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.
Note: This isn’t a Tigers post. If you’re here for the Tigers, feel free to ignore. Also, I’m publishing this here rather than at FanGraphs because 1) I don’t want the general public to get the idea that FanGraphs as an institution is throwing shade at DRA and 2) I don’t want the perception that anything I’m saying is done in the service of driving traffic or subscriptions to or from either site.
Evaluating pitchers is very hard, but that hasn’t stopped people from trying. Wins and losses. ERA. WHIP. FIP. These are all statistics that at one point or another had been at the forefront of the quest for The Best Single Metric. A wise person might suggest that searching for one metric to rule them all might be a silly quest, but even if we all decided to properly use every tool in the toolbox, there would still have to be a best metric among the useful ones.
Two years ago, the Baseball Prospectus stats team took a swing at building the next generation of pitching metrics, led by their top-line creation, Deserved Run Average (DRA). Many in our little corner of the world treated this as near second coming because it was first high-level attempt to get beyond the FIP-generation of metrics and some of the smartest people in the public analysis sphere had thrown their intellectual heft behind the effort.
DRA promised to incorporate a lot of information that hadn’t found its way into FIP while also taking a more complex approach to modeling the pitcher-value process. I agree that those are worthwhile goals.
I think FIP is a very useful metric, not just because it does a pretty good job of representing pitcher value but because it is extremely straightforward. I am not saying that simplicity makes FIP a good metric, but rather that its clarity does. FIP has flaws, but its flaws are in perfect view. I know exactly what FIP is doing and exactly what FIP is not doing. And this is precisely where DRA has so far failed to win me as a full convert so far.
I want to be clear that I am not saying DRA is less rigorous than FIP or that it has been designed poorly or in bad faith. My issue with DRA is not that I think there is something wrong with it, it’s that I don’t really know what to make of it. My argument is not that FIP is a better representation of pitcher value than DRA, it’s that I am less certain about the quality of DRA than I am the quality of FIP.
Imagine FIP and DRA are diamonds. I can hold FIP in my hand and examine it under a magnifying glass. DRA is on a table twenty feet away. I can see the exact quality of the FIP diamond, but I can only tell that DRA is a diamond. Smart people who cut the DRA diamond are telling me they think the DRA diamond is better, but I have not been able to see them side by side.
In my own analysis and in my own writing, I have utilized DRA but I still lean heavily on the FIP-family of metrics for this reason. If I’m writing about a player and want to communicate something, I prefer FIP to DRA because I can talk clearly about what FIP says. If I want to use DRA I can only say that based on the complex method it deploys, the pitcher is this good/bad/other.
Now many strong advocates of DRA will tell you that its complexity is good. Pitching, after all, is very complicated so it follows that any statistic that measures pitching holistically should also be complicated. That’s a very convincing point, but as I noted earlier my problem is not complexity, it’s clarity. I love complicated things. I’ve taken graduate-level courses in statistics and modeling. I am in no way turned off by DRA in concept. At no point in this piece am I saying DRA should be less complex.
However, there are two clear issues with DRA that prevent me from using it as my primary point of reference. The first is that the BP team has not outlined a justification for its modeling strategy. If you read through their explanations (see here, here, here, and here) what you find is a list of flaws that exist with other pitching metrics. “FIP doesn’t have X, X matters, so we put X in our model. We know pitchers control their BABIP to some degree, so we put that in the model.”
This creates a couple of issues. The first issue is that I can’t see what components are doing the lifting (for example, this page needs to be way more granular). Does a player have a good DRA because their opponents are very tough or because their defense is terrible? DRA jams a lot of information into a single output and that makes it quite difficult to use in any sort of interesting way. FIP only has five inputs (strikeouts, walks, hit batters, home runs, and balls-in-play) and even that can feel overly aggregated. DRA has even more inputs that have run through even more aggregation. That might provide DRA with a more accurate output but it blurs a lot of lines. This pitcher might be good, but I have no idea why he’s good.
More importantly, however, is the fact that the BP team has not thoroughly explained why their modeling choices (structure, not inputs) are the proper modeling choices. DRA is a complex model, and while complexity is good, complexity also means that there were hundreds of choices made along the way that could have made differently and produced differently outcomes. In other words, DRA is built on a lot of choices made by people about how to incorporate something and those choices have not been explained and defended. As I noted earlier, the choices may be correct, but I have no way of evaluating them if they do not explain how they came to them.
Here’s an excerpt from the Gory Math DRA post:
What is the best way to model this relationship? That required a lot of testing. A LOT of testing. We tried linear models. We tried local regression. We tried tree-based methods. We bagged the trees. We tried gradient boosting. We tried support vector machines. We even tried neural networks. None of them were providing better results than existing estimators. And then we tried the one method that turned out to be perfect: MARS.
MARS stands for Multivariate Adaptive Regression Splines, and was introduced by Dr. Jerome Friedman of Stanford in 1991. You don’t hear much about MARS anymore: it has been supplanted in the everyday modeling lexicon by trendier machine-learning methods, including many of those we mentioned above. But MARS, in addition to being useful for data dumpster-diving, also has another big advantage: interactions.
MARS uses what are known as regression splines to better fit data. Instead of drawing a straight line between two points, MARS creates hinges that allow the line to bend, resulting in “knots” that accommodate different trends. The power of these knots is enhanced when MARS looks at how variables interact with each other. These interactions are, in our opinion, one of the under-appreciated facts in baseball statistics.
As discussed above, pitchers who are pitching particularly well or poorly have a cascading effect on other aspects of the game, including base-stealing. Moreover, there is a survival bias in baseball, as with most sports: pitchers who pitch more innings tend to be more talented, which means they end up being starters instead of relievers or spot fill-ins. The power of MARS is it not only allows us to connect data with hinged lines rather than straight ones, but that it allows those hinges to be built around the most significant interactions between the variables being considered, and only at the levels those interactions have value. MARS also uses a stepwise variable selection process to choose only the number of terms sufficient to account for the most variance.
Most people won’t be able to make heads or tails of this section and it’s incumbent upon BP to make it more accessible, for one. But even granting a pardon for that, as someone knowledgeable in these issues, I don’t know if this strategy is a good one or a bad one. They made all sorts of choices based on various tests and I am simply asked to accept they chose the right one and that there isn’t a better option out there.
Now you might say that it isn’t their job to teach me how to literally write R code and test my own model so that I can probe the ether for things I think might be imperfect within DRA. Of course they shouldn’t be asked to test literally every possible model specification when building DRA, but you have to give me more information about why you chose to build it like this as opposed to some of the other approaches you tried or could have tried.
On the other hand, with something like FIP, all of the decisions are on display. You might think the decisions are wrong, but you can see the decisions and make that judgement. There are five inputs with a set of clear weights. That’s all FIP is, and while that limits FIP in terms of accuracy, FIP is extremely clear. I can’t make that judgement with DRA. A stronger and clearer defense of the specifications needs to be made.
And this leads me to my second key issue with DRA that prevents me from using it in a more serious way. DRA is two years old and has already had three major iterations that worked differently in meaningful ways. I have no problem with updating your metrics based on new data or new research, and I don’t think there is an inherent problem any of the specific changes they have announced. The problem is that DRA-2015, DRA-2016, and DRA-2017 have different views of the same seasons and I have a strong suspicion that DRA-2018 will lead to more of these cases.
The rapidity with which DRA has been revised indicates the BP team’s willingness to explore improvements (which is great!) but it also suggests to me that they haven’t figured out the right way to model the underlying data generating process.
When they announce a revision, they are stating that the previous version failed to capture something they found essential. It’s one thing if these changes were exclusively based on new data, but they are also based on changes to the modeling. And if the results are that sensitive to tweaks in method, I am suspect about the entire system. That doesn’t mean that FIP is necessarily better than any particular version of DRA, simply that I know that in a few months DRA is going to change and a pitcher I thought way decent might actually be kind of bad even though we didn’t learn anything new about the pitcher himself.
Put another way, are the things BP learned about DRA between 2015 and 2017 things they couldn’t have learned by exploring more specifications before the initial rollout? I am not saying they should hold the release back until it’s perfected because public input makes things better, but simply that the first few years are more akin to a beta test. I’m not ready to fully adopt the metric until it settles in a little more. That’s not me dismissing DRA or its potential value to the world of baseball analytics. I really like DRA from a conceptual perspective, but my perception is that the nuts and bolts are subject to change quite frequently, so I have yet to dive in without a life preserver.
I want to reiterate that none of this is a critique of any individual decision and it is decidedly not an argument that FIP is a better representation of pitching value than DRA. That is a separate argument that can be had on separate terms. But I do think that DRA is not as useful as FIP at this point in time. I am hesitant to use a metric whose workings I can’t see. I don’t know if the modeling strategy is correct and I am pretty sure that in a few months a chunk of pitchers will have totally different DRAs.
I also want to be clear that none of this is intended as shade or inter-nerd sniping. I have great respect for the BP stats team and have shared these critiques with them. This is not a take down, it’s a list of demands.
I think DRA is aiming in the right direction, I just haven’t been given enough information to figure out if it’s really an improvement over its predecessors. Building a metric like DRA makes all the sense in the world and some great people are in command, but it will remain a complementary metric for me until it is unpacked in a way that allows me to trace its design.
So here is what I would propose:
- Create an expanded version of the DRA run value page that includes every individual component so that people can see how the different factors are operating. It takes two seconds to figure out why FIP likes someone or doesn’t. Doing so with DRA is next to impossible.
- Go back to the drawing board on the public facing explanation and give clearer explanations of how DRA works and why it works that way. DRA is complex, but you can explain complex things in a clear manner if you break it down into less complex pieces and work with outsiders to ensure they follow the explanation at each step.
- If DRA is meant to be a living, breathing statistic that gets updated annually, then be willing to accept ongoing skepticism about the execution of the statistic. If you are rejiggering it frequently, then the audience is going to wonder if the current version is the right one. If you want to avoid that, you have to change the name each time you change the stat. I get that this is annoying, but it’s part of the job.
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.