Catching Fire: When is it okay to stop short?

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A quick glance at the Detroit Tigers’ seemingly unremarkable current record– 33-31, good enough for third place in a tight AL Central pack– likely would fail to reveal the fairly high degree of volatility that has defined the first two months of the team’s 2016 campaign, including long losing streaks punctuated by spurts of blowout wins and more changes in the pitching staff than, seemingly, in the last three years combined.

All of this– the pitching changes serving as a positive reminder of the relationship between rotational and bullpen depth–  largely has distracted from the things that haven’t changed since the season began. One is the catcher position, which I’ve contended since season-preview time is ripe for an in-season upgrade if this team is going to continue to pursue a championship. Recent numbers only serve to confirm this:

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What this graph and this chart from this recent article illustrate is that Detroit has operated under a severe strike-zone disadvantage thus far in 2016. As the breakdown chart shows, the blame for that disadvantage falls at the feet of their (catching) defense. We knew James McCann and Jarrod Saltalamacchia were bad pitch framers. Now we can begin to see the relative consequences of that weakness.

Another thing we can and may want to do at this juncture is ask whether it’s time for a change at the shortstop position. When the Tigers traded for Jose Iglesias as a replacement for the then-suspended Jhonny Peralta in 2013, we figured they were acquiring a defense-first short stop with a probably unsustainably high batting average.

Almost three years later, that basic assessment remains essentially correct. Iglesias wowed early and often with highlight-reel plays in the field and keeping his average up at the plate, hitting .300 again in 2015 after missing all of 2014 with ankle injuries. He was an All Star last year, whatever that means anymore, but 2016 is shaping up a bit differently.   Continue reading

Catching Fire: Heading for the exit velocity

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Thanks to MLB Advanced Media’s new Statcast technology, fans can learn more than ever about the activity taking place on the field (and off it) during a baseball game. One such aspect into which Statcast offers insight is exit velocity, which refers to the speed with which a batted ball leaves a hitter’s bat. These velocities can communicate something meaningful about batter success. (Very generally, and possibly very obviously, higher exit velocity is better.)

Statcast came on-line last season, but there were significant flaws in its batted-ball data gathering in 2015. The shortcomings in the 2015 data will affect any analysis that relies on Statcast information from that season, and while Statcast seems to be doing a better job of gathering a more complete set of batted-ball data this year, some imperfections remain. Fortunately, it appears that those imperfections– apparently due in part to differences in hardware installations at each park– can be accounted for. Baseball Prospectus now publishes something called adjusted exit velocity, which aims to control for various influences on Statcast-measured exit velocity that are outside batters’ control. (None of those adjustments can recapture the data the system failed to collect in 2015, of course.)

Early in the season, I went to the Statcast well to compare home runs by Anthony Gose and Giancarlo Stanton. The purpose of this post is not to undermine lazy media narratives but to present a simple comparison between various Detroit Tigers’ adjusted exit velocities in 2015 and so far in 2016.

Keeping in mind the imperfections in the source data, here are the 2015 and to-date 2016 adjusted exit velocities (in miles per hour) of the Tigers’ primary hitters who played for the team in both seasons:

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While recalling that we still are dealing with small sample sizes for 2016, particularly for James McCann, who’s spent much of the young season injured, and Anthony Gose, who now is down in the minors, I’d guess that the differences in adjusted exit velocity roughly comport with how well fans think each hitter is performing this year: Miguel Cabrera hasn’t heated up yet; J.D. Martinez has been struggling since moving to the second spot in the lineup after a hot start batting deeper in the order; Nick Castellanos has been breaking out; Victor Martinez is healthy again and showing it; Ian Kinsler seems to be in fine form yet again (credit those Jack White-designed bats?); and Jose Iglesias is continuing to rely on weak contact.

Cabrera was second overall in adjusted exit velocity last season, so his drop-off seems like a possible source of concern. Sluggers like Cabrera can take a while to warm up, though, so it’s not unreasonable to think that his adjusted exit velocity will climb as the current season progresses. (Cf. Giancarlo Stanton, 2015’s adjusted exit velocity champ, who, so far in 2016, is down 9.4 MPH.)

The elder Martinez has the largest change of any of the highlighted batters in either direction, but his 2015 doesn’t offer much of a baseline because he was playing through obvious injury. It therefore is reasonable to assume that some portion of that +3.0 MPH of adjusted exit velocity is due to a return to health.

Not only do these changes in adjusted exit velocity correlate with anecdotal observations of these players this season, but they also– loosely but consistently across this sample– track changes in raw power (measured as isolated power, or ISO):   Continue reading

Catching Fire: Who’s Number Two?

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The 2016 MLB season is about a month old, which means that this year’s Detroit Tigers series is off to a bit of a late start. The series title is a reference both to this post, which will examine the Tigers’ catcher options, and to what the team needs to do this season in order to earn a playoff spot in a beefed-up American League Central.   Continue reading