Earlier this week, Al Avila met the press and signaled the organization will be taking a long hard look in the mirror this offseason. Avila indicated payroll likely won’t go up in 2017 and that the club is looking to get younger, likely through the trade market. Both comments send a message, but there was nothing definitive in his statement. You could easily interpret it as a prelude to a tear down or as an indication that the club might try to flip JD Martinez for someone a little worse but a little younger.
Obviously, Avila is right not to overly telegraph his plans. He should wait to see what the market does after the World Series and adjust his plans according to the actions of the rest of the league. No reason to commit to anything before you have information, but this is essentially the first time since 2009 that the club has even hinted at a potential rebuilding offseason.
As usual, when the World Series ends, I’ll lay out my recommendation for the offseason, but now I want to explore if the concept of a rebuild makes sense for the Tigers.
Let’s start with the basics. The club spent $198 million in 2016 and Avila said he doesn’t expect that number to rise. While that has led some people to forecast a big payroll cut, I think it’s more likely we’ll see the club spend $190ish million or so. Even if the Tigers want to get leaner, the luxury tax threshold is going up this winter (potentially by a lot) and there is a lot of new money flowing into the game. The Tigers might not keep pace with everyone else this winter, but I don’t think they’re planning to go down to $140 million simply for financial reasons. They could end up there for rebuilding reasons, but that’s a different question.
Aside from Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers’ longest commitment runs through 2021, but that’s Justin Upton who could easily opt out after 2017. Verlander has an option for 2020 but that requires a top 5 Cy Young finish in 2019. Realistically, You have Cabrera forever, Zimmermann until 2020, and Verlander through 2019. Everyone else with financial commitments are done after 2018. Essentially, this means that the Tigers have to decide if they want to contend in 2017 and 2018, or set their sights on 2019. These aren’t mutually exclusive options, but there’s no reason to shoot for a rebuild to complete any later than 2019 if that’s the plan.
So the options are work to contend for 2017, start a full rebuild for 2019+, or doing something in between that keeps you relevant but acknowledges it might be a slow two years.
If the Tigers want to go for it, they’ll look to make a trade or two to bolster catcher and center field, and then probably also do some combination of things to help the pen. The free agent market is very weak, so there aren’t any big splashes coming. Making some tweaks around the edges will easily bring the club to another 85-88 win season. The downside of this approach is that the longer you wait before rebuilding, the less valuable your trade chips become. The Tigers will get more this winter for Martinez, Cabrera, Kinsler, etc than they will in a year or two.
The rebuild option is some combination of deals involving Martinez, Kinsler, Cabrera, Verlander, Upton, etc. The Tigers have lots of good veteran players who would be attractive in a weak free agent market. If you make these trades, you’re punting the next two seasons because the odds of getting back that much major league ready talent is quite low. Even if you make good trades, you’re probably unlikely to get players who are ready to step in on day one.
The middle path involves dealing JD Martinez, or maybe Martinez and Kinsler. You could probably get enough in return that you could stay competitive in 2017, but also with an eye on the 2019+ timeline. Losing several wins would hurt, but you can probably find league average players to replace them and be a .500 or better team.
This is all hypothetical and the Tigers shouldn’t decide until they know the going rate for these players, but I think the Tigers should go for it in 2017. The idea of a rebuild is interesting, but they have already assembled a championship caliber core. They have an impressive middle of the order, a frontline ace, a solid #2 in Zimmermann, and three young pitchers who could all easily be 2/3 starters as soon as 2017. If they had been a little healthier in 2016 and not lost lots of time from Castellanos, Martinez, and Zimmermann, they would have made the playoffs.
Certainly, key players are aging and you don’t want to kid yourselves into holding on too long, but there’s a very real chance the Tigers make a run in 2017 without significant acquisitions. If the club wanted to rebuild, last offseason would have made more sense. They could have avoided the Upton/Zimmermann deals and traded Kinsler, Martinez, Cabrera to line them up for a big rebuilding project. With those deals being signed and Verlander proving he is back, it doesn’t quite make sense to punt on 2017.
Again, you want to read the market. You do what’s best for the long term success of the organization, but the Tigers are too close, in my opinion, to give up on 2017. The club has been chasing a title for a decade and they are absolutely still in striking distance. If they wait until 2019+, they won’t have prime Cabrera and Verlander and the odds that they acquire two Hall of Fame caliber players in this rebuild is remote. It’s certainly possible, but I don’t think the situation is dire enough yet to warrant that kind of gamble.
For this year’s season preview series, I decided to explore the nine “bellwethers” for the Tigers 2016 campaign. The idea wasn’t to write about the club’s most important players, but rather the players who were most likely to tip the balance in one direction of the other. Now that the season is over and we have some distance between us and Game 161 (?!), I thought it might be interesting to see how the bellwethers compared to what I wrote about them in March.
That’s essentially the question we’ll be looking to answer in 2016. Can Daniel Norris strike out more hitters without sacrificing command? He’s a fly ball pitcher with a solid enough group of outfielders and has a pair of great defenders up the middle in the field. Norris was victimized surprisingly by lefties in 2015, who hit for a ton of power (.293 ISO in 64 PA), but that probably won’t continue once he gets a chance to pitch a full season.
In 2015, hitters were very patient against Norris, which is something he’ll need to combat with a higher number of first pitch strikes. He needs to get ahead early and let his arsenal of secondary pitches force hitters to chase for swinging strikes and weak contact. This is all very much within his grasp given the tools at his disposal. He’s physically gifted, intellectually capable, and works hard.
Norris has the potential to become a #2 starter someday, but it’s probably not a good bet to predict he reaches that zenith in his first full season in the majors. More likely, Norris will have his ups and downs, getting hit hard from time to time before making adjustments to get back in control. Realistically, a 90 ERA-/FIP- is probably the best case scenario, which would make him about a 3 WAR pitcher over 180 innings. That’s better than he was in 2015, but it’s not all the way to his ceiling.
But it’s also not out of the question to imagine Norris struggles with his command in April and the club decides he isn’t quite ready for prime time, especially because they need to watch his innings anyway. In this scenario, maybe he’s in the 110 ERA-/FIP- range, or worse, and the Tigers have to rely on Boyd, Fulmer, etc before they are fully ready. Given that the club doesn’t have a ton of depth, Norris is a crucial component of a successful season. There are always ways for teams to surprise you, but it seems relatively unlikely that the Tigers will win the division without a productive Daniel Norris.
So the big question was if Norris could increase his strikeout rate without losing any command. Verdict? Nearly a 6% increase in K% and a virtually unchanged walk rate. I pegged him around ten percent better than league average and his park-adjust FIP came in 8% better than league average (his ERA was even better). His WAR/180 IP was 2.9, just under the 3.0 mark I set as the best case scenario. On a per inning basis, Norris hit his mark. The big issue was that he battled injury and inconsistency over the first part of the season and only gave the Tigers about 70 innings. Had he been this good and healthy all year, the Tigers season probably goes differently, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that when he was in uniform he was as good as we could have expected.
It’s no secret that the Tigers need better innings from their bullpen if they want to compete and Wilson is going to be an important piece of that puzzle. He’s probably not 30-40% better than league average when it comes to ERA or FIP, but if he’s good enough to be in the 20-30% better than average window, that’s a big step forward for the Tigers. If Wilson can put together a 25 K%, 8 BB%, 0.50 HR/9 kind of season, all of which are very much in line with his 2015 season plus a little negative regression, the Tigers will have a really good LHP1 that will allow them to move Blaine Hardy into a LHP2.
Wilson finished the year with a 74 FIP-, 25.9 K%, 6.8 BB%, and 0.92 HR/9. The home run increase was really the only thing that kept him from totally hitting the mark, but even with that issue he was still a nice upgrade over what the Tigers had previous. Wilson was incredible early in the season but regressed a bit later in the summer, so fans probably have a sour taste in their mouths. Wilson was a very solid reliever for the club this year and while he flashed elite level performance at one point, the sum of his work was right around what we expected.
It’s likely that health is a key factor for Lowe, but even in the seasons in which he seemed to be healthy, he was never as good as he was in 2015. Last year was clearly his best year, and how the Tigers perform in 2016 will be partially dependent on how much of that was a real shift toward greatness and how much was a blip.
Is Mark Lowe really a great reliever, or is he simply a solid arm who had a good year? Even if he’s just a solid bullpen piece, but stays healthy, he’ll make the team better. But the team was awful in 2015, so a little better isn’t a terribly exciting move. If his slider-heavy approach and high velocity fastball are here to stay, the Tigers have themselves a late-inning reliever who can prevent leads from slipping away. If he can’t stay healthy or his 2015 success was mostly noise, it will be much harder for the team to keep up with Kansas City, Cleveland, and perhaps Chicago.
So listen, just everything about this went to hell. Lowe didn’t have the same stuff he showed in 2015 and got creamed when he was out there for the Tigers. He had moments where he looked serviceable, but overall it was not a good season.
So part of Iglesias’ 2016 will be about avoiding miscues on those easier and mid-range plays. He’s going to blow you away with some great defense, but saving a run by making a great play only goes so far if you boot a routine play the next day. Few are better than Iglesias from a talent perspective, but he need to take a step forward defensively so that the Tigers can get the most out of that ability. He’s probably played like a +5 shortstop recently, even though he has +10 to +15 talent. Getting those extra five or ten runs is going to be huge for the Tigers as they chase Cleveland and Kansas City.
I obviously don’t know who’s right, but the fans do have a pretty strong case given that Iglesias’ career BABIP is .328 when the projection systems are forecasting it to be around .310. He’s a ground ball/ line drive hitter who gets plenty of infield hits, so a BABIP above .300 is to be expected, it’s just a question of how much higher it will be.
But that’s the question. Iglesias is going to hit a couple dingers, knock 20 doubles, and have a low walk rate. That’s his game. But last year he cut down on his strikeouts by a lot (under 10% after being in the 15-20% range for his career) and has always put up a quality BABIP. If he can rack up plenty of singles, he can be an average MLB hitter.
The two big questions for Iglesias were making sure his defensive performance matched his talent and figuring out if he had a high BABIP skill that he could count on for lots of singles. On the glove side, the metrics gave him a nice bump over 2015 and what I saw from him squares with that assessment. Iglesias improved going to his right and kicked fewer easy plays, allowing his ability to make highlight catches carry him to a nice defensive season.
At the plate, however, his walk and strikeout rates were identical to 2015, his power was essentially the same, and his BABIP dropped more than 50 points. Now the .276 BABIP he ran in 2016 probably sits below his true talent level, but the fact that he was a 73 wRC+ hitter instead of 95-100 wRC+ was a big reason why the Tigers missed the postseason. In order for Iglesias to be a really valuable player, he needs to hit a lot of singles. He didn’t in 2016.
There’s isn’t one particular thing Rodriguez needs to keep doing, as we’ve noted with some other players during this series, it’s really just that he needs to hold off that inevitable decline a little bit longer.
This is the central question for McCann’s bat in 2016. Is he an unimpressive hitting catcher with a vulnerability to righties or did he just appear that way last season because the weight of his first season as a major league catcher simply took its toll late in the season? Time will tell.
So another huge question for McCann this year will be if he can improve his receiving. We know he’s got a strong throwing arm and can manage the running game, but getting strikes for the pitching staff is his most important job and failing to come through in this department will wash away his positive contributions elsewhere.
Fortunately, while Brad Ausmus often causes more problems than he solves, this one is right up his alley. In fact, Ausmus was probably one of the better pitch framers in baseball history. If the front office was able to communicate to Ausmus that McCann needed help and Ausmus is an able teacher, there’s reason to be hopeful. We’ve seen in other cases that framing is a teachable skill.
Okay, so this one pulls in both directions. McCann’s bat was terrible in 2016 and all of the problems you feared he might have manifested in a 66 wRC+. However, as I suggested this winter, McCann was more than capable of improving his framing and he did exactly that. McCann didn’t turn himself into a great framer but he went from one of the worst receivers in baseball in 2015 to a roughly average one in 2016. Mix that with his great catch and throw abilities and you have yourself a very solid defender. Unfortunately, great defense doesn’t get you all the way there if you are hitting 35% worse than league average.
Was that a smaller sample size aberration? We’ll soon find out. The power absolutely looked real to the naked eye, as Castellanos drove the ball with much more authority when he squared up a pitch, but the BABIP remains to be seen. His style of hitting lends itself to a higher than average BABIP, but there’s a big gulf between a .315 BABIP and a .340 BABIP that we’ll need to litigate over time.
Castellanos has a swing you can dream on and he definitely bulked up between 2014 and 2015. His approach leaves something to be desired but it really might be as simple as learning to lay off the breaking ball low and away. He can’t hit that pitch and once he stopped trying, his numbers perked up. There’s loads of offensive potential in his bat, he just needs to hone his approach now that he’s added enough strength to hit for power.
A 120 wRC+ Castellanos is a totally plausible thing. And if he hits like that with a below average, but not embarrassing glove, the team has themselves a quality big leaguer.
A downer would tell you that Castellanos shined early in the season and was starting to fade before he got hurt, but if you take a step back and evaluate his season as a whole, he checked exactly the boxes he need to. Increased power, above average BABIP. He finished with a 119 wRC+. While his glove remained below average, it’s nothing like what it was in 2014, and as I said, a 120 wRC+ hitter with a below average but serviceable glove is a player you can work with. The injury cost the Tigers, but Nick did his part living up to what they needed.
It seems entirely possible that Sanchez muddles through 2016 as a below average starter and gives the Tigers 130 or 140 mediocre innings. But it’s also very possible that he’s healthy and gives them 180 great innings. Normally I roll my eyes when people talk about ceilings and floors because anyone can suck and most anyone can have one great season, but I think Sanchez’s probabilities for each are quite high. Maybe call it a 25% chance of disaster, 25% change of greatness, and 50% chance of average. For most players, I would personally predict a much narrower distribution.
I will leave it to you to decide if you consider his season a disaster, or just something kind of close to that. But clearly, Sanchez coming in at the bottom of his potential was one of the significant daggers in the Tigers 2016 title hopes.
Yet if he’s healthy and stays that way, and if his health was what killed him during the dark years, maybe he has another year left in the College of Aces. If Verlander is Verlander and finds something close to the form he found in late 2015, the Tigers can win the AL Central. If Verlander is a 5, 6, or 7 win pitcher in 2016, the Tigers will almost certainly make the playoffs.
This is both comforting and heartbreaking. Verlander absolutely carried forward his late-2016 form and was exactly the kind of pitcher the Tigers needed at the front of the rotation. He did absolutely everything he could to get his team across the finish line, the rest of the club just happened to come up short.
But there’s a counterfactual here worth discussing, just for the sake of this series. Had Verlander gone the other direction, there’s no doubt the Tigers would have missed the playoffs. He really was the truest bellwether of the season, it’s just that 2, 4, 6, and 7 collectively broke far enough in the wrong direction to stifle the club’s hopes. That combined with injuries to JD Martinez and Jordan Zimmermann kept the Tigers from postseason baseball.
The 2016 Tigers season ended Sunday afternoon when Justin Upton took a Jim Johnson called third strike with Andrew Romine at first. There’s a metaphor there, I think, but it’s also true that the Tigers season would have ended a few minutes later when the Blue Jays beat the Red Sox, clinching the last remaining wild card spot.
The Tigers finished 86-75, eight back of Cleveland and 2.5 back of Baltimore and Toronto. If you’re the kind of person who demands a postseason berth or a World Series each year, you’re obviously disappointed right now. The Tigers will miss the playoffs for a second consecutive season and haven’t won a playoff game since 2013. But if you’re the kind of person who watches baseball and roots for a team because you enjoy the rhythm of the summer, this Tigers team gave you plenty to enjoy.
The club was playoff eligible during all 161 games they played and the season didn’t officially slip away until the last inning of the last game. You could argue the season ended when Dansby Swanson started the double play on Saturday or when he started the other double play on Sunday, but the club was right in it until Upton took strike three.
And while the team came up a bit short, there were a number of tremendous individual performances worthy of celebration. Justin Verlander proved his great second half in 2015 was the sign of a real return, and while he might not have done enough to win the Cy Young, he’ll finish in the top five. His rotation-mate, Michael Fulmer, is going to finish first or second in rookie of the year and looks every bit like someone who can fill a key rotation spot for the next six years. Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd didn’t have the season Fulmer did, but they both showed why the Tigers wanted them and left you feeling like this team has a strong young core of pitchers around which to build.
Miguel Cabrera and Ian Kinsler had great seasons despite staring Father Time in the face. JD Martinez and Nick Castellanos missed time with injuries but they crushed the ball when they were healthy. Justin Upton started so bad but by year’s end his late season surge brought him almost all the way back. Even James McCann, light-hitter that he may be, learned to frame much better. He might not be an MLB caliber starter, but he’s good enough to be the weak half of a platoon or a backup if that’s how it shakes out.
And other than Saltalamacchia, Aybar, and McGehee, this entire team is coming back if the Tigers want them. There is no giant hole to fill like there was a year ago when Price and Cespedes left gaping voids on the roster. The Tigers could upgrade at CF, C, the bench, and in the pen, but they have a core of position players and starters that would be the envy of a lot of teams. It might take some creativity to make a big upgrade, but even if they do nothing this is a wild card caliber roster in 2017.
Brad Ausmus will probably return, and while I don’t think much of him as a manager, the roster he had this year hid his flaws more effectively than the one he had a year ago. I’d rather they hire someone else, but I don’t think it will be Ausmus who torpedoes them in 2017.
There will be time shortly to decide who they should sign and acquire via trade, but for now, we can reflect on a good team that was just as good as they should have been. Despite big injuries to Martinez, Castellanos, and Zimmermann, they were the last team to be eliminated in the AL.
It’s easy to look at a season that ends without a parade as a failure. But I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotations given that it’s authored died this past week. I recognize the contexts are vastly different, but wisdom is transferable. Rather than thinking of 2016 as a failure, think of it as one step within a broader effort for the franchise toward a title. So I’ll leave you by paraphrasing the line:
The Tigers title run did not fail. It is just not yet finished.
Going into the final weekend the Tigers are 85-73. The Jays and Orioles are 87-72. The Mariners are 85-74. Each team will play three times over the next three days and can all win 0, 1, 2, or 3 games independent of each other. That means that there are 256 different ways this thing can look when Sunday ends.
I ran the scenarios to see the different possibilities. This doesn’t factor in team strength, opponents, or anything else. There are 256 ways this can go.
In 126 scenarios, the Tigers are eliminated from contention at the end of Sunday. They may have to play Monday for Cleveland’s sake, but they would be out.
It breaks down like this:
Win 3: Eliminated 4/64.
Win 2: Eliminated 16/64
Win 1: Eliminated 42/64
Win 0: Eliminated 64/64
In 108 scenarios, they have to play Monday to determine if they make the wild card. There are a lot of weird versions of this. But they all require the Tigers play Cleveland on Monday to sort something out. Keep in mind there are scenarios within this set in which the club has to play additional games between Monday and the wild card, but that gets extremely convoluted so we’ll keep it simple.
Win 3: 38/64 Play Cleveland
Win 2: 48/64 Play Cleveland
Win 1: 22/64 Play Cleveland
Win 0: 0/64 Play Cleveland
In 22 scenarios, they make it straight through to the wild card in some fashion.
Win 3: 22/64 Wild Card
Win 0-2: 0/192 Wild Card
To summarize, if the Tigers win out, there are only four ways they are out of it when Sunday ends. In 60/64 “Win 3” scenarios they will play at least one more game. If they lose all three, they are done.
If they win two games, odds are they will play Cleveland with a shot to get into a tiebreak or wild card, but there are 16/64 scenarios in which they win two games and their season ends anyway.
If they go 1-2 in Atlanta, they will probably be eliminated, but there are 22/64 scenarios in which they would play Cleveland with a shot to get into a tiebreak of some sort.
Confusing? Definitely. The nice thing is it gets progressively easier to follow after each game.
Entering play on Friday, the Tigers are half a game up on the Orioles for the second wild card with ten games remaining. Despite the ups and downs they experienced over the course of the season, the Tigers are in playoff position at the start of the season’s penultimate weekend.
After a one year hiatus, there will be meaningful baseball games all the way down to the wire for the Tigers. Even if they don’t make it into the wild card game, or if they do and get bounced, at most the Tigers will play only a couple of meaningless games. After two and a half months of such baseball in 2015, that is a welcome reprieve.
Despite that potential, I’ve had a pretty weird feeling about the team since the hot streak ended in early August: ambivalence. Not ambivalence in the sense that I don’t care, but ambivalence in the sense that the Tigers have met my expectations with eerie precision. When the season started, put the o/u at 86.5, said I thought Cleveland was the slight favorite for the Central, and that the Tigers would be right on the edge of the wild card.
That’s not bragging about my predictive abilities, lots of people were in that neighborhood; it’s recognition that your assessment of the team depends a lot on your expectations. The Tigers aren’t disappointing or surprising, they are what we thought they were.
I figured they’d get a little more from Sanchez and a little less than Verlander. A little less from Fulmer and a little more from Zimmermann. Greene performed in the way I expected Mark Lowe would. We saw great Castellanos instead of Upton for the first few months. JD Martinez’ defense has sucked, but McCann became a better receiver. But largely, this was the team we expected
At this point, the only way this becomes a particularly memorable team season is if the make it out of the LDS. That’s definitely possible, but it’s not a super likely outcome. This is a slightly above average team having a slightly above average season. I’m trying to get caught up in it, but despite all our talk of the closing window, 2017 is lined up to play out the same. There are no major free agents and it’s likely Ausmus will be back. It wouldn’t surprise me if he gets extended.
I started the season with an essay on the importance of Mike Ilitch’s mortality. Ilitch’s age shapes the club’s direction. Hell, it’s defined the organization since 2006. Ilitch is a businessman, who has likely done businessman things that might make us feel slimy if we knew. It’s hard to make billions while remaining a beacon of ethics. But Ilitch as the Tigers owner, during this decade, has been about as perfect an owner as you can ask for in sports. Good intentions don’t guarantee a championship, but the Tigers haven’t been held back by the people in the owner’s box, which isn’t something every team can say.
I’ve been thinking a lot about 2009 over the last couple of days. The way that season slipped away at the end, with Cabrera getting drunk and fighting with his wife during the final weekend. The crushing loss in Minnesota that came the following Tuesday. There was so much hope for that team and it came crashing down in just the worst possible way: The team’s best player embarrasing them, losing the division outright, and then a heartbreaker to end all heartbreakers in the worst damn stadium that has ever existed.
That last week in 2009 was the most devastating thing sports has ever done to me. I was watching 163 in my dorm and over the course of the game more and more people started filtering in to watch (it started at 5pm eastern, WTF?). When it ended, most everyone got back to their lives, knowing to give me time to grieve. My parents, whom I assume were physically within a dozen feet of each other, called me separately to commiserate. My wife and I had been dating about 6 months at that point. She knew me well enough to know how much that hurt, but maybe hadn’t quite figured out she was signing up for a lifetime of it. She and I went to all the home playoff games in 2011. We watched from NC when Phil Coke spiked his glove and when Torii Hunter flipped over the wall. When Hernan Perez struck out.
I’m not totally sure when it happened, but somewhere between 2009 and now, the Tigers winning the World Series moved from something I desperately wanted to something that sounds nice. Frequent playoff trips desensitize you. I’ve gotten older. There are other things happening in my life that matter.
In other words, I’ve got decades left of baseball watching and the odds say I’ll watch the Tigers win a title or two. There’s no point in being devastated when they come up short, especially if they played as well as you expected them to.
But the story is different for Ilitch, and for other Tigers fans of his generation. It’s a cycle. When you’re young, winning is so important. And then again when you get old, it becomes important again. A final, lasting memory.
It would be great if the Tigers got hot, roared into October and won it all. I’m not holding my breath and I’ll be cool no matter what happens. But we’re only going to get a few more years of Mike Ilitch at the helm, and for all he’s poured into the team over the last decade, he deserves his moment of glory.
There’s another piece of 2009 that gets buried because of how the team finished. That year, the automakers couldn’t afford to advertise at the park and instead of selling the space to someone else, Ilitch put the three logos on the fountain with the worlds “The Detroit Tigers support out automakers.”
This SI cover is hanging over my desk at home.
It’s easy to forget that the team shed payroll after 2009. That last week and the economic turmoil could have sunk the franchise. The pain of the loss and the financial uncertainty could easily been enough to send them team into a deep rebuild. But Ilitch decided to ride it out. It doesn’t make him a mythic figure but as far as owners go, he’s done right by the city and the fans.
The 2016 Tigers have met the expectations I had for the 2016 Tigers, but the organization has far exceeded what I thought would come in those waning hours of 2009. At the time, it looked like the end of a fun 2006-2009, but really that was the prelude. The Tigers, despite the money they’ve spent and the outside factors they’ve confronted, are right in this thing for the fifth time in six years. If you take the long view, that’s one hell of a thing no matter what happens over the next ten days.
JD Martinez is mashing. After a slow start, he has a 148 wRC+ this season and has been particularly great since coming off the DL. Any questions we had about his bat early in the season have been answered. But if you take a gander at his Wins Above Replacement (WAR) at FanGraphs or Baseball-Reference, you’ll find that Martinez is not keeping pace with his 2014 and 2015 numbers despite the excellent performance at the plate. This is because the two major advanced defensive metrics believe he’s been an atrocious defender in 2016.
Let’s start with the basics. In 900 innings entering Friday, Martinez has -20 DRS and -12.3 UZR. Given that he’s playing in right field, that means his overall defensive value relative to an average player is around -20 to -30 runs. That’s a huge deal. If accurate, we’re talking about two or three wins of value lost relative to average. And average is a good baseline here because that’s roughly what Martinez was in 2015. Okay range and a good arm allowed last year’s version of Martinez to look above average for a cornerman. This year, the numbers tell a much different story.
Now, there are many people who are skeptical of the way advanced metrics are calculated. There’s a level of imprecision that can lead to some error, and of course, there are sample size considerations. So let’s use some analog methods to see how JD measures up.
First, let’s take a look at fly balls (> 25 degree launch angle) to right field (defined as the right third of the diamond) and consider how often those fall for hits. League average BABIP on fly balls to right field is about .117, per Baseball Savant. Keep in mind that “fly ball” is somewhat subjective, but this is good enough for our purposes. If you look at the Tigers values for the same stat, pulling out the games while he was on the DL, it’s right around .136. In other words, fly balls to right field have been landing for hits pretty often with JD in right.
Now, there are some obvious caveats. The first is errors, as those won’t count as hits using BABIP, but all outfielders make a small number of errors so it shouldn’t swing things much. Second, line drives and ground balls are hit to right field too, so there are other types of plays we aren’t covering. Defense is also more complicated that just hit/out. This is a rough estimate. But just using this method we’re talking about 4-5 extra hits relative to average, and if you assume three are singles and two are doubles, you’re talking about 4-5 runs of value using linear weights.
But there’s actually more to it that simply not getting to as many balls. Martinez’s arm was extremely valuable last season, throwing out runners and preventing them from advancing at a high rate. DRS and UZR pegged that value at +5 to +8 runs last season. This year, they think it’s around -3. Again, these aren’t super precise, but that’s an 8-11 run swing.
Fortunately, Baseball-Reference provides some more granular data. They track opportunities, holds, and kills for outfielders. An opportunity is one of five things: single-man on first; single-man on second; double-man on first; flyout-runner on third; and flyout-runner on second. So how often is a ball hit to you in those situations, how often do you hold them to the expected one, one, two, zero, or zero bases, and how often do you throw them out?
Let’s look at JD over the last two years and 2016 league averages.
Keep in mind that not every category has a huge sample, but we’re talking about 284 total chances for JD over the two seasons. As you can see, he was above average in 2015 and is well below average this year. In terms of overall hold rate, he’s gone from a top five player to a bottom five player in just one year. In particular, he’s struggled in three of the five categories.
This backs up the run values we saw the metrics put on his arm, just like the raw BABIP supported a lesser range. Add that to the fact that he’s made five errors this year compared to last year’s two and you have a pretty clear picture that he’s much worse on defense, even if you want to quibble about the precise value used by the advanced metrics.
It’s easy for fans to brush this aside with a “we pay him to hit” mantra, but that’s a very misguided way of looking at the game. Every run you give away on defense, you have to make back with your bat. Sure, Martinez is one of the two best hitters on the team and would find his way into the lineup on any club, but it’s obvious that a Martinez who is solid in the field is more valuable than one who is not.
It looks an awful lot like the Tigers could miss the playoffs by one or two games this year. There are two ways to look at that. Either you could put the blame on almost everyone (including JD’s glove) or you could put it on no one because there are so many people who could have made the difference. Either way, the fact that Martinez has fallen off on defense might not seem obvious to fans who focus entirely on offensive stats, but if you look even a little bit closely at his performance in the field, you see a player who has cost his team runs. And runs are currency, no matter where they are found.
One thing that’s really important to understand if you want to properly manage a bullpen is the concept of leverage. That is, the game is on the line more in certain moments than in others. Tie game, bottom of the 8th, runners on second and third? That’s high leverage. The difference between a hit and an out is significant. Five run lead in the 6th with the bases empty? That’s low leverage. A hit or an out won’t make much difference in the outcome of the game.
Ideally, you want to put your best relievers into high leverage situations because that gives you the best chance to escape without much damage. Of course you want to consider workload and matchups, but in general Good Relievers = High Leverage, Bad Relievers = Low Leverage is what you want to see.
So I thought in might be interesting to see how Ausmus has been doing in terms of using his relievers based on leverage. So I grabbed the average leverage index of each reliever’s appearances (min. 20 IP) and made a couple of graphs.
Two quick notes. First, I removed Greene’s starts for obvious reasons. Second, this is the average leverage index of the total appearance because I wasn’t able to easily grab the leverage index at the entry point for each reliever. As a result, if you come into a game with the bases loaded in the 8th, get out of the jam, the team scores a bunch, and then you get three more outs, you are going to get a little bit screwed over. It’s a proxy, but I think it works fine.
Also keep in mind that the relievers have made a different number of appearances, but for your sake I’m putting them all on one graph. So that means Rondon’s line ends earlier than K-Rod’s. This is not by date, it’s by appearance number.
First, let’s look at full season averages. In other words, take the leverage index of each appearance and create an average for all of the appearances up to that point:
This is a good demonstration that K-Rod is clearly the guy Ausmus turns to in high leverage moments, but the reality is that his average is buoyed by the fact that he almost never gets mop up duty. Most save situations are reasonably high leverage, but it certainly helps that he doesn’t get many six run games. You can also pinpoint the moment when Greene became a higher leverage option and Lowe, Rondon, and Ryan stopped getting big chances.
But this graph is a little less helpful than you want it to be, so let’s try something else. Here are the rolling five-game averages starting at appearance five.
This gives you a better sense of Ausmus’ mood. He’s obviously hasn’t had much faith in Lowe and Ryan lately, but this gives you a better sense than Alex Wilson and Greene are getting high leverage chances just as much as K-Rod and Justin Wilson lately. I know it’s a bit chaotic, so let’s just look at the current top four guys. I changed the colors to make it easier.
We judge managers on individual decisions, but in the aggregate it’s pretty clear that Ausmus has figured out who his best four relievers are. He might still pick the wrong one at any given moment or inexplicably decide trailing by one run is much different than being tied, but at the very least he knows which of his guys are good.
It’s a low bar, but it’s the one that’s been set.
If the Tigers make the playoffs this season, there’s a pretty good case to be made that Dave Dombrowski deserves to win executive of the year for what he did ahead of his dismissal last August. Of course there are Verlander, Cabrera, Martinez(s), and Kinsler, but he also has all three of the pitching prospects he acquired at the deadline last year contributing at the major league level in 2016.
Collectively, Michael Fulmer, Matt Boyd, and Daniel Norris have pitched 242.1 innings as starters this year with an 80 ERA- and 96 FIP-. Fulmer has certainly been the most successful, but Norris and Boyd have also pitched well.
One thing that’s been interesting about watching the kids pitch is that we haven’t really had a chance to watch pitchers develop in quite some time. From 2012-2015 or so, the Tigers used a lot of established major league pitchers. Sure Porcello was young, but Verlander, Scherzer, Sanchez, Price, Porcello, and Fister ate up a lot of the innings over the last several seasons. Veteran pitchers tinker all the time, just (don’t) ask Verlander about his new cutter, but it’s a different kind development.
But having the young starters this year gives us a chance to watch pitchers figure out the kind of hurlers they are going to be. Early season Fulmer was certainly a revelation, but it’s Norris who has my eye at the moment. Everyone knows that Verlander’s taken Fulmer under his wing, but it’s Norris that’s following in the ace’s footsteps more directly.
You see, Daniel Norris’ slider is starting to look an awful lot like a cutter.
It’s important to keep in mind that pitch types exist within three separate continuums: velocity, horizontal movement, and vertical movement. The names are simple classifications. We’ve decided to give the name “changeup” to a certain cluster of pitches and “curveball” to another cluster in this hypothetical three-dimensional space.
The differences between a slider and a cutter are subtle. Cutters are typically thrown a little harder, and with a little less movement in the vertical dimension. Cutters are a little faster with a little less depth, essentially.
Let’s check in on Mr. Norris. First, the velocity:
Now the horizontal movement:
And finally, the vertical movement:
As you can see, Norris is throwing his “slider” faster and with less sink this season and there appears to be a clear trend line as well. If you break it down by month, it’s even more obvious. I’ll omit horizontal break because that’s pretty consistent.
I don’t want to make a big deal about what we call the pitch, because Mr. Verlander seemed to get pretty upset that some other analysts and I started calling his “slider” a “cutter,” but Norris is a little more laid back so I’m now too worried. It looks like Norris is throwing a cutter instead of a slider. At the very least, he’s throwing his slider much differently.
This is quite interesting because now we have two different Tigers pitchers at different points in their careers (different handedness too) both junking their slider for a cutter-ish type pitch in the same season. There are all sorts of potential starting points for this. Rich Dubee is new. There’s an analytics staff in the front office. Saltalamacchia is also new. Maybe Verlander figured it out on his own and taught Norris/Norris copied him. We don’t have enough information to be sure, but it’s definitely curious.
No matter where it started, Daniel Norris is up to something. We haven’t seen him enough to know what it means, but it’s something that merits attention.
Remember way back in 2014 when J.D. Martinez overhauled his swing and became one of the best hitters in baseball? Of course you do. You’re reading a Tigers website. He came up with a lot of raw power but couldn’t get his skills to translate on the field and wound up getting cut by the Astros in the spring of 2014. He had been working to change his swing and the Tigers gave him a shot. He raked in Toledo, got called up to Detroit, and went on a tear for the last division-winning team of the Dombrowski era.
We all liked Martinez, but most of us were also concerned about the other shoe. After all, these late career breakouts are rare and all we had was a .389 BABIP over 480 PA. In other words, we held our breath for 2015, hoping that our favorite team had actually struck gold rather than stumbling into pyrite. Last year, Martinez reassured us all with another terrific season. He delivered a 137 wRC+ and 5.0 fWAR. Martinez was for real.
And then came the first month of 2016. Martinez had just eight extra base hits in his first 128 plate appearances and was running a 78 wRC+ for the season. We were past the point of calling him a fluke for his previous two seasons, but given the struggles of some other Tigers, the concern that the league was finally figuring out Martinez did start to creep up.
Over the last 57 games, J.D. Martinez has been the best he’s ever been, in terms of wRC+:
One big difference during his hot streak compared to before is that he’s swinging the bat a lot more often (roughly 55% compared to 48%). You can see that his recent swing rate is more in line with his successful period.
Granted, I was certainly one of the people who was concerned about his swing rate when he first got going back into 2014. Typically, hitters who strike out like he does without taking their walks are limited even when they have significant power. Martinez has been able to increase his walk rate during the last two years and maintain it even now that he’s swinging more.
Every hitter has their own equilibrium. If Martinez hits better when he’s being more aggressive, he should continue to be aggressive. You don’t take pitches just to take pitches, you take pitches that you can’t do damage against. Right now, he’s making good choices and delivering results.
Now, if your eyes are drawn to the WAR column at Baseball-Reference or FanGraphs, you’ll notice he’s not quite keeping pace with his previous levels because both defensive ratings think he’s been much worse this year. From watching, I would tend to agree that he looks much worse this year compared to 2015, although we could probably quibble about the exact magnitude.
With Justin Upton, Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, and J.D. all hitting, the Tigers lineup becomes as frightening as any in baseball. I don’t think anyone was on the ledge about J.D. after the first month of the season, but the Tigers were counting on him to be a premier hitter coming into the season and their margin for error was quite small in the playoff race. He got off to a slow start, but he’s made up for lost time, even if he hasn’t yet made up for the actual time he lost with a broken elbow. Perhaps the last five games are Justin Upton’s signal that he’s ready to do the same.
I’m going to dispense with the clever introduction because this isn’t going to take a lot of convincing: The Tigers are not a good base running team. There are a lot of different components to base running and a few different ways to measure it, so let’s just do a quick summary.
Using FanGraphs’ Base Running Runs, the 2016 Tigers are 27th in the league. Using Baseball-Reference’s model, they are 25th. Using Baseball Prospectus’ method, they rank 29th. I know that many of my sabermetrically inclined colleagues like to argue about which site is better as valuing players, but this is a relatively unanimous verdict. The current team is not doing well.
But it’s not just the current team. The 2015 Tigers were the worst base running team in the league, according to FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference. Baseball Prospectus liked them a bit more and ranked them 29th. In 2014, the ranks were 26th, 23rd, and 11th (!). In other words, the Ausmus era Tigers have performed poorly on the bases. But again, you knew that.
Baseball Prospectus has a table that shows the club’s success at advancing in situations like ground balls, air balls, on hits, and on outs and the 2016 Tigers are bad in each category. This is not an inherently troubling thing. After all, VMart and Cabrera aren’t speed demons and you wouldn’t expect that they’d take a lot of extra bases. There’s a difference between slow and stupid, and that’s the question I want to explore.
If you look at the Tigers roster this year, you have a handful of capable runners such as Kinsler, Iglesias, Maybin, and Upton. Castellanos, McCann, Cabrera, and Martinez (2) are much less so. If this is simply a matter of the slow players failing to advance, you can put the “blame” on the front office for choosing to assemble a team that doesn’t run very well. If they are performing worse than their speed suggests, however, that’s an execution problem that needs to be addressed at field level.
So we know that the Tigers are not a good base running team, but what kind of a bad running team are they? From a stolen base perspective, they’re just fine, posting a 72% success rate in 68 tries. That’s just about league average and their stolen base runs at FanGraphs support that, with them sitting at -0.4 runs (zero is average). So when it comes to taking off on the pitch, we don’t see any problems. Additionally, they’ve been picked off or picked off and then caught stealing 17 times, which is below average but not significantly so.
If you look at their outs on the bases, they’re in the middle of the pack for outs at first and second, have the 8th most outs at third, and are tied for the 7th most outs at the plate. That’s not a terribly encouraging set of results, but they’re in the top ten in terms of OBP, so they do have more total base runners available to make outs. In other words, the Tigers are worse than average at making outs on the bases, but they’re below average rather than terrible.
Let’s put these two bits of data together by plotting outs on the bases against extra bases taken rate (all from B-Ref):
As you can see, the Tigers are the worst in the league in terms of XBT% but right in the middle in terms of outs made on the bases. It’s one thing to be the Mets, who are the far left dot at 37% and 27 OOB. A team that doesn’t make outs and doesn’t advance is a team that knows its limits. You don’t want to be in the lower right quadrant, like the Tigers and Pirates (35%, 44 OOB).
This is a rough sketch of the situation, but it does the trick. It’s not that the Tigers are particularly reckless, it’s that they are much more reckless than they can afford to be given that they are terrible at advancing. The value of taking the extra base is roughly half as valuable (+0.2 runs) as getting thrown out is costly (-0.4 runs), give or take depending on the base and situation. If you’re taking a lot of extra bases, getting thrown out isn’t such a big deal once in a while, but if you’re either stopping or getting thrown out, you’ve got a problem.
So this is partially on the front office for assembling slow players. But slow players typically have other good qualities, like being able to hit the ball into the shrubs. The problem the Tigers are facing is that their players are making too many outs on the bases given their number of successes. That’s a coaching problem. Ausmus has generally advocated aggressive base running during his tenure, meaning that he’s either actively contributing to this bad mindset or he’s just doing nothing to stop his players who clearly aren’t able to successfully advance on the bases. Either one isn’t good and it’s something that has to stop.
The Tigers have a very narrow path to a playoff berth and they need to save every run they possibly can. Hitting, fielding, and pitching are hard, but base running is a place where your opponent can’t force you to make a mistake. The Tigers need to be more conservative on the bases given their current personnel, and it’s Ausmus’ responsibility to make sure that happens.