2017 Bellwethers, #3: Nick Castellanos

In an effort to find to bring a new angle to the routine nature of season previews, last year New English D ran a season preview series based on the team’s nine most pivotal players. We be called the series “2016 Bellwethers,” broke down the players whose 2016 direction would indicate where the Tigers were heading. Due to a solid response, the series is back for 2017. Keep in mind this is not a series about the most important Tigers, but rather the Tigers with the widest range of possible outcomes. You won’t see Miguel Cabrera featured, for example, because of his steady dominance of the league. Enjoy. | #9: James McCann and Alex Avila | #8: Victor Martinez | #7: Whoever Plays Center Field |#6: Jose Iglesias | #5 Jordan Zimmermann | #4: Daniel Norris

Nick Castellanos has been coming together in pieces. He made his debut in 2014, improved his defense in 2015, and added power in 2016. He’s by no means a good defender and his approach is still very tenuous, but he showed last year that you can provide some value if you post a .212 ISO.

It’s not quite that simple, however. You could look at Castellanos’ 110 games and 1.9 WAR and indicate that if he hadn’t taken that pitch off the hand, we’d be talking about a 2-3 win player. But that isn’t exactly right because the best part of Castellanos’ season was the beginning. Or to put it more clearly, he was terrible in June. From 5/28 to 6/26, Castellanos had 123 PA and posted a 66 wRC+. Prior to that it was 158 (179 PA). After June 26, it was 115 (145 PA). There’s no magic to it, everyone has good stretches and bad, but if you wanted to make the case that Castellanos’ performance tapered off as the year went on, you could do it.

Castellanos is young, newly 25. People have been marveling at his hit tool for years and the power arrived last season. No one is expecting him to be Brooks Robinson, but his improvement from horrible to merely below average is legitimate. The question is if Castellanos is going to be a 110-120 wRC+ guy or something more. Don’t get me wrong, a 115 wRC+ and non-atrocious 3B defense will get you major league work, but if Castellanos is going to live up to the promise of “All-Star Third Baseman” that we heard from certain scouts, he needs to take a step forward.

The biggest room to grow is his approach. He’s been much better when he’s been able to lay off breaking balls low and away. If you come inside with fastballs he will make you pay, but he’s still too aggressive elsewhere in the zone. You can survive as a major league hitter with a 6 BB% and 25 K%, but you have to have good power or a good glove. To excel with a 6 BB% and 25 K%, you have to crush the ball. I think the easier path is become an 8 BB% and 21 K% guy, but we’ll see if that’s in the cards.

Castellanos is third on this list because he has the most two-sided range. He could easier regress to his 2015 value or take a step forward into something resembling a fringe all-star. I think both are realistic options. Was the power fluky or can he improve his approach? He’s young and a hard-worker, so the upside is definitely there.

The Tigers are going to be without JD Martinez for a spell, and there’s some uncertainly surrounding Victor and Upton at the plate. Castellanos can step up and give the Tigers a boost, or he can fall back and leave them wondering what their long term plan should be at the hot corner.

2017 Bellwethers, #4: Daniel Norris

In an effort to find to bring a new angle to the routine nature of season previews, last year New English D ran a season preview series based on the team’s nine most pivotal players. We be called the series “2016 Bellwethers,” broke down the players whose 2016 direction would indicate where the Tigers were heading. Due to a solid response, the series is back for 2017. Keep in mind this is not a series about the most important Tigers, but rather the Tigers with the widest range of possible outcomes. You won’t see Miguel Cabrera featured, for example, because of his steady dominance of the league. Enjoy. | #9: James McCann and Alex Avila | #8: Victor Martinez | #7: Whoever Plays Center Field |#6: Jose Iglesias | #5 Jordan Zimmermann

Up to this point, Bellwethers #9 to #5 have been players who didn’t perform as well as they could have in 2016. The question for them has been if they can fix a flaw, get healthy, or find some consistency. The question for #4 is very different. Daniel Norris is not technically a prospect anymore, but for all intents and purposes he is. He will turn 24 in April and has just 136 MLB innings to his name.

If you just look at the stat sheet, you would probably assume Norris got a late season look in 2015 and spent some time in the minors last year getting ready for his official call-up. The story is a little more complicated given his health issues and injury problems last year. If he had been healthy from the get go, he probably would have made 25 or more starts, but the same general line of reasoning will hold up. Norris is young and hasn’t been turned loose during a full season. He should get that chance in 2017.

And there’s a lot to like about Norris. While his command was iffy coming up through the minors, he’s made strides in that department and if you can strikeout 9+ batters per nine innings, a slightly elevated walk rate won’t be an issue. He’s given up a few too many dingers in his major league work, but it’s a small sample as well. He’s mostly a blank canvass. Norris is on this list because he’s one guy who I think could dramatically exceed his 2016 contributions. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not betting the farm on it, but Norris gave the Tigers around a win of value last year. If things go reasonably well, he might give them three wins, and that would be a nice shot in the arm. But Norris is also the only player on the roster who might give the team four or five more wins than he did last year. He’s the high upside.

Norris has the makings of a front-line starter. He has the size and velocity from the left side and his secondary stuff flashes above average. There’s a big leap from what he actually did last year and 5+ win pitcher, but you can see the building blocks if he puts it together.

In particular, I wrote last September about Norris moving from a traditional slider toward a cutter, something Justin Verlander has done as well. There’s way too little data to know if the cutter is an improvement overall, but it’s different and different is always interesting.

Norris has the potential to change the conversation in a way that virtually no other Tiger can. I’m very high on Matt Boyd and there is presumably still an ace hidden in Anibal Sanchez, but Norris is the one who I believe could be the most decisive. If he’s healthy, he’ll still probably be on an innings limit because his high water mark is about 150. The Tigers won’t push him too far beyond 180 in 2017, but there’s a chance for a lot of value in those innings.

I’m not saying I think Norris will be a 5-6 win pitcher, just that it’s a plausible outcome. It’s more likely he’s a 2-3 win pitcher and the Tigers would be perfectly happy to get that upside. But if Norris can offer the 2016 strikeout rate with a lower home run rate, he might wind up giving them a whole lot more.

2017 Bellwethers, #5: Jordan Zimmermann

In an effort to find to bring a new angle to the routine nature of season previews, last year New English D ran a season preview series based on the team’s nine most pivotal players. We be called the series “2016 Bellwethers,” broke down the players whose 2016 direction would indicate where the Tigers were heading. Due to a solid response, the series is back for 2017. Keep in mind this is not a series about the most important Tigers, but rather the Tigers with the widest range of possible outcomes. You won’t see Miguel Cabrera featured, for example, because of his steady dominance of the league. Enjoy. | #9: James McCann and Alex Avila | #8: Victor Martinez | #7: Whoever Plays Center Field |#6: Jose Iglesias

The Tigers missed the playoffs by two and a half games last season, so the lesson is basically that everything mattered. When the margin is that small, you can put the blame on almost any single event. We can point to individual blown games really easily when all you have to do is find three of them. But if you had to sit down and think about what really made the difference, I believe the truest answer is Jordan Zimmermann’s health.

The reason I’ve settled on Zimmermann as the center of the web is because Zimmermann was probably the most important player on the roster who failed to live up to his 2016 expectations. If you look around the diamond, it’s Zimmermann or it’s Justin Upton. Both came into the season projected for something like 3-4 win seasons. That’s what I figured for both of them. Above-average, not quite star players. Both came up short, but Zimmermann gets the nod here because by missing 15 starts he opened the door for a cascading effect the gave us too many starts for the bad pitchers and too many innings for the relievers. It’s not a question of blame, just that if I got the chance to fix only one thing about the 2016 team, I think the highest percentage move would be a healthy Zimmermann.

That brings us to 2017. Zimmermann had shown some signs of trouble in 2015 when he allowed quite a few home runs, and that continued in 2016 in addition to more walks and fewer strikeouts. That’s obvious a bad combination, but during his first few starts the low strikeouts weren’t much of an issue. But things caught up with him as the season wore on and he missed significant time with groin, neck, and lat issues. Without being inside the training room, we can’t say for sure what impact those injuries had on his entire catalog of work, but I’m willing to bet he was working through injuries during many of his starts.

Zimmermann had been a consistent 3-4 win pitcher going into 2016 and it’s easy to forgive his lack of value, but as you look forward it’s also not easy to separate normal aging decline and one-time injuries. Was the velocity loss because he was hurt, or were the injuries and velocity loss symptoms of the same disease: decline. Either way, this doesn’t look great:

Zimmermann still knows how to pitch, and the only pitch that might have been a little less imposing last year from a movement perspective was the slider, but the question is the condition of his body more than anything else. This isn’t a question about hitters figuring him out, it’s a question about him not being the pitcher he was for the several years prior.

If Zimmermann is healthy and feels like his old self, the Tigers can likely count on an additionally 2-3 wins from him. But we don’t know if that’s going to be the case. Were the injuries he suffered last year normal injuries that could have happened to him at any time or are they suggesting a future in which this is the norm. For better or worse, the answer is coming shortly.

2017 Bellwethers, #6: Jose Iglesias

In an effort to find to bring a new angle to the routine nature of season previews, last year New English D ran a season preview series based on the team’s nine most pivotal players. We be called the series “2016 Bellwethers,” broke down the players whose 2016 direction would indicate where the Tigers were heading. Due to a solid response, the series is back for 2017. Keep in mind this is not a series about the most important Tigers, but rather the Tigers with the widest range of possible outcomes. You won’t see Miguel Cabrera featured, for example, because of his steady dominance of the league. Enjoy. | #9: James McCann and Alex Avila | #8: Victor Martinez | #7: Whoever Plays Center Field

There’s nothing wrong with having a league average shortstop. Over the last few years, that’s essentially what Jose Iglesias has been. He’s done it in slightly different ways, but he’s been right around that magic two win mark in all three of his full MLB seasons.

But those different ways are important because they demonstrate a path to something more than just an average player. In 2013, he had a 102 wRC+ and in 2015 it was 97. Last year it was 73. Iglesias was able to make up that lost offensive value in 2016 by getting the defensive metrics to like him quite a bit more. I don’t want to litigate exactly how accurate those ratings are at the moment, but the improved defense last year was something I talked about quite a bit as it was happening. Iglesias has always been gifted in the field, but in his previous seasons he had made some mistakes that stunted his value. Last year he was better in those respects and the metrics rewarded him. How much exactly should the needle move is anyone’s guess, but generally the data tracks with the eye test.

If Iglesias had hit like he had in 2015 with 2016’s defense, you’re talking about a 3-4 win player instead of a 2 win player. That’s a big deal, especially for a team on the edge like the Tigers. Step 1 is that Iglesias needs to keep the defensive improvements going, which I suspect he will. He has the arm, hands, and quickness, he was just screwing up the footwork and occasionally losing focus.

Step 2 is getting himself back into that 95 wRC+ range. His strikeout and walk rates have been quite consistent. You can count on him for a 5-6% walk rate and a 10% strikeout rate. He’s aggressive and makes lots of contact, and there’s no reason to think either of those skills are in jeopardy. His power also wasn’t really an issues last year. Don’t get me wrong, he doesn’t have a lot of it, but his extra base hit rate was perfectly in line with what we might expect from him.

His problem, of course, was a big drop in BABIP. It was .356 in 2013, .330 in 2015, and .276 in 2016. A .330 BABIP last year adds about 23 hits. Even a .300 BABIP would have added 10. Let’s just split the difference and say 16. That would bring his wOBA up to about .310 from .283. That’s basically a win of value. In other words, if he had a .315 BABIP he would have been a much more valuable player, and .315 would have been a career worst.

I’m not explaining away the BABIP as complete luck, just pointing out that the difference between last year’s Iglesias and a much more compelling Iglesias is a dozen or so outs falling for singles. And while his contact rate was normal last year, Iglesias put the ball in the air a bit more than you’d like to see:

While fly balls are the new trend in baseball, guys who don’t hit the ball that hard like Iglesias need to avoid them as much as possible. Iglesias is going to make his money with ground balls and line drives and he needs to get back to that approach. If he’s able to do that, it seems totally plausible that he could give the Tigers a 1+ win boost at shortstop, helping them make up those few games they needed a year ago.

Certainly his health could falter or his swing could continue to produce too many balls in the air, but if Iglesias can get his bat back to 2015 with his glove staying in 2016, he’ll help the club stay relevant down the stretch.

 

2017 Bellwethers, #7: Whoever Plays Center Field

In an effort to find to bring a new angle to the routine nature of season previews, last year New English D ran a season preview series based on the team’s nine most pivotal players. We be called the series “2016 Bellwethers,” broke down the players whose 2016 direction would indicate where the Tigers were heading. Due to a solid response, the series is back for 2017. Keep in mind this is not a series about the most important Tigers, but rather the Tigers with the widest range of possible outcomes. You won’t see Miguel Cabrera featured, for example, because of his steady dominance of the league. Enjoy. | #9: James McCann and Alex Avila | #8: Victor Martinez

Presumably, when the Tigers take the field on April 3, someone will listed as the starter in center field. The White Sox will probably be throwing Jose Quintana, so it makes sense to go with a righty, although basically everything is up in the air as it relates to the position. We’ll probably see some Tyler Collins, some JaCoby Jones, and some Mikie Mahtook. Maybe some Andrew Romine? Steven Moya? The Tigers have a lot people who might play center field but no obvious plan for how those plate appearances will be allocated. It’s an open question as I write this two and a half weeks from Opening Day.

So naturally, what happens in center field will have a big impact on the Tigers season. Anywhere there is uncertainty, there is a big potential swing. If one of these players, or a combination of these players, take the reins and give the Tigers reasonable defense and a useful bat, that would go a long way toward getting them into one of the wild card slots.

You can sort of see a world in which any of the three likely options has a good year. Tyler Collins feels like Andy Dirks. He could provide a little power and hold his own in the field. You’re not expecting anything great, but it wouldn’t shock you if he put up a 100 wRC+ or so. JaCoby Jones has raw talent, and if he delivers the power he showed in Double-A and mixes in some athleticism in the outfield, he might surprise you. Mikie Mahtook had plenty of success in the minors and had a great showing in limited MLB action in 2015 before struggling quite a bit in 2016. Can he really hit MLB pitching? I don’t know, but he has the speed necessary to fake his way through hitting 9th in a good lineup if he can make some contact.

I don’t have a lot of wise thoughts to offer here. If one of these players breaks through and has even a remotely strong year – something like 2 WAR – the Tigers would be in tremendous shape. The bar is pretty low, but as I’ve been saying all along the Tigers need a lot of little things to go right in order for the one big thing to swing their way. None of these players have significant track records and all of them definitely have the potential to be a league average player. It comes down to this: I find it very hard to believe the Tigers are out of it in September if they get a good collective season from the people playing center field. It might not be enough to push them over the top, but if they get something from this potential black hole, things are going right in Motown.

2017 Bellwethers, #8: Victor Martinez

In an effort to find to bring a new angle to the routine nature of season previews, last year New English D ran a season preview series based on the team’s nine most pivotal players. We be called the series “2016 Bellwethers,” broke down the players whose 2016 direction would indicate where the Tigers were heading. Due to a solid response, the series is back for 2017. Keep in mind this is not a series about the most important Tigers, but rather the Tigers with the widest range of possible outcomes. You won’t see Miguel Cabrera featured, for example, because of his steady dominance of the league. Enjoy. | #9: James McCann and Alex Avila

I didn’t write that many words about the Tigers this offseason in part because I was often distracted by other things, but also in part because the Tigers didn’t really change very much. Most of the roster going into 2017 is the same as it was going into 2016. You don’t need offseason deep dives into players we all watched and analyzed during the season. No one needed another “something isn’t working right for Anibal Sanchez” article in November. I wrote them throughout the year and they didn’t help.

One exception to this trend was Victor Martinez, a player I explored at some length in December. In that piece I made two main points which I will reiterate here. If you want to see the graphics and such that support these points, follow the preceding link.

The first point is that your view of 2017 Victor Martinez is largely based on what you make of his 2015 season. Two years ago, he had a 78 wRC+ and was one of the least valuable players in baseball. In my piece, I argued that Martinez was probably so bad in 2015 because he had not fully healed from his knee surgery and was essentially one-legged player for most of that year. I think that point is largely defensible. If that’s the case, I wondered if it would make more sense to view Martinez as having simply missed 2015 entirely. My argument is that 2015 Martinez is not a reflection of Martinez’s abilities except for the fact that it tells you something about his injury risk. Yes, it’s quite possible Martinez has a serious leg injury. But if he doesn’t, his 2013, 2014, and 2016 numbers seem more instructive for 2017.

For that reason, I think we can be optimistic about Martinez and could count on his bat for a 120 wRC+ or so. However, I also noted in the piece that Martinez got into a bad habit in 2015 of swinging more often at pitches in the zone while also making less contact. That added to his strikeout rate and while his ability to strike the ball with authority came back in 2016, this bad habit remained, blunting some of his impact.

So going into 2017, we have to ask if Martinez will be healthy and if he will jettison his new found aggression in the zone. If he’s healthy and patient, he will hit. A productive Martinez would be a big boon for the Tigers, but without him in that capacity the club will suffer. There are plenty of good bats in the middle of the order, but the Tigers need to be better in 2017 than they were in 2016 and any steps back will cause problems.

It’s obvious that the club’s most fragile player is a bellwether, but he’s also a bellwether because his previous injury may have messed with his approach a bit and as he ages normally he will need every ounce of that patience in order to remain valuable.

I’m going to wind up saying it with every one of these posts, but the Tigers can be a relevant team if things go wrong but I don’t think they can be a real contend if anything substantial breaks in the other direction. Martinez’s knees foremost among them.

2017 Bellwethers, #9: James McCann and Alex Avila

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

In an effort to find to bring a new angle to the routine nature of season previews, last year New English D ran a season preview series based on the team’s nine most pivotal players. We be called the series “2016 Bellwethers,” broke down the players whose 2016 direction would indicate where the Tigers were heading. Due to a solid response, the series is back for 2017. Keep in mind this is not a series about the most important Tigers, but rather the Tigers with the widest range of possible outcomes. You won’t see Miguel Cabrera featured, for example, because of his steady dominance of the league. Enjoy.

I know this series is only seven words old, but I’m already breaking with the premise. The ninth spot on this year’s list belongs to James McCann and Alex Avila. The site has a math literate audience and I know including ten players on a nine player list is wrong, but I have a reasonable defense that will become clear as we proceed.

In 2016, the Tigers had one of the worst catching units in baseball. That probably sounds a little extreme because McCann and Saltalamacchia combined for 20 HR from behind the plate, but the rest of their offensive output (and four PA from Bobby Wilson) was basically a disaster. Collectively, the group had a 66 wRC+, which was fourth worst in baseball last year. All catchers combined for a 97 wRC+.

But it wasn’t just the offense that was a problem. Baseball Prospectus ranked Tigers catchers 10th worst in framing, and while they scored better in blocking and throwing, there just aren’t a ton of runs to be saved in those aspects of the game. Even the best blocking and throwing catcher in the league probably can’t add much more than a win or so to his team’s total.

It should certainly be noted that James McCann took statistically and visually noticeable steps forward in terms of receiving. Saying the Tigers catchers were bad in 2016 isn’t an indictment on their overall potential, just simply that in order for the team to squeak out the necessary four or five additional wins they need to make the playoffs this year, they have to get better somewhere and catcher is the lowest hanging fruit.

McCann and Avila are ranked jointly here because it doesn’t really matter which one steps up, just that one or both of them need to perform in order for the Tigers to be a competitive team in 2017. McCann is younger and has room to grow, while Avila has already had success in the majors that he could replicate.

McCann obviously needs to replicate his framing progress. If he’s a competent framer and maintains his strong arm, the defense will work if he’s able to hit. Unfortunately, he’s a career .244/.284/.373 hitter (76 wRC+) hitter in 810 PA. I’m not burying a guy after less than two full seasons of reps, but a 5 BB%, 25 K%, and .130 ISO is not a promising start. He needs to hit for a lot more power or he has to make more contact. He’s entering his age 27 season, which is quite young developmentally for a catcher’s offensive profile, but this needs to be a point of focus in 2017. I was more than willing to give McCann a break over the last two plus seasons as he learned how to perform behind the plate in the majors and dealt with the grind of a full season of catching. Catchers develop late at the plate, but McCann needs to start showing that ability this year or the Tigers need to find another catcher of the future.

On the other hand, Avila just turned 30 and has a long career already behind him. While Avila’s defensive skills have seemed less impressive over the last couple of years, his control of the game makes him at least a wash behind the plate if not still a positive contributor. The key will also be his bat. Avila continues to walk his way to a great OBP, but his strikeout rate up near 30% cuts down on some of his potential. Except for a dreadful 2015, Avila’s generally been able to hit for an average number of extra bases. You’re never going to see 2011 Avila again, but he’s been between 92 and 104 wRC+ in four of the last five seasons. If he runs a 95 wRC+ and performs ably behind the plate, that’s a huge improvement for the team.

And only one of them needs to deliver. The Tigers don’t need to get Posey-level production from their catcher, they just can’t carry a black hole for another year. If one or both catchers hit, the team will be poised to keep the pressure on Cleveland into the final month.

An Institution

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Mike Ilitch was an institution. That’s the highest praise I can possibly offer to a man I never met. I can’t tell you first hand if Mike Ilitch was a good person or a great boss. I can’t share an anecdote about some time he wandered into the press box or made Jim Leyland cry. I can’t offer any sort of eulogy for Mike Ilitch, the individual. I didn’t know him. As is the case when anyone famous passes, there is a distance between the grief felt by those he touched as regular person and those he touched as a public figure.

I won’t venture to cover the breadth of Mr. I’s remarkable life. He was born in the months leading up to the Great Depression and grew up during a war that claimed the lives of 60 million. He served in the Marine Corps. He played minor league baseball. And that was just his first 27 years. It would be a story worth telling even if he hadn’t become a pizza mogul and the owner of two iconic franchises.

Ilitch was beloved in Detroit and in Michigan. If you’re reading this from afar, it might be hard to grasp the idea that Tigers and Red Wings fans adored their owner. Owners are often the bad guys. The ones who put the bottom line ahead of winning and jack up ticket prices simply because they can. Make no mistake, Mike Ilitch was a businessman and a good one, but he stood outside the mold of the modern tycoon.

What we loved about Ilitch was that he owned the Wings and Tigers the way we imagine we would own them if we had been in his shoes. Fans don’t see teams as investments. We wouldn’t pinch pennies and worry about making money. It wouldn’t matter if the club ended the year in the black or the red as long as there was a good product and a real chance to win. Ilitch ran the Tigers like a fan. He opened up his bank account when they needed a little extra and he took care of the team’s veterans. Over the last decade, Ilitch was thinking about the moment at the end of the season when the commissioner hands you the trophy. There was no owner who wanted to win for the sake of winning more than Mr. I.

At times, Ilitch was almost too aggressive in his pursuit of glory. The Tigers became famous for mortgaging the future to prepare for the present because Ilitch wanted to win before he died. Every year we knew that the Tigers wouldn’t rebuild because the owner was old and determined. He was running out of chances and taking a year or two off to restock for some blurry future made little sense. Certainly that strategy had its downside but the mistakes he made were made for the right reasons.

There are two stories that represent Ilitch’s legacy for me. After the Tigers clinched the division in 2014, Ilitch sat next to Victor Martinez in Brad Ausmus’ office. He put his arm around him and, as the story goes, said “I’m going to take care of you next year.” Martinez was a free agent to be coming off an incredible year at the plate. The basic math told you that Martinez was going to get a larger contract than he was worth that winter, but Ilitch wouldn’t hear of it. He paid the going rate – maybe even a little more – before Martinez even had a chance to test the market.

Ilitch was known for having that kind of attitude toward his players. Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera got similar treatment. Ilitch cared about winning and wanted to win with the players who had worked so hard for him. A few million here or there didn’t matter. His approach made things feel less like a corporation and more like a family business.

However, the defining moment will always be the beginning of the 2009 season. The Great Recession had rocked the auto industry and two of the city’s Big Three automakers had to be bailed out by the federal government to survive. General Motors had previously sponsored the center field fountain at Comerica Park but were in no position to spend a couple million dollars on advertising. Rather than selling the space to another company in some other industry, Ilitch put all three logos on the fountain with the message “The Detroit Tigers support our automakers.”

Things were dire around the country but especially in Detroit. The Tigers themselves were feeling squeezed due to decreased ticket sales and surely could have used the capital. In fact, that offseason they traded Curtis Granderson in part because they needed to trim payroll. A city that was once the engine of the American Century was teetering on the brink, but in that moment, Ilitch wasn’t thinking about the ad space. He was thinking about the organization’s role in the community. It’s responsibility to the community, even.

That season ended painfully, after 12 innings in Minneapolis. It was unquestionably the most crushing moment I’ve had as a sports fan. Game 163 left scars on most of us. That season had been such a welcome distraction from the daily turmoil happening in the real world and a deep playoff run was exactly what everyone needed. In one final blow, the Twins took that away and the longest year in the longest decade of Detroit got a little longer.

I have no idea if the free space actually helped the industry recover, but symbolism mattered. Mike Ilitch did right by his city not just when it was easy and when it made him wealthy, but also when things were tough.

With the benefit of hindsight, we know the automakers survived and Detroit and Michigan are back on the rise. At the city’s lowest point, Mike Ilitch gave the Big Three free space on the fountain because Detroit wouldn’t have been Detroit without them.

I don’t know what’s next for the Wings or the Tigers without Ilitch at the helm. He hasn’t been involved on a day-to-day basis for sometime but it was still his vision that led the way. Our teams and their city benefited greatly from his stewardship, not just because he was savvy, but because he cared about the right things and was willing to take risks. May his example light the way for those who follow.

Alex Avila Finds His Way Home

Alex Avila will always carry two curses. The first is that his father was a high level executive with the team that drafted and developed him. Even though Alex clearly rose to the majors on his own merits, there will always be people who see his career through the lens of nepotism. 

His second curse is 2011. Avila was incredible that season. It was a career year. All players have a best season but Avila’s came at 24 during his first full year as an MLB starter. This hurt him so much because 1) Leyland ran him into the ground down the stretch because VMart couldn’t catch and 2) fans were routinely disappointed that Alex didn’t hit to his potential in the following campaigns. He hit 140 wRC+ and when he settled in as a slightly better than average hitting catcher from 2012-2015, he looked like he had failed.

But if you take a step back and look at Avila through objective eyes, he’s had a fine career and is a terrific signing at $2 million for his age 30 season. The Tigers have a big question mark at catcher and some stability from a veteran like Avila makes all the sense in the world if they weren’t going to go out and make a trade for a legitimate upgrade at the position. James McCann is a great thrower and his receiving has improved, but the development of his offense is still a work in progress. At this point, he’s a below average player at the position. 

Avila brings with him a respectable bat that can handle work against the RHP than give McCann the most trouble. Avila walks a ton and can hit for extra bases. He won’t set the world on fire but a 95-100 wRC+ is probably in the cards. After being well-regarded statistically for his receiving in his youth, Avila’s numbers have dropped off over the last two or three years. It’s hard to parse the specifics of year to year changes to know exactly what’s up but in watching Avila he still possess some of the skills necessary to steal strikes even if he’s not quite as consistent as he once was. On the other hand, Avila has always been a good game manager and smartly shepherds pitchers through lineups. That’s the kind of thing that only gets better with age. 

If you want Avila to be some kind of star 3 WAR catcher you’re asking too much. But he’s not being paid to be that kind of player. He signed for next to nothing. The minimum salary is just south of $600,000 and he’s going to provide the Tigers with maybe 1 WAR for just $1.4 million more. There aren’t a lot of better ways to spend such a small amount of baseball dollars. If you could acquire Lucroy or Posey or some distant Molina cousin that would be one thing, but the market was very thin and getting Avila at this price is a no-brainer. 

Separate from the dollars and cents, I’m pleased to see Avila coming back. I’m personally fond of Avila’s style and enjoy his even-keel demeanor. He seems like a genuinely good person and I’d rather root for someone like that than someone who’s a little better but kind of a jerk. Also the beard. 

Let’s Predict Victor Martinez’s 2017

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Please allow me to trick you for a moment. From 2010 to 2013, Victor Martinez posted a 121 wRC+ in 1801 PA. From 2014 to 2016, he posted a 126 wRC+ in 1736 PA. At the plate, Martinez was just as good from from 31-34 as he was from 35-37. Granted, he’s a designated hitter and a terrible base runner, so being 20 percent better than average at the plate is essentially a requirement, but Martinez has been the same consistent hitter he’s always been. Did you know his career wRC+ is 122.

(looks around sheepishly)

Okay, so I warned you I was tricking you and you’re also probably a person with a memory so you know I’m playing fast and loose with the word consistent. To the graph!

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The 2010 to 2013 Martinez was quite consistent except for the part about not having an ACL there for a minute. If you take the sum total of that era and compare it to his last three years, it seems consistent but we’ve actually seen three different Martinezes since. In 2014 he was one of the best hitters in the league. In 2015, he was one of the worst. In 2016, he was the normal Martinez again. What should we expect from the 2017 version?

If you ask the statistical projections, you get an answer somewhere between 100 and 110. This makes sense, given that he’s been a career 120 wRC+ kind of guy and he’s going to be 38 and two years removed from an awful season. It makes sense that you’d forecast a little decline if all you had were the numbers. So that’s one answer.

But let’s try to add some outside wisdom to that. Martinez had knee surgery before 2015 and was clearly not himself for most of that season. We shouldn’t ignore that information – the fact that he had knee surgery two seasons ago is super important – but we also shouldn’t necessary treat performance during injury as the same as performance when healthy. After all, we don’t treat his missed 2012 season as a 0 wRC+. We treat it like he didn’t exist. He got a year older but we have no information about how well he would have played. Imagine if he had tried to play while his knee was healing then, he probably would have sucked!

Perhaps 2015 Martinez should simply have sat out most of the season instead of just 40 games. Would you remember his last few seasons differently if instead of watching him play horribly you pined over him while Tyler Collins? I might.

If you look at 2013, 2014, and 2016 as his last three seasons you wind up with a projection closer to 135 before adjusting for age and health. Maybe that brings you down to 120-125, which again, is right around the VMart average. It’s a question of whether we want to treat 2015 as valid performance or if we just want to eliminate it and say “second knee surgery penalty.” The odds of Martinez’s knee exploding between now and next October is quite high relative to average, but if his knee does not explode, I think I like the odds of his performance being more in line with his other healthy years.

But there’s another thing. I’m also worried about a slightly bad habit he got into when he was hurt in 2015 that carried over to 2016.

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He’s always been well below average in terms of strikeout rate but the last two years that number has ticked up considerably. I wouldn’t think much of it in 2015 but it got worse in 2016 even as his production came back.

He’s started to swing more often at pitches in the zone, essentially at the rate of the rest of the league.

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This is troubling because it’s been paired with less contact in the zone.

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He’s swinging at more pitches in the zone but he’s not really making contact with those pitches. Maybe in 2015 when he had no bat speed he needed to be more aggressive, but now that he’s healthy again he should have reverted back to the old Martinez way of never swinging at anything he didn’t like. This is something to watch in 2017. Is Martinez able to be as selective as he was during his peak or is he still chasing those not-very-hittable-strikes?

I think it’s plausible we get an injury-hampered Martinez, that we get a 120 wRC+ Martinez, or that we get a really good near-2014esque Martinez in 2017. I’m not qualified to put a number on his health, so just adjust these percentages based on your own expectation. I think I’d wager we get something like 80/20 in favor of the 120 wRC+ Martinez. Even with less plate discipline in 2016 he was still a good hitter. But if he is able to work that out, he showed plenty of power last year to push him into the 140 wRC+ range. The question is if last year’s power is conditional on his hacking ways – I’ll bet that it wasn’t.

The Tigers were very close to postseason baseball in 2016, if everyone pushes a little bit in the right direction they can make it there in 2017, and Martinez is one of the guys with more room to push that most. Hopefully his knee can bear it.

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