Live podcast announcement: Man vs. Pizza Machine

pizzacave

I’m headed back into the Pizza Cave tonight to discuss the hot topic on the Detroit sports streets, Miguel Cabrera versus Albert Pujols, with legendary Southeast Michigan restaurateur-podcaster Fredi the Pizzaman live at 5:00 pm Eastern. Although you can listen to it later on, keep in mind that this is a live podcast, meaning that you can stream it as it’s being recorded, which I recommend.

Tune in tonight at 5:00 by clicking here to listen live or check out the archives later on.

Man vs. Machine

pujols cabrera

The great Miguel Cabrera is thirty-four years old. His team, once a surefire contender, is stuck in neutral, and Cabrera, their ostensible offensive engine, has only been slightly above average at the plate (108 wRC+, which would be the worst of any of his seasons since his rookie year (106 wRC+)).

It looks like we are seeing the beginning of Cabrera’s inevitable decline, which has observers taking stock of Cabrera’s likely legacy and projecting his place among the greats once he puts that magic bat down for good. For example, Yooper David Laurila included this observation in a recent edition of his Sunday Notes column:

Lou Gehrig had 8,001 at bats, 534 doubles and 493 home runs. Miguel Cabrera has 8,028 at bats, 533 doubles, and 451 home runs.

The day before, conversation on Fredi the Pizzaman’s Pizza Cave Podcast turned to Cabrera as the panel debated whether he would join Albert Pujols in the 600-home run club. (Pujols, whose major-league debut came two years before Cabrera’s, passed that milestone on June 4 of this year.) That discussion prompted a broader one about both players’ achievements and legacies.

Here’s a quick graph to introduce and orient this comparative analysis:

chart-2

By aligning the two players’ offensive performances (measured by wOBA) to their individual age-seasons, we can develop a rough snapshot of their careers at the plate. This graph illustrates a couple of significant trends. First, it’s easy to identify the clear tipping point in Pujols’ career, which very clearly has two distinct halves. Second, Pujols came out of the gate hotter than Cabrera, who needed a couple years to ramp things up. Both achieved production levels that make them generational talents, but when it comes to counting statistics (like career home run totals), the gap in those early years may be what will end up separating these two in the final analysis. All players eventually decline, but that just means it’s going to be tougher for Cabrera to make up for his comparatively slow start now.

pujols cabrera hr career

Again, this graph compares Pujols and Cabrera by aligning their career seasons. Even though they’ve accumulated homers at a similar rate, merely keeping pace in that regard likely won’t be enough for Cabrera in light of Pujols’ head start unless Cabrera has more years left in his tank than Pujols has in his. And right now, that first part– keeping pace– isn’t looking so sure for Cabrera. Here’s the same graph as the one above expanded to include 2017 numbers:

pujols cabrera hr career

This comparison to Pujols thus suggests that Cabrera is unlikely to reach the 600-homer benchmark for two reasons: 1) a slow start and 2) what looks to be an early– relative to Pujols– decline. None of this is to say that Cabrera can’t or won’t reach 600 home runs. Comparing him to the most recent guy to do it suggests that, absent some change, he’s unlikely to get there.

That change could come in the form of a late-career rejuvenation. Cabrera’s capable of ripping off amazing offensive tears, and he certainly could do that again. It always has felt a bit odd to think of Cabrera as unlucky, but there continues to be evidence that Cabrera’s offensive numbers should be even better than they already are based on the quality of contact he makes. A third change could be a positional one. Just as David Ortiz extended his career by becoming a full-time designated hitter, the thought is that Cabrera could alleviate some of the strain on his body by being relieved of his defensive obligations.

All of this is relative, of course. Failure to accumulate 600 home runs is no indictment on a player or his legacy. Only nine players ever accomplished that feat, and three of them are Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, and Sammy Sosa. Three more of them are Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, and Willie Mays.

 

While we’re here, two concluding notes on the overall comparison between Pujols and Cabrera. The first, which came up on the podcast episode linked above, involves postseason success. As a rookie, Cabrera was a member of the Florida Marlins team that won the World Series in 2003. Pujols was a member of the 2006 Cardinals team that swept Cabrera’s Tigers in the World Series, as well as the 2011 World Series team that beat the Rangers in seven games. Pujols also has been a better hitter in the playoffs, though both have been significantly above average (164 wRC+ vs. 136 wRC+). Postseason appearances are significantly team and context-dependent and involve small samples (seventy-seven games for Pujols and fifty-five for Cabrera), but it’s something to mention.

The second is a total career assessment. Neither player is retired, obviously, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take a peek at what their legacies look like right now. One way to do that is with JAWS, an analytical tool designed to assess Hall-of-Fame candidacy. Its creator, Jay Jaffe, explains:

JAWS is a tool for measuring a candidate’s Hall of Fame worthiness by comparing him to the players at his position who are already enshrined. It uses the baseball-reference.com version of Wins Above Replacement to estimate a player’s total hitting, pitching and defensive value to account for the wide variations in scoring levels that have occurred throughout the game’s history and from ballpark to ballpark. A player’s JAWS is the average of his career WAR total and that of his peak, which I define as his best seven years. All three are useful for comparative purposes, as Hall of Famers come in different shapes and sizes. Some—Hank Greenberg, Ralph Kiner, Sandy Koufax, Jackie Robinson—dominated over periods of time cut short by injuries, military service or the color line. Others such as Eddie Murray, Don Sutton and Dave Winfield showed remarkable staying power en route to major milestones. While it’s convenient to believe that every Hall of Famer must do both to be worthy of a bronze plaque in Cooperstown, they can’t all be Babe Ruth, Ted Williams or Willie Mays, or the institution would merely become a tomb, sealed off because so few have come along to measure up in their wake.

For the purposes of comparison, players are classified at the position where they accrued the most value, which may be different from where they played the most games, particularly as players tend to shift to positions of less defensive responsibility—and thus less overall value—as they age. Think Ernie Banks at shortstop (54.8 WAR in 1,125 games there from 1953 to ’61) as opposed to first base (12.8 WAR in 1,259 games there from ’62 to ’71). A small handful of enshrined players, including pioneers and Negro Leaguers with less than 10 years of major league service, are excluded from the calculations; Satchel Paige and Monte Irvin, for example, had major league careers too short to use as yardsticks for non-Negro League players.

By JAWS, Pujols and Cabrera both are clear Hall of Famers even if neither ever played another game, but there’s a clear separation between the two. JAWS has Pujols as the second-best first baseman ever, trailing only the aforementioned Gehrig, while Cabrera currently slots at the eleventh position, right next to Jim Thome (another one of those 600-HR guys). Pujols has two more years under his ample belt than does Cabrera, and neither is done playing. (This probably is a decent place to note contract details: Pujols has four more years on his current contract, while Cabrera has at least six.) As with the home-run chase, so too with overall career value: Cabrera has a good bit of work to do if he’s to catch Pujols.

The book is not closed on either of these two great baseball stories. Pujols and Cabrera have yet to author their final chapters. The balance of their works likely are complete, however, and from that we can make educated predictions. Both have their high points and distinct achievements, but it looks like Pujols’ early peak will prove a little too high and too long for Cabrera to close the gap. Here’s hoping I’m wrong.

Rob Manfred’s Use Your Illusion Tour

rob manfred

Rob Manfred has served as the Commissioner of Major League Baseball for the past two years. A series of aggressive rule proposals, followed by few actual changes, has characterized his tenure thus far. His primary focus has been on increasing the pace of gameplay (or, alternatively, reducing the temporal length of games, although, as many recognize, those aren’t exactly the same thing). To this point, reforms in that regard have been advisory– asking batters to keep at least one foot in the batters’ box between pitches– or nearly invisible– limiting the time between half innings– even as threats of more substantial changes– a pitch clock, for example, which has been installed in lower leagues– loom.

Last month, Manfred finally stepped out with his first substantial rule change at the major-league level, and it wasn’t one– a pitch clock, starting a runner on second base in extra innings, or strike-zone modification– most expected (or, in the case of the former two, feared). Instead, he made an even deeper change to the game’s infrastructure by eliminating the four-pitch intentional walk, to be replaced with a simple signal from the dugout.

Baseball is not a game of summary proceedings, and there’s a reasonable argument to be made that Manfred’s rule change is the most significant change to the sport since 1879, when the rule requiring teams to play the bottom of the ninth inning even when the home team was leading after the top of the night was removed. That change was an obvious one; this one, less so.

Though the opportunities were rare, both offensive (e.g., Miguel Cabrera, Justin Upton) and defensive (e.g., Dennis Martinez and John Hudek, both being caught by Tony Pena) players could take advantage of atypically executed intentional walks. Small things, sure, but undoubtedly exciting things.

The underlying goal of Manfred’s pace-of-play reforms, one assumes, is to make baseball more exciting, or, at least, make it seem more exciting. It’s possible that the rule change trades these small IBB-gone-wrong moments for bigger gains in excitement elsewhere, but that seems unlikely in this case, because elimination of the traditional intentional walk won’t do much either to speed up or shorten games. Cursory research by the Wall Street Journal indicates that this change will trim, on average, 14.3 seconds off each game.

In the weeks since the rule-change announcement, an increasing number of defenses– both quantitative and qualitative— of the IBB status quo have cropped up. Even for those whose aesthetic preferences align with Manfred’s expressed desire for a faster or shorter game, it’s tough to ignore the numbers that belie the minimal impact of this new rule in those regards.

What should be frustrating for everyone who likes baseball is that Manfred is aware of these countervailing realities and made the change anyway. From an interview published yesterday:

How about doing away with the four-pitch intentional walk?

RM: That’s a symbolic change. It’s not going to alter anyone’s perception of the pace of the game overall. But you know what? If you can change it and people say, “They’re being responsive to our [desires],” that’s a good thing, even if it’s a little good thing.

In essence, “The change won’t be effective, but people will be glad we made a change.”

It’s difficult to know whether fans should be insulted or merely disappointed with Manfred. It also is unclear who should be pleased by this rule change and subsequent explanation. What is clear is that Manfred will not shy away from making fundamental changes to the game in pursuit of a poorly defined goal. That means that we should expect that his past proposals, including a pitch clock and a ban on defensive shifts, absolutely are on the table going forward. As for changes that actually might help draw a younger audience to the sport, like removing local broadcast blackouts on streaming devices or decreasing the cost of attending games? Don’t hold your breath.

(HT: Alex Hume)

2017 Detroit Tigers Season Preview

ilitch_2011_1280_flh1eab9_fdp8496l

MLB opening day is almost here, and the Detroit Tigers are going to play some baseball. For the third consecutive season, Mark Sands, my Banished to the Pen colleague, and I have prepared a Tigers season preview, which is available right now on that site. Shifting away from the more formal structure we’ve used in the past, this year’s preview is a by-the-numbers countdown to opening day. The 2017 season promises to be one of the most wide-open seasons for Detroit in recent memory. This preview is as good a way as I’ve found to get yourself geared up to enjoy it, and I guarantee it’s the only one to incorporate never-before-published original photography by this author of the final game of the Tigers’ 2016 season.

The full post is available here.

Baseball Notes: The WAR on Robbie Ray

baseball notes

There are a few things we know with reasonable certainty about Robbie Ray. He was born on October 1, 1991 just south of Nashville in Brentwood, Tennessee. In 2010, the Washington Nationals drafted him in the twelfth round of the amateur draft. The Nationals traded him, along with two other players, to the Detroit Tigers in 2013 in exchange for Doug Fister. A year later, the Tigers traded him to the Arizona Diamondbacks as part of a three-team trade that netted the Tigers Shane Green and the New York Yankees Didi Gregorius. So far, Ray has seen major-league action as a starting pitcher with the Tigers and Diamondbacks. He showed promise in his first three appearances (two starts and an inning of relief), for Detroit. He showed less promise in his remaining six appearances– four starts and two relief innings– for that team. Things have ticked back up for Ray since his arrival in the desert, however.

__________________________________

Most baseball fans likely have some familiarity with the player-valuation concept of wins above replacement player, usually labeled WAR. What many fans may not realize, however, is that there actually are three different versions of the WAR statistic. The goal of each version is the same: to determine a comprehensive valuation of an individual baseball player. Each takes slightly different paths to reach that comprehensive valuation, but they typically reach similar conclusions about a given player, such that it’s common to see or hear a player’s WAR cited without specific reference to the particular version utilized.

For example, the three versions– Baseball-Reference’s WAR (“rWAR”), FanGraphs’ WAR (“fWAR”), and Baseball Prospectus’ WARP (“WARP”)– all agree that Mike Trout had a great 2016. He finished the season with 10.6 rWAR, 9.4 fWAR, and 8.7 WARP, good for first, first, and second by each metric, respectively. For another example, they also agree about Trout’s former MVP nemesis, Miguel Cabrera: 4.9 rWAR, 4.9 fWAR, 3.9 WARP. (In my anecdotal experience, WARP tends to run a little lower than rWAR and fWAR for all players.)

__________________________________

While the WAR varietals typically and generally concur, that isn’t always the case. Pitchers can be particularly susceptible to this variance, because the measurement of pitching performance is one of the areas in which the three metrics are most different. Continue reading

Michael Fulmer and the changing face of the Detroit Tigers

fulmer_poy_r6n5p8h1_j3r60e3n

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:

royfulmer

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

Catching Fire: Cabrera leads by example

cabrera1280_xhyb8p9n_pe6ybg8z

In an odd way, it’s tough to find an excuse to write about Miguel Cabrera in a season series like this one, because he’s so consistently good that, within his own context, his day-to-day achievements don’t stand out. If, from a coverage perspective, the greats miss out on talent-correlated attention during the season, though, they tend to make up for it during the big moments, like playoff races and the postseason.

The Detroit Tigers are in the final countdown for the 2016 season. Monday was their last off-day until the season ends on October 2. Their playoff odds have tumbled, but they’ve managed to keep pace at about two games back of the second AL wild card spot, meaning that their postseason hopes remain very much alive. The reason those playoff odds are low, though, is because they’re running out of time. Every remaining game is of critical importance, and while the Tigers really need to win each of these games (or, at least, a vast majority of them), even doing that won’t guarantee a playoff berth unless the teams ahead of them falter.

Cabrera knew the stakes last night, during the team’s first game of this crucial final stretch. Detroit already was missing two of its biggest bats– Cabrera’s Venezuelan countryman Victor Martinez and Ian Kinsler, also an important vocal leader– due to a brutal triple HBP run by Cleveland’s Trevor Bauer (Cabrera also was a victim) in a costly win on Sunday, which meant Cabrera would need to shoulder even more of the offensive load than usual.

In the fourth inning, leading by a slim 1-0 margin, Cabrera decided to manufacture a run essentially all by himself, and not by way of a snappy home run blast. First, he stretched his single into a double; then advanced to third on a dangerously shallow fly-out; and, finally and amazingly, scored from there on an infield hit to the third baseman. Cabrera’s Billy Hamilton impression is one of the most impressive baseball moments I’ve seen this year (here’s the video), and he delivered it for the benefit of his teammates at the perfect moment. While it’s impossible to say whether the team’s subsequent offensive breakout– they ended up winning 8-1, with Cabrera also contributing a two-run homer– came as a result of this moment or the team simply (finally) catching up to bad Minnesota pitching, Cabrera’s baserunning in the fourth, which resulted in what ultimately proved to be the winning run, sent an unmistakable message to his teammates.   Continue reading

Catching Fire: It Don’t Come Easy

With just under a month remaining in the 2016 MLB season, this is a good time to take stock of the Detroit Tigers and some of their key players.

Team Playoff Odds

Today, the team sits 5.5 games back of Cleveland in the AL Central, and one game out of the second AL wild card spot, behind Boston and Baltimore. At this point, the division likely is out of reach, but the wild card is in play. Over the last two weeks, the Tigers have moved in and out of the second wild card position, and, although it’s served them well to this point, the Orioles’ volatile combination of bad starting pitching and overreliance on home runs is subject to collapse at any moment.

Three sites– Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs, and FiveThirtyEight– take varying stances on spaces and the capitalization of letters in their names, but all three provide MLB playoff odds for every team. These represent the percent chance, based on to-date performance, that a given team will make the playoffs. Here’s how the Tigers’ playoff chances look today:   Continue reading

Farewell, again, dear Prince

Nearly three years ago, Detroit Tigers fans said goodbye to Prince Fielder, whom the team traded in the 2013 offseason to Texas in exchange for Ian Kinsler. At the time, many were glad to see him leave, though some, including this author, were not. All must agree, however, that when Fielder left Detroit, he became barely a shadow of his former Ironman self. In his two years as a Tiger, he didn’t miss a single game. Excluding his rookie year, in the eight years he spent in Milwaukee and Detroit, he missed a total of thirteen games, playing the full 162 in four of those eight seasons. That’s an impressive accomplishment for any player.

If one wanted to be cold about it, one might note that, 2014, Fielder’s first in Texas, was a year of insult and injury for Prince. Not only did his trade replacement, Kinsler, make the All-Star team on his way to completing the second-best season of his career, but Fielder underwent season-ending neck surgery in late May, appearing in just forty-two games for his new club. He seemed to bounce back in 2015, posting a .305/.378/.463 line in 158 games, but it has been trouble again for Fielder in 2016. Despite his team’s success, Prince arguably was the worst position player of the first half of the season, and things weren’t looking up in the second half. After playing in all but five of the Rangers’ games through July 18, Fielder again went on the disabled list and, after undergoing a second neck surgery, is expected to miss the remainder of this season.

It may not just be the rest of the season he misses, however, as shocking reports emerged this afternoon that Prince’s career may be over:

If true, then, as a number of people have pointed out, Prince will finish with a .283/.382/.506 line, .304 TAv, .377 wOBA, 133 wRC+, 26.8 fWAR / 23.8 bWAR / 30.3 WARP, and 319 home runs, the same number of home runs his father, Cecil, with whom he seems to have reconciled, hit in a career just one season longer than his son’s.

Although serious injuries seemed to dim his wattage following the trade to Texas, I always will remember Prince Fielder as a complete hitter who was one of the happiest baseball players I ever saw. His friendship with Miguel Cabrera was particularly endearing.  What follows are some of my favorite images and clips from Prince’s playing days:   Continue reading

Catching Fire: Ian Kinsler is the San Francisco Giants of the MLB All Star Game

kinsler breaking records

Last night, MLB announced the rosters for the 2016 All-Star Game. Not included: Detroit Tigers second baseman Ian Kinsler. All Kinsler has done since coming to Detroit in the Prince Fielder trade is quietly build what some have called a Hall-of-Fame career.

The last time I wrote about Kinsler, I noticed that, after his rookie season (2006), he had made the All-Star Game in each even-year season and been left out each odd-year season. Basically, Kinsler is the San Francisco Giants of All-Star Games. While Kinsler’s omission from the AL’s initial ASG roster places that streak of sorts at risk, hope for its continuation remains in the form of the “Final Vote,” in which fans now may vote for one of five candidates in each league for the final roster spot on that league’s roster.

kinslerasg

That means that anyone reading this, along with the many, many people who are not reading this, can make Kinsler an all star by voting online here or texting “A1” to 89269 on your variable-intelligence mobile telephone. It’s pretty easy, minimally invasive, and needs to be done, if at all, before 4:00 pm on Friday.   Continue reading