Reviewing The Preseason Bellwethers

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

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.

#9: Daniel Norris

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.

#8: Justin Wilson

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.

#7: Mark Lowe

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.

#6: Jose Iglesias

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.

#5: Francisco Rodriguez

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.

Done!

#4: James McCann

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.

#3: Nick Castellanos

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.

#2: Anibal Sanchez

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.

#1: Justin Verlander

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.

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5 responses

  1. We can reasonably expect more out of Norris and Nick (more games out of Nick, anyway) next season. I’m not sure who else is a good candidate to make a significant step forward. Maybe McCann or Rondon. I can easily see KRod, VMart, and Kinsler regressing.
    It’s hard to see how next season will be any better, unless the Tigers pull off a larcenous trade or Jimenez arrives big time on the scene.

    1. Stephen Pershing | Reply

      Based on Al Avila’s press conference today, I can reasonably see KRod, VMart and Kinsler getting traded.

      1. VMart is untradeable, with his knees and his salary.

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