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Where Miguel Cabrera Stands On The Eve of 400

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

I was born one day before Miguel Cabrera turned 7 years old. Maybe his parents could tell by that age what their son would grow to become, but his superhuman talent probably wasn’t evident by mid-April 1990. On that day, 22 men could claim to have hit 400 home runs in the major leagues. The list started with Aaron and ended with Snider. Tiger great Al Kaline was one dinger behind, at 399. A lot has changed since then.

Last night, Adrian Beltre became the 52nd player homer 400 times. Sometime in the next few days, Miguel Cabrera will become number 53.

In the last 25 years, the tools of baseball analysis have improved dramatically. Home runs are still the best thing a hitter can do in the box, but we have a much better understanding of how to best evaluate performance beyond homers, RBI, and batting average. And we’ve also lost a little love for home runs and round numbers in general in the aftermath of the steroid era. The 400 HR club is 241% as large as it was the day I was born. Whatever the cause, whoever is to blame, hitting 400 HR isn’t a particularly awe-inspiring feat anymore. It’s a milestone en route to bigger ones.

Miguel Cabrera’s been a great player virtually since the moment he arrived in the majors. He walked off in game one and won a World Series before he played on Opening Day. In his second full season, he was a star. He’s fallen short of 5 fWAR just twice in his career. In both of those seasons, he was still 30% better than the average hitter.

We all know about Cabrera’s defensive limitations. At his size, it’s quite difficult to be a great defensive player, and that’s going to keep him  from winding up as one of he best players ever. He’s ranged from average to awful in the field, and he’s probably going to be a designated hitter by the end of the decade. But these are reasons that Cabrera falls short of Bonds and Mays and Rodriguez. He’s not Babe Ruth or Ted Williams, but he’s been among the best players of his era entirely on what he can do at the plate.

There are actually a lot more players (30-40) who have hit better than Cabrera through age 32, where he sits at this moment. He has a 152 wRC+, which is an era and park adjusted batting statistic. That’s among the best marks ever, but guys like Piazza, Ramirez, Bonds, Bagwell, Votto, Pujols, Thomas, and Trout (still 23) have been better with the bat through 32.

Cabrera is known for his mix of hit and power tool, but if you look only at the dingers through age 32 (Cabrera has five months left at 32), he’s already 15th on the list and should finish 2015 at 9th.

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Cabrera’s been injured a lot over the last few seasons and while he hasn’t spent time on the DL, his body has been breaking down and limiting his power for periods of time. Since 2010, he leads the league in fWAR and is 6% better than the second best hitter in the league with a 171 wRC+ entering Saturday. There’s no question that Trout has become the player of the 2010s and that Pujols was the player of the 2000s, but Cabrera’s carved himself a section of the game spanning both reigns despite playing on one leg for months at a time.

I think Cabrera, as a player, is both vastly overrated and vastly underrated, depending on the day. Rod Allen talks about Cabrera as one of the best right handed hitters of all time. He’s not even the best right handed hitting first baseman to debut since 2000. People talk about him like he’s the best player in the game, but Trout and McCutchen and company are probably better right now. Cabrera’s body of work is impressive, but despite his excellent ability, the gap between Cabrera and Trout simply as hitters is virtually non-existent already.

But on the other side of this, the fact that we’ve watched Cabrera for seven plus years now on a regular basis has also led to us to a state of complacency. Sure, Cabrera isn’t the best player to ever play the game but 60 WAR and a 152 wRC+ in about 8,000 PA is incredible. The years in Florida limit is raw Tigers value, but he’s 12th among Tigers position players in career WAR as Tigers. And maybe most importantly, in a Tigers uniform, only Ty Cobb has been a better hitter per PA among batters with 100 PA.

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There are all kinds of reasons not to care about HR number 400. It’s only important because it’s a round number, and the home run list is diluted by a massive increase in the number of home run hitters in the last twenty years. There’s more to hitting than home runs and there’s more to baseball than hitting. Cabrera is simultaneously great and ordinary.

We’re used to him. I don’t even blink when he hits a pitch nine inches off the inside corner for a home run, even though no one else does that with the frequency he does. His ability to make adjustments against a pitcher within a game and hit the ball hard no matter where it’s pitched is nearly unrivaled.

Cabrera is obviously the best Tiger of my lifetime and he’s going to be the first I watched to go into the Hall of Fame (shakes fist at voters for Tram and Lou). Yet there’s something so ordinary and expected about his greatness that tempers it. People will get used to anything, I suppose. Just like how I see Giants fans complaining about their team on Twitter as if they haven’t won three championships since 2010.

We’ll probably have a better appreciation of Cabrera long after he’s gone. Ironically, given his huge contract that extends into era of flying cars, we’re going to watch him decline and as he starts to fail, sometime in the next decade, we’ll call back to the days when he dominated pitchers so effortlessly.

To say Cabrera’s erred off the diamond would be an understatement. Sports teams and cities tend to rally around their athletes even when the athletes are at fault. They’ll boo the crap out of a guy who strikeouts too much, but domestic altercations and drunk driving are struggles to overcome rather than crimes for which to atone. Six years ago, the gifted slugger found himself drunk and fighting with his wife during the final week of a playoff run. A year and a half later, he was getting pulled over with a blood alcohol level as high as his isolated power.

He’s largely gotten a pass on both incidents, at least publicly. The media and the fans forgave him or didn’t care. The organization has always played the card that Cabrera had problems and they were going to help. Whether he would say so or not, he had a problem with alcohol abuse and it led him to make bad, criminal choices. It took two rock bottom moments, but he started looking up and made changes.

As a baseball player, Cabrera’s the best Tiger of the era. He’s probably given too much credit for his geniality in light of what he’s done outside the chalk, but there’s also something to be said for actually turning your life around rather than paying lip service to it until everyone forgets.

Cabrera’s 400th home run will be a brief moment of celebration on the path to 500, and probably 600. He’s going to play for about ten more years and hitting another 200 HR is only going to require 20 a year the rest of the way. We won’t look at 600 the same way when Cabrera gets there as we did when Bonds crashed the club, but it’s still an impressive accomplishment.

The legacy of Cabrera is probably already cemented. His early 2010s are going to be the years we remember when it comes time to eulogize his career, but the back end of greatness is often the difference between ordinary and remarkable. The all-time greats are that way because they didn’t bend to father time. Cabrera’s going to hit number 400 shortly as the capstone of his peak, but how you climb down the mountain matters too.

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The Seven Tigers Free Agents And Their Futures

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

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.

Jhonny Peralta Turns 31 During a Great Season

MLB: World Series-San Francisco Giants at Detroit Tigers

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):

Career: .267/.330/.425

2013: .341/.392/.500

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:

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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:

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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.

Rick Porcello is Breaking Out (You Heard Me)

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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.

K bb

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.

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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.

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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.

xfip

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.

How Was The Game? (May 9, 2013)

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

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.

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