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

Offseason starts with a bang for the Detroit Tigers

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When the Detroit Tigers’ season ended in Atlanta last month, the message from general manager Al Avila was both clear and clearly different than it had been a season ago, when Avila took over the job from his boss, Dave Dombrowski. Then, speaking as the mouthpiece of the team’s owner, Mike Ilitch, he said that “the foot is on the pedal, hard,” and the team continued to make the kind of win-now moves that largely have defined them for the past decade. Now, though, Avila’s taking his foot off the gas and ushering in a period of austerity that’s likely to be painful. It definitely will be different.

The changes began immediately. Yesterday was the first day of the MLB offseason, and Avila wasted no time in making two of his biggest decisions on current player options. First, he “traded” center fielder Cameron Maybin to the Angels for a low-grade relief pitching prospect in a move that essentially amounts to the Tigers declining to exercise Maybin’s option.

Shortly thereafter, the team announced that it would pick up the $6 million option on closer Francisco Rodriguez. (Had they declined K-Rod’s option, they would’ve owed him a $2 million buyout.)

If, as he has said, his new mission is “making this team leaner, younger, more efficient,” I’m not certain this was the way to do it. Given the money, his track record, and his strong performance last season, I like the decision to retain Rodriguez, even considering the general year-to-year unreliability of reliever performance.

The Maybin decision is more confusing, though. By fWAR, Maybin was the Tigers’ most valuable outfielder last year, and he only played in ninety-four games. (He also was their second-best baserunner.) He missed action due to injury, but not really the kind of injury that should make teams worry. He mostly just kept getting beaned on the hands. That’s just bad luck. He’s only twenty-nine. Over the past two seasons with Atlanta and then Detroit, he finally seemed to be approaching the potential he demonstrated eleven years ago that caused the Tigers to spend the tenth overall draft pick on him in 2005. (He also was the team leader in the Instagram handle category.)

Now he’s gone again, leaving behind holes in center field and the top of the batting order. Jeff Sullivan, writing up this transaction largely from the Angels’ perspective, points a finger to JaCoby Jones as the likely replacement Avila is targeting. Jones showed memorable flashes as a late-season call-up this year, but, like many prospects, he’s still young and raw and inconsistent. The other obvious fill-in is Tyler Collins, who has the relative advantage of being a left-handed hitter but the disadvantage of being at an age and experience level where “raw” is not a baseball adjective that incorporates an element of hope.

All of this happened on offseason day number one. There will be more activity involving the Tigers this offseason, and, typically, it is wise to wait to render final judgment on a particular decision until it can be viewed within the full constellation of the team’s moves. Under austerity, though, there should be little hope for or expectation of near-term improvement through an infusion of external resources; doing better must mean doing better with what you already have. There isn’t going to be a Justin Upton trade this year (which, while we’re at it, probably will be the last year J.D. Martinez wears a Detroit uniform). What stings about the Maybin trade– besides the obvious departure of talent and the intangibles of a fun guy who seemed to be having a lot of fun himself– is that it is a move that will make the team worse in 2017, and the Tigers haven’t made too many moves like that in a good while.

Game 162: Talking baseball at the end of the 2016 regular season

Every MLB team is in action beginning at 3:00 this afternoon for the final* day of the 2016 regular season. Before heading down to Turner Field to catch the Tigers and say farewell to baseball in downtown Atlanta, I was a guest on today’s episode of the Banished to the Pen Podcast, in which I rambled about wild card scenarios and made severely underinformed playoff predictions.

Stream or download the podcast here.

* Final as to all except Detroit and Cleveland, which likely will need to play a makeup game tomorrow.

The arc of the ALDLAND universe is long, but it bends toward this weekend

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If there are two things I’ve written about with consistency at this weblog they are 1) the Detroit Tigers and 2) the Atlanta Braves’ foolhardy abandonment of their downtown home at Turner Field. Beginning tonight, and for the next two days thereafter, these two ALDLANDic worlds will collide when the Tigers face the Braves in the final three games ever to be played at the aforementioned Turner Field. More than anything, I am grateful that we will be able to attend each of these games, live and in person. These are critical games for the 2016 Tigers, teetering as they are on the edge of postseason qualification, and they are historic games for the City of Atlanta. I have little more to add at this juncture other than that I am very excited.   Continue reading

Catching Fire: Cabrera leads by example

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In an odd way, it’s tough to find an excuse to write about Miguel Cabrera in a season series like this one, because he’s so consistently good that, within his own context, his day-to-day achievements don’t stand out. If, from a coverage perspective, the greats miss out on talent-correlated attention during the season, though, they tend to make up for it during the big moments, like playoff races and the postseason.

The Detroit Tigers are in the final countdown for the 2016 season. Monday was their last off-day until the season ends on October 2. Their playoff odds have tumbled, but they’ve managed to keep pace at about two games back of the second AL wild card spot, meaning that their postseason hopes remain very much alive. The reason those playoff odds are low, though, is because they’re running out of time. Every remaining game is of critical importance, and while the Tigers really need to win each of these games (or, at least, a vast majority of them), even doing that won’t guarantee a playoff berth unless the teams ahead of them falter.

Cabrera knew the stakes last night, during the team’s first game of this crucial final stretch. Detroit already was missing two of its biggest bats– Cabrera’s Venezuelan countryman Victor Martinez and Ian Kinsler, also an important vocal leader– due to a brutal triple HBP run by Cleveland’s Trevor Bauer (Cabrera also was a victim) in a costly win on Sunday, which meant Cabrera would need to shoulder even more of the offensive load than usual.

In the fourth inning, leading by a slim 1-0 margin, Cabrera decided to manufacture a run essentially all by himself, and not by way of a snappy home run blast. First, he stretched his single into a double; then advanced to third on a dangerously shallow fly-out; and, finally and amazingly, scored from there on an infield hit to the third baseman. Cabrera’s Billy Hamilton impression is one of the most impressive baseball moments I’ve seen this year (here’s the video), and he delivered it for the benefit of his teammates at the perfect moment. While it’s impossible to say whether the team’s subsequent offensive breakout– they ended up winning 8-1, with Cabrera also contributing a two-run homer– came as a result of this moment or the team simply (finally) catching up to bad Minnesota pitching, Cabrera’s baserunning in the fourth, which resulted in what ultimately proved to be the winning run, sent an unmistakable message to his teammates.   Continue reading

Catching Fire: It Don’t Come Easy

With just under a month remaining in the 2016 MLB season, this is a good time to take stock of the Detroit Tigers and some of their key players.

Team Playoff Odds

Today, the team sits 5.5 games back of Cleveland in the AL Central, and one game out of the second AL wild card spot, behind Boston and Baltimore. At this point, the division likely is out of reach, but the wild card is in play. Over the last two weeks, the Tigers have moved in and out of the second wild card position, and, although it’s served them well to this point, the Orioles’ volatile combination of bad starting pitching and overreliance on home runs is subject to collapse at any moment.

Three sites– Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs, and FiveThirtyEight– take varying stances on spaces and the capitalization of letters in their names, but all three provide MLB playoff odds for every team. These represent the percent chance, based on to-date performance, that a given team will make the playoffs. Here’s how the Tigers’ playoff chances look today:   Continue reading

Catching Fire: Checking in on Justin Upton

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Everyone knows Justin Upton has had a tough go of things during his first season in Detroit, and it’s reasonable to expect that there would be an adjustment period associated with his move to the American League– new pitchers, new parks– after spending his first nine seasons in the National League.

When we last checked in on Upton, in late June, things finally seemed to be heading in the right direction:

Especially exciting for Detroit was that two of [the Tigers’ home runs in a win against the Mariners] came off the bat of Justin Upton, who finally appears to be heating up for his new team after suffering one of the worst offensive stretches of his career.

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Upton has not continued in that direction, however; in fact, I seem to have caught him precisely at his peak. Here’s an updated version that same graph from the June post, above:

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That earlier snapshot of Upton’s offensive production was through June 20, the date highlighted on this graph. Since then, Upton’s offense is declining again, and this graph (for reasons unknown to me) doesn’t even include the team’s two most-recent games, in which he went 0-7, striking out four times and grounding into two double plays.

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At the moment, this season is the only full one of Upton’s career in which he has performed as a below-average batter, and, as the above all indicate, he’s been particularly bad of late. (Like, 6-wRC+-for-the-month-of-August bad.)

After the Mariners (coincidentally, the same team against which Upton appeared to break out back in June) completed a frustrating series sweep of the Tigers in Seattle early this morning, critics corralled their critical criticisms in Upton’s direction. Detroit hitting coach Wally Joyner came to Upton’s defense, however:

He’s a good player. He wasn’t sitting on the corner when they gave him the contract. He’s earned it. There’s a reason for that. Remember it. Nothing’s changed. He’s just a little bit unlucky right now.

He’s not OK with it and I’m glad he’s not OK with it. He’s working hard and he’ll be fine. He’s unlucky. He’s not playing like [crap].

Is Joyner right? Has Upton, of late, merely been unlucky?   Continue reading