JD Martinez, A Snake

Al Avila has begun his first deadline as a seller, delivering JD Martinez to the Diamondbacks for Dawel Lugo, Sergio Alcantara, and Jose King. With the Tigers six games back of Cleveland and underwater in both wins and runs, selling makes sense and JD Martinez was the best rental on the roster.

During his time as a Tiger, JD was the 9th best hitter in baseball, posting a 146 wRC+ in 1886 PA. Cabrera was barely better over that period and all the names above Martinez on the list are bona fife offensive stars. The Tigers got him for a song before the 2014 season and he mashed he way out of AAA and onto the big league roster. He was an anchor, he delivered in big moments, and was a joy to watch at the plate. Martinez was a late bloomer but he made up for lost time. 

With a huge payday coming this winter and a franchise seemingly on the verge of rebuilding, a trade made all the sense in the world. Another team will surely offer him nine-figures this offseason and he will have earned it. It’s sad to seem him leave, but an acceleration in that departure brings back players who will likely wear the Old English D before long. 

For Martinez, the Tigers acquired Dawel Lugo, Sergio Alcantara, and Jose King, infielders all. Lugo has shown some power and has good arm, but his approach is going to be the big question. He hasn’t struck out much in the minors but his walk rate is quite low. Alcantara runs well and can really play defense. I’ve seen some public scouting reports that were unimpressed with his bat but I heard from a source in another organization tonight that he thinks there’s a chance he hits enough to avoid a utility role. King is young and has struggled in rookie ball this year, but his wheels certainly make him interesting. 

The sense I get from public prospect folks and conversations I’ve had with people in the game is that the Tigers didn’t exactly get the package you’d like to see for someone like Martinez. It’s not clear if the Tigers have a really good report on one of these guys or if the industry was down on Martinez for some reason. My sense from talking to folks is that the Tigers are higher on more than one of the prospects than the industry and that the market was relatively small for Martinez given the lack of buyers looking for corner outfielders. I’ll withhold judgment on exactly how the Tigers did until after the deadline wraps and we can see the going rate for other players. It feels light but the Tigers had to move JD this month and we won’t know if this was the best they could do until we see what else happens. 

Call the grade Pending and the farewell bittersweet. 

Where Are Fulmer’s Strikeouts?

Tigers fans find themselves in one of those periods where we’re all starting to think of Michael Fulmer as the Tigers ace, but he hasn’t really been around long enough to have certainly wrestled that title from Justin Verlander. The pitchers appear to be trending in opposite directions, but over the last calendar year they are essentially dead even in fWAR. If you had to bet on the next 365 days, Fulmer probably comes out ahead, but we haven’t lived in this world long enough to be sure. That’s a long and convoluted way of saying Fulmer is emerging as one of the best pitchers in the game — certainly one of the best young pitchers in the game.

Yet despite Fulmer’s success and obvious talent, he doesn’t really collect strikeouts the way you might expect an ace-level pitcher to do so. Since the start of 2016 (min. 200 IP), Fulmer ranks 54th out of 88 in strikeout rate (19.7%).

This hasn’t impeded Fulmer’s success. On this site we talk a lot about fielding independent numbers which rely on strikeouts as one of the main inputs, but Fulmer is 8th in FIP- (81)over the same period. In other words, this isn’t a routine sabermetric story of a guy whose ERA is much better than his FIP and we’re predicting regression. Yes, Fulmer’s ERA- (72) is better than his FIP-, but both metrics suggest he’s pitched extremely well over the last two years. His walk rate (6.2%) is 21st out of 88 and his home run rate (0.74 HR/9) is second best. His .272 BABIP is also among the 20 lowest in the sample.

If you just look at his numbers, you would think he’s a command and control guy who works away from the barrel, getting weak ground balls and harmless fly outs. In other words, his stats suggest something like Kyle Hendricks. Crafty.

But, well:

Fulmer’s average fastball velocity during his career has been 95.9 mph. He also has two other very good pitches, not to mention the emergence of a curveball during recent starts. Yet he gets an ordinary amount of swings on pitches outside the zone and is middle of the pack in terms of contact rate allowed. He’s sort of developed a Gerrit Cole or Marcus Stroman vibe. He gets good results with good stuff, but doesn’t generate a lot of swings and misses or strikeouts. Stroman’s trick is a huge number of ground balls, but Cole might be a better comp. Cole throws hard, has other pitches, and (until this year) has succeeded in large part due to home run prevention.

You can take the Cole comparison as a positive or a negative depending on your perspective. Prior to this year, it would be a very flattering situation, but this year provides solid evidence that if you don’t get a ton of strikeouts, your fortune can turn on a dime if all of a sudden your home run skill vanishes.

Fulmer gets quite a few pop ups and generally weaker contact than average, but there’s some reason to worry that there is nowhere to go but down if he doesn’t add more strikeouts to the mix. I don’t say that to suggest his basic approach is unsustainable, just that given the amount of balls he allows to be put in play, if batters start squaring them up even a little better, he’s going to start allowing a lot more runs.

Truth be told, my suspicion is that this approach is largely a conscious one by Fulmer. He’s generally been efficient with his pitches, averaging more than six innings per start during his first season and a half of work. This is likely due to his willingness to be in the strikezone rather than nibbling around the edges. For example, when Fulmer gets to an 0-2 count this year, he ends up getting a strikeout about 48% of the time, which is average give or take. But his overall wOBA allowed after getting to an 0-2 count is well above average. Based on his results, we know he’s not letting hitters back into plate appearances, he’s just choosing to try to end them a different way.

And that’s totally fine as long as it’s working. There’s no inherent reason to chase strikeouts. But strikeouts after safer than balls in play and there is a breakeven point for ever pitcher between chasing whiffs and chasing weak contact. Fulmer is much closer to the weak contact side than other pitches, especially given his raw stuff. Hitters will eventually make some adjustments against him and he will need to counter those adjustments with a strikeout-friendly approach. My worry is that he may not have spent enough time honing that skill and there will be a rougher adjustment period. This is essentially equivalent to a player whose fastball is too good for anyone in the minors and so he never works on his breaking ball until he needs it in the show.

I don’t doubt Fulmer’s ability to handle such an adjustment at all, but it might be the kind of thing the Tigers should focus on as the game get meaningless down the stretch and they begin to plan for the long run. Fulmer is a tremendous arm and making sure he has all the tools he needs is one of the most important things the team will do during the rebuilding phase.

Alex Avila Thinks It’s 2011

Amid a disappointing season, one of the commanding bright spots for the Tigers has been Alex Avila. After letting the homegrown catcher walk after the 2015 season, the Tigers brought him back for 2017 at $2 million and have been rewarded with 174 wRC+ in 186 PA. Avila has 10 HR and a .441 OBP. Granted, he’s served mostly against right-handed pitching but that’s one heck of a strong side of a platoon for next to nothing.

Avila isn’t necessarily known for his receiving, but he controls the running game well and is generally considered one of the better game-callers in the sport. The picture on catcher defense can be a little hazy given how much of their role is strategic rather than performative, but other than on matters of framing he seems to be quite good.

In fact, 2017 Avila — at age 30 — reminds me quite a bit of 24-year-old 2011 Avila. He’s striking out more, walking more, and hitting for more power, but the game is moving in that direction as a whole. What we’re seeing this year is essentially the kind of player we saw in 2011. He hits for power, he gets on base, but he does strikeout more than you’d prefer in a perfect world. We’re seeing the best of Avila now, for a second time.

There’s no secret. He’s hitting more fly balls and he’s using left field more. It’s easy to draw that line because that’s exactly what he did during his excellent 2011 campaign.

It’s hard to say exactly why 2017 Avila is reviving the summer of 2011. It might be health or it might be approach. We can’t really say without getting inside his head, and it’s not like we think that he is a true-talent 170 wRC+ hitter, but getting three months of good Avila again is a good reminder that the skills are there when things are properly aligned.

Living through this period has led me to reflect on two Avila-related points about which I’ve long-wondered. The first is that Avila’s 2011 season was something of a curse. He was a 24-year-old catcher playing in his first full season and he was amazing. While the All-Star trip, silver slugger, and deep playoff run were awesome, it set unrealistic expectations for the rest of his career. If you have your career year in your first year, everything after that will always disappoint people. Avila had a truly dreadful 2015, but from 2012-2014 he was a solid major league regular behind the dish when he was out there. He was a league average hitter and being league average and also catching makes you pretty useful. But it never felt like that to a lot of people because he looked so much worse than he did in 2011.

Rather than people treating it like his one fluky great year, everyone looked at him like he had collapsed and that’s probably not fair.

The other big thing I’ve wondered about is whether Jim Leyland broke Avila when he rode him so hard down the stretch in 2011. If you recall, during the early part of that year, Victor Martinez served as the other catcher, but when Martinez suffered a minor injury he stayed in the lineup but wasn’t able to catch. Because of exactly how the roster was set up, the Tigers basically played with one catcher for an extended period of time. Avila was playing so well and the roster was tight so Avila didn’t get a real break until rosters expanded. Then when the playoff push came he obviously had to catch every inning.

By the end, he was in bad shape. I’ve always wondered if things would have been different if Avila had been used more cautiously in 2011. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered and the bangs and bruises, and later concussions, would have gotten him anyway. It’s impossible to know, but maybe the lighter workload over the last two seasons has allowed him to recover and his 30-year-old body feels better than he did at 27 and 28.

It’s probably going to end with Avila traded to a contender, and I’ll be happy to see him get another shot at the title he didn’t win in Detroit. Avila’s always been a favorite of mine and his success, despite the team’s struggles, has been a nice development.

On Selling

Sometime during the next thirty eight days the Detroit Tigers will make a decision about the direction of the franchise. To be fair, every team will make one, but the Tigers decision will be more consequential because of what that decision is likely to be. The Astros and Dodgers will decide to make a run at the 2017 World Series, but they made a similar decision this winter and it doesn’t qualify as news to continue doing something you were already doing.

The Tigers, on the other hand, are likely to make a organizationally-altering choice sometime during the next five weeks. The Tigers have contended in eight of the last 11 seasons and only one of the three bad seasons (2010) happened on purpose. The Tigers were supposed to be the team of the century when they stumbled in 2008 and were certainly considered dangerous in 2015 as well. The team entered 11 of the 12 seasons from 2006 to 2017 intending to play well and make deadline acquisitions to help them play better. This will only be the fourth time during this era in which the decision in July is obvious. They must sell.

What makes this moment different is that this is the first deadline without a championship-starved Mike Ilitch looking impatiently over the shoulder of the the general manager. The Tigers sold effectively two summers ago, but they only traded players who were set to be free agents and did not expect to re-sign. It was clear to everyone in July 2015 that the Tigers intended to try again in 2016, and they tried very hard that winter to build the club back into a contender. They got close.

But this year the conversation is different. JD Martinez will be traded because he’s an elite hitter who will be a free agent in four and a half months. K-Rod is a free agent who might be traded but not for anything of substance. Alex Avila is a free agent at year’s end and thanks to his great first half will bring the team back something solid. But the bigger question is whether the Tigers will take the opportunity at this deadline to tear the team apart, punting at least on 2018 in the process. That isn’t a question Tigers fans have faced. In each of the previous disappointing seasons, the question was always about the best way to win next year. For the first time that mandate appears to be absent.

So we turn to Ian Kinsler and Justin Wilson. But also inevitably to Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera. It seems pretty unlikely that Kinsler and Wilson will be part of the next Tigers winner, as both are free agents after 2018. Justin Verlander, in his 12th season in Detroit, is only under contract through 2019. Cabrera’s deal runs six more seasons with two options, but time is starting to wear away at him as well. The question the Tigers will ask is whether a contending team is possible in 2018, and while it certainly is possible, it’s challenging. They aren’t just one or two players away. The players they have need to play better and they need one or two more players to supplement them. Making that work within the budget they’ve set will be difficult. And if 2018 is gone, so are Kinsler and Wilson. And if 2018 is gone, does it make sense for Verlander to stay. And if you’ve cleared the deck of all the desirable veterans, where does that leave the certain Hall of Famer who plays first?

This domino-ing could sweep up Iglesias and Castellanos. Maybe Upton too. This seasons is essentially over. They’d have to play like a 95-win club the rest of the way to get to 85 wins and a 105-win team to make it to 90. If 2017 is over, you must consider 2018. And if 2018 is a pipe dream, nearly every player should be on the block.

This is as existential as it gets when talking about baseball rosters. Once the Tigers commit to the end of this year — a commitment that is coming any day — we have to consider the implications that it will unwind an entire decade tied together with the yarn of Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera.

There’s nothing to be said about 2017 except for the fact that the die had been cast. The Tigers decided after 2015 that they wanted to make a run in 2016 and once that decision was made, there was nowhere to hide. There was no way to abandon 2017, but there was no mechanism to get much better this winter. They rode it out, lost, and are now faced with the inevitable. Selling now is nothing. It’s not controversial or emotional. The season is over, baring a miracle. But the season being over might also mean that everything is over, and that’s a weighty thought.

It’s hard to maintain a competitive team for a decade. The Tigers made the decision not to contend preseason just once in the last 12 years. For the first time since before I was old enough to drive a car, the team is looking at a rebuilding cycle. That’s something, but I don’t know what.

I’m not opposed to the idea; it might actually be a lot of fun. The team will lose games but there will be new faces and exciting young players coming up through the system. The stakes will be lower and the day to day stress of the games will be easier to manage. Taking some time to nurture a new generation of Tigers is appealing.

On the other hand, taking that step will require us to come to terms with the end of something. Verlander is the only holdover from 2006 but Cabrera has been around since 2008 and the remaining turnover has been gradual. There’s definitely a Leyland period and an Ausmus period, a Dombrowski and an Avila, but this has felt like a series of chapters in the same novel rather than an entirely new team each year. There’s a good chance that will end sometime in the next 38 days.

One hundred and twelve years ago a fire destroyed much of Detroit. Father Gabriel Richard took that moment to declare the city’s motto to be “Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus.” Translated, it means “We hope for better things; It will arise from the ashes.”

Well, Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus.

My Good Faith Critique Of DRA

Note: This isn’t a Tigers post. If you’re here for the Tigers, feel free to ignore. Also, I’m publishing this here rather than at FanGraphs because 1) I don’t want the general public to get the idea that FanGraphs as an institution is throwing shade at DRA and 2) I don’t want the perception that anything I’m saying is done in the service of driving traffic or subscriptions to or from either site. 

Evaluating pitchers is very hard, but that hasn’t stopped people from trying. Wins and losses. ERA. WHIP. FIP. These are all statistics that at one point or another had been at the forefront of the quest for The Best Single Metric. A wise person might suggest that searching for one metric to rule them all might be a silly quest, but even if we all decided to properly use every tool in the toolbox, there would still have to be a best metric among the useful ones.

Two years ago, the Baseball Prospectus stats team took a swing at building the next generation of pitching metrics, led by their top-line creation, Deserved Run Average (DRA). Many in our little corner of the world treated this as near second coming because it was first high-level attempt to get beyond the FIP-generation of metrics and some of the smartest people in the public analysis sphere had thrown their intellectual heft behind the effort.

DRA promised to incorporate a lot of information that hadn’t found its way into FIP while also taking a more complex approach to modeling the pitcher-value process. I agree that those are worthwhile goals.

I think FIP is a very useful metric, not just because it does a pretty good job of representing pitcher value but because it is extremely straightforward. I am not saying that simplicity makes FIP a good metric, but rather that its clarity does. FIP has flaws, but its flaws are in perfect view. I know exactly what FIP is doing and exactly what FIP is not doing. And this is precisely where DRA has so far failed to win me as a full convert so far.

I want to be clear that I am not saying DRA is less rigorous than FIP or that it has been designed poorly or in bad faith. My issue with DRA is not that I think there is something wrong with it, it’s that I don’t really know what to make of it. My argument is not that FIP is a better representation of pitcher value than DRA, it’s that I am less certain about the quality of DRA than I am the quality of FIP.

Imagine FIP and DRA are diamonds. I can hold FIP in my hand and examine it under a magnifying glass. DRA is on a table twenty feet away. I can see the exact quality of the FIP diamond, but I can only tell that DRA is a diamond. Smart people who cut the DRA diamond are telling me they think the DRA diamond is better, but I have not been able to see them side by side.

In my own analysis and in my own writing, I have utilized DRA but I still lean heavily on the FIP-family of metrics for this reason. If I’m writing about a player and want to communicate something, I prefer FIP to DRA because I can talk clearly about what FIP says. If I want to use DRA I can only say that based on the complex method it deploys, the pitcher is this good/bad/other.

Now many strong advocates of DRA will tell you that its complexity is good. Pitching, after all, is very complicated so it follows that any statistic that measures pitching holistically should also be complicated. That’s a very convincing point, but as I noted earlier my problem is not complexity, it’s clarity. I love complicated things. I’ve taken graduate-level courses in statistics and modeling. I am in no way turned off by DRA in concept. At no point in this piece am I saying DRA should be less complex.

However, there are two clear issues with DRA that prevent me from using it as my primary point of reference. The first is that the BP team has not outlined a justification for its modeling strategy. If you read through their explanations (see here, here, here, and here) what you find is a list of flaws that exist with other pitching metrics. “FIP doesn’t have X, X matters, so we put X in our model. We know pitchers control their BABIP to some degree, so we put that in the model.”

This creates a couple of issues. The first issue is that I can’t see what components are doing the lifting (for example, this page needs to be way more granular). Does a player have a good DRA because their opponents are very tough or because their defense is terrible? DRA jams a lot of information into a single output and that makes it quite difficult to use in any sort of interesting way. FIP only has five inputs (strikeouts, walks, hit batters, home runs, and balls-in-play) and even that can feel overly aggregated. DRA has even more inputs that have run through even more aggregation. That might provide DRA with a more accurate output but it blurs a lot of lines. This pitcher might be good, but I have no idea why he’s good.

More importantly, however, is the fact that the BP team has not thoroughly explained why their modeling choices (structure, not inputs) are the proper modeling choices. DRA is a complex model, and while complexity is good, complexity also means that there were hundreds of choices made along the way that could have made differently and produced differently outcomes. In other words, DRA is built on a lot of choices made by people about how to incorporate something and those choices have not been explained and defended. As I noted earlier, the choices may be correct, but I have no way of evaluating them if they do not explain how they came to them.

Here’s an excerpt from the Gory Math DRA post:

What is the best way to model this relationship? That required a lot of testing. A LOT of testing. We tried linear models. We tried local regression. We tried tree-based methods. We bagged the trees. We tried gradient boosting. We tried support vector machines. We even tried neural networks. None of them were providing better results than existing estimators. And then we tried the one method that turned out to be perfect: MARS.

MARS stands for Multivariate Adaptive Regression Splines, and was introduced by Dr. Jerome Friedman of Stanford in 1991. You don’t hear much about MARS anymore: it has been supplanted in the everyday modeling lexicon by trendier machine-learning methods, including many of those we mentioned above. But MARS, in addition to being useful for data dumpster-diving, also has another big advantage: interactions.

MARS uses what are known as regression splines to better fit data. Instead of drawing a straight line between two points, MARS creates hinges that allow the line to bend, resulting in “knots” that accommodate different trends. The power of these knots is enhanced when MARS looks at how variables interact with each other. These interactions are, in our opinion, one of the under-appreciated facts in baseball statistics.

As discussed above, pitchers who are pitching particularly well or poorly have a cascading effect on other aspects of the game, including base-stealing. Moreover, there is a survival bias in baseball, as with most sports: pitchers who pitch more innings tend to be more talented, which means they end up being starters instead of relievers or spot fill-ins. The power of MARS is it not only allows us to connect data with hinged lines rather than straight ones, but that it allows those hinges to be built around the most significant interactions between the variables being considered, and only at the levels those interactions have value. MARS also uses a stepwise variable selection process to choose only the number of terms sufficient to account for the most variance.

Most people won’t be able to make heads or tails of this section and it’s incumbent upon BP to make it more accessible, for one. But even granting a pardon for that, as someone knowledgeable in these issues, I don’t know if this strategy is a good one or a bad one. They made all sorts of choices based on various tests and I am simply asked to accept they chose the right one and that there isn’t a better option out there.

Now you might say that it isn’t their job to teach me how to literally write R code and test my own model so that I can probe the ether for things I think might be imperfect within DRA. Of course they shouldn’t be asked to test literally every possible model specification when building DRA, but you have to give me more information about why you chose to build it like this as opposed to some of the other approaches you tried or could have tried.

On the other hand, with something like FIP, all of the decisions are on display. You might think the decisions are wrong, but you can see the decisions and make that judgement. There are five inputs with a set of clear weights. That’s all FIP is, and while that limits FIP in terms of accuracy, FIP is extremely clear. I can’t make that judgement with DRA. A stronger and clearer defense of the specifications needs to be made.

And this leads me to my second key issue with DRA that prevents me from using it in a more serious way. DRA is two years old and has already had three major iterations that worked differently in meaningful ways. I have no problem with updating your metrics based on new data or new research, and I don’t think there is an inherent problem any of the specific changes they have announced. The problem is that DRA-2015, DRA-2016, and DRA-2017 have different views of the same seasons and I have a strong suspicion that DRA-2018 will lead to more of these cases.

The rapidity with which DRA has been revised indicates the BP team’s willingness to explore improvements (which is great!) but it also suggests to me that they haven’t figured out the right way to model the underlying data generating process.

When they announce a revision, they are stating that the previous version failed to capture something they found essential. It’s one thing if these changes were exclusively based on new data, but they are also based on changes to the modeling. And if the results are that sensitive to tweaks in method, I am suspect about the entire system. That doesn’t mean that FIP is necessarily better than any particular version of DRA, simply that I know that in a few months DRA is going to change and a pitcher I thought way decent might actually be kind of bad even though we didn’t learn anything new about the pitcher himself.

Put another way, are the things BP learned about DRA between 2015 and 2017 things they couldn’t have learned by exploring more specifications before the initial rollout? I am not saying they should hold the release back until it’s perfected because public input makes things better, but simply that the first few years are more akin to a beta test. I’m not ready to fully adopt the metric until it settles in a little more. That’s not me dismissing DRA or its potential value to the world of baseball analytics. I really like DRA from a conceptual perspective, but my perception is that the nuts and bolts are subject to change quite frequently, so I have yet to dive in without a life preserver.

I want to reiterate that none of this is a critique of any individual decision and it is decidedly not an argument that FIP is a better representation of pitching value than DRA. That is a separate argument that can be had on separate terms. But I do think that DRA is not as useful as FIP at this point in time. I am hesitant to use a metric whose workings I can’t see. I don’t know if the modeling strategy is correct and I am pretty sure that in a few months a chunk of pitchers will have totally different DRAs.

I also want to be clear that none of this is intended as shade or inter-nerd sniping. I have great respect for the BP stats team and have shared these critiques with them. This is not a take down, it’s a list of demands.

I think DRA is aiming in the right direction, I just haven’t been given enough information to figure out if it’s really an improvement over its predecessors. Building a metric like DRA makes all the sense in the world and some great people are in command, but it will remain a complementary metric for me until it is unpacked in a way that allows me to trace its design.

So here is what I would propose:

  1. Create an expanded version of the DRA run value page that includes every individual component so that people can see how the different factors are operating. It takes two seconds to figure out why FIP likes someone or doesn’t. Doing so with DRA is next to impossible.
  2. Go back to the drawing board on the public facing explanation and give clearer explanations of how DRA works and why it works that way. DRA is complex, but you can explain complex things in a clear manner if you break it down into less complex pieces and work with outsiders to ensure they follow the explanation at each step.
  3. If DRA is meant to be a living, breathing statistic that gets updated annually, then be willing to accept ongoing skepticism about the execution of the statistic. If you are rejiggering it frequently, then the audience is going to wonder if the current version is the right one. If you want to avoid that, you have to change the name each time you change the stat. I get that this is annoying, but it’s part of the job.

This Is The Moment To End The Closer Role

Things are not going well for Francisco Rodriguez. He’s allowed 12 runs in 11.2 innings and he has a 159 FIP-. He has five meltdowns already (appearances with -6% WPA). He’s given up runs in eight of his 13 outings, including five runs against nine batters in two blown games over the weekend. His grip on the closer’s role is precarious to say the least. Brad Ausmus, king of having confidence in his closer, no longer has confidence in his closer. The press is circling the wagons. You can feel a change coming, and the obvious candidate is Justin Wilson who has allowed just eight base runners in 13.2 innings this season.

At this moment, the question the Tigers brass are asking is whether they should replace K-Rod with Wilson. Demoting the closer is a big deal in the modern game. Once you say it out loud, you can’t put it back. So the Tigers are proceeding with caution, but you can feel it coming. Do we replace the closer?

But I want to suggest another path: Don’t.

You initial reaction might be, “but K-Rod is pitching very poorly, we can’t keep putting him into crucial situations?” to which I would reply that you’re absolutely correct. The Tigers should stop giving all the save chances to K-Rod, but they should also decline to name a new closer and should resist the urge to simply replace one failed closer with a bright, shiny new closer. Now is the moment to give up on the closer role entirely.

I’ve been harping on this generally for years, but let me hit some highlights. First, saves are stupid. They are artificially constructed and not a measure of anything particularly important. You can rack up a bunch of saves without pitching that well if you’re coming into games with the bases empty and a three run lead. Conversely, you don’t get saves for getting out of big jams if you happen to do so an inning or two early.

Second, being a slave to the save leads managers to pigeonhole their best reliever into an inefficient role. The ninth inning is the most important inning in some games, but it’s not the most important inning in every game. Sometimes the game is on the line in the 7th or 8th and if you have a closer whose job it is to get saves, you won’t use them in these earlier situations.

Teams would be much better off if managers would be willing to deploy their relievers in the right spots, based on matchup/leverage/etc rather than rigid inning-based roles.

Now the naysayers will tell you that relievers thrive when they’re given a specific role because it helps them prepare. Yet there are two key flaws in this logic. The first flaw is that you can give relievers defined roles without one of those roles being the arbitrary “save situation.” Even if you think lining guys up ahead of time is beneficial, there are better ways to do it. But the second flaw is more compelling. Relievers spend their early careers being used in all sorts of roles until they wind up “sticking” in their 7th, 8th, or 9th inning roles. The system is backwards because it sorts the best relievers into rigid roles while giving the worst relievers no structure. The best relievers should be the ones who can handle some uncertainty in their deployment because they have the experience and talent to handle it.

And the entire concept of roles is foolish more broadly. I don’t doubt that relievers like having a target in mind for when they’re going to pitch, but I refuse to believe elite competitors are so fragile that they can’t handle that target moving around depending on the situation. Instead of having a “closer,” you could communicate to your pitchers before the game that they are likely to be used in a particular spot, such as “the first sign of trouble” or the “first clean inning after we pull the starter.” “We’ll use you in the 8th or 9th if it’s within two runs.” I appreciate the idea that pitchers like to get into their pre-appearance mindset in a certain way, but these are grown men who are capable of handling a little uncertainly. All it takes is some good communication between them and the manager.

For all these reasons, teams should abandon the concept of a closer and relievers who have certain innings. Teams should deploy relievers based on who the best available player is at any given time. But this week I came up with another reason that make a lot of sense. If you don’t have a closer, you don’t have this defining moment where the manager has to announce that he’s demoting his relief ace to a lesser role. It sure seems like it would be a lot better for everyone involved if Ausmus could casually give K-Rod fewer high leverage innings rather than having to officially announce a change. If Ausmus was sometimes using K-Rod in the 9th but also using the Wilsons quite often, it wouldn’t be a big deal to push K-Rod down the pecking order. If all the pitchers were sharing different innings depending on the exact conditions, you wouldn’t have all this pressure on K-Rod to keep his job and the constant questioning about whether Brad believes in him.

I don’t think the Tigers will actually adopt this mindset, but it’s definitely time. It’s a more efficient way to deploy your relievers and it seems a lot easier to handle struggling pitchers when you don’t this big production about whether they’ve been bounced from their role or not. I’m assuming Justin Wilson will get the next save chance for the Tigers, but we’d all be a lot better off if he didn’t get all of the save chances going forward.

James McCann’s Framing Problem

A few nights ago, Rod Allen made a comment to the effect that “James McCann is going to be the Tigers catcher for many years to come.” I believe he said this in the context of Avila’s hot start, but regardless of his exact phrasing or what prompted it, Allen was offering a pretty common sentiment: McCann is the long-term answer at the position.

I’ve written on a number of a occasions that I’m a little shaky on that proposition. Yes, McCann has a strong throwing arm, but he otherwise hasn’t demonstrated the kind of talent that should keep the Tigers from considering alternatives. It’s well documented that in his first season, McCann struggled to receive pitches in a way that maximized strikes. At the time, I made the case for patience. I wasn’t ready to say McCann wasn’t a good receiver just because he was terrible at it during his first season. And last year, McCann took some steps forward, leading me to pen this May 2016 piece on the ways he had improved. He was getting more called strikes in and out of the zone and had particularly improved on his glove side.

When you add everything up, Baseball Prospectus said McCann went from costing the Tigers about 15 runs relative to average in 2015 to being right about average in 2016. McCann didn’t become a good framer, but he definitely performed better. And that makes sense. Not only did McCann have time to learn his staff and settle in, he had another year working with Brad Ausmus, who was a talented framer in his day. This fits a neat and tidy narrative and it made us feel great. The flip side was that McCann went from an iffy bat in 2015 to a terrible one in 2016, but I’m always willing to give young catchers a break on their hitting as they adjust to the rigors of major league duty.

So I was interested to watch McCann in 2017 because while it’s hard to measure the total impact of framing in real time, it has a huge impact on the game. The difference between a ball and strike aggregated over thousands of opportunities makes a difference and if McCann had actually improved his talent level in 2016 that was a big deal. However, it was possible that McCann had simply performed better in 2016 for any number of reasons and he would regress toward the mean in 2017.

If we look only at the overall BP metric, the signs are not good. McCann has already been worth -3.3 runs in 1,284 chances. If we pro-rate that to about 6,400 chances (the average he had in 2015 and 2016), we get about -16 runs. On a per pitch basis, that’s worse than 2015!

Granted, I’ve long been a proponent of caution when looking at these aggregated framing metrics. I think the models are missing some important aspects and don’t quite control for everything that should control for, but they are generally good enough to separate bad, decent, and good. But like I did last May, I want to look a little deeper to see what’s happening.

Unfortunately, MLBAM changed a bit of the coding on Baseball Savant so you’re going to see different 2015/2016 numbers than in the previous posts if you followed the links, but the meaning isn’t going to change so we can roll with it.

The basic lesson here is that McCann clearly improved on the edges of the zone in 2016 and has fallen back in 2017. MLBAM now has a zone breakdown which includes specific zones for the edges, so let’s explore that:

I looked at called strike rate in the 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, 17, 18, and 19 zones. It’s compelling.

Let’s look at them individually, but I’ll constrain it to 2016 vs 2017. Small sample caveats apply.

If you compare the table to the image, you can see that McCann has done a bit better on the low edge, but on the glove size and top of the zone he’s done much worse. I don’t want to put too much of a focus on these chunks, but you can get a sense of the problem. This tracks pretty well with his historical problems.

It’s too early in the year to call this McCann’s 2017 level and there’s no reason to trust 2017 a ton more than 2016, but this is something to watch. McCann has hit for power and showed more discipline this year, but even with some quality early season swings he hasn’t even reach league average at the plate (although his BABIP will come north over time). But if McCann is going to frame this poorly, it would take some great hitting to compensate and he isn’t there. He’s got a great arm, but catchers are judged by the gloves and their game-calling, and at least of those aspects of his game isn’t looking great so far.

JaCoby Jones Made Jose Quintana Throw Him The Right Pitch

It didn’t take long for the Tigers to pull ahead of the White Sox for good on Opening Day thanks to JaCoby Jones’ first major league home run. With men on the corners and one out, Jones took a 2-2 pitch out to left, giving the team a 3-1 lead. Now, Jones has power and going up against a lefty in Chicago gave him an ideal shot at his first dinger, but his performance in the second inning was impressive nonetheless.

Quintana started Jones with a first-pitch curveball – that’s the orange dot right down the heart of the plate. A first pitch curveball is unusual, especially in your first at bat on Opening Day of your rookie season. So while he was now behind 0-1, that’s a smart take. The second pitch was an inside fastball which he fouled off. The third pitch is that blue dot in the upper right, a fastball that got away from Quintana.

Pitch four is the key to the plate appearance. That’s the blue dot in the lower left, it’s a curveball that starts out as a strike but falls out of the zone. Jones thinks about it but holds up. It’s just a little too far out of reach. This gets him back to 2-2 count.

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Foul balls on pitch five and six, both fastballs. Quintana has clearly shown he wants to work Jones inside and he’s shown him the fastball and the curveball multiple times. He tries again, but this time goes back to the curveball that Jones almost chased back in pitch four, but this time leaves it too close to the zone. Jones jumps. He’s out in front, but he connects and lets his raw power do the work.
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This is one plate appearance, but the issue for Jones is going to be his ability to control the zone. We know he can drive the ball when he connects, it’s just a matter making pitchers throw you Pitch #7 by laying off Pitch #4. If he keeps that up, he’ll do just fine in the show.

Ernie Harwell Welcomes You To Opening Day

Every year, Ernie used to read this quotation from the Song of Solomon on Opening Day. Three years ago, I heard a priest recite this in Ernie’s name in reference to the rebirth of baseball, Spring, and Easter.

For, lo, the winter is past,
The rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth;
The time of the singing of birds is come,
And the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.

We made it.

Go Tigers.

Screw It: Why The Tigers Will Win The 2017 World Series

Well, we made it. The Tigers will take the field tomorrow in Chicago and the 2017 season will get underway in earnest. The club had a relatively quiet offseason, punctuated by the passing of owner, Mike Ilitch. The baseball waters were calm this winter, but there was, um, a lot of stuff to pay attention to from early October to now and real baseball is a welcome sight. 

Yesterday, I published my annual piece assessing the offseason and offering a prediction for the upcoming year. I set my expectations around 83-85 wins, figuring we’d see the team in the wild card chase, but that they would ultimately come up short. But as is tradition, this post will paint a rosier picture. This post will tell you why Yesterday Neil was wrong and why the 2017 Tigers will hoist the trophy this fall. 

Winning a title starts with making the playoffs, so task one is convincing yourself that’s going to happen. It’s easy enough to assume the Tigers can stay ahead of the White Sox. Minnesota has some very compelling young position players but their pitching just can’t prevent runs at a level required to win more than 85 games. The Royals are known for beating the odds, but without Wade Davis and with a starting contingent full of mostly #3 to #5 arms, a healthy Tigers roster should survive. 

In the division, the crown belongs to Cleveland. Their rotation is great and they added Edwin Encarnacion to their already troublesome lineup. They have Miller and Allen in the pen. On paper, Cleveland is the better team. We saw that last season and nothing has happened between October and now to change that impression. But what’s also true is that the difference between the clubs is not that large, particularly when you consider how poorly the Tigers played against Cleveland in 2016. If the Tigers hadn’t performed so terribly against Cleveland they would have made the wild card game and if they had played well the division could have been theirs. This isn’t to discount Cleveland’s advantage, but rather to point out the clubs were similarly successful against the rest of the league and they likely will be again. 

So success looks like this. The Tigers need everyone to stay reasonably healthy. They need Fulmer to repeat and they need Norris and Boyd to hold their own. They need Upton’s valleys to be shorter and they need Iglesias and McCann to not hit quite so poorly. They need a large number of things to break right in order to pass Cleveland, or to play well enough to squeeze into the wild card, but they don’t need things to break unreasonably in their favor. It’s not like they need Castellanos to hit 40 bombs or for Shane Greene to have a 1.50 FIP. 

Once they make it to the postseason, it’s anyone’s game and they are pretty well positioned for the postseason because of their rotation. A healthy Red Sox team would be a clear favorite, but if the Tigers arms have a good run you could see them making it through. The Sox and Cleveland are better teams but the Tigers have the top end talent that can win in a short series. 

The Cubs, Dodgers, et al will be tough to defeat but the same principle holds. The Tigers weakness is the bottom of their roster rather than the top. If they can get themselves into a sprint, I like their odds just fine. 

This definitley isn’t the scenario I’m betting on, but it’s certainly a plausible scenario. If Corey Kluber gets hurt and Francisco Lindor stumbles, the Tigers could catch Cleveland without anything really unexpected happening. When you’re a solid team, it doesn’t take that much to have a great year. And the Tigers are a solid team. So screw it, and get ready to spray champagne. 

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