[UPDATED] Catching Fire: Mike Drop

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UPDATE: Approximately seven minutes after we published this post, the Tigers took our advice and traded Aviles to the Atlanta Braves.

It’s reassuring to know that General Manager Al Avila has joined Brad Ausmus as an ALDLAND reader. If you would like to peer inside the mind of the Tigers GM, the original post remains below.

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The clock is ticking louder than ever on the Detroit Tigers’ 2016 season, and, just at the very moment the team needs to be putting its best foot forward in an effort to win crucial games that will determine whether they make the playoffs, they are running out some of the worst lineups they’ve used all season.

Injuries are largely to blame for this untimely suboptimal roster utilization, as Detroit currently is without Cameron Maybin, Nick Castellanos, Jordan Zimmermann, Jose Iglesias, Shane Greene, and (sigh) Mike Pelfrey. In addition, Miguel Cabrera left last night’s game with what appeared to be a left shoulder injury, and his status is uncertain. Manager Brad Ausmus, facing this many significant losses, obviously is handcuffed– he has little choice but to lean, undoubtedly more heavily than he would prefer, on his reserves, backups, and alternates.

Modern MLB roster construction, with its emphasis on relief-pitching specialization, leaves little room for backup position players. The Tigers, like most American League teams, essentially have three: a backup catcher, and two other “utility” fielders, who can play a variety of positions whenever a regular starter needs a break, or as a defensive replacement late in games.

For Detroit, those two guys are Andrew Romine and Mike Aviles, and they aren’t very good. Back in June, when Iglesias was struggling, I wondered whether Romine, who appeared to be a very solid stand-in at short when given the opportunity, should take over the job? Nope. Back in March, before the season even started, I was worried about the scouting report on Aviles, which was starkly negative:

Aviles is no longer useful in a baseball sense[, and] his inability to reach base (.279 OBP from 2013-15) makes him a complete zero on offense, while what’s left of his defensive and baserunning abilities have become liabilities.

Harsh and, so far, accurate. Unsurprisingly, when both Aviles and Romine are in the starting lineup, Detroit almost always loses.   Continue reading

Catching Fire: The Tigers are not Utilitarians

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In the late 1700s, Jeremy Bentham introduced the modern world to utilitarianism, a political theory organized around the “fundamental axiom” that “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.” Bentham believed that happiness is quantifiable (unit of measurement: util) and argued that governments should legislate so as to create the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people.

Utilitarianism has its blind spots and, at least at its Benthamite core, is subject to the conceptual critique that it prioritizes majority preferences over minority rights (a classic critical example here), as well as the practical one that utils aren’t as susceptible to arithmetic in the policy-making context as other measurements of value, like, say, dollars. One of Bentham’s students, John Stuart Mill, later updated and expanded utilitarianism in an attempt to address some of its critics, and although some of the theory’s broader ideas remain in the modern political milieu, utilitarian is viewed as a relatively primitive approach today.

Mike Aviles, Andrew Romine

The 2016 Detroit Tigers are, to some extent, a team out of time. They are neither aggressively modern (e.g., Tampa Bay) nor hopelessly mired in the past (e.g., Arizona). With the trade deadline rapidly approaching, they are neither obvious buyers (e.g., Toronto) nor obvious sellers (e.g., San Diego). Observers have been declaring for years that the team’s “window is closing,” while conceding that it still is open and may remain as such for another season (in which they will repeat their hand-wringing diagnosis all over again). Given their aging roster, though, time is something out of which this team may be running.

All of that leaves the Tigers with two utility players, arguably a practical necessity in an age of limited rosters and relief pitching specialization, Andrew Romine and Mike Aviles. Unlike Bentham’s utils, it is fairly easy– and easier than ever– to calculate how much these two utility men contribute to the team. Readers may recall Aviles’ preseason scouting report (sayeth BP: “Aviles is no longer useful in a baseball sense,” and “his inability to reach base . . . makes him a complete zero on offense, while what’s left of his defensive and baserunning abilities have become liabilities”) or this more recent peek at Romine’s poor offensive numbers. To keep this part of the offensive update simple, the palindromic Romine (73 wRC+) and Aviles (37 wRC+) have been decidedly below average and aggressively below average hitters, respectively, to this point. Aviles, who’s received twice as many plate appearances as Romine, has been worse than all but ten other batters in baseball (minimum 80 PA), and four of those ten no longer have major-league jobs.

Since spring training, manager Brad Ausmus has insisted that carrying two utility players is not redundant, but the question remains: do Aviles and Romine, together, provide utility to their team?

In one basic, immediate respect, the answer clearly is no. Continue reading

Catching Fire: When is it okay to stop short?

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A quick glance at the Detroit Tigers’ seemingly unremarkable current record– 33-31, good enough for third place in a tight AL Central pack– likely would fail to reveal the fairly high degree of volatility that has defined the first two months of the team’s 2016 campaign, including long losing streaks punctuated by spurts of blowout wins and more changes in the pitching staff than, seemingly, in the last three years combined.

All of this– the pitching changes serving as a positive reminder of the relationship between rotational and bullpen depth–  largely has distracted from the things that haven’t changed since the season began. One is the catcher position, which I’ve contended since season-preview time is ripe for an in-season upgrade if this team is going to continue to pursue a championship. Recent numbers only serve to confirm this:

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What this graph and this chart from this recent article illustrate is that Detroit has operated under a severe strike-zone disadvantage thus far in 2016. As the breakdown chart shows, the blame for that disadvantage falls at the feet of their (catching) defense. We knew James McCann and Jarrod Saltalamacchia were bad pitch framers. Now we can begin to see the relative consequences of that weakness.

Another thing we can and may want to do at this juncture is ask whether it’s time for a change at the shortstop position. When the Tigers traded for Jose Iglesias as a replacement for the then-suspended Jhonny Peralta in 2013, we figured they were acquiring a defense-first short stop with a probably unsustainably high batting average.

Almost three years later, that basic assessment remains essentially correct. Iglesias wowed early and often with highlight-reel plays in the field and keeping his average up at the plate, hitting .300 again in 2015 after missing all of 2014 with ankle injuries. He was an All Star last year, whatever that means anymore, but 2016 is shaping up a bit differently.   Continue reading