Category Archives: Tigers Posts

2017 Bellwethers, #9: James McCann and Alex Avila

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

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.

I know this series is only seven words old, but I’m already breaking with the premise. The ninth spot on this year’s list belongs to James McCann and Alex Avila. The site has a math literate audience and I know including ten players on a nine player list is wrong, but I have a reasonable defense that will become clear as we proceed.

In 2016, the Tigers had one of the worst catching units in baseball. That probably sounds a little extreme because McCann and Saltalamacchia combined for 20 HR from behind the plate, but the rest of their offensive output (and four PA from Bobby Wilson) was basically a disaster. Collectively, the group had a 66 wRC+, which was fourth worst in baseball last year. All catchers combined for a 97 wRC+.

But it wasn’t just the offense that was a problem. Baseball Prospectus ranked Tigers catchers 10th worst in framing, and while they scored better in blocking and throwing, there just aren’t a ton of runs to be saved in those aspects of the game. Even the best blocking and throwing catcher in the league probably can’t add much more than a win or so to his team’s total.

It should certainly be noted that James McCann took statistically and visually noticeable steps forward in terms of receiving. Saying the Tigers catchers were bad in 2016 isn’t an indictment on their overall potential, just simply that in order for the team to squeak out the necessary four or five additional wins they need to make the playoffs this year, they have to get better somewhere and catcher is the lowest hanging fruit.

McCann and Avila are ranked jointly here because it doesn’t really matter which one steps up, just that one or both of them need to perform in order for the Tigers to be a competitive team in 2017. McCann is younger and has room to grow, while Avila has already had success in the majors that he could replicate.

McCann obviously needs to replicate his framing progress. If he’s a competent framer and maintains his strong arm, the defense will work if he’s able to hit. Unfortunately, he’s a career .244/.284/.373 hitter (76 wRC+) hitter in 810 PA. I’m not burying a guy after less than two full seasons of reps, but a 5 BB%, 25 K%, and .130 ISO is not a promising start. He needs to hit for a lot more power or he has to make more contact. He’s entering his age 27 season, which is quite young developmentally for a catcher’s offensive profile, but this needs to be a point of focus in 2017. I was more than willing to give McCann a break over the last two plus seasons as he learned how to perform behind the plate in the majors and dealt with the grind of a full season of catching. Catchers develop late at the plate, but McCann needs to start showing that ability this year or the Tigers need to find another catcher of the future.

On the other hand, Avila just turned 30 and has a long career already behind him. While Avila’s defensive skills have seemed less impressive over the last couple of years, his control of the game makes him at least a wash behind the plate if not still a positive contributor. The key will also be his bat. Avila continues to walk his way to a great OBP, but his strikeout rate up near 30% cuts down on some of his potential. Except for a dreadful 2015, Avila’s generally been able to hit for an average number of extra bases. You’re never going to see 2011 Avila again, but he’s been between 92 and 104 wRC+ in four of the last five seasons. If he runs a 95 wRC+ and performs ably behind the plate, that’s a huge improvement for the team.

And only one of them needs to deliver. The Tigers don’t need to get Posey-level production from their catcher, they just can’t carry a black hole for another year. If one or both catchers hit, the team will be poised to keep the pressure on Cleveland into the final month.

An Institution

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Mike Ilitch was an institution. That’s the highest praise I can possibly offer to a man I never met. I can’t tell you first hand if Mike Ilitch was a good person or a great boss. I can’t share an anecdote about some time he wandered into the press box or made Jim Leyland cry. I can’t offer any sort of eulogy for Mike Ilitch, the individual. I didn’t know him. As is the case when anyone famous passes, there is a distance between the grief felt by those he touched as regular person and those he touched as a public figure.

I won’t venture to cover the breadth of Mr. I’s remarkable life. He was born in the months leading up to the Great Depression and grew up during a war that claimed the lives of 60 million. He served in the Marine Corps. He played minor league baseball. And that was just his first 27 years. It would be a story worth telling even if he hadn’t become a pizza mogul and the owner of two iconic franchises.

Ilitch was beloved in Detroit and in Michigan. If you’re reading this from afar, it might be hard to grasp the idea that Tigers and Red Wings fans adored their owner. Owners are often the bad guys. The ones who put the bottom line ahead of winning and jack up ticket prices simply because they can. Make no mistake, Mike Ilitch was a businessman and a good one, but he stood outside the mold of the modern tycoon.

What we loved about Ilitch was that he owned the Wings and Tigers the way we imagine we would own them if we had been in his shoes. Fans don’t see teams as investments. We wouldn’t pinch pennies and worry about making money. It wouldn’t matter if the club ended the year in the black or the red as long as there was a good product and a real chance to win. Ilitch ran the Tigers like a fan. He opened up his bank account when they needed a little extra and he took care of the team’s veterans. Over the last decade, Ilitch was thinking about the moment at the end of the season when the commissioner hands you the trophy. There was no owner who wanted to win for the sake of winning more than Mr. I.

At times, Ilitch was almost too aggressive in his pursuit of glory. The Tigers became famous for mortgaging the future to prepare for the present because Ilitch wanted to win before he died. Every year we knew that the Tigers wouldn’t rebuild because the owner was old and determined. He was running out of chances and taking a year or two off to restock for some blurry future made little sense. Certainly that strategy had its downside but the mistakes he made were made for the right reasons.

There are two stories that represent Ilitch’s legacy for me. After the Tigers clinched the division in 2014, Ilitch sat next to Victor Martinez in Brad Ausmus’ office. He put his arm around him and, as the story goes, said “I’m going to take care of you next year.” Martinez was a free agent to be coming off an incredible year at the plate. The basic math told you that Martinez was going to get a larger contract than he was worth that winter, but Ilitch wouldn’t hear of it. He paid the going rate – maybe even a little more – before Martinez even had a chance to test the market.

Ilitch was known for having that kind of attitude toward his players. Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera got similar treatment. Ilitch cared about winning and wanted to win with the players who had worked so hard for him. A few million here or there didn’t matter. His approach made things feel less like a corporation and more like a family business.

However, the defining moment will always be the beginning of the 2009 season. The Great Recession had rocked the auto industry and two of the city’s Big Three automakers had to be bailed out by the federal government to survive. General Motors had previously sponsored the center field fountain at Comerica Park but were in no position to spend a couple million dollars on advertising. Rather than selling the space to another company in some other industry, Ilitch put all three logos on the fountain with the message “The Detroit Tigers support our automakers.”

Things were dire around the country but especially in Detroit. The Tigers themselves were feeling squeezed due to decreased ticket sales and surely could have used the capital. In fact, that offseason they traded Curtis Granderson in part because they needed to trim payroll. A city that was once the engine of the American Century was teetering on the brink, but in that moment, Ilitch wasn’t thinking about the ad space. He was thinking about the organization’s role in the community. It’s responsibility to the community, even.

That season ended painfully, after 12 innings in Minneapolis. It was unquestionably the most crushing moment I’ve had as a sports fan. Game 163 left scars on most of us. That season had been such a welcome distraction from the daily turmoil happening in the real world and a deep playoff run was exactly what everyone needed. In one final blow, the Twins took that away and the longest year in the longest decade of Detroit got a little longer.

I have no idea if the free space actually helped the industry recover, but symbolism mattered. Mike Ilitch did right by his city not just when it was easy and when it made him wealthy, but also when things were tough.

With the benefit of hindsight, we know the automakers survived and Detroit and Michigan are back on the rise. At the city’s lowest point, Mike Ilitch gave the Big Three free space on the fountain because Detroit wouldn’t have been Detroit without them.

I don’t know what’s next for the Wings or the Tigers without Ilitch at the helm. He hasn’t been involved on a day-to-day basis for sometime but it was still his vision that led the way. Our teams and their city benefited greatly from his stewardship, not just because he was savvy, but because he cared about the right things and was willing to take risks. May his example light the way for those who follow.

Let’s Predict Victor Martinez’s 2017

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Please allow me to trick you for a moment. From 2010 to 2013, Victor Martinez posted a 121 wRC+ in 1801 PA. From 2014 to 2016, he posted a 126 wRC+ in 1736 PA. At the plate, Martinez was just as good from from 31-34 as he was from 35-37. Granted, he’s a designated hitter and a terrible base runner, so being 20 percent better than average at the plate is essentially a requirement, but Martinez has been the same consistent hitter he’s always been. Did you know his career wRC+ is 122.

(looks around sheepishly)

Okay, so I warned you I was tricking you and you’re also probably a person with a memory so you know I’m playing fast and loose with the word consistent. To the graph!

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The 2010 to 2013 Martinez was quite consistent except for the part about not having an ACL there for a minute. If you take the sum total of that era and compare it to his last three years, it seems consistent but we’ve actually seen three different Martinezes since. In 2014 he was one of the best hitters in the league. In 2015, he was one of the worst. In 2016, he was the normal Martinez again. What should we expect from the 2017 version?

If you ask the statistical projections, you get an answer somewhere between 100 and 110. This makes sense, given that he’s been a career 120 wRC+ kind of guy and he’s going to be 38 and two years removed from an awful season. It makes sense that you’d forecast a little decline if all you had were the numbers. So that’s one answer.

But let’s try to add some outside wisdom to that. Martinez had knee surgery before 2015 and was clearly not himself for most of that season. We shouldn’t ignore that information – the fact that he had knee surgery two seasons ago is super important – but we also shouldn’t necessary treat performance during injury as the same as performance when healthy. After all, we don’t treat his missed 2012 season as a 0 wRC+. We treat it like he didn’t exist. He got a year older but we have no information about how well he would have played. Imagine if he had tried to play while his knee was healing then, he probably would have sucked!

Perhaps 2015 Martinez should simply have sat out most of the season instead of just 40 games. Would you remember his last few seasons differently if instead of watching him play horribly you pined over him while Tyler Collins? I might.

If you look at 2013, 2014, and 2016 as his last three seasons you wind up with a projection closer to 135 before adjusting for age and health. Maybe that brings you down to 120-125, which again, is right around the VMart average. It’s a question of whether we want to treat 2015 as valid performance or if we just want to eliminate it and say “second knee surgery penalty.” The odds of Martinez’s knee exploding between now and next October is quite high relative to average, but if his knee does not explode, I think I like the odds of his performance being more in line with his other healthy years.

But there’s another thing. I’m also worried about a slightly bad habit he got into when he was hurt in 2015 that carried over to 2016.

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He’s always been well below average in terms of strikeout rate but the last two years that number has ticked up considerably. I wouldn’t think much of it in 2015 but it got worse in 2016 even as his production came back.

He’s started to swing more often at pitches in the zone, essentially at the rate of the rest of the league.

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This is troubling because it’s been paired with less contact in the zone.

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He’s swinging at more pitches in the zone but he’s not really making contact with those pitches. Maybe in 2015 when he had no bat speed he needed to be more aggressive, but now that he’s healthy again he should have reverted back to the old Martinez way of never swinging at anything he didn’t like. This is something to watch in 2017. Is Martinez able to be as selective as he was during his peak or is he still chasing those not-very-hittable-strikes?

I think it’s plausible we get an injury-hampered Martinez, that we get a 120 wRC+ Martinez, or that we get a really good near-2014esque Martinez in 2017. I’m not qualified to put a number on his health, so just adjust these percentages based on your own expectation. I think I’d wager we get something like 80/20 in favor of the 120 wRC+ Martinez. Even with less plate discipline in 2016 he was still a good hitter. But if he is able to work that out, he showed plenty of power last year to push him into the 140 wRC+ range. The question is if last year’s power is conditional on his hacking ways – I’ll bet that it wasn’t.

The Tigers were very close to postseason baseball in 2016, if everyone pushes a little bit in the right direction they can make it there in 2017, and Martinez is one of the guys with more room to push that most. Hopefully his knee can bear it.

A Plan For The 2017 Tigers

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

As is tradition this time of year, this post will lay out my plan for the 2017 Tigers. It’s entirely possible that by the time you read this, the entire premise will have been undercut. I say that because I’m going to lay out a strategy of modest improvement, but the club is presently considering a strategy of total rebuilding. And because Mike Ilitich is still at the helm, it’s totally plausible they pull a 180 and wind up as big buyers. We won’t know until it happens.

At the present moment, the Tigers have a starting lineup featuring McCann, Cabrera, Kinsler, Castellanos, Iglesias, Upton, Collins, Martinez, and Martinez. They have Verlander, Zimmermann, Fulmer, Norris, Boyd, and Sanchez for the rotation. They have K-Rod, Wilson(s), Lowe, Rondon, Greene, Ryan, Hardy, et all for the pen. Assuming average health, that roster is probably an 82-84 win team. The kind of team that would be within 5-6 games of the division lead all year and may or may not have a chance down the stretch. If that sounds familiar it’s because they are returning almost exactly the same team as they had in 2016, save for Maybin and some bench stuff. The Tigers came within two games of making the postseason and will have the same roster again.

I understand the reasons to rebuild, but as I noted here, I don’t think the Tigers should do it unless the offers are particularly favorable. With arbitration salaries factored in, they’re going to spend around $190 million in 2017 if they do nothing.

I would do two small things and then one maybe larger thing. The first thing would be to acquire another mid-level reliever. There are a lot of names, but someone like Travis Wood/Brad Ziegler/Trevor Cahill/JP Howell. A trade would also be fine, the way they nabbed Justin Wilson last year. The Jansen/Melancon/Blanton tier is probably out of reach financially. Really, just get another arm or two who you can feed into the system so that you don’t have to rely on the farm quite as much.

The second small thing is backup catcher. It’s not a thrilling group, but I’d be more than happy to bring Avila back or add someone like Dioner Navarro. Granted, the Tigers might need to improve at catcher above McCann/backup, but that isn’t happening this year unless they get super creative.

The larger thing I would do relates to center field. Collins/Jones/Gose is not a good option for a team that isn’t otherwise great. You can carry that tandem if you’re a likely playoff team and maxing out your payroll, but the Tigers don’t have that luxury. The Tigers could buy low on Carlos Gomez and hope he’s healthy, or make a play for someone like Dexter Fowler, although the cost of that mixed with the draft pick probably won’t fly.

So if I’m the Tigers and I’ve decided to go for it, I would look toward Ender Inciarte in Atlanta. Inciarte is a solid hitter with good on-base ability, speed, and great defense. He’d be a huge upgrade on defense and could potentially slot in at the top of the order with Kinsler. Depending on what the Braves are after, the Tigers could dangle one of their young pitchers, either a Boyd-caliber arm or one with less polish and more flash like Burrows or Manning. Inciarte is only 26, so while he doesn’t have the prospect status, he’s definitely the kind of player who could contribute for several more years and potentially on a good Tigers team in 2019 or beyond.

I recognize this isn’t the exciting type of plan I normally pitch, but there just isn’t much out there on the market and the Tigers aren’t that far from reasonable contention. Something like this where they add a couple small pieces and one good center fielder is probably the best way to go unless they want to rebuild. If they want to rebuild, there are all sorts of ways to go, it just depends on how long they’re willing to let it hurt.

Does Rebuilding Make Sense?

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

Earlier this week, Al Avila met the press and signaled the organization will be taking a long hard look in the mirror this offseason. Avila indicated payroll likely won’t go up in 2017 and that the club is looking to get younger, likely through the trade market. Both comments send a message, but there was nothing definitive in his statement. You could easily interpret it as a prelude to a tear down or as an indication that the club might try to flip JD Martinez for someone a little worse but a little younger.

Obviously, Avila is right not to overly telegraph his plans. He should wait to see what the market does after the World Series and adjust his plans according to the actions of the rest of the league. No reason to commit to anything before you have information, but this is essentially the first time since 2009 that the club has even hinted at a potential rebuilding offseason.

As usual, when the World Series ends, I’ll lay out my recommendation for the offseason, but now I want to explore if the concept of a rebuild makes sense for the Tigers.

Let’s start with the basics. The club spent $198 million in 2016 and Avila said he doesn’t expect that number to rise. While that has led some people to forecast a big payroll cut, I think it’s more likely we’ll see the club spend $190ish million or so. Even if the Tigers want to get leaner, the luxury tax threshold is going up this winter (potentially by a lot) and there is a lot of new money flowing into the game. The Tigers might not keep pace with everyone else this winter, but I don’t think they’re planning to go down to $140 million simply for financial reasons. They could end up there for rebuilding reasons, but that’s a different question.

Aside from Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers’ longest commitment runs through 2021, but that’s Justin Upton who could easily opt out after 2017. Verlander has an option for 2020 but that requires a top 5 Cy Young finish in 2019. Realistically, You have Cabrera forever, Zimmermann until 2020, and Verlander through 2019. Everyone else with financial commitments are done after 2018. Essentially, this means that the Tigers have to decide if they want to contend in 2017 and 2018, or set their sights on 2019. These aren’t mutually exclusive options, but there’s no reason to shoot for a rebuild to complete any later than 2019 if that’s the plan.

So the options are work to contend for 2017, start a full rebuild for 2019+, or doing something in between that keeps you relevant but acknowledges it might be a slow two years.

If the Tigers want to go for it, they’ll look to make a trade or two to bolster catcher and center field, and then probably also do some combination of things to help the pen. The free agent market is very weak, so there aren’t any big splashes coming. Making some tweaks around the edges will easily bring the club to another 85-88 win season. The downside of this approach is that the longer you wait before rebuilding, the less valuable your trade chips become. The Tigers will get more this winter for Martinez, Cabrera, Kinsler, etc than they will in a year or two.

The rebuild option is some combination of deals involving Martinez, Kinsler, Cabrera, Verlander, Upton, etc. The Tigers have lots of good veteran players who would be attractive in a weak free agent market. If you make these trades, you’re punting the next two seasons because the odds of getting back that much major league ready talent is quite low. Even if you make good trades, you’re probably unlikely to get players who are ready to step in on day one.

The middle path involves dealing JD Martinez, or maybe Martinez and Kinsler. You could probably get enough in return that you could stay competitive in 2017, but also with an eye on the 2019+ timeline. Losing several wins would hurt, but you can probably find league average players to replace them and be a .500 or better team.

This is all hypothetical and the Tigers shouldn’t decide until they know the going rate for these players, but I think the Tigers should go for it in 2017. The idea of a rebuild is interesting, but they have already assembled a championship caliber core. They have an impressive middle of the order, a frontline ace, a solid #2 in Zimmermann, and three young pitchers who could all easily be 2/3 starters as soon as 2017. If they had been a little healthier in 2016 and not lost lots of time from Castellanos, Martinez, and Zimmermann, they would have made the playoffs.

Certainly, key players are aging and you don’t want to kid yourselves into holding on too long, but there’s a very real chance the Tigers make a run in 2017 without significant acquisitions. If the club wanted to rebuild, last offseason would have made more sense. They could have avoided the Upton/Zimmermann deals and traded Kinsler, Martinez, Cabrera to line them up for a big rebuilding project. With those deals being signed and Verlander proving he is back, it doesn’t quite make sense to punt on 2017.

Again, you want to read the market. You do what’s best for the long term success of the organization, but the Tigers are too close, in my opinion, to give up on 2017. The club has been chasing a title for a decade and they are absolutely still in striking distance. If they wait until 2019+, they won’t have prime Cabrera and Verlander and the odds that they acquire two Hall of Fame caliber players in this rebuild is remote. It’s certainly possible, but I don’t think the situation is dire enough yet to warrant that kind of gamble.

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.

The End Of The 2016 Tigers

The 2016 Tigers season ended Sunday afternoon when Justin Upton took a Jim Johnson called third strike with Andrew Romine at first. There’s a metaphor there, I think, but it’s also true that the Tigers season would have ended a few minutes later when the Blue Jays beat the Red Sox, clinching the last remaining wild card spot. 

The Tigers finished 86-75, eight back of Cleveland and 2.5 back of Baltimore and Toronto. If you’re the kind of person who demands a postseason berth or a World Series each year, you’re obviously disappointed right now. The Tigers will miss the playoffs for a second consecutive season and haven’t won a playoff game since 2013. But if you’re the kind of person who watches baseball and roots for a team because you enjoy the rhythm of the summer, this Tigers team gave you plenty to enjoy. 

The club was playoff eligible during all 161 games they played and the season didn’t officially slip away until the last inning of the last game. You could argue the season ended when Dansby Swanson started the double play on Saturday or when he started the other double play on Sunday, but the club was right in it until Upton took strike three. 

And while the team came up a bit short, there were a number of tremendous individual performances worthy of celebration. Justin Verlander proved his great second half in 2015 was the sign of a real return, and while he might not have done enough to win the Cy Young, he’ll finish in the top five. His rotation-mate, Michael Fulmer, is going to finish first or second in rookie of the year and looks every bit like someone who can fill a key rotation spot for the next six years. Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd didn’t have the season Fulmer did, but they both showed why the Tigers wanted them and left you feeling like this team has a strong young core of pitchers around which to build. 

Miguel Cabrera and Ian Kinsler had great seasons despite staring Father Time in the face. JD Martinez and Nick Castellanos missed time with injuries but they crushed the ball when they were healthy. Justin Upton started so bad but by year’s end his late season surge brought him almost all the way back. Even James McCann, light-hitter that he may be, learned to frame much better. He might not be an MLB caliber starter, but he’s good enough to be the weak half of a platoon or a backup if that’s how it shakes out. 

And other than Saltalamacchia, Aybar, and McGehee, this entire team is coming back if the Tigers want them. There is no giant hole to fill like there was a year ago when Price and Cespedes left gaping voids on the roster. The Tigers could upgrade at CF, C, the bench, and in the pen, but they have a core of position players and starters that would be the envy of a lot of teams. It might take some creativity to make a big upgrade, but even if they do nothing this is a wild card caliber roster in 2017. 

Brad Ausmus will probably return, and while I don’t think much of him as a manager, the roster he had this year hid his flaws more effectively than the one he had a year ago. I’d rather they hire someone else, but I don’t think it will be Ausmus who torpedoes them in 2017.

There will be time shortly to decide who they should sign and acquire via trade, but for now, we can reflect on a good team that was just as good as they should have been. Despite big injuries to Martinez, Castellanos, and Zimmermann, they were the last team to be eliminated in the AL.

It’s easy to look at a season that ends without a parade as a failure. But I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotations given that it’s authored died this past week. I recognize the contexts are vastly different, but wisdom is transferable. Rather than thinking of 2016 as a failure, think of it as one step within a broader effort for the franchise toward a title. So I’ll leave you by paraphrasing the line:

The Tigers title run did not fail. It is just not yet finished.

All The Weekend Scenarios

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. 

Ten Games Left

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.

The Other Side Of JD Martinez’s Year

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

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.

screenshot-2016-09-16-at-12-50-03-pm

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.

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