In an effort to find to bring a new angle to the routine nature of season previews, last year New English D ran a season preview series based on the team’s nine most pivotal players. We be called the series “2016 Bellwethers,” broke down the players whose 2016 direction would indicate where the Tigers were heading. Due to a solid response, the series is back for 2017. Keep in mind this is not a series about the most important Tigers, but rather the Tigers with the widest range of possible outcomes. You won’t see Miguel Cabrera featured, for example, because of his steady dominance of the league. Enjoy. | #9: James McCann and Alex Avila | #8: Victor Martinez | #7: Whoever Plays Center Field
There’s nothing wrong with having a league average shortstop. Over the last few years, that’s essentially what Jose Iglesias has been. He’s done it in slightly different ways, but he’s been right around that magic two win mark in all three of his full MLB seasons.
But those different ways are important because they demonstrate a path to something more than just an average player. In 2013, he had a 102 wRC+ and in 2015 it was 97. Last year it was 73. Iglesias was able to make up that lost offensive value in 2016 by getting the defensive metrics to like him quite a bit more. I don’t want to litigate exactly how accurate those ratings are at the moment, but the improved defense last year was something I talked about quite a bit as it was happening. Iglesias has always been gifted in the field, but in his previous seasons he had made some mistakes that stunted his value. Last year he was better in those respects and the metrics rewarded him. How much exactly should the needle move is anyone’s guess, but generally the data tracks with the eye test.
If Iglesias had hit like he had in 2015 with 2016’s defense, you’re talking about a 3-4 win player instead of a 2 win player. That’s a big deal, especially for a team on the edge like the Tigers. Step 1 is that Iglesias needs to keep the defensive improvements going, which I suspect he will. He has the arm, hands, and quickness, he was just screwing up the footwork and occasionally losing focus.
Step 2 is getting himself back into that 95 wRC+ range. His strikeout and walk rates have been quite consistent. You can count on him for a 5-6% walk rate and a 10% strikeout rate. He’s aggressive and makes lots of contact, and there’s no reason to think either of those skills are in jeopardy. His power also wasn’t really an issues last year. Don’t get me wrong, he doesn’t have a lot of it, but his extra base hit rate was perfectly in line with what we might expect from him.
His problem, of course, was a big drop in BABIP. It was .356 in 2013, .330 in 2015, and .276 in 2016. A .330 BABIP last year adds about 23 hits. Even a .300 BABIP would have added 10. Let’s just split the difference and say 16. That would bring his wOBA up to about .310 from .283. That’s basically a win of value. In other words, if he had a .315 BABIP he would have been a much more valuable player, and .315 would have been a career worst.
I’m not explaining away the BABIP as complete luck, just pointing out that the difference between last year’s Iglesias and a much more compelling Iglesias is a dozen or so outs falling for singles. And while his contact rate was normal last year, Iglesias put the ball in the air a bit more than you’d like to see:
While fly balls are the new trend in baseball, guys who don’t hit the ball that hard like Iglesias need to avoid them as much as possible. Iglesias is going to make his money with ground balls and line drives and he needs to get back to that approach. If he’s able to do that, it seems totally plausible that he could give the Tigers a 1+ win boost at shortstop, helping them make up those few games they needed a year ago.
Certainly his health could falter or his swing could continue to produce too many balls in the air, but if Iglesias can get his bat back to 2015 with his glove staying in 2016, he’ll help the club stay relevant down the stretch.
In an effort to find to bring a new angle to the routine nature of season previews, last year New English D ran a season preview series based on the team’s nine most pivotal players. We be called the series “2016 Bellwethers,” broke down the players whose 2016 direction would indicate where the Tigers were heading. Due to a solid response, the series is back for 2017. Keep in mind this is not a series about the most important Tigers, but rather the Tigers with the widest range of possible outcomes. You won’t see Miguel Cabrera featured, for example, because of his steady dominance of the league. Enjoy. | #9: James McCann and Alex Avila | #8: Victor Martinez
Presumably, when the Tigers take the field on April 3, someone will listed as the starter in center field. The White Sox will probably be throwing Jose Quintana, so it makes sense to go with a righty, although basically everything is up in the air as it relates to the position. We’ll probably see some Tyler Collins, some JaCoby Jones, and some Mikie Mahtook. Maybe some Andrew Romine? Steven Moya? The Tigers have a lot people who might play center field but no obvious plan for how those plate appearances will be allocated. It’s an open question as I write this two and a half weeks from Opening Day.
So naturally, what happens in center field will have a big impact on the Tigers season. Anywhere there is uncertainty, there is a big potential swing. If one of these players, or a combination of these players, take the reins and give the Tigers reasonable defense and a useful bat, that would go a long way toward getting them into one of the wild card slots.
You can sort of see a world in which any of the three likely options has a good year. Tyler Collins feels like Andy Dirks. He could provide a little power and hold his own in the field. You’re not expecting anything great, but it wouldn’t shock you if he put up a 100 wRC+ or so. JaCoby Jones has raw talent, and if he delivers the power he showed in Double-A and mixes in some athleticism in the outfield, he might surprise you. Mikie Mahtook had plenty of success in the minors and had a great showing in limited MLB action in 2015 before struggling quite a bit in 2016. Can he really hit MLB pitching? I don’t know, but he has the speed necessary to fake his way through hitting 9th in a good lineup if he can make some contact.
I don’t have a lot of wise thoughts to offer here. If one of these players breaks through and has even a remotely strong year – something like 2 WAR – the Tigers would be in tremendous shape. The bar is pretty low, but as I’ve been saying all along the Tigers need a lot of little things to go right in order for the one big thing to swing their way. None of these players have significant track records and all of them definitely have the potential to be a league average player. It comes down to this: I find it very hard to believe the Tigers are out of it in September if they get a good collective season from the people playing center field. It might not be enough to push them over the top, but if they get something from this potential black hole, things are going right in Motown.
In an effort to find to bring a new angle to the routine nature of season previews, last year New English D ran a season preview series based on the team’s nine most pivotal players. We be called the series “2016 Bellwethers,” broke down the players whose 2016 direction would indicate where the Tigers were heading. Due to a solid response, the series is back for 2017. Keep in mind this is not a series about the most important Tigers, but rather the Tigers with the widest range of possible outcomes. You won’t see Miguel Cabrera featured, for example, because of his steady dominance of the league. Enjoy. | #9: James McCann and Alex Avila
I didn’t write that many words about the Tigers this offseason in part because I was often distracted by other things, but also in part because the Tigers didn’t really change very much. Most of the roster going into 2017 is the same as it was going into 2016. You don’t need offseason deep dives into players we all watched and analyzed during the season. No one needed another “something isn’t working right for Anibal Sanchez” article in November. I wrote them throughout the year and they didn’t help.
One exception to this trend was Victor Martinez, a player I explored at some length in December. In that piece I made two main points which I will reiterate here. If you want to see the graphics and such that support these points, follow the preceding link.
The first point is that your view of 2017 Victor Martinez is largely based on what you make of his 2015 season. Two years ago, he had a 78 wRC+ and was one of the least valuable players in baseball. In my piece, I argued that Martinez was probably so bad in 2015 because he had not fully healed from his knee surgery and was essentially one-legged player for most of that year. I think that point is largely defensible. If that’s the case, I wondered if it would make more sense to view Martinez as having simply missed 2015 entirely. My argument is that 2015 Martinez is not a reflection of Martinez’s abilities except for the fact that it tells you something about his injury risk. Yes, it’s quite possible Martinez has a serious leg injury. But if he doesn’t, his 2013, 2014, and 2016 numbers seem more instructive for 2017.
For that reason, I think we can be optimistic about Martinez and could count on his bat for a 120 wRC+ or so. However, I also noted in the piece that Martinez got into a bad habit in 2015 of swinging more often at pitches in the zone while also making less contact. That added to his strikeout rate and while his ability to strike the ball with authority came back in 2016, this bad habit remained, blunting some of his impact.
So going into 2017, we have to ask if Martinez will be healthy and if he will jettison his new found aggression in the zone. If he’s healthy and patient, he will hit. A productive Martinez would be a big boon for the Tigers, but without him in that capacity the club will suffer. There are plenty of good bats in the middle of the order, but the Tigers need to be better in 2017 than they were in 2016 and any steps back will cause problems.
It’s obvious that the club’s most fragile player is a bellwether, but he’s also a bellwether because his previous injury may have messed with his approach a bit and as he ages normally he will need every ounce of that patience in order to remain valuable.
I’m going to wind up saying it with every one of these posts, but the Tigers can be a relevant team if things go wrong but I don’t think they can be a real contend if anything substantial breaks in the other direction. Martinez’s knees foremost among them.