How Was The Game? (August 29, 2014)

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Comfortable.

Tigers 7, White Sox 1

The first inning was a little dicey and then, Justin Verlander (27 GS, 171.1 IP, 4.68 ERA, 3.92 FIP, 2.5 fWAR) sort of started to look like Justin Verlander again. It wasn’t perfect, but he twirled seven innings of one run ball that featured eight strikeouts and two walks. For 2014 Verlander, that’s a gem. The pitches were better as well for most of the game and he showed some signs of life while also getting positive results. Not a terrifying opponent, but a good outing none the less. The story of the offense tonight was a chaotic and glorious 4th inning in which the Sox made two errors that opened the door to five runs. It was a collective effort all around and the Tigers set themselves up nicely going into the big Saturday duel between Max Scherzer (27 GS, 181 IP, 3.13 ERA, 2.81 FIP, 4.8 fWAR) and Chris Sale in Game One.

The Moment: Kinsler and Hunter connect on a perfect relay in the 2nd.

Miguel Cabrera Gets Defensive

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I don’t need to tell you Miguel Cabrera’s having a down year at the plate, we assume, primarily due to a couple of nagging health issues. After four straight seasons of a 160 wRC+ or better, he’s trolling down at 137 in 2014. Primarily, his power is way down. His injuries are costing him offensive value. We’re probably talking about a difference of more than two wins of offensive deduction this year compared to his recent seasons. That’s rough. You know what isn’t rough? His defense.

Wait. What?

That’s right, Miguel Cabrera’s move back over to first base has turned out well, as most of us suspected it might. Cabrera’s big deficiency is his range. The harm is good. The hands are good. The baseball instincts are terrific. He just can’t move very well. You know who doesn’t have to move as much as a third baseman? A first baseman!

Up front, it’s important to be aware of the variation between the two positions in terms of what constitutes good performance. A perfectly average 3B is considered to be about 15 runs better than a perfectly average 1B. You don’t need to take that as gospel, but it’s a good estimate. Even accounting for that, Cabrera is having a better season than last year. And a better season than back when he played first base before.

I don’t want to get into the positional adjustment and Cabrera’s total value. Let’s talk about his performance at 1B in 2014.

He’s played 929.1 innings. He has -1 DRS, which is a career best so far. His UZR is 4.6 (UZR/150 of 4.9), which basically matches his solid 2009 season at 1B. He’s turning more balls in his zone into outs than ever (slightly). He’s started 13 double plays and made 15 scoops. And he’s made fewer errors, if you care about that.

One thing I want to point out is Miggy’s Inside Edge data. They categorize the difficulty of all balls hit to a fielder. Their buckets are 0%, 1-10%, 10-40%, 40-60%, 60-90%, and 90-100% based on the likelihood that the ball should be fielded.

Obviously, he hasn’t made a 0% play because by definition no one can. He’s 0/8 on 1-10%, 0/5 on 10-40%, and 2/5 on 40-60% plays. That doesn’t look great. I mean, it’s not bad. But it’s not great. Know what’s great? Cabrera is 19/20 on 60-90% plays. That’s a 95% success rate! That’s awesome.

Only two 1B with 500+ innings have a higher percentage and they’re 8/8 and 10/10 rather than 19/20. He’s middle of the pack in 90-100% plays, but he’s 185/190.

First, you can see how rare tough plays are at first base. There have been 8,227 balls hit to 1B according to IE. 80% are easy plays. Cabrera makes an average number of those plays and the 7.5% of plays that are 60-90% plays? Cabrera’s been killing those.

At third base, more like 72% of plays are routine plays and there are about 40% more chances at third than first overall. In other words, there are more plays at 3B and they are tougher on average. That makes moving to first base perfect for Cabrera. He’s great at plays he can reach!

Spray charts? Sure. Here are the 60-90 plays and the 40-60 plays.

Screenshot 2014-08-29 at 3.11.31 PM

First base demands less range and values quality hands and such, which makes it a nice fit. By the numbers, he’s been one of the best handful of defenders at first this year by UZR and average by DRS. Range isn’t his game, but he’s vacuuming up stuff near him. We know defensive numbers aren’t perfectly precise, but we can’t exactly do anything other than go off what data we do have.

Particularly, from a scouting perspective, Cabrera turns the 3-6-3 double very well. It’s a small thing overall, but it’s a nice change from Fielder. Cabrera’s next 3-6-3 will set a new career high of six, in fact.

I don’t think we can say for sure we know Cabrera is and will continue to be a good defensive 1B. I think we can say that he’s much better suited for 1B this year relative to 3B and he’s lived up to that given the data that we do have. He’s making routine plays at an average clip and he’s making slightly more difficult pays at a high rate. Sample sizes matter, but if Miggy’s going to have a down year at the plate, at least he’s hanging in there on the other side of the ball.

How Was The Game? (August 28, 2014)

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A nice recovery

Tigers 2, Yankees 2

Kyle Lobstein (1 GS, 11.2 IP, 3.09 ERA, 3.90 FIP, 0.1 fWAR) gave the Tigers a much needed quality outing, going six innings while allowing two runs on four hits and a walk as he gave the Tigers a chance to stay in the game. The teams traded runs in the 2nd and 3rd and then the Yankees took the lead in the 4th before the Tigers got one right back in the 5th. From there they went scoreless into the 9th. Coke found himself in a jam and almost lost it before McCann’s fly ball hooked fouled and he followed up by striking him out to end the inning. The Tigers put two on to start the 9th and then with two outs Avila slammed one off the fence to win it. The team will call on Justin Verlander (26 GS, 164.1 IP, 4.82 ERA, 4.02 FIP, 2.2 fWAR) on Friday.

The Moment: Avila walks off with two outs in the 9th!

How Was The Game? (August 27, 2014)

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Surprising.

Yankees 8, Tigers 4

David Price (28 GS, 203.1 IP, 3.32 ERA, 2.91 FIP, 4.7 fWAR) had one of the worst starts in MLB history tonight if you care about innings, hits, and runs. Only two other pitchers in history have failed to go more than two innings while allowing at least 8 runs and 12 hits as Price did on this night. He allowed nine straight hits to start the third inning and was pulled from the game after 68 pitches. Some hard contact, some BABIP. No fun. The bats gave it a little go with a bomb from VMart and a triple from Nick to go along with a little two out rally in the 9th, but it was nowhere near enough to close the gap. The Tigers will have a shot to win the series behind Kyle Lobstein (0 GS, 5.2 IP, 4.76 ERA, 4.19 FIP, 0.0 fWAR) who will make his first MLB start on Thursday.

The Moment: VMart hits his career high 26th HR.

How Was The Game? (August 26, 2014)

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As it should be.

Tigers 5, Yankees 2

Tuesday afternoon the Tigers got some rough news about Anibal Sanchez. Tuesday night they looked like the team the were expected to be when the season began. Rick Porcello (25 GS, 173.1 IP, 3.06 ERA, 3.69 FIP, 2.8 fWAR) did that thing where he gets a crazy number of ground balls and the infielders turn them into outs and only screwed up to the tune of two Jacoby Ellsbury home runs. Otherwise, it was eight relatively easy innings of work for the Tigers young star. The Tigers got a run on a bases loaded walk in the second, got a single run in the third, two in the sixth, and one in the seventh. Kinsler made a nifty defensive play and Cabrera started a nice 3-6-3 to push this one into the 9th inning where we got good Joe Nathan. David Price (27 GS, 201.1 IP, 3.00 ERA, 2.93 FIP, 4.6 fWAR) for the series on Wednesday night.

The Moment: Castellanos adds insurance with a single in the 6th.

How Was The Game? (August 24, 2014)

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Plenty comfortable.

Tigers 13, Twins 4

After a rough start to the weekend, the Tigers returned the favor. Max Scherzer (27 GS, 181 IP, 3.13 ERA, 2.81 FIP, 4.8 fWAR) wasn’t great, as he labored through five while allowing three runs on seven hits and a walk. It wasn’t his best, but it was plenty good enough to support the Tigers offensive assault on the Twins. They scored three in the 3rd and then starting in the 5th they scored multiple runs in just about every inning. The bullpen didn’t melt down and everyone did their share. Without Cabrera and with a taxed pen, the rest of the crew shouldered the load. After a day off, it’s Rick Porcello (24 GS, 165.1 IP, 3.10 ERA, 3.58 FIP, 2.9 fWAR) against the Yankees in Detroit.

The Moment: Davis puts it out of reach with a bomb.

How Was The Game? (August 23, 2014 – Game 2)

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What felt like an exorcism. 

Tigers 8, Twins 6

After back to back disasters, the Tigers turned to Justin Verlander (26 GS, 164.1 IP, 4.82 ERA, 4.02 FIP, 2.3 fWAR) to turn things around and show that he is healthy. While Verlander didn’t look great, he also didn’t allow a thousand runs in the second inning, which was a big improvement over the other starters in this series. He allowed four runs in 5.2 innings, but keeping it from turning into a joke was all the Tigers would need. They got single runs in the 2nd, 3rd, and 5th ahead of a two runs 6th, two run 7th, and an insurance run in the 8th. Blaine Hardy and Joba did their thing  to keep the lead intact and Joe Nathan didn’t give it away. Despite the earlier horrors, the Tigers can split behind Max Scherzer (26 GS, 176 IP, 3.07 ERA, 2.71 FIP, 4.7 fWAR) on Sunday.

The Moment: Suarez singles to give the Tigers a 5-4 lead in the 6th.

How Was The Game? (August 23, 2014 – Game 1)

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Less awful?

Twins 12, Tigers 4

Well, folks. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. This wasn’t pleasant. Buck Farmer (2 GS, 6.1 IP, 15.63 ERA, 5.34 FIP, 0.0 fWAR) got rocked and the offense wasn’t able to meet the herculean task of overcoming it. Kyle Lobstein made his MLB debut in relief, and while he wasn’t great or anything, he ate innings like he was starving, which means the Tigers bullpen will be plenty rested to support Justin Verlander (25 GS, 158.2 IP, 4.76 ERA, 4.07 FIP, 2.0 fWAR) in game two of the series. Eh, let’s just not talk about this one and pretend it was some type of weird scrimmage.

The Moment: No one got hurt?

How Was The Game? (August 22, 2014)

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A cluster****.

Twins 20, Tigers 6

Okay. So listen. Robbie Ray  (6 GS, 26.2 IP, 7.09 ERA, 4.37 FIP, 0.2 fWAR) was awful and had his worst starter as a big leaguer and somehow wasn’t close to being involved in this game’s biggest disaster. Ray gave up six runs and didn’t make it out of the second inning, but the bullpen and defense put together a 9 run bottom of the 6th which featured six walks, two errors, and fifteen batters. I’ve seen thousands of baseball games in my life and I’m not sure I can remember a bigger single inning meltdown. Of course, that’s because the healthy response is to block those innings out. At least my brain won’t let me remember this. As an apology, the Andrew Romine pitched and Avila played 1B! That was fun at least. Buck Farmer (1 GS, 5 IP, 7.20 ERA, 5.33 FIP, 0.0 fWAR) and Justin Verlander (25 GS, 158.2 IP, 4.76 ERA, 4.07 FIP, 2.1 fWAR) are lined up for tomorrow.

The Moment: Romine pitched! It was bad, but he’s a position player!

Where Porcello’s BABIP Has Improved

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So hey, fun fact, have you noticed that Porcello is good? Yeah, of course you have because you have eyes and you’ve probably read this site enough to be aware of his many virtues. I don’t need to recount the numbers, but he’s pitching deeper into games than ever, running a crazy low ERA, matching his career best FIP (essentially), getting lefties out, and pitching better with men on base. He’s tracking toward a 4 fWAR season about maybe even a 5 RA9-WAR year. That would be excellent.

I joked on Twitter this afternoon that I had run out of things to say about him because I’m pretty quick to jump on everything related to the 25 year old hurler. Contract future? Check. Stats? Check. Pitch development? Check. Age and context? Check.

Well shoot, what to say?

One thing that Porcello is doing this year that he hasn’t done since 2009 is post a below average BABIP. This is why his ERA is a good bit lower than his FIP. And presumably, he hasn’t become a BABIP-beater meaning his ERA is due for a touch of regression. That’s okay. A .295 BABIP instead of .276 would still deliver great results. We’ve always assumed his BABIP was inflated by pitching in front of a horrible defense, and it was, so let’s investigate his 2014 and see what we find.

Year Overall v LHH v RHH Diff
2009 0.277 0.292 0.255 0.037
2010 0.307 0.321 0.292 0.029
2011 0.316 0.347 0.271 0.076
2012 0.344 0.356 0.332 0.024
2013 0.315 0.336 0.290 0.046
2014 0.276 0.279 0.272 0.007

You know the overall pattern, but look how much higher his BABIP vs LHH has been over his career. He only has one rough BABIP year against righties but he has a bunch versus lefties. He averages a BABIP about 37 points higher vs LHH per season and overall and that includes this year. It was in the 40+ point range before that.

Okay, so Porcello’s big BABIP jump is against lefties. Let’s did deeper.

Here are BABIP versus LHH based on batted ball type (via Savant’s classifications):

Year FB vs L GB v L LD v L
2009 0.167 0.233 0.636
2010 0.171 0.277 0.661
2011 0.174 0.321 0.750
2012 0.220 0.264 0.797
2013 0.098 0.279 0.667
2014 0.113 0.223 0.672

For analytical purposes, let’s compare 2014 to 2013 and 2011. I think 2012 is just a weird outlier for many reasons. I’m not saying it didn’t happen, it’s just not useful for comparisons. He’s in between on fly balls and line drives but way down on ground balls. Let’s not go crazy due to the sample size, but I think ground balls against lefties are clearly a key factor here.

Let’s dig in.

Let’s look at ground balls versus lefties to the right of 2B and to the left.

Year Right of 2B Left of 2B
2009 0.168 0.368
2010 0.245 0.357
2011 0.315 0.333
2012 0.241 0.314
2013 0.259 0.333
2014 0.184 0.353

Okay, so ground balls to the right of second base from lefties. This makes perfect sense for lots of reasons. Lefties killed Porcello, lefties hit the ball to the right side, and the Tigers had some rough defense over there. Remember 2B before Infante? Remember Prince at 1B? Ouch. So if a pitcher got better against lefties and had better right side defense, you’d expect a BABIP drop. That’s what we have.

But of course, it’s not that simple. Of course there are sample size issues to consider. This is an explanation, not a prediction. If Porcello is truly improving versus lefties and has better right side defense this will continue, but all we can say for now is that this is a big driver in his BABIP improvement and it’s not out of line with other observations.

Let’s do sanity check. Let’s peak at Scherzer’s BABIP versus lefties to the right side too:

Year Right of 2B
2010 0.193
2011 0.229
2012 0.313
2013 0.261
2014 0.157

Man it’s good to have Kinsler and Cabrera over there.

This seems to indicate that Porcello’s not hugely responsible for the improved BABIP, but this is just the opposite of saying it wasn’t his fault when they let him down in the infield. The Tigers improved their right side defense and it’s allowed Porcello to give up fewer hits to lefties. And that effect can compound because it shortens innings and limits damage.

Porcello’s probably not a ton better than last year, but he doesn’t have to be. He’s finally pitching to a defense that’s capable of supporting him. And as a result, he’s not allowing very many runs. That doesn’t make him a better pitcher but it’s allowing everyone to see the great pitcher he already was.

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