I’ve lured you here under false pretenses. Sorry about that, but I won’t take up much of your time. This isn’t a post about an actual race, it’s about a metaphorical race and I’ll keep it short. Over the last few months, Alex Avila and Victor Martinez have started raking. Fifty-seven games in, both had OPS’ under .600. That’s not very good if you’re new to OPS. Since then, they’ve been better. Much better. They’re racing to the finish line, one might say. Normally we’d use wOBA or wRC+, but OPS is way easier to gather for an analysis like that, hopefully you’ll accept it as a stand in. Take a look.
Since game 57, they’ve both been on a march toward awesomeness. The two flat lines in blue are Avila’s DL stints. Let’s get a quick look at their numbers before and after and then I’ll let you go.
The Tigers were 31-26 through their first 57. They are 60-39 since. The two are probably related.
Strange, but fun.
Tigers 8, Yankees 4
On this day, Max Scherzer was Max Scherzer. He struck out many Yankees, but allowed some hard contact, including a Vernon Wells homerun. Additionally, there was very little offense at times and explosions of offense at others. The Tigers put up a big number in the bottom of the 5th. The Yankees answered in the top of the 6th. The Tigers came back with more in the bottom half of that inning. Every Tiger but Santiago had a hit and many had multi-hit games. Jackson and Hunter continued their torrid starts and Cabrera’s 4 hit day launched him near the top of the team’s leaderboards. Scherzer wasn’t at his best, but the bullpen held it together and the bats carried him. One of the strange moments, other than Vernon Wells homering, was a call that came in the top of the 6th. The bases were loaded with no outs. A line drive was hit to Prince Fielder who caught it and stepped on first for the double play. Except the first base umpire, who was standing not six feet from the base, called the runner safe at first despite being a solid foot away from the base when Fielder stepped upon it. Luckily, the homeplate umpire overruled him, but it was peculiar in the sense that it was such a clear call I could see he kicked it from my kitchen. I didn’t just react as a fan who wanted the call to go our way. In real time, from far away from my television, I saw certain evidence the runner was out. You don’t get to see that too often.
Also of note today was the Alex Avila played the entire game waiting to hear if his wife was going into labor. Seems like a pretty stressful day. New English D is excited to welcome this player to be named later to the Tigers family. Speaking of the Tigers family, we’d also like to plug this fantastic feature from ESPN on Max Scherzer and his brother, Alex, who took his own life last year after a battle with depression. It’s a touching story not just because of our affinity for Max, but also for his brother who suffered from mental illness.
The Tigers climbed to 3-2 on the season and look for the sweep tomorrow behind Justin Verlander at 1pm on Kids’ Opening Day.
The Moment: Prince Fielder turns an unassisted double play in the top of the 6th, despite the best efforts of umpire Brian O’Nora.
Due to the glorious reality that we now have actual baseball to watch and dissect rather than just future baseball to dissect, we can start to look for early seasons indications of how the season is going to turn out.
Here are five Tigers-related things I’ll be looking for in the early days.
1. Rick Porcello’s Breaking Ball
Porcello was the subject of lots of trade rumors and fifth starter battles, but he has silenced his critics with a strong spring for the time being. He dumped his slider for a curveball this season and the results have been great. In 2012, opposing batters hit .394 against his slider for a lot more power, but the early returns on the curveball have been promising. He had a great spring (not that you should put much stock in the numbers) and the curveball was a much better compliment to his fastball. The velocity separation was bigger and it kept hitters off balance. If Porcello can continue to utilize that pitch against bona fide big leaguers, he could tick his strikeout numbers up and turn into the #2/#3 starter that he was projected to be. Frankly, he’s been a 2-3 WAR pitcher over the last few seasons, so he’s already good enough for most rotations. If he develops into anything more (remember he’s still 24), he could be a borderline All-Star.
2. Andy Dirks’ Bat
The Tigers everyday left fielder had a phenomenal slash line last season (.322/.370/.487) but only played in 88 games due to injury. Those numbers are relatively consistent with his minor league numbers, so we have reason to believe the 27 year old lefty can produce like this again, but the MLB sample size is small. Hitting in the midst of a strong lineup should help, but I’ll be looking to see if Andy Dirks is really this good, or if the truth is hiding behind last year’s small sample. A lot of scouts see Dirks as a really good fourth outfielder, but I’m a fan of his skills and think he can stick as a third outfielder on a good club.
3. Torii Hunter’s BABIP
Hunter had his best big league season by WAR and batting average last year, but a lot of that was driven by an unusually high batting average on balls in play (BABIP). Typically, you expect to see a number around .300 with the game’s best hitters leaning toward .330 or .340. You generally don’t see players, especially older ones improving on their BABIPs outside of randomness, meaning any big one year spike should be observed with caution. Hunter had such a spike last year, posting a .389 BABIP on a .307 career mark. Most people see those numbers and think Hunter was the recipient of good fortune last year and was not as good as his numbers indicate. He’s always been a good defender, but is he actually as good as his last season at the plate? Probably not, but that’s okay. He’s a 2-3 WAR corner outfielder replacing Brennan Boesch who was a -1 WAR player last year. Even if Hunter isn’t a 5 WAR player this season, he’ll still be good. But keep an eye on Hunter’s BABIP. If it’s high and stays that way, it may indicate a change in approach in his old age for the better.
4. Alex Avila’s Power
The difference between Avila’s 2011 (4.6 WAR) and 2012 (2.4) is twofold. One was health (141 games to 116). The other was power (.506 SLG to .384). A lot of people focus on batting average, but walking is such a big part of his game that average obscures the truth. Even last year, he got on base at a .352 clip, which is very good despite a .243 average. He’s probably not going to be the .295 hitter he was in 2011, but if he gets some of that power back, he’ll be as good as he needs to be. A catcher who gets on base at a .350 to .360 rate with .440 to .460 slugging is a hugely valuable asset given his quality defense. If Avila is driving the ball for extra bases early and his knees aren’t sapping his power in April, the Tigers can rest easy knowing 2013 will look more like 2011 than 2012 for Avila.
5. Max Scherzer’s Delivery
I’ve said on many occasions that the key to Scherzer taking the leap from really good stuff and pretty good results to top flight starter was his ability to keep his delivery in line pitch after pitch. Last season, he started to put it all together and led qualifiers in K/9. If he can keep on that path, he could be an All-Star with borderline Cy Young stuff. If he gets out of whack, we’ll know he’s likely always going to have that flaw. He has a lot of moving parts when he winds up, so an early season showing that Scherzer can repeat his delivery will bode well for the Tigers’ fortunes this year.
What are some other important things to watch in April? Let us know what you think in the comments or on Facebook.
Anthony Castrovince of MLB.com wrote a piece recently wondering if any AL Central team could challenge the Tigers for the division title and specifically referenced the Indians acquisition of Michael Bourn and Drew Stubbs this offseason, which provides them with a great deal of speed. But the Tigers’ returning DH and former catcher has a word of warning for the base swiping inclined Indians outfielders.
“They gotta do better than Michael Bourn,” said a smiling Victor Martinez, before gesturing toward catcher Alex Avila. “We’ve got some policemen who give tickets to people who go from first to second!”
It’s a wonderful note of support from V-Mart about Avila, but is it accurate? We know catcher defense is the most difficult defense to measure and clunky things like fielding percentage and caught stealing percentage just don’t do it.
The best we have so far is Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). If we accept DRS as the best we can do without detailed scouting reports, how does Avila stack up?
In 2012, he was tied for fourth best in baseball with 6 DRS at catcher trailing Ryan Hanigan (7), Salvador Perez (9 in 653 innings), and Yadier Molina (16).
So, don’t trying anything Indians or you’ll have to deal with this.