Saving Detroit: Keystone Light

Ian Kinsler’s 2017 isn’t going that well, particularly at the plate, where the Detroit Tigers second baseman is having, by a wide margin, the worst season of his career. To quickly look at two measures of offensive production, he’s running an 87 wRC+ (100 is league average, and he’s never finished a season below 100) and a .237 TAv (.260 is league average, and he’s only once finished a season below .260 (.256 in 2014)). (Without digging too deep, low power and BABIP numbers may be immediate culprits and evidence of aging.)

As the Tigers look to the future, one of their most pressing decisions will involve how they part ways with Kinsler, who has been a solid performer and veteran leader since he joined the team in 2014. This week, a few additional details have emerged about Kinsler’s contract that may affect both his future trade value and how the Tigers deploy him in the meantime.

Right now, 2017 is the last guaranteed season of Kinsler’s contract. If the season ended today, the Tigers would have the option to keep Kinsler for one more year, in which they would owe him $10 million, or pay him a $5 million buyout and part ways. That “if” comes with a significant caveat, however: should Kinsler make 600 plate appearances this season, the 2018 option would vest, guaranteeing his 2018 contract year. And, if he wins a gold glove award this year, that guaranteed 2018 year would be at an $11 million salary.

The Tigers likely aren’t too worried about either of these two things, because a) they almost certainly would exercise their option to keep Kinsler for 2018 and b) $11 million probably is a fair (leaning team-friendly) price for Kinsler on a one-year contract that shouldn’t adversely affect his trade value.

Still, I’m interested to watch how the Tigers manage him down the stretch. Unless they move him to designated hitter for the remainder of the season, they probably can’t alter his chances of winning a gold glove (he currently leads all second basemen in UZR), but they can ration his plate appearances.

When news of these additional contract details broke on Wednesday, Kinsler had made 522 plate appearances and Detroit had twenty-four games remaining. If he played in every remaining game, he would need to average 3.25 plate appearances per game to hit 600 PA, a reasonable task for a seemingly healthy leadoff hitter. He made four plate appearances that night before being pulled for Andrew Romine on the losing side of a 13-2 game. Assuming he plays in each of the remaining games, Kinsler now needs to average just 3.22 PA/G to make it to 600.

This almost certainly is much ado about nothing, but it’s something to watch as this season winds down that isn’t the scoreboard (or the win-loss columns).

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Previously
An updated look at 2018 (and a quick check on 2006) – 9/1
It’s Over
– 9/1
Upton There – 8/31

A bad time for a bad season – 8/29
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

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.

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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?

Michael Fulmer and the changing face of the Detroit Tigers

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

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

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

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

Catching Fire: Cabrera leads by example

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In an odd way, it’s tough to find an excuse to write about Miguel Cabrera in a season series like this one, because he’s so consistently good that, within his own context, his day-to-day achievements don’t stand out. If, from a coverage perspective, the greats miss out on talent-correlated attention during the season, though, they tend to make up for it during the big moments, like playoff races and the postseason.

The Detroit Tigers are in the final countdown for the 2016 season. Monday was their last off-day until the season ends on October 2. Their playoff odds have tumbled, but they’ve managed to keep pace at about two games back of the second AL wild card spot, meaning that their postseason hopes remain very much alive. The reason those playoff odds are low, though, is because they’re running out of time. Every remaining game is of critical importance, and while the Tigers really need to win each of these games (or, at least, a vast majority of them), even doing that won’t guarantee a playoff berth unless the teams ahead of them falter.

Cabrera knew the stakes last night, during the team’s first game of this crucial final stretch. Detroit already was missing two of its biggest bats– Cabrera’s Venezuelan countryman Victor Martinez and Ian Kinsler, also an important vocal leader– due to a brutal triple HBP run by Cleveland’s Trevor Bauer (Cabrera also was a victim) in a costly win on Sunday, which meant Cabrera would need to shoulder even more of the offensive load than usual.

In the fourth inning, leading by a slim 1-0 margin, Cabrera decided to manufacture a run essentially all by himself, and not by way of a snappy home run blast. First, he stretched his single into a double; then advanced to third on a dangerously shallow fly-out; and, finally and amazingly, scored from there on an infield hit to the third baseman. Cabrera’s Billy Hamilton impression is one of the most impressive baseball moments I’ve seen this year (here’s the video), and he delivered it for the benefit of his teammates at the perfect moment. While it’s impossible to say whether the team’s subsequent offensive breakout– they ended up winning 8-1, with Cabrera also contributing a two-run homer– came as a result of this moment or the team simply (finally) catching up to bad Minnesota pitching, Cabrera’s baserunning in the fourth, which resulted in what ultimately proved to be the winning run, sent an unmistakable message to his teammates.   Continue reading

Farewell, again, dear Prince

Nearly three years ago, Detroit Tigers fans said goodbye to Prince Fielder, whom the team traded in the 2013 offseason to Texas in exchange for Ian Kinsler. At the time, many were glad to see him leave, though some, including this author, were not. All must agree, however, that when Fielder left Detroit, he became barely a shadow of his former Ironman self. In his two years as a Tiger, he didn’t miss a single game. Excluding his rookie year, in the eight years he spent in Milwaukee and Detroit, he missed a total of thirteen games, playing the full 162 in four of those eight seasons. That’s an impressive accomplishment for any player.

If one wanted to be cold about it, one might note that, 2014, Fielder’s first in Texas, was a year of insult and injury for Prince. Not only did his trade replacement, Kinsler, make the All-Star team on his way to completing the second-best season of his career, but Fielder underwent season-ending neck surgery in late May, appearing in just forty-two games for his new club. He seemed to bounce back in 2015, posting a .305/.378/.463 line in 158 games, but it has been trouble again for Fielder in 2016. Despite his team’s success, Prince arguably was the worst position player of the first half of the season, and things weren’t looking up in the second half. After playing in all but five of the Rangers’ games through July 18, Fielder again went on the disabled list and, after undergoing a second neck surgery, is expected to miss the remainder of this season.

It may not just be the rest of the season he misses, however, as shocking reports emerged this afternoon that Prince’s career may be over:

If true, then, as a number of people have pointed out, Prince will finish with a .283/.382/.506 line, .304 TAv, .377 wOBA, 133 wRC+, 26.8 fWAR / 23.8 bWAR / 30.3 WARP, and 319 home runs, the same number of home runs his father, Cecil, with whom he seems to have reconciled, hit in a career just one season longer than his son’s.

Although serious injuries seemed to dim his wattage following the trade to Texas, I always will remember Prince Fielder as a complete hitter who was one of the happiest baseball players I ever saw. His friendship with Miguel Cabrera was particularly endearing.  What follows are some of my favorite images and clips from Prince’s playing days:   Continue reading

Catching Fire: Ian Kinsler is the San Francisco Giants of the MLB All Star Game

kinsler breaking records

Last night, MLB announced the rosters for the 2016 All-Star Game. Not included: Detroit Tigers second baseman Ian Kinsler. All Kinsler has done since coming to Detroit in the Prince Fielder trade is quietly build what some have called a Hall-of-Fame career.

The last time I wrote about Kinsler, I noticed that, after his rookie season (2006), he had made the All-Star Game in each even-year season and been left out each odd-year season. Basically, Kinsler is the San Francisco Giants of All-Star Games. While Kinsler’s omission from the AL’s initial ASG roster places that streak of sorts at risk, hope for its continuation remains in the form of the “Final Vote,” in which fans now may vote for one of five candidates in each league for the final roster spot on that league’s roster.

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That means that anyone reading this, along with the many, many people who are not reading this, can make Kinsler an all star by voting online here or texting “A1” to 89269 on your variable-intelligence mobile telephone. It’s pretty easy, minimally invasive, and needs to be done, if at all, before 4:00 pm on Friday.   Continue reading

Feel like they never tell you the story of the Gose?

Last night, the Detroit Tigers’ 2016 season finally got underway in Miami, where the team opened a two-game series against the Marlins. I’m perhaps over-eager to employ this concept, but if Detroit’s 8-7 win in eleven innings wasn’t a microcosm of a Tigers season, I’m not sure what was. This game had pretty much everything:   Continue reading

Window Shopping: Ian Kinsler’s Walking, Not Running

While the Detroit Tigers’ decision to trade Prince Fielder to the Texas Rangers for Ian Kinsler prior to last season initially came as a shock to Tigers fans, the positive early returns on the trade seemed to provide a calming influence. As I wrote in late April 2014,

Kinsler has provided some real spark, though. Looking at the right side of this graph, you can see that, while he and Prince posted similar batting averages last season, Kinsler has kept the pace this year, but Prince has dropped off sharply with the Rangers.

chart

While Fielder has the edge in on-base percentage, probably due to his ability to draw walks (of the intentional and unintentional varieties), Kinsler’s hitting for more power (.133 ISO vs. .121 ISO) and is posting a better wOBA— a catch-all offensive metric– than Fielder (.319 vs. .277). They also have the same number of home runs (two), with Kinsler driving in nearly twice as many runs as Fielder (14 vs. 8), while stealing three bases (to Fielder’s zero, obviously).

Less than a month later, Prince’s season would be over, a completely understandable side effect of probably overdue neck surgery.

Kinsler powered right along, though, making 726 plate appearances in a career-high 161 games. His bat seemed to cool off in the second half of 2014 (.353 wOBA vs. .276), but he still managed to finish the season tied with Miguel Cabrera for the title of most valuable Tiger, as determined by fWAR (5.1 fWAR apiece), although much of that was due to Kinsler’s defense (and Cabrera’s lack thereof).

In reviewing last year’s statistics in anticipation of this season, Kinsler’s numbers jumped off the page for one main reason: his walks had disappeared. Continue reading

Shane Greene Outduels A.J. Burnett as Tigers Hurdle Pirates to Avenge Only Loss

hurdle

After the Pittsburgh Pirates handed the Detroit Tigers their only loss of the 2015 season on Monday afternoon, Detroit sought and found revenge against Pittsburgh Tuesday night. The Tigers’ first seven games were marked by nearly unbridled offense (+32 run differential, second only to Kansas City and, excluding third-best Oakland (+28), not close to anyone else), but they looked to their defense for a bounceback win in game eight. Starting pitcher Shane Greene, making his second start for the Tigers after his acquisition from the Yankees during the offsesason, was excellent. In particular, Greene was highly efficient, averaging just over ten pitches per inning for eight innings of three-hit, no-walk, shutout baseball. Not-insubstantial credit for his performance is due to key defensive plays by Jose Iglesias, Ian Kinsler, and J.D. Martinez. (Greene, who was making his first-ever plate appearances as a major leaguer, was generally ineffective with his brand-new Louisville Sluggers, but no one should care because this from his mother was adorable.)

Pittsburgh starter A.J. Burnett also had a strong outing, but he could not keep the Tigers at bay forever. The visitors broke through with one run in the seventh and, thanks to some heads-up baserunning by Iglesias, an insurance run in the ninth. Joakim Soria retired the Pirates side in the bottom of the ninth to seal the win.

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A minor subplot during this pitchers’ duel was the seemingly vertically compressed strike zone of home-plate umpire David Rackley, who had little interest in labeling anything up in the zone a strike. I was watching the Pittsburgh broadcast via MLB Network, but even I had to agree with the Pirate faithful that Rackley was robbing Burnett, who was throwing plenty down and away, when he even tried to go up in the zone. Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle certainly thought so, and after Rackley sided with the batter on a second or third Burnett pitch that really appeared to be in the zone, Hurdle started hollering at Rackley from the dugout, and Rackley tossed him as Jim Leyland watched from the front row.

Taking a fresh look at last night’s pitches this morning, it appears that my eyes did not deceive me, and Hurdle et al. were justified in their complaining:

burnettpitchplotI’ve circled in blue what I believe to be the Burnett pitch that immediately preceded the Hurdle ejection. Looked like a strike last night, and it looks like one today too. In Rackley’s limited defense, he wasn’t really calling any high strikes, but that defense isn’t much of a defense at all in the broader scheme of things. Consistency is important, but an umpire’s imposition of his own personal, deviant strike zone really isn’t.

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Our 2015 Tigers series, Window Shopping, will begin in earnest very soon. Consider this post a prequel, and until I can get the engine revved up, I encourage you to enjoy this 2015 Tigers season preview to which I contributed in significant part.