WTF: Bad Company?


Today’s article at The Hardball Times sets in print what most baseball fans already have intuited: the American League’s Central Division stinks. The article doesn’t provide much insight or analysis, but, for those who chronicle such things, its thesis statement is worth recording:

As of June 25, FanGraphs’ projected standings show the Central teams will wind up, in total, losing 88 games more than they win, with only Cleveland, as the worst of the six division winners, over .500. Since Major League Baseball split itself six ways in 1994, no division has had a worse season by that measure.

Alas, it’s nothing new. Blame it on small markets, blame it on these teams’ inability to attract the very best free agents, blame it on unwise or tightfisted ownership; heck, blame it on Midwest weather. There’s a history of this. Thirteen times in the 24 years we’re looking at, the AL Central or its National League middle-of-the-continent cousin has been the worst division in baseball. This looks like 14.

There’s more to this story, as with any other, but how much more depends upon your tolerance for a detailed observation of mediocrity. For a short-term example, I could point out that those same FanGraphs projected standings see every team in the division except Detroit playing significantly better, though still not great, over the remainder of this season. Another way of looking at that is to say that, while no one predicted greatness out of this division in 2018, the group has performed below its modest expectations to this point.

A long-term example is that, despite its collective woes, the AL Central has done a decent job of representing itself in the sport’s highest stage. Since 1995, there have been twenty-three World Series matchups. In theory, that means that forty-six different teams could have reached the playoffs’ championship round. The distribution of World-Series contenders has not been nearly so even, however. Twenty-one different teams have accounted for all forty-six World-Series openings over that span:

distribution of world series participants by team 95-17

Here’s how things look if we break down the American League’s representatives by division:

distribution of world series participants by AL division 95-17

Despite this era of AL East (really, Yankees) preeminence, the Central has managed to hold its own by representing the American League in thirty-five-percent of the World Series during that time, with four of its five teams carrying the load. To some extent, this speaks to the randomness of MLB’s playoff results, but it also isn’t exactly the picture of a division perpetually in dumpster. If nothing else, regular championship runs are a balm for the the equally regular dark days checking the summer standings.


While we’re here visualizing some data and thinking about some 2018 projections, have a look at Nicholas Castellanos. The good news for Nick is that, according to FanGraphs, he’s already produced more value for the Tigers this season than he did all of last season. The bad news is that his offensive contributions, which are the sole driver of that production value, are trending in the wrong direction. Entering yesterday’s game, his monthly splits for 2018 looked like this:

  • March/April: 122 wRC+
  • May: 163 wRC+
  • June: 89 wRC+

(Recall that, for wRC+, 100 is average.) After going 2-5 with a double and a home run yesterday afternoon, Castellanos is back above 100 (102 wRC+) for June, but that still is a substantial tumble from his hot start. A quick glance at his other splits suggest that same-side pitching and the shift have been bugaboos for Castellanos this season, and it looks like teams are using defensive shifts on Castellanos more than ever.


WTF: Busted – 6/13
WTF: Bos to the Races – 5/22
WTF: Welcome Back Kozma – 5/9

2018 Detroit Tigers Season Preview
Highlights from MLB Network’s visit to Detroit Tigers spring training


Tigers make no waves with garden-variety hire


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.

When do baseball teams score runs?


One of the marks of a smart baseball writer is the ability to sense a trend, research its existence and nature, place her findings in context, and present her conclusions in a way that meaningfully educates readers. Inherent in this ability is the wherewithal to know when to stop researching a trend or pressing on a concept, realizing that the fruits of the work have been or soon will be exhausted. Sometimes a person who is not a “smart baseball writer” by the foregoing definition will noodle about on an idea for so long, he’ll end up with a small pile of research that no longer has any bearing on any meaningful conclusions.

Two years ago, I decided to investigate a hunch that the Detroit Tigers were having trouble scoring runs late in games. My initial research mostly seemed to support my hypothesis, and a follow-up look appeared to confirm it more strongly. More than merely interesting (and fleetingly self-satisfying), it also was informatively concerning, because it placed the team’s well-known bullpen problems in a more nuanced light: relief-pitching woes alone weren’t the problem, because the lack of late-game scoring was compounding the problem of surrendering leads during the final frames. As strange as it seemed, the Tigers had interrelated shortcomings on both sides of the plate.

One comment I received in the course of sharing those findings stuck with me: I needed to place this information in context. After all, there are plausible reasons to believe that all teams might, perhaps to varying extents, experience decreased run production in the late innings.

And so it was that, two years later, I finally discovered Retrosheet, a site that compiles inning-by-inning scoring data to a more useful degree than the resources I’d utilized back in 2013. What follows are two graphs of the inning-by-inning scoring of sixteen teams for the 2014 season. Continue reading

Flying Tigers: Victor Martinez, Professional Hitter


Tigers fans chuckle to themselves whenever they hear announcer Rod Allen proclaim with his special gravitas that Victor Martinez is a “professional hitter.” After watching Victor this season, though, I began to notice that Detroit’s DH seemed to be doing an especially good job not just of putting the ball in play, but of extending his plate appearances, forcing pitchers to display their arsenal for the benefit of Martinez and his teammates. As the chart below shows, few batters are seeing more pitches per plate appearance than Victor this season.

pitches per plate appearance

There are a few things to note about this chart. First and most importantly, because the season remains young, the rankings are subject to great fluctuation on a pitch-by-pitch basis. (Click the image to see the latest data.) A second observation is that the American League, and the AL Central in particular, and the Minnesota Twins in even more particular, find strong representation here. Or at least they did when I grabbed that screenshot. Again, probably too early to read too much into the positioning here.

Wherever he stands with respect to the rest of Major League Baseball, Victor’s seeing more pitches than his fellow Tigers. I like to think that’s a small piece of evidence showing that he’s fully embracing the role of designated hitter.


Flying Tigers: Actually Mad Max – 4/29
Flying Tigers: Waiting for Takeoff – 4/28

Preseason BP Nuggets

bpro-oscarAs mentioned, this is my first season reading the Baseball Prospectus annual, and as those around me this spring have noticed, it’s full of numbers. Numbers are okay, but without analysis or interpretation, it can be a bit like reading the backs of a bunch of really comprehensive baseball cards (that also happen to include some sophisticated projections for the season ahead). There’s nothing wrong with numbers, but they don’t tend to make for very exciting reading on a site like this. Instead of asking you to widen your eyes along with me at the number of home runs Chris Davis is projected to hit this year (thirty, down from his Triple-Crown-repeat-spoiling fifty-three in 2013), I’ve tried to extract a few nuggets of information from the weeds of the raw data that will make watching baseball this season just a little bit more enjoyable.      Continue reading

The DET Offensive: Call the Experts!

I’ve gone from highlighting the good to trying to pinpoint the bad in this space for the Detroit Tigers’ promising season that, so far, has not gone according to plan. I’ve tried to get answers from the experts, particularly ESPN/Grantland’s kindly baseball insiders Buster Olney and the more interactive (with me) Jonah Keri. Both Olney and Keri were high on the Tigers before the season started, and the latter finally took to the task of assessing the current state of Motor City’s baseball team. His evaluation, excerpted:

What’s going wrong with the Tigers?

One of the biggest culprits for Detroit’s struggles has been the most predictable one: lousy team defense. Only the Mets have been worse defensively this season. . . . [A] roster full of no-glove options was rendered worse defensively when Jim Leyland curiously decided to play noted butchers Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder every day as corner infielders. Cabrera hasn’t been quite as atrocious as you might have expected after converting back to third base following years away from the position, then taking a ground ball to the face early on (on a very sharply-hit ball, it should be noted). But both no-glove sluggers have still been bad enough, with the Tigers getting a collective sub-.600 OPS from its designated hitters thanks to Delmon Young’s lousy year and some curious choices to start at DH the rest of the time.

Oh, just that, huh?

[T]here were plenty more reasons to fear regression for the Tigers, despite the 95 wins+Fielder=Profit(?) formula. Alex Avila and Jhonny Peralta hit out of their minds last year, and were prime bets to pull back in 2012. Valverde going unblemished all year long in save opportunities wasn’t going to happen again even if the Tigers moved to the Sally League. Even the seemingly loaded 2011 Tigers weren’t necessarily 95-win quality by at least one metric: Their runs scored and runs allowed totals suggested an 89-win club.

I see. I suppose that about covers it though, right?

The biggest surprise, though, has been Detroit’s shaky offense. The Tigers rank just ninth in the American League in runs scored, trailing Texas, every AL East team, and two clubs in their own division. There’s been plenty of suck to go around. Fielder’s hitting a very pedestrian (for him) .286/.349/.458. After an impressive outburst last postseason that suggested he might finally turn the corner, Delmon Young’s been a replacement-level player, hitting just .248/.302/.358. Peralta’s also slugging a Rey Sanchez-esque .358. Brennan Boesch has a .287 OBP. Avila’s hitting .225 with a .309 OBP. Tigers second basemen are collectively hitting about as well as a Deadball Era pitcher with gout, one good eye, and a candy cane for a bat.

Oof. Build me back up, Jonah. Any light at the end of the tunnel?

Some of this can’t help but turn in the Tigers’ favor. There’s a good chance they don’t have another series all year with as many squandered opportunities as they had against the Indians (3-for-29 with runners in scoring position). They’ll face very few other pitchers as dominant against right-handed hitters as Masterson is and was Thursday; righties went just 1-for-12 against Masterson for the day. And they likely won’t lose many more games in which Verlander goes eight innings, allows just seven baserunners, and ends his day by striking out the side with a 98-mph fastball, a 101-mph fastball, and a preposterous 83-mph looping curve.

Okay, so maybe things aren’t so bad after all. I’m feeling better already.

But there are still reasons to worry. The Tigers’ best hitter this year, Austin Jackson, just hit the disabled list. They lack major league-ready impact prospects at their weakest positions. And perhaps most of all, they’re chasing a pretty good team [in the Indians].

Alright. I didn’t need that. Thought we were in the clear there. Leave me with some perspective. This is a great team, right? They’ve had strong halves of seasons before. Everything’s going to be fine?

Detroit stood six games back of Cleveland through 44 games last season too, before demolishing the league in the second half and cruising to the division title. The question is, does this year’s Tigers team match up with last year’s squad? And, will the Indians fall apart for the second year in a row? A quick and healthy return for Jackson and returns to normal levels for Cabrera and Fielder could lead a Tigers resurgence, and the Indians’ iffy starting rotation could pull Cleveland back toward the pack. Another 95-win season and a runaway AL Central title, though? That bet’s all but off the board.


Keep reading…

Fall ball: ALDLAND takes you to the action in Motown

Tiger Stadium (1912-1999)

This afternoon, the Detroit Tigers will try to sweep a three-game set against the Minnesota Twins at Comerica Park in Detroit. I will be on hand for the game, so stay tuned to this site, twitter, and flickr for updates.

Doug Fister is scheduled to start for the Tigers, and although his record on the year is 7-13, he struck out thirteen in his last start (against Cleveland) and took a perfect game into the seventh inning in his previous start (against Kansas City). The Tigers have won ten of their last eleven games, including a current eight-game winning streak, so this should be a fun one.

By 2010 standards, Justin Verlander is having a Cy Young Award-winning season

During Justin Verlander’s 8K, 1 run, 7 2/3 inning retribution against the Twins last night that ended in a 7-1 Tiger victory, the Fox Sports Detroit crew ran a graphic comparing Verlander’s numbers so far this season with the 2010 final season numbers for Felix Hernandez, the reigning AL Cy Young winner. The comparison looked something* like this:

Verlander became this seasons’ first eighteen-game winner last night, his sixth straight win. There are about five weeks remaining in the regular season, during which time Verlander will try to cement his claim to the Cy Young Award against contenders Jered Weaver and C.C. Sabathia.

* It looked almost nothing like this, but it might if FSD’s on-air talent, Rod and Mario, had to do their own infographics too.