Justin Upton Is Starting To Look Like Justin Upton
This offseason the Tigers invested $132 million in Justin Upton to solidify their offense and replace Yoenis Cespedes. Upton wasn’t necessarily the best player on the market, but his year to year consistency and age made him a good target for the Tigers. He was useful in a corner outfielder spot and was an above average hitter to slot in around Cabrera and the Martinezes.
As you know, his tenure in Detroit got off to a dreadful start. Through his first 193 PA (through May 30), he hit .215/.259/.309 (48 wRC+) with a 36.8 K%. The only thing that would have worried Tigers fans more would have been if he became a pitcher and immediately tore his UCL. It was a bad run, but it also wasn’t the first time Upton had done something like this. Here is Upton’s career through 2015 in 47-game rolling average fashion. He didn’t hit 48 wRC+ too often, but he was well below average plenty of times and always bounced back.
Upton has always been known as a streaky hitter, but of course Tigers fans were getting their first day to day look at him and panicked (I know, right?) that they had signed a damaged player. If a player slumps in April and May, it often looks much worse than if they do it in July because we’re used to looking at starts per season not stats per 162-game time period.
Over the last four weeks (since May 31), Upton has really turned it around. He’s not setting the world on fire, but he’s essentially found his 2012-2015 form.
His strikeout and walk rate, along with his power, have returned to Upton-y levels and his production has followed. His contact rate has rebounded and for all intents and purposes, you couldn’t distinguish last-four-weeks Upton from last four years Upton. To wit, his 40 game rolling average with 2016 included.
Upton is coming out of it and producing the way the Tigers expected when they decided to make him part of the team long term. The streakiness is a feature of who Upton is. The lows come with highs and the overall product is quite good. It’s unfortunate that Upton had one of his craters at the beginning of his Tigers career, but he looks to have settled in over the last month and is hitting much better.
What The Tigers Bullpen Needs
The topic of conversation around the proverbial water cooler this week has been the Tigers fledgling bullpen. After all, over the last seven days the relief corps has allowed 26 runs in 24 innings while striking out just 19 of 125 batters. They have allowed more runs during the last week than they have recorded strikeouts. Not good!
Over the entire season, they’ve collected a 116 ERA-. That’s one of the worst marks in the league and it’s backed up by an RE24 of about -25 and a DRA of around 4.50. Whether you like the basic ERA (you shouldn’t) or the more advanced RE24 or DRA, the Tigers bullpen is allowing too many runs.
However, the fielding independent numbers paint a less bleak image. They have a 90 FIP- this year, which ranks in the top half of bullpen units. Their walk rate is reasonable and they don’t allow many dingers. Their strikeout rate is lower than you would like, but it’s not so low as to wash away their above average BB% and HR/9. Of course, FIP assumes that the outcomes on balls in play is mostly random and it’s easy to suggest the Tigers pen is giving up hard contact. They have an MLB worst .333 BABIP. Using the BIS quality of contact stats at FanGraphs, we can see that the Tigers have a very high rate of medium hit balls. Their soft hit rate allowed is low, but their hard it rate also doesn’t crack the top half of the league. Maybe it’s not a great profile, but it’s not like they’re getting toasted. They also have an MLB high 51.7 GB%, further indicating that they aren’t giving up tons and tons of gap shots.
Add this to a horrible LOB% and you basically have the issue. They have given up hits and they’ve done so in bunches. A good bit of that is luck. I know that’s not an explanation that makes people happy, but giving up single, singles, double, ground ball is the same as single, ground ball, single double even though the results are different. However, there is the matter of strikeouts. Strikeouts stop the bleeding and prevent runners from advancing, and the Tigers don’t get enough. They need more high K arms.
While Justin Wilson, K-Rod, and Shane Greene have done nice work in the pen, the rest of the crew has been middling or worse. Bruce Rondon looked great on Sunday, but it was his first outing of the year.
Bullpens are tricky to analyze because you get such a limited look at each reliever. Mark Lowe and his missing velocity are obviously a problem, but it’s hard to say it Wilson, Hardy, Ryan, Farmer, etc are bad or have just had some bad outings. No one expected a Yankees-Royals style bullpen, but the group looks better on paper than it has in a few years.
It’s easy to say the bullpen is another unmitigated disaster and the club has to go back to the drawing board, but I think that’s a short sighted approach.
Here’s what I would do. K-Rod, Wilson (J), and Greene are obviously not going anywhere for the moment. They need four other arms out there. I think Sanchez and Rondon make sense for different reasons. Sanchez because he needs to stay there until he’s ready to come back to the rotation (no home runs in 8 innings!) and Rondon because he’s a strikeout guy who looked great over his last several minor league outings. After that, they need a lefty and a righty. Alex Wilson is an option, but Joe Jimenez is probably ready to get his feet wet. And for the lefty – Matt Boyd. He’ll need a week to circle back to the active roster but the while he’s stubbed his toe a little in the rotation this year, he still has shown the stuff to get big league hitters out. If he’s put in a spot where he doesn’t have to face the best power hitting righties, he can easy back up Wilson as LHP2. Hopefully Lowe can find his way to the DL so the Tigers don’t lose him and any chance he has at earning that $13M deal.
This still isn’t the best pen in the league, and I’m only selling minor tweaks, but the club needs more guys who can get strikeouts and calling on Rondon, Jimenez, and Boyd should beef that up. Having Boyd and Sanchez around also gives the team better long options so they can stop carrying eight relievers (which should be against the Geneva Convention) and actually play with a full bench. And furthermore, Ausmus should be willing to stretch his good relievers out to face six batters when the situation calls for it. If your middle relief makes you nervous, pitch your better options more. Sure, they might burn out for October, but you have to make it that far in the first place.
The bullpen has allowed a bunch of runs recently but it’s not beyond repair. The Tigers are built to be in the mix for the AL Central and despite some really rough stretches this year they remain very much in that race. The team is going to win and lose based on the back end of the rotation, JD Martinez’ right elbow, and Jusim Upton’s bat. The bullpen isn’t going to carry them to the postseason but I also don’t think it will be the thing that keeps them from getting there.
Dissecting Jose Iglesias’ Offense
I don’t want to alarm you, but Jose Iglesias is not hitting well this year. After a good opening week or so, Iglesias’ bat has cratered. Observe:
While he’s never been a power threat, he’s no longer getting singles at the rate he has during his last two full seasons. Jose Iglesias with no power and a below average BABIP is essentially a replacement level player.
Now of course, it’s still only June and players are entitled to slumps. It’s not like Iglesias was expected to be a major offensive force. He’s a guy you’d be happy to see in the 90 wRC+ neighborhood and anything more is gravy. So while Justin Upton’s wRC+ in the 60s is very bad, Iglesias’ time down there is just kinda bad. All hope is not lost.
But I have noticed something about the way Iglesias is being pitched and felt it worthy of exploration. As you may know, Iglesias is one of the league’s best contact hitters. That is, he’s one of the hardest batters to face if you want a swinging strike. He may not bomb the ball around the park, but he makes contact. This year, pitchers are coming inside against him much more, potentially to generate weaker contact (which I’ll get to in a moment).
Those categories are based on two imaginary vertical lines that split the plate in third. Inside and outside extend for forever and middle covers the ~6 inches in the middle of the plate. Pitchers are definitely pitching inside more this year.
Here are those categories carved up into balls, called strikes, swinging strikes, foul balls, and balls in play. For 2015, 2016, and then a comparison.
As you may notice, inside pitches are resulting in more balls, similar strike numbers, and slightly fewer balls in play. Middle has lots fewer balls, lots more strikes, and fewer balls in play. Outside has more balls, fewer strikes, and about the same number of balls in play.
There isn’t an obvious implication for those values. Any of them could be good or bad depending on the value of the balls in play. So let’s look at that. Please note I called this wOBABIP to jive with the MLBAM “in play” tag, but it’s the same as wOBACON (as his homers are included).
This is interesting. Iglesias is seeing more pitches inside and is performing better against them when he puts them in play. Mix that with a relative push on balls and strikes and he’s doing better against inside pitches overall despite seeing more of them. However, he’s doing much worse on pitches down the middle and outside this year.
It could easily be the case that Iglesias’ desire to make contact against everything is actually harming his overall production because he’s had to focus inside more this year to the detriment of his production elsewhere. Down the middle, he’s taking more strikes and producing less and outside he’s producing less.
There are other explanations like health, sequencing, etc that might explain something like this, but this fits the facts on the ground. Iglesias is still making contact when he swings, he’s just not producing as much overall. It seems likely that this is partly due to pitchers challenging him inside and Iglesias having a tough time catching up to those pitches without sacrificing some oomph on the outer two thirds.
While I greatly admire his contact ability, it might be time for him to accept some swings and misses inside if it means doing a little more damage overall. Pitchers are attacking him differently and are winning, he needs to explore an adjustment.
The Anibal Sanchez Crossroads
After another rough start in which Anibal Sanchez allowed eight hits, two walks, and three home runs against a rather limited Angels offense, we find ourselves at a crossroads. I would typically prefer not to lean on a cliche for this kind of thing, but sometimes cliches exist because they capture an enduring condition. Anibal Sanchez is pitching poorly, he’s being pitching poorly for quite some time, and the Tigers have an opportunity to change direction now that Fulmer, Norris, Boyd, and Greene are all legitimate rotation options. With Verlander being Verlander and Zimmermann ready to come back, there is an out for Sanchez. It’s time.
I’ve written about this and I’ve tweeted about it even more. Anibal Sanchez isn’t flashing the same stuff he did when he was an ace, but I still maintain that his stuff is still mostly there. This isn’t a question of vanished velocity or a lack of movement overall, it’s about a lack of execution that has become too frequent to ignore.
While it’s hard to diagnose the precise cause of his troubles, the method of failure is obvious.
During Sanchez’s best seasons, he was preventing home runs at an elite rate. No one expected that to continue, but the way in which it has failed to continue is extraordinary. The chart shows a 30-game rolling average of his HR/9 by game. So the last point is his last 30 starts, the point at Game 150 is for career games 120-150, etc. The home run problem has exploded.
Home runs are funny. Most of the time, pitches influence whether they allow long fly balls, but the rate at which they clear the fence is pretty random. You can be homer prone, but even the worst pitchers don’t give up that many. Dingers are noisy and so when the problem started at the beginning of last year, it was easy for me to dismiss as one of those weird things. After all, the stuff looked fine. But it kept happening.
And now lately he’s been walking batters at an alarming rate.
The walk rate isn’t unprecedented like his HR rate, but they’re climbing back to pre-ace levels. You can walk batters in the show, but you can’t walk them if you’re also giving up a ton of HR. There’s no path forward for a pitcher like that.
Sanchez says he’s healthy and given how poorly he’s pitched, it would be easy to blame an injury if one was lurking at all. He’s not at peak velocity, but he’s at a workable velocity and he still gets break on his pitches. He’s just throwing too many bad pitches mixed in with the normal ones. At first you chalk it up to the randomness of baseball and clustering, but we’re 40 or so starts deep into this run. It’s time to worry.
Sanchez has indicated some of this is mental. I try not to psychoanalyze players, but if he’s offering it as an explanation I’ll give it credence. Sanchez has given the Tigers about 10 WAR during this contract and even if he never pitches for them again it won’t be much of a loss. This isn’t about salvaging a disasterous contract or wishing the club had gone another direction, it’s about finding a way to get Sanchez back to useful status.
The best path is probably to send him to the bullpen. Tell him to focus on preparing for 3-6 batters per outing and try to give him a schedule. Let him concentrate on a small task and work back up to longer outings. At worst, he’ll offer some bullpen depth and at best it will give him a chance to reset himself without the pressure of going 6-7 inning each time. It might not work, but it’s better than sending him to Toledo to pitch against inferior opponents with low stakes.
Sanchez has been one of my favorite players since he arrived on Detroit and had previously been the recipient of one of my Twitter things. It’s been hard to watch the wheels fall off over the last year and a half, but there’s really no way to ignore it anymore. The best thing for him and the team is to move him to the bullpen and hope that we haven’t seen the final Anibal Sanchez Night in America.