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

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Saving Detroit: Michael Fulmer has righted the ship

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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:

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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

Final 2016 MLB prediction report

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Now that the individual awards are out, we can put a wrap on my preseason MLB predictions. I’ve already recapped the team-standing predictions and results here, and what follows is a look at how well I predicted the individual player awards announced this week:

American League

MVP: Mike Trout

Correct. Trout’s win was not the result of a unanimous vote, but it was a clear win. He was the favorite for the award at the beginning of the season, and, despite playing on a bad team (a factor that seems to matter to some), Trout is a generational player, and maybe more, who a not-small group of people believe should have won this award every year of his career. By the leading WAR metrics, this wasn’t even Trout’s best season (although it’s a close call by rWAR), but he was better than everybody else. Good call, BBWAA.

Cy Young: Chris Sale

Incorrect. Sale finished fourth, and Rick Porcello won the award. Let’s not talk any more about this one.

Rookie of the Year: A.J. Reed

Incorrect. This one was my biggest gamble of the entire predicting process. While the NL ROY choice was obvious even before the season started, the AL seemed to me to be wide open, so I chose a little-discussed player who seemed to be in a position to make a big impact for a good team that seemed ready to explode. Even last year, the Astros had a lineup stocked with young talent, and it appeared that they might be a bit ahead of schedule on their massive rebuilding plan. Preseason, their only real gap in the lineup looked like it was at first base, and Reed was a power-hitting first baseman waiting in the wings. Unfortunately for my prediction, which obviously is what matters most here, the Astros weren’t ahead of schedule, and Reed did not propel them to the postseason in a blaze of hitting glory. Instead, Houston’s pitching regressed, and Reed played just forty-five games of sub-replacement-level baseball. Next year could be a very different story, though, as Houston– which added Brian McCann and Josh Reddick yesterday– looks to be making a very strong push for 2017. Right on schedule.

The actual winner, Michael Fulmer, was a great choice. I wrote more about his win here.

National League

MVP: Paul Goldschmidt   Continue reading

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

The arc of the ALDLAND universe is long, but it bends toward this weekend

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If there are two things I’ve written about with consistency at this weblog they are 1) the Detroit Tigers and 2) the Atlanta Braves’ foolhardy abandonment of their downtown home at Turner Field. Beginning tonight, and for the next two days thereafter, these two ALDLANDic worlds will collide when the Tigers face the Braves in the final three games ever to be played at the aforementioned Turner Field. More than anything, I am grateful that we will be able to attend each of these games, live and in person. These are critical games for the 2016 Tigers, teetering as they are on the edge of postseason qualification, and they are historic games for the City of Atlanta. I have little more to add at this juncture other than that I am very excited.   Continue reading

Catching Fire: Pelf on the shelf

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With the 2016 MLB season roughly one-third complete, this series has touched on possible changes the Detroit Tigers might make at the catcher and shortstop positions and now turns to the starting pitching rotation.

To begin with the good news about the Detroit Tigers’ pitching, we almost have to begin with the bad news, which is that the presumptive lock for an above-slot number three starter, Anibal Sanchez, was so bad through his first eleven starts that he’s been demoted to the bullpen. Another potential starter, Shane Greene, has continued to be unable to prove he can hold down a starter role, and still-semi-prospect Daniel Norris has battled injury and efficiency problems that, so far, have kept him in Toledo and out of a rotation spot in Detroit. Thankfully, Jordan Zimmermann and Justin Verlander have, for the most part, been very solid in the first two spots, and rookies Michael Fulmer and, to a lesser extent, Matt Boyd, have arrived this year as big-league-ready starters.

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A weakness common to all Tigers starters this year has been an inability to pitch late into games, but the arrival of Fulmer in particular has allowed the team to bolster an already-improved bullpen with extra tweener (i.e., not quite starter material yet/anymore) arms like Sanchez and Greene, with Boyd, who has been a bit homer-prone of late, a possibility to join them in the near future. Brad Ausmus and Al Avila have done a good job of rotating these arms through a suddenly thick bullpen, making frequent use of Toledo options where available, to the point that many Tigers fans are experiencing a creeping and unfamiliar sensation of actual comfort with their team’s pitching staff. These are strange days indeed.

If they want to return to the familiar, however, they need not look too hard, because every fifth game or so begins with Mike Pelfrey on the mound.   Continue reading