The annual National Cherry Festival resumes this weekend in Traverse City and runs until the start of the 2021 MLB All-Star break begins after the following weekend. Let’s use that time to look at how the Detroit Tigers have been performing over an intraseason period selected solely to make them appear better than they have been if you do something foolish like take then entire season into account.
On May 7, the Tigers lost to the Minnesota Twins 7-3, dropping their record to 9-24, and leaving them as the only MLB team without a double-digit win total. Miguel Cabrera was running a career-worst .127/.225/.238 line, and the team had just one above-average hitter in Jeimer Candelario (115 wRC+, with his BABIP still hovering around .400).
On May 8, though, the Tigers reversed the scoreboard and beat the Twins 7-3. That started a 25-21 run, a .543 winning percentage that– holding all else constant– would bump Detroit up to third place in the AL Central (or first place in the NL East).* Sure they actually remain locked in a virtual tie for last place in the division, but let’s stick with this May 8 thing a little while longer.
Since May 8, Detroit quadrupled its tally of above-average hitters. Robbie Grossman and Eric Haase (both 107 wRC+) have come on strong and clutch. And Jonathan Schoop and breakout star Akil Baddoo are on fire. Their respective 167 wRC+ and 159 wRC+ marks would make each of them top-ten hitters if extended over the full season to date. (On the other hand, Candelario dropped 100 points of BABIP and flipped his wRC+ from 115 to 85.)
As he so often does, Miguel Cabrera deserves special mention. He’s pulled up his offensive rate numbers a good deal and continues to accumulate historic-level career achievements. He continues to close in on 3,000 hits (2,915), and at 493 homers, he now is tied with Lou Gehrig and Fred McGriff on the all-time list.
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.
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?
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.
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:
Tigers have employed a shift on 55.5% of pitches this season, the highest rate in MLB per @statcast.
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 →
The upcoming non-waiver trade deadline, July 31, doesn’t generate the same level of excitement in Detroit Tigers fans it did a few years ago, when the team was in contention and Dave Dombrowski had free reign over Mike Ilitch’s wallet. Now operating as (at least would-be) sellers in the current trade market, the Tigers don’t have any obvious candidates to ship out, which further limits the already diminished excitement that typically surrounds this time of the baseball year.
[T]he trade deadline wasn’t so packed with action a year ago, and it might be even slower this season.
The trade deadline just might not matter that much anymore.
Teams knew early last year whether they were buyers or sellers. They’ve known earlier still this season. They also know the deadline doesn’t typically provide much impact.
. . .
What this means is the game doesn’t need July 31st to spur action and decisions between buying and selling status. More and more, the contenders and sellers know their status earlier in the season and sometimes even before the season. Moreover, in a game loaded with rebuilding clubs, non-contenders are perhaps more incentivized to beat the market. There is incentive for activity to begin — if it is to begin — earlier. That makes for a less dramatic deadline.
It may be worth pausing here to ask why this is happening. I don’t think it’s better information that now is providing teams with knowledge of their relative positions earlier in the season. While the new analytical approach may lead teams that do trade at the deadline to act more conservatively and uniformly and avoid badly imbalanced trades, it doesn’t make sense that that would inform teams’ earlier knowledge of their contention positions. The cause should be something new, and I suspect that cause is intentional tanking. Teams used to “find themselves out of contention” by early July; now, they begin the year that way, purposely designed to fail. This is part of the method that helped the Cubs and Astros win championships, so it’s hard to be too upset about it right now. Like other copycat strategies, though, this one soon should begin generating diminishing returns, which is why I’m glad the Tigers have chosen a more traditional rebuilding model.
To the question at hand: which current Tigers might be trade targets this month? Continue reading →
One of Bosio’s announced modifications he wanted his new charges, especially Jordan Zimmermann, to make, was to work faster on the mound. So far, they appear to have taken his advice. Fourteen pitchers have shortened their inter-pitch times by more than two seconds as compared to 2017, and three of them are Tigers starters:
Zimmermann, Michael Fulmer, and Matt Boyd have upped their respective paces substantially this season over last season. I think that alone is a good sign, because it demonstrates both a willingness and ability to make changes in approach designed (or believed, at least) to improve outcomes. That’s the bigger question, though. Zimmermann, Fulmer, and Boyd are working faster, but are they doing better?
To try to answer that question, I propose a DRA-based comparison, which should allow us to see, on a rate basis, whether these three Tigers starters also have been pitching better in 2018 than they did during their slower days in 2017.
Of the three, Zimmermann had the smallest pace increase but the largest improvement according to DRA. Boyd, who’s shown the biggest pace increase of any pitcher, also has been better, while Fulmer has been a bit worse.
Without more digging, I don’t know that there are any broad statements to make about the consequences of speeding up on the mound. Importantly, we don’t know how the 2018 versions of these players would perform had they continued to work at their slower paces; the results might be exactly the same. The above does provide some circumstantial evidence that increasing pace can help some players, however, and it also suggests that Bosio was right to target Zimmermann as a guy who could benefit from operating at a faster pace.
The Tigers don’t have any of the top fifty players of 2018, as ranked by fWAR, on their roster. Third baseman Jeimer Candelario used to be on that list, but he now sits sixty-fifth (1.3 fWAR) after missing time with wrist tendinitis. He could return to the team later this week.