The Tigers have been trying to build a good bullpen for quite some time. This isn’t news to anyone reading this site so I’ll spare you the history. Relievers were a weakness in the Dombrowski era and the team suffered a number of high profile meltdowns that cost them chances at meaningful autumn wins.
In the first year After Dave, Al Avila added three relievers: Francisco Rodriguez, Mark Lowe, and Justin Wilson. K-Rod has been very solid, Lowe has been…uh…unimpressive, and Justin Wilson has been excellent. Two out of three is a pretty good success rate for a Tigers bullpen, but that also ignores the other great bullpen success of the season, Shane Greene.
It’s no secret that the Tigers have long sought a lights out closer who could solidify the 9th. Various arms came and went through the organization, but no one really grabbed the title with much clarity. Todd Jones. Fernando Rodney. Jose Valverde. Joaquin Benoit. Joe Nathan. Joakim Soria.
Previous relievers have had success, but there was rarely dominance in the pen and that dominance was often short-lived when it surfaced. K-Rod has been an effective 9th inning reliever this season, but the true success story of this season is the setup monster cultivated in laboratory of Comerica Park.
Justin Wilson and Shane Greene are the relievers the club has always wanted.
Since 1969, the year the dreaded “save” became an official statistic, there have been 359 reliever seasons of 20 innings or more in a Tigers’ uniform. Using park-adjusted Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP-) as our guide (see inserts for more info on FIP and FIP-), Wilson (39) and Greene (41) aren’t just having good seasons, they are having the two best reliever seasons for a Tiger since 1969. Combined with the fine work from K-Rod, this is the best Tigers bullpen by FIP- since 1984.
To give you a sense of context, Cody Allen, Zach Britton, Andrew Miller, and Aroldis Chapman were the best qualified relievers in terms of FIP- last season and none of them cracked 45. Put another way, if Wilson and Greene continue to pitch the way they’ve pitched for the rest of the season, both will finish with better park-adjusted FIPs than every reliever in baseball last year. Only Dellin Betances is better this year.
A couple of caveats apply. First, we’re only a little past the halfway mark and regression is likely. They won’t maintain quite this pace. Second, FIP is one tool to evaluate pitching performance. It grades pitchers based on their strikeouts, walks/HBP, home runs, and balls in play. It doesn’t care about sequencing and it doesn’t provide any insight into platoon issues. It doesn’t control for any context other than park and league average. For my money it’s the best single number we have to summarize a pitcher’s performance that can also be searched effectively back to 1969 (sorry DRA!). In other words, it’s not a perfect tool, but it’s a fine proxy. Wilson and Greene are having elite seasons not seen in Detroit during the current era of reliever usage.
The second caveat applies for the historic nature of things, but Wilson has a .254 wOBA against and 2.78 DRA and Greene has a .222 wOBA against (as a reliever) and 3.75 DRA (includes his bad starts, can’t split them out at BP). Even if they aren’t actually two of the best three relievers in the game or the best two relievers in Tigers history, they are absolutely crushing it.
Wilson’s case wasn’t that hard to see coming. He was excellent last season for the Yankees, although he’s cut his walk rate, homer rate, increased his ground ball rate, increased his pop up rate, and increased his strikeout rate. His swing rate is up three percent and his contract rate is down about five percent. He’s gone from very good to great, and has done so across the board. He also features essentially no platoon split, making him equally useful in all situations. He’s increased usage of his cutter and been willing to attack hitters up in the zone.
Greene’s case is a bit different because we’ve never had a chance to see him go all out as a reliever. He’s back on track with his 2014 K% and BB% and he’s yet to allow a home run. He’s getting more swinging strikes and is leaning on his cutter much more. He’s also had success against righties and lefties.
I wouldn’t say I’m confident the pair will remain the two best relievers in team history or that they’ll content with the game’s very best arms for the full season, but it’s a very weird feeling to completely trust the back end of the bullpen. The middle relief has had its issues and the manager still can’t quite figure out how to use his pitchers, but the performance has been there for the first four months of 2016. Imagine telling 2013 Tigers fans that the bullpen is great and the rotation is the problem. Imagine!
Wilson and Greene, and K-Rod are all under contract for next season. Even if the Tigers don’t make the playoffs this year, they’re on track to have the first winter in a while in which they don’t need to shop for a high end reliever.
By the time most of you read this, we will be two weeks from the MLB non-waiver deadline. The Tigers have three games with the Twins, four with the White Sox, three with the Red Sox, and three with the Astros before they are required to make a decision about the 2016 season. They currently trail Cleveland by 6.5 games and sit three back of the second wild card. They have seven more chances against Cleveland before the season ends.
This is a rare quandary for the Tigers, as the question of what they should do at the deadline is not entirely clear. It was obvious in 2006, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 that they were buyers and equally clear in 2008, 2010, and 2015 that they were not, even if they put up a good front for the weeks leading up to last year’s deadline. This year is different.
Last year they were nine back at the deadline and played poorly immediately afterward. In addition, the quality of the roster was much lesser, leaving the odds of a late season return to glory much lower. The 2016 club is four games over and heading into a week of games against beatable opponents. Except for their 1-11 record against Cleveland they have played 47-33 versus the rest of the league, outscoring their other opponents 402 to 360. They have a top tier offense and bottom tier pitching. The club has a challenging question to answer these next two weeks.
Making up three games in the wild card standings is certainly within their grasp, and even the 6.5 in the division is not out of the question. If they play 5-2 against Cleveland that gets them half of the way there. They have 32 games left against MIN, CWS, LAA, and ATL. Drawing a path from here to the postseason is not a difficult thing to do, but it requires certain deadline maneuvers that the organization may not wish to stomach.
If The Tigers Buy
If you look around the diamond, the Tigers have several holes in need of plugging, not the least of which is catcher. While James McCann is adept at nabbing would-be base stealers, his performance at the plate has been extremely poor this year. He’s running a 45 wRC+ and has actually been worse of the last month. Saltalamacchia had a big walk-off home run on Sunday, but despite his hot start has only managed to be a league average hitter this year. If you could combine McCann’s, whose improved his receiving quite impressively this year, with Salty’s bat, you might be able to survive, but given that they can only play when the other sits, a full catcher they do not have.
This isn’t to say that McCann won’t grow into his bat, simply that expecting him to do so this year is probably not wise. The obvious solution is Jonathan Lucroy. After a down year in 2015, Lucroy is up to his old tricks with the bat and behind the plate and could certainly rival any non-Posey catcher for total value left down the stretch. Add the fact that he is owed just $5.2 million next season to the mix and that makes him a very worthwhile target. The Brewers are rebuilding and will be very motivated to move Lucroy in a seller’s market, so prying him from the Brewers will simply be a matter of price. We’ll get to that shortly.
The Tigers could also use depth off the bench, preferably someone capable of handling himself in the outfield. The club’s behavior during JD Martinez’s injury indicates that Steven Moya is not someone they trust a great deal and Tyler Collins is no one’s idea of a hitter who forces the opposing manager to go to his relief ace. If you search teams on the outside looking to sell for the right fit, Corey Dickerson of the Rays emerges. Dickerson is having a down year overall (90 wRC+), but his .219 ISO and .261 BABIP makes me think there’s probably not much about which to worry. Surely Tampa Bay can do that math as well, but the rest of the league isn’t going to be motivated to acquire him in the midst of a down year. The Tigers should. He can provide a left-handed bench bat who can spell VMart at DH and either of the corner outfielders when needed while also pinch hitting for Iglesias or McCann (if Lucroy doesn’t come to fruition). The Rays got him for a decent reliever last winter and he’s a half season closer to arbitration, which the Rays might not want to pay.
Obviously the bullpen is always an area of need, but it’s not nearly the weakness it has been in past years. One solid arm will do, and I’d be in favor of letting that arm be Anibal Sanchez, Joe Jimenez, and whoever gets bumped from the rotation (i.e. Boyd, Norris, or Pelfrey) for the next guy on my list.
Matt Shoemaker. In the Dombrowski days, this would be an obvious Tigers candidate. Shoemaker is 29, has a 5-9 record, and a 4.08 ERA which means he’s not on the radar of the more traditional media, but a deeper dive into Shoemaker’s season and the changes he’s made to his performance midseason reveal an impressive arm. He’s going to the splitter a lot more and it’s had really positive effects. His fielding independent numbers are terrific and looks like exactly the kind of arm you’d want to target if you were the Tigers. He’s under team control for several more seasons, but he’s on the old side of things so his current club is not likely to lock him up and build around him, especially considering the fact that his current team is one Mike Trout away from being arguably the worst franchise in the game. Trading Shoemaker in a market devoid of pitching and after the best run of his career makes all the sense in the world, even if he’s not someone two months or 14 months from free agency. (Shoemaker is also a local guy, attending Trenton HS and Eastern Michigan [Go Eagles!]).
Lucroy, Shoemaker, and Dickerson are the arrangement of players the team would acquire if they were committed to going for it. In particular, Lucroy, Shoemaker, and Dickerson would all have a place on the 2017 Tigers and Shoemaker a place beyond that. Buying these players, at a high price, would effectively equate to this winter’s free agent acquisitions. Given the current roster, the Tigers would likely not need to do more than tinker this winter if they added these three guys and they would hardly put a strain on the club’s payroll, which is quite high.
It would cost the Tigers minor league talent, however, and perhaps a name or two from the major league roster. I won’t imagine the precise arrangement, but I would imagine James McCann, Steven Moya, Derek Hill, and two of the promising arms in the low minors would need to be involved. You can’t get these players without giving up players you like, but the Angels might be persuaded by quantity given their current state. The Brewers would be more discerning, but the Tigers could push their chips in and get it done. The Tigers don’t have a farm system like the Red Sox or Cubs, but they have enough if they’re will to go bare.
If the Tigers are going for it, and last winter suggested they are, you might as well jump in with both feet. Get players who can help the team into the next couple of years and think of it like you’re using the farm system instead of the pocketbook to do their free agent shopping. Lucroy, Shoemaker, and Dickerson are probably four-win upgrades this year and would bring plenty of value beyond that. If you’re all in, you’re all in.
If The Tigers Don’t Want To Buy
I recognize that what I’ve proposed is extreme and would require emptying the farm system to take yet another “last shot” with the Verlander-Cabrera-Martinez core. The problem is that the Tigers aren’t really in a position to sell unless they want to punt 2017-2018 as well. Kinsler would net a small fortune, but JD Martinez won’t be healthy in time to trade and there isn’t much else to move other than a couple of bullpen pieces or Cam Maybin, all of which require the club to admit defeat for next year. And if you’re punting on 2017, you have to start to think about a total rebuild, given that Cabrera and Verlander aren’t exactly going to be spring chickens in 2019.
So if the Tigers don’t buy, they have the option of doing nothing, riding out the storm, and coming back next year with essentially the same roster. Or they could choose to really sell, and entice a club with the a Hall of Famer caliber first baseman (which the organization likely has zero interest in doing).
The point is that the Tigers don’t have a punt-2016 option. They can buy hard, stand pat, or sell hard. Given that selling hard is out of the question, they can choose to ride out the season as they are, perhaps making a small move here or there, or they can go big. Trying to split the difference with a couple of solid but not great pieces probably doesn’t give them enough to win this year and hurts the farm system in a way that sets up later peril. If they are going to gut the system, they should gut it right.
I’m not totally sure I’ve convinced myself which option is better. In general I’m in favor of letting it ride with the roster you built over the winter, but the American League doesn’t have an obviously great team and this might be a good chance to win the pennant and go for broke, especially because the moves I’m proposing would put them in a really good position for next year as well.
For that reason, the Tigers should at least try to go down the road on Lucroy, Shoemaker, and (to a lesser extent) Dickerson. They will not come cheap, but the benefits are potentially quite significant and the owner wants to win before he dies. The reason this makes sense is because you’re pushing in all of your chips for two shots at the title rather than one. If you look at this as a chance to win in 2016 and build the 2017 roster, it’s easier to accept the lost talent in the system.
It’s bold and risky and the prospect huggers won’t want to abandon the potential. Plenty of people will make proclamations that Lucroy and Shoemaker aren’t as good as I suggest. Others will argue the Tigers couldn’t even manage to get both. I reject all three of those particular arguments.
You borrow from the future to go for it in the present. Lucroy and Shoemaker are really good players who would replace huge current holes. And despite a weak system, the Tigers have enough talent to get these deals done if they’re willing to part with everyone you love. Maybe there’s a better move if you’re thinking about maximizing 2017, but I don’t see another play that helps in 2016 and 2017.
Dave Dombrowski, despite a terrific run of success in Detroit, was fired because he didn’t quite get this team over the final hurdle. Mike Ilitch likely hasn’t grown more patient in the twelve months since that guillotine fell. If the Tigers want to go for it, this is how they should do it. If they aren’t comfortable with the risk, the current roster might still give them a fighting chance. Either option is defensible, and the Tigers have two weeks to chart their course.
When Cameron Maybin came off the DL in mid-May, it occurred to me how central a figure he was to this era of Tigers baseball despite having spent virtually no time on the major league roster:
Maybin, of course, was one of the two centerpieces in the Miguel Cabrera trade that brought the future Hall of Famer to the Motor City. When the Tigers brought Maybin back this winter, there was a sense of homecoming for everyone even though he was about to turn 29 and had parts of eight other seasons in the show with three different organizations.
Maybin had one really good season in 2011, but fell short of his prospect promise in every other year of his career. There were injuries and growing pains along the way, but by any real accounting of his performance, things had gone poorly. He made it to the majors, earned a nice payday, and stuck so it would be hard to call him a bust, but he did not grow into the player that people expected when he was paired with Andrew Miller in a trade for one of the generation’s true stars.
Maybin was an above-average hitter in 2011 with good center field defense and great base running, but his bat suffered in 2012 and he couldn’t stay consistently healthy for the next two seasons. When he got to Atlanta last year, the defense and base running of his youth were less impressive and it became clear that if he was going to have a career into his 30s he was going to need more from his bat.
You can be a below average hitter if you are a really good defender or a terrific base runner, but with Maybin’s age and injury history conspiring against him, it looked more and more like any future value was going to come from his bat or not come at all. This isn’t to say Maybin can’t run or field, but rather that he’s no longer someone who can do either well enough to carry a lackluster bat.
Fortunately, Maybin’s bat showed signs of life last season and that positive progress has carried over into 2016. We’re only halfway into 2016 and he’s only 49 games deep, but this is Maybin’s best offensive season to date by a significant margin. Of course, it’s 49 games and he has a .399 BABIP, but we’ll get to that. Maybin is walking more than ever, striking out at a career low rate, and getting on base more often than ever. In fact, even if you deduct 10 hits to pull his BABIP down to .330 this year, he’s still running a .340+ OBP.
In other words, Maybin’s certainly getting help from a BABIP that won’t stay quite that high going forward, but it’s not that strange that he’s running a higher BABIP this year given a very important shift in his approach. Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer is a believer in cutting down on strikeouts and chasing singles, and Maybin says that Seitzer really influenced his approach last year. As you can see in chart below, Maybin has really cut down on the number of balls he’s hit in the air, instead working on ground balls and line drives.
An approach like that will deplete your extra base hits, but grounders and line drives fall for hits more often than fly balls. Across the league, power is typically worth the contact trade off because of the value of extra bases, but Maybin individually seems to have found balance as a singles hitter. Trading contact for power works in the aggregate, but it doesn’t work for everyone.
This is a rough comparison, but look at Maybin from his debut through 2012 (before the two injury plagued years) and then from 2015-2016 after the Seitzer intervention.
Keep in mind the offensive era changed a good bit over the course of this period, but the line features more walks, fewer strikeouts, and less power over the last two years and the drop in fly ball rate is really noticeable. This is a different hitter. For now, it’s good different.
I’m certainly not going to look at two months of Maybin and suggest he’s suddenly become a true talent .390 BABIP hitter or that he’s going to maintain his 123 wRC+ for the remainder of the year, but I think it’s safe to say the version of Maybin we saw in Miami and San Diego no longer exists. At the moment, he’s playing at somewhere between a 3-4 WAR pace. Even if he’s not quite that level of player for the rest of the year, he’s probably an average regular the Tigers acquired for virtually nothing this offseason and can keep around for 2017.
This is especially important considering another rough year for Anthony Gose (and perhaps an impending release) and a complete absence of other outfielders within the system near major league ready. After all the Tigers are using Andrew Romine and Mike Aviles in the outfield regularly this year while JD Martinez heals and they continue to not know if Steven Moya exists. The Tigers have essentially no one in the organization who’s a good option in center field. JaCoby Jones is relatively new to the spot and needs seasoning all-around. Derek Hill is miles away with the bat. It’s Cameron Maybin in CF or it’s Andrew Romine, so it’s awfully nice to see Maybin’s development into a productive hitter. Some of the performance is good fortune, but some of it does appear to be the result of a new approach.
The Tigers struck early this winter, signing Jordan Zimmermann to a five year deal to bring him to Detroit through 2020. Zimmermann, unlike most of the other potential cogs in the upcoming rotation (Verlander, Sanchez, Norris, Greene, Fulmer, Boyd, Pelfrey) was a low variance bet. Zimmermann had been a durable model of consistency since coming back from Tommy John Surgery in 2011 and the Tigers figured he’d be a good bet to maintain his skills into his early 30s.
In a basic sense, things have looked good for Zimmermann this year. His 91 ERA- and 83 FIP- put him somewhere between good #3 starter and solid #2. His full season performance doesn’t reflect that of an ace, but the Tigers didn’t sign him to be an ace. In 95.2 innings, he’s put together a 2.2 fWAR to go along with his 1.3-1.4 WAR if you like RA9, Baseball-Reference, or Baseball Prospectus WAR. In other words, Zimmermann has been successful in 2016 and generally in line with what the Tigers figured they’ve be getting when they put pen to paper last November.
Interestingly, Zimmermann has achieved these results in a manner slightly out of step with his recent approach. His walk rate is an as expected 4.6%, but his strikeout rate is a career low 15.2%. Fewer strikeouts is generally a bad thing, as more balls in play leads to more hits, but Zimmermann has combined that drop in strikeout rate with a decrease in home run rate as well. After allowing 1.07 HR/9 in 2015, Zimmermann has allowed 0.75 HR/9 this year which is a tick below his career average. That works out to 3-4 fewer HR allowed this year based on the lower HR/9 rate. Add that to a slightly higher pop up rate compare to last year and it’s easy to see how Zimmermann has survived more balls in play.
The lower home run rate and higher pop up rate aren’t at all unprecedented for Zimmermann, so while we shouldn’t over emphasize 95 innings of work, we’re not talking about crazy BABIP suppression or something like that. You’re worried about the drop in strikeouts, but you’re not worried that this is a totally implausible way to succeed. When the ball has been put in play, he’s allowing a little bit harder contact than last year, but we’re not talking about anything dramatic that indicates it’s a mirage of a stat line.
He’s getting fewer strikeouts than we’ve seen him get in his career, but as long as he’s not letting those lost strikeouts turn into extra base hits or walks, you’re not going to be too worried over half a season. That said, there are some differences in his game that extend beyond the outcomes. First, last season’s velocity decline was not a blip or a glitch. The trend has continued:
In addition, he’s relying on his fastball less often in 2016. Against lefties, he’s added many more sliders and even some changeups. Against righties, he’s added a fewer more curveballs.
This is really evident when you check out his zone profile against lefties. His MO is fastballs up and away and curveballs low, but this year with more breaking balls to lefties, you can see that he’s working a lot lower in the zone.
You can see a similar effect against righties.
It’s not clear if this is a mandate from the Tigers or if it’s simply a feel thing for Zimmermann based on how he likes his stuff. To this point, it’s been effective for him, but if he loses a touch of command and the walks go up or if hitters start squaring him up, he’ll have to revisit he approach to see if he can rediscover his strikeouts.
Zimmermann has mixed in three bad starts among his 15, but overall his been a reliable and steady force in the rotation despite missing time with the groin injury. The drop in strikeouts, and especially the continued loss of velocity is somewhat concerning, but so far he’s shown an ability to pitch effectively in Detroit through his first 15 turns.