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.
When I started this series eight weeks ago, I didn’t immediately think that right field was obviously the deepest position in baseball, but after working to rank The Nine best players at each position it is extremely obvious. The top seven players on this list have MVP potential and I left guys off this list who are really good players.
I wasn’t picking between a bunch of question marks for #9, I was choosing among guys who I think are all very talented and who will have good seasons. Again, this list is of players projected to play right field for 2013, so position changes are taken into account. You’ll find Ben Zobrist and Josh Hamilton among this class of players settling into right this year.
My apologies to newly minted Indian Nick Swisher who was an outfielder when I wrote the first basemen list and a first basemen when I wrote the right field list. If Swisher has a big season, this is why he’s not on either list. If he has a bad season, I totally saw it coming.
9. Ichiro (Yankees)
Ichiro, despite his age, still plays great defense in right field, hits for high average, and runs the bases well. He should also see an uptick in power with a friendlier ballpark and should get a little help from a slightly better lineup around him. It would have been a lot better, but all of the Yankees are hurt. He’s not the MVP he once was, but I’m buying a very solid season from Ichiro in the Bronx.
8. Torii Hunter (Tigers)
Hunter had a huge season hitting between Mike Trout and Albert Pujols in 2012, so in choosing his next destination, he searched for a similarly cushy gig. And found it. He’ll hit between Austin Jackson (STT #1 CF) and Miguel Cabrera (STT #1 3B) and will play next to slight Trout downgrade Jackson in the outfield. Hunter had a big season last year, and while he’s not likely to match it, modest regression still earns him a place on this list with his mix of moderate power, speed, and defense.
7. Josh Hamilton (Angels)
Hamilton is baseball’s fragile giant. He’s shown, at times, flashes of historic talent and, at other times, flashes of unparalleled failure. He has impressive power and great raw skills, but has some of the worst plate discipline in a sport that includes Delmon Young. He has health issues and a history of off the field issues (i.e. drugs, alcohol, vision issues, energy drink addition). For my money, he has the widest possible range of outcomes of any player in the league. Hamilton hitting 50 HR seems equally as likely to me as him hitting .210. The upside is there, but age and fragility work against him. Plus there is an effort issue, as showcased by his utter lack of interest in playing baseball last September. Man, I just don’t know.
6. Carlos Beltran (Cardinals)
Beltran is not the defensive and baserunning star he once was, but he is still an extremely talented player when healthy. In seasons in which he has player 100 or more games, he has always posted a 3 WAR or better and has at times, approached 8 WAR. He’s on the downswing of a great career (Tell that to Mets fans!) and should be good for another great year if he remains healthy.
5. Jay Bruce (Reds)
Bruce hits for power and he walks. Those are two valuable qualities in a player, even if he is closer to .250 than .300 most seasons. The defensive numbers are a little all over the place, but he has 134 HR before his 26th birthday. That’s a good recipe for success and he should have it hitting behind the great Joey Votto.
4. Jose Bautista (Blue Jays)
If Joey Bats hadn’t missed half of 2012 with a wrist injury, an injury that is somewhat correlated with a loss in power, he’d probably be at the top of this list. The fact that he is fourth tells you just how good right field is right now. A healthy Bautista is a 40-50 HR guy with the ability to walk at a Bondsian rate while avoiding gaudy Dunnian strikeout numbers. He’s nothing special on defense or on the bases, but he is versatile and an absolute monster at the plate.
3. Giancarlo Stanton (Marlins)
Stanton has as much raw power as anyone in the game and puts in on display regularly between the lines. He’s a very good defender and he takes his walks at the plate. He’s a great young player, with an emphasis on both great and young separately. That is to say, he’s still very young. But he strikes out a ton and doesn’t do much for me on the bases. That doesn’t make him a bad player, it just keeps him from the top of the list. I’m also a believer in lineup protection more than most saber-guys and think it is especially real at the extremes. There is nobody even closer to Stanton’s level on the Marlins and he will be pitched around a lot. That doesn’t exactly hurt his rate stats, but it will drop the raw production and the frustration with his situation might have a slightly negative effect on his overall performance in 2013 before he gets traded in November.
2. Ben Zobrist (Rays)
The only reason Zobrist is likely no longer baseball’s most underrated player (Alex Gordon?) is because people like me have been talking him up long enough that it has finally caught on. He’s a great defender, a good baserunner, and a very good hitter. The plate discipline is excellent and his versatility makes me blush. He is an above average player at six or seven positions and hasn’t player fewer than 151 games since becoming a regular four years ago. He’s durable, he’s versatile, and he knows the strike zone. If you know anything about the type of players I most like to cheer for, you would rightly suspect that I would lose my mind if the Tigers found a way to acquire him.
1. Jason Heyward (Braves)
I’ll confess that I wasn’t a Heyward believer after his breakout 2010 season and felt super proud of myself for calling his 2011 regression. Didn’t I look silly in 2012? Heyward has a few trouble spots in that his plate discipline is actually getting worse each season, but he hits for power, plays elite defense, and runs the bases extremely well. On offense alone, he’s in the middle of this list, but he’s so good in the field and on the bases that he vaults himself up to the top. He’s also only 23 and has three seasons under his belt. He’s poised to lead the Braves back to the fake playoffs or better in 2013 with the Upton brothers to his right, and looks to be baseball’s best right fielder in the process.
What do you think? How does your top four look? Sound off in the comments section.
I was among the first to call for it and predict it over the last few weeks here at SABR Toothed Tigers, but I won’t take credit for it because of how obvious a fit it was. The Tigers signed OF Torii Hunter to a 2 year, $26 million deal this afternoon to flank Austin Jackson in LF or RF depending on future moves.
This is a phenomenal signing by Dave Dombrowski. Hunter can fill in as the Tigers #2, #5, or #6 hitter depending on how the rest of the offseason goes and he can play a great corner outfield even at 37 years old. Better yet, he can mentor the budding star of Austin Jackson.
Since becoming a regular in 2001, Hunter has had one below average offensive season for his position. He’s a career .277/.335/.466 hitter and has actually been better by those standards as he’s gotten older. Hunter is clearly an offensive upgrade for the Tigers in the corners for the next two seasons as the kids get ready and he does not show any sign of dropping off.
He may start to slow down at the plate, but has only posted a wOBA below .334 once since becoming a regular and had his second best season by that metric last year.
He’s a big upgrade on defense over the Boesch/Berry tandem that got most of the playing time in 2012. He started to lose a step in CF in 2010, but the shift to RF over the last two seasons has been great for him and he’s back to being a top flight defender. For the Tigers, average would have been enough.
But Hunter’s value to me is heavily driven by his leadership and teaching ability. Mike Trout, the Angels phenom, has routinely credited Torii Hunter for his development. Trout’s talented on his own, but Hunter has been there to help him learn some of the nuances of playing defense and being a big league player.
I’m excited to see how Hunter can help Jackson, who is very talented, improve his overall game and turn into a star in centerfield.
I don’t know how much this matters, but in a sport with fewer and fewer black stars, it should help to have Hunter as a mentor to Jackson because he may identify with him. Hunter was a star for the Twins in the early 2000s and seems like the kind of player Jackson sought to emulate. It helps that they’re both from Texas and play a similar style of baseball.
Hunter’s value as a hitter, defender, and leader should be plenty enough to justify the $13 million he’ll make this year and next. He’s never posted under a 2.4 WAR as a starter and is coming off his best season. He’s also moving to a slightly better hitters’ park and gets to hit between Jackson and Cabrera most likely, which should feel familiar to Trout and Pujols, not to mention a slightly easier division.
This was a great signing and an obvious choice, but I have to say it’s one of Dombrowski’s best free agent signings. Kenny Rogers and Victor Martinez come to mind as others, but this is a deal that benefits the Tigers tremendously without being large and cumbersome. Obviously Pudge, Maggs, and Prince were great signings, but those required truckloads of cash.
This deal, like the Rogers and Martinez signings, was for market value. This is a great deal for the Tigers and I can’t wait to see Hunter in the Old English D.