Saving Detroit: A bad time for a bad season

For the Detroit Tigers, dark clouds have been looming on the horizon for long enough that a down season like the one they’re having now (57-73, .438) has not come as a complete surprise. That this was, in some sense, foreseeable– even if not entirely avoidable– doesn’t necessarily make it more palatable.

It’s no mystery that one of the Tigers’ most significant structural issues is the fact that they have a lot of their payroll resources tied up in a few large, long-term contracts with older players who are past their respective primes. As I observed at the beginning of last season, though, 2018 represents an important break point in the team’s present financial structure. There are two reasons for that: 1) some of those large contracts come off the Tigers’ books in 2018, and 2) the team’s current television deal with Fox Sports Detroit expires. It’s that second part that holds real financial potential:

Baseball might not grip the nation the way it once did and the way football now does, but the sport is extremely popular on a local level, making teams’ local broadcast rights as valuable as ever. The increasing price of these contracts means that the only thing better than a rich television contract is a new television contract. New television contracts are the things of which dreams are made– assuming you dream of signing a Zack-Greinke-caliber player or two.

Thus, the good news for Detroit: right about the time things could start to get ugly, payroll-wise, the team will be signing a new TV deal. Their current agreement, with Fox Sports Detroit, expires in 2018. As this Crain’s Detroit Business article highlights, the team has a few options, including negotiating an extension with FSD. It also could attempt to negotiate an ownership stake in whichever broadcast network it partners with going forward, something roughly half of the MLB clubs have done.

Team ownership and management may be seeing dollar signs after watching their rivals receive massive broadcast deals worth a billion dollars or more. Here is a portion of a FanGraphs table from 2016 showing the value of all of the MLB team television contracts signed since the Tigers executed their current TV contract in 2009:

mlb tv contracts

Of those teams for which the contract value is known, only Cleveland, Minnesota, and Colorado have reached television deals paying them less than a billion dollars, and all of the MLB television contracts signed since 2014 have been for at least $1 billion. Tigers leadership undoubtedly will be pointing to all of those recent deals in the negotiations with FSD (or another potential broadcast partner).

The bad timing of the team’s on-field struggles comes into play here too, though. After a decade of top-tier competitiveness, the 2017 Tigers won’t even sniff the wild-card chase, and everybody knows it. That probably explains why no team saw a larger relative drop in television ratings this season:

In terms of actual ratings, this isn’t the catastrophe it might appear to be, as the Tigers had been performing well, ratings-wise, in recent years. The eve of broadcast contract negotiations obviously isn’t the best time for a big dip in performance and ratings, however. One wonders whether, in light of the importance of these contracts, the team should have worked on a new TV deal a few years ago or should have instead triggered the inevitable rebuild a few years earlier in order to be able to make a more credible presentation of an upward-trending team in 2018.

Of course, it takes two to reach a meeting of the minds, so it’s possible the Tigers tried to get a jump on this during the winning days but weren’t able to make any headway with FSD at that time. It also is possible that these year-to-year fluctuations matter less than we outsiders think. Regardless, as we look toward the next era of Detroit Tigers baseball, the team’s new television contract will play as much of a role in shaping that next era as any current or future player contract.

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Previously
Jordan Zimmermann takes tennis lessons – 8/20
Tigers Notes, 8/8/17
– 8/8
Decoding the Upton Myth
– 8/2
Even the umpires just wanna go home
– 7/21

Yo, a J.D. Martinez trade comp – 7/19
Martinez trade triggers premature referendum on Avila – 7/19
Michael Fulmer has righted the ship
 – 6/27

Tigers in Retrograde – 6/19
Fixing Justin Upton
 – 5/31

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

Related
Statements both obvious and only slightly less obvious about the Detroit Tigers’ finances

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Dr. Doolittle knows the cure for baseball’s current ills, to the extent baseball currently is possessed of or by ills

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While MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred continues his increasingly tone-deaf and ineffective campaign to draw more fans to baseball by changing the game rather than changing the way people can follow the game, the real solution is becoming more and more obvious to everyone else. I’m not writing this post because new Washington Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle is the latest player to publicly agree with me; I’m writing it because he’s right:

We were talking about pace of game changes this spring — a similar effort in terms of changing rules to improve fan interaction with the game — but Nationals closer Sean Doolittle thought we were veering off course. “We’re talking about pretty drastic changes to shave five minutes from a game. Are you seeing a bunch of 20-year-olds lining up for season tickets?”

The lefty thought we should consider how the game is packaged and how people could better interact with the game. “Marketing? We’re not that good at it. Let’s see if we can use some of our personalities to drive traffic and energize the game. Blackout rules. Millennials don’t pay for cable. Allow more gifs and videos on social media. Statcast could help if you use it right — showcasing how athletic some of these guys are.”

He’s speaking to the point I (and others, of course) have been making about baseball for as long as I can remember, and I have a very short memory. From April, when I thought MLBAM cut me off from my MLB.tv subscription:

Baseball is a fine game, and to the extent people will like it, they probably will do so for what it is. I’m not opposed to all measures designed, for example, to reduce the time between pitches (or the time spent on commercial breaks). Rather than changing the game he wants people to watch, though, Manfred ought to change the way people can watch the game, obviously by making it easier for them to do so. That approach would allow him to demonstrate more confidence in the quality of the sport he oversees. Instead, his approach has made the national conversation around baseball into one about how boring it currently is. Probably not the best notion for the league’s commissioner to be pushing, especially because no amount of reform is going to be able to radically remake baseball into some sort of rapid, flowing game like hockey or basketball and still have it be recognizable as “baseball.” He’s painted himself into a public-relations corner, and the sooner he switches from emphasizing perceived negatives to emphasizing positives, such as (hypothetical) proposals to make the game even easier to watch and interact with, the better.

From March, when Manfred made the most significant change to the sport in nearly 140 years:

It’s difficult to know whether fans should be insulted or merely disappointed with Manfred. It also is unclear who should be pleased by [his elimination of the four-pitch intentional walk]. What is clear is that Manfred will not shy away from making fundamental changes to the game in pursuit of a poorly defined goal. That means that we should expect that his past proposals, including a pitch clock and a ban on defensive shifts, absolutely are on the table going forward. As for changes that actually might help draw a younger audience to the sport, like removing local broadcast blackouts on streaming devices or decreasing the cost of attending games? Don’t hold your breath.

This should be an easy one, Commissioner. If you won’t listen to me, at least listen to your players.

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Previously
Pace of Play Isn’t Going Away
Rob Manfred’s Use Your Illusion Tour
MLB in retrograde

Saving Detroit: Tigers Notes, 8/8/17

detroit tigers notes

While trades– including a trade of Justin Verlander– technically remain a possibility at this point in the year, it looks like the Detroit Tigers will content themselves with playing out the final two months of this season with their current crew and an eye toward the future. For this site, that probably means that the pages of this season’s Tigers diary will be a little emptier than they might be if the team were more aggressive in the trade market or competing for a playoff berth. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t interesting items to track, though. Here are a few:

    • Justin Upton: As highlighted here last week, Upton’s been trimming his bugaboo strikeout rate, but he’s continuing to strike out in bad situations. Since that post, he’s appeared in six games and added four two-out strikeouts to his total, pushing him into a tie for eleventh on the MLB-wide list (minimum 100 two-out plate appearances) in 2017. With 3.6 fWAR, Upton continues to be the team’s best position player by a comfortable margin, as well as its best overall player. In that post last week, I speculated that Upton is unlikely to opt out of his contract this offseason due, in part, to a weak market for corner outfielders with his profile. Over at The Athletic’s new Detroit vertical, Neil Weinberg is more optimistic about Upton’s open-market prospects, calling the “odds that Upton opts out . . . quite high.”
    • Miguel Cabrera: I’ve been working up a full post on Cabrera’s tough season, which has a good chance to be the worst of his career. (For a forward-looking analysis, my career comparison between Cabrera and Albert Pujols is here.) Besides the obvious drop in production, one thing that jumps out is his batting average on balls in play, which, at .296, is below .300 for the first time ever (career .345 BABIP). Last month, Weinberg did the logical thing and dove into Cabrera’s swing profile and batted-ball data tabulated by StatCast. The problem, from our perspective, is that there isn’t a ton there. Cabrera continues to rank high (currently number one, minimum 200 at bats, by a large margin) on the xwOBA-wOBA chart, an indication that he’s making good contact despite poor results. From watching games this season, it seems like Cabrera turns away from inside (but not that inside) pitches more often than in years past, which makes me wonder if he simply isn’t seeing pitches as well. (Weinberg noticed that he’s swinging less often than usual at inside pitches.)
      When observing the decline of a great player, it can be fun to take a break from the dissection to remember his youth, which the remarkable achievements of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper gave us occasion to do today:

Continue reading

Saving Detroit: Decoding the Upton Myth

“The Upton Myth” has nothing to do with the delayed Upton-Verlander nuptials and everything to do with Verlander’s teammate of no known relation to his fiancee, Justin. To hear fans tell it, the Detroit Tigers left fielder’s two-year tenure in Detroit has not been a happy one. Many of them want Upton to opt out of his $22.125 million annual contract after the current season but believe he’s been too bad since becoming a Tiger to make that a realistic possibility.

The critical Upton narrative is confounding for the reasons many external narratives about people confound: it originates in an established truth that’s treated as a surprise and subsequently serves to obscure the truth moving forward. For Upton, the established truth was that he struck out at a high rate. When he arrived in the Motor City, some seemed surprised that he continued to strike out at a high rate, pegged him as an overpaid failure, and haven’t looked back.

First impressions are powerful and sticky, so when Upton had a very poor start to his first season in Detroit last year, many gave up on him, ignoring signs that the outfielder– who was adjusting to the American League after nine years on the senior circuit– had returned to form by August but was hamstrung by bad luck. Then there was that validating September explosion– Upton hit thirteen home runs, slashed .292/.382/.750, and posted a 196 wRC+, basically Babe Ruth’s career line, nearly propelling the fading Tigers to the postseason all by himself– that somehow was forgotten amidst the sudden excitement of a playoff push and a disappointing finish in Atlanta. The thought that, with Upton, the Tigers didn’t get what they wanted in 2016 seems a bit off. There was an extended bad stretch, to be sure, but Upton’s always been a streaky, high strikeout, high home run guy, and that’s who he was in 2016, tying a career-best mark by finishing with thirty-one homers.

The current season, already an unequivocal, strong bounceback from last year’s harsh dip, has seen Upton achieve a quiet consistency that has him on track for what could be the second or third-best season of his eleven-year career.

Still, the Upton Myth persists. Nevermind that his 26.2% strikeout rate (current MLB average strikeout rate: 21.6%) remains in line with career norms and recently dipped as low as it has in years:

jup k rate 8-2-17

Nevermind that, by fWAR, he’s clearly been the team’s best player this season (table only showing offensive players, but Verlander (3.3 fWAR) and Michael Fulmer (2.1 fWAR) also trail):

tigers fwar 8-2-17

Tigers fans still blow their tops whenever Upton strikes out, though (and even considering that reducing his strikeout percentage– something he probably could do if he chose– likely wouldn’t alter Upton’s overall production profile). Why does the anti-Upton rhetoric remain?

There’s a kernel of truth at the heart of the Upton Myth, as it turns out. Even though his strikeout rate isn’t extreme and he’s been the team’s biggest positive contributor this season, fans still have reason to get down on Upton not because of the overall frequency of his strikeouts, but because of their in-game timing. Upton leads the team in inning-ending strikeouts, those deflating, rally killing, #TTBDNS-inducing strikeouts that have a way of sticking in observers’ minds. Among the 200 MLB hitters with at least 100 two-out plate appearances in 2017, Upton is tied for eighteenth in total strikeouts in that situation, and a majority of the guys in front of him on that list have higher strikeout rates, often significantly so. Whether it’s his position in the batting order or some other unfortunate sequencing circumstance, Upton’s strikeout propensity seems even worse because of when those strikeouts occur.     Continue reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saving Detroit: Martinez trade triggers premature referendum on Avila

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Shortly before tonight’s game against the Royals in Kansas City, the Detroit Tigers traded right fielder J.D. Martinez to the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for three infield prospects: Dawel Lugo, Sergio Alcantara, and Jose King.

As he has in every season since he joined the Tigers and reconstructed his swing, Martinez has been among the best hitters in baseball in 2017. If he had enough plate appearances to qualify, he would be the fifth best hitter in baseball by wRC+ (162) to this point in the current season. He doesn’t yet have enough plate appearances to qualify, though, because he again missed time due to injury this year, and his defensive contributions continue to oscillate between positive and negative. He’s also a rental, with free agency and a significant payday headed his direction this offseason.

That last part is the reason the Tigers had to trade Martinez this month. In the combined absence of an ability to resign him on the open market and of a currently competitive team, they had to cash out whatever value they could now. Still, most Detroit fans are reacting to this trade with extreme disappointment, and national observers are calling the Tigers’ return for Martinez “very light.”

Yes, Martinez likely is going to crush left-handed pitching in the NL West and see his power numbers soar even higher in the thin desert air, but he’s still a rental with an inky injury report. Tigers fans understandably came to love Martinez, but their apparent hopes that his always inevitable trade would return a prospect haul the likes of which the White Sox just secured from their crosstown rival in exchange for Jose Quintana are not reasonable. Since 2014, Martinez has been worth 9.2 WARP and Quintana has been worth 12.7 WARP. (Simply for context, Miguel Cabrera contributed 14.5 WARP over that period.) The new Cubs pitcher also is over a year younger than Martinez and has team-friendly years remaining on his contract. It makes sense that trading Quintana would net the White Sox a package including one of the sport’s overall top prospects. Ten weeks of Martinez simply pales in comparison.

The Tigers’ trade has generated plenty of criticism of the team’s first-year general manager, Al Avila. I am not a prospect scout, but, from the perspective of the team’s fan base, I think much of this criticism is, at a minimum, premature. Avila has many years of experience as an assistant general manager under Dave Dombrowski and is well-regarded as a talent evaluator. He is entitled to the same benefit of the doubt fans accorded Dombrowski, whose transactions were regarded with assumed confidence and assessed together, rather than individually.

Still, it is difficult not to at least be a little bit disappointed right now, when the clear weight of the initial assessments of this trade do not cast Detroit’s position in a favorable light.

For Detroit, the 2006-2016 run is over and the proverbial window is closed. The next two weeks are of critical importance to this team’s future. Maybe they stumbled out of the gate with tonight’s trade, but there are more moves to be made. Keep an eye on Justin Wilson, Alex Avila, and even Justin Verlander. Painful as it feels, this, for better and worse, is how a new age of Detroit baseball begins.

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Previously
Saving Detroit: Michael Fulmer has righted the ship – 6/27
Saving Detroit: Tigers in Retrograde – 6/19
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

Related
Is the next Mike Trout already in Detroit?
Man vs. Machine

Sports Law Roundup – 7/14/2017

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I used to write the sports technology roundup at TechGraphs, an internet website that died, and now I am writing the sports law roundup at ALDLAND, an internet website.

Here are the top sports-related legal stories from the past week:

  • Hou-Hugh Feud: Houston Nutt, which is a real human man’s name, is the former head football coach at Ole Miss. He has sued that school and its athletic department because, he alleges, school representatives’ public statements linking an ongoing NCAA investigation of the university’s football program to Nutt violated a term of the 2011 severance agreement between Nutt and Ole Miss precluding the university from, in the complaint’s words, “making any statement whatsoever relative to Coach Nutt’s tenure as an employee of Ole Miss that might damage or harm his reputation as a football coach. Ole Miss was contractually prohibited from making any statement whatsoever, truthful or not, that may damage or harm Coach Nutt’s reputation.” The complaint highlights, in substantial detail, statements to reporters by Ole Miss Athletic Director Ross Bjork, Sports Information Director Kyle Campbell, and current head football coach Hugh Freeze, whose scheduled appearance at SEC Media Days was twenty-four hours after Nutt filed his lawsuit. Freeze did not directly address the allegations that day, saying only that he was not happy with the “ironic” timing of the filing of the suit and that he hadn’t seen Nutt in years. Freeze also read a prepared no-comment statement during his turn at the podium, thereafter referring to the NCAA investigation– and, indirectly, the lawsuit– as “the lot that we’ve inherited or caused in some cases,” a statement Nutt likely will cite as Freeze’s unrepentant casting of blame on Nutt.
  • Cheerleader wages: In May, the Milwaukee Bucks and Lauren Herington, a former cheerleader for the team who alleged that the team violated federal and state labor laws by underpaying her and her fellow cheerleaders, reached a $250,000 settlement of Herington’s proposed class action lawsuit that provided for the settlement funds to be divided as follows: $10,000 for Herington; $115,000 for Herington’s attorneys; and unspecified shares of the remaining $125,000 to Herington and other would-be class members who opt into the settlement based on their hours worked during the three-year period (2012-15) at issue. Now, the judge overseeing the case conditionally certified it as a collective action for settlement purposes but refused to approve the settlement agreement itself, explaining that he currently lacks sufficient information to determine “whether the settlement ‘is a fair and reasonable resolution’ of” the dispute. Prior reports indicated that the $250,000 settlement amount was significantly less than what some other teams paid to resolve similar lawsuits.
  • Daily Fantasy Sports: Last month, the inevitable merger between DraftKings and FanDuel announced last November hit a probably inevitable regulatory hurdle when the Federal Trade Commission filed a lawsuit in an attempt to block the merger, and a judge granted the FTC a temporary restraining order that halted the merger. In an email to users sent yesterday, DraftKings announced that it has “formally terminated our merger with FanDuel and will withdraw litigation from [sic?]” the FTC.
  • Baseball DUI: This spring, a South Korean court sentenced Pittsburgh Pirates infielder Jung Ho Kang to eight months in prison after the player admitted guilt on a DUI charge. The prison sentence was Kang’s first, but it arose out of his third DUI arrest in his native country. As a result, Kang had trouble securing a visa to reenter the U.S., which caused him to miss all of spring training, and, now, the entire first half of the current MLB season. This week, Pirates GM Neal Huntington said that one could “pretty much eliminate the thought” that Kang would play for Pittsburgh in 2017, and that the team has turned its “optimistic” eyes toward a 2018 return.
  • Umpire discrimination: Last week, Angel Hernandez, a longtime MLB umpire who is of Cuban descent, sued the league on claims arising out of general allegations of racial discrimination against minority umpires in promotions to crew chief status and in World Series assignments, among other claims. This week, FanGraphs identified Hernandez as the umpire responsible for the worst called strike of the first half of the 2017 season.

Sports court is in recess.

Swansongs, Vol. 3

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It has been exactly ten months since an occasion has arisen to file a new entry in this series on Atlanta Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson. Thankfully, last night’s win in an unusual game on the road against the Nationals provided an opportunity to revisit the former Vanderbilt star and top overall pick in the MLB draft.

With the Braves leading the Nationals 5-2 in the bottom of the eighth inning, Swanson, positioned on the first-base side of second as part of an infield shift in place against Nationals batter Matt Wieters, snagged a late one-hopper behind him that caused him to go to the ground. Swanson nevertheless was able to flip the ball to the covering third baseman, who went on to complete the inning-ending double play. Full video is available here.

Back in September, when I last wrote about Swanson here, it would’ve been difficult to believe that it wouldn’t be until nearly the All Star break before I would write about him again. Now, the All Star game comes as something of a sore subject in this context. My sure bet for 2017 NL rookie of the year, Swanson wasn’t even among the top five ASG vote-getters at his position.

If you, brave soul, have watched any Atlanta baseball games this year, though this doesn’t come as much of a surprise. In 145 plate appearances last season, Swanson was roughly average at the plate (107 wRC+; but cf. .303 TAv ). This was the source of excitement about Swanson. Everyone knew his glove would play at short, and the evidence of an average-to-slightly-above-average bat suggested great promise for his future. It’s far too soon to abandon hope in that promise, of course; after all, Swanson’s only twenty-three years old. For the time being, though, Swanson appears to have left that bat of his back in 2016. So far this season, he’s been a decidedly below-average performer at the plate (62 wRC+, .234 TAv). By the FanGraphs’ metric, no other shortstop has been worse than Swanson on offense through the same number of plate appearances. While part of that is due to a very rough start, his performance since then hasn’t exactly been a consistent upward climb.

Since Swanson’s defense continues to be solid, the question remains whether he’ll be able to find his batting legs again in the second half of this season. The good– if tentatively so– news is that he at least appears to be trying to correct course. One of the unusual things about Swanson’s approach through the first quarter of the 2017 season was a large dropoff in his swing rates. Just as suddenly as he stopped swinging, perhaps due to a lack of confidence after poor results, though, he– sometime around the end of May and the beginning of June– began swinging again, and generally doing so more than ever.

swansonswing 7-6-17

(There is a way to present this that’s even more visually dramatic, but I’m learning that some readers may prefer the telling of a story with one graph rather than three or nine.)

There’s a lot of noise in the rest of Swanson’s offensive data, and the improved results haven’t yet surfaced, but there’s evidence that Swanson– along with new Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer– is tinkering. Publicly, the entire coaching staff has been nothing but supportive of Swanson throughout his struggles, speaking both to his efforts at improvement and his confidence, the latter undoubtedly aided by the team’s refusal to send Swanson down to the minors.

Swanson’s going to have to do more than just swing the bat if he wants to get back to helping his team on offense as well as defense, of course. Fortunately, there is some indirect evidence that Swanson is on the right track. As Swanson began increasing his swing rates a month ago, opposing pitchers– whose behavioral changes sometimes are the best indicators of a batter’s changing level of success– started decreasing the number of pitches they threw him in the strike zone, often an indication that they view the batter as a more dangerous hitter.

swansonzone 7-6-17

On the other hand, it could be less a sign of respect for Swanson’s bat and more a simple recognition that Swanson’s swinging more at everything these days. Without the results, it’s hard to tell. Even though it isn’t likely to conclude with a rookie of the year trophy, tThe story of the second half of Swanson’s 2017 is going to be an interesting one.

 

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Previously
Swansongs, Vol. 2
Swansongs, Vol. 1

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.

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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