Saving Detroit: Michael Fulmer has righted the ship

michael-fulmer-nelson2

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.

Brooksbaseball-Chart-1

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

era-fip 6-17

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

Man vs. Machine

pujols cabrera

The great Miguel Cabrera is thirty-four years old. His team, once a surefire contender, is stuck in neutral, and Cabrera, their ostensible offensive engine, has only been slightly above average at the plate (108 wRC+, which would be the worst of any of his seasons since his rookie year (106 wRC+)).

It looks like we are seeing the beginning of Cabrera’s inevitable decline, which has observers taking stock of Cabrera’s likely legacy and projecting his place among the greats once he puts that magic bat down for good. For example, Yooper David Laurila included this observation in a recent edition of his Sunday Notes column:

Lou Gehrig had 8,001 at bats, 534 doubles and 493 home runs. Miguel Cabrera has 8,028 at bats, 533 doubles, and 451 home runs.

The day before, conversation on Fredi the Pizzaman’s Pizza Cave Podcast turned to Cabrera as the panel debated whether he would join Albert Pujols in the 600-home run club. (Pujols, whose major-league debut came two years before Cabrera’s, passed that milestone on June 4 of this year.) That discussion prompted a broader one about both players’ achievements and legacies.

Here’s a quick graph to introduce and orient this comparative analysis:

chart-2

By aligning the two players’ offensive performances (measured by wOBA) to their individual age-seasons, we can develop a rough snapshot of their careers at the plate. This graph illustrates a couple of significant trends. First, it’s easy to identify the clear tipping point in Pujols’ career, which very clearly has two distinct halves. Second, Pujols came out of the gate hotter than Cabrera, who needed a couple years to ramp things up. Both achieved production levels that make them generational talents, but when it comes to counting statistics (like career home run totals), the gap in those early years may be what will end up separating these two in the final analysis. All players eventually decline, but that just means it’s going to be tougher for Cabrera to make up for his comparatively slow start now.

pujols cabrera hr career

Again, this graph compares Pujols and Cabrera by aligning their career seasons. Even though they’ve accumulated homers at a similar rate, merely keeping pace in that regard likely won’t be enough for Cabrera in light of Pujols’ head start unless Cabrera has more years left in his tank than Pujols has in his. And right now, that first part– keeping pace– isn’t looking so sure for Cabrera. Here’s the same graph as the one above expanded to include 2017 numbers:

pujols cabrera hr career

This comparison to Pujols thus suggests that Cabrera is unlikely to reach the 600-homer benchmark for two reasons: 1) a slow start and 2) what looks to be an early– relative to Pujols– decline. None of this is to say that Cabrera can’t or won’t reach 600 home runs. Comparing him to the most recent guy to do it suggests that, absent some change, he’s unlikely to get there.

That change could come in the form of a late-career rejuvenation. Cabrera’s capable of ripping off amazing offensive tears, and he certainly could do that again. It always has felt a bit odd to think of Cabrera as unlucky, but there continues to be evidence that Cabrera’s offensive numbers should be even better than they already are based on the quality of contact he makes. A third change could be a positional one. Just as David Ortiz extended his career by becoming a full-time designated hitter, the thought is that Cabrera could alleviate some of the strain on his body by being relieved of his defensive obligations.

All of this is relative, of course. Failure to accumulate 600 home runs is no indictment on a player or his legacy. Only nine players ever accomplished that feat, and three of them are Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, and Sammy Sosa. Three more of them are Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, and Willie Mays.

 

While we’re here, two concluding notes on the overall comparison between Pujols and Cabrera. The first, which came up on the podcast episode linked above, involves postseason success. As a rookie, Cabrera was a member of the Florida Marlins team that won the World Series in 2003. Pujols was a member of the 2006 Cardinals team that swept Cabrera’s Tigers in the World Series, as well as the 2011 World Series team that beat the Rangers in seven games. Pujols also has been a better hitter in the playoffs, though both have been significantly above average (164 wRC+ vs. 136 wRC+). Postseason appearances are significantly team and context-dependent and involve small samples (seventy-seven games for Pujols and fifty-five for Cabrera), but it’s something to mention.

The second is a total career assessment. Neither player is retired, obviously, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take a peek at what their legacies look like right now. One way to do that is with JAWS, an analytical tool designed to assess Hall-of-Fame candidacy. Its creator, Jay Jaffe, explains:

JAWS is a tool for measuring a candidate’s Hall of Fame worthiness by comparing him to the players at his position who are already enshrined. It uses the baseball-reference.com version of Wins Above Replacement to estimate a player’s total hitting, pitching and defensive value to account for the wide variations in scoring levels that have occurred throughout the game’s history and from ballpark to ballpark. A player’s JAWS is the average of his career WAR total and that of his peak, which I define as his best seven years. All three are useful for comparative purposes, as Hall of Famers come in different shapes and sizes. Some—Hank Greenberg, Ralph Kiner, Sandy Koufax, Jackie Robinson—dominated over periods of time cut short by injuries, military service or the color line. Others such as Eddie Murray, Don Sutton and Dave Winfield showed remarkable staying power en route to major milestones. While it’s convenient to believe that every Hall of Famer must do both to be worthy of a bronze plaque in Cooperstown, they can’t all be Babe Ruth, Ted Williams or Willie Mays, or the institution would merely become a tomb, sealed off because so few have come along to measure up in their wake.

For the purposes of comparison, players are classified at the position where they accrued the most value, which may be different from where they played the most games, particularly as players tend to shift to positions of less defensive responsibility—and thus less overall value—as they age. Think Ernie Banks at shortstop (54.8 WAR in 1,125 games there from 1953 to ’61) as opposed to first base (12.8 WAR in 1,259 games there from ’62 to ’71). A small handful of enshrined players, including pioneers and Negro Leaguers with less than 10 years of major league service, are excluded from the calculations; Satchel Paige and Monte Irvin, for example, had major league careers too short to use as yardsticks for non-Negro League players.

By JAWS, Pujols and Cabrera both are clear Hall of Famers even if neither ever played another game, but there’s a clear separation between the two. JAWS has Pujols as the second-best first baseman ever, trailing only the aforementioned Gehrig, while Cabrera currently slots at the eleventh position, right next to Jim Thome (another one of those 600-HR guys). Pujols has two more years under his ample belt than does Cabrera, and neither is done playing. (This probably is a decent place to note contract details: Pujols has four more years on his current contract, while Cabrera has at least six.) As with the home-run chase, so too with overall career value: Cabrera has a good bit of work to do if he’s to catch Pujols.

The book is not closed on either of these two great baseball stories. Pujols and Cabrera have yet to author their final chapters. The balance of their works likely are complete, however, and from that we can make educated predictions. Both have their high points and distinct achievements, but it looks like Pujols’ early peak will prove a little too high and too long for Cabrera to close the gap. Here’s hoping I’m wrong.

Saving Detroit: Tigers in Retrograde

sanchezheadline

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.

______________________________________________

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

Saving Detroit: Fixing Justin Upton

jup bubble

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.

______________________________________________

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?

Saving Detroit: Soft in the Middle Now

The subtitle of this post nearly was “Weakness Abounds,” since the Detroit Tigers are in a real rough spot right now, and, until last night (and even including most of last night, really), it seemed like nearly everything that could go wrong for this team was going wrong, but then I thought of a much better and more accurate one that also allowed me to lead with that music video. The Tigers have fallen to a 24-29 record, four games out of the division, and, while all is not lost, it’s becoming quite easy to feel that way. A thing that happens sometimes when you focus on putting out the various fires– like the bullpen, as a ready example– popping up on a team struggling to hold it together is that you can take for granted the team’s presumed consistent strengths, however minor, and forget to keep an eye on them too. With the offense collectively slumping as bad as it has been and the entire pitching staff acting like it was playing for the opposing teams, this was easy to do.

One of those good things the Tigers thought they had on lock was their up-the-middle defense. When your pitchers are giving up a lot of contact, a double play can be a life-saver. Shortstop Jose Iglesias’ bat hasn’t held up this season, but we always knew he was in the lineup for his defense, and it was just last year that we were beginning to discuss Ian Kinsler’s dark-horse Hall-of-Fame candidacy. At least as far as defense was concerned, these were two guys the Tigers didn’t have to worry about.

And yet, when their pitchers most needed bailouts, the defense has faltered. Baseball Prospectus tracks double-play percentage (DP%), defined as the number of times a team converts double-play opportunities into double plays. Obviously this is a coarse measure for evaluating a particular double-play tandem for a number of reasons, including the fact that it operates on a team level, and, in this case, Iglesias and Kinsler didn’t play every single game together. Double plays also commonly involve the other infielders too. Still, the DP% numbers paint a stark picture for the Iglesias-Kinsler era in Detroit.

det dp percent

Iglesias and Kinsler have been the Tigers’ starting shortstop and second baseman, respectively, since 2015. In the first two seasons of the current tandem, 2015 and 2016, the team did a very good job of converting double-play opportunities. As a team, the Tigers were, at very best, average when it came to overall defense during this period, but Iglesias and Kinsler were supposed to be the glue that made the whole fielding operation passable. When it came to completing double plays, they held up their end of the bargain. Something (or somethings) aren’t right so far in 2017, though, and the dramatic dropoff in DP% hardly could come at a worse time for Detroit’s floundering pitching staff.

Tonight’s game is about to start, so I’ll leave things here for now, but this may be a thing– among a great many, to be sure– to keep an eye on as the Tigers turn toward summer and begin to evaluate their team-level strategic direction.

______________________________________________

Previously
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?

Saving Detroit: Reliever Relief, Part 2

anibal sanchez bench

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

krod1280_puet24kh_yf9khwjd

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:

screen-shot-2017-05-07-at-9-24-12-pm

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.

Staffords of the future

139300676-e1421232552575

Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford and his wife Kelly recently became parents of twin girls, an event that presents an opportunity to consider an interesting question, or, at least, a very typical question made interesting by attendant circumstances. When an athlete has a child, many assume– for plenty of good reasons– that the child will follow in his or her parent’s athletic footsteps. That speculation is all the more present when both parents are athletes, of course, as anyone who remembers the Steffi Graf-Andre Agassi wedding (or the Curry family) can attest.

Stafford’s sport, football, has begun a fall from grace in the public eye, and, we’re told, youth football will dry up as parents decline to permit their children to participate in a sport that now almost seems designed to induce lasting brain trauma.

On the other hand, there has been a push for increased inclusiveness in sports, from openly gay or transgender athletes to women pushing their way into male-dominated leagues. Little League World Series star Mo’ne Davis sparked a new drama series on network television, and eloquent and mortally conscious baseball observer Sam Miller wrote after the Chicago Cubs’ curse-breaking World Series win that the chance to see a female player in the major leagues was the only likely historical baseball event worth living for.

These two arguably diverging trends return us to the subject of the Stafford twins and the speculative question at the heart of this post: Is it more likely that one or both of the Stafford girls grows up to play football, or that football essentially doesn’t exist by the time they grow up?

Red Wings playoff-appearance streak ends after 25 years

89 wings

A 4-1 loss to Carolina last night mathematically eliminated the Detroit Red Wings from playoff contention, meaning that this spring will be the first since 1990 that the team has not played in a postseason game. There is everything and nothing to say about this fact, which signals the end, after twenty-five years, of what was the longest-active postseason-appearance streak in professional sports. Continue reading

2017 Detroit Tigers Season Preview

ilitch_2011_1280_flh1eab9_fdp8496l

MLB opening day is almost here, and the Detroit Tigers are going to play some baseball. For the third consecutive season, Mark Sands, my Banished to the Pen colleague, and I have prepared a Tigers season preview, which is available right now on that site. Shifting away from the more formal structure we’ve used in the past, this year’s preview is a by-the-numbers countdown to opening day. The 2017 season promises to be one of the most wide-open seasons for Detroit in recent memory. This preview is as good a way as I’ve found to get yourself geared up to enjoy it, and I guarantee it’s the only one to incorporate never-before-published original photography by this author of the final game of the Tigers’ 2016 season.

The full post is available here.