It took a few days to complete the stages of baseball offseason grief, and New English D is back to look forward (and back) to the 2015 Detroit Tigers. We’ll be sure to analyze some of the key contributors from the 2014 iteration, but it’s time to start considering what comes next. Over the next couple weeks, I’ll present my suggestions for how the team can set it self up best for the upcoming year. Today, we’ll take a look at the players who are set to be free agents when the clock ticks down on the World Series.
The Tigers are looking at seven players whose pacts are up next month: Max Scherzer, Torii Hunter, Victor Martinez, Jim Johnson, Joba Chamberlain, Phil Coke, and Joel Hanrahan. Some of these are key pieces, some aren’t. Let’s go through it.
Joel Hanrahan – RP
Hanrahan is the easiest one because there’s virtually no real chance he signs a major league deal, or if he does, it will be for $1 million with some incentives. A big injury and a setback? Sure he has a couple of quality seasons on his resume, but where he pitches in 2015 is going to depend on what organization he likes and who is willing to take a flyer.
Recommendation: Offer a minor league deal, let him walk if he doesn’t want it.
Jim Johnson – RP
I actually loved the idea of signing Johnson mid-season because it was the perfect kind of low risk, reliever deal that the Tigers don’t do enough. It didn’t work out. It happens. He walked basically everyone in the world. He walked so many batters he got endorsement deals from professional dog walkers. It was a lot.
I think it’s entirely plausible that he’ll be a fine relief pitcher but a 32 year old who couldn’t find the zone all year? Not exactly someone you spend much money on. If he’s willing to sign for cheap to rebuild the value, he’s a guy I’d absolutely let compete for a job.
Recommendation: Offer a minor league deal, or very small guaranteed contract.
Joba Chamberlain – RP
Joba’s a bit tougher because he was quite good for a few month before coming back to Earth down the stretch. The ending was bad, but you have to judge the thing as a whole, and on the whole, it was a good, productive season. Entering his age 29 season and far enough removed from two serious injuries, I’m on board with Joba serving as a team’s 3rd or 4th RHP. If he wants to come back in a slightly less prominent role, that totally works for me. He’s earned himself a one year deal worth a few million or a year and an option conditional on health.
I know many soured on Joba, but he’s the kind of guy I wouldn’t mind if he wasn’t getting high leverage innings quite so often.
Recommendation: Offer a one year, $4.5 million deal. Sweeten the pot with an option.
Phil Coke – RP
Coke isn’t a good reliever, but he’s decent enough against lefties and he’s kind of fun to have around. I have no idea what kind of market he’ll have, but there’s not a lot left for him to do in Detroit. If he’ll take a small deal and no guarantee of a roster spot, that’s great. But if he’s looking for a long-term relationship, it’s probably time for an amicable split.
Recommendation: Offer a small, good-will deal.
Torii Hunter – OF
Now that we’re out of the relief pitcher nexus, it’s time to make some tough decisions. As much as people seem to like Torii, there’s just no place on this roster for him. He’s had a very nice career and he’s had a fun little late career run, but the defense is totally gone and you have to hit better than he does to play a corner OF spot that poorly. If you figure he’s a -10 defender at best, you’re looking for a .350-.360 wOBA just to get yourself an average player. And that might be generous defensively. He could work nicely as a pinch hitter/DH/5th OF, but a guy like Torii won’t go out like that. There’s just no place for him on a club desperate for defense.
Recommendation: Approach him about a bench role, wish him well when he says no thanks.
Victor Martinez – DH/1B
Martinez had his best offensive season at 35 thanks to an amazing power surge and if you believe the projections, enough of it is here to stay to want him back in 2015. You worry about an aging hitter with no position, but VMart has maxed out his negative value on defense and on the bases. He’s going to be a -25 runner/defender, so to get to 3 WAR or so, you need 35 batting runs. That’s about a .380 wOBA. He’s projected for .371.
Basically, if he comes back to Earth as you expect, a 2-3 win player is what you’ll get. But if the power is sustainable for a year or two, you might get another run at 4 WAR. Plus, there definitely appears to be something to his leadership skills and the way his approach sets a model for young players. I’m also fine paying a premium for how gloriously fun it is to watch him hit. You don’t want to go crazy, but the Tigers should match any offer that’s pretty close to theirs. It’s not so much that he’s going to be a bargain, but replacing his production is going to be tough.
Recommendation: Qualifying offer. Shoot for 3 years, $45 million. Try to keep it reasonable. Don’t pay $75 million. Maybe $55M?
Max Scherzer – SP
The only way Max stays in Detroit is if the team can trade Verlander, or something else super crazy happens. He’s going to be expensive. He turned himself into an ace and he’s going to get paid like one. You’ll be buying age 30-35/36 and that’s going to include some decline years, but decline from a 5-6 WAR peak.
Scherzer will beat the 6/$144M offer he got this offseason and I think 6/$180M is probably the lowest amount he’d accept. Practically speaking, you need 25 WAR over those six years to make that work, so you’re betting on a very slow decline. That’s just not a wager you can make with so much money tied up in old players. Max has been terrific for the Tigers, but he’s simply too expensive to be worth the cost. If they hadn’t extended Verlander, you might think about the risk, but you can’t lock up $75 million in three players on the wrong side of 30.
Max is going to be good for another couple seasons, but there’s just no way to make it work.
Recommendation: Qualifying offer. Lots of hugs.
Today is Jhonny Peralta’s 31st birthday. Most major league baseball players have their best seasons at or before they turn 30, but Peralta might be making an attempt to buck that trend. His best MLB season to date was 2011 in which he accumulated 5.0 WAR, while his best offensive season was 2005 in which he he provided 136 wRC+. I separate the two because this post is about Peralta at the plate, so his considerable improvement according to the defensive metrics over the last few years is worth separating out. Let’s take a quick peak at Peralta in 2005 and 2011:
2005: .292/.366/.520, 136 wRC+, 4.4 WAR (570 PA)
2011: .299/.345/.478, 122 wRC+, 5.0 WAR (576 PA)
His best offensive season was 2005, when he was 23, and his second best was in 2011 when he was 29. At 31, he is making a run at his best season yet. So far, he’s hitting .341/.392/.500, 139 wRC+, 2.1 WAR (195 PA). If we assume he will play 150 games based on career norms, he is set to accumulate career best 7.0 WAR.
But he likely won’t keep up this pace because this is a borderline MVP pace and he’s never done that before and players generally don’t get significantly better after age 30. A player’s performance is also not uniform over an entire season and it would be wrong to assume he will play at this pace for the rest of the year simply because that would be unlikely even if he did get tangibly better.
One of the reasons Peralta isn’t going to keep this up is because he has a very high, unsustainable Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP), which is a statistic we associate with luck. The standard BABIP rule of thumb is that .300 is where you expect most players to converge toward, with better hitters maintaining numbers in the middle .300s. The idea here is that when you put the ball in play, you only have control over how hard you hit it and the precise location is outside of your control. Sometimes you’ll smoke a baseball and it will be caught and sometimes a bloop hit will fall. In general, these take a a couple thousand plate appearances to balance out.
This is not to say that hitters can’t influence their BABIPs with their approach and talent level, but rather that BABIP will regress toward a player’s career norm and that small sample BABIPs can lead you to make mistaken predictions.
Jhonny Peralta’s BABIP in 2013 is .414. That’s very high. His career BABIP entering 2013 was .310, meaning it is unlikely that Peralta will be able to maintain his high BABIP, and with it, his current level of production. It’s possible that he got better, but it is not possible his true talent level is now a .414 BABIP.
The highest BABIP among active players is .367, with a number of the games’ best hitters in the .330 to .360 range. The highest modern day BABIP is Ty Cobb, coming in at .378. League average BABIP for non-pitchers over the last 10 years hovers between .294 and .305.
This is all by way of saying that Peralta’s early season success isn’t around to stay. He’s still very capable of having a great year, but it isn’t going to look like this, don’t fool yourself.
But as I gathered my thoughts last week and discovered his high BABIP, I thought, “Meh, a high BABIP post isn’t interesting. He’ll regress back toward career norms and will have a solid, 2011 type season. Nothing wrong with that, but not super interesting to write about.”
Well, then I thought to myself, perhaps I’m missing something. Perhaps Peralta’s good BABIP luck is hiding an actual improvement in his skills. Maybe he’s gotten better and luckier in his 31st year on Earth.
Peralta is walking and striking out at rates almost identical to his career rates and his Isolated Slugging Percentage (ISO) is even more identical to his career line. His triple slash line is equally buoyed this year by about 70 points all the way around (74/62/75):
If you erase the BABIP increase, he’s pretty much the Jhonny Peralta you knew. So how much, if at all, is the BABIP increase a change in skill?
Wait a second! Peralta is doing something different if you look at the results:
Peralta is hitting more line drives and more groundballs at the expense of hitting the ball in the air. This is important because line drives and groundballs are more likely to go for hits than flyballs, which could actually make his BABIP shift reasonable in direction if not in magnitude. In other words, the balls are coming off Peralta’s bat this season on a different trajectory that they did in the past. This could be something.
If we look at his spray charts from April and May from 2012 and 2013 we notice he’s using the lines more effectively this year, but the comparison I want to show you is the one between 2010 and 2013 because it shows the difference between a flyball heavy approach and a groundball heavy approach as you can divine from the graph above:
What we see here is that as Peralta has changed as a hitter, he has started to get hits to right field. Everyone knows that. He’s definitely learned to go the other way, but what is also striking to me is that he is also making fewer outs in the air to left field. He’s making fewer outs in the outfield period. He’s getting a band of hits in front of the outfielders in a way that didn’t happen in 2010.
So while Peralta’s numbers this year are great, his high BABIP means he’s not going to keep up this pace. But if you look at the batted ball data, you can see that he changing the way he makes contact to some degree and is inducing different trajectories off the bat. He’s not a 7.0 WAR player like the pace indicates, but there is reason to believe that if he continues to impress the defensive metrics, he may hit well enough to approach another 5.0 win season.
Now the Rick Porcello skeptic is going to look at his 5.92 ERA and just ignore this post in favor of his or her preconceptions about the Tigers right-hander, but I urge you to read on. Rick Porcello is about to have his breakout season. Really.
First, let’s point out that his start on April 20th against the Angels was a mess. 0.2 innings and 9 runs. But it certainly wasn’t all his fault, it was only somewhat his fault. There were infield singles galore in that inning and he should have gotten out of it with only a run or two to his name. I don’t mean to deflect the blame, but merely want to to point out that type of strange inning can happen to anyone and that he induced 7 groundballs in 2/3 of an inning. Normally, that should get you a lot of outs. If we remove that start from his line this year, he has a 3.85 ERA. Again, I’m not trying to just wish it away – it happened – but I do want to point out that other than that one inning, he’s having a very solid season for back end starter even by a conventional, inch deep approach to analyzing baseball.
But let’s also turn to the peripheral numbers. Rick Porcello is striking out 6.39 batters per 9 so far in 2013 and that is the highest number of his career. In his first two years he was about 4.7 K/9. In 2011-2012 he was 5.0-5.5 K/9. He’s added nearly an entire strikeout per 9 this season, which is always a good thing.
He’s also walking fewer batters than ever. In his first season he walked 2.74 per 9 and in his last three he’s been around 2.1-2.3 BB/9. This year, he’s walking 1.89 batters per 9 inning. Look at how his strikeout rate and walk rate are bowing apart on the graph. That is a sign of improvement.
He’s striking out more hitters and walking fewer. In other words, he’s getting better at two of the aspects of the game a pitcher can truly control. But there’s more.
Rick Porcello’s groundball rate is rising too. In his rookie season he got 54.2% GB, but that number dropped to 50.3% before rising each of the last three seasons into this year’s career high 54.9% groundball rate. Not bad. More groundballs are always better than more flyballs.
And then there are the homeruns. Typically Porcello has allowed 0.8 to 1.0 HR/9, but this year that number is 1.42. Now that may sound worse, but it’s actually good. The reason being that most people consider HR to Flyball rate to be inherently driven by luck and that over a large enough sample, every pitcher regresses toward giving up about 1 HR per every 10 fly balls. Porcello has generally been in that range for his entire career. Until this season. This season that rate is 1 in 5. Again, this is a good thing because we would expect that number to come down toward his career norm, thus shrinking his HR rate as the season goes on. In other words, Porcello has given up more runs that he should have this year because he’s been unlucky with flyballs and that luck will change.
Put this together and we have this story: Rick Porcello is striking out more batters than ever, walking fewer batters than ever, getting more groundballs than ever, and is allowing more homeruns per flyball than we would generally expect. All of this points toward the 24 year old having his best season to date.
I’m buying it. Everything we know about what makes pitchers successful tells us to look at strikeouts, walks, and homeruns and the percentage of balls in play he allows on the ground versus in the air. All of those numbers – all of them – are trending in the right direction for Rick Porcello. Lots of people talked about his great spring and the trashed it when he struggled a bit early, but here were are on May 18th and Porcello is starting to make himself look like a very good starter.
Fangraphs furnishes a metric called xFIP which gives us an expected ERA for a starting pitcher based on his strikeouts and walks plus a regressed version of their HR rate adjusted for park effects and league average. Rick Porcello is posting a career best 3.42 xFIP right now. That xFIP is 27th best in baseball among pitchers with 30 IP or more. He’s tied with Jordan Zimmermann (who has a 1.69 ERA) and is getting ace-like attention this season.
I’m not trying to make the case that Porcello is a #1 starter or even a #2, but rather that Rick Porcello is poised for a breakout season and that you should take notice. Heck, look at how his xFIP has declined in every season of his career. He’s often a whipping boy for fairweather fans and idiot radio hosts, but Rick Porcello has always been a durable starter and now he’s having his best season yet.
And he’s still just 24.
Came up short.
Nationals 5, Tigers 4
Doug Fister (4-1, 43 IP, 3.14 ERA, 3.01 FIP, 1.2 WAR) must be a creature of habit. He was out of sorts today in a big way after the extra day off, allowing 5 runs (4 earned) on 8 hits in just 3 inning of work. But the Tigers didn’t go quietly as the bullpen allowed the Nationals to go no further, getting zeros from Downs, Putkonen, Smyly, and Valverde as they waited for the offense to come. They got a single run in the 2nd on a Fister single, but the big hit came from Tuisasosopo as he delivered a pinch hit 3 run homerun in the 6th inning to get the Tigers within a run. They wouldn’t be able to push the equalizer across in the final three, but they made it close. The loss drops the Tigers to 19-13 on the season and they will head home to face the Indians this weekend with Max Scherzer (4-0, 39.1 IP, 3.43 ERA, 1.99 FIP, 1.6 WAR) set to take the hill in the opener tomorrow night at Comerica Park.
The Moment: Tuiasosopo delivers the Tigers’ first pinch hit homerun of the year in the 6th.