The 2016 Tigers season ended Sunday afternoon when Justin Upton took a Jim Johnson called third strike with Andrew Romine at first. There’s a metaphor there, I think, but it’s also true that the Tigers season would have ended a few minutes later when the Blue Jays beat the Red Sox, clinching the last remaining wild card spot.
The Tigers finished 86-75, eight back of Cleveland and 2.5 back of Baltimore and Toronto. If you’re the kind of person who demands a postseason berth or a World Series each year, you’re obviously disappointed right now. The Tigers will miss the playoffs for a second consecutive season and haven’t won a playoff game since 2013. But if you’re the kind of person who watches baseball and roots for a team because you enjoy the rhythm of the summer, this Tigers team gave you plenty to enjoy.
The club was playoff eligible during all 161 games they played and the season didn’t officially slip away until the last inning of the last game. You could argue the season ended when Dansby Swanson started the double play on Saturday or when he started the other double play on Sunday, but the club was right in it until Upton took strike three.
And while the team came up a bit short, there were a number of tremendous individual performances worthy of celebration. Justin Verlander proved his great second half in 2015 was the sign of a real return, and while he might not have done enough to win the Cy Young, he’ll finish in the top five. His rotation-mate, Michael Fulmer, is going to finish first or second in rookie of the year and looks every bit like someone who can fill a key rotation spot for the next six years. Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd didn’t have the season Fulmer did, but they both showed why the Tigers wanted them and left you feeling like this team has a strong young core of pitchers around which to build.
Miguel Cabrera and Ian Kinsler had great seasons despite staring Father Time in the face. JD Martinez and Nick Castellanos missed time with injuries but they crushed the ball when they were healthy. Justin Upton started so bad but by year’s end his late season surge brought him almost all the way back. Even James McCann, light-hitter that he may be, learned to frame much better. He might not be an MLB caliber starter, but he’s good enough to be the weak half of a platoon or a backup if that’s how it shakes out.
And other than Saltalamacchia, Aybar, and McGehee, this entire team is coming back if the Tigers want them. There is no giant hole to fill like there was a year ago when Price and Cespedes left gaping voids on the roster. The Tigers could upgrade at CF, C, the bench, and in the pen, but they have a core of position players and starters that would be the envy of a lot of teams. It might take some creativity to make a big upgrade, but even if they do nothing this is a wild card caliber roster in 2017.
Brad Ausmus will probably return, and while I don’t think much of him as a manager, the roster he had this year hid his flaws more effectively than the one he had a year ago. I’d rather they hire someone else, but I don’t think it will be Ausmus who torpedoes them in 2017.
There will be time shortly to decide who they should sign and acquire via trade, but for now, we can reflect on a good team that was just as good as they should have been. Despite big injuries to Martinez, Castellanos, and Zimmermann, they were the last team to be eliminated in the AL.
It’s easy to look at a season that ends without a parade as a failure. But I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotations given that it’s authored died this past week. I recognize the contexts are vastly different, but wisdom is transferable. Rather than thinking of 2016 as a failure, think of it as one step within a broader effort for the franchise toward a title. So I’ll leave you by paraphrasing the line:
The Tigers title run did not fail. It is just not yet finished.
Going into the final weekend the Tigers are 85-73. The Jays and Orioles are 87-72. The Mariners are 85-74. Each team will play three times over the next three days and can all win 0, 1, 2, or 3 games independent of each other. That means that there are 256 different ways this thing can look when Sunday ends.
I ran the scenarios to see the different possibilities. This doesn’t factor in team strength, opponents, or anything else. There are 256 ways this can go.
In 126 scenarios, the Tigers are eliminated from contention at the end of Sunday. They may have to play Monday for Cleveland’s sake, but they would be out.
It breaks down like this:
Win 3: Eliminated 4/64.
Win 2: Eliminated 16/64
Win 1: Eliminated 42/64
Win 0: Eliminated 64/64
In 108 scenarios, they have to play Monday to determine if they make the wild card. There are a lot of weird versions of this. But they all require the Tigers play Cleveland on Monday to sort something out. Keep in mind there are scenarios within this set in which the club has to play additional games between Monday and the wild card, but that gets extremely convoluted so we’ll keep it simple.
Win 3: 38/64 Play Cleveland
Win 2: 48/64 Play Cleveland
Win 1: 22/64 Play Cleveland
Win 0: 0/64 Play Cleveland
In 22 scenarios, they make it straight through to the wild card in some fashion.
Win 3: 22/64 Wild Card
Win 0-2: 0/192 Wild Card
To summarize, if the Tigers win out, there are only four ways they are out of it when Sunday ends. In 60/64 “Win 3” scenarios they will play at least one more game. If they lose all three, they are done.
If they win two games, odds are they will play Cleveland with a shot to get into a tiebreak or wild card, but there are 16/64 scenarios in which they win two games and their season ends anyway.
If they go 1-2 in Atlanta, they will probably be eliminated, but there are 22/64 scenarios in which they would play Cleveland with a shot to get into a tiebreak of some sort.
Confusing? Definitely. The nice thing is it gets progressively easier to follow after each game.
Entering play on Friday, the Tigers are half a game up on the Orioles for the second wild card with ten games remaining. Despite the ups and downs they experienced over the course of the season, the Tigers are in playoff position at the start of the season’s penultimate weekend.
After a one year hiatus, there will be meaningful baseball games all the way down to the wire for the Tigers. Even if they don’t make it into the wild card game, or if they do and get bounced, at most the Tigers will play only a couple of meaningless games. After two and a half months of such baseball in 2015, that is a welcome reprieve.
Despite that potential, I’ve had a pretty weird feeling about the team since the hot streak ended in early August: ambivalence. Not ambivalence in the sense that I don’t care, but ambivalence in the sense that the Tigers have met my expectations with eerie precision. When the season started, put the o/u at 86.5, said I thought Cleveland was the slight favorite for the Central, and that the Tigers would be right on the edge of the wild card.
That’s not bragging about my predictive abilities, lots of people were in that neighborhood; it’s recognition that your assessment of the team depends a lot on your expectations. The Tigers aren’t disappointing or surprising, they are what we thought they were.
I figured they’d get a little more from Sanchez and a little less than Verlander. A little less from Fulmer and a little more from Zimmermann. Greene performed in the way I expected Mark Lowe would. We saw great Castellanos instead of Upton for the first few months. JD Martinez’ defense has sucked, but McCann became a better receiver. But largely, this was the team we expected
At this point, the only way this becomes a particularly memorable team season is if the make it out of the LDS. That’s definitely possible, but it’s not a super likely outcome. This is a slightly above average team having a slightly above average season. I’m trying to get caught up in it, but despite all our talk of the closing window, 2017 is lined up to play out the same. There are no major free agents and it’s likely Ausmus will be back. It wouldn’t surprise me if he gets extended.
I started the season with an essay on the importance of Mike Ilitch’s mortality. Ilitch’s age shapes the club’s direction. Hell, it’s defined the organization since 2006. Ilitch is a businessman, who has likely done businessman things that might make us feel slimy if we knew. It’s hard to make billions while remaining a beacon of ethics. But Ilitch as the Tigers owner, during this decade, has been about as perfect an owner as you can ask for in sports. Good intentions don’t guarantee a championship, but the Tigers haven’t been held back by the people in the owner’s box, which isn’t something every team can say.
I’ve been thinking a lot about 2009 over the last couple of days. The way that season slipped away at the end, with Cabrera getting drunk and fighting with his wife during the final weekend. The crushing loss in Minnesota that came the following Tuesday. There was so much hope for that team and it came crashing down in just the worst possible way: The team’s best player embarrasing them, losing the division outright, and then a heartbreaker to end all heartbreakers in the worst damn stadium that has ever existed.
That last week in 2009 was the most devastating thing sports has ever done to me. I was watching 163 in my dorm and over the course of the game more and more people started filtering in to watch (it started at 5pm eastern, WTF?). When it ended, most everyone got back to their lives, knowing to give me time to grieve. My parents, whom I assume were physically within a dozen feet of each other, called me separately to commiserate. My wife and I had been dating about 6 months at that point. She knew me well enough to know how much that hurt, but maybe hadn’t quite figured out she was signing up for a lifetime of it. She and I went to all the home playoff games in 2011. We watched from NC when Phil Coke spiked his glove and when Torii Hunter flipped over the wall. When Hernan Perez struck out.
I’m not totally sure when it happened, but somewhere between 2009 and now, the Tigers winning the World Series moved from something I desperately wanted to something that sounds nice. Frequent playoff trips desensitize you. I’ve gotten older. There are other things happening in my life that matter.
In other words, I’ve got decades left of baseball watching and the odds say I’ll watch the Tigers win a title or two. There’s no point in being devastated when they come up short, especially if they played as well as you expected them to.
But the story is different for Ilitch, and for other Tigers fans of his generation. It’s a cycle. When you’re young, winning is so important. And then again when you get old, it becomes important again. A final, lasting memory.
It would be great if the Tigers got hot, roared into October and won it all. I’m not holding my breath and I’ll be cool no matter what happens. But we’re only going to get a few more years of Mike Ilitch at the helm, and for all he’s poured into the team over the last decade, he deserves his moment of glory.
There’s another piece of 2009 that gets buried because of how the team finished. That year, the automakers couldn’t afford to advertise at the park and instead of selling the space to someone else, Ilitch put the three logos on the fountain with the worlds “The Detroit Tigers support out automakers.”
This SI cover is hanging over my desk at home.
It’s easy to forget that the team shed payroll after 2009. That last week and the economic turmoil could have sunk the franchise. The pain of the loss and the financial uncertainty could easily been enough to send them team into a deep rebuild. But Ilitch decided to ride it out. It doesn’t make him a mythic figure but as far as owners go, he’s done right by the city and the fans.
The 2016 Tigers have met the expectations I had for the 2016 Tigers, but the organization has far exceeded what I thought would come in those waning hours of 2009. At the time, it looked like the end of a fun 2006-2009, but really that was the prelude. The Tigers, despite the money they’ve spent and the outside factors they’ve confronted, are right in this thing for the fifth time in six years. If you take the long view, that’s one hell of a thing no matter what happens over the next ten days.
JD Martinez is mashing. After a slow start, he has a 148 wRC+ this season and has been particularly great since coming off the DL. Any questions we had about his bat early in the season have been answered. But if you take a gander at his Wins Above Replacement (WAR) at FanGraphs or Baseball-Reference, you’ll find that Martinez is not keeping pace with his 2014 and 2015 numbers despite the excellent performance at the plate. This is because the two major advanced defensive metrics believe he’s been an atrocious defender in 2016.
Let’s start with the basics. In 900 innings entering Friday, Martinez has -20 DRS and -12.3 UZR. Given that he’s playing in right field, that means his overall defensive value relative to an average player is around -20 to -30 runs. That’s a huge deal. If accurate, we’re talking about two or three wins of value lost relative to average. And average is a good baseline here because that’s roughly what Martinez was in 2015. Okay range and a good arm allowed last year’s version of Martinez to look above average for a cornerman. This year, the numbers tell a much different story.
Now, there are many people who are skeptical of the way advanced metrics are calculated. There’s a level of imprecision that can lead to some error, and of course, there are sample size considerations. So let’s use some analog methods to see how JD measures up.
First, let’s take a look at fly balls (> 25 degree launch angle) to right field (defined as the right third of the diamond) and consider how often those fall for hits. League average BABIP on fly balls to right field is about .117, per Baseball Savant. Keep in mind that “fly ball” is somewhat subjective, but this is good enough for our purposes. If you look at the Tigers values for the same stat, pulling out the games while he was on the DL, it’s right around .136. In other words, fly balls to right field have been landing for hits pretty often with JD in right.
Now, there are some obvious caveats. The first is errors, as those won’t count as hits using BABIP, but all outfielders make a small number of errors so it shouldn’t swing things much. Second, line drives and ground balls are hit to right field too, so there are other types of plays we aren’t covering. Defense is also more complicated that just hit/out. This is a rough estimate. But just using this method we’re talking about 4-5 extra hits relative to average, and if you assume three are singles and two are doubles, you’re talking about 4-5 runs of value using linear weights.
But there’s actually more to it that simply not getting to as many balls. Martinez’s arm was extremely valuable last season, throwing out runners and preventing them from advancing at a high rate. DRS and UZR pegged that value at +5 to +8 runs last season. This year, they think it’s around -3. Again, these aren’t super precise, but that’s an 8-11 run swing.
Fortunately, Baseball-Reference provides some more granular data. They track opportunities, holds, and kills for outfielders. An opportunity is one of five things: single-man on first; single-man on second; double-man on first; flyout-runner on third; and flyout-runner on second. So how often is a ball hit to you in those situations, how often do you hold them to the expected one, one, two, zero, or zero bases, and how often do you throw them out?
Let’s look at JD over the last two years and 2016 league averages.
Keep in mind that not every category has a huge sample, but we’re talking about 284 total chances for JD over the two seasons. As you can see, he was above average in 2015 and is well below average this year. In terms of overall hold rate, he’s gone from a top five player to a bottom five player in just one year. In particular, he’s struggled in three of the five categories.
This backs up the run values we saw the metrics put on his arm, just like the raw BABIP supported a lesser range. Add that to the fact that he’s made five errors this year compared to last year’s two and you have a pretty clear picture that he’s much worse on defense, even if you want to quibble about the precise value used by the advanced metrics.
It’s easy for fans to brush this aside with a “we pay him to hit” mantra, but that’s a very misguided way of looking at the game. Every run you give away on defense, you have to make back with your bat. Sure, Martinez is one of the two best hitters on the team and would find his way into the lineup on any club, but it’s obvious that a Martinez who is solid in the field is more valuable than one who is not.
It looks an awful lot like the Tigers could miss the playoffs by one or two games this year. There are two ways to look at that. Either you could put the blame on almost everyone (including JD’s glove) or you could put it on no one because there are so many people who could have made the difference. Either way, the fact that Martinez has fallen off on defense might not seem obvious to fans who focus entirely on offensive stats, but if you look even a little bit closely at his performance in the field, you see a player who has cost his team runs. And runs are currency, no matter where they are found.
One thing that’s really important to understand if you want to properly manage a bullpen is the concept of leverage. That is, the game is on the line more in certain moments than in others. Tie game, bottom of the 8th, runners on second and third? That’s high leverage. The difference between a hit and an out is significant. Five run lead in the 6th with the bases empty? That’s low leverage. A hit or an out won’t make much difference in the outcome of the game.
Ideally, you want to put your best relievers into high leverage situations because that gives you the best chance to escape without much damage. Of course you want to consider workload and matchups, but in general Good Relievers = High Leverage, Bad Relievers = Low Leverage is what you want to see.
So I thought in might be interesting to see how Ausmus has been doing in terms of using his relievers based on leverage. So I grabbed the average leverage index of each reliever’s appearances (min. 20 IP) and made a couple of graphs.
Two quick notes. First, I removed Greene’s starts for obvious reasons. Second, this is the average leverage index of the total appearance because I wasn’t able to easily grab the leverage index at the entry point for each reliever. As a result, if you come into a game with the bases loaded in the 8th, get out of the jam, the team scores a bunch, and then you get three more outs, you are going to get a little bit screwed over. It’s a proxy, but I think it works fine.
Also keep in mind that the relievers have made a different number of appearances, but for your sake I’m putting them all on one graph. So that means Rondon’s line ends earlier than K-Rod’s. This is not by date, it’s by appearance number.
First, let’s look at full season averages. In other words, take the leverage index of each appearance and create an average for all of the appearances up to that point:
This is a good demonstration that K-Rod is clearly the guy Ausmus turns to in high leverage moments, but the reality is that his average is buoyed by the fact that he almost never gets mop up duty. Most save situations are reasonably high leverage, but it certainly helps that he doesn’t get many six run games. You can also pinpoint the moment when Greene became a higher leverage option and Lowe, Rondon, and Ryan stopped getting big chances.
But this graph is a little less helpful than you want it to be, so let’s try something else. Here are the rolling five-game averages starting at appearance five.
This gives you a better sense of Ausmus’ mood. He’s obviously hasn’t had much faith in Lowe and Ryan lately, but this gives you a better sense than Alex Wilson and Greene are getting high leverage chances just as much as K-Rod and Justin Wilson lately. I know it’s a bit chaotic, so let’s just look at the current top four guys. I changed the colors to make it easier.
We judge managers on individual decisions, but in the aggregate it’s pretty clear that Ausmus has figured out who his best four relievers are. He might still pick the wrong one at any given moment or inexplicably decide trailing by one run is much different than being tied, but at the very least he knows which of his guys are good.
It’s a low bar, but it’s the one that’s been set.
If the Tigers make the playoffs this season, there’s a pretty good case to be made that Dave Dombrowski deserves to win executive of the year for what he did ahead of his dismissal last August. Of course there are Verlander, Cabrera, Martinez(s), and Kinsler, but he also has all three of the pitching prospects he acquired at the deadline last year contributing at the major league level in 2016.
Collectively, Michael Fulmer, Matt Boyd, and Daniel Norris have pitched 242.1 innings as starters this year with an 80 ERA- and 96 FIP-. Fulmer has certainly been the most successful, but Norris and Boyd have also pitched well.
One thing that’s been interesting about watching the kids pitch is that we haven’t really had a chance to watch pitchers develop in quite some time. From 2012-2015 or so, the Tigers used a lot of established major league pitchers. Sure Porcello was young, but Verlander, Scherzer, Sanchez, Price, Porcello, and Fister ate up a lot of the innings over the last several seasons. Veteran pitchers tinker all the time, just (don’t) ask Verlander about his new cutter, but it’s a different kind development.
But having the young starters this year gives us a chance to watch pitchers figure out the kind of hurlers they are going to be. Early season Fulmer was certainly a revelation, but it’s Norris who has my eye at the moment. Everyone knows that Verlander’s taken Fulmer under his wing, but it’s Norris that’s following in the ace’s footsteps more directly.
You see, Daniel Norris’ slider is starting to look an awful lot like a cutter.
It’s important to keep in mind that pitch types exist within three separate continuums: velocity, horizontal movement, and vertical movement. The names are simple classifications. We’ve decided to give the name “changeup” to a certain cluster of pitches and “curveball” to another cluster in this hypothetical three-dimensional space.
The differences between a slider and a cutter are subtle. Cutters are typically thrown a little harder, and with a little less movement in the vertical dimension. Cutters are a little faster with a little less depth, essentially.
Let’s check in on Mr. Norris. First, the velocity:
Now the horizontal movement:
And finally, the vertical movement:
As you can see, Norris is throwing his “slider” faster and with less sink this season and there appears to be a clear trend line as well. If you break it down by month, it’s even more obvious. I’ll omit horizontal break because that’s pretty consistent.
I don’t want to make a big deal about what we call the pitch, because Mr. Verlander seemed to get pretty upset that some other analysts and I started calling his “slider” a “cutter,” but Norris is a little more laid back so I’m now too worried. It looks like Norris is throwing a cutter instead of a slider. At the very least, he’s throwing his slider much differently.
This is quite interesting because now we have two different Tigers pitchers at different points in their careers (different handedness too) both junking their slider for a cutter-ish type pitch in the same season. There are all sorts of potential starting points for this. Rich Dubee is new. There’s an analytics staff in the front office. Saltalamacchia is also new. Maybe Verlander figured it out on his own and taught Norris/Norris copied him. We don’t have enough information to be sure, but it’s definitely curious.
No matter where it started, Daniel Norris is up to something. We haven’t seen him enough to know what it means, but it’s something that merits attention.
Remember way back in 2014 when J.D. Martinez overhauled his swing and became one of the best hitters in baseball? Of course you do. You’re reading a Tigers website. He came up with a lot of raw power but couldn’t get his skills to translate on the field and wound up getting cut by the Astros in the spring of 2014. He had been working to change his swing and the Tigers gave him a shot. He raked in Toledo, got called up to Detroit, and went on a tear for the last division-winning team of the Dombrowski era.
We all liked Martinez, but most of us were also concerned about the other shoe. After all, these late career breakouts are rare and all we had was a .389 BABIP over 480 PA. In other words, we held our breath for 2015, hoping that our favorite team had actually struck gold rather than stumbling into pyrite. Last year, Martinez reassured us all with another terrific season. He delivered a 137 wRC+ and 5.0 fWAR. Martinez was for real.
And then came the first month of 2016. Martinez had just eight extra base hits in his first 128 plate appearances and was running a 78 wRC+ for the season. We were past the point of calling him a fluke for his previous two seasons, but given the struggles of some other Tigers, the concern that the league was finally figuring out Martinez did start to creep up.
Over the last 57 games, J.D. Martinez has been the best he’s ever been, in terms of wRC+:
One big difference during his hot streak compared to before is that he’s swinging the bat a lot more often (roughly 55% compared to 48%). You can see that his recent swing rate is more in line with his successful period.
Granted, I was certainly one of the people who was concerned about his swing rate when he first got going back into 2014. Typically, hitters who strike out like he does without taking their walks are limited even when they have significant power. Martinez has been able to increase his walk rate during the last two years and maintain it even now that he’s swinging more.
Every hitter has their own equilibrium. If Martinez hits better when he’s being more aggressive, he should continue to be aggressive. You don’t take pitches just to take pitches, you take pitches that you can’t do damage against. Right now, he’s making good choices and delivering results.
Now, if your eyes are drawn to the WAR column at Baseball-Reference or FanGraphs, you’ll notice he’s not quite keeping pace with his previous levels because both defensive ratings think he’s been much worse this year. From watching, I would tend to agree that he looks much worse this year compared to 2015, although we could probably quibble about the exact magnitude.
With Justin Upton, Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, and J.D. all hitting, the Tigers lineup becomes as frightening as any in baseball. I don’t think anyone was on the ledge about J.D. after the first month of the season, but the Tigers were counting on him to be a premier hitter coming into the season and their margin for error was quite small in the playoff race. He got off to a slow start, but he’s made up for lost time, even if he hasn’t yet made up for the actual time he lost with a broken elbow. Perhaps the last five games are Justin Upton’s signal that he’s ready to do the same.
I’m going to dispense with the clever introduction because this isn’t going to take a lot of convincing: The Tigers are not a good base running team. There are a lot of different components to base running and a few different ways to measure it, so let’s just do a quick summary.
Using FanGraphs’ Base Running Runs, the 2016 Tigers are 27th in the league. Using Baseball-Reference’s model, they are 25th. Using Baseball Prospectus’ method, they rank 29th. I know that many of my sabermetrically inclined colleagues like to argue about which site is better as valuing players, but this is a relatively unanimous verdict. The current team is not doing well.
But it’s not just the current team. The 2015 Tigers were the worst base running team in the league, according to FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference. Baseball Prospectus liked them a bit more and ranked them 29th. In 2014, the ranks were 26th, 23rd, and 11th (!). In other words, the Ausmus era Tigers have performed poorly on the bases. But again, you knew that.
Baseball Prospectus has a table that shows the club’s success at advancing in situations like ground balls, air balls, on hits, and on outs and the 2016 Tigers are bad in each category. This is not an inherently troubling thing. After all, VMart and Cabrera aren’t speed demons and you wouldn’t expect that they’d take a lot of extra bases. There’s a difference between slow and stupid, and that’s the question I want to explore.
If you look at the Tigers roster this year, you have a handful of capable runners such as Kinsler, Iglesias, Maybin, and Upton. Castellanos, McCann, Cabrera, and Martinez (2) are much less so. If this is simply a matter of the slow players failing to advance, you can put the “blame” on the front office for choosing to assemble a team that doesn’t run very well. If they are performing worse than their speed suggests, however, that’s an execution problem that needs to be addressed at field level.
So we know that the Tigers are not a good base running team, but what kind of a bad running team are they? From a stolen base perspective, they’re just fine, posting a 72% success rate in 68 tries. That’s just about league average and their stolen base runs at FanGraphs support that, with them sitting at -0.4 runs (zero is average). So when it comes to taking off on the pitch, we don’t see any problems. Additionally, they’ve been picked off or picked off and then caught stealing 17 times, which is below average but not significantly so.
If you look at their outs on the bases, they’re in the middle of the pack for outs at first and second, have the 8th most outs at third, and are tied for the 7th most outs at the plate. That’s not a terribly encouraging set of results, but they’re in the top ten in terms of OBP, so they do have more total base runners available to make outs. In other words, the Tigers are worse than average at making outs on the bases, but they’re below average rather than terrible.
Let’s put these two bits of data together by plotting outs on the bases against extra bases taken rate (all from B-Ref):
As you can see, the Tigers are the worst in the league in terms of XBT% but right in the middle in terms of outs made on the bases. It’s one thing to be the Mets, who are the far left dot at 37% and 27 OOB. A team that doesn’t make outs and doesn’t advance is a team that knows its limits. You don’t want to be in the lower right quadrant, like the Tigers and Pirates (35%, 44 OOB).
This is a rough sketch of the situation, but it does the trick. It’s not that the Tigers are particularly reckless, it’s that they are much more reckless than they can afford to be given that they are terrible at advancing. The value of taking the extra base is roughly half as valuable (+0.2 runs) as getting thrown out is costly (-0.4 runs), give or take depending on the base and situation. If you’re taking a lot of extra bases, getting thrown out isn’t such a big deal once in a while, but if you’re either stopping or getting thrown out, you’ve got a problem.
So this is partially on the front office for assembling slow players. But slow players typically have other good qualities, like being able to hit the ball into the shrubs. The problem the Tigers are facing is that their players are making too many outs on the bases given their number of successes. That’s a coaching problem. Ausmus has generally advocated aggressive base running during his tenure, meaning that he’s either actively contributing to this bad mindset or he’s just doing nothing to stop his players who clearly aren’t able to successfully advance on the bases. Either one isn’t good and it’s something that has to stop.
The Tigers have a very narrow path to a playoff berth and they need to save every run they possibly can. Hitting, fielding, and pitching are hard, but base running is a place where your opponent can’t force you to make a mistake. The Tigers need to be more conservative on the bases given their current personnel, and it’s Ausmus’ responsibility to make sure that happens.
Given the Tigers recent run of success, the playoffs are very much on the table. But for that happy reason, we’re forced to confront something quite challenging: Michael Fulmer’s workload. If the Tigers were bad, the decision would be easy and the club would use Fulmer until he was out of gas and then shut him down for the year. The issue the Tigers face is that club would generally prefer to save some of his innings/pitches for extremely high importance games in October if at all possible. It’s the execution of that which gets tricky.
We have to start with the caveat that we don’t know (neither do the Tigers) how usage impacts injury probability. There’s no magic number or formula that can give us an answer regarding the total workload he can endure safely. He’s thrown 119.1 innings so far and his career max is 124.2. We can probably assume 160 is where the Tigers would go if there were no playoff implications. I think it’s also probably safe to say they won’t let him go past 180 regardless. Are either of those numbers the right numbers? We have no idea. Maybe he can handle 240, but this is plan for using his innings not challenging the nature of the limit.
If we’re looking at 170 innings that means we have 45 more, give or take. If the Tigers stay 100% on turn, there are 11 Fulmer start days left. There are, however, five off days. Pitching at 6 IP per start, that gives us about 8 starts if used normally. We also have to account for the wild card game, and potentially three postseason series. Ideally, we want 15-16 starts from Fulmer. If we want to use him like a normal starter we have to find a place the Tigers can cut out 7-8 starts. Let’s talk options.
Option 1: Just Get There
The most straightforward option is to simply keep Fulmer on turn and pitch him until you don’t want to add any more to his workload. This is easy to manage and makes sense if you don’t think there is a way to get him to the playoff rotation anyway. A win in August is the same as one in September and there’s no reason to mess with Fulmer’s rhythm if you can’t squeeze postseason innings out. Give him 8 more starts and then shut him down when you need to.
Option 2: Give Yourself Options
The reason this decision is so tough is because you don’t know how much Fulmer you actually need. If the other starters are going to be amazing (or terrible) that influences things. If you need all eight Fulmer starts to get to the postseason, you should make sure you get eight Fulmer starts. If you only need five, you want to use five. But also, if you know that you won’t make it even if you max him out, you also don’t want to over-work him. It’s tough!
Option 2 accounts for this and recognizes the Tigers can’t possibly get 11 more starts from Fulmer without sending him north of 180. But they also don’t know if they need four or seven. For this reason, the Tigers should skip Fulmer a couple times as soon as possible. If you skip him now, you have the option to unleash him over the last several starts of the season OR you can skip him again in late September if you don’t need him then to keep him in the October conversation.
Option 3: Plan for October
If the Tigers feel confident in their ability to make it to the postseason, then it makes sense for them to want Fulmer available in the big moments. This plan requires you to save ~20 innings for October, meaning you have 25 more the rest of the way. Spread out five, 5 IP starts and call it good.
Option 4: Bullpen
If Fulmer has about 45 innings left, it might just make sense to move him to late relief. Instead of asking for eight more starts, ask him for 15-20 appearances over the final 55ish games. Let him get used to two innings appearances and deploy him to back up someone like Boyd, Sanchez, or Norris. You aren’t going to get the same value, but the ability to put him into leverage moments might make up some of those lost innings in the rotation. That will save you relief innings for October and give you four awesome relievers to back up your starters.
Option 5: Shorten His Outings
Instead of thinking of Fulmer as a full starter or full reliever, another option the Tigers have is to keep him relatively on turn, but back off his workload in each start. If you use an off day here and there and wind up using him for nine starts down the stretch, you can let him go something like 3-3-3-4-4-4-5-5-6. That’s 37 innings, giving you at least one full playoff start if you need it or three relief appearances. That approach also allows you to leave him in a little longer or pull him sooner if the game allows, so if it’s 8-0 you can take him out and save the arm.
Given that we don’t know exactly where to stop him or exactly how much the Tigers will need him, I think a hybrid of Option 2 and Option 5. You know that Fulmer can’t give you 11 more full starters, so you have to skip him at some point during the regular season no matter what. The club should skip him around the next off day and pull him early over the next couple starts. It’s great that he can give you 7-8 innings, but four is enough the next couple times through. If it looks like they’re going to be a tight race from that point on, you take the gloves back off and just pitch him until he’s done. If the Tigers look like they’re going to make the postseason either way, then you can skip another start and pull him early a few more times to bank some innings.
We obviously can’t say where the safe limit is, but if we assume the Tigers have some workload cap in mind, they need to start massaging the schedule now so that they have options later on. Turning him into a reliever might throw him off his game, so you want to save that until the last possible moment. Buy yourself time now and then adapt later.
Take yourself back to July 19, 2015. The Tigers were hurdling toward their first losing season since 2008 and were about to sell at the deadline in a way we hadn’t really seen in a decade. Things were bad. That night, Justin Verlander threw 3.2 innings agains the Orioles and allowed seven runs. It was the seventh shortest outing of his career, and one of the other six included an injury removal. Things were very bad.
At that moment, not only were the Tigers at an organizational crossroads but one of their two stars looked nearly cooked. Verlander had struggled his way through parts of 2013, all of 2014, and then missed the first half of 2015. And he was not pitching well in his post-injury return to action through mid-July.
Between the start of 2014 and July 19 of last year, Verlander had a 124 ERA- spanning 240 innings. While we typically don’t lean on ERA too much at this site, any time you’re allowing 25% more runs than average over more than a full season, it’s not exactly a good thing. And while his FIP- sat at 102 over that period, that’s not the ace the Tigers had come to know.
From 2009 to 2013, Verlander wasn’t necessarily the best pitcher in the league, but he was absolutely one of the pitchers who could claim that title. The list includes names like Kershaw, Hernandez, Lee, Wainwright, and some others depending on how you like your innings restrictions. Put simply, he was a legitimate #1 starter. And then he was somewhere between average and terrible, depending on your metric of choice.
During the Dark Times, there was a range of opinions. Some chalked it up entirely to health. Others (myself included), split the difference, calling some of the problem health and some normal aging. He wouldn’t be this bad, I said, but sustained dominance was probably in the rear view mirror. There would be good nights, maybe even great ones, but they would be less frequent. The old Verlander was gone, even if Verlander himself wasn’t exactly dead.
Since that awful night against the Orioles, not only has Verlander turned himself around, he’s pitching almost exactly like he was when he was king of all creation. His strikeout and walk rates are the same. His ERA and FIP are basically the same. He’s averaging essentially the same number of innings per start. Over the last 54 weeks, Justin Verlander has been JUSTIN VERLANDER.
If you like things in graph form, here it is. This looks less impressive though, because ERA and FIP aren’t league adjusted like the minus stats in the table. There’s a lot more run scoring in the game in 2016 than there was in 2013, but still it looks cool. The peak is July 19, 2015.
Ace-era Verlander had a 77.6% contact rate against. Dark Times Verlander was 81.5%. Over his last 36 starts it is 76.9%, better than it was at his peak.
We’ve seen better velocity lately and he’s shifted the slider into a cutter, but it’s not as if he’s some totally differnt pitcher. Pitching is a complicated act, repeated thousands of times over a single seasons. If your body is out of whack, even those with plenty of talent can wind up losing their margin for error. If you lose a little velocity, a little bite, and a bit of command, you’re going to be in trouble quickly.
I don’t think there’s some magical thing Verlander figured out last July, it’s just that he finally got to a place where he felt 100% on the mound and got out of the bad habits he developed during the Dark Times. He’s not letting fastballs drift back over the plate to right-handed hitters and the secondary stuff is doing what it’s supposed to.
At 33, we shouldn’t expect invincible Verlander to continue forever, and the fact that he went down once already should warn us about the fragility of greatness, but he’s reestablished his level. He’s going to age and decline in the years ahead, but he’ll be declining from a high peak rather than a middling floor.
Over the last calendar year, Verlander is 4th in fWAR and 8th in RA9-WAR. He’s pitching deep into games and doing it well, just like he was when he was in the conversation for the best pitcher in the game. A year ago, I figured his shot at the Hall of Fame was gone, but he’ll finish his age-33 season around 52 WAR. He’s got three more years on this deal and could probably pitch a couple more after that. The bar for starters to get into the Hall is currently very high, but with new voters coming into the system it’s not hard to imagine that when he’s on the ballot in 11-12 years, he’ll have a receptive audience.
The Tigers may or may not seal the deal over the last two months of 2016. They might miss the playoffs and there will be questions to answer about how they built the staff and whether Upton was a good signing, but the biggest question we had about the Tigers going into 2016 has been answered emphatically. Justin Verlander is back.