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.

Moving 600 Miles Closer To Comerica Park

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

I won’t bury the lede because that’s bad journalism and it’s also probably the only way to convince you to read this entire, mostly slightly self-indulgent piece: I’m coming home.

Two and a half years ago, five days after we got married, my wife and I packed our entire lives into a 14-foot U-Haul and set out on what I assumed would be the grandest, newest, and biggest adventure of our lives. It wasn’t necessarily going to be the most important few years we’d ever have, but it was sure to be the biggest change we were ever going to make. We graduated from college, got married, and moved hundreds of miles from home all in the span of 12 days. We were both starting graduate school at UNC (a one year master’s for Becky, a five year PhD for me). It was meticulously planned. We’re planners. Our life had a path and this was the first step.

Neither of us particularly wanted to be in North Carolina instead of being in Ann Arbor or Grand Rapids or Toledo, but Chapel Hill was the stepping stone for the life we sought and we were both excited to be together and on our own after 22 years of being neither.

We spent the summer of 2012 adjusting to our new surroundings and confronting anxieties, new and old, built into our DNA. We enjoyed married life a great deal, but we both dreamed of a time in our lives when we would be more settled. Permanent. We often find ourselves looking forward because we’re goal driven but sometimes that allows us to miss the present. Picture the most cliche house in the most cliche suburb with 2.3 kids. We both want that quiet, boring life and we’d prefer it sooner rather than later.

So Becky had to get through one year of school, then she would get a job making real money, and our lives could begin to settle. We could buy some nicer stuff, take weekend getaways, etc. We were looking forward.

During that first year, the Tigers went to the World Series and I started this site to feel more connected to the team and friends I had left behind. It was therapeutic as I ran into frustrations in other aspects of life. (Freaking Pablo Sandoval though, right?)

In the summer of 2013, when the Tigers pitching staff was incredible, Becky graduated and found a job doing something very meaningful (she’s a social worker) and instead of living a Puritanical existence, we had extra funds to enjoy our very simple tastes. Step One completed. But, we wanted to get a dog, I was tiring of classes, and we hadn’t seen the Tigers live in more than  year. We were looking ahead to the next step.

That December, in the aftermath of the Fister trade, we decided we were prepared financially and free-time-wise to adopt a dog. We got Watson on the day before New Year’s Eve 2013.

As wonderful as he was (and still is), he required a great deal of attention at first. I was working on my master’s thesis, carrying a heavier load training him, and we were still looking forward. Things will be better when baseball starts again and after I defend my thesis, we said. And they were and they weren’t. There were new frustrations with my department and Becky’s job was starting to weigh on her emotionally (social workers are rockstars). Just as we were expecting to feel established, little things would bump us from the path. We needed to replace a car. Watson decided to change his walk schedule without consulting us. MLB.TV would have an off night.

The three of us were happy as a unit, but our circumstances, while far from tragic, were less than ideal. We were looking forward. Three more years until the promise of something really and truly new. At least three more years until real life. That seemed like forever and we became very aware of the fact that we were always living in the future and rarely enjoying the present the way we should.

So we looked forward and decided to make a list of things we wanted to do in the next three years, before the big change. The list wasn’t very long and some of it was forced. Basically, we wanted to get on with the main event. The part of our lives where we put down roots. We’ve had our eyes on that prize forever and the part between now and then was just filler.

So there came a moment, after the Tigers had been manhandled by the O’s, when I was lying on the floor of our apartment with Watson while Becky was standing in the kitchen when I said, “I just don’t want to do this anymore.”

Her response, or at least the way I’ll remember it, was simple but life changing. “So let’s do something else.”

At first the prospect was scary because the Weinbergs do not divert from The Plan. You make a plan and then you execute it. But we talked for two straight days and made the decision that it was time to make a new plan. One that didn’t include three more years hundreds of miles from our friends, family, and favorite baseball team. At the time, I wasn’t sure I wanted to give up on being a college professor, but I knew that I had never been less motivated to live the academic life.

There are things we both want in life and the road we were taking might have gotten us there eventually, but it wasn’t the most effective way to arrive. So I started looking for jobs in Michigan, at first just to see what might be out there and eventually because it started to make sense to take the leap. Last week, I accepted a position as a Research Analyst with the Michigan Legislature. It isn’t what I thought I’d be doing four years ago, but I’m starting to think we should only plan so far in advance.

So the Weinbergs are coming home and the 2015 season will be viewed in close proximity. I don’t know exactly how this is going to change my life or my writing, but for now, I plan to keep my online presence the same.

I don’t think I’d have started New English D or adopted Watson or done any of the great things I’ve done during the last couple of years without moving to North Carolina and I don’t regret it for a minute. Some really important things happened in my life because we made the journey, but it’s time for the journey to end and another one to begin.

Dave Clark is waving us home. Hopefully we’ll see you at the park this season.

What’s Blaine Hardy’s Purpose in 2015?

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

As we discussed last week, aside from the bullpen, the Tigers 2015 is likely a finished product. The bullpen probably won’t get a ton of new faces either, but the degree to which the in house guys are leaned upon is still very much an open question. We know who will be there, but it’s not yet clear who will be where. One of the most critical determinations the club will need to make is how good Blaine Hardy really is.

Hardy was a 22nd round pick by the Royals back in 2008 and came to the Tigers prior to the 2013 season. He’ll be 28 by Opening Day and made his MLB debut last June with two innings against those same Royals. Hardy doesn’t throw hard, he was never heralded, and he didn’t debut until he was 27. These are the kinds of players who rarely wind up getting asked to get key outs in the big leagues, but the Tigers bullpen is the Tigers bullpen and here we are. What comes next for Hardy?

The sum of his 2014 season was solid. He sported a 2.54 ERA and 3.49 FIP over 39 innings. He got a ton of ground balls and hardly allowed any extra base hits (just 4 to 167 batters). He walked too many (12%), but everything else went well (.277 wOBA against) and held runners nicely.

By all accounts, it was a very nice 39 innings. Looking at his ERA, he was an elite arm. At his FIP? Just solid. But you take either in the Tigers pen all day.

How much of that 2014 can we expect to continue into 2015 and how much was just a run of good timing and good fortune?

In a very basic sense, his fielding independent numbers forecast worse performance going forward. He walked a lot of guys and his HR/FB% was lower than anyone can reasonably expect. It’s very plausible that he can limit extra base hits, but it’s almost certainly impossible for him to maintain a HR/FB% under 4%.

Let’s play with some numbers for a moment. Let’s say his 18.6% strikeout rate is legit. Let’s say his 12% walk rate will come down to his minor league career rate of 8%. Let’s say his 52% ground ball rate is real, but let’s pull him up to a 9% HR/FB. Let’s throw this together and say he faces 250 batters or so in 60 innings of work. That’s something in the 3.60 range, which isn’t bad!

Essentially, you’re talking about a guy who might wind up around average for a reliever. So much of his success last year was limiting extra base hits, especially home runs. Essentially, the only way to be really good with a strikeout and walk rate close to his 2014 mark or his minor league numbers is to do so while limiting power in a big way. That requires a big ground ball rate and a better than average HR/FB.

That’s the whole ballgame for Hardy. Can he do it?

In the bigs, he allowed a .277 wOBA and a .233/.331/.280 slash line. That’s a .047 ISO. There’s no good place to get minor league slash lines dating back to 2008, but we can go back to 2011 on Minor League Central (Disclaimer: This data may be imperfect). Hardy’s minor league marks from 2011-2014 sit at .236/.312/.376. That’s a very nice, above average line, but it’s a .140 ISO and that’s a totally different tier than a .047 ISO. It’s not even close.

If we look to his batted ball data (again, disclaimer) he got way more ground balls in the majors than he did in the minors, and more fly balls means more extra base hits and homers. He was worse against lefties in the minors, oddly, but his MLB platoon split is normal and not particularly large. He walked a lot more righties, but he didn’t get clobbered by them to the tune of much more power.

So the only hope for a brand new Blaine Hardy is that he did something with his pitch arsenal this year that changed his batted ball profile and the ability for hitters to tag him for extra bases.

Hitters make plenty of contact against his fastball and they get it in the air pretty often (39% ground ball rate) but they slugged just .304 against it. That looks like a red flag. Unless that’s a ton of weak fly balls to shallow parts of the park, that’s the kind of thing you expect to balance out into worse results come 2015.

His cutter and change allowed pretty average damage (more contact on the cutter, but more damage on contact against the change), but the curveball was his money pitch. He got lots of swinging strikes, an insane 91% ground ball rate, and a .151 wOBA against.

So it all hinges on that. We probably won’t see a 90% ground ball rate again, but if it is legitimately going to allow him to induce a ton of grounders and no hard contact, it could really help him limit the damage if mixed in properly. That’s always the tricky thing about analyzing pitching; so much of it is contingent on the ordering of the pitches. We can feel pretty good saying, based on our eyes and the results, that Hardy’s breaking ball was great in 2014.

We also know that his success was based almost exclusively on that pitch’s ability to get him out of tight spots. Is it because the pitch is so great or is it because he and Avila happened to call for it at just the right time in a couple of key instances? That’s why it’s so tricky to analyze relievers. There’s so little to go on, statistically and visually.

It’s a good enough pitch in my mind to say that I’m buying it as a weapon to limit the power against him, which might do something to keep his ERA/FIP/xFIP/whatever lower than that 4.17 xFIP he had in 2014.

But I’m not going to bank on a 2.50 ERA either. I’m guessing he winds up cutting the walks and giving back some of the home run prevention (but not all of it) in 2015. He’ll be solid, but not exceptional. There’s some talent there, but we’re talking about a guy who never didn’t anything to stand out in the minors and based his entire 2014 on preventing extra base hits. Will some of those fly outs become doubles and homers? I think so. They won’t all go that way and he’ll be an MLB-level arm, just not an elite, high leverage guy on the order of a 65 ERA- like he had in 2014.

It seems totally reasonable that he’ll wind up between 0-10% better than the average pitcher. Not great, but not worthless at all. All the more reason for the Tigers to have grabbed one of the really good relievers on the market earlier this offseason.

What’s Left For The Tigers Offseason?

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

While the Dodgers and Padres have basically traded 60-70% of major league baseball players during the last week it appears as if the Tigers are starting to wind down their winter activities. After their Cespedes-Porcello-Simon hoopla, it doesn’t look like there is room for many other significant changes.

At this point, we can expect Avila, Cabrera, Kinsler, Iglesias, Castellanos, Cespedes, Martinezes (JD/V), Gose, and Davis to hold down 10 of the 13 position player slots without question. There will be a backup catcher, probably McCann, but maybe Holaday. That leaves a backup infielder (probably Romine, but maybe Machado) and a 5th OF, probably Collins but maybe Moya.

Unless the Tigers plan to dramatically shakeup the organization, the only changes they could make on this side of things would be to go with veteran depth instead of youth in some of those backup roles. But otherwise, barring a significant injury, the offensive side of the ledger is done.

The rotation is probably done as well. We know Price, Verlander, and Sanchez will be around and newcomers Greene and Simon have rotation slots until we hear otherwise. The team could go out and a get a better #5 man, but given the price they paid for Simon it seems like they like the idea of him every fifth day. Certainly the team isn’t afraid of big trades, so you can never be certain, but unless the Tigers are going to find a way to pay Scherzer, it seems like this is the starting five.

Which just leaves the bullpen and it’s sitting pretty steady. Nathan and Soria will be there. Alburqurque will almost definitely be there. A health Rondon makes it. Blaine Hardy would have a job at the moment. That’s four righties and a lefty. You probably split it 1/1, but could go with two more lefties.

Hanrahan probably gets a chance to prove himself. Alex Wilson is new. Kyle Lobstein has certainly made an impression. Josh Zeid, Ian Krol, Luke Putkonen, etc could be around. It seems preposterous to think the Tigers won’t add an arm in the pen after last year’s debacle and the absence of Joba Chamberlain. They’re probably overly fond of their group, but it seems like one outside hire makes sense and then a brawl for spot number 7.

You might remember I advocated for signing 5 relievers: Gregerson, Duke, Neshek, Cotts, and Frasor….but well….the Tigers didn’t play on those guys despite reasonable price tags. Cotts hasn’t signed but you could have the other four for $17M or so per season and three for about $12M.

What’s left for them to grab?

Neal Cotts has had two good seasons in a row after his reinvention and will be 35 in 2015. There’s no sex appeal, but he’s a solid lefty who won’t be too expensive. There are a lot of projects otherwise and no one you feel great about acquiring. Talent? Sure. High odds? Not really.

There were 5-7 very interesting relievers on the market this offseason and they let them all sign relatively reasonable contracts without a fight.

The could trade for Benoit, but the Padres are loading up and not unloading anymore. Papelbon is always available, but the Phillies want actual players back instead of just salary relief. Tyler Clippard would be an excellent find, but trading with Mike Rizzo is apparently very hard to do well.

The market is thin so hopes aren’t high. The club is still light in the bullpen and isn’t as strong everywhere else as they used to be, meaning it will be harder to hide the flaws. They are currently looking at a $170M or so Opening Day payroll and I would say they’re probably an 88 win team with the roster they currently have and no significant long-term injuries. If Cabrera isn’t healthy, which seems very possible, that might be more like 86.

That’s not a great place to be without anywhere to go for upgrades. Certainly enough to be in the game but not enough to feel comfortable. This is the kind of thing that might lead to another run at Scherzer if he’s still there in three weeks.

The Alfredo Simon The Tigers Acquired

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

Yesterday, we started to look past the trades and into the future at the players who will be wearing the Old English D for the first time in 2015 as a result of the wheeling and dealing. First it was Yoenis Cespedes. Now it’s Alfredo Simon. Again, we aren’t going to talk much about the nature of the trade, which we covered in detail on Thursday. Instead, we’re just going to dig in on the new Tiger, cost be damned.

Simon, unlike Cespedes, isn’t a name brand player. If he hadn’t fallen backwards into an impressive and meaningless first half W/L record, hardly anyone would have noticed him period. He’s a 33 year old with 529.1 big league innings and not much to show for them. Even his minor league numbers aren’t very good.

So why did the Tigers acquire him at all? What’s his draw? He put together a nice ERA in 2014, especially in the first half and was coming off two decent enough seasons in the bullpen to boot. There’s nothing great on the resume, but there’s some decent run prevention over the last three seasons while in Cincinnati.

The Tigers are counting on him to repeat that at age 34 in the American League or this plan’s going to look a bit silly.

Let’s highlight his career in stages. Horrible reliever from 2008-2010 in about a season’s worth of innings. Below average to bad starter in 2011. Solid enough reliever in 2012-2013. Controversial 2014 season as a starter.

There’s basically nothing in Simon’s past prior to 2014 that makes him worth acquiring for two legitimate pieces in conjunction with losing Rick Porcello. Maybe the Tigers have always liked him, but without 2014 this isn’t happening. So let’s talk about 2014. Entering his age 33 he had no history of success as a starter and a little taste of good work in relief.

Then he posted a 3.44 ERA and 4.33 FIP in 196.1 innings. It was 2.70 in the first half with a 4.33 FIP. It was 4.52 in the second half with a 4.34 FIP.

I recognize that I’m a bigger FIP-believer than a lot of people who read this site but it was a .232 BABIP in the first half and a .309 BABIP in the second half. Sure, Simon has a .280 or so career BABIP, but I’m buying .309 more than I’m buying .232 going forward. I just don’t think his first half run prevention is something that’s going to continue. His LOB% in the first half was 85% compared to 70% in the second half.

We can’t ignore that first half, but a ground ball pitcher playing in front of Zack Cozart and Brandon Phillips having a good stretch isn’t exactly the strangest thing that’s ever happened.

On the other hand, Simon shows almost no career platoon split (.001 wOBA for his career, 1129/1125 TBF on each side). The strikeouts and walks are a little better versus RHH but it’s not crazy and he balances it out by hitting three times as many RHH.

Realistically, Simon’s a good bet to be a 4.40 FIP type starter or a 3.90 FIP type reliever, give or take. Assume that some of the BABIP-beating is real and say he’s a 3.90 or 4.00 ERA starter getting the benefit of the doubt. In today’s run environment, maybe you can sell that as a 2 WAR starter if he tosses 200 innings, but it’s probably a 1-2 win arm. He doesn’t miss bats at an above average rate and gets a few more swings than average.

Steamer says 25 starter, 144 innings, and 0.4 WAR. It’s hard to know on the durability, but even at 200 innings that’s 0.5 or 0.6 WAR which is probably Kyle Lobstein without any trouble.

To believe in Simon as a meaningful addition you have to believe a lot in his ability to post low BABIP because of his own skill and there’s only so much evidence to support that. It’s .282 for his career and he only started beating it in 2013, carrying into 2014. If you want to look at 1200 TBF and say for sure you think he can be a .260 BABIP arm like Kershaw, go for it, but the odds aren’t on your side.

He comes at you with a sinker first and foremost and then uses a splitter, cutter, curve and four-seamer from there. There’s heat in the mid 90s and some decent movement, so you can imagine watching his stuff and his first half and dreaming, but he doesn’t get a lot of strikeouts, he doesn’t limit walks, and he doesn’t suck the power out of the room.

He’s a major league arm, but you’re looking at his 2014 RA9-WAR of 3.1 as the ceiling, not the likely outcome. Best case scenario, he lives up to Porcello and worst case scenario you’re DFA-ing him by June. As a bullpen piece, you wouldn’t hate him, but as a starter he looks decidedly below average.

Part of that’s just a sign of the times. The rotation from hell couldn’t last forever and it’s not like the Tigers had an in house option that’s clearly better. The alternative was a different trade or a FA signing. And that’s before we get into his very troubling off-field issues.

From a baseball perspective, Simon’s better than the other contestants for the #5 slot but he’s not so much better that the club should ignore other opportunities to upgrade the rotation. Simon is a member of the Dombrowski blind spot. He has raw stuff but can’t get it to work in games. He’s Andy Oliver, Casey Crosby, Robbie Ray, etc but he’s right-handed and older (not saying similar pitchers, saying similar disconnect between what the pitch looks like and how effective it is).

Sometimes those players put it together at 33, but .232 BABIP is .232 BABIP. He’s a live body who won’t embarrass himself, but hoping for much more is a failure of expectations than of performance.

In the end, you’ve got to look at those balls in play and make a call. Here’s MLB average for 2014, Simon in parenthesis:

Type AVG ISO
GB .239 (.192) .020 (.007)
LD .685 (.644) .190 (.350)
FB .207 (.162) .378 (.410)

Do you really think he’s giving up significantly weaker contact than average or did his defense just have his back for three months?

The Yoenis Cespedes The Tigers Acquired

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

Now that the dust has settled on the 2014-15 Winter Meetings and we’ve begun to digest the degree to which MLB rosters have changed, we can start to look ahead at the players the Tigers acquired during the shakeup. In this case, let’s try to set aside the nature of the various trades and simply consider the players who will now be Tigers, starting with Yoenis Cespedes.

Cespedes is what I would call a “name player,” meaning that his reputation is that of a star player, regardless of his actual ability. This cuts both ways. Cabrera is a name player and a legitimate star, and someone like Matt Carpenter isn’t a name player but is a real star. Cespedes is name famous. You know him from his training videos, his bold personality, prodigious power, and awesome arm. Those are all good qualities, but they’re qualities that outrun the actual greatness.

Cespedes is a good player, but he’s not an MVP type player. He’s never hit or fielded like a superstar. That’s okay. You need those kinds of players. Bottom line up front: Cespedes will be a valuable and popular player but not a superstar.

Let’s run down what he offers as a player.

An Outstanding Arm

You’ve probably seen the highlight reel throws.

Obviously, anyone with that amount of raw ability is going to be fun to watch, but it’s not just about the raw ability (Matt Anderson could throw 101 but that didn’t make him good), it’s about the consistency and deadliness of the tool. In 2014, he saved between 11 and 14 runs above average with his arm alone according to UZR and DRS. In previous years, that number was more like 2-7, but it was also in fewer innings. Even if his arm is a +8, that’s outstanding.

His range was poor in his first season and has been closer to average in the two seasons since, with a pretty normal distribution of great plays and errors (not involving his arm). In other words, he seems like a pretty average corner outfielder otherwise, but one who has an incredible arm.

For his career, he’s been a slightly above average corner man, but that includes a very poor first year and a great 2014. We can probably split the difference and call him an above average corner defender all things considered.

But let’s talk a little more about his arm. I know a lot of people don’t love hearing about runs above average because they can’t internalize the meaning, so let’s talk in more concrete terms.

In 2014 (small number of CF opps excluded), a single was hit to Cespedes with a man on first 55 times and only six of those runners went to third base. With a man on second and a single hit, only 10 of 31 runners made it home with 8 of those other 21 others getting eliminated on the bases. 12 of 28 men on first during a double scored. Only one of 14 advanced to third from second on a fly out.

He held 68% of the base runners who had a chance to take an extra base (MLB average is 63%) in 2014 and he threw out another 10, meaning that his “kill%” was 7.5% (MLB average is 2.2%).

The dude has a great arm.

Limited Discipline

Cespedes is a feared hitter, without question, but when it comes to sizing up a pitch, he’s relatively aggressive. He has a 6.5% walk rate in his career after posting a 5.4% walk rate in 2014, both of which are well below average. He strikes out plenty, but he’s kept it right around league average (20.9% for his career). This lack of walks, average strikeout rate, and average BABIP-skill means he doesn’t run a high average or high OBP.

His career OBP is .316 and that’s lifted up by a .356 OBP in 2012. In the two years since, it’s been .294 and .302. He simply doesn’t get on base very often, at this isn’t just a little bad luck. He doesn’t walk and doesn’t hit for a high average. It’s always something that can get better as he ages, but he’s an aggressive hitter for better or worse.

His contact issues improved in 2014 (80% up from 73%, average is 79%), but he does swing at pitches outside the strikezone far more often than the average MLB hitter (37% compared to MLB average of 30%). He swings a lot, particularly outside the zone, and before 2014 didn’t make a ton of contact to offset this.

As far as how he does on pitches outside the zone, the MLB average batting average is .187 and average ISO is .069. Cespedes is .214 and .116 in his career. So while he’s chasing, he’s at least doing better than the average hitter when he does.

Excellent Power

If we’re being honest, Cespedes is known for his pop. He dominated in the derby and swings out of his shoes. He has a career ISO just about .200 and has slugged above .460 during his career despite spending most of his time in the AL West. The power is real and it’s spectacular.

But power only takes you so far without any on-base skill. He’s 37th in ISO since 2012 among 223 players with at least 1000 PA. And he played in Oakland. Before considering his home park, his ISO is in the top 20% of the league, but his overall offense after adjusting for park (wRC+) ranks 74th (top 33%). His power is like Hanley Ramirez and Adrian Beltre, but his production is like Seth Smith and Andre Ethier.

Comerica Park plays better than Oakland for right-handed home runs, but not to the degree that you might expect. The big change will be the huge right-handed triples boost that Comerica offers. Cespedes has solid speed and his doubles could turn into triples. But it will also help to avoid Angels Stadium and Safeco Field in favor of US Cellular.

The park factors are important, but it’s not like moving from Oakland will help Cespedes a great deal more than it would help any player.

But Cespedes is going to hit some bombs. He’s a 20-30 HR guy with plenty of doubles and a batting average that’s right around average.

Good, Not Great

Let’s look at the whole package. He’s a career 115 wRC+ hitter who is projected to be at 118 by Steamer in 2015. That’s a nice improvement from 2014 but not quite at his 2012 levels. Let’s call it 120 to be both generous and keep things clean.

He’s had nagging injuries here and there but has between 540 and 650 PA in each of his seasons, so 600 PA seems perfectly fair. We think he’s above average as a corner outfielder, probably +5 to +10, making him a -2 to +3 defender after the positional adjustment. He’s a good base runner, but nothing special, so let’s call that +2.

That’s the mark of a 3-4 win player. A very nice addition, but nothing extraordinary. And it’s especially nice to see given the alternative being lots of Rajai Davis, Anthony Gose, and Tyler Collins. If everything broke right and he had a career year, you could dream on 6 wins, but that’s asking him to elevate to being in the top ten in hitting which he’s never really come close to doing.

The great thing is that despite his on base skills you will see his decent speed, good arm, and good power make it hard for him to be much worse than a 2 win player.

The Tigers paid a lot to acquire him, but he should be a productive offensive weapon with an arm that can save a few games. Plus, we’re probably in for some sort of Miggy and Yoenis buddy-cop-movie friendship.

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