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.