Saving Detroit: Fixing Justin Upton

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When it comes to the 2017 Detroit Tigers, we are in full-on damage-control mode here at ALDLAND, looking high and low for fixes for everything from the bullpen to the infield defense. On an individual basis, though, no player seems to be the recipient of more scorn from those who express Tigers-related opinions on the internet than Justin Upton. The critical refrain, when it comes to the younger Upton brother, is simple: he strikes out too much.

I spent many of the pages of last season’s Tigers diary on Upton. Having watched him during his days as a member of the Atlanta Braves, I knew he was a good and exciting player, but also a streaky player, and I hoped that Detroit fans would be patient enough to see through the streakiness and hold out for the production, they generally weren’t. Some career-low offensive numbers in the middle of the season didn’t help his case, and people (this website’s readers excepted, obviously) mostly missed that, in the final analysis, his full-season production was almost exactly as anticipated: an above-average offensive profile with thirty-one home runs, matching a career high. Also likely to be forgotten is his hot September– thirteen home runs, .292/.382/.750, and 196 wRC+, basically Babe Ruth’s career line– that was the main reason the team was in contention entering the final series of the regular season.

The Tigers didn’t make the playoffs last year, though, and things are looking pretty bad right now, too, which makes it easy to continue to beat the Upton-strikeout drum. And look, he’s currently running a career-high 31.2% strikeout rate (ten percent above league average), which isn’t helping matters.

When it comes to Upton, though, it isn’t as easy as simply focusing on strikeouts. For example, he’s running a walk rate that’s substantially higher than last season’s, meaning that his BB/K ratio is in line with his career ratio. In general, though, this is what he does. Like many power hitters in today’s game, he hits a lot of home runs and he strikes out a lot. Strikeouts are frustrating, but harping on them, in Upton’s case, isn’t productive. As Dave Cameron discussed at FanGraphs today, Giancarlo Stanton has undertaken the sort of change Upton’s critics are demanding, dramatically cutting his K% and upping his contact rate. The result? A very similar, if slightly worse, overall offensive profile. Cameron explains:

To this point, the change hasn’t served to make Stanton better, just different. His 135 wRC+ this year is pretty close to his career 141 mark, as the reduction in strikeouts have also come with a small drop in BABIP and a continuing decline in his walk rate. And the latter is of particular interest, because it shows how differently he’s being pitched these days.

In his 2013/2014 heyday, only 41% of the pitches thrown to Stanton were in the strike zone, about as low a mark as pitchers will go for a hitter who doesn’t instinctively swing at anything out of their hand. This year, pitchers are throwing Stanton strikes 44% of the time, about the same rate they’re challenging Trevor Plouffe and Albert Pujols. Pitchers are coming after Stanton now, perhaps recognizing that maybe he’s not taking the herculean swings that he used to take, and the penalty for throwing him something in the zone isn’t quite what it used to be.

As his contact rate has climbed, Stanton’s doing less damage on contact than he used to be [sic], and perhaps not surprisingly, is now seeing more strikes thrown his way. These are all shifts more than total revolutions, as he’s still a power hitter who does a lot of damage when he hits the ball, but he’s now moved more towards the normal levels of contact and production, rather than being an outlier on both ends.

(emphasis added).

Could Upton stop striking out as much as he does now if he wanted to? Probably. Changes in approach have complex consequences, though, and the result of those consequences might not work a net positive on Upton’s production even if he pushed himself to a career low strikeout rate and career high contact rate like Stanton has. (It essentially is the Ichiro Suzuki home run question asked from the opposite side of the player comp spectrum.)

The broader point, I think, is one that came to me during my look at switch hitters’ approaches to defensive shifts last year: we should engage in player analysis with the initial assumptions that (1) the player is a skilled athlete capable of undertaking multiple approaches to his or her sport, and (2) the player intelligently approaches his sport by selecting the optimal approach, given his or her strengths and weaknesses, designed for performance at the highest possible level. This is a conservative outlook that essentially assumes that the player’s status quo modus operandi represents the player’s optimal modus operandi. Like the Tigers fans who assume they can fix Upton by telling him to strike out less, it’s easy to assume we know better. As more complex investigations often reveal, however, the player had it right all along.

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

Related
2017 Detroit Tigers Season Preview
Is the next Mike Trout already in Detroit?
A strategic switch to beat the shift?

Sphaera Veritas: An investigation

If there are two constants in this world they are that 1) Bill Simmons’ The Ringer website, roughly a year after its launch, is a remarkably unessential destination on the sports web and 2) ball don’t lie. Now, however, there’s reason to question both of those constants.

In just the sort of article that site ought to be running, The Ringer today puts to the test Rasheed Wallace’s presumptive– and heretofore unquestioned– universal edict that ball, in fact, don’t lie, and asks some hard questions.

Taylor Swift and Phish deserve 2016 World Series rings

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Taylor Swift’s influence on this year’s historic World Series is well-recognized. First, she cleared the Chicago Cubs’ path through the National League side of the playoff draw by failing to release a new album in an even year for the first time since 2006, thereby removing the true and powerful source of the San Francisco Giants’ even-year magic. Things wobbled a bit when, on the day of game three of the NLDS (in which the Cubs held a 2-0 series lead over the Giants), Swift announced that her first concert in nearly a year would take place later that month and, some thought, hinted at a new album release that would spirit the Giants to another world championship. San Francisco avoided elimination by beating Chicago that night.

Swift performed her concert, but she ultimately declined to release a new album, thereby halting the Giants’ playoff run and allowing the Cubs to advance to the World Series.

As all baseball fans know from the parable of the angels in the outfield, though, a team’s supernatural helper– be it Christopher Lloyd or T-Swizz– only will carry the team so far. In the World Series, the Cubs faltered again. Their offensive power, which had floated them to a regular-season-best 103 wins, suddenly became scarce in the playoffs, and they quickly found themselves in a 3-1 hole against Cleveland in the final round. Backs against the wall, Chicago would have to win three straight games in order to claim the title. To do that, their first baseman, Anthony Rizzo, would have to start hitting.

At twenty-seven years old, Rizzo qualifies as a wise old veteran on this young Cubs team, and he knew a change was necessary for the Cubs to have a shot at winning the series, so he made one. All year and throughout the playoffs, Rizzo had used Swift’s “Bad Blood” as his walkup music, and it had served him well. With one game left at Wrigley Field, the first of three consecutive must-wins, Rizzo hit shuffle on the jukebox, swapping “Bad Blood” for the Rocky theme. It worked. Rizzo hit a key double and scored a run, and the Cubs won 3-2, sending the series back to Cleveland, where they would win twice more, including a dramatic game-seven victory in extra innings. And it’s all thanks to Taylor Swift.

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Almost all of it, anyway. The touring phenomenon that is the band Phish has been making music together since 1983. In the more than thirty years of their existence, they have performed in Chicago numerous times. In fact, prior to this year, they’d played in Chicago twenty-eight times (I’m counting their five appearances in Rosemont), including a 1991 gig at the famous Cubby Bear bar. (For more on that storied venue’s history with music and baseball, enjoy this brief video from 1984.)

Until 2016, though, they never had performed inside the (helping) friendly confines of Wrigley Field. In the 108th year of Chicago’s north-side championship drought, however, Vermont’s finest made their Wrigley Field debut on June 24. We joined them on night two of their two-night Wrigley run, and they were excellent. The second night’s second set, in particular, was sublime.

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I don’t recall any explicit baseball references from the band that evening, but the first set offered some clues:

  • Waiting All Night (a World Series game seven preview)
  • 46 Days (sung as a reference to the days of 1946, the year after the Cubs’ last World Series appearance)
  • I Didn’t Know (You Were That Far Gone – from a World Series championship)
  • Good Times Bad Times (acknowledging that the Cubs and their fans have had their share of both)

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Are there musicians more closely associated with the Chicago Cubs than Taylor Swift and Phish? Probably. Eddie Vedder comes to mind. Michigander and ostensible Detroit Tigers fan Jack White has had his public flirtations. It is clear from the foregoing, however, that no musicians did more to help the Cubs break their various curses and claim a World Series title for the first time in 108 years than Swift and Phish. If Manny Ramirez is getting a World Series ring this year, then so should Taylor, Trey, Jon, Mike, and Page.

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Related
World Series Game 7 in two tweets
Book review: Chicago Blues: The City & The Music

Belated welcome to the 2016 NFL season

We probably aren’t going to have weekly wrapups this season, but I am kicking myself for forgetting to post this 2016 NFL season introduction. Even though Week 1’s already in the books (go Lions), this is too good not to share:

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Braves finally strike a positive note in move to new stadium

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My opposition to the Atlanta Braves’ departure from their downtown home in Turner Field is well-documented in these digital pages, and it’s unlikely that we’ll make it to many games once the team moves to the corner of I-75 and I-285 (not exactly Michigan and Trumbull or 1060 West Addison). In the event we do hack our way through the asphalt jungle and make it to Cobb County, though, there’s good news. No, the team’s not likely to be much better next year, but at least Turner Field organist Matthew Kaminsky will be joining the Braves’ suburban exodus.

I didn’t know his name back then, but I remember Kaminsky’s work from my first Braves game, back in 2013. I even wrote about him here, in my post about that game:

It was good that we were closer to the game, too, because the Royals and Braves, who were off on Monday, were celebrating a belated Jackie Robinson day by having everyone wear uniform number 42 in his honor. This made it difficult to keep track of the players, particularly hitters and pitchers, a difficulty the apparent lack of an active stadium announcer compounded. Swinging hard in the other direction, though, was the overly detailed digital scoreboard in straightaway center that had almost too much information on it to be readily intelligible. Mitigating all of this, thankfully, was an organ player who kept the whole scene loose and made me smile by playing his or her own version of “Call Me Al” every time K.C.’s Alcides Escobar came up to bat.

Kaminsky’s signature is his musical puns or references played for the opposing batters’ walk-up songs, creating a fun game within the game for fans trying to follow his thought process. Other memorable selections include “Take Five,” a Dave Brubeck recording composed by saxophonist Paul Desmond, for Washington Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond, and various fish-related songs for Angels outfielder Mike Trout.

Kaminsky was a guest on a recent episode of The Ringer’s MLB podcast, hosted by Ben Lindbergh, which you can stream below. He discusses how he first was hired for the job; how he prepares for, envisions, and executes his role during games; and the particular musical equipment he uses. As mentioned above, he also discloses the news that he will be a part of games at the Braves’ new park next year, and that, as part of the move, the team will be supplying him with a real organ.

The segment with Kaminsky begins at roughly the halfway point, and is preceded by a Statcast conversation with Daren Willman (Baseball Savant) and Tom Tango (The Book) that also may be of some interest.

Kaminsky, who also plays for college teams (including Georgia Tech, Georgia, and Auburn), performs in a salsa band and a jazz band, and teaches music, takes suggestions for his baseball selections on Twitter.

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Previously
The political costs of a new baseball stadium
Previewing the 2016 Atlanta Braves
The Braves are failing on their own terms
New Braves stadium project continues to falter
Georgia Supreme Court Upholds Cobb’s Braves Stadium Bond Deal
Braves Break Ground on Baseball Boondoggle
The yard sale at Upton Abbey continues
From Barves to Burbs: What’s happening to baseball in Atlanta?

[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

Ejection Overruled: Evaluating MLB’s attempt to eliminate in-game dissent

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Following up on its poorly received press release in support of federal legislation designed to exempt minor league players from minimum-wage regulations, MLB has issued an edict to managers stating that manager arguments with umpires during games constitutes “highly inappropriate conduct” that “is detrimental to the game and must stop immediately. . . . Although disagreements over ball and strike calls are natural, the prevalence of manager ejections simply cannot continue. This conduct not only delays the game, but it also has the propensity to undermine the integrity of the umpires on the field.” MLB Chief Baseball Officer Joe Torre, who circulated the memorandum in question, added that the behavior in question constitutes “an express violation of the Replay Regulations, which state that ‘on-field personnel in the dugout may not discuss any issue with individuals in their video review room using the dugout phone other than whether to challenge a play subject to video replay review.'”

This pronounced proscription (or, at least, curtailing) of in-game arguments between managers and umpires invokes a number of related baseball issues including the i) length of games; ii) pace of games; and iii) scope and nature of instant replay review, to include potential review of ball/strike calls.   Continue reading

Catching Fire: Pelf on the shelf

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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

Muhammad Ali: Champion of the World (via The Ringer)

z9eyq7uMaybe there was a conventional explanation provided by a heightened mutual empathy and his ability to instantly connect with others, a super skill not found in one man out of a billion. But no one who met him nor even came close to him in a crowd would deny that Ali seemed to glow, or transmit, or vibrate in some nonverbal way. You could see him with your eyes closed. You could hear him when he wasn’t speaking. … Read More

(via The Ringer)

Extra! Extra! Read all about what you’ve already read!

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What’s with all the newsletters? Last week, I wrote about Bill Simmons’ new, post-Grantland website, The Ringer, which launched not with a splashy homepage prepopulated with articles, but with an email newsletter. Over a week later, TheRinger.com still exists as a simple placeholder page with little more than a button for subscribing to that email newsletter and podcast download links. As of this afternoon, Simmons & Co. have released a total of six newsletters.

Two days ago, FanGraphs announced that it too would introduce an email newsletter, and, later that day, the first issue arrived:   Continue reading