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.
The Tigers have been trying to build a good bullpen for quite some time. This isn’t news to anyone reading this site so I’ll spare you the history. Relievers were a weakness in the Dombrowski era and the team suffered a number of high profile meltdowns that cost them chances at meaningful autumn wins.
In the first year After Dave, Al Avila added three relievers: Francisco Rodriguez, Mark Lowe, and Justin Wilson. K-Rod has been very solid, Lowe has been…uh…unimpressive, and Justin Wilson has been excellent. Two out of three is a pretty good success rate for a Tigers bullpen, but that also ignores the other great bullpen success of the season, Shane Greene.
It’s no secret that the Tigers have long sought a lights out closer who could solidify the 9th. Various arms came and went through the organization, but no one really grabbed the title with much clarity. Todd Jones. Fernando Rodney. Jose Valverde. Joaquin Benoit. Joe Nathan. Joakim Soria.
Previous relievers have had success, but there was rarely dominance in the pen and that dominance was often short-lived when it surfaced. K-Rod has been an effective 9th inning reliever this season, but the true success story of this season is the setup monster cultivated in laboratory of Comerica Park.
Justin Wilson and Shane Greene are the relievers the club has always wanted.
Since 1969, the year the dreaded “save” became an official statistic, there have been 359 reliever seasons of 20 innings or more in a Tigers’ uniform. Using park-adjusted Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP-) as our guide (see inserts for more info on FIP and FIP-), Wilson (39) and Greene (41) aren’t just having good seasons, they are having the two best reliever seasons for a Tiger since 1969. Combined with the fine work from K-Rod, this is the best Tigers bullpen by FIP- since 1984.
To give you a sense of context, Cody Allen, Zach Britton, Andrew Miller, and Aroldis Chapman were the best qualified relievers in terms of FIP- last season and none of them cracked 45. Put another way, if Wilson and Greene continue to pitch the way they’ve pitched for the rest of the season, both will finish with better park-adjusted FIPs than every reliever in baseball last year. Only Dellin Betances is better this year.
A couple of caveats apply. First, we’re only a little past the halfway mark and regression is likely. They won’t maintain quite this pace. Second, FIP is one tool to evaluate pitching performance. It grades pitchers based on their strikeouts, walks/HBP, home runs, and balls in play. It doesn’t care about sequencing and it doesn’t provide any insight into platoon issues. It doesn’t control for any context other than park and league average. For my money it’s the best single number we have to summarize a pitcher’s performance that can also be searched effectively back to 1969 (sorry DRA!). In other words, it’s not a perfect tool, but it’s a fine proxy. Wilson and Greene are having elite seasons not seen in Detroit during the current era of reliever usage.
The second caveat applies for the historic nature of things, but Wilson has a .254 wOBA against and 2.78 DRA and Greene has a .222 wOBA against (as a reliever) and 3.75 DRA (includes his bad starts, can’t split them out at BP). Even if they aren’t actually two of the best three relievers in the game or the best two relievers in Tigers history, they are absolutely crushing it.
Wilson’s case wasn’t that hard to see coming. He was excellent last season for the Yankees, although he’s cut his walk rate, homer rate, increased his ground ball rate, increased his pop up rate, and increased his strikeout rate. His swing rate is up three percent and his contract rate is down about five percent. He’s gone from very good to great, and has done so across the board. He also features essentially no platoon split, making him equally useful in all situations. He’s increased usage of his cutter and been willing to attack hitters up in the zone.
Greene’s case is a bit different because we’ve never had a chance to see him go all out as a reliever. He’s back on track with his 2014 K% and BB% and he’s yet to allow a home run. He’s getting more swinging strikes and is leaning on his cutter much more. He’s also had success against righties and lefties.
I wouldn’t say I’m confident the pair will remain the two best relievers in team history or that they’ll content with the game’s very best arms for the full season, but it’s a very weird feeling to completely trust the back end of the bullpen. The middle relief has had its issues and the manager still can’t quite figure out how to use his pitchers, but the performance has been there for the first four months of 2016. Imagine telling 2013 Tigers fans that the bullpen is great and the rotation is the problem. Imagine!
Wilson and Greene, and K-Rod are all under contract for next season. Even if the Tigers don’t make the playoffs this year, they’re on track to have the first winter in a while in which they don’t need to shop for a high end reliever.
By the time most of you read this, we will be two weeks from the MLB non-waiver deadline. The Tigers have three games with the Twins, four with the White Sox, three with the Red Sox, and three with the Astros before they are required to make a decision about the 2016 season. They currently trail Cleveland by 6.5 games and sit three back of the second wild card. They have seven more chances against Cleveland before the season ends.
This is a rare quandary for the Tigers, as the question of what they should do at the deadline is not entirely clear. It was obvious in 2006, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 that they were buyers and equally clear in 2008, 2010, and 2015 that they were not, even if they put up a good front for the weeks leading up to last year’s deadline. This year is different.
Last year they were nine back at the deadline and played poorly immediately afterward. In addition, the quality of the roster was much lesser, leaving the odds of a late season return to glory much lower. The 2016 club is four games over and heading into a week of games against beatable opponents. Except for their 1-11 record against Cleveland they have played 47-33 versus the rest of the league, outscoring their other opponents 402 to 360. They have a top tier offense and bottom tier pitching. The club has a challenging question to answer these next two weeks.
Making up three games in the wild card standings is certainly within their grasp, and even the 6.5 in the division is not out of the question. If they play 5-2 against Cleveland that gets them half of the way there. They have 32 games left against MIN, CWS, LAA, and ATL. Drawing a path from here to the postseason is not a difficult thing to do, but it requires certain deadline maneuvers that the organization may not wish to stomach.
If The Tigers Buy
If you look around the diamond, the Tigers have several holes in need of plugging, not the least of which is catcher. While James McCann is adept at nabbing would-be base stealers, his performance at the plate has been extremely poor this year. He’s running a 45 wRC+ and has actually been worse of the last month. Saltalamacchia had a big walk-off home run on Sunday, but despite his hot start has only managed to be a league average hitter this year. If you could combine McCann’s, whose improved his receiving quite impressively this year, with Salty’s bat, you might be able to survive, but given that they can only play when the other sits, a full catcher they do not have.
This isn’t to say that McCann won’t grow into his bat, simply that expecting him to do so this year is probably not wise. The obvious solution is Jonathan Lucroy. After a down year in 2015, Lucroy is up to his old tricks with the bat and behind the plate and could certainly rival any non-Posey catcher for total value left down the stretch. Add the fact that he is owed just $5.2 million next season to the mix and that makes him a very worthwhile target. The Brewers are rebuilding and will be very motivated to move Lucroy in a seller’s market, so prying him from the Brewers will simply be a matter of price. We’ll get to that shortly.
The Tigers could also use depth off the bench, preferably someone capable of handling himself in the outfield. The club’s behavior during JD Martinez’s injury indicates that Steven Moya is not someone they trust a great deal and Tyler Collins is no one’s idea of a hitter who forces the opposing manager to go to his relief ace. If you search teams on the outside looking to sell for the right fit, Corey Dickerson of the Rays emerges. Dickerson is having a down year overall (90 wRC+), but his .219 ISO and .261 BABIP makes me think there’s probably not much about which to worry. Surely Tampa Bay can do that math as well, but the rest of the league isn’t going to be motivated to acquire him in the midst of a down year. The Tigers should. He can provide a left-handed bench bat who can spell VMart at DH and either of the corner outfielders when needed while also pinch hitting for Iglesias or McCann (if Lucroy doesn’t come to fruition). The Rays got him for a decent reliever last winter and he’s a half season closer to arbitration, which the Rays might not want to pay.
Obviously the bullpen is always an area of need, but it’s not nearly the weakness it has been in past years. One solid arm will do, and I’d be in favor of letting that arm be Anibal Sanchez, Joe Jimenez, and whoever gets bumped from the rotation (i.e. Boyd, Norris, or Pelfrey) for the next guy on my list.
Matt Shoemaker. In the Dombrowski days, this would be an obvious Tigers candidate. Shoemaker is 29, has a 5-9 record, and a 4.08 ERA which means he’s not on the radar of the more traditional media, but a deeper dive into Shoemaker’s season and the changes he’s made to his performance midseason reveal an impressive arm. He’s going to the splitter a lot more and it’s had really positive effects. His fielding independent numbers are terrific and looks like exactly the kind of arm you’d want to target if you were the Tigers. He’s under team control for several more seasons, but he’s on the old side of things so his current club is not likely to lock him up and build around him, especially considering the fact that his current team is one Mike Trout away from being arguably the worst franchise in the game. Trading Shoemaker in a market devoid of pitching and after the best run of his career makes all the sense in the world, even if he’s not someone two months or 14 months from free agency. (Shoemaker is also a local guy, attending Trenton HS and Eastern Michigan [Go Eagles!]).
Lucroy, Shoemaker, and Dickerson are the arrangement of players the team would acquire if they were committed to going for it. In particular, Lucroy, Shoemaker, and Dickerson would all have a place on the 2017 Tigers and Shoemaker a place beyond that. Buying these players, at a high price, would effectively equate to this winter’s free agent acquisitions. Given the current roster, the Tigers would likely not need to do more than tinker this winter if they added these three guys and they would hardly put a strain on the club’s payroll, which is quite high.
It would cost the Tigers minor league talent, however, and perhaps a name or two from the major league roster. I won’t imagine the precise arrangement, but I would imagine James McCann, Steven Moya, Derek Hill, and two of the promising arms in the low minors would need to be involved. You can’t get these players without giving up players you like, but the Angels might be persuaded by quantity given their current state. The Brewers would be more discerning, but the Tigers could push their chips in and get it done. The Tigers don’t have a farm system like the Red Sox or Cubs, but they have enough if they’re will to go bare.
If the Tigers are going for it, and last winter suggested they are, you might as well jump in with both feet. Get players who can help the team into the next couple of years and think of it like you’re using the farm system instead of the pocketbook to do their free agent shopping. Lucroy, Shoemaker, and Dickerson are probably four-win upgrades this year and would bring plenty of value beyond that. If you’re all in, you’re all in.
If The Tigers Don’t Want To Buy
I recognize that what I’ve proposed is extreme and would require emptying the farm system to take yet another “last shot” with the Verlander-Cabrera-Martinez core. The problem is that the Tigers aren’t really in a position to sell unless they want to punt 2017-2018 as well. Kinsler would net a small fortune, but JD Martinez won’t be healthy in time to trade and there isn’t much else to move other than a couple of bullpen pieces or Cam Maybin, all of which require the club to admit defeat for next year. And if you’re punting on 2017, you have to start to think about a total rebuild, given that Cabrera and Verlander aren’t exactly going to be spring chickens in 2019.
So if the Tigers don’t buy, they have the option of doing nothing, riding out the storm, and coming back next year with essentially the same roster. Or they could choose to really sell, and entice a club with the a Hall of Famer caliber first baseman (which the organization likely has zero interest in doing).
The point is that the Tigers don’t have a punt-2016 option. They can buy hard, stand pat, or sell hard. Given that selling hard is out of the question, they can choose to ride out the season as they are, perhaps making a small move here or there, or they can go big. Trying to split the difference with a couple of solid but not great pieces probably doesn’t give them enough to win this year and hurts the farm system in a way that sets up later peril. If they are going to gut the system, they should gut it right.
I’m not totally sure I’ve convinced myself which option is better. In general I’m in favor of letting it ride with the roster you built over the winter, but the American League doesn’t have an obviously great team and this might be a good chance to win the pennant and go for broke, especially because the moves I’m proposing would put them in a really good position for next year as well.
For that reason, the Tigers should at least try to go down the road on Lucroy, Shoemaker, and (to a lesser extent) Dickerson. They will not come cheap, but the benefits are potentially quite significant and the owner wants to win before he dies. The reason this makes sense is because you’re pushing in all of your chips for two shots at the title rather than one. If you look at this as a chance to win in 2016 and build the 2017 roster, it’s easier to accept the lost talent in the system.
It’s bold and risky and the prospect huggers won’t want to abandon the potential. Plenty of people will make proclamations that Lucroy and Shoemaker aren’t as good as I suggest. Others will argue the Tigers couldn’t even manage to get both. I reject all three of those particular arguments.
You borrow from the future to go for it in the present. Lucroy and Shoemaker are really good players who would replace huge current holes. And despite a weak system, the Tigers have enough talent to get these deals done if they’re willing to part with everyone you love. Maybe there’s a better move if you’re thinking about maximizing 2017, but I don’t see another play that helps in 2016 and 2017.
Dave Dombrowski, despite a terrific run of success in Detroit, was fired because he didn’t quite get this team over the final hurdle. Mike Ilitch likely hasn’t grown more patient in the twelve months since that guillotine fell. If the Tigers want to go for it, this is how they should do it. If they aren’t comfortable with the risk, the current roster might still give them a fighting chance. Either option is defensible, and the Tigers have two weeks to chart their course.
When Cameron Maybin came off the DL in mid-May, it occurred to me how central a figure he was to this era of Tigers baseball despite having spent virtually no time on the major league roster:
Maybin, of course, was one of the two centerpieces in the Miguel Cabrera trade that brought the future Hall of Famer to the Motor City. When the Tigers brought Maybin back this winter, there was a sense of homecoming for everyone even though he was about to turn 29 and had parts of eight other seasons in the show with three different organizations.
Maybin had one really good season in 2011, but fell short of his prospect promise in every other year of his career. There were injuries and growing pains along the way, but by any real accounting of his performance, things had gone poorly. He made it to the majors, earned a nice payday, and stuck so it would be hard to call him a bust, but he did not grow into the player that people expected when he was paired with Andrew Miller in a trade for one of the generation’s true stars.
Maybin was an above-average hitter in 2011 with good center field defense and great base running, but his bat suffered in 2012 and he couldn’t stay consistently healthy for the next two seasons. When he got to Atlanta last year, the defense and base running of his youth were less impressive and it became clear that if he was going to have a career into his 30s he was going to need more from his bat.
You can be a below average hitter if you are a really good defender or a terrific base runner, but with Maybin’s age and injury history conspiring against him, it looked more and more like any future value was going to come from his bat or not come at all. This isn’t to say Maybin can’t run or field, but rather that he’s no longer someone who can do either well enough to carry a lackluster bat.
Fortunately, Maybin’s bat showed signs of life last season and that positive progress has carried over into 2016. We’re only halfway into 2016 and he’s only 49 games deep, but this is Maybin’s best offensive season to date by a significant margin. Of course, it’s 49 games and he has a .399 BABIP, but we’ll get to that. Maybin is walking more than ever, striking out at a career low rate, and getting on base more often than ever. In fact, even if you deduct 10 hits to pull his BABIP down to .330 this year, he’s still running a .340+ OBP.
In other words, Maybin’s certainly getting help from a BABIP that won’t stay quite that high going forward, but it’s not that strange that he’s running a higher BABIP this year given a very important shift in his approach. Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer is a believer in cutting down on strikeouts and chasing singles, and Maybin says that Seitzer really influenced his approach last year. As you can see in chart below, Maybin has really cut down on the number of balls he’s hit in the air, instead working on ground balls and line drives.
An approach like that will deplete your extra base hits, but grounders and line drives fall for hits more often than fly balls. Across the league, power is typically worth the contact trade off because of the value of extra bases, but Maybin individually seems to have found balance as a singles hitter. Trading contact for power works in the aggregate, but it doesn’t work for everyone.
This is a rough comparison, but look at Maybin from his debut through 2012 (before the two injury plagued years) and then from 2015-2016 after the Seitzer intervention.
Keep in mind the offensive era changed a good bit over the course of this period, but the line features more walks, fewer strikeouts, and less power over the last two years and the drop in fly ball rate is really noticeable. This is a different hitter. For now, it’s good different.
I’m certainly not going to look at two months of Maybin and suggest he’s suddenly become a true talent .390 BABIP hitter or that he’s going to maintain his 123 wRC+ for the remainder of the year, but I think it’s safe to say the version of Maybin we saw in Miami and San Diego no longer exists. At the moment, he’s playing at somewhere between a 3-4 WAR pace. Even if he’s not quite that level of player for the rest of the year, he’s probably an average regular the Tigers acquired for virtually nothing this offseason and can keep around for 2017.
This is especially important considering another rough year for Anthony Gose (and perhaps an impending release) and a complete absence of other outfielders within the system near major league ready. After all the Tigers are using Andrew Romine and Mike Aviles in the outfield regularly this year while JD Martinez heals and they continue to not know if Steven Moya exists. The Tigers have essentially no one in the organization who’s a good option in center field. JaCoby Jones is relatively new to the spot and needs seasoning all-around. Derek Hill is miles away with the bat. It’s Cameron Maybin in CF or it’s Andrew Romine, so it’s awfully nice to see Maybin’s development into a productive hitter. Some of the performance is good fortune, but some of it does appear to be the result of a new approach.