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

Is the next Mike Trout already in Detroit?

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He’s only twenty-five years old, but Mike Trout is the best player in baseball today and one of the best ever. There’s only one of him, though, and he’s under contract with the Angels through 2020, which means that your team can’t have him anytime soon, and, unless your team is the Yankees or Dodgers, it probably can’t afford him once he hits free agency either. If you don’t and won’t ever have Trout himself, your only option is to make like the post-Jordan NBA and find the next Trout. Everybody wants to be like Mike.

The Detroit Tigers, for example, really could use a guy like Trout. They haven’t done much this offseason, and they’re in need of a center fielder. Of course, they had a decent center fielder in 2016 in Cameron Maybin, but the team “traded” him to the Angels as soon as the season was over and, surprise, the Angels didn’t send Trout, who also plays center, to the Tigers in return.

While the hole in the middle of the outfield currently remains unaddressed (the team’s very recent acquisition of Mikie Mahtook notwithstanding), another anticipated outfield move that Detroit has not yet made is trading right fielder J.D. Martinez, who will be a free agent after this coming season. Martinez has been very good since the Tigers acquired him from Houston, and, assuming he returns to form following his elbow injury last season, he will earn a payday next offseason beyond what the Tigers likely will want to offer.

Before Martinez inevitably departs the Motor City, it’s worth taking another look at what exactly the Tigers have in their young right fielder, and, bold as it may seem, asking whether he’s the next Trout.

On one hand, the answer obviously is no. Martinez, in his best season, was, by whichever WAR metric you prefer, about half as valuable as Trout was in his best. There also is the matter of age: while we’d expect The Next Trout to be younger than Trout, J.D. is four years older than Mike.

On the other hand, anyone who’s followed Martinez’s career knows that he was reborn as a hitter after he left Houston for Detroit, creating a bit of deception in his developmental track (I’m sure he doesn’t spend much time thinking about those first three MLB seasons), even if the aging clock ticks on.

Imagining, for purposes of this strained and fabricated narrative, that this “young” Martinez was coming up behind the more experienced Trout, we might also notice that the two outfielders have similar batting profiles.

This afternoon, Baseball Savant creator Darren Wilman tweeted a link to a chart comparing hitters according to their batted ball exit velocity and slugging percentage:

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Right there next to each other at the top of the curve are Trout and Martinez. (Click below to see more precise indications of their positions.)

Everyone knows Trout and Martinez are power-hitting outfielders, but I still was surprised to see how close Martinez was to Trout on this graph. Martinez’s overall value suffers because he plays an easier position than Trout, and, although his defense showed marked improvement in 2015 (before the improvements evaporated in his broken-elbow season last year), plays it less well than Trout plays his. Still, if I’m Martinez’s agent, a chart showing that my client hits– in terms of exit velocity and extra bases– just like Trout is going to be on page one of the Boras Binder I’m distributing this offseason. And if I’m Tigers GM Al Avila, I’ll make sure every potential trade partner this summer catches a glimpse of it too.

Sure, some still want Detroit to make another all-in push in 2017, but the proverbial contention window is hanging as heavy and tenuously in its frame as it ever has for this crew, and it’s tough to imagine a world in which they can retain Martinez. In five years, after seeing him mash in pinstripes or Dodger blue, Tigers fans may look back and see Martinez’s delayed, Trout-esque offensive prime as one of the largest costs of their now-overleveraged roster.

Offseason starts with a bang for the Detroit Tigers

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When the Detroit Tigers’ season ended in Atlanta last month, the message from general manager Al Avila was both clear and clearly different than it had been a season ago, when Avila took over the job from his boss, Dave Dombrowski. Then, speaking as the mouthpiece of the team’s owner, Mike Ilitch, he said that “the foot is on the pedal, hard,” and the team continued to make the kind of win-now moves that largely have defined them for the past decade. Now, though, Avila’s taking his foot off the gas and ushering in a period of austerity that’s likely to be painful. It definitely will be different.

The changes began immediately. Yesterday was the first day of the MLB offseason, and Avila wasted no time in making two of his biggest decisions on current player options. First, he “traded” center fielder Cameron Maybin to the Angels for a low-grade relief pitching prospect in a move that essentially amounts to the Tigers declining to exercise Maybin’s option.

Shortly thereafter, the team announced that it would pick up the $6 million option on closer Francisco Rodriguez. (Had they declined K-Rod’s option, they would’ve owed him a $2 million buyout.)

If, as he has said, his new mission is “making this team leaner, younger, more efficient,” I’m not certain this was the way to do it. Given the money, his track record, and his strong performance last season, I like the decision to retain Rodriguez, even considering the general year-to-year unreliability of reliever performance.

The Maybin decision is more confusing, though. By fWAR, Maybin was the Tigers’ most valuable outfielder last year, and he only played in ninety-four games. (He also was their second-best baserunner.) He missed action due to injury, but not really the kind of injury that should make teams worry. He mostly just kept getting beaned on the hands. That’s just bad luck. He’s only twenty-nine. Over the past two seasons with Atlanta and then Detroit, he finally seemed to be approaching the potential he demonstrated eleven years ago that caused the Tigers to spend the tenth overall draft pick on him in 2005. (He also was the team leader in the Instagram handle category.)

Now he’s gone again, leaving behind holes in center field and the top of the batting order. Jeff Sullivan, writing up this transaction largely from the Angels’ perspective, points a finger to JaCoby Jones as the likely replacement Avila is targeting. Jones showed memorable flashes as a late-season call-up this year, but, like many prospects, he’s still young and raw and inconsistent. The other obvious fill-in is Tyler Collins, who has the relative advantage of being a left-handed hitter but the disadvantage of being at an age and experience level where “raw” is not a baseball adjective that incorporates an element of hope.

All of this happened on offseason day number one. There will be more activity involving the Tigers this offseason, and, typically, it is wise to wait to render final judgment on a particular decision until it can be viewed within the full constellation of the team’s moves. Under austerity, though, there should be little hope for or expectation of near-term improvement through an infusion of external resources; doing better must mean doing better with what you already have. There isn’t going to be a Justin Upton trade this year (which, while we’re at it, probably will be the last year J.D. Martinez wears a Detroit uniform). What stings about the Maybin trade– besides the obvious departure of talent and the intangibles of a fun guy who seemed to be having a lot of fun himself– is that it is a move that will make the team worse in 2017, and the Tigers haven’t made too many moves like that in a good while.

Catching Fire: Night of a thousand feet of home runs

If not winning, the Detroit Tigers certainly have been doing a lot of home-run hitting over the last week or so, and, after some extra-inning disappointments during that stretch, they finally put it all together last night for an overtime win last night in a home series opener against the Seattle Mariners. That game featured three Tigers homers, each of which gave the team the lead. Especially exciting for Detroit was that two of them came off the bat of Justin Upton, who finally appears to be heating up for his new team after suffering one of the worst offensive stretches of his career.

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Upton’s first of the night was a dead-center bomb in the seventh that gave the Tigers a 7-6 lead, and his second, which clinched the game in walk-off fashion in the twelfth, landed beyond the bullpen in left. There likely is no one happier about this apparent return to power than Upton himself, and, especially with J.D. Martinez out with an elbow injury, it couldn’t be more timely for the team.

Upton’s homers last night inspired celebration, but Miguel Cabrera’s, which gave the Tigers a 2-0 lead in the first inning, inspired awe. I’ve never seen a Comerica Park home run hit where Cabrera hit his last night. No one has.

Have a look:   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

Highlights from MLB Network’s visit to Detroit Tigers spring training

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As it has done in the past, MLB Network’s “30 Clubs in 30 Days” feature spends a day with each major-league team during spring training. They spent St. Patrick’s Day with the Detroit Tigers in Lakeland, Florida. Here are the highlights:   Continue reading

2016 Detroit Tigers still in search of man out standing in (left) field

After a disappointing 2015 season, which included some odd maneuvering at the trade deadline, the Detroit Tigers entered the offseason with a significant to-do list. They’ve already made acquisitions designed to address needs in the bullpen and starting pitching rotation, but, with three months until opening day, the team still has one major hole to fill.   Continue reading

Window Shopping: Pigs in the Pen

It’s July, which means it’s time for MLB teams to sort out their trade-deadline strategy. While fans distract themselves with All-Star festivities, general managers are preparing to execute player transactions in attempts to load up for a playoff run or, in acceptance of their near-term fates as noncontenders, build for the future.

In this context, the Detroit Tigers find themselves in a bit of a bind. After a very strong start, they’ve slid back to a .500 record and have been entrenched in the middle of the AL Central, never too far out of first place, but never really within striking distance. Would a first-place finish from this position be unprecedented? Hardly. Can they claim a fifth-consecutive division title without making a significant trade this summer? Almost certainly not. The Tigers’ record is not a product of underperforming their potential; instead, it likely is a reasonably accurate reflection of this team’s collective ability to date, warts, lower-body injuries, and all.

There is no question that the Tigers should be buyers this month, however thin their wallet may be with currency in the form of desirable prospects. I can’t say with any certainty whom Detroit should acquire this month– starting pitchers Johnny Cueto and Cole Hamels are the most valuable targets on the market, but the sellers’ prices may be too rich for the blood of the Tigers’ farm system– but I do agree with the prevailing preference for bolstering the pitching rotation. Shane Greene‘s floor proved too low to allow the team to continue to wait to see how high his ceiling might go, Alfredo Simon’s regressed to the very average levels we should have expected out of him as a starter, and, with appearances in just four games in 2015, Justin Verlander’s projected resurgence isn’t happening. The return of game-calling extraordinaire Alex Avila to his precarious post behind the plate can’t fix that many holes, and neither, I suspect, can J.D. Martinez‘s unsustainable home-run rate. Detroit needs to find another starter.

The trade-deadline attention on the pitching rotation represents a shift of attention away from their bullpen, the conventionally identified leading source of all of the Tigers’ problems. 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.

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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