Detroit Tigers 2021 Season Preview

The day is here. A full season of baseball, we have many reasons to hope, lays before us. The Detroit Tigers’ opening contest, a home divisional matchup with Cleveland, begins at 1:10 this afternoon. It will be, we must begin by noting, the first opening day without Al Kaline as a part of the Tigers organization since 1954.

The leading public projection systems don’t particularly care for what they see in the Tigers roster this year (PECOTA: sixty-six wins; FanGraphs: seventy-one wins), but even seventy wins would feel like a good accomplishment for a team that hasn’t bested that mark since 2016.

With championship contention out of the question, the focus turns to individual accomplishments. In that regard, most of the spotlight rightly belongs to Miguel Cabrera. A full, healthy season puts in play for him in 2021 two major offensive milestones: 3,000 hits and 500 home runs. Cabrera’s place in Cooperstown already is assured, but these are lifetime-achievement benchmarks it’s difficult to imagine absent from his resume. Cabrera enters the season second on both the active hits (2,866) and home runs (487) leaderboards, trailing only Albert Pujols in both categories. Most observers are targeting August and September for Cabrera to hit these historic points. In the meantime, it will be fun to watch him pass other big names– Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Barry Bonds– on his way there.

The rest of the Tigers roster has perhaps more modest goals for this season. The PECOTA projection system sees a few interesting individual achievements of varying significance for a handful of players. Will Opening-Day starter Matthew Boyd finish the season with an ERA under 4.00 for the first time ever? Will Buck Farmer post his first career save? Will Jeimer Candelario go all year without being caught stealing for the first time since 2017? Will Cabrera hit his first triple since 2016?

Detroit fans definitely like Farmer’s odds. As fun as it would be to see Cabrera leg out another triple, I think I’m rooting for Farmer, if only because that might help my nickname for him– Deer Hunter– finally gain some traction.

The Candelario item highlights a broader strategic shift toward what seems like it will be a more aggressive style of play coming from new manager A.J. Hinch. After leading the Houston Astros from the bottom all the way to the top and then losing his job and serving a one-year suspension for his role in the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal, Hinch found a new home with the team for which he played an unmemorable season of third-string catcher nearly a decade ago. Although there is and will remain a cloud over it, Hinch’s managerial championship pedigree and association with some of the game’s brightest minds (a little too bright, perhaps) in Houston, together with his playing experience that includes time behind the dish in Detroit and his relative youth (he’ll turn forty-seven next month), all suggest he could be the best version of what the Tigers thought they’d found in Brad Ausmus back in 2014.

While Hinch appears to be a steady hand at the helm, this ship will sail only as far as ownership allows. As some of the team’s top pitching prospects begin to ripen, the task of finding run support for that budding rotation remains at the feet of Chris Ilitch. When the iron is hot, will he spend like his father did to add key free agents and push the team back into the top tier of contention? Or will he continue to churn the roster, keeping the team mired in a hunt for nothing more than intransigent mediocrity? I really like the Julio Teheran signing this offseason, but it’s moves of a different kind– think Prince Fielder or even Justin Upton, like Teheran, also a former Atlanta Brave– that soon will be needed. Is the young owner truly motivated to win? We’ll know before long.

For now, we have at our own feet that pure and exciting thing for which there is no need to wait: the Detroit Tigers are playing baseball today.

From Wayne Train to Crazy Train: Dan Campbell is the Motor City’s new mad man, and also the Lions are going to kick you in the teeth and bite off your kneecap

For the woebegone Detroit Lions, this offseason has offered a fresh take on an old theme. Controlling owner Sheila Firestone Ford Hamp cleaned out most of the front office, something her mother and father had done before. This time, though, Hamp first brought in two Lions legends, Chris Spielman and Barry Sanders, to work on the task of hiring Detroit’s next general manager and head coach.

So far, the results of their work have received widespread praise. GM Brad Holmes, who came up as a scout with the Rams, was their first hire. With the Matt Millen era still fresh in the minds of many fans, and thoughts of suboptimal picks by Bob Quinn due to frictious relationships between players and coach Matt Patricia even fresher, the idea of a general manager with a modern take on scouting and a successful track record to match is quite exciting.

Today, the team formally introduced its new head coach, former Lions tight end Dan Campbell. After a ten-season NFL playing career that finished with three seasons in Detroit (he signed with the New Orleans Saints before the 2008 season but never played due to an injury), he worked as a coach for the Miami Dolphins– rising to interim head coach following the firing of Joe Philbin– and Saints.

Campbell’s approach to football was on full display during an hourlong media conference that peaked right around this moment:

This is not Patricia’s faux tough-guy act, and even if it ends up descending into a WWE-meets-Tom-Thibodeau disaster, we’re playing with house money here. The situation really cannot get worse. From a perspective of pure entertainment, no one loses like the Lions lose, and, whatever the result, Campbell showed today he’ll add much more than a spark to that entertainment value.

If you haven’t already concussed yourself trying to run through the nearest brick wall, you can watch Campbell’s entire appearance here.

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: