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.