I was eleven days shy of my seventh birthday when my family brought home a dog for the first time. Boomer was smart and awkward and the best friend you could imagine. Along with Kelly, who we adopted a year later, he grew up with me in our suburban Toledo home. Boomer died very young. He was just eight and half when my mom called me while my dad and I were in Chicago to tell us Boomer was fading fast. We made it home for his final hour but, as anyone will tell you, losing your first dog rips a hole inside you that can never quite be repaired. Even with Kelly by our side, the days after Boomer died were empty.
In typical Weinberg fashion, we made the fateful decision to “just go look” at a litter of golden retriever puppies four days later. Because you can’t do anything else when you meet a golden retriever puppy, we fell in love. We named him Duke. It was July 23, 2005.
Dogs are theraputic, but there was something especially restorative about being the one who was responsible for most of his care during those early weeks. I was on summer vacation and both my parents worked full-time, so I potty-trained him and we bonded as he grew from a pup into a massive ball of golden energy. There is still a Boomer-shaped hole in me, but there is also Duke-shaped duct tape.
To say he was spirited would be an understatement. He was smart and full of love and was a troublemaker of the highest order. He chewed cell phones. He tore up my Tigers hat. He grabbed mail off the counter. If it wasn’t load-bearing, he was probably going to mess with it.
He stole food off the table. He even ate an entire plate of brownies, earning one of his famous trips to the vet. For years there were bungee cords everywhere because he could open cabinets and rummage through the treasures that lay within. If you’re trying to picture it, think Marley with long hair and less of an appetite for walks on the beach.
But it was hard to stay mad when he pulled off one of his trademark heists. For all the trouble he caused, he was always there to greet you and show you what he had recently stolen.
I left for college when he was about three and moved away for good four years later. He never held it against me and was thrilled to see me whenever I came home. He took to Becky just like you’d expect and their naps together became pretty frequent when were in town. In fact, last year when we visited over Christmas he climbed into bed with her before I was done brushing my teeth and I spent the night on the floor while my wife snuggled with my golden brother. When he was younger, I would have told him to move, but he played his age well and I couldn’t. I’m glad I didn’t.
Over the last few years, he’s slowed down. He couldn’t jump on the counters the same way or bust out of the house and run free the way he could as a pup. Just a few weeks ago he got loose and I was able to catch him in just a few steps. His hips weakened. He lost his booming bark. Going to the park in the heat was out of the question.
But he kept his happy-go-lucky outlook. He instigated wrestling matches with Violet, my folks’ newest doggo, and was more than happy to beg for scraps from the table. He knew how to have fun, a quality I’ve never been able to master. He didn’t have Boomer’s intelligence or Kelly’s fierce loyalty, but he could liven up a room in a way that will stay with me forever.
In many ways, Duke was the last remaining bridge to my youth. He came to us before I could drive a car and has been around for every major life event I’ve had over the last thirteen summers. He was there when I got into college. He got to meet Becky shortly after we started dating and I gave him a nice head scratch the afternoon I walked into the house after buying an engagement ring. He helped me craft my senior thesis and pack up everything I owned into a U-Haul. He was there when we mourned Kelly, and when I decided to move home, he was sitting under the table as I prepared for job interviews. He greeted us when we drove through Toledo on the way to Lansing.
He’s been present in my life, even if he was physically far away, for nearly every important moment. Sadly, even dogs who live long, happy lives aren’t with us for long enough. Duke, the dog with an iron stomach and hidden thumbs, left us tonight two months after his twelfth birthday. It happened suddenly, so I wasn’t able to be with him, but he was surrounded by family and didn’t suffer long.
I’m not a religious person and don’t really believe in an afterlife, but if heaven is real, it’s full of dogs. And now that Duke is among them, heaven is also full of people chasing a giant golden retriever who has stolen a bag of chips or a towel that was supposed to go in the washer.
With the non-waiver trade deadline behind us, the Tigers face a two-month slog toward the offseason. We’ll get a chance to test the waters with a few new relievers and the organization will take a long, hard look in the mirror as it prepares for what is sure to be an important winter. I wrote in June that it was time for the Tigers to tear things down and rebuild. While the club correctly assessed that the 2017 season was over, they held back on making any moves related to their long-term future. The Tigers traded JD Martinez and Alex Avila, free agents at the end of 2017, and Justin Wilson, a free agent after 2018, but did not make deals involving Verlander, Kinsler, Iglesias, Castellanos, Upton, or Cabrera.
In other words, the Tigers made the trades that they absolutely had to make at the 2017 non-waiver trade deadline. Holding Martinez or Avila would have been nonsensical and Justin Wilson’s value would certainly have been much lower this winter when teams were under less pressure to upgrade their bullpens. If they had failed to trade any of those three players, it would have been a failed deadline. Everyone else is either tradeable in August, this winter, or later, so the fact that the Tigers didn’t go further isn’t yet evidence of anything.
Before we take a broader view, let’s start with the deals they made. Many people panned the Martinez deal for an apparently light prospect return, but now that the deadline has passed it’s quite clear that the demand for corner outfielders was low and that teams were not motivated enough to acquire rental hitters to part with big prospects. Lugo, Alcantara, and King aren’t a murderer’s row infield, but the Tigers had to trade Martinez and looking around the league at the deadline indicates there wasn’t some team lurking and waiting to pay a lot more for JD. Lucas Duda, Melky Cabrera, and Todd Frazier were the only other notable corner bats to move and the Sox only got more for Frazier because he came with two good relievers.
Wilson and Avila brought back a more crowd-pleasing pair in Candelario and Paredes, one of whom is close to the majors and one of whom is not. They will probably both move down the defensive spectrum but they could both provide plenty of offense as well.
Neither trade blows you away in the way that the Price or Cespedes deals did two years ago, but the Tigers were dealing players who were either slightly worse or in lower demand at the time. It’s hard to knock the execution. The system is deeper today that it was a couple of weeks ago and it doesn’t appear like another team would have ponied up a lot more for either set.
But our focus now has to turn to the broader vision. The tactical execution of the deadline went well, but the strategic approach to the organization remains a question. The Tigers knew they were licked in 2017, but are they still considering holding things together for 2018 or did they simply not like the offers they heard on other players and are ready to try again in August and December? There’s no harm in holding Verlander if you expect to get a better return later, but if they are holding the core together because they haven’t decided to blow it up, that’s more troubling.
As I wrote in June, the Tigers have to make a big decision and their recent pattern has been to delay that decision as long as possible. If they’re not willing to run a very high payroll, they should begin a rebuild immediately. You don’t get extra credit for winning games with homegrown talent, it’s just a cheaper way to play. If you draft and trade well, you can acquire players and get their peak performance before they hit free agency. That saves money, but it’s not the only way to win. If the Tigers are willing to spend, they can keep playing the free agent market indefinitely. Ownership seems unwilling to push their payroll much higher than it currently sits. If that’s the mandate, the team needs to rebuild because they won’t be able to be successful if they don’t.
If they decide to rebuild, they need to be willing to trade everyone (except Fulmer) and eat a portion of their contracts. It’s hard to know what was rumor and what was fact, but the Tigers seemed unwilling to absorb a large portion of Verlander’s contract in a deadline deal. That’s absolutely the wrong approach. Most teams aren’t going to be interested in Verlander for $28 million a year. If they have $28 million to spend they can use it to sign a younger, better player on the market this winter. What the Tigers can offer other teams is Verlander at a salary well below market value. Doing so creates value and increases the prospect return. And that prospect return is how you rebuild.
The same is true for guys like Kinsler, Iglesias, Castellanos, and Upton if he doesn’t opt out. Those players don’t have the same size contracts, but the Tigers should be willing to absorb money to get back better players. Miguel Cabrera is a special case because he’s performing so poorly at the moment, but they should absolutely try to trade him using the same contract absorption method once he looks healthy.
The Tigers have good players who are paid like good players. Other teams wants good players, but they can get good players who are paid well on the free agent market. In order to create trade value, you have to offer good players at low salaries. That’s the decision the Tigers have to be willing to make as they approach rebuild.
If the plan is to simply offload salary, the only justification is that they would turn around and sign new players on the free agent market. That’s also a fine approach. If you want to dump salary to chase Harper in two years, that’s okay. If you want to dump salary so the Ilitch balance sheet looks better during down years, that’s not.
Al Avila completed a successful deadline but the real work is waiting. The Tigers have to chart a course. Either tear it down or spend a lot of money. I’m agnostic about the direction, but they have to pick a direction and start executing. Trying to hold this team together and improve around the edges is a recipe for failure.
It’s the trade deadline. The Tigers are out of the race. They have a good reliever with one plus season of team control left. It’s pretty easy to figure out where this is going. Everyone needs relief pitching at the deadline and the Tigers had a darn good one to trade, so that’s exactly what they did today, sending Justin Wilson and Alex Avila to the Cubs for Jeimer Candelario, Isaac Paredes, and either a PTBNL or cash.
Wilson came to the Tigers prior to the 2016 season in a deal with the Yankees and he’s performed as well as anyone could have expected. His fielding independent numbers have been terrific, roughly 25 percent better than league average during his year and a half with the club. This year, he’s been a strikeout machine (35 K%) and has been fortunate enough to run a .210 BABIP to balance out his unseemly .340 mark from a year ago. Wilson is a good left-handed reliever and it’s July so that made Al Avila a very popular man.
Avila the younger has been slumping as of late, but still takes his 134 wRC+ with him to the North Side as insurance behind Willson Contreras. Avila has had a great year for the Tigers and given that he was signed to a one-year deal for $2 million this winter, getting anything of value back is a great outcome. We’ll have to watch Avila leave Detroit for a Chicago team for the second time in two years, but there was no reason to hang on to him for the remainder of this dreadful season.
With the club looking unlikely to compete again in the near future, dealing Wilson and Avila was an obvious move. The only question was which team, for whom, and whether to deal them separately or as a package. Plenty of teams were in on Wilson, but it was the Cubs who made the offer the Tigers liked best and they were also interested in a catcher. For Wilson and Avila, the Tigers received Jeimer Candelario and Isaac Paredes. Candelario is a 23-year-old third baseman whose already had a cup of coffee in the majors and had success in the high minors as a switch hitter. The public scouting folks have complimented Candelario’s swing and approach, but there definitely appears to be some question as to whether he has the defensive ability to stay at third base or if his destiny is across the diamond. He’s received good marks for his arm, but the folks at BP and FanGraphs both raised questions about his glove.
Paredes is an 18-year-old infielder with a lower floor and higher ceiling than Candelario given how much further he is from the show. The word on him is that he’s a good hitter for his age, but probably isn’t a shortstop long-term. I saw a few Cubs watchers suggest he’s on his way up and might soon receive more national recognition. I spoke with a contact in a different organization who said while Paredes isn’t terribly toolsy, his skills make him a good player with a chance to stay up the middle at second.
Candelario is the kind of prospect you’d find at the back end of most Top-100 lists and Isaac Paredes, while much further from the majors, has the talent to be there in relatively short order. That’s a pretty nice return for a year and half of a pretty good reliever. Wilson isn’t Andrew Miller or Aroldis Chapman caliber, which is why he didn’t match their returns from a year ago, but he’s a solid arm with a below market salary. Candelario isn’t anyone’s idea of a top prospect, but he’s seasoned and on the cusp of the majors. Unlike the players the Tigers got back in the Martinez deal, Candelario could theoretically break camp with the team next April. Paredes is probably four or more years from the majors, but is definitely a real prospect rather than organizational filler to round out a deal.
It’s impossible to know what else was available, but for two months of Avila and a year and two months of Wilson, the Tigers got back two players who could get near a Top-100 list next spring. Rankings are a bit of a crapshoot, but the opinion of the industry is definitely that both players have a real chance to be MLB regulars. This is a deal that makes the Tigers farm system better and improves the team’s odds of a shorter rebuild. Candelario and Paredes might not pan out, but given that they picked them up with no harm to their 2019 roster, it’s hard to say anything bad about the move.
Al Avila has begun his first deadline as a seller, delivering JD Martinez to the Diamondbacks for Dawel Lugo, Sergio Alcantara, and Jose King. With the Tigers six games back of Cleveland and underwater in both wins and runs, selling makes sense and JD Martinez was the best rental on the roster.
During his time as a Tiger, JD was the 9th best hitter in baseball, posting a 146 wRC+ in 1886 PA. Cabrera was barely better over that period and all the names above Martinez on the list are bona fife offensive stars. The Tigers got him for a song before the 2014 season and he mashed he way out of AAA and onto the big league roster. He was an anchor, he delivered in big moments, and was a joy to watch at the plate. Martinez was a late bloomer but he made up for lost time.
With a huge payday coming this winter and a franchise seemingly on the verge of rebuilding, a trade made all the sense in the world. Another team will surely offer him nine-figures this offseason and he will have earned it. It’s sad to seem him leave, but an acceleration in that departure brings back players who will likely wear the Old English D before long.
For Martinez, the Tigers acquired Dawel Lugo, Sergio Alcantara, and Jose King, infielders all. Lugo has shown some power and has good arm, but his approach is going to be the big question. He hasn’t struck out much in the minors but his walk rate is quite low. Alcantara runs well and can really play defense. I’ve seen some public scouting reports that were unimpressed with his bat but I heard from a source in another organization tonight that he thinks there’s a chance he hits enough to avoid a utility role. King is young and has struggled in rookie ball this year, but his wheels certainly make him interesting.
The sense I get from public prospect folks and conversations I’ve had with people in the game is that the Tigers didn’t exactly get the package you’d like to see for someone like Martinez. It’s not clear if the Tigers have a really good report on one of these guys or if the industry was down on Martinez for some reason. My sense from talking to folks is that the Tigers are higher on more than one of the prospects than the industry and that the market was relatively small for Martinez given the lack of buyers looking for corner outfielders. I’ll withhold judgment on exactly how the Tigers did until after the deadline wraps and we can see the going rate for other players. It feels light but the Tigers had to move JD this month and we won’t know if this was the best they could do until we see what else happens.
Call the grade Pending and the farewell bittersweet.
Tigers fans find themselves in one of those periods where we’re all starting to think of Michael Fulmer as the Tigers ace, but he hasn’t really been around long enough to have certainly wrestled that title from Justin Verlander. The pitchers appear to be trending in opposite directions, but over the last calendar year they are essentially dead even in fWAR. If you had to bet on the next 365 days, Fulmer probably comes out ahead, but we haven’t lived in this world long enough to be sure. That’s a long and convoluted way of saying Fulmer is emerging as one of the best pitchers in the game — certainly one of the best young pitchers in the game.
Yet despite Fulmer’s success and obvious talent, he doesn’t really collect strikeouts the way you might expect an ace-level pitcher to do so. Since the start of 2016 (min. 200 IP), Fulmer ranks 54th out of 88 in strikeout rate (19.7%).
This hasn’t impeded Fulmer’s success. On this site we talk a lot about fielding independent numbers which rely on strikeouts as one of the main inputs, but Fulmer is 8th in FIP- (81)over the same period. In other words, this isn’t a routine sabermetric story of a guy whose ERA is much better than his FIP and we’re predicting regression. Yes, Fulmer’s ERA- (72) is better than his FIP-, but both metrics suggest he’s pitched extremely well over the last two years. His walk rate (6.2%) is 21st out of 88 and his home run rate (0.74 HR/9) is second best. His .272 BABIP is also among the 20 lowest in the sample.
If you just look at his numbers, you would think he’s a command and control guy who works away from the barrel, getting weak ground balls and harmless fly outs. In other words, his stats suggest something like Kyle Hendricks. Crafty.
Fulmer’s average fastball velocity during his career has been 95.9 mph. He also has two other very good pitches, not to mention the emergence of a curveball during recent starts. Yet he gets an ordinary amount of swings on pitches outside the zone and is middle of the pack in terms of contact rate allowed. He’s sort of developed a Gerrit Cole or Marcus Stroman vibe. He gets good results with good stuff, but doesn’t generate a lot of swings and misses or strikeouts. Stroman’s trick is a huge number of ground balls, but Cole might be a better comp. Cole throws hard, has other pitches, and (until this year) has succeeded in large part due to home run prevention.
You can take the Cole comparison as a positive or a negative depending on your perspective. Prior to this year, it would be a very flattering situation, but this year provides solid evidence that if you don’t get a ton of strikeouts, your fortune can turn on a dime if all of a sudden your home run skill vanishes.
Fulmer gets quite a few pop ups and generally weaker contact than average, but there’s some reason to worry that there is nowhere to go but down if he doesn’t add more strikeouts to the mix. I don’t say that to suggest his basic approach is unsustainable, just that given the amount of balls he allows to be put in play, if batters start squaring them up even a little better, he’s going to start allowing a lot more runs.
Truth be told, my suspicion is that this approach is largely a conscious one by Fulmer. He’s generally been efficient with his pitches, averaging more than six innings per start during his first season and a half of work. This is likely due to his willingness to be in the strikezone rather than nibbling around the edges. For example, when Fulmer gets to an 0-2 count this year, he ends up getting a strikeout about 48% of the time, which is average give or take. But his overall wOBA allowed after getting to an 0-2 count is well above average. Based on his results, we know he’s not letting hitters back into plate appearances, he’s just choosing to try to end them a different way.
And that’s totally fine as long as it’s working. There’s no inherent reason to chase strikeouts. But strikeouts after safer than balls in play and there is a breakeven point for ever pitcher between chasing whiffs and chasing weak contact. Fulmer is much closer to the weak contact side than other pitches, especially given his raw stuff. Hitters will eventually make some adjustments against him and he will need to counter those adjustments with a strikeout-friendly approach. My worry is that he may not have spent enough time honing that skill and there will be a rougher adjustment period. This is essentially equivalent to a player whose fastball is too good for anyone in the minors and so he never works on his breaking ball until he needs it in the show.
I don’t doubt Fulmer’s ability to handle such an adjustment at all, but it might be the kind of thing the Tigers should focus on as the game get meaningless down the stretch and they begin to plan for the long run. Fulmer is a tremendous arm and making sure he has all the tools he needs is one of the most important things the team will do during the rebuilding phase.
Amid a disappointing season, one of the commanding bright spots for the Tigers has been Alex Avila. After letting the homegrown catcher walk after the 2015 season, the Tigers brought him back for 2017 at $2 million and have been rewarded with 174 wRC+ in 186 PA. Avila has 10 HR and a .441 OBP. Granted, he’s served mostly against right-handed pitching but that’s one heck of a strong side of a platoon for next to nothing.
Avila isn’t necessarily known for his receiving, but he controls the running game well and is generally considered one of the better game-callers in the sport. The picture on catcher defense can be a little hazy given how much of their role is strategic rather than performative, but other than on matters of framing he seems to be quite good.
In fact, 2017 Avila — at age 30 — reminds me quite a bit of 24-year-old 2011 Avila. He’s striking out more, walking more, and hitting for more power, but the game is moving in that direction as a whole. What we’re seeing this year is essentially the kind of player we saw in 2011. He hits for power, he gets on base, but he does strikeout more than you’d prefer in a perfect world. We’re seeing the best of Avila now, for a second time.
There’s no secret. He’s hitting more fly balls and he’s using left field more. It’s easy to draw that line because that’s exactly what he did during his excellent 2011 campaign.
It’s hard to say exactly why 2017 Avila is reviving the summer of 2011. It might be health or it might be approach. We can’t really say without getting inside his head, and it’s not like we think that he is a true-talent 170 wRC+ hitter, but getting three months of good Avila again is a good reminder that the skills are there when things are properly aligned.
Living through this period has led me to reflect on two Avila-related points about which I’ve long-wondered. The first is that Avila’s 2011 season was something of a curse. He was a 24-year-old catcher playing in his first full season and he was amazing. While the All-Star trip, silver slugger, and deep playoff run were awesome, it set unrealistic expectations for the rest of his career. If you have your career year in your first year, everything after that will always disappoint people. Avila had a truly dreadful 2015, but from 2012-2014 he was a solid major league regular behind the dish when he was out there. He was a league average hitter and being league average and also catching makes you pretty useful. But it never felt like that to a lot of people because he looked so much worse than he did in 2011.
Rather than people treating it like his one fluky great year, everyone looked at him like he had collapsed and that’s probably not fair.
The other big thing I’ve wondered about is whether Jim Leyland broke Avila when he rode him so hard down the stretch in 2011. If you recall, during the early part of that year, Victor Martinez served as the other catcher, but when Martinez suffered a minor injury he stayed in the lineup but wasn’t able to catch. Because of exactly how the roster was set up, the Tigers basically played with one catcher for an extended period of time. Avila was playing so well and the roster was tight so Avila didn’t get a real break until rosters expanded. Then when the playoff push came he obviously had to catch every inning.
By the end, he was in bad shape. I’ve always wondered if things would have been different if Avila had been used more cautiously in 2011. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered and the bangs and bruises, and later concussions, would have gotten him anyway. It’s impossible to know, but maybe the lighter workload over the last two seasons has allowed him to recover and his 30-year-old body feels better than he did at 27 and 28.
It’s probably going to end with Avila traded to a contender, and I’ll be happy to see him get another shot at the title he didn’t win in Detroit. Avila’s always been a favorite of mine and his success, despite the team’s struggles, has been a nice development.
Sometime during the next thirty eight days the Detroit Tigers will make a decision about the direction of the franchise. To be fair, every team will make one, but the Tigers decision will be more consequential because of what that decision is likely to be. The Astros and Dodgers will decide to make a run at the 2017 World Series, but they made a similar decision this winter and it doesn’t qualify as news to continue doing something you were already doing.
The Tigers, on the other hand, are likely to make a organizationally-altering choice sometime during the next five weeks. The Tigers have contended in eight of the last 11 seasons and only one of the three bad seasons (2010) happened on purpose. The Tigers were supposed to be the team of the century when they stumbled in 2008 and were certainly considered dangerous in 2015 as well. The team entered 11 of the 12 seasons from 2006 to 2017 intending to play well and make deadline acquisitions to help them play better. This will only be the fourth time during this era in which the decision in July is obvious. They must sell.
What makes this moment different is that this is the first deadline without a championship-starved Mike Ilitch looking impatiently over the shoulder of the the general manager. The Tigers sold effectively two summers ago, but they only traded players who were set to be free agents and did not expect to re-sign. It was clear to everyone in July 2015 that the Tigers intended to try again in 2016, and they tried very hard that winter to build the club back into a contender. They got close.
But this year the conversation is different. JD Martinez will be traded because he’s an elite hitter who will be a free agent in four and a half months. K-Rod is a free agent who might be traded but not for anything of substance. Alex Avila is a free agent at year’s end and thanks to his great first half will bring the team back something solid. But the bigger question is whether the Tigers will take the opportunity at this deadline to tear the team apart, punting at least on 2018 in the process. That isn’t a question Tigers fans have faced. In each of the previous disappointing seasons, the question was always about the best way to win next year. For the first time that mandate appears to be absent.
So we turn to Ian Kinsler and Justin Wilson. But also inevitably to Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera. It seems pretty unlikely that Kinsler and Wilson will be part of the next Tigers winner, as both are free agents after 2018. Justin Verlander, in his 12th season in Detroit, is only under contract through 2019. Cabrera’s deal runs six more seasons with two options, but time is starting to wear away at him as well. The question the Tigers will ask is whether a contending team is possible in 2018, and while it certainly is possible, it’s challenging. They aren’t just one or two players away. The players they have need to play better and they need one or two more players to supplement them. Making that work within the budget they’ve set will be difficult. And if 2018 is gone, so are Kinsler and Wilson. And if 2018 is gone, does it make sense for Verlander to stay. And if you’ve cleared the deck of all the desirable veterans, where does that leave the certain Hall of Famer who plays first?
This domino-ing could sweep up Iglesias and Castellanos. Maybe Upton too. This seasons is essentially over. They’d have to play like a 95-win club the rest of the way to get to 85 wins and a 105-win team to make it to 90. If 2017 is over, you must consider 2018. And if 2018 is a pipe dream, nearly every player should be on the block.
This is as existential as it gets when talking about baseball rosters. Once the Tigers commit to the end of this year — a commitment that is coming any day — we have to consider the implications that it will unwind an entire decade tied together with the yarn of Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera.
There’s nothing to be said about 2017 except for the fact that the die had been cast. The Tigers decided after 2015 that they wanted to make a run in 2016 and once that decision was made, there was nowhere to hide. There was no way to abandon 2017, but there was no mechanism to get much better this winter. They rode it out, lost, and are now faced with the inevitable. Selling now is nothing. It’s not controversial or emotional. The season is over, baring a miracle. But the season being over might also mean that everything is over, and that’s a weighty thought.
It’s hard to maintain a competitive team for a decade. The Tigers made the decision not to contend preseason just once in the last 12 years. For the first time since before I was old enough to drive a car, the team is looking at a rebuilding cycle. That’s something, but I don’t know what.
I’m not opposed to the idea; it might actually be a lot of fun. The team will lose games but there will be new faces and exciting young players coming up through the system. The stakes will be lower and the day to day stress of the games will be easier to manage. Taking some time to nurture a new generation of Tigers is appealing.
On the other hand, taking that step will require us to come to terms with the end of something. Verlander is the only holdover from 2006 but Cabrera has been around since 2008 and the remaining turnover has been gradual. There’s definitely a Leyland period and an Ausmus period, a Dombrowski and an Avila, but this has felt like a series of chapters in the same novel rather than an entirely new team each year. There’s a good chance that will end sometime in the next 38 days.
One hundred and twelve years ago a fire destroyed much of Detroit. Father Gabriel Richard took that moment to declare the city’s motto to be “Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus.” Translated, it means “We hope for better things; It will arise from the ashes.”
Well, Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus.
Note: This isn’t a Tigers post. If you’re here for the Tigers, feel free to ignore. Also, I’m publishing this here rather than at FanGraphs because 1) I don’t want the general public to get the idea that FanGraphs as an institution is throwing shade at DRA and 2) I don’t want the perception that anything I’m saying is done in the service of driving traffic or subscriptions to or from either site.
Evaluating pitchers is very hard, but that hasn’t stopped people from trying. Wins and losses. ERA. WHIP. FIP. These are all statistics that at one point or another had been at the forefront of the quest for The Best Single Metric. A wise person might suggest that searching for one metric to rule them all might be a silly quest, but even if we all decided to properly use every tool in the toolbox, there would still have to be a best metric among the useful ones.
Two years ago, the Baseball Prospectus stats team took a swing at building the next generation of pitching metrics, led by their top-line creation, Deserved Run Average (DRA). Many in our little corner of the world treated this as near second coming because it was first high-level attempt to get beyond the FIP-generation of metrics and some of the smartest people in the public analysis sphere had thrown their intellectual heft behind the effort.
DRA promised to incorporate a lot of information that hadn’t found its way into FIP while also taking a more complex approach to modeling the pitcher-value process. I agree that those are worthwhile goals.
I think FIP is a very useful metric, not just because it does a pretty good job of representing pitcher value but because it is extremely straightforward. I am not saying that simplicity makes FIP a good metric, but rather that its clarity does. FIP has flaws, but its flaws are in perfect view. I know exactly what FIP is doing and exactly what FIP is not doing. And this is precisely where DRA has so far failed to win me as a full convert so far.
I want to be clear that I am not saying DRA is less rigorous than FIP or that it has been designed poorly or in bad faith. My issue with DRA is not that I think there is something wrong with it, it’s that I don’t really know what to make of it. My argument is not that FIP is a better representation of pitcher value than DRA, it’s that I am less certain about the quality of DRA than I am the quality of FIP.
Imagine FIP and DRA are diamonds. I can hold FIP in my hand and examine it under a magnifying glass. DRA is on a table twenty feet away. I can see the exact quality of the FIP diamond, but I can only tell that DRA is a diamond. Smart people who cut the DRA diamond are telling me they think the DRA diamond is better, but I have not been able to see them side by side.
In my own analysis and in my own writing, I have utilized DRA but I still lean heavily on the FIP-family of metrics for this reason. If I’m writing about a player and want to communicate something, I prefer FIP to DRA because I can talk clearly about what FIP says. If I want to use DRA I can only say that based on the complex method it deploys, the pitcher is this good/bad/other.
Now many strong advocates of DRA will tell you that its complexity is good. Pitching, after all, is very complicated so it follows that any statistic that measures pitching holistically should also be complicated. That’s a very convincing point, but as I noted earlier my problem is not complexity, it’s clarity. I love complicated things. I’ve taken graduate-level courses in statistics and modeling. I am in no way turned off by DRA in concept. At no point in this piece am I saying DRA should be less complex.
However, there are two clear issues with DRA that prevent me from using it as my primary point of reference. The first is that the BP team has not outlined a justification for its modeling strategy. If you read through their explanations (see here, here, here, and here) what you find is a list of flaws that exist with other pitching metrics. “FIP doesn’t have X, X matters, so we put X in our model. We know pitchers control their BABIP to some degree, so we put that in the model.”
This creates a couple of issues. The first issue is that I can’t see what components are doing the lifting (for example, this page needs to be way more granular). Does a player have a good DRA because their opponents are very tough or because their defense is terrible? DRA jams a lot of information into a single output and that makes it quite difficult to use in any sort of interesting way. FIP only has five inputs (strikeouts, walks, hit batters, home runs, and balls-in-play) and even that can feel overly aggregated. DRA has even more inputs that have run through even more aggregation. That might provide DRA with a more accurate output but it blurs a lot of lines. This pitcher might be good, but I have no idea why he’s good.
More importantly, however, is the fact that the BP team has not thoroughly explained why their modeling choices (structure, not inputs) are the proper modeling choices. DRA is a complex model, and while complexity is good, complexity also means that there were hundreds of choices made along the way that could have made differently and produced differently outcomes. In other words, DRA is built on a lot of choices made by people about how to incorporate something and those choices have not been explained and defended. As I noted earlier, the choices may be correct, but I have no way of evaluating them if they do not explain how they came to them.
Here’s an excerpt from the Gory Math DRA post:
What is the best way to model this relationship? That required a lot of testing. A LOT of testing. We tried linear models. We tried local regression. We tried tree-based methods. We bagged the trees. We tried gradient boosting. We tried support vector machines. We even tried neural networks. None of them were providing better results than existing estimators. And then we tried the one method that turned out to be perfect: MARS.
MARS stands for Multivariate Adaptive Regression Splines, and was introduced by Dr. Jerome Friedman of Stanford in 1991. You don’t hear much about MARS anymore: it has been supplanted in the everyday modeling lexicon by trendier machine-learning methods, including many of those we mentioned above. But MARS, in addition to being useful for data dumpster-diving, also has another big advantage: interactions.
MARS uses what are known as regression splines to better fit data. Instead of drawing a straight line between two points, MARS creates hinges that allow the line to bend, resulting in “knots” that accommodate different trends. The power of these knots is enhanced when MARS looks at how variables interact with each other. These interactions are, in our opinion, one of the under-appreciated facts in baseball statistics.
As discussed above, pitchers who are pitching particularly well or poorly have a cascading effect on other aspects of the game, including base-stealing. Moreover, there is a survival bias in baseball, as with most sports: pitchers who pitch more innings tend to be more talented, which means they end up being starters instead of relievers or spot fill-ins. The power of MARS is it not only allows us to connect data with hinged lines rather than straight ones, but that it allows those hinges to be built around the most significant interactions between the variables being considered, and only at the levels those interactions have value. MARS also uses a stepwise variable selection process to choose only the number of terms sufficient to account for the most variance.
Most people won’t be able to make heads or tails of this section and it’s incumbent upon BP to make it more accessible, for one. But even granting a pardon for that, as someone knowledgeable in these issues, I don’t know if this strategy is a good one or a bad one. They made all sorts of choices based on various tests and I am simply asked to accept they chose the right one and that there isn’t a better option out there.
Now you might say that it isn’t their job to teach me how to literally write R code and test my own model so that I can probe the ether for things I think might be imperfect within DRA. Of course they shouldn’t be asked to test literally every possible model specification when building DRA, but you have to give me more information about why you chose to build it like this as opposed to some of the other approaches you tried or could have tried.
On the other hand, with something like FIP, all of the decisions are on display. You might think the decisions are wrong, but you can see the decisions and make that judgement. There are five inputs with a set of clear weights. That’s all FIP is, and while that limits FIP in terms of accuracy, FIP is extremely clear. I can’t make that judgement with DRA. A stronger and clearer defense of the specifications needs to be made.
And this leads me to my second key issue with DRA that prevents me from using it in a more serious way. DRA is two years old and has already had three major iterations that worked differently in meaningful ways. I have no problem with updating your metrics based on new data or new research, and I don’t think there is an inherent problem any of the specific changes they have announced. The problem is that DRA-2015, DRA-2016, and DRA-2017 have different views of the same seasons and I have a strong suspicion that DRA-2018 will lead to more of these cases.
The rapidity with which DRA has been revised indicates the BP team’s willingness to explore improvements (which is great!) but it also suggests to me that they haven’t figured out the right way to model the underlying data generating process.
When they announce a revision, they are stating that the previous version failed to capture something they found essential. It’s one thing if these changes were exclusively based on new data, but they are also based on changes to the modeling. And if the results are that sensitive to tweaks in method, I am suspect about the entire system. That doesn’t mean that FIP is necessarily better than any particular version of DRA, simply that I know that in a few months DRA is going to change and a pitcher I thought way decent might actually be kind of bad even though we didn’t learn anything new about the pitcher himself.
Put another way, are the things BP learned about DRA between 2015 and 2017 things they couldn’t have learned by exploring more specifications before the initial rollout? I am not saying they should hold the release back until it’s perfected because public input makes things better, but simply that the first few years are more akin to a beta test. I’m not ready to fully adopt the metric until it settles in a little more. That’s not me dismissing DRA or its potential value to the world of baseball analytics. I really like DRA from a conceptual perspective, but my perception is that the nuts and bolts are subject to change quite frequently, so I have yet to dive in without a life preserver.
I want to reiterate that none of this is a critique of any individual decision and it is decidedly not an argument that FIP is a better representation of pitching value than DRA. That is a separate argument that can be had on separate terms. But I do think that DRA is not as useful as FIP at this point in time. I am hesitant to use a metric whose workings I can’t see. I don’t know if the modeling strategy is correct and I am pretty sure that in a few months a chunk of pitchers will have totally different DRAs.
I also want to be clear that none of this is intended as shade or inter-nerd sniping. I have great respect for the BP stats team and have shared these critiques with them. This is not a take down, it’s a list of demands.
I think DRA is aiming in the right direction, I just haven’t been given enough information to figure out if it’s really an improvement over its predecessors. Building a metric like DRA makes all the sense in the world and some great people are in command, but it will remain a complementary metric for me until it is unpacked in a way that allows me to trace its design.
So here is what I would propose:
- Create an expanded version of the DRA run value page that includes every individual component so that people can see how the different factors are operating. It takes two seconds to figure out why FIP likes someone or doesn’t. Doing so with DRA is next to impossible.
- Go back to the drawing board on the public facing explanation and give clearer explanations of how DRA works and why it works that way. DRA is complex, but you can explain complex things in a clear manner if you break it down into less complex pieces and work with outsiders to ensure they follow the explanation at each step.
- If DRA is meant to be a living, breathing statistic that gets updated annually, then be willing to accept ongoing skepticism about the execution of the statistic. If you are rejiggering it frequently, then the audience is going to wonder if the current version is the right one. If you want to avoid that, you have to change the name each time you change the stat. I get that this is annoying, but it’s part of the job.
Things are not going well for Francisco Rodriguez. He’s allowed 12 runs in 11.2 innings and he has a 159 FIP-. He has five meltdowns already (appearances with -6% WPA). He’s given up runs in eight of his 13 outings, including five runs against nine batters in two blown games over the weekend. His grip on the closer’s role is precarious to say the least. Brad Ausmus, king of having confidence in his closer, no longer has confidence in his closer. The press is circling the wagons. You can feel a change coming, and the obvious candidate is Justin Wilson who has allowed just eight base runners in 13.2 innings this season.
At this moment, the question the Tigers brass are asking is whether they should replace K-Rod with Wilson. Demoting the closer is a big deal in the modern game. Once you say it out loud, you can’t put it back. So the Tigers are proceeding with caution, but you can feel it coming. Do we replace the closer?
But I want to suggest another path: Don’t.
You initial reaction might be, “but K-Rod is pitching very poorly, we can’t keep putting him into crucial situations?” to which I would reply that you’re absolutely correct. The Tigers should stop giving all the save chances to K-Rod, but they should also decline to name a new closer and should resist the urge to simply replace one failed closer with a bright, shiny new closer. Now is the moment to give up on the closer role entirely.
I’ve been harping on this generally for years, but let me hit some highlights. First, saves are stupid. They are artificially constructed and not a measure of anything particularly important. You can rack up a bunch of saves without pitching that well if you’re coming into games with the bases empty and a three run lead. Conversely, you don’t get saves for getting out of big jams if you happen to do so an inning or two early.
Second, being a slave to the save leads managers to pigeonhole their best reliever into an inefficient role. The ninth inning is the most important inning in some games, but it’s not the most important inning in every game. Sometimes the game is on the line in the 7th or 8th and if you have a closer whose job it is to get saves, you won’t use them in these earlier situations.
Teams would be much better off if managers would be willing to deploy their relievers in the right spots, based on matchup/leverage/etc rather than rigid inning-based roles.
Now the naysayers will tell you that relievers thrive when they’re given a specific role because it helps them prepare. Yet there are two key flaws in this logic. The first flaw is that you can give relievers defined roles without one of those roles being the arbitrary “save situation.” Even if you think lining guys up ahead of time is beneficial, there are better ways to do it. But the second flaw is more compelling. Relievers spend their early careers being used in all sorts of roles until they wind up “sticking” in their 7th, 8th, or 9th inning roles. The system is backwards because it sorts the best relievers into rigid roles while giving the worst relievers no structure. The best relievers should be the ones who can handle some uncertainty in their deployment because they have the experience and talent to handle it.
And the entire concept of roles is foolish more broadly. I don’t doubt that relievers like having a target in mind for when they’re going to pitch, but I refuse to believe elite competitors are so fragile that they can’t handle that target moving around depending on the situation. Instead of having a “closer,” you could communicate to your pitchers before the game that they are likely to be used in a particular spot, such as “the first sign of trouble” or the “first clean inning after we pull the starter.” “We’ll use you in the 8th or 9th if it’s within two runs.” I appreciate the idea that pitchers like to get into their pre-appearance mindset in a certain way, but these are grown men who are capable of handling a little uncertainly. All it takes is some good communication between them and the manager.
For all these reasons, teams should abandon the concept of a closer and relievers who have certain innings. Teams should deploy relievers based on who the best available player is at any given time. But this week I came up with another reason that make a lot of sense. If you don’t have a closer, you don’t have this defining moment where the manager has to announce that he’s demoting his relief ace to a lesser role. It sure seems like it would be a lot better for everyone involved if Ausmus could casually give K-Rod fewer high leverage innings rather than having to officially announce a change. If Ausmus was sometimes using K-Rod in the 9th but also using the Wilsons quite often, it wouldn’t be a big deal to push K-Rod down the pecking order. If all the pitchers were sharing different innings depending on the exact conditions, you wouldn’t have all this pressure on K-Rod to keep his job and the constant questioning about whether Brad believes in him.
I don’t think the Tigers will actually adopt this mindset, but it’s definitely time. It’s a more efficient way to deploy your relievers and it seems a lot easier to handle struggling pitchers when you don’t this big production about whether they’ve been bounced from their role or not. I’m assuming Justin Wilson will get the next save chance for the Tigers, but we’d all be a lot better off if he didn’t get all of the save chances going forward.
A few nights ago, Rod Allen made a comment to the effect that “James McCann is going to be the Tigers catcher for many years to come.” I believe he said this in the context of Avila’s hot start, but regardless of his exact phrasing or what prompted it, Allen was offering a pretty common sentiment: McCann is the long-term answer at the position.
I’ve written on a number of a occasions that I’m a little shaky on that proposition. Yes, McCann has a strong throwing arm, but he otherwise hasn’t demonstrated the kind of talent that should keep the Tigers from considering alternatives. It’s well documented that in his first season, McCann struggled to receive pitches in a way that maximized strikes. At the time, I made the case for patience. I wasn’t ready to say McCann wasn’t a good receiver just because he was terrible at it during his first season. And last year, McCann took some steps forward, leading me to pen this May 2016 piece on the ways he had improved. He was getting more called strikes in and out of the zone and had particularly improved on his glove side.
When you add everything up, Baseball Prospectus said McCann went from costing the Tigers about 15 runs relative to average in 2015 to being right about average in 2016. McCann didn’t become a good framer, but he definitely performed better. And that makes sense. Not only did McCann have time to learn his staff and settle in, he had another year working with Brad Ausmus, who was a talented framer in his day. This fits a neat and tidy narrative and it made us feel great. The flip side was that McCann went from an iffy bat in 2015 to a terrible one in 2016, but I’m always willing to give young catchers a break on their hitting as they adjust to the rigors of major league duty.
So I was interested to watch McCann in 2017 because while it’s hard to measure the total impact of framing in real time, it has a huge impact on the game. The difference between a ball and strike aggregated over thousands of opportunities makes a difference and if McCann had actually improved his talent level in 2016 that was a big deal. However, it was possible that McCann had simply performed better in 2016 for any number of reasons and he would regress toward the mean in 2017.
If we look only at the overall BP metric, the signs are not good. McCann has already been worth -3.3 runs in 1,284 chances. If we pro-rate that to about 6,400 chances (the average he had in 2015 and 2016), we get about -16 runs. On a per pitch basis, that’s worse than 2015!
Granted, I’ve long been a proponent of caution when looking at these aggregated framing metrics. I think the models are missing some important aspects and don’t quite control for everything that should control for, but they are generally good enough to separate bad, decent, and good. But like I did last May, I want to look a little deeper to see what’s happening.
Unfortunately, MLBAM changed a bit of the coding on Baseball Savant so you’re going to see different 2015/2016 numbers than in the previous posts if you followed the links, but the meaning isn’t going to change so we can roll with it.
The basic lesson here is that McCann clearly improved on the edges of the zone in 2016 and has fallen back in 2017. MLBAM now has a zone breakdown which includes specific zones for the edges, so let’s explore that:
I looked at called strike rate in the 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, 17, 18, and 19 zones. It’s compelling.
Let’s look at them individually, but I’ll constrain it to 2016 vs 2017. Small sample caveats apply.
If you compare the table to the image, you can see that McCann has done a bit better on the low edge, but on the glove size and top of the zone he’s done much worse. I don’t want to put too much of a focus on these chunks, but you can get a sense of the problem. This tracks pretty well with his historical problems.
It’s too early in the year to call this McCann’s 2017 level and there’s no reason to trust 2017 a ton more than 2016, but this is something to watch. McCann has hit for power and showed more discipline this year, but even with some quality early season swings he hasn’t even reach league average at the plate (although his BABIP will come north over time). But if McCann is going to frame this poorly, it would take some great hitting to compensate and he isn’t there. He’s got a great arm, but catchers are judged by the gloves and their game-calling, and at least of those aspects of his game isn’t looking great so far.