What happened the last time the Lions played the Browns in Detroit

In a few ways, it’s irritatingly cumbersome to write about the history of the Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns. Long synonymous with deep NFL failure, these two teams were very competitive and successful in that period of professional football that doesn’t count anymore (i.e., the pre-Super Bowl era), meeting in multiple NFL Championship Games in the 1950s. That lengthy historical leap isn’t quite a smooth one, though, since there’s a corporate continuity problem on Cleveland’s side due to team owner Art Modell’s controversial move and (sort of) transformation of the team into the Baltimore Ravens in 1996, with the “Browns” not returning to existence until 1999.

Additionally, for teams as old and geographically proximate as these two, the Browns and Lions meet only infrequently in the regular season. In the forty-seven NFL seasons since the NFL-AFL merger, Cleveland and Detroit have played each other just eleven times. Though they faced off only twice in the 1990s, there nevertheless was an effort during that period to drum up a rivalry of sorts in the form of “The Great Lakes Classic,” which was centered around preseason meetings– there even was a trophy, which, suitably, was modeled after the region’s most famous shipwreck, the Edmund Fitzgerald. The “Classic” fizzled, though, during a particularly unmemorable stretch for both teams:

Over the GLC’s 13-year run, the Lions and Browns were two of the three losingest teams in football, per Pro Football Reference. Over those regular seasons they ran out 29 different quarterbacks, gave 13 different skippers the whistle and posted a collective .339 winning percentage.

It obviously is tough to get excited about either of these teams on their own, much less when they’re playing each other. But a recent game in this series, the last one played in Detroit and the only one played in Ford Field, offered some real drama. Thankfully, the NFL Films crew captured it.

The 2009 season was Matthew Stafford’s rookie year, and he started ten games at quarterback for Detroit that season. On November 22, the Browns came to Ford Field, where, with 5:44 left in the fourth quarter, they found themselves with a six-point lead thanks to this blast-from-the-past play:

browns 11-22-09

Stafford now is the highest-paid player in NFL history, but, in 2009, Lions fans still were in the process of figuring out what the team had in its top overall draft pick out of Georgia. He’d soon let them know:

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The Lions will look to make it four in a row over Cleveland on Sunday. A win coupled with a Packers loss to the Bears (who knows) would give Detroit clear possession of second place in the division, which, in my opinion, remains winnable even if I refuse to buy into the hype train the national media runs out after Lions wins in nationally televised games. I’m thankful for the exposure, to be sure, but people are making way too much out of Monday Night Football wins over the Packers and New York Giants, two teams going firmly in reverse this year. The Sunday Night Football loss to the Steelers should serve as a strong reminder that the Lions have done nothing to demonstrate week-to-week continuity, and that red zone offense, in particular, remains a significant weakness. They’re only in the mix because of the poor quality of their divisional opponents. Here’s hoping they can capitalize on a weak nonconference opponent this week. In case you missed it, the Browns, at 0-8, are deep on the Road to XVI.

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Tigers make no waves with garden-variety hire

gardenhire_1280_z4phdh6y_6gnw5s8w

In a move sure to disappoint many, the Detroit Tigers’ managerial search reportedly is over after less than two weeks, and the team appears to be set to announce former Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire as the replacement for Brad Ausmus. From the article announcing the decision:

What separated Gardenhire from the rest of the pack?

Multiple sources told The Athletic’s Katie Strang that Tigers general manager Al Avila entered the process leaning heavily toward a candidate with previous MLB managerial experience. Gardenhire was seen as a seasoned, battle-tested option in this regard.

In his thirteen-season tenure as the Twins’ skipper, he compiled a .507 winning percentage. In twenty-seven playoff games, he posted a .222 winning percentage. All of those playoff wins came in his first three seasons (2002-2004) with the club, and Minnesota missed the playoffs entirely, and by wide margins, in his final four seasons there (2011-2014).

In my opinion, Gardenhire is the worst sort of “old-school” manager who lacks the ability to adapt to the modern game or develop young talent, two things of critical importance to this Tigers team in 2018 and beyond. He’s Jim Leyland without the edge, wit, or soul (which is to say: not Jim Leyland). He’s Dusty Baker without the success. He’s Clint Hurdle without the willingness to learn and adjust. He’s basically Bryan Price’s dad. Which is to say, not good, and vanilla at best.

To this, Tigers fans should say: “no thank you.” That a coaching search that supposedly began with fifty names ended like this reveals a front office more tone-deaf than previous personnel decisions indicated. Research indicates that managers probably have little impact on game outcomes, and if Gardenhire is coming to Detroit merely to serve as an interim stopgap during the rebuilding process, so be it. If that’s the case, though, why not bring in someone younger and cheaper who at least offers the possibility of growing with the players and the club and developing into a long-term solution? Or, why not promote from within, like the Atlanta Braves did with Brian Snitker? The team’s coaching ranks weren’t short on people “with previous MLB managerial experience,” including Lloyd McClendon and Gene Lamont.

Gardenhire’s not likely to be a detriment to the team, but his hiring feels like a missed opportunity and serves as a reminder that, after the Verlander decade, the Detroit Tigers’ rebuilding process will be a long and difficult one indeed.

Saving Detroit: Keystone Light

Ian Kinsler’s 2017 isn’t going that well, particularly at the plate, where the Detroit Tigers second baseman is having, by a wide margin, the worst season of his career. To quickly look at two measures of offensive production, he’s running an 87 wRC+ (100 is league average, and he’s never finished a season below 100) and a .237 TAv (.260 is league average, and he’s only once finished a season below .260 (.256 in 2014)). (Without digging too deep, low power and BABIP numbers may be immediate culprits and evidence of aging.)

As the Tigers look to the future, one of their most pressing decisions will involve how they part ways with Kinsler, who has been a solid performer and veteran leader since he joined the team in 2014. This week, a few additional details have emerged about Kinsler’s contract that may affect both his future trade value and how the Tigers deploy him in the meantime.

Right now, 2017 is the last guaranteed season of Kinsler’s contract. If the season ended today, the Tigers would have the option to keep Kinsler for one more year, in which they would owe him $10 million, or pay him a $5 million buyout and part ways. That “if” comes with a significant caveat, however: should Kinsler make 600 plate appearances this season, the 2018 option would vest, guaranteeing his 2018 contract year. And, if he wins a gold glove award this year, that guaranteed 2018 year would be at an $11 million salary.

The Tigers likely aren’t too worried about either of these two things, because a) they almost certainly would exercise their option to keep Kinsler for 2018 and b) $11 million probably is a fair (leaning team-friendly) price for Kinsler on a one-year contract that shouldn’t adversely affect his trade value.

Still, I’m interested to watch how the Tigers manage him down the stretch. Unless they move him to designated hitter for the remainder of the season, they probably can’t alter his chances of winning a gold glove (he currently leads all second basemen in UZR), but they can ration his plate appearances.

When news of these additional contract details broke on Wednesday, Kinsler had made 522 plate appearances and Detroit had twenty-four games remaining. If he played in every remaining game, he would need to average 3.25 plate appearances per game to hit 600 PA, a reasonable task for a seemingly healthy leadoff hitter. He made four plate appearances that night before being pulled for Andrew Romine on the losing side of a 13-2 game. Assuming he plays in each of the remaining games, Kinsler now needs to average just 3.22 PA/G to make it to 600.

This almost certainly is much ado about nothing, but it’s something to watch as this season winds down that isn’t the scoreboard (or the win-loss columns).

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Previously
An updated look at 2018 (and a quick check on 2006) – 9/1
It’s Over
– 9/1
Upton There – 8/31

A bad time for a bad season – 8/29
Jordan Zimmermann takes tennis lessons – 8/20
Tigers Notes, 8/8/17
 – 8/8
Decoding the Upton Myth
 – 8/2
Even the umpires just wanna go home
 – 7/21

Yo, a J.D. Martinez trade comp – 7/19
Martinez trade triggers premature referendum on Avila – 7/19
Michael Fulmer has righted the ship
 – 6/27

Tigers in Retrograde – 6/19
Fixing Justin Upton
 – 5/31

Soft in the Middle Now – 5/30
Reliever Relief, Part 2 – 5/11
Reliever Relief – 5/8

Saving Detroit: An updated look at 2018 (and a quick check on 2006)

Al Avila was busy yesterday. First, he traded Justin Upton to the Angels. Then, reportedly with seconds to go before the midnight waiver/postseason trade deadline, he traded Justin Verlander to the Astros. Through yesterday, Upton and Verlander were the 2017 team’s most valuable players according to bWAR. The Verlander Era– the 2006-2016 run of competitiveness– officially is over, and there can be no doubt that the Detroit Tigers are in full teardown mode. With that in mind, here‘s an updated look at the team’s 2018 financial situation:

tigers2018financials as of 9-1-17

With Verlander and Upton out, the top of that ledger is significantly lighter, and that trend is likely to continue into the offseason, when the team will trade Ian Kinsler and decline to exercise their option on Anibal Sanchez. They’ll still owe Verlander $8 million next year under the terms of the trade with Houston, and there will be raises due to a number of their arbitration-eligible players (Nicholas Castellanos likely being first among that cohort, followed by Jose Iglesias, Shane Greene, and perhaps Alex Wilson), but Detroit’s front office should be feeling much lighter on its feet. As I’ve mentioned again recently, there also should be a revenue bump from a new TV deal next year.

As Motown turns its increasingly lonely baseball eyes toward the future, where it will be incumbent upon Avila and his team to convert these more liquid resources into a new competitive core, let’s take another moment to look back at the really great era of Tigers baseball that began with Verlander’s first full MLB season in 2006. Here‘s the forty-man roster from that team, which represented the American League in the World Series that year (ages and positions shown for 2006 season):

tigers2018financials as of 9-1-17

Of this group, one is in the hall of fame (Ivan Rodriguez), and at least two are working in baseball broadcasting (Craig Monroe, FSD; Sean Casey, MLB Network). Only Verlander, Curtis Granderson (Dodgers), Fernando Rodney (Diamondbacks), Andrew Miller (Indians), and Jason Grilli (Blue Jays) still play in the majors, and Verlander was, by far, the last of the 2006 crew to leave Detroit.

You can read plenty about the prospect returns the Tigers received from yesterday’s trades elsewhere on the web.  Here‘s an initial snapshot to get you started.

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Previously
It’s Over – 9/1
Upton There – 8/31

A bad time for a bad season – 8/29
Jordan Zimmermann takes tennis lessons – 8/20
Tigers Notes, 8/8/17
 – 8/8
Decoding the Upton Myth
 – 8/2
Even the umpires just wanna go home
 – 7/21

Yo, a J.D. Martinez trade comp – 7/19
Martinez trade triggers premature referendum on Avila – 7/19
Michael Fulmer has righted the ship
 – 6/27

Tigers in Retrograde – 6/19
Fixing Justin Upton
 – 5/31

Soft in the Middle Now – 5/30
Reliever Relief, Part 2 – 5/11
Reliever Relief – 5/8

Related

ALDLAND’s full Justin Verlander archive
ALDLAND’s full Justin Upton archive

Saving Detroit: Upton There

Today is the last day MLB teams can trade players the receiving team would like to use in the postseason. In what I am regarding as a surprise move, the Tigers have sent another outfielder to the Angels, who now are acquiring Justin Upton in exchange for Grayson Long. (Last fall, Detroit sent Cameron Maybin to Anaheim, and, probably not coincidentally, Maybin now is on his way to Houston.) Neil Weinberg has the early report on Long:

The Tigers got 23-year-old Grayson Long, a starter currently having a strong year in AA. He only threw 65 innings across three levels last year due to injury, but he does have the appearance of an innings eater if you buy into the archetype scouting. Based on the public scouting views and one source I spoke with this afternoon, Long’s fastball is solid in the low 90s but his secondary stuff is a bit questionable with opinions ranging from fringe to flashes of above average. He has a change and slider but it’s not clear they will play at the major league level to the point at which he could be a successful starter. That might lead him to a bullpen role, but he has pitched well so far in the minors and I’m a big believer in letting a player keep going until the performance tells you to stop. There’s definitely potential for something really exciting but even the floor seems perfectly fine given the cost.

Upton’s contract had a player opt-out provision effective as of the end of this season. I’ve expressed skepticism about the idea that Upton would exercise that option. Weinberg, on the other hand, called the “odds that Upton opts out . . . quite high.”

It appears the Tigers came to the same conclusion, because the only way this trade makes sense is if Detroit was treating Upton as if he was on an expiring contract just like J.D. Martinez and Alex Avila and needed to get something for him now before he leaves in the offseason.

After watching Upton play here in Atlanta with his older brother as members of the Braves, I have been tracking his time– a bad dip with a fierce, late recovery in 2016, followed by a very solid 2017– in Detroit on this site with some care, and I will watch how the market responds to what I now agree will be his likely free agency this offseason. While he may not get a raise, he’s likely to wind up with a team with greater playoff odds than those of the Tigers or Angels, who, against many of those same odds, remain in the American League wild card hunt. Most of all, I’m happy to see Upton have such a strong rebound. Detroit’s fans didn’t deserve him anyway.

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Previously
A bad time for a bad season – 8/29
Jordan Zimmermann takes tennis lessons – 8/20
Tigers Notes, 8/8/17
– 8/8
Decoding the Upton Myth
– 8/2
Even the umpires just wanna go home
– 7/21

Yo, a J.D. Martinez trade comp – 7/19
Martinez trade triggers premature referendum on Avila – 7/19
Michael Fulmer has righted the ship
 – 6/27

Tigers in Retrograde – 6/19
Fixing Justin Upton
 – 5/31

Soft in the Middle Now – 5/30
Reliever Relief, Part 2 – 5/11
Reliever Relief – 5/8

Related
Catching Fire: It Don’t Come Easy
Catching Fire: Checking in on Justin Upton
Catching Fire: Night of a thousand feet of home runs
Catching Fire: Heading for the exit velocity

ALDLAND’s full Justin Upton archive

Saving Detroit: Jordan Zimmermann takes tennis lessons

Following an injury-curtailed 2016, 2017 has been anything but the bounceback for which Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann hoped. Little is trending in the right direction or going well for him in the second year of his five-year contract with the Tigers.

According to a recent report, the neck injury that caused Zimmermann to miss time in 2016 is continuing to cause mechanical problems for the pitcher in 2017. One of the consequences is a decreased ability to locate his pitches, and, while he apparently believes the needed adjustments are too significant for an in-season fix, during his most recent start, it sounds like he’d had enough:

He resorted to a quick fix Friday night, so rudimentary it seems almost silly. He wasn’t hitting his spots against the Los Angeles Dodgers’ imposing lineup — he couldn’t get the ball in to lefties, or away against righties — so he tried something he has never done before. In the fifth inning, he moved from the third-base side of the rubber, where he has pitched his entire career, to the first-base side of the rubber.

After giving up six runs over the first four innings, he figured had to try something, anything. He moved a mere five or six inches,

“Basically, I’m on the third base side and I’m missing middle. So if I move over to the middle of the rubber, I’m moving myself over five or six inches, it’s allowing me to get inside for lefties and away to righties,” Zimmermann explained.

It felt strange, but there was some marginal improvement.

Zimmermann said when he threw a fastball in, up and in, it stayed more true. It didn’t run back at all. He struck out Adrian Gonzalez in the fifth inning with three curveballs.

“It feels like I almost had to throw it in our dugout to get to the other side of the plate,” Zimmermann said. “But it went where I wanted it to, so that was the good thing.”

The difference in release points was enough to show up on these Brooks Baseball plots, which show Zimmermann’s 2017 release points excluding his last start followed by the two distinct release points he used in Friday’s game:

zimmermann

I’m highlighting this not because I think it’s any sort of meaningful solution– Zimmermann thinks it helped, and it’s hard to find sufficiently granular data to evaluate in-game strategic shifts like this (his overall zone rate on Friday night actually was slightly lower than his full-season average)– but because it shows how desperate Zimmerman is for any measure of improvement, even a false one. He undoubtedly will work on this in the offseason, but, for now, he’s just like any ordinary person who doesn’t have the time or resources for a proper adjustment and looks for something easy to keep the game going. I recognized the move immediately because it’s what I do when I play tennis. Among many faults in my game is an inability to control the depth of my serves, which usually land well deep of the service box. Some lessons with a professional probably could help identify and correct the problem in my service motion. I have so few opportunities to play, though, that I want to spend them with family and friends, not in a training session with a stranger. That’s why, if I bomb the first serve deep, I just take a couple steps backward and try it again.

Of course, Zimmermann’s more than an amateur who’s given up on his dreamshallucinations of making it as a competitive tennis player, so it will be interesting to see what real changes and adjustments we see from him in 2018, as well as how he positions himself on the mound in his remaining starts this season.

Minutiae, trivia, and the undead rumors of a Justin Verlander trade: welcome to the last six weeks of the Detroit Tigers’ 2017 season.

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Previously
Tigers Notes, 8/8/17 – 8/8
Decoding the Upton Myth
– 8/2
Even the umpires just wanna go home
– 7/21

Yo, a J.D. Martinez trade comp – 7/19
Martinez trade triggers premature referendum on Avila – 7/19
Michael Fulmer has righted the ship
 – 6/27

Tigers in Retrograde – 6/19
Fixing Justin Upton
 – 5/31

Soft in the Middle Now – 5/30
Reliever Relief, Part 2 – 5/11
Reliever Relief – 5/8

Related
Getting to know Jordan Zimmermann in context

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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