Saving Detroit: Tigers Notes, 8/8/17

detroit tigers notes

While trades– including a trade of Justin Verlander– technically remain a possibility at this point in the year, it looks like the Detroit Tigers will content themselves with playing out the final two months of this season with their current crew and an eye toward the future. For this site, that probably means that the pages of this season’s Tigers diary will be a little emptier than they might be if the team were more aggressive in the trade market or competing for a playoff berth. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t interesting items to track, though. Here are a few:

    • Justin Upton: As highlighted here last week, Upton’s been trimming his bugaboo strikeout rate, but he’s continuing to strike out in bad situations. Since that post, he’s appeared in six games and added four two-out strikeouts to his total, pushing him into a tie for eleventh on the MLB-wide list (minimum 100 two-out plate appearances) in 2017. With 3.6 fWAR, Upton continues to be the team’s best position player by a comfortable margin, as well as its best overall player. In that post last week, I speculated that Upton is unlikely to opt out of his contract this offseason due, in part, to a weak market for corner outfielders with his profile. Over at The Athletic’s new Detroit vertical, Neil Weinberg is more optimistic about Upton’s open-market prospects, calling the “odds that Upton opts out . . . quite high.”
    • Miguel Cabrera: I’ve been working up a full post on Cabrera’s tough season, which has a good chance to be the worst of his career. (For a forward-looking analysis, my career comparison between Cabrera and Albert Pujols is here.) Besides the obvious drop in production, one thing that jumps out is his batting average on balls in play, which, at .296, is below .300 for the first time ever (career .345 BABIP). Last month, Weinberg did the logical thing and dove into Cabrera’s swing profile and batted-ball data tabulated by StatCast. The problem, from our perspective, is that there isn’t a ton there. Cabrera continues to rank high (currently number one, minimum 200 at bats, by a large margin) on the xwOBA-wOBA chart, an indication that he’s making good contact despite poor results. From watching games this season, it seems like Cabrera turns away from inside (but not that inside) pitches more often than in years past, which makes me wonder if he simply isn’t seeing pitches as well. (Weinberg noticed that he’s swinging less often than usual at inside pitches.)
      When observing the decline of a great player, it can be fun to take a break from the dissection to remember his youth, which the remarkable achievements of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper gave us occasion to do today:

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Is the next Mike Trout already in Detroit?

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He’s only twenty-five years old, but Mike Trout is the best player in baseball today and one of the best ever. There’s only one of him, though, and he’s under contract with the Angels through 2020, which means that your team can’t have him anytime soon, and, unless your team is the Yankees or Dodgers, it probably can’t afford him once he hits free agency either. If you don’t and won’t ever have Trout himself, your only option is to make like the post-Jordan NBA and find the next Trout. Everybody wants to be like Mike.

The Detroit Tigers, for example, really could use a guy like Trout. They haven’t done much this offseason, and they’re in need of a center fielder. Of course, they had a decent center fielder in 2016 in Cameron Maybin, but the team “traded” him to the Angels as soon as the season was over and, surprise, the Angels didn’t send Trout, who also plays center, to the Tigers in return.

While the hole in the middle of the outfield currently remains unaddressed (the team’s very recent acquisition of Mikie Mahtook notwithstanding), another anticipated outfield move that Detroit has not yet made is trading right fielder J.D. Martinez, who will be a free agent after this coming season. Martinez has been very good since the Tigers acquired him from Houston, and, assuming he returns to form following his elbow injury last season, he will earn a payday next offseason beyond what the Tigers likely will want to offer.

Before Martinez inevitably departs the Motor City, it’s worth taking another look at what exactly the Tigers have in their young right fielder, and, bold as it may seem, asking whether he’s the next Trout.

On one hand, the answer obviously is no. Martinez, in his best season, was, by whichever WAR metric you prefer, about half as valuable as Trout was in his best. There also is the matter of age: while we’d expect The Next Trout to be younger than Trout, J.D. is four years older than Mike.

On the other hand, anyone who’s followed Martinez’s career knows that he was reborn as a hitter after he left Houston for Detroit, creating a bit of deception in his developmental track (I’m sure he doesn’t spend much time thinking about those first three MLB seasons), even if the aging clock ticks on.

Imagining, for purposes of this strained and fabricated narrative, that this “young” Martinez was coming up behind the more experienced Trout, we might also notice that the two outfielders have similar batting profiles.

This afternoon, Baseball Savant creator Darren Wilman tweeted a link to a chart comparing hitters according to their batted ball exit velocity and slugging percentage:

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Right there next to each other at the top of the curve are Trout and Martinez. (Click below to see more precise indications of their positions.)

Everyone knows Trout and Martinez are power-hitting outfielders, but I still was surprised to see how close Martinez was to Trout on this graph. Martinez’s overall value suffers because he plays an easier position than Trout, and, although his defense showed marked improvement in 2015 (before the improvements evaporated in his broken-elbow season last year), plays it less well than Trout plays his. Still, if I’m Martinez’s agent, a chart showing that my client hits– in terms of exit velocity and extra bases– just like Trout is going to be on page one of the Boras Binder I’m distributing this offseason. And if I’m Tigers GM Al Avila, I’ll make sure every potential trade partner this summer catches a glimpse of it too.

Sure, some still want Detroit to make another all-in push in 2017, but the proverbial contention window is hanging as heavy and tenuously in its frame as it ever has for this crew, and it’s tough to imagine a world in which they can retain Martinez. In five years, after seeing him mash in pinstripes or Dodger blue, Tigers fans may look back and see Martinez’s delayed, Trout-esque offensive prime as one of the largest costs of their now-overleveraged roster.

Sports Law Roundup – 1/6/2017

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I used to write the sports technology roundup at TechGraphs, an internet website that died, and now I am writing the sports law roundup at ALDLAND, an internet website.

Here are the top sports-related legal stories from the first week of 2017:

  • Baseball stadium funding: The Arizona Diamondbacks, seeking the right to “explor[e] other stadium options,” have sued the Maricopa County Stadium District after the District refused to authorize funding for the $185 million needed for capital repairs and improvements to Chase Field, which opened in 1998, according to an assessment completed by the District.The team has expressed willingness to cover all of the District’s expenses, but the District apparently must give its permission to proceed and thus far has declined to do so.
  • Student-athlete classification: In a case we have been monitoring in this space (here and here), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has denied the request of a group of former Penn student-athletes for full-court (en banc) review of that court’s earlier rejection of their claim that they were employees entitled to minimum-wage compensation under the Fair Labor Standards Act. The denial of the request for further review leaves in place the court’s decision handed down last month. It is unclear whether the plaintiffs will request permission to appeal to the Supreme Court.
  • Daily Fantasy Sports: A DFS website argued that daily fantasy sports actually are illegal gambling in an attempt to avoid a $1.1 million lawsuit based on an advertising and sponsorship contract with the Minnesota Wild. I wrote more about this case here earlier this week. Meanwhile, a Maryland law authorizing the lawful, regulated conduct of DFS contests in that state, which is regarded as less restrictive than similar measures in other states, went into effect on Monday; a Florida legislator introduced a bill Wednesday that would declare DFS legal in that state; and FanDuel earned another win in a patent-infringement suit brought by two gambling technology companies in Nevada.
  • Preemptive free agency:  Nathaniel Grow has an interesting article on FanGraphs that illuminates a California employment law that could apply to allow even union employees like professional athletes to unilaterally opt out of long-term contracts after seven years of employment. This poses a potentially tantalizing, if legally unproven, opportunity for someone like Mike Trout, a generational talent not yet in his prime who likely could fetch an even more historically large contract were he to hit the open market now, at age twenty-five, rather than after the 2020 season, which is when his current contract ends.

Sports court is in recess.

Baseball Notes: The WAR on Robbie Ray

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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.

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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.)

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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

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

2016 MLB midseason prediction report

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This week marks the halfway point in the 2016 MLB season, which seems like a good time to check in on the preseason predictions I made.

American League

East: Boston

The Red Sox are playing pretty well, and some of their young prospects are rising to stardom, but they trail the “surprise” Orioles by 4.5 games, and are only a game up on third-place Toronto. Still, I don’t think it would surprise anyone if Boston made moves and won this division in the second half, especially with new GM/master dealmaker Dave Dombrowski at the helm.

Central: Detroit

Minnesota aside, the Central is a tight race, but it looked a lot tighter last week, prior to Cleveland’s current rampage. Until then, no team had held a sustainable stay atop the division, though, of the four contenders, Detroit’s time in first was briefest and most tenuous. This obviously was a pick on the emotional side of the ledger for me (though it’s one I share with Dave Cameron), but if the Tigers can’t beat Cleveland– currently 0-9 on the year– this season, it’s difficult to see them claiming the crown in the second half.   Continue reading

The latest news in sports technology

Daily fantasy sports now are legal in one state, Mike Trout’s high-tech bat could make him even better this season, free hockey streaming, and American soccer stats from a German car company, all in my most recent post for TechGraphs, a roundup of last week’s top sports technology stories.

The full post is available here.

Baseball Notes: The Crux of the Statistical Biscuit

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The purpose of the interrupted Baseball Notes series is to highlight just-below-the-surface baseball topics for the purpose of deepening the enjoyment of the game for casual fans like you and me.

In the interest of achieving that casual purpose, this series generally will avoid advanced statistical concepts. One need not grasp the depths of wRC+ or xFIP to enjoy baseball, of course, or even to think about the give-and-take between baseball traditionalists, who eschew advanced statistics, and the sabermetricians, who live by them.

Moneyball famously highlighted this debate, such as it is, and it arose in the 2012 season around the American League MVP race between Miguel Cabrera (the eventual winner, and the traditional favorite) and Mike Trout, and again last season in the context of commentator Brian Kenny’s “Kill the Win” campaign against ascribing significant meaning to pitchers’ win-loss records.

The reason this “debate”– the “eye test,” wins, and batting average versus WAR et al.– isn’t really a debate is because the two sides have different descriptive goals. In short, the traditional group is concerned with what has happened, while the sabermetric group is concerned with what will happen. The former statically tallies the game’s basic value points, while the latter is out to better understand the past in order to predict the future. The basic stats on the back of a player’s baseball card aim to tell you what he did in prior seasons; the advanced statistics on Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, or in Baseball Prospectus aim to tell you something about what he’ll do next year based on a deeper understanding of what he did in prior seasons.

The previous paragraph represents an oversimplification, and probably a gross one, but I think it accurately highlights the basic, if slight, misalignment of initial points of view from the two main groups of people talking about how we talk about baseball today.

Read more…

The DET Offensive: You forgot about J(ustin Verlander)

As the 2012 MLB season winds down– the Tigers are up three over Chicago with three games to go, all against the Royals– the national focus on Motown thankfully has shifted away from a record that has to be considered a disappointment even if the team makes the playoffs and onto the achievements of Miguel Cabrera, who is well within reach of winning the first Triple Crown since Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski in 1967, and whether those achievements make him a more worthy MVP than Mike Trout.

While it’s interesting to note that Cabrera is doing all of this while having his “worst offensive season in three years,” it’s more interesting that no one is talking about Justin Verlander as a serious Cy Young candidate despite his having a nearly identical season to the one he had last year, when he ran away with the Cy Young and took home the MVP as well. Joe Posnanski elaborates:

Justin Verlander is, in so many ways, every bit as good as he was last year. He’s striking out the same number of batters, walking just a tick more, and allowing fewer home runs than he did last year. He has given up a few more hits. But he leads the league in strikeouts and innings pitched like last year and you can add in most complete games.

It is true that last year he led the league in ERA and he’s second now to David Price … but he again leads the league in ERA+, which takes into account the ballpark where they pitch. Verlander pitches in Detroit, which has evolved into a pretty good hitters park. Price pitches in Tampa Bay, a hitter’s dungeon.

The point is that Verlander is basically the same guy he was last year. Only, last year he went 24-5. This year he’s 16-8. And that seems to make all the difference. Last year, he won the Cy Young unanimously and became the first starter to win the MVP since 1986. This year — at least from what I can tell — people hardly seem to be talking about him as a Cy Young candidate. I hear a lot of David Price and Chris Sale and Jered Weaver, and these are all worthy candidates. But, once again, I think Verlander has been the best pitcher in the American League.

It gets, once more, to the issue of sports narratives. Last year, Verlander was superman. He went into the playoffs last year as this force of nature … and the record will show that in the playoffs (an odd playoffs, admittedly, because of rain) he posted a 5.31 ERA and did not throw a single quality start. But the narrative was so powerful that people STILL kept going on and on about how gutsy Verlander was, how extraordinary, how Koufax-like, how he was almost single-handedly keeping the Tigers alive.

This year, the narrative has gone the other way, the narrative has been that Verlander has been, you know, eh, good but not the mega-monster he was last year. The narrative has turned instead into how now Miguel Cabrera is superman carrying the Tigers. Narratives are fun, but they aren’t necessarily true. Verlander really is just about as amazing as he was last year.

Jonah Keri succinctly concurs: “Justin Verlander has posted numbers in 2012 virtually identical to those of 2011, yet he’s somehow considered just one of several candidates for Cy Young and a no-chance-in-hell guy for MVP, after winning both awards last year.”

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Finally, looking as far ahead as I’ll allow myself, the Free Press reports that Max Scherzer sounds like he’ll be ready to go for the playoffs, or even this week if necessary.

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Previously
Get perspective – 9/12
Everybody knows this is nowhere – 8/31

Now it’s just offensive – 8/29
Explode! – 7/23
Halfway at the Half-way – 7/9

Interleague
Play – 6/26
Call the Experts! 
 5/26
Recipe for a Slumpbuster
 – 5/2
Delmon Young Swings and Misses
 – 4/30
Brennan Boesch’s Birthday – 4/12
Tigers open 2012 season with Sawks sweep – 4/9