Acquainting Ourselves With The New Left Fielder

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

About two weeks ago, the Tigers completed their major offseason to-do list by signing outfielder Justin Upton to a six-year deal worth $132 million. The club might still make some changes around the edges of the roster by finding a reliever or a bench bat, but signing Upton effectively ended the roster construction portion of the winter. This is good news because 1) it means that the Tigers have made themselves a lot better and 2) it means we can all start focusing on the 2016 season which is a mere 65 days away.

On the day Upton signed, we discussed the merits of the deal from a contractual standpoint. Did the Tigers get a good value? How much does the opt-out hurt them? Did the club use their resources wisely? The early calculus makes it look like a very smart move for the team, but we can put that angle aside and focus more on the upcoming season. What did the Tigers get in Justin Upton?

Upton has played in nine major league season dating back to 2007, including seven full seasons since 2009. If you’re doing some quick math in your head, the part of your brain that makes inferences is now estimating that he’s about 32 years old. Your brain is wrong, Upton is actually only entering his age 28 season. He was a top draft choice out of high school (1-1 in the stacked 2005 draft) and got to the majors very quickly.

As I frequently say in these pages, age matters a lot when you’re looking forward in baseball. There’s no one, single, perfect aging curve, but players of similar types typically age in consistent patterns, so you always want to try to assess where a player stands on his personal aging curve. The fact that Upton is 28 (albeit an old MLB 28) means that he’s probably not likely to experience any significant aging for at least a couple more seasons. That’s not a guarantee, but all of our analysis is about playing the odds. For the layman, this simply means that he’s not likely to get much worse from 2015 to 2016 because of declining skills. He might play worse or get hurt or something, but he hasn’t quite reach the point at which we think he’s on the decline in a predictable way.

I’m going to focus mostly on Upton’s upcoming two seasons because it seems pretty likely that he will opt-out of the contract after 2017. Maybe the new collective bargaining agreement that will govern the next two offseason’s will change his mindset, but it’s hard to imagine that a 30 year old Upton won’t want to test the market again. So for our purposes, what do we expect from the 28 and 29 year old Upton.

Let’s get a baseline. For his career, Upton was been worth 26.5 fWAR over 4934 PA. He’s hit .271/.352/.473, good for a 121 wRC+. On average, he’s been a hair above league average defensively in a corner outfield role and has graded out as a solidly above average base runner (~ +3 BsR/600 PA). Essentially, Upton is a solidly above average hitter and runner with an average glove at a non-premium position. However, keep in mind that we’re talking about a relatively long career. The 2008 version of Upton isn’t totally irrelevant, but it’s not a super important data point.

Let’s try his last three seasons. He’s hit .262/.344/.470 (127 wRC+) with 10.6 fWAR in 1904 PA. His base running numbers look equally good, but his defense has been a little less clear. He had a rough 2013 by both DRS and UZR, looked average by both in 2014, and was somewhere between solid and really good in 2015 depending on the stat in question. The last three years of defensive data don’t tell a clear story, but they do seem to point to a slight drop off in his abilities compared to his earlier self.

Collectively, Upton’s bat has gotten a little better over the course of his career (even though his best year was 2011), his base running has been consistent, and his glove is probably declining a little. He’s essentially a 3-4 WAR player with a good bat, solid running, and acceptable or better defense for a corner outfielder. That’s a really nice player to have alongside great hitters like Cabrera and Martinez (Martinezes?).

Upton does strike out 25-26% of the time, but he’s got an above average walk rate and well above average power. You’d prefer he put some of those strikeouts in play, but doing so would probably hamper his power, and given that he has a solid ability to draw walks, we know it’s probably more about swinging through pitches rather than chasing awful ones. That’s a tradeoff worth making.

If you look to his projections, they fall right in line with the last three years of his career: 127 wRC+, 3-4 WAR. That’s Upton in a nutshell. He pulled the ball a little more in 2015 than he had in the previous couple of seasons, but any number from 2015 that you try to apply a trend line too is probably just normal fluctuation. Upton’s career is a perfect encapsulation of a consistent player who gets slightly varying results.

Upton’s story is an interesting one because he is simultaneously a very good player and a player who feels disappointing. By most measures, Upton is probably somewhere between the 20th and 25th best outfielder in baseball. It depends how you want to measure it and the timeline you want to use to draw your conclusions, but that’s kind of the range he’s been in over his career. He’s nowhere near Trout, McCutchen, Haper, Heyward, or Bautista, but beyond the super elite players, there’s a pretty similar group of two dozen options that you could see being better or worse than each other during a given year.

For almost anyone, a top 20 outfielder ranking would be terrific, but Upton had so much hype coming out of high school that being a borderline All-Star feels like a let down. The top of the 2005 draft included Alex Gordon, Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun, Troy Tulowitzki, and Andrew McCutchen — all of whom were drafted after Upton. There are also some hilariously sad names like Jeff Clement. You might argue that Gordon and Zimmerman are in Upton’s tier, but Braun, Tulo, and McCutch have been much better players since getting drafted, and Upton was supposed to be the best of them all.

Expectations are a dangerous thing, not because it’s bad to dream, but because you anchor your future understanding in something that isn’t really all that tangible. Upton was supposed to be a great player but has never really reached that level. He came close in 2011 but that looks more and more like a career year than a real, repeatable output. But the silly thing is that those expectations for Upton were just the opinions of some scouts who watched these guys take 40-50 at bats when they were still basically children.

We do our best, but even the best scout isn’t all that great at watching an 18 year old and telling you what he’s going to be. Sure, people saw elite talent in Upton, but baseball is incredibly hard and it’s probably pretty easy to mistake “really good potential” with “elite potential” when you’re assessing someone’s career ten years into the future.

Justin Upton has been a well above average hitter, a good base runner, and a solid corner defender across his career and he probably has a few more really good years left in him before aging takes its toll. Just because he isn’t an MVP doesn’t mean he isn’t a terrific player. There are roughly 400 “full-time” roster spots in the majors each year (probably fewer would get that label) and only two players win an MVP. We can probably assume that top five MVP finishers are MVP-type players, meaning that there are basically ten slots a year for MVP level performance each year. That’s a really high bar to cross for anyone and Upton has kind of flown under the radar because he has sailed below those high expectations.

That’s to the Tigers’ benefit, however, as they signed him for a good price partially because Upton seems less remarkable than he should due to his high expectations. Upton is not a Cabrera level player, nor is he a Martinez level hitter, but he is an all around very good player who should help the team tremendously.

Justin Upton Completes The Offseason

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

It was a tumultuous season for the Tigers, but in the first offseason of the Avila era, the Tigers have checked every box on their winter to-do list. They signed Zimmermann and Pelfrey, acquired Rodriguez, Lowe, and Wilson, and added Saltalamacchia and Aviles. Now Justin Upton. If you go back and read our offseason plan, it called for two starters, three relievers, a premier outfielder, and some bench stuff. While they went a little light on the bench and could have been more imaginative with the second starting pitcher, the Tigers have done everything they needed to do. The players they chose aren’t the players I recommended, but they substituted players of equivalent merit.

Granted, a World Series favorite this does not make. The Tigers will still have stiff competition in the Central and the juggernauts of the National League, but the Tigers now have a team within striking distance of the title that has eluded them for 32 years.

Upton will be a Tiger for 6 years at the price of $132.75M million, with an opt-out after 2017. The deal makes plenty of sense for the Tigers because not only did they need an outfielder, they needed these extra wins to push them from being an okay team to a good one. In more sophisticated parlance, the Tigers are at a place on the win curve where every win they add to their 2016 total increases their odds of October baseball significantly. And the Tigers have already decided that they’re not rebuilding, so it makes all the sense in the world to go for broke this year. Verlander, Cabrera, Sanchez, and Kinsler won’t be impact players that much longer.

The Tigers also added an outfielder without trading away any of their young starting pitchers, which might serve to soften the blow of 2019 and 2020. Norris, Boyd, Fulmer, and Burrows all remain in the fold and ready to contribute in the future. Signing Upton will also cost the club a 3rd round draft choice.

So all told, the Tigers will spend $132 million, plus the million or two in value they will lose with the draft pick, plus some amount of value lost by offering the opt out. Maybe that makes the deal worth $140 million. Maybe it’s $150 million. It doesn’t really matter. Justin Upton has averaged just north of 3 WAR per 600 plate appearances in his career, including his shaky 2007-2008 debut seasons. If you wipe those out, you’re talking about an average of 3.5 WAR with definite upside potential.

He’s been a consistent, above average corner outfielder with star potential. If he continues on that path, the Tigers will probably wind up getting $110-120 million of context neutral value out of this deal. And that’s if he doesn’t have any star level seasons and stays around for the length of the deal. That doesn’t factor in the fact that the Tigers should be heavily discounting future costs given the nature of their roster. Upton makes them significantly better in 2016 and 2017 and the long term downside is relatively minimal.

Any player can suffer a total collapse, but there is no reason to think Upton is more likely than anyone to suffer such a fate. Outside of that, the downside is that Upton is an average player and is worth $80-90 million over the life of the deal. If everything goes right, he’ll help them make the playoffs and will decide to opt out. Maybe he ages poorly and the Tigers regret this, but the size of the downside relative to the potential upside makes this a pretty smart move for the team.

The Tigers need Upton for the next couple of seasons and the risk they absorbed for that benefit is not unreasonable. He gets on base and hits for power, he plays a solid corner, and still runs the bases quite well. He’s a very good player and he’s still only 28.

The worst thing you can say about this deal is that might be for slightly more money that Upton is likely to be worth over the next six seasons. But the Tigers are absolutely a team that should prioritize short term returns and that wipes away any concerns you should have about the potential cost down the line. Signing free agents is not a good way to spend efficiently, but you can’t find and develop a 20 year old star overnight.

The Tigers took 600 PA from a combination of Gose, Maybin, and Collins and gave them to Upton. That’s a 2 WAR upgrade on the low end, but might be closer to 3 WAR. Given where this team is at this moment in time, that’s absolutely an upgrade worth paying for, even if it ends up being a little pricier than fair market value when all is said and done after 2021. I mean, honestly, think of how far away that is? Mike Ilitch might not be alive. I will probably have children and a house. As I’m fond of saying, an old, expensive roster in 2020 is Future Neil’s problem.

I’ll have more to say about Upton as a player as we get out of the offseason and into preseason mode, but for now I’ll say this. The Tigers needed to fill a lot of holes this winter. They needed starting pitching, relief help, a good outfielder, and some bench pieces. They got it all. Is Justin Upton the outfielder I wanted most? No. Was K-Rod my ideal relief ace? No. But the Tigers got the pieces they needed even if they weren’t the exact pieces I had in mind.

Reasonable people will disagree over which corner outfielder made the most sense and which back end starter was most likely to have a good 2016, but everyone should have been able to see what the Tigers needed to acquire in order to matter in 2016. They had a long shopping list.

Al Avila had me worried when he decided to retain Ausmus, but Avila and his lieutenants have done a great job assembling the 2016 Tigers. There are no guarantees in baseball, but with the roster they inherited and the money they had to spend, this was roughly the best for which we could have hoped.

Go Tigers.

 

Getting To Know Mike Pelfrey, New Back End Starter

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

The Tigers are essentially done with the offseason revamp. Maybe we’ll be lucky and they’ll sign a talented left-fielder, but most of the boxes on the club’s offseason wish list have been checked. They added two starting pitchers, three relievers, a depth outfielder, a backup catcher, and a versatile bench player. We’ve covered each acquisition from a value standpoint, but now we can continue our look at the players themselves. We started with Jordan Zimmermann. Today, we’re moving on to Mike Pelfrey. What do the Tigers have in their new back end starter?

The particulars first. Pelfrey is about to turn 32 years old and will be a Tiger for the next two seasons at $8 million a piece. As discussed when they signed him, 2/$16M is the market price for a player of his caliber. It wasn’t a sexy signing, but pitching is expensive and the Tigers needed some pitching. Pelfrey was the 9th overall pick in 2005, was with the Mets until 2012, and spent the last three seasons with the Twins. He pitched full seasons in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2013, and 2015. Pelfrey missed most of 2012 and 2014 with Tommy John Surgery and a separate elbow surgery. So how did he pitch in those six seasons?

Let’s use fWAR as a basic guide. Rattling off his full seasons gets you 3.2, 1.7, 2.6, 0.9, 2.0, and 2.0. If you flip over to RA9-WAR which uses runs allowed instead of FIP as its base you wind up with 3.8, -0.1, 3.3, -0.3, 0.1, and 1.5. In other words, Pelfrey is a guy whose fielding independent numbers look better than his runs allowed numbers. That stands to reason, as his career ERA- is 114 and his career FIP- is 104.

He’s either an average-ish starter with an injury history or a below average starter with an injury history. In recent years he hasn’t pitched deep into games, going just 152.2 and 164.2 innings in 2013 and 2015. He fills up the zone, pitches to contact, and doesn’t get hitters to swing much outside the zone. He’s a classic Twins pitcher. I’m surprised they didn’t sign him to a lifetime contract!

You can expect a strikeout in about 13% of his plate appearances, which is very low. He allows a lot of balls to be put in play and has allowed a BABIP higher than average in recent seasons. He doesn’t walk a ton of guys but he also isn’t a low-walk guy. His real skill seems to be his ability to prevent home runs. He’s allowed 0.72 HR/9 in his career and only has one full season in which that number was above 0.88 HR/9. And that’s not because of a consistently elite ground ball or strikeout rate or anything. When Pelfrey gives up a fly ball, it doesn’t leave the yard as often as you might expect for a normal pitcher. Pitching in New York and Minnesota helps prevent those dingers, but over an entire career, there does seem to be some signal. He has a platoon split, but it’s not an unusual one.

It’s hard to judge his velocity changes precisely given some difficulty distinguishing his four-seam and sinker in previous years, but we can say that he still throws with good velocity, averaging 94 mph with his sinker in 2015. He’s mostly sinker/splitter with a touch of slider/curve when he needs to these days. Obviously righties see more of his slider and lefties see more of his splitter, but the latter is getting more screen time against righties lately. All in all, though, you’re going to see a sinker in most situations.

pelf both

He throws his sinker and typically works away. He’s a man of simple tastes. Sinkers away with the occasional splitter or slider depending on handedness. He’s probably going to keep the ball in the yard but the ball will be in play and the hits will fall.

There’s plenty of risk when it comes to his right elbow and there’s virtually no upside. If things go well Pelfrey will be an average starter over 160 innings per year. He’s not an exciting player but there’s a decent probability that he’s a useful starter. Having a good defense on the field behind him matters, so the Tigers should be sure to play there best fielders during most of his starts, but if his arm stays in tact there’s a good shot that he’ll be a solid arm at the back end of the rotation.

If the Tigers find a better option, he should be able to float into the bullpen just fine and if he blows out, $8 million doesn’t kill them. He probably won’t be the most exciting guy to watch, but Pelfrey is a nice insurance policy to give the kids more time to develop.

Mike Aviles Goes For AL Central Bingo

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

The Tigers signed Mike Aviles to a one year deal worth $2 million on Friday. Because it’s the offseason, we’ll talk about it, but in reality it’s a very minor move. Aviles is a career .265/.297/.385 hitter while playing something around average defense with okay base running. Aviles has primarily played the infield during his career but does have around 500 innings of outfield work to his name as well.

In one sense, signing Aviles is basically a no-risk move. $2 million is nothing. It’s a drop in the bucket for a team that will spend $170 million or more in 2016 and it isn’t a big enough commitment to tie the club to him if he struggles. It’s the kind of move that doesn’t preclude the team for going in another direction. On the other hand, signing Aviles led the Tigers to bounce Kyle Lobstein from the 40-man roster. Perhaps Lobstein isn’t healthy and this won’t matter at all, but if the Tigers lose a healthy Lobstein to squeeze Aviles onto the roster this move is kind of a head scratcher. I don’t see any reason why he’s more useful than Romine or Machado.

The thing about Aviles is that he isn’t any good. He’s had good offensive seasons in his career twice, way back in 2008 and 2010. Since 2011, his wRC+ have been 85, 75, 77, 72, and 65. If you can play decent infield defense with an 85 wRC+ that’s a fine guy to have on the roster but Aviles has been more in the 75 wRC+ range with okay defense for the last four seasons. He doesn’t walk, strikeout, or hit for much power. You’re going to get balls in play with Aviles but you won’t get much damage.

To be valuable with his offensive profile, you need to be a really strong defender, and while Aviles isn’t a liability in the field, it’s been a while since he’s put up high quality defensive numbers. The best case scenario is he’s worth maybe 0.5 WAR, but it’s very plausible that he’s a replacement level player.

Now this isn’t a big deal because you have to pay everyone at least $500,000, so you’re basically risking $1.5 million on the chance that he adds a little positive value and some good influence in the clubhouse. He’s versatile on defense, which always helps, but he’s a 25th man in every sense of the word.

The only potential risk with Aviles is that you might lose Lobstein who can serve as a good depth piece on the pitching side. Otherwise, it’s very little money and the club can still bring someone in to take his roster spot if they find the money for a good player. There’s nothing wrong with this move, but don’t expect him to be a meaningful contributor on the field.

And Justin Wilson Makes Three

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

The Tigers went into the offseason needing to revamp their bullpen. They traded for K-Rod, signed Mark Lowe, and, today, picked up lefty flamethrower Justin Wilson from the Yankees. Going the other way were Luis Cessa and Chad Green, both minor league relievers. The 28-year old has 199.1 career major league innings in relief with an 82 ERA- and 85 FIP-. He’s also coming off his best season.

Wilson is basically all fastballs and cutters, but he sits 95 from the left side and has enough command to for the stuff to work. Additionally, while 200 innings worth of data isn’t enough of a sample to be sure, he’s displayed no serious platoon split in his time in the show, meaning he’s probably capable of getting big outs against righties late in games.

Wilson is arbitration eligible for the first time this winter, so that means the Tigers will have him for three pretty reasonably priced years. Cessa and Green are both good enough to make the majors, but they’re probably third-tier relievers or worse in most scenarios. The Tigers gave up two guys who might be solid arms in two or three years for a guy who should be very good for the next couple of years.

There’s not a lot to say about the deal other than that it looks like a good one. I’ll dive in on Wilson as a pitcher later in the offseason, as I did with Zimmermann, but from a transaction standpoint, Avila had a good night.

Take a step back and appreciate what Avila has done. They traded Betancourt, Cessa, and Green and spent less than $40 million over three years to acquire two years of K-Rod, two years of Lowe, and three years of Wilson. None of those guys are the best in the business at their respective reliever tier, but that’s a very impressive haul for the price. The club added three really solid relief pitchers without subtracting any 2016 talent or important future pieces, and it only increased payroll by like $12 million a year on average.

Avila got his front-end arm, his back end starter, three relievers, a backup catcher, and a 3/4 OF. They could use a good bench bat in addition to a top flight outfielder, but the key is that they’ve made all these additions without depleting the farm or signing any crazy contracts. They’re prepared to compete in 2016 without hurting themselves in any future years.

Avila hasn’t quite made the Tigers the 2016 AL Central front runners, but he’s certainly had himself a nice opening month in his first offseason at the helm.

Tigers Sign Mark Lowe

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

Today, the Tigers are continuing to revamp their team, this time signing free agent reliever Mark Lowe to a two-year deal worth $11 million. Lowe is coming off the best season his career and the Tigers will get the right-hander’s age 33 and 34 seasons.

The simplest way to put it is that Lowe looked cooked entering 2015. He threw 18 terrible innings from 2013-2014 and had only been a mediocre reliever in 2011-2012.  His only good season came all the way back in 2009, when he threw 80 innings of 76 ERA-/83 FIP- baseball in Seattle. The M’s re-signed him in 2015 as a reclamation project. He was reclaimed.

A couple of key things happened. First, Lowe began relying on his slider more often. Try to ignore 2013 and 2014 in this graph because he hardly threw any innings, but if you track pre-2013 with 2015, the spike is clear.

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He also found the velocity he didn’t have during the last few seasons:

Brooksbaseball-Chart (8)

Granted, Lowe threw hard for his entire career before 2012, so it’s not like the velocity is solely responsible for his big year. You’ll also notice that he’s lowered his release point:

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Essentially, Lowe stayed off the plate away against righties and lefties in 2015 more than he had in he past. And interestingly, he threw a lot of sliders to lefties and righties, when the typical RHP would typically use his slider more against right-handed batters.

Lowe isn’t a sure thing by any means, but it’s fair to say that by throwing harder than he has in years and by mixing in more sliders with better command, his 2015 wasn’t a statistical fluke. He didn’t succeed in 2015 because he got lucky on balls in play or something like that. He pitched well, but when you’re talking about a guy with a long history of not pitching well, you always have to be cautious. Relievers are relievers.

The Tigers paid him $11 million over two years, so it’s not like they
are betting on another elite season or anything. He’s getting paid like a second tier reliever in a year where lots of those guys are likely to get three years worth. Lowe is a nice guy to add to the bullpen along with K-Rod, but there’s still plenty of room for other arms if the Tigers can locate the money.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia Becomes A Tiger

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

The Tigers, after losing Alex Avila to the White Sox, were in the market for some catching insurance. The club is committed to James McCann but there’s a whole other roster spot reserved for a catcher and the only internal option is a very replacement level Bryan Holaday. Enter Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

On Sunday, the Tigers signed him to a one-year deal for the league minimum (~$550K) and he will compete for a spot in Spring Training. Salty is still drawing a paycheck from the Marlins, who cut him last April, so the Tigers get to have him for basically no money. And anything that doesn’t take money away from another place is worth trying. No need to discuss the merits of the deal because there’s no downside. Salty doesn’t block a surprise prospect, he doesn’t steal time from McCann if McCann is playing well, and he doesn’t even stand in the way if the Tigers stumbled their way into a trade for a better player.

If you’re looking for a rundown of the newest Tiger, it’s pretty simple. Salty is a switch-hitting catcher who was a highly touted young prospect. Nine MLB seasons later, he’s had one good season (2013). He’s pretty regularly been in the 95-100 wRC+ range, which is above average for a catcher, but he’s somewhere between not very good and pretty darn bad behind the plate. He’s a poor framer, an average blocker at best, and doesn’t command the running game. He’s a bat first guy without much bat.

He had a good 46 PA against lefties in 2015, but has been absolutely awful from the right side of the plate in his previous work. Against righties, however, he’s a decent enough hitter who can provide some power (.195 career ISO). He’s a three true outcomes type who is only useful as a bat-only catcher versus RHP, but while that’s not an exciting player, it’s a player that’s cool if he’s free.

If things go well, he can provide some power off the bench and on days when McCann needs a break. He could provide half a win and be an improvement over Holaday and there is some upside if he runs into enough fastballs from righties. This isn’t a major move, and anything above replacement level is a net positive for the club. If things go poorly, the Tigers release him at virtually no cost.

We’re also probably in for some good “salt” related puns, so that makes the move worth it no matter way.

Getting To Know Jordan Zimmermann, Offseason Centerpiece

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

The Tigers have already checked quite a few of their offseason boxes as the Winter Meetings begin in Nashville. They acquired Francisco Rodriguez and Cameron Maybin in trades and signed Jordan Zimmermann and Mike Pelfrey as free agents. The club has about $160 million committed for 2016, leaving them with $10-$20 million left to spend before they exceed their 2015 payroll allocations. But that’s hot stove talk. We talk about dollars and cents to evaluate the quality of a signing, as I did when the Tigers inked Zimmermann last week. But things get to be more fun when you go beyond “good contract/bad contract” and talk about the players as players. So let’s get to know Jordan Zimmermann, New Tigers Pitcher.

First, the absolute basics. Zimmermann is a right-handed starter who will turn 30 in May. He’s pitched in parts of seven seasons with the Nationals and has tallied 1094 major league innings. That spans 178 starts and he’s recorded an 86 ERA- and 88 FIP- in his career. In laymen’s terms, Zimmermann is a guy who typically tosses about 200 innings and comes in about 10-15% better than the league average pitcher. Essentially, he’s been a 3-4 WAR pitcher for most of his career.

Let’s compare him, in an overall sense, to all pitchers since 2009 with 300 innings pitched (only counting statistics as starters). That’s 225 starting pitchers. Of the group, he has the 28th best park-adjusted ERA, near guys like Scherzer, Cole, Bumgarner, and Kluber. He’s 37th using FIP, near guys like Cobb, Gray, and Latos. But that’s his career, and while we care a little bit about him in 2010, that was also a very long time ago. Let’s look only at 2012-2015, same parameters otherwise. Since 2012, he’s 17th in ERA- (82) near guys like Arrieta, Hamels, and Strasburg. He’s 32nd in FIP- (88).

In other words, by performance, Zimmermann has been somewhere between the 15th and 35th best starting pitcher in baseball during his career. I typically think of #1/aces as being top 15 starters, so that puts Zimmermann somewhere in the very good #3 to solid #2 range. He’ll get points for durability over the last five seasons, as some of the guys ahead of him have either burned out or are yet to show their ability to handle a heavy workload. It would be difficult to paint Zimmermann as any sort of ace, but he’s performed like a decidedly above average starter. I don’t really care about rankings, so that’s good enough for me.

Now that we have a sense of Zimmermann’s overall performance, let’s dive into what kind of pitcher he is. What do we know about the new Tiger?

He Throws Strikes

One of Zimmermann’s calling cards is his command of the zone. One thing to keep in mind is that all strikes are not created equally and being a strike-thrower isn’t universally good or bad. That said, PITCHf/x says he’s thrown 55% of his pitches inside the zone over his career. League average is about 48-50% depending on the year. He’s thrown about 67% first pitch strikes while the average pitcher typically sits around 60%. In other words, Zimmermann comes at you in the strike zone and does so early in counts.

This translates to a very low walk rate. He’s walked 4.9% of the batters he’s faced in his career while league average has been about 7-8% during that span. To give you an idea, if we say that a pitcher faces 25 batters per start, the difference between Zimmermann’s walk rate and the average pitcher amounts to 0.5 to 0.75 walks per game or maybe 16-24 walks per year. Roughly speaking, that’s 5-8 runs per year he doesn’t allow compared to an otherwise identical pitcher with a league average walk rate. That’s maybe 0.20 to 0.30 runs shaved off his RA9/ERA/FIP/whatever based on not walking guys. That’s a pretty cool trick.

He Might Be Good At Keeping The Ball In The Park

The tenants of good pitching are strikeouts, walks, and home runs. If you get strikeouts, don’t issue free passes, and don’t allow dingers, you’re going to be a very good pitcher. We already know Zimmermann is one of the best at avoiding walks, but since 2012 he has a 9.0% HR/FB rate. That’s not an incredible mark, but it’s 28th among starters with 300+ innings in that span and it’s helped him run a better than average HR/9 throughout his career.

However, home run rates are among the more sensitive stats when it comes to sample size. From 2011-2014, Zimmermann was very good at preventing home runs and home runs per fly ball, but in 2015, he gave up 1.07 HR/9 on a 10.9 HR/FB%. Those marks are just fine, but they are much worse than he was for most of his career.

If you take his last four seasons and shake up the order, you would think that Zimmermann is a home run-prevention guy who had one fluky year. But any time the most recent season is the worst, you are always a little more cautious. The odds are the Zimmermann is a little better at preventing home runs than his peers, but it’s such a tricky skill to have and maintain that I wouldn’t put a ton of stock in it because…

Zimmermann Throws Hard, But He Might Be Losing It

This is something you’ve probably read about a lot already so I’ll cut to it:

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2011 was still post-Tommy John, so you can understand the build up was still underway. For the next three seasons, his average fourseam fastball was quite consistent, until it wasn’t. We’re talking about a one-year, full mile per hour drop in velocity. Zimmermann passed his physical, says he feels great, and didn’t even know his velocity was down that much in 2015.

You expect guys to lose heat as they age, but a steep drop like this in one season is troubling. Could this explain why it was easier for guys to hit home runs against him in 2015? If it is, and the velocity is a permanent loss, you’re less optimistic about how good Zimmermann can be for the Tigers.

On the other hand, we basically suck at predicting injuries and atypical declines, so it’s a like a flashing ‘don’t walk’ sign; you can probably cross the street without incident, but you know there’s some risk.

Different Strokes For Different Folks

Zimmermann is a three-pitch guy. He relies a lot on his fastball (~62% of his pitchers in 2015) and then brings in his slider and a curve to go along with it. You’ll see a changeup every once in a while, but it hasn’t been a major part of his arsenal. As noted, the fastball has good velocity with some sink. The slider is hard without a ton of movement and breaking ball is mostly a 12-6 type pitch.

Zimmermann seems to attack righties and lefties differently. He typically works up and away for lefties and down and away to righties. Here he is in 2015:

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Also, as you would expect, he is slider happy versus righties and relies on the curve against lefties:

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It’s actually a really simple philosophy. When he faces a RHH, he goes with a fastball up and a slider low and away. Against a lefty, fastball up and away, curveball low.

zimm 2

The upshot of having great command is that you can be both predictable and good at the same time.

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Zimmermann is a good pitcher. He’s not an ace level starter like Greinke or Price, but he’s definitely in the upper-third of starting pitchers. Given that he’ll be with the Tigers from age 30-34, you’re not going to get his best years, but they should get enough good years to be happy enough with the deal. Of course, if he needs a second Tommy John early in the deal, that goes out the window.

Look for Zimmermann to work fast, be in and around the zone, and follow a pretty predictable method depending on he handedness of the batter. He’s a nice addition to the club, but keep in mind that $22 million doesn’t buy what it used to. Zimmermann, as you’ve seen here, is very capable, but he’s a non-elite starter entering his thirties. He’ll be fun to watch, but he doesn’t live up to the 2009-2015 Verlander-Scherzer-Price insanity we’ve been treated to over the last few years.

Signing Mike Pelfrey and Resource Allocation

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

The Tigers are signing Mike Pelfrey to a 2 year, $16 million deal. If you’re not keen on division, that means he’ll be making $8 million a year to pitch for the club. Which kind of feels like a lot of money for Pelfrey, but the reality is that he’s getting paid for exactly what we should think he is. Pelfrey is a 1-2 win starter when healthy, and the going price for a free agent of that caliber is $8 million or so a season.

So we don’t have to spend a lot of time deciding if Pelfrey is worth his deal in the aggregate. FanGraphs readers predicted he would get a 2/$16M deal. He’s not a great pitcher, but he keeps his walks and homers low enough that his awful strikeout rate isn’t a death sentence. If you have an objection to someone paying Pelfrey $8 million a year, it’s because you’re understanding of the economics of the game are outdated.

But the Tigers are an individual team and we can discuss whether it was right for them to sign him to this deal. For this, I’m going to assume the Tigers don’t intend to significantly increase payroll over 2015, meaning they have about $10 million left in the bank after this deal gets done. If Ilitch is willing to spend $200 million this year, then I have no objection to the deal at all. It’s his money, so I only care if the amount given to Al Avila is spent inefficiently. If there’s no cap, you can buy whatever you want.

The concern is that the Tigers could have used this $8 million more effectively. If they hadn’t signed Pelfrey, they could have gone to 2016 with a 5th starter from Greene, Boyd, Fulmer, Lobstein, et al. I’m not so sure that Pelfrey is much better. He had a 3 WAR season back in 2008 and has topped out in the 2-2.5 WAR range since, with lots of lean years too. In other words, if things break right, he’s a 2 WAR pitcher for $8 million. That’s a fine signing, but there isn’t much upside. If you gave a full season to any of those other guys, they probably wind up in the same range of outcomes, or better because they have some upside.

Instead, the Tigers could have used the $8 million to sign a couple of higher risk, higher reward types. Heck, Rich Hill signed for 1/$6M this year, and he was cheaper last year! The other option is that this $8 million could buy two solid relievers or one Darren O’Day. O’Day would be an obvious choice, but we do have to acknowledge he’ll get a 4 year deal so the risk is much higher.

Any of those options sound more interesting to me. A higher risk starter might be injured and terrible, but if you get 100-120 innings from them it’s likely to be better than Pelfrey. If you go with the reliever route, you might not find guys who are clearly more valuable than Pelfrey in a vacuum, but replacing the Tigers bad relief options will solid ones strikes me as a better net increase than adding Pelfrey into the 5th starter soup. The same logic applies to O’Day, as he would slide everyone down a peg in the bullpen.

In the grand scheme of things, this is actually a pretty minor signing. Two years and $16 million just isn’t a lot of money in today’s game. Pelfrey is the kind of guy who deserves that contract, but if the Tigers are running low on payroll space, he’s not the guy I’d have given it to. If they are going to go into the $185-190M range, then this is a perfectly fine depth play. You can evaluate trades based on who got what for who, but you can’t evaluate signings until you know how much the team had to spend. That is the case here.

Jordan Zimmermann Joins The Rotation

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

In a move that will frustrate copy editors across Michigan, the Tigers have reportedly agreed to terms with starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann. The deal isn’t yet official, but assuming the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed, the Tigers will spend $110 million over the next five seasons to bring the righty to Detroit.

To catch you up on Zimmermann, he’s entering his age 30 season and is coming off five straights seasons of 3 fWAR or better. He’s made 32+ starts and has thrown 195+ innings in each of the last four years. Zimmermann is a reliable and talented right-hander who will immediately improve the Tigers rotation. But any analysis requires more interesting questions. It’s inarguable that Zimmermann has been a good pitcher over the last five seasons, but we don’t really care about that directly. We only care about how well Zimmermann is likely to pitch over the next five years and if that justifies the investment the Tigers are about to make.

Let’s start with the first question. How good is Zimmermann going to be in 2016 and beyond? To answer that, we need to start with how good we think he is right now and then apply some type of basic aging expectation. From 2011-2015, Zimmermann has generally been in the above average but not great class of pitchers. The exception was his great 2014 campaign in which he had a 72 ERA- and 73 FIP- in 199.2 innings. But overall since 2011, his first full year back from Tommy John, Zimmermann has thrown 971.2 innings with an 82 ERA- and 87 FIP-.

He’s a low walk, average strikeout guy who pounds the zone. He seems to have a bit of a home run suppression skill, but nothing so extreme that you’d hang your hat on it with nothing else. This is basically the player we saw in 2015, although the home runs were higher and looked more like league average. The earliest projection from Steamer expects another 3 WAR type year in 2016 with the same basic shape. If you’re using his past history to look forward, you would expect something like one or two more 3 win seasons, a couple 2 win seasons, and a 1.5 win season over the five years in the deal. That’s about 11 wins, which using some rough math is worth about $90 million on the free agent market.

By that accounting, the deal for Zimmermann looks to be a little more than he’s worth, but not egregiously so. If there’s more inflation this winter than we expect it might look just fine. So essentially, you have to ask yourself if you’re bullish on Zimmermann aging well or not. Aging curves are averages of all players, so some guys are like Bonds and some guys are like Griffey.

There are reasons to like Zimmermann and reasons to be concerned. On the positive side, Zimmermann has exceptional command and should be the kind of pitcher who can continue to get hitters out even as his stuff fades. 90 mph on the corner is worse than 93 on the corner, but 90 mph on the corner is better than 90 mph over the plate. A guy whose success is built more heavily on command than stuff should survive aging better than a guy who leans more on stufff. It’s not an exact science, but it’s a positive.

On the other hand, Zimmermann lost about a full mile per hour off his fastball in 2015 compared to 2012-14. Granted, he was sitting 94 and now sits 93, but any sudden drop like that is a red flag. You expect pitchers to lose velocity as they get older, but you want to see a steady and gradual decline rather than a steep fall. He can certainly be effective at 93, but it’s a question of the velocity drop being a precursor to injury.

Which brings us to the other major problem. Zimmermann is about six years removed from Tommy John surgery and while he’s certainly past the first danger zone that occurs during the initial rehab, we’re into the window where it wouldn’t be surprising to see another TJS for Zimmermann. There’s a lot we don’t know about pitcher injuries, but coming back from the second TJS is a bigger challenge than coming back from the first. If he hadn’t had the surgery, you would feel confident than a UCL tear would keep him out for one year, but a second tear could be career threatening, and if it happens early in the deal the Tigers are out of luck.

Zimmermann is a good, consistent pitcher who fills up the zone and has stayed healthy and on the mound over the last several seasons. The Tigers are buying his ages 30-34 seasons for $110 million. If he ages normally or better, it’s a good investment. If he ages poorly, there will be a loss for the club. That’s all pretty boring and easy to understand. In the aggregate, the Tigers paid a fine price for former Nationals’ righty.

So now let’s put him into the Tigers’ context. The club absolutely needed a quality starting pitcher if they wanted to contend in 2016. Going into the year with Verlander, Sanchez, and the kids wouldn’t get them anywhere close to a competitive rotation. Verlander had a great second half of 2015 but has struggled with injuries for several years and pitchers don’t often get healthier with age. Sanchez was great in his first few years with the team but struggled mightily with injuries and poor performance in 2015.

Even if you buy the bounceback, the Tigers would be lucky to have a pair of 3-4 win arms and then a parade of rookies and sophomores still in need of seasoning. Adding Zimmermann helps out on the front end. The Tigers probably could have gone with a true ace, or with a solid starter and then an innings eater. Zimmermann takes them on the latter path in an effective way. He’s not Price or Greinke, but he’s good enough to make a real difference.

The larger question is how his $22 million salary affects the overall ability to spend. With Zimmermann they’re probably up to $160M for 2016 and they still need another starter, an outfielder, and couple of relievers. If they don’t have a mandate to increase the payroll, that’s going to be tough to achieve.

In a vacuum, paying Zimmermann $110 million over 5 years seems like a solid bet given the price of free agent pitching these days. There are some reasons to worry the deal could go south, but that’s why the Tigers only had to give him five years instead of a six or seven. The risk is already priced in and Zimmermann figures to be a solid enough return on investment. A team that needed a starter should be happy with signing Zimmermann to this deal.

But we have to judge the Tigers moves in the context of their overall strategy. So far, they’ve added a good reliever, outfield depth, and a #2 starter in a series of perfectly acceptable moves. From a baseball standpoint, each one looks wise. Bu also from a baseball standpoint, the Tigers have a lot more work to do and have talked like they don’t have a ton more money to spend to do it. If that’s the case, Zimmermann is a more difficult signing to understand. You shouldn’t make a $110 million investment in a pitcher like Zimmermann if 2016 is more of a holding pattern year.

Ultimately, like the moves before it, this is a good one if they made it with the idea that they’re really going for it. Maxing out the payroll to build an 80-win team isn’t a good long terms strategy because it’s wasteful and creates risk before risk is needed. If the club, however, intends to really invest in the pieces they need to be an 87-90 win team, getting Zimmermann is a nice move.

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