RKB: The Candy Man Can, But for How Long?

How in the world is Jeimer Candelario the Detroit Tigers’ best hitter in 2020? Like so much this year, it isn’t a reality anyone would have predicted a year ago, but the hard facts are undeniable: Candelario leads all qualified Tigers batters in AVG/OBP/SLG (.313/.371/.519), wOBA (.379), and wRC+ (140). Candelario is a career 93 wRC+ hitter, and he posted a 72 wRC+ last season. How did he swing from thirty points below average at the plate in 2019 to forty points above average in 2020?

To be sure, this is not a J.D. Martinez fly-ball revolution situation. In fact, last week, FanGraphs highlighted Candelario as a batter with one of the largest year-over-year decreases in fly-ball rate. What he is doing, though, is making better, harder contact than he has in the past, with significant increases in barrel and hard-hit rates. Changes like that are very encouraging, even if he’s bucking trends and finding success on the ground instead of through the air.

There is one other hitting category in which Candelario leads the Tigers this season: batting average on balls in play. He’s currently running an insane .407 BABIP, making it a near-certainty that his offensive production rates drop off before too long. Even if real changes in his approach mean he can establish an expected BABIP higher than his current career level (.297), a .407 BABIP simply is not going to last no matter who Candelario is or has become. Since 1998, the highest single-season BABIP is Yoan Moncada’s .406 in 2019, one of only three total times during that span that anyone finished a season with a BABIP above .400. Perhaps that’s why Baseball Prospectus sees Candelario as a merely average hitter in 2020 (101 DRC+), rather than someone actually hitting like Mike Piazza, Larry Walker, Jason Giambi, or David Ortiz (all career 140 wRC+ batters). The highest career BABIP among that group of sluggers? Walker’s .332.

To this point in this short, strange season, Candelario’s production has been real. He really hit those forty-one hits, nine doubles, three triples, and four home runs, and he really drove in nineteen runs for the Tigers and drew eleven walks. No one is trying to take any of that away from him, and detected improvements in the quality of the contact he’s making with the bat provide a reasonable basis to believe he will continue to hit better than he has in prior seasons. A reasonable basis to believe he will not continue to hit quite as well as he has thus far in 2020 going forward also exists, however.

Thinking back to the end of the 2019 season, the idea of Candelario making a jump just to “merely average hitter” in 2020 would have felt like a major achievement. Even at a more modest outlook, that as his new floor would go a long way toward making Candelario a lasting part of Detroit’s rebuilt roster.

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Previously
RKB: Shifting the D to See Whether Analytics Drives the Motor City’s Baseball Team – 9/3
RKB: A Second Look at MLB Pitcher Casey Mize – 8/30
RKB: 2020 is the Season: Turn, Turn, Turnbull – 8/18
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: 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.

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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

Righteous indignation: The worst called ball of the 2020 MLB season?

Before he went to work for the Tampa Bay Rays, Jeff Sullivan was a prolific writer and visual analyst for FanGraphs. One of his regular features there documented in meticulous detail the worst umpire calls on balls and strikes in a recently completed MLB season. (Here, for example, is his treatment of the worst called ball of 2018.)

I thought of Sullivan last night while catching up on the Detroit Tigers’ 17-13, extra-innings win in Pittsburgh. I was trying to figure out why Pirates manager Derek Shelton (a $50 credit at the ALDLAND store to anyone outside Pennsylvania who convinces me he or she knew the name of the Pirates’ manager before yesterday) was out of the game and former Tigers folk hero Don Kelly was at the helm opposite his old team.

Bless You Boys on Twitter: "Beat me to the meme RT @blessyouboys ...

I discovered that home-plate umpire Ramon De Jesus had ejected Shelton for arguing balls and strikes. Yawn. During a pitching change, though, I decided to kill time by watching the clip of the ejection, after which I was wide awake. Could it be that just (depending on how you count) eleven games into this miniature baseball season we already have seen the worst called ball of 2020?  Continue reading

RKB: 2020 Detroit Tigers Season Preview – UPDATED PECOTA Ed.

Just four months late, today is MLB’s big opening day for the 2020 season. Before the Detroit Tigers kick off their sixty-game sprint this evening against the Reds in Cincinnati (6:10 pm on MLB Network), we are taking one last look at what the Baseball Prospectus computer projects for the team in this abridged campaign.

BP’s PECOTA system sill sees Detroit finishing fourth in the division, which of course will not be enough for a postseason berth even under the hopefully temporary expanded playoff structure in place for this year, with a 26-34 record. As a sign of the comparatively small scale on which this season will play out, opening-day starter Matthew Boyd, previously projected to contribute 2 WARP, now is down to 0.8 WARP over eleven appearances. The same numbers apply for Jonathan Schoop, expected to be the Tigers’ best hitter. Miguel Cabrera, in the DH role, is looking at a projection of 0.6 WARP, including seven home runs. He only hit twelve in 549 plate appearances last season, so that would be part of a substantial increase in power– and reversal of a recent downward trend— over sixty games.

Back in February, when the idea of a canceled or severely shortened season hadn’t set in, I was pleased to discover PECOTA’s 69-93 record projection, a nice bump over 2019’s basement rap. Now, though, I’m finding it difficult to be very excited about the season at all. I will be watching tonight, of course, and will do my best to keep up with the development of all of Detroit’s exciting young pitching prospects, but, with my negotiations with MLB.tv at a standstill (the ball is in their court, and they know how to reach me), I don’t know how many games I’ll watch. More or fewer than Chris Ilitch? That’s for you to decide. Regardless, same great coverage here at ALDLAND.com all season long/short.

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Previously
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?
RKB: An unprecedented offseason move?
RKB: Detroit’s long, municipal nightmare is over, as Al Avila has solved the Tigers’ bullpen woes
RKB: Brief 2019 Recapitulation

Related
Season Preview Series 2020: 60 Words for 60 Games – Banished to the Pen

RKB: 2020 Detroit Tigers Season Preview – Spring Training Ed.

Our preview series for the 2020 Detroit Tigers season continues here. You’ve read words about what the computers say. You’ve read words about what the accountants say. Now take it easy and enjoy some photographs from a spring training game between the Tigers and Atlanta Braves we were fortunate enough to attend back in February. Continue reading

The week in “sports”: 5/8/20

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From the Be The Ball, Danny Department:

Rob Gronkowski retired to avoid a trade to the Detroit Lions

We’re trying our best to bring you positive news from the sports world during these times that also are trying, but it’s tough to find the energy to put a positive spin on this one. As penance, the group’s laughter at the end should be the Lions’ new fight song for at least as long as it takes them to win a playoff game.

(HT: Fredi The PizzaMan)

RKB: 2020 Detroit Tigers Season Preview – Payroll Ed.

For 2020, our season preview for the Detroit Tigers will proceed, like a rebuilding project, in piecemeal fashion. The machines have completed their work, and it’s time for the humans to step to the plate.

The first subject I’d like to cover for this year is payroll. When a team is in deep rebuild mode, it’s almost pointless to spend time thinking about payroll. We know that rebuilding teams, essentially as a rule, are trying to shed payroll– usually with a focus on reducing a small number of large commitments to aging players– while gearing up for the next round of competitive action. This accounting-department aspect of baseball isn’t exciting, and it isn’t something even close observers monitor on a regular basis. Particularly with resetting teams, like the Tigers, that are very unlikely to add a high-priced free agent or sign a current player to a pricey extension, the payroll landscape changes only at a relatively glacial pace as years tick off old contracts.

Team payrolls are back in the news these days, though, thanks to the Boston Red Sox’s [Yeah, I don’t know either, man. -ed.] much-maligned decision to trade Mookie Betts and David Price to the Los Angeles Dodgers. However you cook it up or boil it down, Boston gave up two of its best players without receiving a commensurate return because the team wanted to cut payroll costs, apparently with the hope of creating the financial flexibility to maybe replace Betts or Price at an unspecified future time.

Detroit, on the other hand, has quite a bit of financial flexibility, and the team didn’t have to do anything to generate it but wait around. Safely assuming you haven’t checked in a while, how do the books look?

Barring drastic changes, the Tigers will open the season with a payroll of about $95 million, which places them on the high side of the bottom third of all teams this year. That’s a stark change from the days when Chris Ilitch’s father was holding the purse: Detroit had a top-five payroll as recently as 2017. In 2020, only two Tigers– Miguel Cabrera ($30 million) and Jordan Zimmermann ($25 million)– have salaries in the double-digit millions. Cabrera has three more seasons to go after this one, and he’s scheduled for a raise after next season. Zimmermann, on the other hand, is done (and maybe done done) after this year.

How quickly do things fall off after Cabrera and Zimmermann? Newcomers Jonathan Schoop and C.J. Cron and their matching one-year, $6.1 million contracts are next up. And if you thought that was a big drop, consider the fact that those four are, on an individual basis, the only players the Tigers are paying more in 2020 than Prince Fielder ($6 million).

Next in line is the only other notable mention in this conversation: Matthew Boyd ($5.3 million). The twenty-nine-year-old lefty probably is the team’s best player right now, and he still has two arbitration years remaining. Many people have said many things about whether the Tigers should trade or extend Boyd. The most-likely outcome probably is that they do neither and hope to avoid a repeat of the Michael Fulmer Experience.

What does this mean for you? Not much, really, except that we’re almost finished with our regimen of eating extra Little Caesars Hot-N-Readys to pay off the fun Prince Fielder days. Still worth it, in my opinion.

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Previously
RKB: 2020 Detroit Tigers Season Preview – PECOTA Ed.
RKB: How does new Detroit Tiger Austin Romine relate to his teammates?
RKB: An unprecedented offseason move?
RKB: Detroit’s long, municipal nightmare is over, as Al Avila has solved the Tigers’ bullpen woes
RKB: Brief 2019 Recapitulation