Tigers Bring Back Joba, Beard Apparently Not Welcome

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

After a great first half and much less great second half, Joba Chamberlain had two very poor outings against the O’s in the ALDS. He signed a small deal last winter with the hopes of rebuilding his value, and while he looked well on his way to doing that in June, things quickly fell apart and he actually wound up getting less guaranteed money when the Tigers re-signed him this morning.

That’s actually a pretty remarkable thing when you peel back the onion. Joba had a perfectly fine season with a 3.57 ERA and 3.16 FIP in 63 innings. He had the occasional sore this or that, but nothing that kept him out of action for very long. And yet, no one wanted him.

His second half numbers were much worse than his first half, with is K%, BB%, ERA, and wOBA all going in the wrong direction in a big way, while his BABIP actually got better. Part of that is simple regression to the mean. Joba wasn’t as good as he performed during the first half and so some crash was expected just in the normal course of business. He also lost it a little and wound up pitching 28 below replacement level innings after the break. Factor in his two awful appearances in October and it’s not a huge shock that he’s not signing a $20 million deal.

But it is a little surprising to me that he had virtually no interest and got a $1 million deal after teams reported. The first half did happen and it’s not as if that performance is totally irrelevant. Joba showed that he could remain healthy and reasonably effective for a full season, but no one came calling with a significantly better offer.

Maybe that speaks to long-term concerns about his health or perhaps it speaks to teams paying too much attention to a few innings of reliever performance. Joba is certainly worth a flyer at this price, but it’s very odd to me that the Tigers would pay Hanrahan, Gorzelanny, and Joba $3 million or so among them in conjunction with the $170+ million they spent on the rest of their roster but not be willing to pay a little more for one of the quality middle relievers who hit the market this winter.

I wanted Neshek, Gregerson, Cotts, Duke, and Frasor and the Tigers did not seem to be in on any of them despite the maximum AAV on the deals sitting in the $5-6 million range.

Signing Joba at this price in isolation is totally fine. I’m all for it. There’s almost nothing that can go wrong. But the team seems to never want to pay an extra million or two for a good player even though they routinely pay several million extra for their great players. It’s an odd approach if nothing else.

My one specific concern here is that I worry Joba will have a good April and Ausmus will fall into old patterns of using him in the 8th inning exclusively. Just because Dombrowski signed him late doesn’t mean the manager will use him correctly. Given how rigid Ausmus showed himself to be last year, it could cost the Tigers on the basis of familiarity.

The Tigers Get Back To Work

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth
It’s very early on Friday, February 20, and the temperature outside my apartment is somewhere close to -10. That’s might not sound like a good thing. In fact, on the last two days like this, I was treated to balmy temps in the 40s.

The Tigers will hold their first workout of the 2015 season today in Lakeland. There are plenty of new faces and old faces and memories of pitchers and catchers who no longer wear the uniform for the hometown team. Winter, by the proper definition, gives way to spring this morning even though most people who are reading this will awake to temperatures somewhere below zero.

And for the first time since 2012, I’m one of them. The Tigers are getting back to baseball and my exile to the American south is over. There’s normalcy after a pretty abnormal winter for me. The last time the Tigers played ball, things were much different on my end.

The first day of spring training is merely a symbol. We don’t really get to see anything and nothing important happens, but it signifies the end of wandering. The aimlessness of the time between seasons has ended and we’ve found our way home.

This year, that’s more than a metaphor for me and I’m looking forward to being near the action, even if the action is starting a thousand miles away from frigid park outside my window. It will be here soon enough.

Assessing Brad Ausmus, Baseball Manager

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

If this blog was part of the criminal justice system, I probably wouldn’t get picked for Brad Ausmus’ jury trial. You might think that’s because of my vocal criticism of his first year, but it’s actually because demographically, he and I are too similar. If you drew Venn Diagrams of handsome*, Jewish, former catchers, he and I would be standing right next to each other.

*-What? My wife and mother think I’m handsome. Shut up, there’s no need for name calling.

I point that out because I want to make it clear that I went into the 2014 season with high hopes for Ausmus and I really wanted him to succeed. After his introduction last winter, I spoke very highly of him in several separate posts, praising him for the way he seemed to embrace modern thinking while crushing it up and hiding it in the proverbial pudding. He brought Jeff Jones back. He brought in Matt Martin to be the defensive coordinator. He talked about the need to bring in modern analysis, but with a presentation style that made it easier for players to understand.

Check. Check. Check.

There was a lot of optimism on my part, which I remind you of because I want to point out that I am 1) only sometimes right and 2) not out to get him. I was buying what he was selling, and it started out nicely. The team performed well early, and while everything was clicking, he was taking a hands-off approach that kept the clubhouse loose and the bunts to a minimum. After a month or so, I thought we had found our man.

But things started to turn for Ausmus as we careened toward summer. The team stumbled, culminating in his poorly executed, and inappropriate joke about beating his wife to handle the poor play on the field. It was a stupid moment, and to his credit, as soon as it came out of his mouth, he knew it and did everything a person should do in a situation like that. But for our purposes here, Paul Wezner from TigsTown made the relevant point. Paul pointed out how the “joke” fiasco was an indication that Ausmus was coming undone a bit. The normally deadpan, buttoned down boss was cracking.

His team was facing adversity. A baseball team that’s rolling doesn’t need a manager. One that’s struggling does. How he handled the remaining months would tell the tale, and I don’t think he handled himself very well at all.

But let’s step back for a moment. Let me make a few additional things clear. Actually measuring and assessing a manager from the outside is extremely difficult. I’m not going to be able to put a definitive number on anything. If I had to guess, I’d say Ausmus’ managing cost the team about five wins during the season relative to the average manager. It’s a rough estimation, I admit, but we just don’t have the information to know which pitchers he used because he wanted to and which he used because one of his guys needed a day off. We don’t know who had the flu and whose wrist was kind of sore.

There’s missing information, and this is a site that likes to deal in facts. We’re not going to be able to do that perfectly here and we’re all just going to have to be okay with it. There’s something worth saying, even if there’s a limitation on how confident we can be.

I should also mention that it’s possible for a person to become a better manager over time. I think Ausmus was bad in 2014, but that doesn’t mean he’s doomed to live at that level forever. Maybe he will, maybe he won’t. But it’s possible to improve and it’s possible that the transaction cost of replacing a manager is high enough to give him another year.

So if you get to the end of this discussion and want to comment or post on Twitter, remember I said all of those things. I didn’t have it out for him, managing is hard to measure, and I think people can get better. Put all of that in a box to the left side of your screen and hold onto it because it’s about to get combative.

Since I’m already 700 words in and haven’t said anything, I’m going to critique Ausmus by telling you the story of his first season through the lens of five players.

1. Joakim Soria

The problem isn’t that Joe Nathan sucked. Maybe we should have seen a decline coming, but no one was out there predicting that Joe Nathan would be horrible. There’s nothing Brad Ausmus or Earl Weaver could have done to avoid that disaster. But Ausmus responded to the Nathan crisis in a way that demonstrated his flaws.

When a player struggles, plenty of managers make a point to show support in order to maintain their confidence. It’s a classic leadership move. But as Nathan continued to struggle and the Tigers continued to lose close games because Nathan had nothing in the tank, Ausmus refused to go to anyone else as the closer because Nathan was a “proven closer” and he didn’t have another one of those.

This is an obvious strike against Ausmus, but lots of managers do stuff like this and a rookie manager might not want to push the limits of bullpen usage for fear of calling attention to himself. But then this weird thing happened and the Tigers traded Jake Thompson and Corey Knebel for Joakim Soria. Ausmus finally had another proven closer to use in place of Nathan!

Naturally, he called on Soria to be the relief ace and all was right!

Nope. He hardly ever used Soria and on multiple occasions he demonstrated that he only wanted to use Soria in the 7th inning, saving Joba and Nathan for 8/9, and continued to manage to the save stat for Joe Nathan. Now perhaps Ausmus knew that Soria wasn’t in position to pitch well, but it would be an awfully big shock if the Tigers traded for a pitcher, dealing two of their best prospects, for a pitcher who they didn’t think was very good.

What probably happened was that Ausmus didn’t know Soria and he decided he was comfortable with his 8/9 guys even though he just got handed a better pitcher. Unwillingness to adapt will kill you in a game like this.

2. Anibal Sanchez

There was no excuse for the way Ausmus played his Anibal Sanchez card in October. You might want to defend him and say that Sanchez was pushed to his limit at 35 pitches, but you’d be wrong, because it was Ausmus who refused to use Sanchez in the final weeks of the regular season to stretch him out for just such an appearance.

It’s one thing to be worried about Sanchez’s arm, it’s another thing to have failed to prepare for such an obvious situation. Sanchez was his best arm in the pen, and it was obvious from the day we heard he’d be back in September. Ausmus kicked this one by failing to think ahead and failing a test of imagination.

3. James McCann

This drove me crazy. I won’t hold back. Ausmus wouldn’t use McCann in September because McCann didn’t know the pitching staff and it wouldn’t be fair to put him in a big game with an unfamiliar pitcher. This is another thing that sounds kind of reasonable at first, but when you think about it, it’s plain silly.

Ausmus knows more about catching than I do. I’ll admit as much. But McCann was his best bet against left-handed pitching and he wouldn’t use him out of fear that McCann wouldn’t be able to properly manage the pitching staff. Which is weird, because McCann has a fine reputation as a receiver and it’s his job to go to meetings and game plan how they’re going to attack hitters.

Ausmus also had the option of calling pitches from the bench, or having Avila or Holaday do the same. McCann was more than capable of doing his job, and even if he wasn’t, Ausmus’ concern was about his game calling, and that’s something you can easily work around. There was just no logic to it at all.

4. Nick Castellanos

This is the easiest one to forgive, but I wanted to bring it up anyway. During the season, when asked about Castellanos’ defense, Ausmus made a comment to the effect of “Nick might not have great range, but he’s making the plays he gets to.”

Except that’s factually wrong. Castellanos made a ton of misplays on balls hit right at him. I’ve been pretty clear on the fact that I do think Nick can get better at third, but as a point of fact, he was lousy in 2014.

I don’t mind a manager throwing some cover for his guy. That’s a manager thing to do. But when he chose to give an answer, he gave an incorrect assessment of his player. He was just wrong about Castellanos’ ability to make plays on balls hit near him.

This ones a little fuzzy, but in the context of the rest of evidence against him, this stands out to me. I can forgive the bunting and the bullpen roles, but you have to know your players and their abilities or you’re going nowhere.

5. Ezequiel Carrera

This is the big one. The story of Brad Ausmus’ 2014 season was Carrera and it wasn’t pretty. You can’t blame Ausmus for Carrera’s spot on the roster. Dombrowski builds the club and Ausmus got dealt Carrera. That’s just a thing you live with.

But let’s turn around and evaluate how Carrera was used by his manager. For one, he hit in the top two spots in the order seven times despite being very bad at hitting. He was also used as a pinch hitter six more times, which…well, same.

But it came down to a single moment. We can sum up Brad Ausmus as a manager with the game that happened on September 2. The Tigers won 4-2 against the Indians, which sounds great, but it was one of those games where the team just happened to win despite their manager’s best efforts.

The Tigers trailed 2-1 entering the 8th inning. Bryan Shaw was on the mound for the Indians and Suarez was due up. Given the situation, pinch hitting with a lefty made sense. Ausmus had Tyler Collins and he had Steven Moya as lefty pinch hit options. If you’re thinking about a guy who can spray it around, Collins. If you want the bomb, Moya. Easy enough, right?

No. Apparently not because Ausmus went with Carrera!

His explanation was that he wanted someone who could steal a base if he got on base. Which makes your head explode every time you hear it because 1) Carrera can’t get on base and 2) He could have pinch run for anyone who reached base.

But listen, mistakes happen and sometimes you just say something to answer a question if you don’t believe it. And you almost want to forgive him until Miguel Cabrera singles during the next inning and Ausmus uses Moya to pinch run!

Think about that. He had two choices. One where he needed a hitter and one where he needed a runner. He had two players, Carrera and Moya. He somehow managed to decide that Moya belonged in the running situation and Carrera and the hitting one!

If not for that glorious human being, JD Martinez, the Tigers would have lost this game, in large part due to the craziest thing I’ve seen a manager do in quite some time.

It’s one thing to use Carrera too much because you think he’s a good defender (he’s not), but it’s another to use him as a pinch hitter when you have a pinch running need coming in the next inning that you know you’re going to need (Cabrera was lumbering badly at the time).

*****

So here’s the bottom line. After all the hype, Ausmus loves bullpen roles and he loves bunting. He over-managed and didn’t have good answers for questions. It was a bad showing, but when it really came down to it, what eats me up was that he didn’t know his players and he didn’t plan ahead.

Ausmus never seemed to be prepared for his first move to fail and he was frequently caught without a reliever warming up while another was melting down. He put bad hitters into big spots and didn’t really figure out who his good pitchers or defenders were at any point.

Managing is tough and evaluating them is a challenge, but everything I saw from Ausmus in 2014 indicated that he was in way over his head and seemed too stubborn to change. Hopefully that’s not the case.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention two things Ausmus did in 2014 that I liked. First, he didn’t announce which relievers were available before the game. That’s good strategy and he stuck to it to keep the other manager from getting an edge. Second, even though he used his bench poorly, he did use it. He didn’t save players for emergencies, he put them in the game if he thought they could help.

So as pitchers and catchers report, the Tigers have plenty of things to resolve. The manager isn’t the most important issue, but it’s the issue that should be the easiest to fix. The Tigers brass needs to get into his ear and resolve some of the bigger gaps in his decision making.

The Tigers like sluggers and hard throwing relievers. Ausmus can’t fix the roster, but he’s got to be smart enough to identify the good relievers and the bad hitters he has in his care. You can’t win the World Series with the Bad News Bears, but that’s not an excuse to put the worse player at shortstop. Ausmus probably wasn’t the reason the Tigers exited after three ALDS games, but he didn’t help them exceed their abilities. And there’s no point in sticking with a manager just because he didn’t ruin the team. The bar should be higher for a team with a $170 million payroll. If Ausmus doesn’t show progress, there’s no reason for him to stay.

I doubt it will happen, but if he doesn’t demonstrate improvements by the All-Star Break, he shouldn’t be at the helm when the pennant chase comes. Would the Tigers do that? Unlikely, but this is a job that would attract a lot of talent and the team shouldn’t settle.

Should The Tigers Extend Yoenis Cespedes?

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

With James Shields off the board, the baseball offseason is essentially over. Pitchers and catchers will show up next week and split squad games won’t be far behind. But before things get into full swing, teams are going to start to look at which of their players they want to lock up long term. Two years ago, the Tigers extended Verlander. A year ago, it was Cabrera. This year, they have a shot to deal with David Price, as we discussed recently, but they might also consider soon to be free agent, Yoenis Cespedes.

Much like previous posts of this nature, we’re going to try to estimate Cespedes’ free agent earnings next winter and then decide if the Tigers should consider paying that price. Keep in mind that Cespedes is ineligible for the qualifying offer, so draft pick compensation is off the table no matter what. This year will be his age 29 season, so you’re buying ages 30+ if you’re offering a deal.

Let’s try to get out bearings a little bit. Nelson Cruz just got 4 years and $58 million going into his age 35 season and his three season platform was worse than Cespedes’ last three years. Let’s assume Cespedes nails down about 3 WAR for the 2015 season, which would leave him well ahead of Cruz.

Pablo Sandoval hit free agency two years younger than Cespedes will, but there’s some similarities in their overall value heading into the payday winter. Sandoval had two 5 WAR seasons prior, however, so it’s not a perfect comparison. He got 5/$95MM.

It probably makes sense that Cespedes will get at least four years and it’s hard to imagine him not getting five. The cut point is probably five to six seasons and the $15 million to $20 million range seems about right. He’s a good defender with some real power, but it’s not like he’s an elite offensive performer. He’ll get the name recognition bump and a little love for RIGHT HANDED POWER, but he’s not going to get Robinson Cano money.

5 years, $95 million? 6 years, $115 million? I think that’s the neighborhood based on recent history. There’s really no way he gets less than Cruz and with another nice year he might wind up in the Sandoval range.

The Tigers don’t have any obvious outfield help blocking Cespedes’ return. JD Martinez’s future is a little uncertain, but even then, Derek Hill is a long way off and Steven Moya isn’t exactly a sure thing either. There’s plenty of room for Cespedes if the Tigers determine that they’re fond of him.

So let’s say that Cespedes will give the Tigers a break a roll his 2015 salary into an extension, leaving them only on the hook for 4/$85 million from 2016-2019. Does that make sense? For $85 million, you’d like to see something like 12 WAR over the life of the deal. That’s three wins per season, which would require a pretty slow decline. It’s plausible, even if you might not call it the likeliest outcome.

But let’s say the Tigers can afford to pay, and are motivated to pay slightly above market rate. Instead of $7.5M/WAR, let’s say they’ll pay $9 million per win. If that’s the case, you just need 9-10 WAR, and that’s a more reasonable projection given normal aging patterns. This assumes Cespedes will sign a deal of that magnitude rather than playing the field and looking for a big spending who digs his power.

The Tigers extended Cabrera back in 2008 before ever seeing him wear the uniform, but the difference between Cabrera and Cespedes is pretty significant. The Tigers pay for stars, but they also really like paying for their stars. Cespedes might not qualify and probably doesn’t have a lot of incentive to sign for below market rate. He’ll have made more than $30 million by the time he hits the market and doesn’t need the security of a big deal right now. Unlike a starting pitcher, the odds of a career altering injury are relatively low for Cespedes and he might try to nab $120 million or so next winter if he socks 35 dingers in the D.

So this becomes a bit of a guessing game. How much of a gambler is the Tigers’ new left fielder? We know that Scherzer made a smart bet on himself and that the Tigers made a bad one on Verlander and Cabrera (financially). While I recommended they extend Price, I think I’m going to come down against ponying up for Cespedes just yet. He’s a quality player, but he’s the kind of guy you can replace for less because he has sexy skills.

It wouldn’t be a disaster to sign Cespedes this month, but I don’t think waiting until next offseason costs them enough to shoulder all of the risk right now.

Tigers Fans Tear Collective Meniscus

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

 

If 2pm wasn’t hard enough on a Thursday, today we learned that Tigers DH Victor Martinez is going to need surgery to repair a torn left meniscus, the same meniscus that he tore before the 2012 season in conjunction with his ACL. Even if the tear is bad this time around, it’s still a much less serious injury if you’re looking for comfort.

As far as the product on the field, the question isn’t really if the Tigers can replace Martinez. They can’t. There’s no one in the organization who can match Martinez, but realistically speaking Martinez is probably going to miss a month or so of real, live baseball. At the top end, he’s a 4 win player and that means we’re talking about less than a win lost over the course of a month. Obviously a blow, but it’s not like learning Cabrera is out for the season.

There are three additional points worth making regarding this injury. First, remember this moment the next time you want the club to sign an aging star to an expensive contract. I was fine with the contract, but the idea that a proven player is a sure thing is just dead wrong. Martinez is as steady a hitter as they come, but an old player getting hurt and missing time isn’t news.

Second, this is why I’m always lamenting the Tigers’ allergy to depth. No team would be in good shape with injuries to Cabrera/Martinez type players, but it would be a lot better if their the fill in options weren’t Hessman or Lennerton. If you’re a team that loves expensive, aging players, it’s probably a good idea to stock up on bench options.

Finally, the real kicker here isn’t the time lost. The concern is how this recovery will affect him for the next year and the three years after that. Martinez took a long time to get himself straightened out after his last injury and you worry that you’ll lose him for a month but he won’t be himself for a few more. Martinez is young by normal human being standards, but for a ballplayer, he’s in his golden years.

The Tigers are a diminished team without Martinez playing from a less impressive deck than they have been in recent years. There are good players on the team and fun players on the team, but they’re in that window where little problems like a few weeks without Martinez wind up making Progressive Field and October destination.

Should The Tigers Extend David Price?

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

A year ago in these pages, I wondered if the Tigers should extend Max Scherzer. When it came down to it, I thought they should let him walk unless he was willing to take a significant discount. He didn’t, they let him walk, and Max got a boatload of dough from the Nationals. My basic case against an extension for Max was pretty simple. He was going to get at least 6/$150M (and had a good chance at more) and pitchers in their 30s are rarely worth that kind of money. Now, I probably underestimated the salary inflation we saw over the last year so if I had known a little more about the future, I’d have been cool at $150M, but not cool at the price he wound up getting. Same basic premise.

Max was unlikely to live up to the cost he was likely to command. We now know his cost, and we’ll have to see if he earns it or not. But a year later, the Tigers find themselves in a very similar situation. David Price will be a Tiger for one more year and then he’ll be a free agent entering his age 30 season. Should they look to extend him?

Price is making $20 million in 2015 and is coming off a 6 WAR year. Prior to that, he had four straight seasons of around 4 WAR, so there’s a clear sense that he and Scherzer will be hitting the market with pretty similar resumes. Price has a slightly longer history of great performance, but that comes with more innings (and more wear and tear). If we assume Price has another 5 WAR kind of year, and I think we should, then he will arrive at free agency under very similar conditions. Although he’s a lefty, so maybe we’ll see a slight premium.

So let’s figure out what we think Price will cost on the open market and see if it makes sense for the Tigers to pay that. Let’s say he’s going to get 7 years. Scherzer just got $30 million per season, but some of that was deferred money, so it’s more like $26 million if you care about the value over 7 years. Lester got right around there per year for six years. Basic inflation probably bumps that up to $27 million or so starting next year.

That’s 7 years, $189 million. If he doesn’t do the Scherzer deferment thing, we can probably say 7 years, $180-$200 million is the contract he’ll sign with another Price-like season. There are some quality names on the market next year, but Scherzer had Shields and Lester as well.

If you think Price is better than Lester and Scherzer, use 7/$200M. If he’s on par, it’s 7/$185M. Let’s call it 7/$190M just for the sake of only using one number. That’s what Price will make if things go according to plan. While Price seems open to an extension, there’s no indication he’s in love with Detroit and would give a major discount to stay. However, let’s assume he would be willing to offset the risk of the 2015 season by giving the Tigers a chance to start this extension in 2015. In other words, Price will sign with the Tigers for 7/$190M starting this year while every other team would sign him for 7/$190M starting next year. That’s the “hometown” discount we’ll apply.

Alright, let’s see what we think.

The cost of a win on the free agent market is somewhere in the $7 million range right now, but it might easily be $7.5 million by the time 2016 rolls around. This value is an estimate, but it’s a pretty good one, and the reason we use it is because if the Tigers chose not to sign Price they would have a pile of money they could then use on the free agent market, and they could buy wins at that price, more or less. In general, it’s a good guide, but don’t take it as gospel.

So the Tigers are already on the hook for 1/$20M, meaning we care about Price’s age 30-35 seasons and a 6 year, $170 million contract.

To earn that deal at the market rate ($7.5M/WAR), Price needs to provide the Tigers with 23 WAR over the life of those 6 years. That comes out to 3.8 WAR per season, which doesn’t seem like a lot. After all, Price has five straight seasons at that mark. But we have to assume that Price is going to get worse into his 30s because almost every pitcher does. It probably won’t be a cliff, but he will not continue to be an ace indefinitely.

Let’s try this a few ways. Let’s assume Price is a 6 WAR pitcher for 2015. That’s his starting point. A typical aging curve for a 30+ pitcher subtracts half a win per year. So that means over 2016-2021, Price would be worth 25.5 WAR! So if you believe in him as a 6 WAR starter right now and you believe in normal aging, this is a deal that can totally work for the Tigers.

But now let’s say he’s a 5 WAR starter in 2015. Then Price comes out at 19.5 WAR. If he’s a 4 WAR starter in 2015, he comes out at 13.5 WAR. Now we’re getting dicey. If he’s a 6 WAR starter now, he’s worth $180 million during this $170 million deal. Awesome. If he’s a 5 WAR starter, he’s worth $146 million. If he’s a 4 WAR starter he’s worth $101 million.

So one important factor here is determining how good you think Price is right now. That’s a projection question and an open question. There is evidence that supports a range of outcomes between 4-6 WAR and I can’t fault a team for taking either end of the spectrum. Evaluating pitchers is tough.

But now let’s say the Tigers are very motivated to keep Price because he can keep them contending at a higher level that they can without him. Let’s say they are very committed to going for it every year and can afford to pay more than average for Price because they think he’s truly the best available pitcher whom they could sign for those 6 years. That’s not an approach I would take when deciding to sign Price, but it’s a valid approach. So let’s say the Tigers are willing to pay $9 million per win. They are all in and their owner is old. Anything above $9 million starts to get a little silly because they’re actively ignoring a cheaper version of the same wins, but $1.5 million above market price seems like a good enough margin of error.

Let’s walk through those values again (cost of $170 million, assume $9M/WAR)

  • 6 WAR pitcher, Tigers value at $230 million
  • 5 WAR pitcher, Tigers value at $175 million
  • 4 WAR pitcher, Tigers value at $120 million

At the market rate, you have to buy Price as a 6 WAR pitcher to want to sign him. If the Tigers really don’t care about efficiency, you can sign him at 5 WAR. There’s plenty of margin for error on these estimates, but not enough to like any of the other options.

So should the Tigers do it?

I cautiously recommend that they should. It’s not going to be a good value, but there’s a pretty decent chance it winds up working out fine. It’s not unreasonable to think he might currently be a 6 WAR pitcher and if he is, this contract can work out just fine. If you think he’s a 5 WAR pitcher, it doesn’t take much to smear the numbers into looking just fine. The Tigers aren’t afraid to spend a little extra money for sexy names (something I often chastise), but for a small premium, it’s not a big deal.

But if you think he’s a 4 WAR pitcher, this isn’t going to work out well. There’s no scenario in which the Tigers aren’t wasting a huge sum of money.

So what’s the difference between Scherzer and Price? Why did I recommend no on Max and yes on David? Three really important things happened between last December and today.

First, the Tigers extended Miguel Cabrera. The deal was way too much to pay for Cabrera, not because he isn’t good, but because no one was going to pay more when he hit FA. But that deal signaled the Tigers have no real interest in being a cost effective team and they also care way more about the short term future than they do about the long term future.

The Victor Martinez contract said the same thing. The Tigers want 2015-2016 wins really badly and damn the 2019-2020 team.

But we kind of knew this about the Tigers already. The kicker was when they traded Rick Porcello, because my entire Scherzer philosophy was predicated on the team extending Porcello. If the Tigers had Verlander-Sanchez-Porcello locked up, I wouldn’t be so keen on investing in a Price (or a Scherzer). But without Porcello, the Tigers have a serious long term hole in the rotation. Sanchez is good and cost effective, but he’s not a model of health. Verlander could still be great, but the signs are starting to point toward just being solid. Shane Greene has potential, but with no top end pitching talent on the farm, there’s a vacancy or two.

If the Tigers want to really contend for the next few seasons, they need another top level starting pitcher. It can be someone from outside the organization or it can be Price. Either is fine, I’m not partial to “guys we know,” but I don’t see an obvious way to acquire an elite pitcher via trade given the club’s circumstances. Never count out Dave on that front, but acquiring a great arm under team control is hard.

So it’s Price or a free agent, and there’s no reason to adore a particular free agent over Price…except maybe for Strasburg, who would be around a year too late. Greinke, Cueto, and Zimmermann are all very good, but none of them are a tier above Price.

Which is why I’d support a Price extension. I don’t think it’s a necessity. I don’t think he’s too good to let walk. But the Tigers need a pitcher of his caliber into the future and he’s going to come at a discount, however small.

The Tigers have a way of doing things. Sometimes it drives me crazy and sometimes it’s great. They eschew depth and cost controlled talent and it bites them pretty often. But they’re not afraid to spend money and don’t let a few million get in the way of a player they like. I can’t really see a justification for not seriously pursuing a Porcello extension over the last two years, but I also know they aren’t going to get down to the final hour of a negotiation and walk away from the table because of pennies.

The Tigers and I don’t always like the same kind of players, but when they like a player, I love the way they pursue them.

I don’t need “David Price” in a rotation, but the Tigers need his level of production. If they like him, they should go ahead and keep him.

 

The End Of Don Kelly In Detroit

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

As a rule, I don’t think you should meet your heroes. Or, in general, you shouldn’t meet famous people that you like or admire. Most of the time, the reality of who they are would disappoint you. They’re regular people with regular people flaws and they just happen to excel at the one or two things that made them famous. It might be cool to see an actor in person, but being a good actor and being an interesting and/or decent person are unrelated things. The same is true for athletes, maybe even more often.

We don’t talk about it a lot anymore, but if our laws worked the way they ought to, Miguel Cabrera would be wrapping up a prison sentence right now instead of a Hall of Fame peak. There’s a pretty good chance a few guys on the team are mean to waiters and tip poorly. Some are probably disloyal to their friends. There’s probably a racist, a homophobe, and a misogynist or two. I’m not accusing anyone specifically or saying this with any specific knowledge. I’m just saying based on the number of guys in the room, there’s a good chance some of them are lousy people.

For that reason, I generally like to keep the image I have of the players separate from who they actually are. As long as no one’s committing violent crimes or doing anything unsavory in public, I just assume the players are only who we see on the screen. Put another way, I don’t spend a lot of time wondering what Nick Castellanos is like when he’s off the clock. It’s just not relevant to my life or my livelihood.

I remember one time, maybe it was during an in game interview or after he posted something on Twitter, but my wife looked at me and said, “I don’t think you and Justin [Verlander] would be friends in real life.” That’s probably true. Our only real area of overlap is baseball and Verlander cares about the game in a very traditional, competitive way that differs from the way I care about the game.

This is a really long way of saying that there are always exceptions. I care about a player’s public image because that’s the version of them that I see, so when a player says something stupid or disrespectful, I think less of them. Or when they carry themselves well, I think more of them. It’s part of the package, but I often don’t want to know what’s really behind the veneer.

I mean, imagine if you found out that Alex Avila was a jerk. Wouldn’t that suck? Avila’s probably a very nice guy but you’re only setting yourself up for disappointment if you try to find out.

I don’t expect anything from athletes except that they give an honest effort. I don’t get upset when they strikeout and it doesn’t bother me if they don’t give interesting interviews. You can keep to yourself and suck and I’ll probably still be a fan if I think you’re giving it your best.

But there are exceptions. Don Kelly is one of them.

Part of me appreciates Kelly because he’s a utility player (and not a great one) and I just happen to like utility players. I latch on to the versatile players. But Kelly transcends that. Kelly was a fan favorite because Kelly gets it in a way that virtually no professional athlete gets it.

I think Kelly gets a lot of love because he’s a genuinely nice guy and everyone can tell after talking to him or listening to him for thirty seconds. But I think the halo around Kelly is that he absolutely loves every second of being a professional baseball player and recognizes how insane it is that he’s even there in the first place. It’s almost as if he hasn’t been corrupted by something that always corrupts.

Put another way, after enough time in the show, every players starts to feel like being an MLB player is normal. That’s true in all parts of life. It’s human nature. When I first started writing about the game, it was surreal when people I admired would share and comment on my work. But after enough time, it stopped being a big deal when I got a job offer or a hat tip from someone with real credibility. That happens to all of us. The shine wears off given a long enough timeline.

But you watch Kelly play baseball and it hasn’t. That sense of joy and disbelief is what draws us to Don because it’s how we imagine we’d feel if we were suddenly given a chance to play ball for our favorite team. Kelly seems grateful and overjoyed for the chance to play and never seemed dissatisfied with his opportunity. He may have wanted to play better at times, but he never seemed like someone who was unhappy because he wasn’t getting more playing time or a more prestigious lineup spot.

Pro athletes won the genetic lottery. They worked hard to make it, but if not for an accident of birth, they’re selling insurance or bagging groceries. It’s not their fault they were blessed with the talent and they shouldn’t feel bad about it, but when you’ve always been gifted it’s hard to remember that you’ve lived a charmed life.

I don’t know if I’m making it up because I want to believe it, but I don’t think Kelly ever lost touch with the idea that it’s ridiculous that he plays baseball for his job. I don’t think the players owe it it to us to do that or anything, but I think the magnetism of Kelly is that he acts like what we think we would act like if we were somehow put into that situation.

He gets how amazing his life is and seems perfectly content to be the backup plan at every position.

It’s just a minor league deal with an invite to Spring Training, but losing Kelly like this is the end of a weird, beautiful era in Detroit. Kelly was certainly not a good player, but it’s impossible not to love him for the way he carried himself all these years.

Jim Leyland once said that Donnie Kelly is everything that’s good about baseball. Regular readers know that Jim and I don’t always agree, but on this, we certainly do.

Farewell, Max

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

The day the Tigers traded for Max Scherzer was a sad one. It would turn out to be a huge coup for the franchise, but at the time, losing the beloved Curtis Granderson two months after the most crushing sports moment of my life was a lot to handle. If I remember it correctly, it was the day I discovered that MLB Trade Rumors existed. Granderson was such a big part of who the Tigers were, and Jackson, Scherzer, Coke, and Schlereth were just some guys with some potential.

That would all change. Five years later, it’s Scherzer’s departure that hits home. More than 1,000 innings. 22.9 WAR. Four playoff appearances. A Cy Young. Max leaves Detroit at the pinnacle of the sport, signing a massive deal with the Nationals for 7 years. It’s like hearing your best friend got their dream job halfway across the country. You’re heartbroken to lose them, but they’re making the choice that’s right for them and their family.

Personally, it’s been an absolutely joy to watch Scherzer grow into the ace he’s become. When he got to Detroit he was the classic example of the great-stuff-no-feel guys that scouts love, but I so often pan. The pitches were there, but the delivery and the command weren’t. For Scherzer to become a star, he had to come a long way and most guys never make it that far.

Max did.

It took two and half years for that moment to arrive, but in the summer of 2012, in the shadow of tremendous personal tragedy, Max Scherzer turned a corner and never looked back. He got his delivery together, found his curveball, and became one of the most frightening assignments for AL hitters.

But it wasn’t just that Max turned into a star. Regular readers here know that you don’t have to be good for me to love you (see Kelly, Don; Raburn, Ryan; Inge, Brandon). Max also understood the game and was open to the modern way of evaluating it. He was smart, well-spoken, and thoughtful. He and his brother had phone conversations about the financial crisis in Greece. He tweeted about the origins of a centuries old dispute in the cradle of civilization. He knew about FIP. My god, the man knew about FIP and cared about FIP.

There were a lot of moments over these last five years. Great players tend to have a lot of great moments. You may have your own personal favorite, but this one has to be right at the top of the list. Scherzer in relief, getting three huge outs to save the date, and helping the Tigers advance.

The Tigers made a good faith offer to Max in the spring and he was right to turn it down. Other clubs could afford to offer more and he was right to take it. I’m sad to see him leave, but we knew this day was coming. This day was always coming.

When you’re a kid and one of your favorite players signs with another team, it feels like they’re turning their back on you. When your GM trades away a player you love, it feels like they don’t care about you. But there’s a point in your life where you get to an age when you realize that being a fan of team and working for one are totally different things. If this had happened when I was ten, Scherzer might have seemed like an enemy because $144 million is a lot of money, but Max gave the Tigers his years and some terrific memories. It was a happy marriage, but that’s sort of the problem with being a fan. You’re married to the team and the players just work there. Max is making a smart decision and I’m happy for him, no matter how much it sucks to see him go.

Is David Price An Ace?

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

There still might be a way for Max Scherzer to start on Opening Day while wearing an Old English D, but we can probably agree it’s not the likeliest of outcomes. More likely, we’ll see Scherzer in St. Louis or New York or somewhere else and David Price will get the ball to open the 2015 season for the Tigers.

I’m comfortably among those who sing the praises of Anibal Sanchez, but my sense is that the Tigers view Price as their ace rather than the Maestro. Barring a shakeup, Price goes on Opening Day which makes sense because Price is famous and because Price is very good. But it’s worth talking a little bit about how good David Price is and how good he will be.

There’s no question that Price has been durable and excellent during his career. We’re not hear to argue about whether Price is good, we’re going to talk about Price being very good compared to elite because it’s January and nothing else is happening.

Price was good in a cup of coffee in 2008 and good-not-great in 23 starts in 2009. When 2010 came around, Price elevated his game and became 4-5 win pitcher for the next four seasons. From 2010-2013, Price sat between 3.9 and 4.8 fWAR with a little extra love from RA9-WAR. He was very good.

But in 2014, he performed significantly better. He maintained his 2013 walk rate (it had plummeted) and then he found more strikeouts than ever before. During his age 28 season, Price made the leap from 4 win pitcher (a good #2) to 6 win pitcher (an ace). I’m not going to focus on the semantics of the definition, but it was a sizable step up and we’re going to care a lot about whether Price is the 2010-2013 version or the 2014 version in 2015.

We’ve now seen 400+ innings of a sub 4% walk rate and his home run rate and BABIP weren’t lucky or strange in 2014. The story of Price in 2014 was a really low walk rate and a career best strikeout rate. A good way to look at things is with his K%-BB%, which beat his career best by nearly 6% last year. If you strikeout 27% and walk 4%, it’s a virtual lock that you’ve had a great year.

Price threw more changeups in 2014 than we’ve seen before, and overall batters swung a little more and made a little less contact. That’s always a good sign and a good indicator that the strikeout rate wasn’t happenstance. It might not be sustainable, but it wasn’t dumb luck.

A couple of things grabbed my attention, as well. First, Price has slowed down significantly over the last couple of years, adding three or four seconds between pitches on average in 2013 and 2014 relative to his previous times between pitches. There’s clearly something happening that’s leading Price to take more time and you imagine it will continue given the results. He’s working slower, perhaps because it helps him make better pitches but also perhaps because it gives him time to plan the right pitch. There’s no doubt his stuff is great, but if he’s thinking through his options more thoroughly, that’s likely helping him out.

We’ve also seen him get better against RHH more so than against lefties, especially in the strikeout department. You’re going to face more RHH in general, and especially if you’re a good lefty, so his ability to punch out 28% of the RHH he saw last year was huge.

There isn’t a magic explanation for his success, I don’t think. He’s throwing more strikes and he’s not walking batters, and that’s given him a chance to put away righties more effectively when he gets two strikes. The added changeups have helped, but it’s one of those things where you add a little command to an already impressive arsenal and it’s hard to beat.

You never want to bet on someone repeating their career year, but I actually do think the improvements from Price are sustainable because they’re the kind of changes you might expect to see from a pitcher as they age. He didn’t start throwing harder, he started throwing smarter pitches in better spots and it slashed the walks and beefed up the strikeouts against RHH. It’s a good combination, obviously.

If I’m being honest with you, this is a “no red flags” analysis. There’s nothing in Price’s process or results that makes you worry. Regression is always around the corner, but this isn’t a case of really low BABIP or funny results against certain teams. Heck, remember his numbers were this good with that weird start against the Yankees.

Price had a 6 win season and it was the kind of season that didn’t come with a lot of smoke and mirrors. I’m always more likely to buy a lot of “little things” than one big thing because a lot of little things don’t all fall apart at once. Price has established a nice baseline, and you like the odds that he’s made a bit of a jump forward.

Is There Hope For Avila Against Lefties?

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

At this particular website, we don’t put up with any of the anti-Avila nonsense you sometimes here out in the world. Avila, despite his imperfections, is a really solid major league catcher. Buster Posey he is not, but he’s a good player and a vital part of the organization. Really, if you think Avila’s subpar, it’s because you care about batting average and that’s a silly thing about which to care.

But Avila’s overall quality is worth putting in the context of his strengths and weaknesses. Avila’s a really good defender. He works well with his pitching staff. He has great discipline and nice power. We also know that he’s really, really terrible at doing the part of baseball that requires you to run between the bases. And of course, he struggles against southpaws.

And the difficulties with lefties is actually worth talking about. I don’t care what his batting average is, but there is a real gap between his performance against RHP and LHP to the point at which you wonder if the team might benefit from running a full on platoon with James McCann next season. The Tigers kind of toyed with it in 2014, but it wasn’t anything official or permanent. Let’s see if we can find any hope for Avila against lefties or if we just ought to assume it’s a lost cause.

Year PA vs LHP wOBA vs LHP PA vs RHP wOBA vs RHP Difference
2009 11 0.525 61 0.387 -0.138
2010 38 0.245 295 0.305 0.060
2011 148 0.343 403 0.399 0.056
2012 103 0.257 331 0.349 0.092
2013 88 0.213 291 0.339 0.126
2014 116 0.268 341 0.326 0.058

We can probably ignore the first two seasons due to LHP sample size, but if we look into 2011 and beyond it’s something in the 60 to 130 points of wOBA range for a platoon split which is considerably more than average. Clearly 2011 is the Avila outlier season and he’s probably more of a .260 hitter against lefties and something like .330 to .340 against righties.

He strikes out more, walks less, has lower BABIPs, and less power against lefties. It’s everywhere. Generally, this should be about sliders. If you get killed by same side pitchers it’s usually about breaking balls.

Using Baseball-Savant, we find no extra base hits off lefty sliders in 2014. He saw 92 lefty sliders in total. Here’s what happened:

  • 45 balls
  • 16 called strikes
  • 8 fouls
  • 6 in ground outs
  • One single
  • Missed bunt
  • 15 whiffs

Let’s recap. He took about half of them for balls and among the rest, he got exactly one to the outfield. That’s not very encouraging. And this image seems particularly relevant.

chart (2)

Avila is a very solid performer against righties, but against lefties, he lets them get away with this. It’s a 16.3% swinging strike rate and a 52% contact rate against lefty sliders. Maybe you can forgive him for the ones in the zone because, well, what are you going to do.

So let’s just talk about the 69 lefty sliders outside the zone. 45 balls, 9 called strikes, 2 fouls, ground out, single, missed bunt, 10 whiffs. A 14.5% swinging strike rate and a 33.3% contact rate.

Avila saw 460 pitches from lefties and about 20% were classified as sliders. He took 263 total pitches and swung and missed at 68. That’s a 65.5% contact rate against left-handed pitchers overall. Translate that to a 68.2% contact rate against lefties not throwing a slider, or a 16% gap between his contact rate versus lefty sliders and lefty everything else.

Of course this is just a single season, but it’s not like 2014 came out of nowhere in terms of his numbers versus left-handed pitches. Realistically, if Avila can’t learn to do anything at all against the slider, he’s probably not going to be worth much against left-handed tossers.

Thankfully he has other virtues and James McCann looks more than capable of handling the weak half of a platoon. We know Avila’s not going to get 500 PA in a season at catcher ever again, so it’s probably reasonable to consistently sit hit against lefties, or at least lefties with competent breaking stuff.

This isn’t a horribly groundbreaking thought, but it’s important to note that the Tigers’ backup catcher needs to be selected for his ability to handle left-handed pitchers, rather than the defensive side of the game. You can’t put out a zero behind the plate, but if you’re not getting a real hitter, you’re not getting an advantage. If you can take 80-100 PA of .260 wOBA and plug in a catcher who can run a .320 wOBA, you’re taking about half a win over the course of a season. In order for that not to make sense, you have to think McCann is something like 30 runs worse than Avila on defense over a full season, which he’s not.

The only reason not to jump in with both feet on a platoon is if the pitchers really hate throwing to someone other than Avila, and despite what Brad Ausmus might have you think, McCann is a perfectly capable receiver. And he’s very likely in line for plenty of 2015 plate appearances.

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