On The Subject of Nick Castellanos’ Defense

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The numbers don’t look good. Your eyes might disagree, but hold onto that thought for a moment. Let’s consider the data first and our perceptions second. Nick Castellanos was never heralded as a good defender at any time coming up through the system and he spent a year and a half playing the outfield prior to 2014, so the expectations weren’t terribly high. No one expected Castellanos to be Evan Longoria at third this year. The goal was simply to be better than what Cabrera over the last couple of years.

To date, by the numbers, this is the worst case scenario. Twenty eight third basemen have at least 500 innings at the position this year and Castellanos ranks last in DRS (-19), last in UZR (-10), second to last in UZR/150 (-17.4), and last in RZR (.611). No one is going to tell you that defensive statistics are perfect over the course of a half season, but when so many different methodologies line up like this, it’s probably safe to say that you’re not doing very well. We don’t have to say that Castellanos is terrible, but he’s definitely performed poorly during this 100 game sample.

But maybe you think these defensive stats are garbage. They’re not, but I’ll indulge you. Forget ball tracking and comparisons to average and all of the things that go into advanced metrics. Let’s go back to school on the most basic measure of defense. How well does Nick turn ground balls into outs? Let’s look at BABIP on ground balls to third.

Now the available data only allows us to grab Tigers’ 3B, so there are a few Cabrera and Kelly games mixed in, but Castellanos has played in close to 90% of the team’s games so this is a fine estimate.

To do this, I went to Baseball Savant and looked at ground balls toward third base and carved up the field by a few different cutoff points to make sure we had it right. The left field line is at -45 degrees and the second base bag is a 0 degrees, just to give you an idea. Let’s look at -45 to -25 degrees. This assumes that the 3B has about 45% of the left side of the infield.

BABIP on ground balls from -45 to -25 for the Tigers is .398, which is by far the worst in the league. Let’s try .-45 to -30 and ask that our 3B only covers 33% of the left side. That leaves the Tigers at .343, which is 29th in baseball. It’s also nice to see Cleveland in last because that’s who the other defensive stats look poorly upon. Finally, let’s go -45 to -35, which calls on Nick to cover just 22% of the field. Again the Tigers are last at .339.

You might think advanced defensive stats are still in beta testing, but there’s nothing advanced about looking at how well a player turns ground balls into outs. This is as basic as it gets and Castellanos is baseball’s worst third baseman in this department.

Uh oh.

There are a couple of reasons to pump the breaks, however. First, Nick just spent 18 months playing a different position. It’s possible that he just doesn’t have his bearings back. When you think about it, that’s totally fair. You shouldn’t expect him to pick the position right back up, meaning that even if his performance this year has been bad, it’s fair to say this is his floor and not his ceiling.

Second, this is all about range. That matters, but his hands and arm and such don’t grade out poorly. He’s not getting to a lot of balls, but he’s converting the ones he gets to. You can’t necessarily teach him to be more mobile, but I’d rather he have one big problem that four medium sized problems.

Third, he doesn’t look as bad as the numbers. I don’t think you can throw out the numbers just because you don’t like what they say, but Castellanos doesn’t look like he’s worse than Cabrera was. My guess is that when all is said and done, this is going to regress a little. He’s more of a -8 than a -18. It’s not hard for a few bad plays to haunt you on defense just like a bad week can sink your offensive stats.

The scouting reports are positive enough on his defense to the point where most see him staying at 3B for at least the next few seasons. I’m not so sure, but that’s because the Tigers might not need him to be there. Pretty much the only area of depth on the farm for the Tigers is middle infield and if Suarez is going to swim at the big league level, he’s going to need a new position next year. That might be 3B and he’s not the only one knocking on the door behind Iglesias and Kinsler.

It doesn’t sound like the plans are in place or anything but Castellanos could move to RF as early as 2015. Not necessarily because he’s so horrible that he has to move off the position, but because he’s not good enough there for it to matter. I can see a world where Castellanos is a serviceable gloveman at third, but that might not be the best way to line up the defense. He’s never going to be a plus defender, so it’s just a matter of finding a place for his glove so that his bat can shine.

I think he’s going to be a big time contributor at the plate, but while his defense doesn’t look as bad from a tools perspective as it has from a performance perspective this year, there’s not a lot of reason to think he can be a positive contributor at third base. It’s been bad this year. I think it can and will get better, but the simple fact of the matter is that it might not have to.

How Was The Game? (July 27, 2014)

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Poorly ended.

Angels 2, Tigers 1

No jury would convict Rick Porcello (20 GS, 133 IP, 3.25 ERA, 3.81 FIP, 2.0 fWAR) after this one. Allow me to paint a picture. Porcello dominated the Angels through 7 innings of work. His offense scored him one run during the game. He allowed five baserunners and struck out six batters. The only run he allowed came on a botched pickoff play, for which he deserves some penalty for the poor throw, but the runner scored because Austin Jackson simply didn’t return the ball to the infield and the runner just kept going. Then at 99 pitches, he got pulled for Joba because it was the 8th inning and that’s who Brad Ausmus uses in the 8th inning. Joba’s been good this year, but he allowed a go ahead blast to left center field and the Tigers lost. This is mostly a story about an offense that didn’t score, but it’s also about lazy defense, a bad bullpen moment, and a manager who probably should have let his starter continue given how sharp he was on this day. Anibal Sanchez (18 GS, 107 IP, 3.45 ERA, 2.96 FIP, 2.7 fWAR) on Tuesday.

The Moment: Porcello shines.

How Was The Game? (July 26, 2014)

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Bleh?

Angels 4, Tigers 0

If you like losing, this one kind of had everything. Justin Verlander (22 GS, 142.2 IP, 4.79 ERA, 4.13 FIP, 1.9 fWAR) was actually pretty good across seven innings, but couldn’t slam the door in the 6th and allowed some add on runs to give the Angels a cushion. Then of course there was the pickoff of Suarez, which the umpires allowed the Angels to challenge later than they should have, which led to Ausmus getting ejected without issuing a protest (Which he should have). Also, the umpires called Suarez out on a bunt play when the ball hit him in the batter’s box. Also, Hunter made a really bad error which led to a run in the 8th while Soria got BABIP’d to death in his debut. No offense, bad umpiring, Hunter defense. It wasn’t the sharpest of nights, but the Tigers have Rick Porcello (19 GS, 126.1 IP, 3.42 ERA, 3.93 FIP, 1.8 fWAR) going Sunday for a split.

The Moment: Ausmus gets worked up when the umpires allow the Angels to challenge late.

How Was The Game? (July 25, 2014)

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Late.

Angels 2, Tigers 1

Considering that it’s very late and because it is also very late, let’s do this in choppy unconnected sentences! Drew Smyly (17 GS, 100.1 IP, 3.77 ERA, 4.18 FIP, 1.1 fWAR) was awesome. He retired the first 13 batters he faced with nine strikeouts and ended the day with 11 punchouts to go along with one intentional walk and two runs allowed, both of which came in the 6th as the Angels started to lock in. The Tigers got their only run on a Cabrera solo shot and neither bullpen factored into the scoring. Justin Verlander (21 GS, 135.2 IP, 4.84 ERA, 4.07 FIP, 1.8 fWAR) goes Saturday in game three.

The Moment: Smyly retires the first 13 he faces.

How Was The Game? (July 24, 2014)

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Angelic? /logs off

Tigers 6, Angels 4

Max Scherzer (21 GS, 139 IP, 3.37 ERA, 3.06 FIP, 3.3 fWAR) managed to squeeze one shaky inning into an otherwise phenomenal start on Thursday. He went seven innings, allowed six hits and a walk to go with three runs, but he punched out eleven Angels (including Trout twice!) and was dominant outside the 5th inning. The Tigers manufactured a quick run in the 3rd inning, but really unleashed the attack in the 6th when they got four straight hits and three runs to start the inning. They tacked on insurance runs in the 7th and 8th and you’re happy they did. Joba allowed a run in the 8th and Nathan somehow did totally fine in the 9th to lock it down. It’s late, so go to sleep and get ready for Drew Smyly (16 GS, 94.2 IP, 3.80 ERA, 4.44 FIP, 0.8 fWAR) on Friday.

The Moment: Castellanos gives the Tigers the lead with a big double in the 6th.

Tigers Get Player They Need…At A Price

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Joakim Soria is absolutely one of the players the Tigers needed. No doubt about it. They need at least two really good relievers and maybe a third in order to field a competitive postseason team. Soria fits the mold. He’s having a great year. He has a great track record. The projections love him. He seems to be back and healthy and has a $7 million team option. It’s a great pickup.

But the Tigers paid a very steep price to make this upgrade. They traded Corey Knebel and Jake Thompson to get him and while Knebel’s a reliever through and through, Jake Thompson is a very real pitching prospect. A lot of people peg him as a back end guy, but I know multiple rival sources who have seen him this year and thing a lot more of him. The Tigers gave away a future quality reliever and a future potential mid-rotation starter for a year and a half of a very good reliever.

That’s a high price. It’s not insane. It’s not crazy. But it’s a lot. I’d trade Knebel for Soria easily and I’d throw in more but I wouldn’t want to add Thompson. I get why the Tigers did it. They need a reliever badly. It makes sense and it could be a big upgrade.

But there’s a problem. They don’t just need one reliever. They need two or three relievers. In order to win this year, they need another great reliever and they fired off two of their best bullets. They’ve taken two important prospects and sent them away. Which is fine in principle, but if you’re making this trade, you have to make more. This trade only makes sense if you’re really going to go all in.

Joakim Soria doesn’t make this a World Series winner. You need two Sorias, at least. So if you’re giving up Thompson and Knebel for Soria, you have to give up Ray for someone else. Or Crawford. Or Moya. Whatever it is. If you’re doing this, you’re going for it.

That’s fine, but you can’t do it halfway. Soria’s going to make this team better, but he makes the 2016-17 Tigers worse. That’s a worthwhile tradeoff, but only if it really makes the 2014 Tigers better.

This is the window, so don’t let it close without adding more.

How Was The Game? (July 23, 2014)

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Diverse.

Tigers 11, Dbacks 5

This game was essentially a three act play. The first act featured a good Anibal Sanchez (18 GS, 107 IP, 3.45 ERA, 2.95 FIP, 2.7 fWAR) and very potent Tigers bats. Before you knew it, the Tigers were in control of a 7-0 game, largely thanks to basically everyone in the lineup. Act two featured Anibal Sanchez allowing baserunners and runs, to the tune of 11 hits and a walk, totaling five runs of damage across 6.1 innings. Job came in to bail him out, which was great, but then Ausmus didn’t utilize the double switch, meaning that he had to hit for himself in the 8th inning. Fortunately, the Tigers added on four runs anyway, largely on a Cabrera home run, and Joba became superfluous in Act Three. So while Tuesday night was very disappointing, Wednesday was very appointing(?). The team will head further west to face the Angels and Mike Trout on Thursday with Max Scherzer (20 GS, 132 IP, 3.34 ERA, 3.20 FIP, 2.8 fWAR) taking the ball in game one.

The Moment: Joba Chamberlain batted.

How Was The Game? (July 22, 2014)

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A giveaway. 

Dbacks 5, Tigers 4

Rick Porcello (19 GS, 126.1 IP, 3.42 ERA, 3.93 FIP, 1.8 fWAR) gave up three runs on Tuesday night, but they were isolated events. For most of his seven innings, he was in complete control, allowing just five hits and no walks while striking out five. The Tigers got a run in the first and a run in the third to set up the 8th inning of joy and doom. The Tigers teed off on the Dbacks bullpen, culminating in a bases loaded single by Torii Hunter that gave the Tigers a 4-3 lead. Ausmus wanted to add on and he pulled Porcello for a pinch hitter with two outs and the bases loaded (at 77 pitches and a tired Joba). On average, the value of pinch hitting is something like 0.15 runs or a touch more, but the drop off to the Tigers terrible bullpen is likely more significant. Naturally, Coke walked two lefties, Alburquerque walked another, and then Krol allowed a single to give the Dbacks the lead and the win. Once again, the Tigers were thwarted by having bad relievers and a manager who isn’t a great tactician. They’ll try to take the series anyway on Wednesday behind Anibal Sanchez (17 GS, 100.2 IP, 3.22 ERA, 2.87 FIP, 2.6 fWAR).

The Moment: Torii Hunter singles up the middle to plate the tying and go-ahead run in the 8th.

Are The Tigers Better or Worse Than Last Year?

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This question came up on Twitter the other day and I think it’s instructive. A follower asked something to the effect of “do you really think last year’s team was better than this year’s team?” Based on the context of the conversation, he clearly though the 2014 version of the team was better than the 2013 version. My answer was the exact opposite. The 2013 Tigers were better. I’m almost positive of this fact.

Which brings us to a sticking point. How should we judge the quality of a team? Simple wins and losses are a reflection of how well a team performed in a set of 162 individual contests, but there are all sorts of things that can happen over 162 games that can muddy the waters. Yes, you would rather win 95 games with a team that’s supposed to win 86 than win 90 games with a team that’s supposed to win 100, but that’s not an interesting question. The interesting question is which team was better. One team won more games, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. I’d rather have a team with the best offensive and starting pitching in the league by a lot that loses close games because they have a bad closer than a team that is middle of the road in offense and pitching but never blows a save.

Let’s look at some numbers!

Winning Percentage

2013: .610

2014: .573 (through 96 games)

Right off the bat, the 2013 Tigers were more successful! So even if you disagree with me about the value of actual wins and losses in a talent evaluation capacity, 2013 was better.

Runs Per Game

2013: 4.9 R/G, 3.8 RA/G

2014: 4.7 R/G, 4.3 RA/G

2013 Tigers way ahead.

Position Players:

2013: 113 wRC+, 26.2 WAR

2014: 111 wRC+, 14.4 WAR (24.3 WAR pro-rate)

Starting Pitching

2013: 3.44 ERA, 3.12 FIP, 25.4 WAR

2014: 3.84 ERA, 3.74 FIP, 9.9 WAR (16.7 WAR pro-rate)

Bullpen:

2013: 4.01 ERA, 3.61 FIP, 4.1 WAR

2014: 4.36 ERA, 3.93 FIP, 1.0 WAR (1.7 WAR pro-rate)

Projected Record:

91-71 via FanGraphs with both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus suggesting they’ve actually over-performed in the W/L column to date. Last year, Baseball Prospectus’ models suggested the Tigers actually played like a 104 win team, despite winning only 93. In other words, last year they under-performed and had a better record than we expect an over-performing 2014 team to achieve.

I don’t at all mean to single out Eric. I mean this as a demonstration of principles. The 2013 Tigers were a better team in pretty much every way (maybe a wash defensively?) we measure performance and likely too in the W/L column. This wasn’t difficult to see coming. They made moves that made them worse. Some were out of necessity, some were out of foolishness, some were gambles. They hit on Joba, JD Martinez, and Kinsler. They whiffed on Fister, Nathan, and kind of Davis.

I’ll be perfectly honest and remind you what I said at the time. Joba was a fine risk, but not one that I thought would be a difference maker. Wrong. I don’t think I wrote about JD, but a minor league deal is never a mistake. Loved the Kinsler trade, but did not expect it to work out this well. No one did. Hated the Fister deal, was confused why you would sign Nathan but didn’t think it would be horrible, and felt like the Davis move was a fine gamble but also slightly strange in context.

Essentially, the Tigers got worse. Some of it was unavoidable. Verlander, Sanchez, and Scherzer simply weren’t going to repeat their performances. Iglesias got hurt. Hunter is aging. The Tigers were going to be worse if they kept the same roster together, but they didn’t just do that. Some moves worked, but on balance it was a downgrade. It’s probably not going to cost a playoff trip, but it might cost them in October. Thankfully, Dombrowski has a week or so to plug the holes. And it’s time to to empty the chamber because they’re never going to have a better chance with this core.

 

How Was The Game? (July 21, 2014)

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Late, but successful.

Tigers 4, Dbacks 3

Justin Verlander (21 GS, 135.2 IP, 4.84 ERA, 4.07 FIP, 1.9 fWAR) came out of the gate looking much better than he did during the first half of the season, but even good Verlander allows three runs and nine baserunners across 6.2 innings in 2014. It wasn’t vintage Verlander, but it was plenty good enough Verlander. The Tigers got their runs on a two run blast from Hunter in the 2nd and a solo shot from Jackson in the third, but after the Dbacks rallied back it was Miguel Cabrera who singled off the wall in center to plate another, even though he was thrown out on what should have been a sure double. Alburquerque escaped the 7th, Joba handled the 8th, and Joe Nathan pitched a reasonably uneventful inning, by his standards, to nail it down. Rick Porcello (18 GS, 119.1 IP, 3.39 ERA, 3.95 FIP, 1.7 fWAR) will get the ball for game two.

The Moment: Holaday picks off Inciarte in the 7th.

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