Saving Detroit: Tigers in Retrograde

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I thought we already covered this, Brad.

After a pleasantly surprising series sweep of the White Sox, the Tigers have lost eight of twelve and fallen to fourth place in the underwhelming AL Central. Rather than capitalize on a slow start by Cleveland, Detroit is struggling to keep its head about the .500 winning percentage waterline, and a deeper look into their 32-36 record suggests it’s an accurate reflection of who they’ve been to this point– no bad luck to blame so far. At least Victor Martinez is out of the hospital.

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Previously
Saving Detroit: Fixing Justin Upton – 5/31
Saving Detroit: Soft in the Middle Now – 5/30
Saving Detroit: Reliever Relief, Part 2 – 5/11
Saving Detroit: Reliever Relief – 5/8

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?

Saving Detroit: Soft in the Middle Now

The subtitle of this post nearly was “Weakness Abounds,” since the Detroit Tigers are in a real rough spot right now, and, until last night (and even including most of last night, really), it seemed like nearly everything that could go wrong for this team was going wrong, but then I thought of a much better and more accurate one that also allowed me to lead with that music video. The Tigers have fallen to a 24-29 record, four games out of the division, and, while all is not lost, it’s becoming quite easy to feel that way. A thing that happens sometimes when you focus on putting out the various fires– like the bullpen, as a ready example– popping up on a team struggling to hold it together is that you can take for granted the team’s presumed consistent strengths, however minor, and forget to keep an eye on them too. With the offense collectively slumping as bad as it has been and the entire pitching staff acting like it was playing for the opposing teams, this was easy to do.

One of those good things the Tigers thought they had on lock was their up-the-middle defense. When your pitchers are giving up a lot of contact, a double play can be a life-saver. Shortstop Jose Iglesias’ bat hasn’t held up this season, but we always knew he was in the lineup for his defense, and it was just last year that we were beginning to discuss Ian Kinsler’s dark-horse Hall-of-Fame candidacy. At least as far as defense was concerned, these were two guys the Tigers didn’t have to worry about.

And yet, when their pitchers most needed bailouts, the defense has faltered. Baseball Prospectus tracks double-play percentage (DP%), defined as the number of times a team converts double-play opportunities into double plays. Obviously this is a coarse measure for evaluating a particular double-play tandem for a number of reasons, including the fact that it operates on a team level, and, in this case, Iglesias and Kinsler didn’t play every single game together. Double plays also commonly involve the other infielders too. Still, the DP% numbers paint a stark picture for the Iglesias-Kinsler era in Detroit.

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Iglesias and Kinsler have been the Tigers’ starting shortstop and second baseman, respectively, since 2015. In the first two seasons of the current tandem, 2015 and 2016, the team did a very good job of converting double-play opportunities. As a team, the Tigers were, at very best, average when it came to overall defense during this period, but Iglesias and Kinsler were supposed to be the glue that made the whole fielding operation passable. When it came to completing double plays, they held up their end of the bargain. Something (or somethings) aren’t right so far in 2017, though, and the dramatic dropoff in DP% hardly could come at a worse time for Detroit’s floundering pitching staff.

Tonight’s game is about to start, so I’ll leave things here for now, but this may be a thing– among a great many, to be sure– to keep an eye on as the Tigers turn toward summer and begin to evaluate their team-level strategic direction.

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Previously
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?

Saving Detroit: Reliever Relief, Part 2

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In the history of Major League Baseball, there’s only been one player with the first name Anibal. Anibal Alejandro Sanchez broke into the majors in 2006 with the Florida Marlins. He, along with Omar Infante, came to Detroit in the middle of the 2012 season in a trade. In 2013, his first full season as a Tiger, Sanchez produced by far the best season of his career (6.1 bWAR, 6.0 fWAR, 5.1 WARP). It’s been all downhill since then, though, and his move to the bullpen in 2016 seemed inevitable if only because he remained signed to a starter-magnitude contract that made totally cutting bait a pill too difficult to swallow. Sanchez didn’t make the transition especially well, however, and things have not improved in 2017. It’s come time for the Tigers to release this former fish.

After an especially bad weekend in Oakland capped a rough start to this season for incumbent closer Francisco Rodriguez, I (along with everyone else in the world) wrote on Monday that manager Brad Ausmus needed to demote K-Rod immediately. Ausmus agreed and did so, promoting Justin Wilson to the closer role, although the first run with the new top-line bullpen arrangement showed Ausmus still has room for improvement there. Dynamic, leverage-oriented bullpen management is pretty difficult to accomplish, though, and Sanchez has become a much clearer and more present danger to the team’s success than any further usage optimization of the capable portion of the relief corps.

Sanchez, as a converted starter who used to be good, would seem to be the optimal long relief guy, but he has foundered in that role, and if it seems like he gives up a home run every time he comes into a game, well, you’re not far off.

Last night in Arizona, Sanchez made his first appearance in over a week and immediately surrendered back-to-back home runs to the first two batters he faced. Although the Tigers’ offense had evaporated in the desert heat that night, those two homers Sanchez allowed felt like the real mortal blow that destroyed any hope for a comeback.

This is who Sanchez is at this point. Among qualified relievers in 2017, only one pitcher is allowing home runs at a higher rate than him (none have allowed more, total, than him), and Sanchez has been used more than everybody in the “top” twenty on that list. This now is an untenable situation, and it probably has been for some time. Continue reading

Saving Detroit: Reliever Relief

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Despite being pretty good at almost every aspect of building a winning baseball team, the Detroit Tigers have, for years, had as difficult a time finding a reliable closer as the Cleveland Browns have finding a quarterback. Even reading the names Jose Valverde and Joe Nathan is enough to make most fans shudder, and, unfortunately, it’s come time to add Francisco Rodriguez to that list.

There were reasons to be hopeful when Rodriguez came over to Detroit before last season. Even though, at thirty-four years old, he wasn’t the fire-breathing, overpowering force he was in his younger days, it looked like he’d traded some heat for wisdom and found a way to continue to succeed as he aged. The active saves leader did pretty well last year, and, even if there were some missteps in key moments, it was hard to be too disappointed with the overall body of work. He even seemed to help teach manager Brad Ausmus a helpful lesson about bullpen management, as Ausmus slowly broke out of the conventional mold and began using Rodriguez in high-leverage four-out situations rather than rigidly reserving him for the ninth inning alone.

Baseball famously is a game without a clock (at least for now), but humans lack such an exemption, and the clock appears to have run out on Rodriguez in his age-thirty-five season. After single-handedly blowing two games over the weekend, it sure seems like Rodriguez has turned into a dip-filled pumpkin. By one measure, Win Probability Added, he’s done more to help his team lose than any other reliever than all but one other reliever in baseball.

It’s tough to pinpoint exactly what’s wrong with K-Rod this year. His velocities are down a little bit, but they’ve been going down pretty much steadily over the course of his career. That’s nothing new, and it’s why he started prioritizing offspeed pitches over his cooling fastball as he got older. Other indicators, including location, pitch usage, and release points, all look as reasonably expected. The results don’t lie, though; batters are absolutely hammering him this year:

krod mapsIt looks like he’s throwing to the same places– low, and in/away– he usually has, but with much less success. It’s hard (for me, at least) to pinpoint with these various advanced tools exactly what’s happened, but it’s clear that Rodriguez no longer is fooling batters, a veritable death knell for deception-reliant pitchers like him. The way batters consistently chased– and, more often than not, missed– his diving, low and away pitches is something I marveled at last year, my first really watching him and his seemingly simple approach. For whatever reason, though, they aren’t even remotely fooled this year, as the below graph of Rodriguez’s out-of-zone swing rate from a FanGraphs article posted this evening shows:

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The Tigers’ margin for error this season is extremely narrow, and Rodriguez just cost them two wins on an important West-Coast roadtrip. They don’t have time to let Rodriguez find himself in game-ending, high-leverage situations. Ausmus needs to rearrange his bullpen immediately. It already was a thin crew, but the status quo won’t do. It’s time to promote the Wilsons and find out if the rest of this motley bunch can handle a heavier load.

2017 Detroit Tigers Season Preview

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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.

The best of his kind: Farewell to Mr. I

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On Friday afternoon, Mike Ilitch, the owner of the Detroit Red Wings and Tigers, died at the age of eighty-seven. He was a Marine, a minor-league baseball player, and the founder of the Little Caesars pizza chain. In 1987, he bought the Red Wings, and he took over the Tigers (from pizza rival Tom Monaghan, of Domino’s) in 1993. He also rejuvenated the city’s Fox Theater and, much more quietly, paid for Rosa Parks’ housing for the last ten years of her life.

With the Wings and Tigers, Ilitch took over teams with great legacies that had fallen on hard times and built them into championship contenders by doing exactly what every fan hopes the owner of his or her favorite team would do: invest in the team with the goal of winning as much as possible as soon as possible. The results at Joe Louis Arena were unambiguous: four Stanley Cups and some of the best hockey teams ever assembled. While the Tigers couldn’t quite make it to the mountaintop, they have enjoyed a decade or more of top-tier competitiveness that included two World Series appearances, the first of which, in 2006, came just three years after the team lost 119 games.

Ilitch remained committed to his teams, and to his city, through thick and thin. Neil over at New English D recalls one of the more memorable examples of that commitment:

The defining moment will always be the beginning of the 2009 season. The Great Recession had rocked the auto industry and two of the city’s Big Three automakers had to be bailed out by the federal government to survive. General Motors had previously sponsored the center field fountain at Comerica Park but were in no position to spend a couple million dollars on advertising. Rather than selling the space to another company in some other industry, Ilitch put all three logos on the fountain with the message “The Detroit Tigers support our automakers.”

Things were dire around the country but especially in Detroit. The Tigers themselves were feeling squeezed due to decreased ticket sales and surely could have used the capital. In fact, that offseason they traded Curtis Granderson in part because they needed to trim payroll. A city that was once the engine of the American Century was teetering on the brink, but in that moment, Ilitch wasn’t thinking about the ad space. He was thinking about the organization’s role in the community. It’s responsibility to the community, even.
. . .
I have no idea if the free space actually helped the industry recover, but symbolism mattered. Mike Ilitch did right by his city not just when it was easy and when it made him wealthy, but also when things were tough.

As Mike Ilitch’s health waned in recent years, indications have emerged that his son, Chris, was taking on a larger role in the teams’ ownership, and there was some suggestion that Chris might have been behind the Tigers’ moves toward austerity that began with the unceremonious midseason departure of former GM Dave Dombrowski in 2015. It seems unlikely that Chris will continue his father’s free-spending ways, but, beyond that, there’s little public information to inform a prediction about the leadership style of the younger Ilitch.

Maybe it was because he was a self-made man, rather than an inheritor of wealth. Maybe it didn’t matter how he came to be in a position to own two professional sports franchises. From the fans’ perspective, it didn’t matter. What did matter was that Mike Ilitch loved his teams and his city and sought to do right by both by being the ideal team owner, someone who owned teams and financed them for success because sports are supposed to be fun. Today, teams are owned by conglomerates, publicly traded companies, and Wall Street ownership groups that, as often as not, seem to have priorities other than winning. To the extent he was of a kind, Ilitch may be one of the last of that kind, and his generosity will be missed.

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.

Kate Upton has a point: Writers must do better with baseball awards voting (via Fox Sports)

111716-mlb-tigers-verlander-upton-pi-vadapt-980-high-75Kate Upton had a point. Her math is off, her facts are off, but she had a point.

Sorry, Kate, no writer should be fired for failing to vote for your fiance, Justin Verlander, for the American League Cy Young Award.

But, with all due respect to the Baseball Writers Association of America — of which I am a proud member — the omission of Verlander from the ballot by both Tampa Bay voters is indeed an indication that we can do a better job choosing the voters for our awards.

Judging voters too harshly is a slippery slope: I vehemently oppose penalizing anyone for holding an unpopular or even mistaken opinion. At the same time, it is the obligation of every voter to develop a sound rationale for his or her choices. Different answers are acceptable; it’s the process that matters.

The Tampa Bay voters, Bill Chastain of MLB.com and Fred Goodall of the Associated Press, cannot be held solely responsible for Verlander’s second-place finish, despite what Upton said in her epic Twitter rant Wednesday night. Verlander would have needed third-place votes or better from both to overcome Porcello – and seven other writers placed him fourth or fifth.

Chastain told the New York Daily News that he submitted his ballot with about a week left in the regular season; a curious choice, to say the least, when Verlander’s Tigers were still fighting for a playoff berth. Goodall, one of several AP writers who vote for BBWAA awards, does not solely cover baseball; he reports on a variety of sports in the Tampa Bay area.

Ultimately, though, each writer needs to take responsibility; if you are not prepared to engage in or capable of the necessary analysis, then don’t accept the ballot. Chastain and Goodall did not make indefensible choices — Chastain went Porcello-Britton-Kluber-Sale-Masahiro Tanaka; Goodall went Porcello-Kluber-J.A. Happ-Britton-Aaron Sanchez. But the complete exclusion of Verlander by both makes little sense.

Votes are subjective, differences of opinion expected. But the BBWAA has a responsibility, too — a responsibility to make sure that we select the most qualified voters, the best of the best, to get the optimal result.

If we fail to do that, shame on us. … Read More

(via Fox Sports)

HT: LRAD/MSN.com

Michael Fulmer and the changing face of the Detroit Tigers

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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:

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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:

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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