WTF: Which Tigers may move in deadline deals?

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.

Some commentators think that’s a sentiment that’s spreading across the sport:

[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

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WTF: Bos to the Races

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Not many Tigers fans were excited when the team named Ron Gardenhire as its new manager this past offseason, but Gardenhire’s decision to add former Chicago Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio to his staff seemed promising. After all, Bosio brought a championship pedigree by virtue of his five-year tenure with Theo Epstein’s Cubs. With Justin Verlander gone from Detroit, the Tigers pitching staff looked especially young and vulnerable. Bosio’s recent track record lent hope to the idea that he could be a secret weapon on the bench and, in particular, help mold an inconsistent rotation into a stronger, more developed group. In spring training, Bosio also showed a willingness to clash publicly with Gardenhire, which suggested an independence and division of developmental responsibility not necessarily out of place on a rebuilding team.

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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Previously
WTF: Welcome Back Kozma – 5/9

Related
2018 Detroit Tigers Season Preview
Highlights from MLB Network’s visit to Detroit Tigers spring training

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” program spends a day with each major-league team during spring training. They spent Monday with the Detroit Tigers in Lakeland, Florida. Here are the highlights:

  • Miguel Cabrera was guarded in discussing his health coming into the season after injuries limited him to 130 games and a career-worst 91 wRC+ in 2017. He admitted it was tough to find enjoyment in the game last year, but he expects to be back to having fun in 2018.
  • Ron Gardenhire, the Tigers’ new manager, said that his time outside of the game gave him perspective on the special nature of the opportunity he and his players have to make a living in baseball. While he avoided specifics, it sounds like he has fairly modest expectations for the season. It also looks like he wishes his baseball pants had pockets.
  • Likely number-one starting pitcher Michael Fulmer called Gardenhire “awesome” and described him as a “very positive guy.” Fulmer also said he “had a little setback with the elbow earlier in camp, but we’re all good now.”
  • On High Heat, General Manager Al Avila emphasized the youth of the 2018 roster. He confirmed that Fulmer is “one-hundred percent” healthy, indicated that second-year player Jeimer Candelario would be the opening-day third baseman, and described Cabrera as “much stronger” following an offseason physical therapy regimen. Avila believes that Cabrera can maintain a reasonably high level of production if he sticks to his offseason training plan, comparing him to other late-career success stories like Ivan Rodriguez and Vladimir Guerrero. He dodged a question about whether the obviously rebuilding team would shift its approach if it somehow found itself in a contending position midway through this season, but he did allude to the comparatively positive perception of Detroit’s current rebuilding process as compared to the actions of other teams that have drawn accusations of anticompetitive behavior. Avila also referred to “millions of dollars” the team had invested in “new technology,” which apparently includes biomechanical-oriented technology and an analytics department that now boasts a staff of twelve. Finally, he said that “nothing has changed” in his “great” relationship with ownership, which has transitioned to the late Mike Ilitch’s son Chris, who, Avila said, “has backed me one-hundred percent.”
  • Hopeful starting pitcher Daniel Norris reports that he is feeling healthy and, while he wants to compete for a rotation spot, he’s trying not to ramp up too fast in spring training in order to maintain that health.
  • The consensus among surveyed players is that presumptive closer Shane Greene has the worst taste in music, while Jose Iglesias, despite his own strong opinion to the contrary, has the worst singing voice.
  • Iglesias did get the opportunity to speak for himself and answer the Harold Reynolds question “What’s funner, snatching a hit from somebody or getting a big hit?” While Iglesias, a native of Cuba, wasn’t able to watch much major-league baseball growing up, it’s clear he’s picked up on Crash Davis’ tutelage from his answer: “Both.”
  • Nick “Nicholas” Castellanos, who’s moving from third base to right field on a full-time basis in 2018 said that he was not mentally present for much of last season because his father was ill, but, now that his dad is healthy, he will be able to reunite mind and body and is approaching this season with a seize-the-day attitude.
  • New arrival Mike Fiers praised the team’s new pitching coach, Chris Bosio, and says he feels he’s getting back on track under Bosio’s guidance. The two previously worked together during Fiers’ rookie season in 2011, when both were employed in the Milwaukee Brewers organization. Fiers, who spent the first five years of his career in Milwaukee before shifting to Houston for the past three seasons, arguably had his best performances as a Brewer.
  • Alan Trammell, fresh off his election into the baseball hall of fame, is working with players on infield fundamentals.

I didn’t think this year’s edition of this feature was as entertaining as it has been in past years, but there are a lot of new faces on this team and a new strategic approach that Tigers fans haven’t seen in some time, and I thought the profile was, on the whole, serviceable.

Stay tuned for a more thorough Detroit Tigers 2018 season preview, which will appear soon over at Banished to the Pen.

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: Michael Fulmer has righted the ship

michael-fulmer-nelson2

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:

era-fip 6-17

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:

royfulmerverlander

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

Minnesota Twins v Chicago White Sox

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