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.
Every year, Ernie used to read this quotation from the Song of Solomon on Opening Day. Three years ago, I heard a priest recite this in Ernie’s name in reference to the rebirth of baseball, Spring, and Easter.
For, lo, the winter is past,
The rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth;
The time of the singing of birds is come,
And the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.
We made it.
Well, we made it. The Tigers will take the field tomorrow in Chicago and the 2017 season will get underway in earnest. The club had a relatively quiet offseason, punctuated by the passing of owner, Mike Ilitch. The baseball waters were calm this winter, but there was, um, a lot of stuff to pay attention to from early October to now and real baseball is a welcome sight.
Yesterday, I published my annual piece assessing the offseason and offering a prediction for the upcoming year. I set my expectations around 83-85 wins, figuring we’d see the team in the wild card chase, but that they would ultimately come up short. But as is tradition, this post will paint a rosier picture. This post will tell you why Yesterday Neil was wrong and why the 2017 Tigers will hoist the trophy this fall.
Winning a title starts with making the playoffs, so task one is convincing yourself that’s going to happen. It’s easy enough to assume the Tigers can stay ahead of the White Sox. Minnesota has some very compelling young position players but their pitching just can’t prevent runs at a level required to win more than 85 games. The Royals are known for beating the odds, but without Wade Davis and with a starting contingent full of mostly #3 to #5 arms, a healthy Tigers roster should survive.
In the division, the crown belongs to Cleveland. Their rotation is great and they added Edwin Encarnacion to their already troublesome lineup. They have Miller and Allen in the pen. On paper, Cleveland is the better team. We saw that last season and nothing has happened between October and now to change that impression. But what’s also true is that the difference between the clubs is not that large, particularly when you consider how poorly the Tigers played against Cleveland in 2016. If the Tigers hadn’t performed so terribly against Cleveland they would have made the wild card game and if they had played well the division could have been theirs. This isn’t to discount Cleveland’s advantage, but rather to point out the clubs were similarly successful against the rest of the league and they likely will be again.
So success looks like this. The Tigers need everyone to stay reasonably healthy. They need Fulmer to repeat and they need Norris and Boyd to hold their own. They need Upton’s valleys to be shorter and they need Iglesias and McCann to not hit quite so poorly. They need a large number of things to break right in order to pass Cleveland, or to play well enough to squeeze into the wild card, but they don’t need things to break unreasonably in their favor. It’s not like they need Castellanos to hit 40 bombs or for Shane Greene to have a 1.50 FIP.
Once they make it to the postseason, it’s anyone’s game and they are pretty well positioned for the postseason because of their rotation. A healthy Red Sox team would be a clear favorite, but if the Tigers arms have a good run you could see them making it through. The Sox and Cleveland are better teams but the Tigers have the top end talent that can win in a short series.
The Cubs, Dodgers, et al will be tough to defeat but the same principle holds. The Tigers weakness is the bottom of their roster rather than the top. If they can get themselves into a sprint, I like their odds just fine.
This definitley isn’t the scenario I’m betting on, but it’s certainly a plausible scenario. If Corey Kluber gets hurt and Francisco Lindor stumbles, the Tigers could catch Cleveland without anything really unexpected happening. When you’re a solid team, it doesn’t take that much to have a great year. And the Tigers are a solid team. So screw it, and get ready to spray champagne.
In a very basic sense, not much happened this winter for the Tigers. The club parted ways with Maybin, Saltalamacchia, Pelfrey, and Lowe, and they welcomed Avila the Younger back, but the roster they will use in 2017 looks a lot like the roster they had in 2016. There will be Mikie Mahtook and more JaCoby Jones, Daniel Norris, and Matt Boyd, but this team is going to look very familiar if you were around last year. They missed the playoffs by 2.5 games and rather than spend a bunch of money or blow it up, Avila the Elder gripped the wheel and kept driving. The 2016 Tigers are back to pursue a title in 2017.
But in another sense, things are very different. Detroit institution and Tigers owner, Mike Ilitch, died in February and while his family remains in charge of the organization, we can’t pretend that his heirs share his win-now attitude. There haven’t been any immediate signs of retreat, but as I noted in this post last year, Ilitch knew he was on the clock and his desire to win before it was too late shaped this era of Tigers baseball. That clock no longer ticks.
I would typically spend a few paragraphs summarizing the offseason moves, but the Tigers did very little of substance. There is no Justin Upton or Jordan Zimmermann contract to consider or Justin Wilson trade to ponder. The decision to stand pat made sense. The club is talented enough to contend in a league of parity, but there were also few free agent options who made much sense for the team. Trades were certainly an option, but the Tigers desired by other clubs are Tigers who are vital for 2017 and beyond. The Tigers could have decided to rebuild, but they will only have Verlander and Cabrera at their peak for a short while longer. They could have made different choices, but the path they took was a logical one. Surely, they could have signed Joe Blanton for nothing or grabbed Dexter Fowler at a reasonable price, but there was no obvious move that they failed to make. The die was cast last offseason.
Looking at this roster and at the other teams in the division and league, I see the 2017 Tigers as a wild card contender. I would set the range at 83-85 wins, likely too few to truly challenge Cleveland for the title, but more than enough to be within range of the wild card for the entire season. If the rotation is reasonably healthy, I think it will be the third best in the AL behind Cleveland and Boston. And if David Price is going to miss significant time, you could argue that the Tigers have the second best rotation in the AL.
The bullpen isn’t a strength, but there is enough talent there for you to envision a world in which the relief corps gives the team an above-average year. I’m not counting on it, but relief pitching is volatile and the Tigers are close enough to the middle to imagine luck carrying them a bit.
The Tigers may not have the league’s best offense, but Cabrera-Martinez-Martinez-Upton-Kinsler is a strong top five, a good year from Castellanos gives them a strong top six. JD is going to start the year on the DL and you can’t be sure what’s lurking for VMart’s legs, but the offense will score runs. Defense isn’t the team’s strong point, but they have won more games with a worse defense in recent seasons.
There is a path to 90 wins for this team, one that I will discuss tomorrow, but realistically the Tigers are a slightly above average team. They were a slightly above average team last season as well and finished the year right in this same window. Above .500, but just short of the wild card. That’s what I would expect again.
There is a common belief among the wider baseball world that the Tigers are buried in bad contracts waiting to detonate. While the Tigers are certainly going to have a couple underwater deals in the coming seasons, they actually aren’t locked in to that much beyond 2018. Only Verlander, Cabrera, Upton, and Zimmermann are on the books for 2019+, and Upton could opt-out after this year. Verlander is only signed through 2019, with a vesting option that requires him to be good in that year to get paid in 2020. In other words, while the Tigers will be paying Cabrera until the heat death of the universe, if they decided to pack it in after this year, they could easily manage a 2-3 year rebuild and be back in action for 2020 or 2021 without much money tied up.
We’ve been afraid of the dark for a long time in Detroit, wondering when the bill for Ilitch’s spending was going to come due. At some point, things were going to catch up with the Tigers and the music was going to stop and they would be left holding big contracts for players who were no longer contributing like stars. But that darkness hasn’t come and it might never come. Cabrera remains great. Verlander sidestepped what appeared to be early decline. Martinez hit last year. Kinsler had one of his best seasons. If they do it again in 2017 and again in 2018, they will essentially have escaped the end of days.
I don’t know what that proves, exactly. But I think it’s a good reminder that in baseball you can’t look too far down the road. We can spend lots of time talking about what is supposed to happen, but baseball is a hopelessly random game. Normally I would say that all you can count on is getting to spend the summer watching 162 games, but even that wasn’t true last year.
I’m past the point in my life where I need the Tigers to win in order to enjoy myself. I want to watch interesting baseball to relax and take my mind off things. The Tigers are certainly capable of providing us with that this year, and if we’re lucky, they will treat us to a little more. I don’t think this is the year, but I also care about sports with less urgency than I once did. The Tigers will win a championship eventually, and as long as they’re showing up between now and then, I’m content.
It’s almost Opening Day, so time to roll out the annual New English D over/unders. You all know how this works. I’ll be setting the value at what I expect to be the mean value. So I’m setting the over/under at 83.5 wins, meaning I think it’s equally likely that they win more games as it is that they win fewer games. Feel free to suggest others in the comments section and weigh in on where you stand on some of the more interesting ones.
- Wins: 83.5
- Ian Kinsler home runs: 20.5
- James McCann framing runs (BP): -5.5
- Walk off wins: 8.5
- Nick Castellanos ISO: .200
- Day at which Tigers fans first panic: April 30
- Alex Avila walks: 40.5
- Miguel Cabrera wRC+: 150.5
- Eye-popping Jose Iglesias plays: 11.5
- Upton hot-to-cold streak ratio: 3 to 2
- JD Martinez games played: 120.5
- Number of players who get 1+ inning in CF: 6.5
- Faux pas committed by Tyler Collins: 3.5
- VMart strikeout rate: 12.0%
- Justin Verlander strikeouts: 240.5
- Justin Verlander hits: 0.5
- Combined starts by Fulmer, Norris, and Boyd: 72.5
- Appearances by a Wilson: 120.5
- Wins against Cleveland: 6.5
- Number of times I tweetstorm about Ausmus: 10.5
- Time of longest game (excluding delays): 4:45
- Articles I will write about Anibal Sanchez: 3.5
- Joe Jimenez appearances: 19.5
- Talk radio segments demanding a Joe Jimenez callup: 7,412.5
- Games that will not be fun: 6.5
- Number of times Mario will be blamed for jinxing a no-hitter: 3.5
- Positions played by Andrew Romine: 6.5
- Home runs to dead center at Comerica: 8.5
- Sacrifice bunts that will make sense (non-pitcher): 2.5
- Bernstein commercials on FSD: one gazillion point five
In an effort to find to bring a new angle to the routine nature of season previews, last year New English D ran a season preview series based on the team’s nine most pivotal players. We be called the series “2016 Bellwethers,” broke down the players whose 2016 direction would indicate where the Tigers were heading. Due to a solid response, the series is back for 2017. Keep in mind this is not a series about the most important Tigers, but rather the Tigers with the widest range of possible outcomes. You won’t see Miguel Cabrera featured, for example, because of his steady dominance of the league. Enjoy. | #9: James McCann and Alex Avila | #8: Victor Martinez | #7: Whoever Plays Center Field |#6: Jose Iglesias | #5 Jordan Zimmermann | #4: Daniel Norris | #3: Nick Castellanos | #2: Justin Upton
There is no perfect formula for a list like this. It’s designed to attack the season preview genre from a different angle. Rather than breaking down every player or doing some sort of faux projection, I like the idea of ranking barometers. Obviously, if Miguel Cabrera breaks his leg, the team is in big trouble. Obviously, if Verlander is a terrible, the Tigers are done. But that’s not interesting. There’s no value in that kind of a post because it’s plainly obvious. If the good players aren’t good, that’s bad! And if Andrew Romine has a 175 wRC+, that’s good. I think the interesting thing to consider are the players who could go either way.
That’s why the list has focused on guys like McCann, Norris, Castellanos, and Upton. Anything can happen, but it usually doesn’t. Most of the time the best players will be good and the worst players will be bad, but it’s the guys in the middle who matter a lot. It’s the guys in the middle that make or break the team. And there is no more make or break player on the Tigers, perhaps in the entire American League Central than Michael Fulmer.
Fulmer had a terrific 2016 season. He threw 159 innings and posted an 72 ERA- and 88 FIP-. He was somewhere between very good and great. The Tigers weren’t counting on a Fulmer to be a lynchpin last year but he quickly became the team’s #2 starter. Without him, they would not have been in the race until the final weekend.
But there are questions. The obvious one is how Fulmer responds to the increase in workload and the increase in the intensity of his outings. Not only did he throw more innings than ever, he threw high stakes big league innings for the first time. How his body responds to that will be key. The less obvious question is how the league responds now that they’ve seen him 26 times. In his first 120 innings, he had a 53 ERA- and 81 FIP-. In his last 39 IP, it was 130 ERA- and 109 FIP-. I don’t want to oversell those samples, but Fulmer either got easier to figure out down the stretch or he got tired, or both.
There’s nothing wrong with that. He was 23 and ahead of schedule. Everything Fulmer gave the Tigers last year was gravy, but now they’re counting on him to do it again. If Fulmer doesn’t give the Tigers a 3+ win season, it is very hard to imagine them playing baseball past October 1.
There’s no reason to think Fulmer will struggle, per se. He’s talented and he pitched well last year. This isn’t like McCann who needs to improve at the plate or Zimmermann who may be on the decline. But the Tigers are counting on a young, inexperienced pitcher to do a lot of heavy lifting in 2017 and that’s never a good bet. Pitchers break and pitchers have growing pains. There aren’t warning signs specific to Fulmer, but betting your season on a 24-year-old flamethrower is not the highest percentage play.
Many players on his list could step up and get the Tigers over the hump and into the postseason. Fulmer is the player who was critical in 2016 who I think has the highest potential of taking a step back, for one reason or another. It is as simple as this: The Tigers need Michael Fulmer to be very good and there are lots of things that can go wrong.
In an effort to find to bring a new angle to the routine nature of season previews, last year New English D ran a season preview series based on the team’s nine most pivotal players. We be called the series “2016 Bellwethers,” broke down the players whose 2016 direction would indicate where the Tigers were heading. Due to a solid response, the series is back for 2017. Keep in mind this is not a series about the most important Tigers, but rather the Tigers with the widest range of possible outcomes. You won’t see Miguel Cabrera featured, for example, because of his steady dominance of the league. Enjoy. | #9: James McCann and Alex Avila | #8: Victor Martinez | #7: Whoever Plays Center Field |#6: Jose Iglesias | #5 Jordan Zimmermann | #4: Daniel Norris | #3: Nick Castellanos
It might surprise you if you sort of tuned out down the stretch, but Justin Upton almost got himself back to his career norm for offensive production. He wound up with a 105 wRC+, which is only about 14 points behind his 119 career average. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not hyping a down year, but it could have been a lot worse if he hadn’t caught fire late.
Let’s go to the tape!
There were basically three Uptons. He was terrible, meh, and awesome. Through June 11th, he had a 61 wRC+ (235 PA). From June 12 to August 18, it was 82 wRC+ (235 PA). From August 19 to October 2, he had a 205 wRC+ (156 PA). Streakiness has been part of Upton’s game for a long time. It wasn’t weird that he was hot and cold, but when you’re cold right out of the gate with a new team that just gave you a lot of money, it’s easier to notice. When you suck in April, it takes the entire season to repair your stat line. If you suck in June, it’s kind of hidden.
There isn’t anything interesting to say that hasn’t been said. At the end of the day, he struckout a little too much and didn’t make up for it with any sort of power spike. That changed as the season went on, but he looked lost for the first couple months. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Upton. This is who he is. He was adjusting to a new city and new league and it took some time. That doesn’t mean he won’t have bad streaks in 2017, just that his late-2016 hot streak will probably put his mind at ease a bit.
If Upton can avoid a sustained period of trouble in 2017, he’ll give the Tigers a boost. They need him. JD Martinez is hurt, Cabrera and Victor are getting older, and Castellanos is a bit of a wild card. Upton has to be that 130 wRC+ guy in the middle of the order who you can count on every day. If Upton doesn’t have a good year, it’s hard to picture the Tigers in the playoffs, but if he has a great year, it’s difficult to imagine they’ll be out of the race at all.
In an effort to find to bring a new angle to the routine nature of season previews, last year New English D ran a season preview series based on the team’s nine most pivotal players. We be called the series “2016 Bellwethers,” broke down the players whose 2016 direction would indicate where the Tigers were heading. Due to a solid response, the series is back for 2017. Keep in mind this is not a series about the most important Tigers, but rather the Tigers with the widest range of possible outcomes. You won’t see Miguel Cabrera featured, for example, because of his steady dominance of the league. Enjoy. | #9: James McCann and Alex Avila | #8: Victor Martinez | #7: Whoever Plays Center Field |#6: Jose Iglesias | #5 Jordan Zimmermann | #4: Daniel Norris
Nick Castellanos has been coming together in pieces. He made his debut in 2014, improved his defense in 2015, and added power in 2016. He’s by no means a good defender and his approach is still very tenuous, but he showed last year that you can provide some value if you post a .212 ISO.
It’s not quite that simple, however. You could look at Castellanos’ 110 games and 1.9 WAR and indicate that if he hadn’t taken that pitch off the hand, we’d be talking about a 2-3 win player. But that isn’t exactly right because the best part of Castellanos’ season was the beginning. Or to put it more clearly, he was terrible in June. From 5/28 to 6/26, Castellanos had 123 PA and posted a 66 wRC+. Prior to that it was 158 (179 PA). After June 26, it was 115 (145 PA). There’s no magic to it, everyone has good stretches and bad, but if you wanted to make the case that Castellanos’ performance tapered off as the year went on, you could do it.
Castellanos is young, newly 25. People have been marveling at his hit tool for years and the power arrived last season. No one is expecting him to be Brooks Robinson, but his improvement from horrible to merely below average is legitimate. The question is if Castellanos is going to be a 110-120 wRC+ guy or something more. Don’t get me wrong, a 115 wRC+ and non-atrocious 3B defense will get you major league work, but if Castellanos is going to live up to the promise of “All-Star Third Baseman” that we heard from certain scouts, he needs to take a step forward.
The biggest room to grow is his approach. He’s been much better when he’s been able to lay off breaking balls low and away. If you come inside with fastballs he will make you pay, but he’s still too aggressive elsewhere in the zone. You can survive as a major league hitter with a 6 BB% and 25 K%, but you have to have good power or a good glove. To excel with a 6 BB% and 25 K%, you have to crush the ball. I think the easier path is become an 8 BB% and 21 K% guy, but we’ll see if that’s in the cards.
Castellanos is third on this list because he has the most two-sided range. He could easier regress to his 2015 value or take a step forward into something resembling a fringe all-star. I think both are realistic options. Was the power fluky or can he improve his approach? He’s young and a hard-worker, so the upside is definitely there.
The Tigers are going to be without JD Martinez for a spell, and there’s some uncertainly surrounding Victor and Upton at the plate. Castellanos can step up and give the Tigers a boost, or he can fall back and leave them wondering what their long term plan should be at the hot corner.