By the time most of you read this, we will be two weeks from the MLB non-waiver deadline. The Tigers have three games with the Twins, four with the White Sox, three with the Red Sox, and three with the Astros before they are required to make a decision about the 2016 season. They currently trail Cleveland by 6.5 games and sit three back of the second wild card. They have seven more chances against Cleveland before the season ends.
This is a rare quandary for the Tigers, as the question of what they should do at the deadline is not entirely clear. It was obvious in 2006, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 that they were buyers and equally clear in 2008, 2010, and 2015 that they were not, even if they put up a good front for the weeks leading up to last year’s deadline. This year is different.
Last year they were nine back at the deadline and played poorly immediately afterward. In addition, the quality of the roster was much lesser, leaving the odds of a late season return to glory much lower. The 2016 club is four games over and heading into a week of games against beatable opponents. Except for their 1-11 record against Cleveland they have played 47-33 versus the rest of the league, outscoring their other opponents 402 to 360. They have a top tier offense and bottom tier pitching. The club has a challenging question to answer these next two weeks.
Making up three games in the wild card standings is certainly within their grasp, and even the 6.5 in the division is not out of the question. If they play 5-2 against Cleveland that gets them half of the way there. They have 32 games left against MIN, CWS, LAA, and ATL. Drawing a path from here to the postseason is not a difficult thing to do, but it requires certain deadline maneuvers that the organization may not wish to stomach.
If The Tigers Buy
If you look around the diamond, the Tigers have several holes in need of plugging, not the least of which is catcher. While James McCann is adept at nabbing would-be base stealers, his performance at the plate has been extremely poor this year. He’s running a 45 wRC+ and has actually been worse of the last month. Saltalamacchia had a big walk-off home run on Sunday, but despite his hot start has only managed to be a league average hitter this year. If you could combine McCann’s, whose improved his receiving quite impressively this year, with Salty’s bat, you might be able to survive, but given that they can only play when the other sits, a full catcher they do not have.
This isn’t to say that McCann won’t grow into his bat, simply that expecting him to do so this year is probably not wise. The obvious solution is Jonathan Lucroy. After a down year in 2015, Lucroy is up to his old tricks with the bat and behind the plate and could certainly rival any non-Posey catcher for total value left down the stretch. Add the fact that he is owed just $5.2 million next season to the mix and that makes him a very worthwhile target. The Brewers are rebuilding and will be very motivated to move Lucroy in a seller’s market, so prying him from the Brewers will simply be a matter of price. We’ll get to that shortly.
The Tigers could also use depth off the bench, preferably someone capable of handling himself in the outfield. The club’s behavior during JD Martinez’s injury indicates that Steven Moya is not someone they trust a great deal and Tyler Collins is no one’s idea of a hitter who forces the opposing manager to go to his relief ace. If you search teams on the outside looking to sell for the right fit, Corey Dickerson of the Rays emerges. Dickerson is having a down year overall (90 wRC+), but his .219 ISO and .261 BABIP makes me think there’s probably not much about which to worry. Surely Tampa Bay can do that math as well, but the rest of the league isn’t going to be motivated to acquire him in the midst of a down year. The Tigers should. He can provide a left-handed bench bat who can spell VMart at DH and either of the corner outfielders when needed while also pinch hitting for Iglesias or McCann (if Lucroy doesn’t come to fruition). The Rays got him for a decent reliever last winter and he’s a half season closer to arbitration, which the Rays might not want to pay.
Obviously the bullpen is always an area of need, but it’s not nearly the weakness it has been in past years. One solid arm will do, and I’d be in favor of letting that arm be Anibal Sanchez, Joe Jimenez, and whoever gets bumped from the rotation (i.e. Boyd, Norris, or Pelfrey) for the next guy on my list.
Matt Shoemaker. In the Dombrowski days, this would be an obvious Tigers candidate. Shoemaker is 29, has a 5-9 record, and a 4.08 ERA which means he’s not on the radar of the more traditional media, but a deeper dive into Shoemaker’s season and the changes he’s made to his performance midseason reveal an impressive arm. He’s going to the splitter a lot more and it’s had really positive effects. His fielding independent numbers are terrific and looks like exactly the kind of arm you’d want to target if you were the Tigers. He’s under team control for several more seasons, but he’s on the old side of things so his current club is not likely to lock him up and build around him, especially considering the fact that his current team is one Mike Trout away from being arguably the worst franchise in the game. Trading Shoemaker in a market devoid of pitching and after the best run of his career makes all the sense in the world, even if he’s not someone two months or 14 months from free agency. (Shoemaker is also a local guy, attending Trenton HS and Eastern Michigan [Go Eagles!]).
Lucroy, Shoemaker, and Dickerson are the arrangement of players the team would acquire if they were committed to going for it. In particular, Lucroy, Shoemaker, and Dickerson would all have a place on the 2017 Tigers and Shoemaker a place beyond that. Buying these players, at a high price, would effectively equate to this winter’s free agent acquisitions. Given the current roster, the Tigers would likely not need to do more than tinker this winter if they added these three guys and they would hardly put a strain on the club’s payroll, which is quite high.
It would cost the Tigers minor league talent, however, and perhaps a name or two from the major league roster. I won’t imagine the precise arrangement, but I would imagine James McCann, Steven Moya, Derek Hill, and two of the promising arms in the low minors would need to be involved. You can’t get these players without giving up players you like, but the Angels might be persuaded by quantity given their current state. The Brewers would be more discerning, but the Tigers could push their chips in and get it done. The Tigers don’t have a farm system like the Red Sox or Cubs, but they have enough if they’re will to go bare.
If the Tigers are going for it, and last winter suggested they are, you might as well jump in with both feet. Get players who can help the team into the next couple of years and think of it like you’re using the farm system instead of the pocketbook to do their free agent shopping. Lucroy, Shoemaker, and Dickerson are probably four-win upgrades this year and would bring plenty of value beyond that. If you’re all in, you’re all in.
If The Tigers Don’t Want To Buy
I recognize that what I’ve proposed is extreme and would require emptying the farm system to take yet another “last shot” with the Verlander-Cabrera-Martinez core. The problem is that the Tigers aren’t really in a position to sell unless they want to punt 2017-2018 as well. Kinsler would net a small fortune, but JD Martinez won’t be healthy in time to trade and there isn’t much else to move other than a couple of bullpen pieces or Cam Maybin, all of which require the club to admit defeat for next year. And if you’re punting on 2017, you have to start to think about a total rebuild, given that Cabrera and Verlander aren’t exactly going to be spring chickens in 2019.
So if the Tigers don’t buy, they have the option of doing nothing, riding out the storm, and coming back next year with essentially the same roster. Or they could choose to really sell, and entice a club with the a Hall of Famer caliber first baseman (which the organization likely has zero interest in doing).
The point is that the Tigers don’t have a punt-2016 option. They can buy hard, stand pat, or sell hard. Given that selling hard is out of the question, they can choose to ride out the season as they are, perhaps making a small move here or there, or they can go big. Trying to split the difference with a couple of solid but not great pieces probably doesn’t give them enough to win this year and hurts the farm system in a way that sets up later peril. If they are going to gut the system, they should gut it right.
I’m not totally sure I’ve convinced myself which option is better. In general I’m in favor of letting it ride with the roster you built over the winter, but the American League doesn’t have an obviously great team and this might be a good chance to win the pennant and go for broke, especially because the moves I’m proposing would put them in a really good position for next year as well.
For that reason, the Tigers should at least try to go down the road on Lucroy, Shoemaker, and (to a lesser extent) Dickerson. They will not come cheap, but the benefits are potentially quite significant and the owner wants to win before he dies. The reason this makes sense is because you’re pushing in all of your chips for two shots at the title rather than one. If you look at this as a chance to win in 2016 and build the 2017 roster, it’s easier to accept the lost talent in the system.
It’s bold and risky and the prospect huggers won’t want to abandon the potential. Plenty of people will make proclamations that Lucroy and Shoemaker aren’t as good as I suggest. Others will argue the Tigers couldn’t even manage to get both. I reject all three of those particular arguments.
You borrow from the future to go for it in the present. Lucroy and Shoemaker are really good players who would replace huge current holes. And despite a weak system, the Tigers have enough talent to get these deals done if they’re willing to part with everyone you love. Maybe there’s a better move if you’re thinking about maximizing 2017, but I don’t see another play that helps in 2016 and 2017.
Dave Dombrowski, despite a terrific run of success in Detroit, was fired because he didn’t quite get this team over the final hurdle. Mike Ilitch likely hasn’t grown more patient in the twelve months since that guillotine fell. If the Tigers want to go for it, this is how they should do it. If they aren’t comfortable with the risk, the current roster might still give them a fighting chance. Either option is defensible, and the Tigers have two weeks to chart their course.
When Cameron Maybin came off the DL in mid-May, it occurred to me how central a figure he was to this era of Tigers baseball despite having spent virtually no time on the major league roster:
Maybin, of course, was one of the two centerpieces in the Miguel Cabrera trade that brought the future Hall of Famer to the Motor City. When the Tigers brought Maybin back this winter, there was a sense of homecoming for everyone even though he was about to turn 29 and had parts of eight other seasons in the show with three different organizations.
Maybin had one really good season in 2011, but fell short of his prospect promise in every other year of his career. There were injuries and growing pains along the way, but by any real accounting of his performance, things had gone poorly. He made it to the majors, earned a nice payday, and stuck so it would be hard to call him a bust, but he did not grow into the player that people expected when he was paired with Andrew Miller in a trade for one of the generation’s true stars.
Maybin was an above-average hitter in 2011 with good center field defense and great base running, but his bat suffered in 2012 and he couldn’t stay consistently healthy for the next two seasons. When he got to Atlanta last year, the defense and base running of his youth were less impressive and it became clear that if he was going to have a career into his 30s he was going to need more from his bat.
You can be a below average hitter if you are a really good defender or a terrific base runner, but with Maybin’s age and injury history conspiring against him, it looked more and more like any future value was going to come from his bat or not come at all. This isn’t to say Maybin can’t run or field, but rather that he’s no longer someone who can do either well enough to carry a lackluster bat.
Fortunately, Maybin’s bat showed signs of life last season and that positive progress has carried over into 2016. We’re only halfway into 2016 and he’s only 49 games deep, but this is Maybin’s best offensive season to date by a significant margin. Of course, it’s 49 games and he has a .399 BABIP, but we’ll get to that. Maybin is walking more than ever, striking out at a career low rate, and getting on base more often than ever. In fact, even if you deduct 10 hits to pull his BABIP down to .330 this year, he’s still running a .340+ OBP.
In other words, Maybin’s certainly getting help from a BABIP that won’t stay quite that high going forward, but it’s not that strange that he’s running a higher BABIP this year given a very important shift in his approach. Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer is a believer in cutting down on strikeouts and chasing singles, and Maybin says that Seitzer really influenced his approach last year. As you can see in chart below, Maybin has really cut down on the number of balls he’s hit in the air, instead working on ground balls and line drives.
An approach like that will deplete your extra base hits, but grounders and line drives fall for hits more often than fly balls. Across the league, power is typically worth the contact trade off because of the value of extra bases, but Maybin individually seems to have found balance as a singles hitter. Trading contact for power works in the aggregate, but it doesn’t work for everyone.
This is a rough comparison, but look at Maybin from his debut through 2012 (before the two injury plagued years) and then from 2015-2016 after the Seitzer intervention.
Keep in mind the offensive era changed a good bit over the course of this period, but the line features more walks, fewer strikeouts, and less power over the last two years and the drop in fly ball rate is really noticeable. This is a different hitter. For now, it’s good different.
I’m certainly not going to look at two months of Maybin and suggest he’s suddenly become a true talent .390 BABIP hitter or that he’s going to maintain his 123 wRC+ for the remainder of the year, but I think it’s safe to say the version of Maybin we saw in Miami and San Diego no longer exists. At the moment, he’s playing at somewhere between a 3-4 WAR pace. Even if he’s not quite that level of player for the rest of the year, he’s probably an average regular the Tigers acquired for virtually nothing this offseason and can keep around for 2017.
This is especially important considering another rough year for Anthony Gose (and perhaps an impending release) and a complete absence of other outfielders within the system near major league ready. After all the Tigers are using Andrew Romine and Mike Aviles in the outfield regularly this year while JD Martinez heals and they continue to not know if Steven Moya exists. The Tigers have essentially no one in the organization who’s a good option in center field. JaCoby Jones is relatively new to the spot and needs seasoning all-around. Derek Hill is miles away with the bat. It’s Cameron Maybin in CF or it’s Andrew Romine, so it’s awfully nice to see Maybin’s development into a productive hitter. Some of the performance is good fortune, but some of it does appear to be the result of a new approach.
The Tigers struck early this winter, signing Jordan Zimmermann to a five year deal to bring him to Detroit through 2020. Zimmermann, unlike most of the other potential cogs in the upcoming rotation (Verlander, Sanchez, Norris, Greene, Fulmer, Boyd, Pelfrey) was a low variance bet. Zimmermann had been a durable model of consistency since coming back from Tommy John Surgery in 2011 and the Tigers figured he’d be a good bet to maintain his skills into his early 30s.
In a basic sense, things have looked good for Zimmermann this year. His 91 ERA- and 83 FIP- put him somewhere between good #3 starter and solid #2. His full season performance doesn’t reflect that of an ace, but the Tigers didn’t sign him to be an ace. In 95.2 innings, he’s put together a 2.2 fWAR to go along with his 1.3-1.4 WAR if you like RA9, Baseball-Reference, or Baseball Prospectus WAR. In other words, Zimmermann has been successful in 2016 and generally in line with what the Tigers figured they’ve be getting when they put pen to paper last November.
Interestingly, Zimmermann has achieved these results in a manner slightly out of step with his recent approach. His walk rate is an as expected 4.6%, but his strikeout rate is a career low 15.2%. Fewer strikeouts is generally a bad thing, as more balls in play leads to more hits, but Zimmermann has combined that drop in strikeout rate with a decrease in home run rate as well. After allowing 1.07 HR/9 in 2015, Zimmermann has allowed 0.75 HR/9 this year which is a tick below his career average. That works out to 3-4 fewer HR allowed this year based on the lower HR/9 rate. Add that to a slightly higher pop up rate compare to last year and it’s easy to see how Zimmermann has survived more balls in play.
The lower home run rate and higher pop up rate aren’t at all unprecedented for Zimmermann, so while we shouldn’t over emphasize 95 innings of work, we’re not talking about crazy BABIP suppression or something like that. You’re worried about the drop in strikeouts, but you’re not worried that this is a totally implausible way to succeed. When the ball has been put in play, he’s allowing a little bit harder contact than last year, but we’re not talking about anything dramatic that indicates it’s a mirage of a stat line.
He’s getting fewer strikeouts than we’ve seen him get in his career, but as long as he’s not letting those lost strikeouts turn into extra base hits or walks, you’re not going to be too worried over half a season. That said, there are some differences in his game that extend beyond the outcomes. First, last season’s velocity decline was not a blip or a glitch. The trend has continued:
In addition, he’s relying on his fastball less often in 2016. Against lefties, he’s added many more sliders and even some changeups. Against righties, he’s added a fewer more curveballs.
This is really evident when you check out his zone profile against lefties. His MO is fastballs up and away and curveballs low, but this year with more breaking balls to lefties, you can see that he’s working a lot lower in the zone.
You can see a similar effect against righties.
It’s not clear if this is a mandate from the Tigers or if it’s simply a feel thing for Zimmermann based on how he likes his stuff. To this point, it’s been effective for him, but if he loses a touch of command and the walks go up or if hitters start squaring him up, he’ll have to revisit he approach to see if he can rediscover his strikeouts.
Zimmermann has mixed in three bad starts among his 15, but overall his been a reliable and steady force in the rotation despite missing time with the groin injury. The drop in strikeouts, and especially the continued loss of velocity is somewhat concerning, but so far he’s shown an ability to pitch effectively in Detroit through his first 15 turns.
This offseason the Tigers invested $132 million in Justin Upton to solidify their offense and replace Yoenis Cespedes. Upton wasn’t necessarily the best player on the market, but his year to year consistency and age made him a good target for the Tigers. He was useful in a corner outfielder spot and was an above average hitter to slot in around Cabrera and the Martinezes.
As you know, his tenure in Detroit got off to a dreadful start. Through his first 193 PA (through May 30), he hit .215/.259/.309 (48 wRC+) with a 36.8 K%. The only thing that would have worried Tigers fans more would have been if he became a pitcher and immediately tore his UCL. It was a bad run, but it also wasn’t the first time Upton had done something like this. Here is Upton’s career through 2015 in 47-game rolling average fashion. He didn’t hit 48 wRC+ too often, but he was well below average plenty of times and always bounced back.
Upton has always been known as a streaky hitter, but of course Tigers fans were getting their first day to day look at him and panicked (I know, right?) that they had signed a damaged player. If a player slumps in April and May, it often looks much worse than if they do it in July because we’re used to looking at starts per season not stats per 162-game time period.
Over the last four weeks (since May 31), Upton has really turned it around. He’s not setting the world on fire, but he’s essentially found his 2012-2015 form.
His strikeout and walk rate, along with his power, have returned to Upton-y levels and his production has followed. His contact rate has rebounded and for all intents and purposes, you couldn’t distinguish last-four-weeks Upton from last four years Upton. To wit, his 40 game rolling average with 2016 included.
Upton is coming out of it and producing the way the Tigers expected when they decided to make him part of the team long term. The streakiness is a feature of who Upton is. The lows come with highs and the overall product is quite good. It’s unfortunate that Upton had one of his craters at the beginning of his Tigers career, but he looks to have settled in over the last month and is hitting much better.
The topic of conversation around the proverbial water cooler this week has been the Tigers fledgling bullpen. After all, over the last seven days the relief corps has allowed 26 runs in 24 innings while striking out just 19 of 125 batters. They have allowed more runs during the last week than they have recorded strikeouts. Not good!
Over the entire season, they’ve collected a 116 ERA-. That’s one of the worst marks in the league and it’s backed up by an RE24 of about -25 and a DRA of around 4.50. Whether you like the basic ERA (you shouldn’t) or the more advanced RE24 or DRA, the Tigers bullpen is allowing too many runs.
However, the fielding independent numbers paint a less bleak image. They have a 90 FIP- this year, which ranks in the top half of bullpen units. Their walk rate is reasonable and they don’t allow many dingers. Their strikeout rate is lower than you would like, but it’s not so low as to wash away their above average BB% and HR/9. Of course, FIP assumes that the outcomes on balls in play is mostly random and it’s easy to suggest the Tigers pen is giving up hard contact. They have an MLB worst .333 BABIP. Using the BIS quality of contact stats at FanGraphs, we can see that the Tigers have a very high rate of medium hit balls. Their soft hit rate allowed is low, but their hard it rate also doesn’t crack the top half of the league. Maybe it’s not a great profile, but it’s not like they’re getting toasted. They also have an MLB high 51.7 GB%, further indicating that they aren’t giving up tons and tons of gap shots.
Add this to a horrible LOB% and you basically have the issue. They have given up hits and they’ve done so in bunches. A good bit of that is luck. I know that’s not an explanation that makes people happy, but giving up single, singles, double, ground ball is the same as single, ground ball, single double even though the results are different. However, there is the matter of strikeouts. Strikeouts stop the bleeding and prevent runners from advancing, and the Tigers don’t get enough. They need more high K arms.
While Justin Wilson, K-Rod, and Shane Greene have done nice work in the pen, the rest of the crew has been middling or worse. Bruce Rondon looked great on Sunday, but it was his first outing of the year.
Bullpens are tricky to analyze because you get such a limited look at each reliever. Mark Lowe and his missing velocity are obviously a problem, but it’s hard to say it Wilson, Hardy, Ryan, Farmer, etc are bad or have just had some bad outings. No one expected a Yankees-Royals style bullpen, but the group looks better on paper than it has in a few years.
It’s easy to say the bullpen is another unmitigated disaster and the club has to go back to the drawing board, but I think that’s a short sighted approach.
Here’s what I would do. K-Rod, Wilson (J), and Greene are obviously not going anywhere for the moment. They need four other arms out there. I think Sanchez and Rondon make sense for different reasons. Sanchez because he needs to stay there until he’s ready to come back to the rotation (no home runs in 8 innings!) and Rondon because he’s a strikeout guy who looked great over his last several minor league outings. After that, they need a lefty and a righty. Alex Wilson is an option, but Joe Jimenez is probably ready to get his feet wet. And for the lefty – Matt Boyd. He’ll need a week to circle back to the active roster but the while he’s stubbed his toe a little in the rotation this year, he still has shown the stuff to get big league hitters out. If he’s put in a spot where he doesn’t have to face the best power hitting righties, he can easy back up Wilson as LHP2. Hopefully Lowe can find his way to the DL so the Tigers don’t lose him and any chance he has at earning that $13M deal.
This still isn’t the best pen in the league, and I’m only selling minor tweaks, but the club needs more guys who can get strikeouts and calling on Rondon, Jimenez, and Boyd should beef that up. Having Boyd and Sanchez around also gives the team better long options so they can stop carrying eight relievers (which should be against the Geneva Convention) and actually play with a full bench. And furthermore, Ausmus should be willing to stretch his good relievers out to face six batters when the situation calls for it. If your middle relief makes you nervous, pitch your better options more. Sure, they might burn out for October, but you have to make it that far in the first place.
The bullpen has allowed a bunch of runs recently but it’s not beyond repair. The Tigers are built to be in the mix for the AL Central and despite some really rough stretches this year they remain very much in that race. The team is going to win and lose based on the back end of the rotation, JD Martinez’ right elbow, and Jusim Upton’s bat. The bullpen isn’t going to carry them to the postseason but I also don’t think it will be the thing that keeps them from getting there.
While he’s never been a power threat, he’s no longer getting singles at the rate he has during his last two full seasons. Jose Iglesias with no power and a below average BABIP is essentially a replacement level player.
Now of course, it’s still only June and players are entitled to slumps. It’s not like Iglesias was expected to be a major offensive force. He’s a guy you’d be happy to see in the 90 wRC+ neighborhood and anything more is gravy. So while Justin Upton’s wRC+ in the 60s is very bad, Iglesias’ time down there is just kinda bad. All hope is not lost.
But I have noticed something about the way Iglesias is being pitched and felt it worthy of exploration. As you may know, Iglesias is one of the league’s best contact hitters. That is, he’s one of the hardest batters to face if you want a swinging strike. He may not bomb the ball around the park, but he makes contact. This year, pitchers are coming inside against him much more, potentially to generate weaker contact (which I’ll get to in a moment).
Those categories are based on two imaginary vertical lines that split the plate in third. Inside and outside extend for forever and middle covers the ~6 inches in the middle of the plate. Pitchers are definitely pitching inside more this year.
Here are those categories carved up into balls, called strikes, swinging strikes, foul balls, and balls in play. For 2015, 2016, and then a comparison.
As you may notice, inside pitches are resulting in more balls, similar strike numbers, and slightly fewer balls in play. Middle has lots fewer balls, lots more strikes, and fewer balls in play. Outside has more balls, fewer strikes, and about the same number of balls in play.
There isn’t an obvious implication for those values. Any of them could be good or bad depending on the value of the balls in play. So let’s look at that. Please note I called this wOBABIP to jive with the MLBAM “in play” tag, but it’s the same as wOBACON (as his homers are included).
This is interesting. Iglesias is seeing more pitches inside and is performing better against them when he puts them in play. Mix that with a relative push on balls and strikes and he’s doing better against inside pitches overall despite seeing more of them. However, he’s doing much worse on pitches down the middle and outside this year.
It could easily be the case that Iglesias’ desire to make contact against everything is actually harming his overall production because he’s had to focus inside more this year to the detriment of his production elsewhere. Down the middle, he’s taking more strikes and producing less and outside he’s producing less.
There are other explanations like health, sequencing, etc that might explain something like this, but this fits the facts on the ground. Iglesias is still making contact when he swings, he’s just not producing as much overall. It seems likely that this is partly due to pitchers challenging him inside and Iglesias having a tough time catching up to those pitches without sacrificing some oomph on the outer two thirds.
While I greatly admire his contact ability, it might be time for him to accept some swings and misses inside if it means doing a little more damage overall. Pitchers are attacking him differently and are winning, he needs to explore an adjustment.
After another rough start in which Anibal Sanchez allowed eight hits, two walks, and three home runs against a rather limited Angels offense, we find ourselves at a crossroads. I would typically prefer not to lean on a cliche for this kind of thing, but sometimes cliches exist because they capture an enduring condition. Anibal Sanchez is pitching poorly, he’s being pitching poorly for quite some time, and the Tigers have an opportunity to change direction now that Fulmer, Norris, Boyd, and Greene are all legitimate rotation options. With Verlander being Verlander and Zimmermann ready to come back, there is an out for Sanchez. It’s time.
I’ve written about this and I’ve tweeted about it even more. Anibal Sanchez isn’t flashing the same stuff he did when he was an ace, but I still maintain that his stuff is still mostly there. This isn’t a question of vanished velocity or a lack of movement overall, it’s about a lack of execution that has become too frequent to ignore.
While it’s hard to diagnose the precise cause of his troubles, the method of failure is obvious.
During Sanchez’s best seasons, he was preventing home runs at an elite rate. No one expected that to continue, but the way in which it has failed to continue is extraordinary. The chart shows a 30-game rolling average of his HR/9 by game. So the last point is his last 30 starts, the point at Game 150 is for career games 120-150, etc. The home run problem has exploded.
Home runs are funny. Most of the time, pitches influence whether they allow long fly balls, but the rate at which they clear the fence is pretty random. You can be homer prone, but even the worst pitchers don’t give up that many. Dingers are noisy and so when the problem started at the beginning of last year, it was easy for me to dismiss as one of those weird things. After all, the stuff looked fine. But it kept happening.
And now lately he’s been walking batters at an alarming rate.
The walk rate isn’t unprecedented like his HR rate, but they’re climbing back to pre-ace levels. You can walk batters in the show, but you can’t walk them if you’re also giving up a ton of HR. There’s no path forward for a pitcher like that.
Sanchez says he’s healthy and given how poorly he’s pitched, it would be easy to blame an injury if one was lurking at all. He’s not at peak velocity, but he’s at a workable velocity and he still gets break on his pitches. He’s just throwing too many bad pitches mixed in with the normal ones. At first you chalk it up to the randomness of baseball and clustering, but we’re 40 or so starts deep into this run. It’s time to worry.
Sanchez has indicated some of this is mental. I try not to psychoanalyze players, but if he’s offering it as an explanation I’ll give it credence. Sanchez has given the Tigers about 10 WAR during this contract and even if he never pitches for them again it won’t be much of a loss. This isn’t about salvaging a disasterous contract or wishing the club had gone another direction, it’s about finding a way to get Sanchez back to useful status.
The best path is probably to send him to the bullpen. Tell him to focus on preparing for 3-6 batters per outing and try to give him a schedule. Let him concentrate on a small task and work back up to longer outings. At worst, he’ll offer some bullpen depth and at best it will give him a chance to reset himself without the pressure of going 6-7 inning each time. It might not work, but it’s better than sending him to Toledo to pitch against inferior opponents with low stakes.
Sanchez has been one of my favorite players since he arrived on Detroit and had previously been the recipient of one of my Twitter things. It’s been hard to watch the wheels fall off over the last year and a half, but there’s really no way to ignore it anymore. The best thing for him and the team is to move him to the bullpen and hope that we haven’t seen the final Anibal Sanchez Night in America.
I’m certainly not the first person to notice this, nor is it much of a secret after his last outing, but Justin Verlander’s slider is slowly becoming Justin Verlander’s cutter. As a brief review, you would expect a cutter to be faster and flatter than a slider, which would typically have more depth to it. However, it’s important to remember that “slider” and “cutter” are just words we use to group pitches together based on how they behave. Everything is a continuum.
First, a look at Verlander’s average pitch velocity by game this year:
It’s pretty clear that the pitch Brooks calls a “slider” is coming in faster over the last four or five starts. This coincides with “less” vertical movement. Keep in mind that vertical movement is relative to how the pitch would behave if it wasn’t spinning. No pitch actually rises from an overhand throw:
Here’s a plot of individual pitch velo and vertical movement for his “sliders” this year:
There’s a clear correlation between velo and movement, which is exactly what we would expect if they were different pitches. If Verlander happened to just be messing with velocity and movement independently, we would see a more random relationship here. Verlander, instead, is throwing one version with more depth and less velo and one with more velo and less depth. In other words, a slider and a proto-cutter.
Here they are by month, notice the gap:
It’s not clear if Verlander is junking the slider in favor of the cutter or if he’s going to throw both. I looked at the relationship by date on a more granular level and the pitches I see as cutters are basically crowding out the sliders. He’s not really adding cutters to his mix, he’s using them instead of sliders. That could be strategic or it could be because he’s just found a way to throw the pitch in a way he likes better that has turned it into a cutter.
It’s too early to say if this is a good choice or what the full implications will be, but he’s looked better since he started using the cutter over the slider. At the very least, it’s visually appealling to see him toss fastballs that break in opposite directions.
Last season, James McCann’s overall production wasn’t very good. Granted, he was a 25-year old catcher in his first full MLB season, so we don’t want to bury him for not being a superstar. In 2015, McCann had an 85 wRC+ in 425 PA to go with his 1.0 fWAR. His arm was on display on numerous occasions even when his bat slumped as the year went on. A 1 WAR year for a rookie is nothing at which to sneeze, except for the fact that FanGraphs WAR doesn’t include catcher framing (the ability to get strikes on borderline pitches) and McCann rated extremely poorly according to the models provided by BP and StatCorner.
To remind you, BP had McCann at -16.6 framing runs and StatCorner pegged him at -15.6 framing runs. BP’s model is more nuanced, bu given that both models agree, we don’t need to dive too deep into the differences. McCann cost the team about 15 runs last year based on his difficulty receiving the baseball. That works out to -1.6 wins, turning the back of the envelope WAR value into a paltry -0.6 WAR for 2015. Uh oh.
Now, I wrote last season that I wasn’t worried about McCann’s early framing numbers because there are a lot of reasons why a catcher might struggle out of the gate without being a lost cause. In fact, this year McCann is at +0.6 runs via BP and +0.8 via StatCorner. That might not seem like a great number, but on a per pitch basis, he’s improved from -0.016 called strikes per chance to +0.003 according to BP. That’s a 17-18 run difference over 7,000 chances, which equates to a 1.8 WAR difference (approx). In other words, if you put 2016 McCann framing on 2015 McCann, you might have 1.2-1.4 WAR player instead of a -0.6. Big difference.
That’s a long way of saying, McCann’s framing numbers have been much better over the first ~month of his 2016 season. There are a lot of framing chances in a season, so the sample stabilizes quickly enough that it’s not like we’re dealing with an irrelevant sample. It’s far from determined, but it’s not like we’re looking at HR in a month compared to HR in a year.
To walk through this, I want to break the numbers down a bit rather than just showing you the bundled up BP/SC numbers. Communicating framing in runs is useful, but it’s also difficult to grasp in some cases. Let’s start with the MLB strike zone. Keep in mind, this is not the strike zone as it’s called, it’s the strike zone as defined. Fortunately, for our purposes, we’re comparing two similar seasons so it won’t be a big issue.
This is from the catcher’s perspective.
If you just look at in/out of zone strike rate on all non-swings, McCann is getting 2% more strikes in the zone and 0.5% more strikes out of the zone. Keep in mind this is against RHH and LHH and there are no controls for ump/count/etc. Those things matter and they’re folded into the BP number, but this is meant to unpack.
If McCann had the 2016 rates based on his 2015 total pitches caught, we’re talking about a difference of 68 strikes. At a rate of 0.13 runs per strike, that’s a 9 run increase if you’re only looking at zone/out of zone and not paying any attention to where the pitches really are on the grid.
Let’s go a step further. Here are the percentage differences by zone. Use your imagination to draw the lines for the four out of zone boxes.
McCann is improving greatly on glove side pitches at the expense of his performance on his throwing side. Granted, the gains are large enough to offset the losses, so there’s a net gain. Let’s look at McCann vs the league by percentage. The league baseline is 2015 in both cases.
He has improved dramatically in the places he’s improved and the losses down and away are much smaller.
Now of course, none of this will matter if McCann doesn’t find his bat in 2016. A 5 wRC+ isn’t something you can survive no matter how good you are on defense. And there’s also no guarantee his framing won’t regress because we’re not totally sure what’s causing it. He’s catching lots of new pitchers and hasn’t seen nearly as many different teams and umpires as he did last year. There’s a lot of season left, but the early returns are really encouraging.
If you happen to have just emerged from a year-long slumber, you might not be aware that Nick Castellanos now hits baseballs pretty well. So far this season he has a 162 wRC+, and while that’s propped up by a sure-to-regress .398 BABIP, there is a very real power spike driving the improved offense that dates back to late June 2015.
It’s not clear if Castellanos will be a 115 wRC+ or a 140 wRC+ guy when things settle, but he’s definitely done enough to convince me (and most people) that he’s taken a big step forward with the stick after two seasons of a 94 wRC+.
But while Nick was unimpressive with the stick during his freshman and sophomore campaigns, the big problem was his glove. If you can run a 95 wRC+ as a 22-23 year old third baseman while playing solid defense, you’re a pretty promising and useful player. But Nick didn’t play solid defense, he played somewhere between awful and not good defense over his first two seasons, and unfortunately defense typically doesn’t improve as players age. You often grow into your offensive potential, but if you can’t field when you debut, chances are you won’t be able to field throughout your career.
That being said, Castellanos’ early struggles were unusually pronounced and with hard work and good coaching, we figured some of it could improve. After all, his arm is fine and he doesn’t have hands made of stone. Any scout worth their salt would put a below average grade on his glove, but you had to watch him a decent amount to really see the magnitude of the flaws.
Yet there has been talk this year that Castellanos looks like an improved defender. I’ve heard it from announcers, beat writers, and fans throughout the year as he’s made a number of good plays at the hot corner. Personally, I’m not sure I would have taken this position – I think he looks about the same as last year – but it’s not like I’m inventing a strawman just to tear it down. This is an opinion that’s out there in the world.
The metrics disagree (caveats in a moment). In 281 innings, he has a -4 DRS, -3.1 UZR, and a .650 revised zone rating. That RZR looks a lot like his 2015 mark and the DRS/UZR look like his 2014 numbers. So either he’s as bad as last year or he’s been as bad as he was in his disastrous rookie year. If you look at the Inside Edge numbers, he’s doing poorly on balls in the 40-60% bucket, and no better on balls marked 60-90% or 90-100%. In other words, statistically he’s been as bad or worse than his previous defensive seasons.
Now, some caveats apply to the data. First, 280 innings is not a sufficient sample size for a couple of reasons. For one, there is measurement error in these statistics that requires a large sample to even out. We haven’t yet built metrics around Statcast, so the numbers still rely on humans to input data into an algorithm and humans sometimes get the coding wrong. Those errors shouldn’t be biased in one way or another, but you need more than 300 innings before you can discount it.
Second, most defensive plays are very easy which means that fielders separate themselves based on a small number of difficult plays. Even a great defender might have bad numbers over a couple of months simply because of when their misplays occurred. This is even more pronounced in an era of shifting, in which a number of plays get thrown out of the sample. Third, defensive metrics lag a bit so if you think he’s made a zillion great plays in the last two days, it won’t necessarily show up right away.
To be clear, I am not saying this early season data indicates Castellanos is definitely still bad at defense. I am saying the numbers so far aren’t showing anything different than his first 2,300 innings. Basically, while there is statistical evidence of an offensive breakout, there is no early indication that his defense has improved.
One thing I like to do with defense is to take a step back and work through the question in a rudimentary way. Yes, Castellanos’ runs saved numbers aren’t good, but it can be instructive to look at a deconstructed version that looks only at hits/outs rather than hits/outs and run values. Let’s dive in.
Let’s carve the infield up into zones based. Let’s say the third baseman is responsive for covering 45% of the left side of the infield (we’ll also do 35%) and let’s look only at ground balls. Line drives might matter, but some are going to be totally uncatchable too. This is meant to be basic, remember. The following is for all Tigers third basemen, of which Nick covers most of the innings. The first table shows 45% of the left side and the second shows 35% of the left side, starting from the line, and reports on ground balls only. There are no controls for anything else (i.e. were the hits singles/doubles, how hard was the ball hit, which balls didn’t get fielded, batter handedness, pitcher quality, etc). Errors aren’t included, but they have been basically constant.
If you look at these tables, the numbers are striking for 2014 and 2015. The Tigers allowed many, many more hits on balls in play than the average (the league includes the Tigers, FYI). This was especially true in the 45% category. This year, the numbers are much better in the 45% category and a little better in the 35% category from last year and much better from 2014.
Let’s unpack this. Now keep in mind, the shortstop and pitcher are involved here. If Igleisas makes a play way into Castellanos’ territory, this method won’t know the difference. The metrics are smart enough not to count that in Nick’s favor (it also won’t penalize him for it). Realistically, what we’re seeing here is the Tigers getting better at pinching off the 5.5 hole between the two fielders from 2015 to 2016.
During 2014, 33 of the 45 extra hits occurred in the 35% zone and 12 occurred in the 35-45% zone (give or take). That’s 74/26 split. In 2015, it was a 29/71 split. This year, it’s a 24/76 split. What does that mean? It means that 2014 was a disaster across the board and that the problem area in 2015 was mostly to Castellanos’ left/Iglesias’ right. Given that we know this is where Iglesias struggles, it makes perfect sense.
Let’s carve out that middle zone by itself:
In 2015, the Tigers got much better at turning batted balls into outs in the 35% zone than they were in 2014. This year, they maintained they’ve gotten a little better in that zone but they have gotten a lot better in the 35-45% zone between the third baseman and the shortstop after being really bad in 2014 and worse in 2015.
I don’t know if this is Iglesias getting better to his right or Castellanos getting better to his left, but there’s definitely something good happening here.
Does this mean the metrics are wrong and Castellanos is actually getting better? No, not yet. For one, this could all be Iglesias/Romine. Two, this doesn’t include line drives. Three, and most importantly, we didn’t control for the actual difficulty or run values of the plays. In other words, the raw number of hits and outs look really positive, but if Nick’s misplays have been particularly bad and his good plays haven’t been particularly good, it’s perfectly reasonable and correct for his metrics to look the way they do. After all, the Tigers haven’t cracked league average in any of these zones in terms of out rate, so if the they’re screwing up easy balls this would make a lot of sense.
What I think this exercise shows is that there is an inherent logic in thinking Castellanos has been getting better. There are fewer balls going for hits near him. From 2014 to 2015, his metrics improved a lot, which is pretty consistent with the data shown here. From 2015 to 2016 (sample size warning) the metrics haven’t gotten better but this data has. You can read this to say that 1) his metrics will improve with a bigger sample, 2) Iglesias is getting better, 3) the added complexity of the metrics is seeing something this doesn’t. It’s probably some from each.
All told, I do think there are positive signs in the data for Castellanos’ defense, but I trust the metrics (even in small samples) which say it hasn’t shown up in the totality of his performance just yet. He can simultaneously improve and not yet show the fruits of that improvement in his numbers. It’s the same as a player dramatically improving the quality of his contact but still not getting hits for a few weeks. It’s possible that Nick is better and he just hasn’t translated it into results, or it could simply be that the metrics are smart enough to see beyond BABIP, or that it’s Iglesias who is truly improving.