The Year The Tigers Stopped Pitching

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

I put it out on Twitter last night that the Tigers pitchers have combined for 7.8 fWAR in 2015. That’s not good, and what’s worse is that 6.2 of that mark belongs to David Price and Justin Verlander. That’s 80% of their WAR coming from 20% of their innings. As a club, they’re one of the three worst run prevention teams this season.

This is particularly devastating to watch because pitching was the club’s strength for the last few years. We knew Verlander was a question mark and that failure would mean a Price deal, but the big blows were losing Scherzer and Porcello while dealing with an injured and homer-happy Sanchez. We were optimistic about Greene, but having Greene and Simon in place of Scherzer and Porcello is a downgrade, clearly. So we expected worse and it turned out to be awful.

It happened by trading away the last two months of Price, having a broken or missing Sanchez, and counting on Greene and Simon at all. Turns out, once Verlander got healthy he was good, so that was nice of him. Matt Boyd and Daniel Norris are promising, but they haven’t lit the world on fire post deadline and guys like Farmer, Ryan, and Lobstein have occupied a number of innings. And we won’t even talk about the bullpen because this is a family website.

But let’s put the year in context a bit. The story of the 2015 Tigers pitchers in four graphs:

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2008 was the last bad year, and the Tigers have been average (100) or much better (lower) as a staff every year since. This year, not so much. You can explain the faltering quite easily. Fewer strikeouts, more fly balls, and more dingers.

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Keep in mind that strikeout rate is going up across the league, so the Tigers decline over the last two seasons is actually even more pronounced than it looks. And fewer punch outs means for balls in play, which in conjunction with graph number three, means lots more fly balls. And in conjunction with graph four, way more dingers.

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Miss you, Rick.

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It’s not really very complicated. This isn’t some horrible failure of coaching or game-calling, the Tigers just used worse pitchers. Only Sanchez did something really outrageous, and now it seems like that may have been linked to a shoulder injury he says he felt for a “couple of months.” Price was great, Verlander was better than expected, Sanchez was hurt/something’d, and everyone else hit at or below their expectations in a very normal way.

The Tigers were one of the best pitching staffs of all time in 2013, regressed to the mean a bit in 2014, and then became very bad in 2015. It was a steep fall, but not one that was unexpected. With a new GM in place, it’s not clear what the Tigers intend to emphasize in 2016, but they will need to acquire at least one top flight arm in order to urn their pitching into a strength.

Sanchez should be more useful if healthy, Verlander should be useful if healthy. Some combination of Norris, Boyd, and Fulmer should offer two quality backend arms. That leaves one big void, with some interesting enough depth options in Greene, Ryan, and Lobstein to fill in for injuries. And there are options if the Tigers want to go out and acquire that ace. It was a bad year, but try to let it ruin your winter [note: New English D does not expect you to live up to that].

Al Avila Fails His First Test

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

I want to share a secret about writing. Sometimes, I prepare things in advance and wait for the news to break. For example, I wrote last year’s post about the division clincher two days ahead of time and then added in the specific details the day it happened. So…here’s a paragraph I drafted literally yesterday, prepared for two weeks from Monday:

Today, the Tigers fired manager Brad Ausmus two years into the three year deal he signed prior to the 2014 season. This firing was expected. Ausmus’ poor performance as a manager made his situation tenuous as the team faltered in June and July, but when Dave Dombrowski was fired and Al Avila took over in August, it was clear that Ausmus’ days were numbered. That was readily apparent when Avila decline to give Ausmus a vote of confidence, saying simply that he would remain the manager through the end of the year. Not a ringing endorsement when your contract extends through 2016.

I don’t think I need to tell you how surprised I was by today’s news that Brad Ausmus and his entire staff will be back for 2016. I am shocked. I’m floored. I can’t believe it. If you had to pick characteristics of manager firings, new GM/underperforming team/being unpopular with the media is the trifecta. Ausmus has been a dead man walking for two months. And the governor called at the eleventh hour. What in the world?

Regular readers or “people within earshot of me during Tigers games” know that I’ve been clamoring for the end of the Ausmus Era since late in the 2014 season.  While his initial performance with the media after being hired, in conjunction with the hiring of Matt Martin and retention of Jeff Jones gave me a lot of hope for the direction Ausmus would take as manager, that eroded over the course of 2014.

Last April, he looked good because the team was rolling and he wasn’t calling bunts or doing anything particularly meddlesome. The clubhouse was relaxed and things were fine. I didn’t argue that he had shown himself to be a good manager, but he had not done anything to worry me and that’s all you can ask in month number one.

But when the Tigers ran into problems scoring runs last year at times, he started mashing all of the buttons on his keyboard like a child who doesn’t know how to ask for help. I won’t take the time to run down examples of each grievance, and I’ll get to the broad complaints momentarily, but the moment he really lost me was a late summer night in Cleveland when he used Ezequiel Carrera as a pinch hitter over Moya and Collins because “If Carrera gets on he can steal a base.” I don’t need to tell you why that’s stupid, but I will anyway. Carrera is a very bad hitter. The odds of him reaching base are lower than anyone on the team. Setting aside the fact that a stolen base was not totally necessary at the time, the logical approach would be to use a good (better) hitter to get on base and then utilize Carrera as a pinch runner.

It’s possible that Ausmus didn’t actually believe what he was saying, but given that it was entirely nonsense, it’s hard to imagine how saying that would be a good public relations move after a mind boggling failure. And Ausmus never won me back.

He is deeply flawed as a manager for many reasons, which I’ll summarize here.

He had no idea how to manage a bullpen. This manifested itself in two ways. First, he has no understanding of leverage and when it is appropriate to use his best relievers. He wanted to get pitchers into roles, rather than using pitchers when they are needed most. Now of course, many managers fail to do this to my liking, but Ausmus is particularly flawed and it showed up big time considering that he had a lot of bad relievers to work around. If you’re given bad ingredients, you have to be very talented to make them work. Ausmus is not.

Second, he didn’t really have a good understanding of which relievers were good at which things. He never wanted to use Soria (even before Soria struggled) and he insisted on Joba and Nathan even when both were pitching very poorly.

He preached/allowed horrible base running. When Ausmus first got to Detroit, there was a sense he was going to make the club more aggressive on the bases. Some of that was roster-based, but a lot of it was his tendency to push the envelope. That’s acceptable to a point, but the Tigers were really bad at it. Horrible, even. They made bone-headed play after bone-headed play, costing themselves countless outs (you could count them, actually, I was just too lazy to actually do it when writing that sentence and now I’ve taken longer to write this explanation that it would have taken me to look it up).

Now, Ausmus can’t use mind control and prevent his players from making bad decisions all the time. But at a certain point, it was his job to tell them to knock it off. Fewer steal signs? More red lights? Coaching about when to run? All of the above were needed, even if we don’t know how much was active mistakes by Ausmus or mere negligence.

He didn’t know his players. There’s really no greater flaw than putting your players in position to fail. Ausmus did this all the time. The Carrera example stands out, but he ran multiple relievers out to face bad matchups. He used Gose at leadoff constantly. He asked Alex Avila to bunt!

More concretely, he often made comments that reflected this ignorance. I understand his motivation to protect certain guys, but his descriptions of Nick Castellanos’ defensive struggles in 2014 were incorrect. He somehow thought Carrera was a good defender. He frequently spoke of a pitcher having “good stuff” on a day in which he didn’t. He brought up batter-pitcher matchup stats that were based on useless data.

I don’t require a manager to be painfully honest, but I prefer the lies, if they are lies, to show some recognition that the manager actually knows the truth.

He refused to learn and he never planned ahead properly. My biggest complaint about Ausmus over the last two years is that he doesn’t change his mind when his decisions predictably fail. He would make stupid moves, get criticized for them, and then he would defend himself by walking the media through his thought process. That’s all well and good, but he wound up giving the same explanations about the same mistakes over and over. He didn’t appear to ever stop and think that his views on the strategies could be flawed.

I get that it’s human nature to avoid acknowledging when you were wrong about something. I don’t need Ausmus to apologize for being stupid three months ago, but I would like some indication that he has internally reflected and changed his internal decision making. That never happened. He dug in his heels and kept doing it his way. Contrast that with Ned Yost’s evolution over the last year, or Clint Hurdle’s over the last five.

Which leads me to the meta-criticism of Ausmus that really should have become his downfall. He is horrible at planning ahead and it caused him to fail spectacularly. The basic flaw in everything Ausmus does is that he manages the game based on how he expects the game to play out, not based on how the events actually unfold. He gets to the 7th inning and gets Alburquerque, for example, warming in the pen because the other team had three righties due up.

The problem, however, is that if Alburquerque doesn’t get the first two guys out, it would be clear that two lefties would be up in the inning. By the time Ausmus realized it, there wouldn’t be time to get Hardy or someone loose to face them. He doesn’t plan for his first move to go wrong and so he has no backup plan.

This happens with pinch hitters too, as he holds a guy back from a good spot because it was too early in the game and he didn’t want to be without a pinch hitter for a spot he envisioned later.

The flaw here is that he traded away the present for the future. That can often make sense, but he fails to factor in the fact that the event in front of you is definitely happening and the event in the future is probabilistic. He is horrible at understanding the odds in front of him. He often thinks a player is better than they are because of some meaningless data point and he then applies that data point to a situation erroneously.

And this is particularly scary because Ausmus is a well spoken and intellectual person. And by that I mean that he has the tools of intelligence (pun accidental). He does think things through and he does explain them in clear terms. The problem is that the things he believes are incorrect. He’s a smart person with bad ideas. That’s dangerous because it prevents him from seeing the error of his ways.

And this all resulted in terrible managing. I don’t think the Tigers would have gone farther in 2014 with an average manager, and I don’t think they would have made the playoffs this year with one, but that isn’t a defense of Ausmus as the manager. He is, unequivocally, terrible at managing a major league baseball team.

People who wish to defend Ausmus will point to the flawed teams he received as explanation for his failure, and will then suggest he will succeed when given a better team in the future. Do not believe it. My opinion of Ausmus has nothing to do with the win/loss columns and everything to do with watching him manage every day for two years. Maybe he will learn to get better, but at the present moment is he very bad and the Tigers should have fired him.

It is an incorrect defense to suggest that the team would have failed no matter who was in charge. That isn’t the point at all. Ausmus should be judged based on his actions, independent of the roster he received. I don’t fault him, for example, for the poor starting pitching he had this year. He doesn’t make the roster. He used the guys he had. A  great manager probably wouldn’t have gotten much from them. But the fact that someone else wouldn’t have won 90 games does not mean that Ausmus’ performance was somehow not flawed. It was.

I won’t put too fine a point on things, but would feel confident saying he is one of the worst 5 in-game managers in the league in 2015. You could argue for 6th or whatever, but he is very bad. And he hasn’t show signs of growth or any other qualities you desire in a manager, like Leyland did with his ability to make players feel comfortable.

The idea of Ausmus was probably a wrong one, but I don’t begrudge the Tigers for trying it in the first place. People thought of him as smart and progressive, and he was known for his leadership as a player. Obviously, those things were proven wrong or failed to translate to this context. It’s hard to judge someone’s managerial skills without ever seeing them manage. But I was fooled at the time. I will fully admit that. Ausmus seemed like a positive departure from the old guard, but turned out to be its greatest advocate.

Ausmus has been a terrible manager in his two years in Detroit. Does that mean he will never have success? Of course not. But does it mean that the Tigers should have gone in another direction? Absolutely. Al Avila had his first big chance to chart his own course, and he botched it big time.

Granted, a bad manager can’t ruin a good team. If you have a 95 win team, it’s hard to manage them into the ground. But most clubs find themselves near the bubble and every single win is extremely valuable. Having a bad manager just because you value continuity or don’t want to remove him is nonsense. If an outfielder is making $1 million and isn’t performing well, you don’t just keep playing him because he’s on the roster. The same should be true for the manager.

This Avila quote is one that’s very troubling. If Avila has spent time evaluating the team and thinks he can’t find a better manager than Ausmus, I am very concerned about his judgement. Now, if Avila disagrees with my view of Ausmus as one of the five worst managers in the game, it’s entirely possible that he knows things about the team and Ausmus that I don’t. But the idea that Avila could think Ausmus is the best guy he can find to run this clubhouse is scary.

Does it mean Avila isn’t a good evaluator of his employees and has a hard time seeing Ausmus’ flaws? Does it mean he doesn’t understand the game? Does it mean Ausmus is really good at advocating for his job behind closed doors?

This line is also scary, because the Tigers absolutely fell apart when the shit hit the fan this year. Don’t get me wrong, the lack of talent was the problem, but they phoned in plenty of baseball and Ausmus was extremely testy when the media pushed him prior to the out and out collapse.

I don’t get the desire to bring Ausmus back, and I really don’t understand Avila’s argument for keeping him. Now perhaps Avila has other motivations and he’s just taking nonsense as a cover. That’s possible, so I will give Avila the benefit of the doubt and will not write him off immediately. You are the sum of your actions, not any single one.

But I’m worried. I was worried when Ilitch acted out of character in August and I’m worried now that the Tigers are talking like the only problem was Dombrowski. I absolutely do not blame Ausmus for missing the playoffs, but I do absolutely think he has cost the Tigers plenty of games this year. The Tigers are going to lose the division by 20 and they’ll miss the Wild Card by about 10. I don’t think Ausmus cost the team 20 games this year, but if he cost them six games (and I think that’s a reasonable estimate), that’s a huge negative.

If you brought in an average manager who could get those six wins back, that’s the equivalent of adding a superstar player  to your roster. And you could do this for single-digit millions of dollars instead of hundreds of millions.

I don’t want to give the impression that the manager is the only problem or that most of our focus should be on the manager, but Brad Ausmus has been a bad manager for two years and Avila had a great chance to improve the team by replacing him. He decided not to, leaving me to wonder about the competency of the new GM. I don’t know what’s happening on the inside and won’t pretend to, but based on what we can observe, I’m very much starting to worry about the direction of the franchise.

There is a long way to go before grading Avila, but he had his first test and failed. Could he wind up proving me wrong? Of course. But as someone who desperately wants the Tigers to win a championship, I’m not hopeful about the future.

Can you overcome Ausmus? Yes. Should Avila be asking the 2016 Tigers to overcome Ausmus after what we’ve seen for the last two years? No way.

Verlander’s Last Ten Starts And Hoping Against History

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

There have been no shortage of Justin Verlander Opinions over the last three seasons. From 2009 to 2012, he was probably the best pitcher in the game. Then, in 2013, a rocky summer surrounded a good spring and fall, leaving some to panic and some to hold firm. If you looked at his fielding independent numbers in 2013, the lows weren’t nearly so bad and most of the struggles could be attributed to a bit of mechanical funk. He wasn’t JUSTIN VERLANDER, but he was perfectly fine.

Then came 2014. It wasn’t as bad as it looked if you’re an ERA kind of person, but it wasn’t good. It was a bad year and it wasn’t encouraging that it happened after offseason surgery and his first missed start, due to shoulder inflammation. There were concerns! There was panic. And then more offseason injuries and such and about two and a half months on the DL. Then he came out of the gate struggling. And the panic set in big. The end was basically here, just two seasons into a seven year contract that would pay him $180 million. Uh oh.

Of course you’re aware that Verlander has righted the ship and now has a 2.3 fWAR in 114.1 innings in 2015. Over his last ten outings, he’s tossed 72.1 innings with a 2.24 ERA and 2.48 FIP. The full season numbers are not Cy Young stuff, but it’s borderline All-Star level at age 32. If you didn’t know anything about Verlander in 2013 or 2014, looking at him in 2012 and 2015 would look exactly right.

As I wrote at TigsTown earlier this year, the concern with stud pitchers isn’t so much that they randomly become terrible, it’s that their durability vanishes. As I’ve said all along, I’ve never discounted Verlander’s ability to have a series of good outings, but as he wears down, the odds that he stays healthy and productive for entire seasons dwindles.

Clearly, he wasn’t going to throw 99 mph with three great secondary pitchers forever. The stuff was always going to fade, but we assumed he’d be able to adjust and maintain his inning for inning ability in the context of fewer innings per year. At least that was always my take. He would age gracefully, but we would see less of him.

Yet the story of the last three years, this boom and bust Verlander, has been a little odd. I think the convenient explanation was health. Verlander just hasn’t been fully healthy since 2012 and now that he has himself in order, he’s pitching well once again.

Although there’s another explanation, one that nearly drove me to violence when I heard it. Over the last few weeks, Verlander has been quoted saying that he’s finally getting into scouting reports and pre-game preparation.

I’ve been beating this drum for two years. As his stuff declines, he has to learn to pitch differently. Being naive, I assumed he was working on that from the time of his earliest struggles. Apparently, he wasn’t. Apparently, Verlander stubbornly tried to be the old version of himself for two years while he gave up homers and couldn’t get punch outs.

Bless him for finally adapting, eventually.

But has he truly turned a corner? Can we believe that this Verlander is going to be the Verlander of the future? Is what we’ve seen for the last few weeks the truth or a mirage?

To some extent, we can’t answer that. The odds are simply against Verlander from a health standpoint. Let’s say he’s finally healthy and capable for the first time in more than two years. Even if that’s true and it explains his success, 32 year olds with his career workload are near locks to break down. Even if he’s made adjustments, the odds of another 180 inning season, much less a 220 inning season are low. It’s the reality of aging.

But let’s set that aside and assume we can distinguish between a healthy Verlander and an injured one. Is the healthy Verlander the Verlander we’ve been seeking? From a results standpoint, he’s certainly pitched like himself over the last few weeks and has been decidedly above average overall this year. His strikeout rate isn’t Cy Young caliber for the full season, but over his last ten games it’s looking like the Verlander of old. And that was missing last year. It’s hard to fake a good strikeout rate for the many innings.

Take a look at his rolling strikeout and walk rates over his career. This is every 10-game stretch of his career, labeled based on the last game of the streak. So the last data point represents his last ten games. Start 100 represents starts 91-100, etc.

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How badly do you want to believe in this? His walk rate over the last ten is almost the best 10-game walk rate of his career. The strikeout rate isn’t on par with his best but it’s in the neighborhood of all of those other good seasons. You can see the ugly stretch in 2013 and horrible 2014 and then you can see it rising from the ashes now. (FYI: Playoffs excluded)

We all want to believe that Verlander can be great again. True, sustained greatness is probably out of reach. He’s not going to be a 7-8 win pitcher again. That’s just not likely at his age. It’s not impossible, but so much would have to go right.

But can he be a 3-4 win pitcher for the next few years? That’s not at all out of the question if he has truly come around to pitching to his current skill set rather than the one he had when he was a younger man. He can touch 96, but he doesn’t sit there. He doesn’t have 101 when there are two on and one out. But his arsenal is still very good and if he has finally learned how to get outs with lesser stuff, he should remain effective.

When he was struggling in 2013 and 2014, I remained optimistic that his days of usefulness were not over. And today, as the entire world gets back on the Verlander train, I want to exercise some caution. Clearly, he’s not the disaster he was at times in 2014, but even a revived Verlander is still 32 years old coming off two injury plagued seasons.

There will be plenty of good nights for Verlander, but it would be foolish to think they’re all going to be like this or that there won’t be more DL trips and missed starts.

There is plenty about which to be hopeful, but there is also a reality to accept. This is what Verlander can be when he is healthy and in sync, but pitchers fall apart. There’s virtually nothing more certain than that. Counting on him to be the dominant workhouse for the next few seasons is asking too much.

A version of Verlander is back. That’s worth celebrating, but it’s also worth acknowledging that he can’t escape injuries and the effects of trying to pitch through them. The last few weeks have been encouraging, but they don’t erase what’s coming. They merely remind us that it’s not over.

Ian Kinsler, The Dave Dombrowski Gift That Keeps On Giving

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

Two offseasons ago, the Tigers put together a pair of blockbluster deals. One of them sent Doug Fister to Washington for a package of unhappy baseball fans, but the other was considered one of the Dave Dombrowski’s finest, swapping Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler.

The particulars were this: four years of Ian Kinsler at $62M for seven years of Prince Fielder priced at $168M. To balance out the costs, the Tigers also chipped in $30M. So the Tigers got four years of Kinsler and $76M for seven years of Prince Fielder. At the time, my only concern was making sure the Tigers invested that savings in other players rather than the Ilitch family trust, but from a tactical standpoint it was a really nice deal.

Here’s the thing, going into 2014, Kinsler was coming off one of his worst seasons in which he hit 104 wRC+ and put together 2.6 fWAR. Prince had a similarly rough 2013, registering a 126 wRC+ and 2.3 fWAR. It was a challenge trade. Kinsler is two years older and under contract for a shorter period of time, and his value was tied up in defense and base running. Everyone knew Prince was a bat-only player, but he had already bottomed out in terms of non-hitting value, meaning that if he could continue to hit, his value wouldn’t decline. Kinsler, on the other hand, didn’t have the bat anymore, we thought, to protect against any athletic declines.

Surprise! Kinsler went back to being great and Fielder dealt with injuries and mediocre performance. Put another way, over the first two years of the post-deal era, the Tigers have gotten 9.2 fWAR from Kinsler and Fielder has accumulated 1.4. That’s a difference of 7.8 WAR.

In order for this deal, roughly speaking, to wind up as a negative for the Tigers (using the price points from November 2013), Fielder would have to out-WAR Kinsler over the remainder of each contract by, and I’m not kidding, about 19 wins. So if Kinsler doesn’t play a game for the Tigers for the next two years, Fielder would still have to average 3.7 WAR per season for the rest of his deal. Fielder only averaged 3.4 WAR between his peak 2007 to 2013 seasons.

In other words, there is almost no way in which the Tigers lose this trade. This isn’t news, but it’s fun to put some numbers on it. Fielder would have to play like a borderline All-Star through age 38 without Kinsler ever playing again in order for this deal to break even. That’s pretty great.

Obviously, we probably couldn’t have predicted Fielder’s neck injury, but in non-Dombrowski fashion, the erstwhile GM bet on a good all-around player over a slugger and it’s been fantastic. But it’s worth wondering at this juncture: how did Kinsler maintain his value into his thirties? We all kind of figured he’d be good enough for the deal to make sense, but I don’t think any of us really banked on a couple of 5 win seasons.

Last year, his bat fell in line with his 2012-13 numbers, but excellent defense and base running lifted him into the 5 win neighborhood. This year, his glove has been good, but maybe not quite as good, and he’s been a better hitter thanks more walks and a higher BABIP. His power remains average or a touch under, but his walk rate bounced back (2014 was probably unusually low). Interestingly, this is Kinsler’s best BABIP since 2008, and he’s typically been a low BABIP guy.

This year, he’s getting a lot of extra value from that .326 BABIP. Often, we chalk BABIP spikes up to randomness. That’s usually the safe assumptions, but it’s always fun to poke around and look for signals that there is an underlying change.  For example, he’s hitting more line drives, which isn’t a super sticky stat, but you know what?

Screenshot 2015-09-18 at 2.00.17 PM

Kinsler is having a nice offensive season in conjunction with hitting more balls up the middle and to right field. Can we say this is definitely connected? Maybe not, but this could be a good way to neutralize the shift.

An average hitting second baseman who plays good defense is a good player, and if Kinsler can be anything more at the plate he’s going to keep paying dividends for the club. It will be curious to see how Kinsler’s bat carries into next season, but it’s not unprecedented for an older player to start going the other way a little more to the benefit of their BABIP. In fact, that’s exactly what helped Torii Hunter extend his career over the last several seasons.

Will he be great for years to come? Perhaps not, but at least the Tigers won the trade.

It’s Time To See What Steven Moya Is

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

Now that the AAA season is over, Steven Moya will likely be called up by the Tigers on Tuesday. He’s on the 40-man roster so there’s no harm in bringing him to Detroit, and the Tigers have reached a decision point with the impressively large outfielder.

Moya has just 8 major league plate appearances, but with a few weeks to go in the 2015 season and nothing to play for except a protected draft pick, the Tigers have reached an opportunity to find out if Steven Moya is a long term asset. There was a time not that long ago that Moya was one of the best prospects in the Tigers’ system. But a lack of forward movement in 2015 and an influx of new talent has pushed Moya down the list. If you’re a Moya devotee, he’s in the middle of your Tigers top 10 and if you’re not, he’s struggling to cling to the 10-15 range. Personally, rankings aren’t very useful in my opinion because it doesn’t matter who is the #4 prospect and who is #6. They aren’t in competition with each other. But leaving that aside, the Tigers are in a position to see what Moya can be.

Now let’s start with a couple of important points. The first point is that with 25 games left, you’re only going to be able to find 80-100 PA for Moya down the stretch and that alone isn’t enough to make a complete judgement of him as a player. The point isn’t that Moya in September will be Moya forever, the point is that the Tigers should take this opportunity to get an extended look at him as a player. That means letting him face all of the righties and most of the lefties. That means giving him left field on most nights. It’s time to see who Steven Moya can be.

As a player, his profile is pretty easy to define. He has tremendous power with a rough approach. He doesn’t walk much, he strikes out a ton, but when he connects he can really drive the ball. He hit 35 HR with a .280 ISO in AA in 2014 and hit 20 in 2015 with a .180 ISO in AAA. It was definitely a lesser year, but the question isn’t the ability to smack the ball, it’s making contact at all. He’s been a 30 K% guy his entire career and his 5.1 BB% in AAA this year was among his best marks as a pro.

He has the arm and the mobility to work well enough in the outfield, certainly to the point at which he could play out there without embarrassing himself. And there’s a decent chance that he’ll be better than that. It all comes down to the strike zone. Or more accurately, Moya’s ability to make contact and recognize pitches.

I’m not really telling you anything you don’t know if you’re a moderately interested watcher of the Tigers’ minor league system (which is a thing that exists now!). This is all prelude to the broader argument: Moya needs to start basically every day for the rest of the year.

The Tigers have JD Martinez holding down a spot in the outfield next year. As long as he is healthy, he’ll control one of the corners, and unless they pick up an elite right fielder (looks longingly at Jason Heyward), right field will belong to Martinez. That leaves LF and CF wide open for anyone to claim. Anthony Gose was given the starting CF job this year, but he’s been somewhere between “not very good” and “terrible” in 2015. He’s a potentially useful MLB player, but he’s not someone you build into your roster. He has not shown himself to be an MLB starter, for sure.

Rajai Davis isn’t under contract and Tyler Collins, while potentially useful, also hasn’t claimed a spot for himself in the starting lineup. He could have a role, but again, if you’re contending, you’re looking for two outfielders. And the Tigers need to use the rest of 2015 to figure out the odds of Moya being one of those guys.

Going into the exercise, I would bet against it. Moya isn’t the kind of player on whose behalf I typically advocate. He has raw tools and no strike zone discipline. But the kind of power than Moya has in his bat is unusual. You might call it “70 grade” if you like scouting scales. If you can make enough contact with his ability to not suck in the field, that power will put you in a starting lineup.

To give you an idea, you want a corner outfielder to be in the 120 wRC+ neighborhood or better. Moya doesn’t have to produce that right away, but that’s kind of what you’re trying to get to if you’re playing in a corner and want to start on a good team. So that’s about a .350 wOBA. I worked out a simple stat line assuming 650 PA (full season). If you figure a 5 BB% and 30 K%, add in an optimistic 30 HR, and then give him a .320 BABIP with 95 singles and 40 doubles, you get to about .340 wOBA. As a slash line, it’s .269/.307/.480. And this is optimistic all the way around.

You could imagine a .270/.310/.480 line from Moya. But in AAA this year it was .240/.280/.420. In AA in 2014, it was about .280/.310/.550. In other words, for Moya to work as a starter in the show, you need him to hit a lot like his AA line. And that’s the best we’ve seen from him and it was a year ago against weaker competition.

Now, Moya is more experienced and presumably better coached. He’ll have access to better scouting reports, better lights, better nutrition, and a better nights sleep. There are all kinds of reasons why he might flourish again in the show. But the odds are against him.

The Tigers are going to have to make some decisions this offseason regarding their outfield. They will have to find two quality starters and one of them probably needs to be pushing All-Star levels. The Tigers have seen plenty of Gose, but they have just 8 MLB PA of Moya. They have lots of minor league data and scouting reports, but when you have a free month to mess around, using that month to see how Moya looks against good pitching is going to be valuable. Bringing him up for get 15-25 PA doesn’t help his development or allow the Tigers to learn very much. But if you give him 100 PA, you might get a chance to learn something about his abilities.

Granted, the raw stat line won’t tell you much, but the stats and your observations in conjunction with what you already know about him will help you determine the odds he can help in 2015. And you need to make that call by November so you know exactly who you want to sign.

My prior expectations are the on the table. I doubt Moya will ever become an above average MLB player. Or maybe more accurately, I don’t think he will become one unless he makes dramatic adjustments to his game. Those are always possible. But I’m also a huge believer in letting players prove you wrong. Moya hasn’t excelled in AAA, but he’s 24, on the 40-man, and the team needs outfielders. It’s worth seeing what happens. If he’s way over-matched, you’ll see that in no time. If he shows you something, then you know.

Too often, teams get into the business of confirmation bias. They have an opinion about a player (often a correct one), but they don’t push that opinion to see if they can be proven wrong. Jordan Lennerton is a perfect example of this problem. He got to A-ball at 23, but he hit well at every level. He had a great eye and played well at 1B. Supposedly, the knock on him was a serious lack of bat speed. And he sat in the minors for six years until the Tigers cut him loose in July. He never got a single MLB plate appearance.

Now I’m not saying Lennerton would have been a good major leaguer. I’m saying the Tigers had him in their system and never found out. It’s one thing to look at a guy struggling in AA and giving up, but it’s another to graduate a guy through the system and wind up never getting a clean look at him in the show. Maybe he proves you right, but at least give him a chance to prove you wrong.

I don’t necessarily think Moya will have a strong MLB career, but the best time to find out what a player is capable of is when there is nothing to lose. If the Tigers were in a pennant chase, I wouldn’t advocate for a risky player. But with the season over, the Tigers have a chance to let Moya get some reps and they absolutely must do it.

They are clearly preparing to give him some playing time, with the recent shift to LF in AAA, but last year Moya came up and was used very sparingly. The same was true with James McCann. Maybe that was about the playoffs. But this can’t be a month of easing the kids in.

The Tigers need outfielders in 2016 and they have a chance to preview what Moya can do in the show. They should take it.

Cabrera Makes Friends With Right Field

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

Miguel Cabrera is an amazing hitter, and that makes him an awesome baseball player. He’s hitting .358/.460/.589 in 404 PA this year, which is good for a 186 wRC+. Per plate appearance this is the second best offensive season of his career, second only to 2013. This isn’t his best year when it comes to extra base hits, but he’s getting on base more often than he ever has. Some of that is his 15.6% walk rate, which is narrowly the second best mark of his career, and some of it is his .408 BABIP, which is the highest BABIP he’s registered to date.

Cabrera is a high BABIP guy. You generally expect a .350 or so BABIP based on his talent level and over 400 PA it’s not crazy to see a number 60 points higher than expected. It’s not common or likely to continue at quite this rate, but it’s not like he’s going to crash back to Earth when his BABIP “luck” runs out. He’s having a great year at the plate and it’s skewing a little more toward singles and walks than doubles and homers, but it’s great all around.

The thing about Cabrera is that when it comes to hitting, he’s great at everything. He’s not an effective base runner because he’s slow and he’s not a great fielder, also because he’s slow, but in the batter’s box he is one of the five best hitters in the game and heading toward a late July speech in upstate New York. He’s incredible.

Due to that dominance, it can sometimes be hard to find interesting things to say about him. He is good and consistently so. Writing about him too often is akin to Homer’s everything’s okay alarm.


But given that there’s a lot of depressing baseball going around, we do have to circle back on the things that are going well from time to time. Cabrera is one of those things. We know about his great season overall. He’s missing some plate appearances due to the calf injury, but that 186 wRC+ is impressive.

One thing that’s worth pointing out is that Cabrera’s batted ball distribution is taken a bit of an interesting turn this year.

Screenshot 2015-08-31 at 12.35.53 PM

Cabrera is hitting the ball the other way much more this year than he has in recent seasons. It’s the highest number of his career and his first time over 30% since 2010. He’s consistently been hitting 25-28% of his batted balls to right field during his career with a couple of years in the 30-31% range. This year, it’s 33.5%.

I think a lot of people think of Cabrera as being an “opposite field hitter,” but he actually hasn’t been a big outlier in his career. the Average hitter is around 40-35-25 and his typical season is 40-32-28. The real reason you believe Cabrera is an a guy who hits to all fields is that he absolutely crushes the ball the other way and most hitters don’t. Here’s his career directional splits compared to 2015 league average.

Screenshot 2015-08-31 at 12.48.04 PM

Take these with a grain of salt. It’s been a long career and there are no controls for handedness of pitcher, etc. But you’ll notice that Cabrera has generally stood out more to the pull field than the other way. He’s one of the best handful of opposite field hitters when it comes to damage done, but he’s actually been better compared to average when pulling the ball.

So what does this mean, exactly? Cabrera is hitting the ball the other way more often – a lot more often – this year. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? If you use his career directional splits as a proxy for the better directions, you’d want to avoid adding extra batted balls the other way, even if he’s still very good in that direction. This year he’s 216-287-189, FYI.

BABIP-wise, he’s killing it to center and right (120 and 80 points above career norms) and is right around his career average to the pull field. Keep in mind this doesn’t count home runs. His ISO to the pull and opposite fields are normal-ish and it’s way up to center. Package it all together and you have a pretty normal set of batted balls to left, more average and power to center, and more average to right.

Generally, over 400 PA I would say this doesn’t mean a whole lot. My theory is that there was a certain population of pitches that he’s decided to push the other way instead of trying to pull them. That’s probably an obvious statement, but if you read into it a bit more closely it makes some sense. Cabrera has the ability to crush baseballs, but going to the pull power swing has its tradeoffs. You run the risk of whiffing or being out in front and generating weak contact. If Cabrera is waiting back a little more often, he’s going to set himself up for more hits the other way, but they will be a little less forceful overall. Theoretically, if you take his worst swings to center away and give them to right field, it has the effect, potentially, of increasing production in both directions.

Each hitter has a perfect balance of power/contact for their own skill set which will maximize their offensive value. A guy with already low contact ability might want to really sell out so that he can get a couple extra homers or a high contact guy might want to avoid too many big swings because his best contact is warning track power.

Cabrera, being an elite hitter, has a tougher decision and he has to react to the new ways pitchers try to pitch him. That’s why it’s kind of hard to know for sure. Is Cabrera hitting the other way more often because he’s being forced to or because he wants to? The pitch locations don’t look much different, but he’s generally being more selection this year as well.

It’s hard not to notice how often he’s gone the other way this year, and it’s helped him a put together a great season. Is this happening because he feels like he doesn’t quite have the power he once did and is adapting, or is he simply making the most out of the pitches he’s received?

Sorry I don’t have a definitive answer to the question. I really just wanted to point it out and call attention to where he stands as an opposite field hitter. He’s one of the best there is from a value standpoint, but until this year, he wasn’t a particularly likely candidate to hit a ball to right field relative to league average.  But this is a thing he’s doing more this year and it’s working so far. The main takeaway, I think, is that this is a roadmap for an aging Cabrera.

At some point, he won’t be able to deliver the consistent bat speed needed to be an elite hitter. It’s coming. Probably not next year, but he’s under contract until his 107th birthday, so it will happen eventually. His ability to go the other way more and more often might allow him to offset some of that loss. This might be practice. Albert Pujols went with the all dingers-no OBP model of aging, but Cabrera might be able to implement an all hits-fewer dingers model that will serve him well.

I’d treat this opposite field thing as a beta test. Cabrera is flashing a tool he generally hasn’t flashed. He hits well the other way, but now he’s doing it more often without hurting his results. It could always be randomness and pitcher fluctuation, but it could be a trial run for a smooth landing into old age.

Justin Verlander Came Close

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

At one point it seemed inevitable. After Verlander twirled his second no-hitter, a near perfect game, one Saturday afternoon in May 2011, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that he would throw another. He nearly threw one against the Angels later that year. Nearly no-hit the Pirates a year later. He was the best pitcher in baseball with the no-hitterest stuff in the game. We know the rest.

Verlander struggled during the middle of 2013, wasn’t healthy and struggled mightily in 2014, and spent most of the first half of this year on the shelf. The aging erstwhile ace didn’t necessarily look done, but his days atop the league were over. Yet over the last month, he’s pitched very well and has quietly started to look more like a pitcher who could make an impact again in the future.

Tonight, the Verlander who demanded our attention every fifth day came back to us. I won’t suggest that this start means he’s back or that he’ll be great. Even the last 7 starts don’t mean that. This start is a proof of concept. A reminder, and evidence that he still has the ability to have nights like these. He had heat, and he was able to locate it.

The guys in the modern era with three or more no-hitters? Cy Young, Bob Feller, Sandy Koufax, and Nolan Ryan. It’s a short list that nearly included Justin Verlander. The other four are Hall of Famers. Verlander’s shot at that honor looked like a long one two months ago, but it’s a bit more plausible today.

A no-htter itself is more of a fun-fact than a real event. Verlander walked two batters before he allowed the hit, but for good measure he erased them on double plays. It was a brilliant start whether he allowed one hit or none, and it came at a nadir for the organization.

It’s been a long, grueling, depressing season for Tigers fans. Tonight, baseball was fun and it was nice to feel like it mattered again, even if it was only for a few hours.

Is It Possible That Jose Iglesias Is Just An Okay Defender?

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

I recognize that the conceit of their post seems ridiculous. After all, Jose Iglesias is an immensely talented defender. We’re frequently dazzled by his superlative play to the point at which Matt Mowery invented a silly acronym to tweet each time he makes a big play:

So why am I wondering if Iglesias is having a meh year with the glove? Or let’s say, an average year. According to Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating, two of the leading defensive statistics in baseball, he’s been worth -2 DRS and 1.5 UZR relative to other shortstops. In other words, he has been about average relative to his peers. Now certainly an average shortstop is more valuable than an average left fielder, so when you factor in the positional adjustment, Iglesias’ defense has been worth 5-7 runs above the average defensive player. That’s a fine number, but it’s not an exciting one considering the tools we see him flash.

There are three possible explanations.

  1. The stats are wrong for some reason
  2. Iglesias is awesome, but it having a bad year
  3. Iglesias isn’t awesome and this is a normal year.

Let’s consider them in turn. The first is the explanation most people will latch onto. You have watched Iglesias enough to know that he makes very difficult plays. That is a fact about which we can all agree. He makes great running catches, throws on the run, etc. We have seen him display this ability enough times to recognize it as a skill. It’s there, so the fact that the stats are saying otherwise is likely evidence that the stats are incorrect.

This is a plausible hypothesis. Defensive stats like these are based on imperfect data. Fielders are judged based on their performance relating to similar batted balls elsewhere in the league, both as a matter of making plays and how valuable it is to make each kind of play. But the data is based on a number of things logged by humans, who are imperfect, and an algorithm that was programmed by humans. DRS and UZR aren’t like on-base percentage where we can say for 100% certain than a player reached base. OBP’s flaws are a product of how much credit the player should get for each time on base, but no one disputes and there is no argument about whether it happened or not.

For defensive stats, this isn’t always true. Depending on how you design your program, a ball one system thinks is a 60/40 play (i.e. 60% of the time a SS makes that play) might get called a 70/30 play by another. The system can definitely tell if a play was made or not made, but it is estimating the difficulty of the play and the value of making the play. Right now, both systems think Iglesias’ value has been about average.

It’s only been 922 innings of play this year. We’ll get to this later, but most defensive numbers are swung by a small number of plays each year, so if the system has a certain number of errors in measurement, 900 innings might not be enough for the flaws of the methodology to get washed out.

The second option is that Iglesias is very good, but he is just having a bad season. This one is the most likely explanation to me on its face, but probably the one people are least likely to accept to begin. We have this idea that defense and base running are not variable skills. That is wrong. If a batter has a 120 wRC+ one year and then hits 98 wRC+ the next, no one jumps up and down blaming the stat. Maybe the player had bad BABIP luck, maybe they didn’t hit for as much power, or maybe they struck out too much. It happens. Performance year to year isn’t consistent. The same is true for defense.

So it’s possible that Iglesias is generally as talented as we think, but he’s just had some bad games or plays. Think of it like a starting pitcher. Remember 2013 Verlander? You blocked it out? Allow me to remind you. He was awesome in April and September and not so awesome in between. No one argued that the stats were to blame for this varied season, he simply pitched better at one point in the year than others. Defense can work the same way. Maybe you’re nursing an injury, or maybe you’re just fumbling your footwork. It happens. In 2013 we saw Verlander hit 98 that night he got rocked in Texas. We all knew he still had the raw skills, but he didn’t execute. The same could be true for Iggy. The range, arm, and hands are clearly still part of him, but maybe he has failed to use them as effectively as possible over this 900 inning sample.

The final theory is also possible. Maybe he just isn’t as good as we think. I think this could be true in a roundabout way. I’m not arguing he doesn’t have a good arm, but way too many people think defense = skill and it doesn’t. Defense is about a player’s ability to turn batted balls into outs. If you have a cannon for an arm, but you can’t get the ball out of your glove quickly enough, the arm value diminishes. Maybe you have a great arm, but perhaps you make good throws inconsistently. An outfielder might be super fast and have the ability to read the ball well, but maybe their first step just isn’t up to par.

You have to be able to consistently execute in order to be a good defender. Maybe that isn’t true for Iglesias. Perhaps he has great tools, but sometimes can’t make them work in his favor. I’m not saying this is likely, but it would fit with the facts that he looks amazing but his numbers haven’t been great.


So let’s jump back to the facts. In his career, Iglesias has about a season and a quarter of innings at shortstop. He has 5 career DRS and 10.9 career UZR. He’s somewhere between +3 and +8, let’s say over a full season so far. A great SS would be 10-15, with generational talents in the 15-20 range per year. It could definitely be sample size and a flaw in the system. The best way to test this is to look at other evaluations and other indicators. The first thing we have to establish is if, in fact, Iglesias isn’t having a productive defensive year.

My favorite quick test for infield defense is BABIP on ground balls to your general area. This is essentially a very rudimentary metric. I carved up the field and looked at ground balls. Granted, Iglesias hasn’t played every inning at SS and there are positioning considerations and such, but let’s just use it as an independent test. If we give him 55% of the left side (angle-wise), the Tigers have allowed a .299 BABIP, which ranks 30th (.251 is average). If we give him 65% of the left side, it’s .323, which ranks 30th (.259 is average).

Now this is just ground balls and is not at all sophisticated, but it generally lines with the idea that Iglesias isn’t converting a ton of batted balls into outs. Of course there is a Castellanos factor, so let’s be really nice to Iggy and only give him 45% of the field, which no 3B would ever cover. BABIP of .233, which is only 9th worst! Still not the mark of a good shortstop.

We also have access to Revised Zone Rating, which measures the percentage of balls in his zone (plays that get made more than 50% of the time) that he has turned into outs. This year it’s 77.5% which ranks 18th among qualified shortstops (25 in total). Per inning, no one has made fewer out of zone plays than Iglesias too, and only Wilmer Flores has the same number. Another point against him.

Let’s move to Inside Edge, which is a totally different company than bins plays based on how difficult they are. No run values, just difficulty and if the play was made. He’s 259 for 264 on the easiest set of plays, which ranks 9th. He’s 18 for 25 on the 60-90% play range, which ranks 14th. He’s 8 for 11 on the 40-60% plays, ranking 5th. He’s 3 for 13 on the 10-40% plays, ranking 14th. He’s 1 for 11 on the 1-10% plays, ranking 3rd.

So the Inside Edge data generally backs up what we’ve seen. Iglesias has been average or a touch better by their methodology. He’s made 89% of the non-impossible plays (plays literally no SS could make) this year. That’s a fine number, but not a great one. Keep in mind this doesn’t cover double plays and tags and such.

So the data does seem pretty clear. Iglesias is making an unimpressive number of plays. No one is contesting he has made some very difficult plays, but it does seem like the raw totals are lacking. He’s not bad, but he’s not preventing a large number of total runs.

So what’s the explanation? What does this all mean? I think the “stats are wrong” argument is weak. We’ve sliced and diced this with a variety of numbers and the same thing keeps coming up. I mean, he’s even 16th in fielding percentage, as useless as that stat may be. There isn’t a good case to be made that the numbers are somehow tricking you.

So either he’s a good player having a bad year, or he’s not as good as we think. Maybe we should blend the two categories. Here’s how I see it. Iglesias is obviously extremely talented. But he seems to fail to execute a non-trivial amount of the time. Sometimes that means he boots a play, sometimes he gets cute and makes a bad throw, sometimes that means he doesn’t go all out after a ball up the middle. Presumably, this is a correctable issue. We’ve seen him flash these tools plenty, so it’s about some type of extra work. It might be mental focus and it might be extra reps to get out of certain bad habits.

Very few players, if any, can get to some of the balls he gets to while making the kinds of throws he makes. By talent, he’s probably one of the best three shortstops in the game. But by results, he’s in the 10-15 range this year. Maybe he’s just having a bad year, but it’s not like he’s been immune to this in the past. Defense isn’t just about being able to make the play, you have to actually make it. This is not a trivial distinction.

Almost every pitcher can hit the corner with a fastball, but the great pitchers are the ones who hit the corner the most. The same is true for defense. And it’s especially true because the difference between good and great defenders comes down to about two plays per week. So much of defense is routine that separating yourself from the pack means you can’t make very many mistakes and have to convert the plays that make the biggest difference.

I’m confident that Iglesias is capable of being an elite shortstop, but I also think it does seem like he gives away a number of runs he saves by botching relatively easy plays. Few make the tough plays as well, but many execute the slightly difficult better.

This may be a surprising conclusion, but I think it’s well defended. Just because a guy makes great plays, that doesn’t make him a great defender. There is more to it than that and Iglesias has yet to truly dominate in that facet of the game.

The Tigers Offense’s Sequencing Problem

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

This will be short and sweet. The Tigers offense probably frustrates you! Not as much as the pitching, because the pitching is bad, but the offense annoys you because they don’t seem to be scoring as many runs as they should. You’re right about that.

The Tigers currently have a 108 wRC+, which is 4th in all of baseball. That’s quite good. Using something called BaseRuns, which is really just a fancy formula that takes individual stats and turns them into an expected number of runs scored for a team, the Tigers should be scoring 4.80 runs per game. They are actually scoring 4.45 runs per game!

A lot of it is double plays, but there’s a really easy way to visualize the problem. Why the offense frustrates you in one chart:

Screenshot 2015-08-09 at 10.25.37 PM

What does this chart mean? The first column is RE24, which tells you the amount of runs (relative to average) each player has contributed as a result of their plate appearances’ influence on team run expectancy. Or, in English, RE24 gives you credit for how much you increase your team’s chance of scoring in each PA. If you come to the plate with a man on first and you hit a single, you get credit for the difference between the run expectancy with a man on first (situation when you came to the plate) and the run expectancy with a man on first and second (situation when your PA ended). This varies based on the game situation when you come to the plate.

The second column is batting runs and stolen base runs added together, which is another way of measuring the same actions, but this time, we only care about their average value. A single is worth the same if the bases are loaded or if they are empty. The first column is a measure of context adjusted runs and the second column is context neutral runs.

In other words, if you could pick when you got your hits, you’d want them with men on base because they lead to more runs that way. Over a large enough sample, they two columns will converge. You would expect a few runs in either direction just do to random variation, but if you had to pick, you want RE24 > BAT + wSB (i.e. positive numbers in column 3). Look at a couple of those Tigers (min 100 PA).

Davis, Kinsler, Iglesias, and McCann (who are all having fine offensive years) are timing their hits really poorly. They are getting hits with no one on and they are making outs with men on base. Add up the four worst guys on this list and that accounts for roughly four wins lost to bad offensive timing.

Now, players can’t control this. There is no such thing as a player who can magically dole out his hits at certain times. It’s all basically luck, but it’s a clear example of how bad the Tigers luck has been in this department.

The pitching is the problem, but you aren’t imagining the fact that the offense isn’t helping. This isn’t a predictive problem, but it’s one more annoyance to add to the 2015 season.

Let’s Deconstruct Anibal Sanchez’s Season

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

Anibal Sanchez has not had a good season. It hasn’t been horrible or anything, but he’s been a below average pitcher for the first time since 2008/2009. He has a 4.82 ERA and 4.47 FIP (120 ERA-, 113 FIP-). He’s clearly been better lately than he was earlier on, but it’s not like he’s been the dominant Sanchez we came to know and love. It’s easy to recognize the direct cause of his poor performance: He’s allowing too many home runs. He’s allowed 1.51 HR/9 or 25 total. Both are career highs. Heck, he only allowed 33 HR from 2012-2014. It’s a problem.

But if you look at everything else, it’s not a bad stat line. His strikeouts don’t match the dizzying high of 2013 and the walk rate has come up from his 2014 mark, but it’s not like he’s been susceptible to anything other than dingers. We’ve seen some hard contact, but his double and triple rate hasn’t seen quite the same concerning spike. It’s not 100% about dingers, but it’s mostly about the dingers.

Before we get into it, I want to play with his stats a little bit. Sanchez had an insanely low HR rate in 2013 and 2014 and it’s wrong to predict he’d keep it up. But it’s been low in his career, around 0.8 HR/9 even after the shock of the 2015 season. To give you an idea, the difference between 1.5 HR/9 and 0.8 HR/9 over his 149.1 innings this year would be about 11 HR.

Sanchez’s current RA9 is 4.94. His current ERA is 4.82 and his current FIP is 4.47. On average, a home run is worth about 1.39 runs (i.e. the run for the batter plus the average number of runners on base). If we subtract 11 HR * 1.39 runs per HR from his 82 runs allowed, his RA9 drops to 4.02! If you do the same with his earned runs, you wind up at 3.90. The funny thing here is that Sanchez has allowed a higher proportion of earned runs to runs than is normal for a pitcher (roughly 92% of the league’s runs are earned per season).

I would generally tell you that ERA is pointless and RA9 is better, but just for reference, if you take a 4.02 ERA and translate it to an ERA based on the normal share of ER to R, you get 3.70. In other words, if Sanchez was doing everything the same, except he was allowing a HR/9 typical for his career you might expect 3.70 ERA. If we do the same thing with FIP, we wind up at 3.52.

This isn’t a perfect method, but the unusual number of home runs is basically responsible for about a full run per 9 innings on Sanchez’s stat line. That’s pretty crazy. His ERA- would be 92 and his FIP- would be 90. That’s a huge difference. You don’t even have to regress Sanchez back to his great 2013 and 2014 numbers, you just have to take him back to his career norms. The difference is one home run every other start. Baseball is really that close sometimes.

Now, I am absolutely not trying to argue that Sanchez’s HR trouble is randomness or bad luck. Maybe a portion of it is, but he has definitely served up some bad pitches which got crushed. But let’s ask the important question. Why has he allowed so many more home runs that normal? What’s causing this insane spike?

First, he’s allowing more fly balls, about 4-6% more than he typically has. That translates to about 21 extra fly balls this year. Even if you apply a normal HR/FB% to his fly balls, you’re still only explaining some of it, and like I said, I don’t really want to just throw regression on this and call it a day. More fly balls, and those fly balls are going for home runs more often. In April, I looked at his first six dingers and pointed out they were basically just bad pitches in otherwise fine outings. He happened to get tagged hard when he got tagged rather than occasionally getting away with one.

So I set out to watch all of his 2015 home runs. I won’t include GIFs for them all because that would take forever to load, but I do want to point out a few things.

First things first, they were all pretty much meatballs. I wish we had an easy measure of how often a meatball goes for a home run and then how many total ones he’s thrown. Maybe 50% of meatballs usually go for dingers and he’s just allowing that on 80% this year. Or maybe he’s allowing homers on 50%, but he’s throwing a lot more bad pitches.

One thing we can say with some confidence is that this isn’t a bad pitch selection problem, because he’s getting tagged when he’s throwing the ball much differently than it’s being called. If McCann calls for one low and away and Sanchez hangs one up and in, that’s an execution problem not a game plan problem.

So there are essentially two ways to look at this. Is Sanchez locating pitches poorly, leading to pitches that are easier to hit, or is he throwing with worse stuff, making pitches easier to hit?

Let’s think about some ways to look at this. Thing number one is that Sanchez’s contact rate allowed is virtually identical to 2014 and most of his other seasons (2013 is the awesome outlier). So when batters swing, they are hitting the ball as often as they used to. So it’s not that it is easier to make contact with in the first place. And they are actually swinging a bit less often against him, suggesting that they may even be laying off his most unhittable stuff. Presumably, this is a damage on contact problem.

So let’s run some quick numbers. Here’s is wOBA on contact in each of the last four seasons. I used basic wOBA, which simply rounds the weights, so something like 0.888 for the value of a single is just 0.9, and all it does is save time with the calculations. Anyway:

Screenshot 2015-08-07 at 3.45.23 PM

So when hitters make contact against him, the results were way down for hitters last year and are way up this year compared to his 2012-2013 baselines. We were expecting to see this, of course, because we know about the dingers. So let’s try something. Let’s take those 11 HR we think are weird and let’s turn them into doubles. Let’s see what happens.

His wOBACON for 2015 goes to .361. That’s roughly a six run difference for the season, which gets us about half way to that 3.70 ERA we mentioned earlier. If they all get turned into outs, it’s goes down to .331, or about 17 runs!

Okay, so this is all about what’s happening for those roughly 440 batted balls and why he’s allowing more damage on them this year than we’ve seen in years past. Let’s use 2013 as a test case. Let’s compare his pitch locations on batted balls for 2013 and 2015.

But first, let’s take a peak at his platoon splits for those years.

Screenshot 2015-08-07 at 4.01.53 PM

In that case, let’s only look at right-handed opponents.




2015ASRHHThat doesn’t tell us a whole lot. The distribution is a little different, but we can’t really see a clear pattern. The batted balls generally seem to be thrown to the same spots against righties. How about the movement or velocity? Here are the average velocity and vertical and horizontal break. Let’s look only at the fly balls, however, because we care about how these balls are being hit. Remember this is on pitches to righties that were put in play.

There are some small samples, so trust me when I dismiss any real changes here. The average pitches that righties made contact with in 2013 are similar in shape and velo to the ones they hit in 2015:

Screenshot 2015-08-07 at 4.27.34 PM

So I have one last idea. Let’s compare his 2015 HR to the average marks for 2015 fly balls. Again, just righties. I’m not going to bother showing it because the sample is small and there’s nothing to see. And I’ve already probably carved these into samples that are too small, so digging into granularities any more will only confuse us.

I hate to do this to you, but we’ve come at this from every angle and I can’t explain it. Anibal Sanchez’s bad season is based entirely on a home run problem that I cannot explain. His pitches aren’t worse overall. He’s not throwing them to different spots. He’s not throwing them very differently. There is no good reason why this should be happening.

That seems like a terrible answer to our question because we have all watched him give up a ton of home runs, but we’ve also watched him do this thing where he totally cruises for 12 batters after allowing a big dinger. He’s himself, and then he’s terrible for a pitch, and then he’s back to normal. This is the weirdest home run problem I’ve ever seen. I really wanted to find something because I want to be able to point to something as a place he needs to improve to get back on track, but this looks like some cosmic intervention where his ability just leaves him for a moment at a time.

I wish I had something better than this, but I don’t. Anibal Sanchez is giving up a lot of home runs. Sometimes that just happens to a guy who is pitching fine otherwise. I won’t try to say they aren’t his fault, but I do think the best explanation we have for what’s happening is that these are just isolated moments of failure rather than a pattern. He’s not doing something systemically that’s leading to this adverse outcome. It’s just happening. Baseball is often wonderfully mysterious, but in this instance, it’s mysteriously cruel.


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