Porcello-Britton-Kluber-Sale-Masahiro Tanaka; Goodall went Porcello-Kluber-J.A. Happ-Britton-Aaron Sanchez. But the complete exclusion of Verlander by both makes little sense.

Votes are subjective, differences of opinion expected. But the BBWAA has a responsibility, too — a responsibility to make sure that we select the most qualified voters, the best of the best, to get the optimal result.

If we fail to do that, shame on us. … Read More

(via Fox Sports)

HT: LRAD/MSN.com

Michael Fulmer and the changing face of the Detroit Tigers

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We learned Monday that Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Michael Fulmer is the 2016 American League rookie of the year. While not a unanimous selection like his National League counterpart, Corey Seager, he still claimed the award in convincing fashion:

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Fulmer is the fifth Tiger to win the award, joining teammate Justin Verlander, Lou Whitaker, Mark Fidrych, and Harvey Kuenn. The connection between Verlander, who won his rookie of the year exactly ten years ago and is a contender for his second Cy Young award this year, and Fulmer seems to be a neat and real mentorship relationship. Here’s a snapshot statistical comparison of Verlander and Fulmer in their rookie-of-the-year seasons:

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It certainly is exciting to consider the possibility that the Tigers have found in Fulmer another Verlander, even if Fulmer’s numbers– comparatively superior to Verlander’s ROY season across the selected metrics– have some worried about his ability to repeat his rookie-year successes. (This concern boils down to the relatively large gap between Fulmer’s ERA and his FIP. It seems worth noting that Verlander had an even larger gap in 2006.) It doesn’t mean a lot, but the similarities make for a fun comparison.

Fulmer’s accolades serve as a reminder that the next generation of this Tigers team already has arrived, at least in part, and that, with business-side changes afoot, the veteran generation could be gone before we know it.   Continue reading

Offseason starts with a bang for the Detroit Tigers

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When the Detroit Tigers’ season ended in Atlanta last month, the message from general manager Al Avila was both clear and clearly different than it had been a season ago, when Avila took over the job from his boss, Dave Dombrowski. Then, speaking as the mouthpiece of the team’s owner, Mike Ilitch, he said that “the foot is on the pedal, hard,” and the team continued to make the kind of win-now moves that largely have defined them for the past decade. Now, though, Avila’s taking his foot off the gas and ushering in a period of austerity that’s likely to be painful. It definitely will be different.

The changes began immediately. Yesterday was the first day of the MLB offseason, and Avila wasted no time in making two of his biggest decisions on current player options. First, he “traded” center fielder Cameron Maybin to the Angels for a low-grade relief pitching prospect in a move that essentially amounts to the Tigers declining to exercise Maybin’s option.

Shortly thereafter, the team announced that it would pick up the $6 million option on closer Francisco Rodriguez. (Had they declined K-Rod’s option, they would’ve owed him a $2 million buyout.)

If, as he has said, his new mission is “making this team leaner, younger, more efficient,” I’m not certain this was the way to do it. Given the money, his track record, and his strong performance last season, I like the decision to retain Rodriguez, even considering the general year-to-year unreliability of reliever performance.

The Maybin decision is more confusing, though. By fWAR, Maybin was the Tigers’ most valuable outfielder last year, and he only played in ninety-four games. (He also was their second-best baserunner.) He missed action due to injury, but not really the kind of injury that should make teams worry. He mostly just kept getting beaned on the hands. That’s just bad luck. He’s only twenty-nine. Over the past two seasons with Atlanta and then Detroit, he finally seemed to be approaching the potential he demonstrated eleven years ago that caused the Tigers to spend the tenth overall draft pick on him in 2005. (He also was the team leader in the Instagram handle category.)

Now he’s gone again, leaving behind holes in center field and the top of the batting order. Jeff Sullivan, writing up this transaction largely from the Angels’ perspective, points a finger to JaCoby Jones as the likely replacement Avila is targeting. Jones showed memorable flashes as a late-season call-up this year, but, like many prospects, he’s still young and raw and inconsistent. The other obvious fill-in is Tyler Collins, who has the relative advantage of being a left-handed hitter but the disadvantage of being at an age and experience level where “raw” is not a baseball adjective that incorporates an element of hope.

All of this happened on offseason day number one. There will be more activity involving the Tigers this offseason, and, typically, it is wise to wait to render final judgment on a particular decision until it can be viewed within the full constellation of the team’s moves. Under austerity, though, there should be little hope for or expectation of near-term improvement through an infusion of external resources; doing better must mean doing better with what you already have. There isn’t going to be a Justin Upton trade this year (which, while we’re at it, probably will be the last year J.D. Martinez wears a Detroit uniform). What stings about the Maybin trade– besides the obvious departure of talent and the intangibles of a fun guy who seemed to be having a lot of fun himself– is that it is a move that will make the team worse in 2017, and the Tigers haven’t made too many moves like that in a good while.

Stafford at the century mark, in context

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The 2016 Detroit Lions are doing kind of okay! Week Seven is in the books, and they’re 4-3, including a win over the probably good Eagles. In a week of very bad professional football, the Lions’ game-winning drive provided a rare highlight on Sunday. I insist you enjoy it again:

Because the NFL media corps is an insatiable monster, Sunday and Monday found everyone except Skip Bayless launching the Matthew Stafford MVP campaign:

Sunday was Stafford’s 100th NFL game, leading one writer to tabulate a long thread of historical statistical notes, the catchiest of which is the list of quarterbacks’ passing yards through their first one-hundred career games:

  1. Stafford: 27,890
  2. Dan Marino: 27,064
  3. Kurt Warner: 26,097
  4. Peyton Manning: 26,008
  5. Aaron Rodgers: 25,616

Not unimpressive company. As with Carson Palmer’s headline-grabbing passing milestone last month, though, this accumulative distinction requires some context, Continue reading

Game 162: Talking baseball at the end of the 2016 regular season

Every MLB team is in action beginning at 3:00 this afternoon for the final* day of the 2016 regular season. Before heading down to Turner Field to catch the Tigers and say farewell to baseball in downtown Atlanta, I was a guest on today’s episode of the Banished to the Pen Podcast, in which I rambled about wild card scenarios and made severely underinformed playoff predictions.

Stream or download the podcast here.

* Final as to all except Detroit and Cleveland, which likely will need to play a makeup game tomorrow.