The Tigers season ended Sunday as Efren Navarro flew out to left, but of course the writing was on the wall much sooner. The Tigers last led the division on April 26th. They were last .500 on June 4th. They were last within three games of the division lead on June 16th. They were last within 10 games of the division lead on August 10th. The club went 6-25 in September and finished 64-98. In 2017, they tied for the worst record in baseball and will pick first in the 2018 draft.
Unlike in previous years, this requiem need not consider the randomness of baseball. Unlike in previous years, a few lucky bounces or one fewer injury would not have made a difference. The 2017 Tigers started the season looking like a team built well enough to contend for a wild card, but by the All-Star Break it was clear this team would fail.
Jordan Zimmermann did not pitch well for most of the year. Anibal Sanchez provided little. Matt Boyd and Daniel Norris had good performances and bad. Michael Fulmer was good, but got hurt. Justin Verlander was solid, and was traded. Like most years, the bullpen had a couple of good arms and then a collection of unsuccessful performances. The Tigers pitching was probably not the worst in baseball in 2017 but combined with an unremarkable defense, the club allowed more runs than any other team.
The offense was a little better, but by the end JD Martinez, Justin Upton, and Alex Avila had been traded, pulling most of the good performance off the field for the final couple of months. Nick Castellanos, Mikie Mahtook, and James McCann had solid seasons given expectations, but Ian Kinsler, Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, and Jose Iglesias all underperformed to varying degrees. It was the first time the Tigers collectively produced a below average offensive output since 2009.
When a team fails this completely, there is not one primary cause. Miguel Cabrera was obviously the biggest single problem, but even if he was a 6 WAR player instead of replacement level, the team still wouldn’t have made the playoffs. If Cabrera had hit well, if Kinsler or Victor Martinez had provided more offense, and if one of the mediocre starters stepped up, you could imagine a world in which the Tigers hold JD Martinez and Justin Upton and find themselves chasing the Twins for the second wild card. The final results look really bad, but the club traded two critical offensive players, their ace, and their closer along the way. The Tigers nearly lost 100 games, but this team had the character of a 90-loss team that was blown up to make way for the future.
And it is in the future that we may remember 2017 fondly. While we were living it, we were miserable. The Tigers didn’t provide a particularly compelling brand of baseball this year. There were some good performances and great moments — every baseball season has them — but the season slipped away early and the most enjoyable components of the team now wear other uniforms.
But those trades brought back a lot of players who will be a part of the next competitive Tigers team. Dawel Lugo, Sergio Alcantara, Jose King, Jeimer Candelario, Issac Paredes, Grayson Long, Franklin Perez, Daz Cameron, and Jake Rodgers have fortified the Tigers farm system. They won’t all make it to the show and the ones who do won’t all shine, but suddenly the Tigers only have two big contracts that you’d like to get out from under and a nice bunch of young players who will be able to make an impact in 2019, 2020, and beyond. Years of throwing caution to the wind and going for it finally caught up with the Tigers and they recognized it, pulled the rip cord, and started fresh. The 2017 season will be remembered as a hinge. The next Tigers contender will look nothing like the 2014 team that won the division.
The trades will forever define this season. That’s all we’re going to remember. It will be the year Ilitch died, Verlander was traded, and Ausmus was fired. The hundreds of hours we spent watching frustrating baseball will fade from memory. Whether the season is remembered fondly will depend on the careers of the prospects the team acquired. The legacy of 2017 depends on what happens in the future, ironically.
I attended one game this year. As far as I can remember, it was the first Tigers game I attended since 2010 that carried no postseason implications. That’s a bit deceptive, because I didn’t go to any late season games in 2015, but even during the course of the last decade, we’ve watched a relatively small share of meaningless baseball. The Tigers were in the race for all or most of the year except for 2008, 2010, and 2015 prior to 2017. We’ve fallen out of practice at caring about games that carry little meaning. Fortunately Matt Boyd reminded me how to care two Sundays ago as he completed the first 26 outs of a no-hitter. Last night, Andrew Romine gave us another reminder when he became the fifth person to play all nine positions in one game. It’s been a long year, but even in long years there are things to hold onto.
There are 179 days until Opening Day.
Baseball is a game of great ironies. One such irony occurred today when the Tigers announced they were parting ways with manager Brad Ausmus. Regular readers of this site and particularly my Twitter feed know that I’ve been one of Ausmus’ harshest critics. I don’t mourn Ausmus’ firing because Ausmus wasn’t a good manager, but I do find it ironic, and maybe even a little bit unfortunate that he’s taking the fall for this.
The Tigers are 62-91 this year, heading for a rebuild, and Ausmus’ contract is up. It’s hard to imagine any manager surviving those circumstances. The Tigers won the division in his first season despite his mistakes, but have had two losing seasons in the three years since. After a decade of prominence the organization is going to shift direction and Ausmus isn’t going to be part of that.
Someone had to take the fall, and given that the general manager has been on the job for only two years, it was always going to be the manager who went first. So Brad Ausmus took the fall, even though this wasn’t his doing.
Certainly, Ausmus has made mistakes this year and in each of his seasons, but the best manager in the league couldn’t have stopped this. Ausmus managed himself out games, but every manager goofs a few times per season and missing the playoffs in 2015, 2016, and 2017 was not Ausmus’ doing. You can’t manage your way out of scoring 4.6 runs per game and allowing 5.5.
Ausmus, however, made all sorts of mistakes during his tenure in Detroit. He left his starters in too long. He relied too much on bullpen roles and was a slave to the save statistic. He preached a reckless brand of base running. He didn’t use his bench and reserves well. He made weird lineup choices. And above all, he frequently seemed at a loss when something happened that he didn’t expect.
I won’t take the time to re-litigate all of his mistakes. I’ve chronicled them extensively and tweeted about them probably too much. Ausmus was a very bad manager from a tactical standpoint. He seemed to have the respect of his players and didn’t do anything that created a clubhouse mutiny. It’s impossible to know how well he performed behind closed doors, but the parts of his job we could observe didn’t cast him in a good light.
That’s okay. Not everyone is cut out for managing, and the ones who are don’t always get it right on their first try. Ausmus sounded like he would be open to modernity when he was hired, but those of us who had those hopes probably should have spent more time listening to his words rather than trying to read between the lines. Ausmus told us he wasn’t a sabermetrician. I thought that was a ploy, but it was the simple truth. He managed like an old school guy, which is exactly what he is.
At some point, bad managing turns into bad general managing. Ausmus showed himself to be a flawed manager and the Tigers, through two different regimes, chose not to replace him until now. When Avila took over, he had the perfect chance to replace Ausmus, but stuck with him for reasons I still don’t fully understand. My theory is that Avila didn’t want the organization to experience too much change at once, but we probably won’t ever know.
But over the last couple months, as things have gone south in South Detroit, the crowd has directed a lot of ire at Ausmus, which I don’t think he entirely deserves. Yes, Ausmus was a bad manager, but he wasn’t responsible for the thing that’s got everyone upset. Ausmus should have been fired after 2014 and 2015 and 2016, but firing him now is just an admission that everything is changing. It’s too late to save the 2017 season, and replacing him won’t undo what is already done. I’m pleased that the Tigers are going to (hopefully) go get a better manager, but I am a little disappointed that Ausmus is going down for something he didn’t really cause.
This is how the business works, I understand. When a team plays like crap for this long, the manager gets fired. And Ausmus deserved to be fired, just for something else. It’s ironic is what it is.
I had higher hopes for 2017, but this isn’t something that should have caught us off guard. The Tigers were a decent team that played poorly. And decent teams that play poorly rarely get a chance to redeem themselves. And managers for decent teams with big payrolls that play poorly get fired.
It would be better if you got fired for being a bad manager than for managing a bad team, but that’s not the way the world works. As I’ve said many times, the city’s motto lights the way. We hope for better things; It shall rise from the ashes. I mean, hopefully.
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.
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.
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.
It didn’t take long for the Tigers to pull ahead of the White Sox for good on Opening Day thanks to JaCoby Jones’ first major league home run. With men on the corners and one out, Jones took a 2-2 pitch out to left, giving the team a 3-1 lead. Now, Jones has power and going up against a lefty in Chicago gave him an ideal shot at his first dinger, but his performance in the second inning was impressive nonetheless.
Quintana started Jones with a first-pitch curveball – that’s the orange dot right down the heart of the plate. A first pitch curveball is unusual, especially in your first at bat on Opening Day of your rookie season. So while he was now behind 0-1, that’s a smart take. The second pitch was an inside fastball which he fouled off. The third pitch is that blue dot in the upper right, a fastball that got away from Quintana.
Pitch four is the key to the plate appearance. That’s the blue dot in the lower left, it’s a curveball that starts out as a strike but falls out of the zone. Jones thinks about it but holds up. It’s just a little too far out of reach. This gets him back to 2-2 count.
Foul balls on pitch five and six, both fastballs. Quintana has clearly shown he wants to work Jones inside and he’s shown him the fastball and the curveball multiple times. He tries again, but this time goes back to the curveball that Jones almost chased back in pitch four, but this time leaves it too close to the zone. Jones jumps. He’s out in front, but he connects and lets his raw power do the work.
This is one plate appearance, but the issue for Jones is going to be his ability to control the zone. We know he can drive the ball when he connects, it’s just a matter making pitchers throw you Pitch #7 by laying off Pitch #4. If he keeps that up, he’ll do just fine in the show.