Reliving the 2017 Season: Detroit Tigers Edition | The Process Report

Reliving the 2017 Season: Detroit Tigers Edition

With the end of the regular season comes a time for reflection for the majority of baseball fans. What went right? What went wrong? You probably have a few ideas where your teams fell short or exceeded expectations, but what about a completely emotionless point of view? Throughout this season I have shown what batter and pitcher production looks like when we regress balls in play to look more like what the players should have seen using exit velocity and launch angle. The offseason will be no different as I take a team by team look at how the season fared for the team, while going a little deeper on a handful of players from each team. The order will mirror next June’s draft slotting so you can expect to find some depression leading to elation here. It’s going to take some time, but I would like to get two to three of these out each week which should allow for every team being covered before our glorious game returns to continue threshing our hearts.

The Detroit Tigers are now on the clock. It took some hard work, but by deciding to only play five months while all those other suckers played for six the Tigers were able to climb to the top of the first overall pick mountain. It wasn’t easy, and there are plenty of reasons why this perennial contender has fallen on hard times, but I believe it was Mr. I, himself, who uttered, “Après moi, le déluge.” The Tigers are going to need a bigger boat.

(open in new tab to enhance your viewing pleasure if you see fit)

The above chart shows the true park-adjusted wOBA (twOBA*) for the Tigers pitchers and batter over the course of the season using 1,000 plate appearance rolling averages. I have also shown the park-adjusted actual results (awOBA*). The Tigers came out of the gates like a house on fire at the plate, but was equally bad on the mound. The pitching got a lot better, while the bats continued to do their thing including seeing their actual production raise to the very high expected level. Then the bats fell off a cliff to be more like a league average offense. The pitching was right there with them before the end of the season saw it all go so terribly wrong.

We can aggregate all this stuff into one nice little snapshot of their season. The pitchers were around 4.5% worse than league average with the hitters being close to 4% better than the league. You get the sense that the Tigers should have had a better record than they did, but the tank job finish put the finishing touches on something that had already been brewing all year. As a group, the pitchers saw actual results on balls in play that were around 2.1% worse than they should have expected. The batters took it even further by being around 4.6% were than expected. The total production figures use the expected values, but the Tigers failed to meet that level over the course of the season. Looking at the chart above you can see that early on showed quite a bit of divergence between the two lenses, and then the pitching utterly collapsed to close out the year. The batters showed a lot to like on paper, but struggled to translate all those well-struck balls into actual bases and runs. I’ll note here that there is a tendency for pull-heavy and/or slower runners to fail to meet their expected level. The algorithm does not know where a batter hit the ball nor that shifts are as profligate as they have ever been. We can see below where some of the largest outliers manifested:

Guys like Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Alex Avila and James McCann all underachieved what the system thought they should have produced, and no amount of generosity would allow an author to describe those players as fast. Miggy should have been one of the better hitters in the game with a .459 wOBA on balls in play and fine strikeout/walk numbers, but when they’re not falling in or getting through everything looks that much worse. Compare this to Justin Upton who had a fairly similar expected production, but his actuals were second best on the team trailing only the magnificent J.D. Martinez.

It is easy to come away seeing a lot to be excited about in the future, but Upton and J.D. Martinez are already gone with Victor perhaps on his way out the door, too. The same can be said for Ian Kinsler who has an affordable option remaining, but little trade value for a team that will be playing for little from jump street. Of guys that should be back next year you can see plenty of names at the bottom of the list. Jose Iglesias will likely continue to be the everyday shortstop, and while you can hide his bat in a forest of trees, once the agent orange hits there is few places to seek shelter.

There is some hope, however. Trade acquisition Jeimer Candelario showed a lot to be excited about even if the system expects a fair amount of regression on ball in play results. He showed a surprisingly apt ability to control the zone as a young man that swings a big bat so there’s a bright spot. Additionally, Mikie Mahtook might be a league average bat even after regression with tons of control. Even if he’s a fourth outfielder teams have a need for that type of player. JaCoby Jones is another well-thought of youngster, though the bat showed that it isn’t ready due to a massive strikeout issue without the power that can make up for giving away an at bat.

You’ll notice that there are a few names highlighted above. I want to dig a little deeper into each of these players for one reason or another, which you will find below:

Playing in his age 25 season there was probably a lot of hope that Nicholas Castellanos could take another step forward in what has been an up and down career so far. Glove issues aside, he has been mostly a pretty good hitter, and as we see above, he was the most valuable batter on the team. He was able to accomplish this by being an above average hitter for nearly the entire season, and then broke the throttle at the end to massively boost his seasonal line. You can see that the actual production was better or worse at various times, but during his ascension at the end of the season his impeccable results appear to be fully earned. Part of this is due to weaker pitching getting the nod for alsorans in the final month, but the totality of his production speaks to a batter that is continuing to improve at the highest level. Something to think about for fantasy players heading into next year’s auctions.

Miguel Cabrera has been the war horse for the Tigers organization for the last decade, but an assortment of upper body injuries robbed him of what should have been a typically pretty good season. Throughout the entirety of which, he saw worse results than his batted ball trajectories would lead one to believe. The pinhead that represents the league elites might fit a thousand or so angels, but with the slimmest of margins separating the best of the best it does not take much to no longer be the king. Compared to the mortals he had a mostly fine season creating around 27 runs more than average to go with a 118 xwRC+, but again, that is using his expected production, which shows a clear divergence from his actual results. This looks like a guy that was playing hurt over his last 200+ plate appearances, and in all likelihood he was feeling his excellence sapped well before the falloff. Miggy should be healthy to start next year, but he’ll also be another six months older. Luckily, his contract certifies that once he can no longer move he will become a statue outside the entrance.

The last batter I wanted to focus on here is Ian Kinsler. Mr. Consistency. Even as an older player he continues to hit enough to be pretty useful, and when paired with a fantastic glove he provides quite a bit of production to a team. His skillset is one that we will yearn for once his time is over as he rarely strikes out, yet still walks quite a bit. I would not be surprised to find out that he also played through some injuries this year as the contact profile leaves a lot to be desired. For this year he was able to skate by on the eye to still be a little better than average, but any acquiring team will want to see more hard contact before giving up a slice of their own pie.

Let’s now flip over to the pitchers, which represented a significant weakness for the team:

Justin Wilson was the biggest contributor before he was traded, and then he brought back a controllable everyday guy in Jeimer Candelario. He was probably the MVP of the team this year. Michael Fulmer was off to a sensational start in his sophomore campaign before his elbow started barking. More on him later. Detroit had a few better than average relievers, but not so dominant as to truly set them apart from the most fungible commodity in baseball. No slight to Shane Green, Daniel Stumpf or Buck Farmer, but if they were starters then their contributions would mean a lot more, and if they were starters the Tigers might not be scrambling so hard for anything with a wing.

I’m sure it was bittersweet to say goodbye to Justin Verlander, one of the greats of our time, but those that would know say they did well in the return. Not to mention the payroll room that has just opened up for the next several years. At least fans will get to see him under the bright lights for the exciting Houston Astros this fall. A great reason to keep watching. Unlike Jordan Zimmermann, who smart people thought was an awful sign from the get go. Zimmermann floundered his way to allowing over 26 runs more than an average pitcher would have leaving him around 12% worse than average over a heavy toll of volume. Daniel Norris was essentially the same thing with more walks and strikeouts, but fewer batters faced. At least there might be some hope there in a younger arm that could show improvement.

Speaking of young arms that should improve it is important to take a look at Matthew Boyd. The principal part of the return in the Tigers version of the David Price trade he often shows a lot to like before becoming undone.You can see that especially well in the twin peaks in the middle of the season that show his actual results being so very far removed from his expected outcomes. Over the course of the season his exit velocity and launch angles show a guy that should have been a little worse than average with a very strong section in the middle. Of course, the actual results are what folks see so I’m sure there is more hostility than is probably warranted. Part of the reason for such a large gap has to be due to poor defense on the infield corners and a pretty lousy outfield, in general. It doesn’t take well-struck balls when strung together weaker contact has a pitcher self-immolating on the mound. Better defense, and more importantly, stronger composure should lead to better results from Boyd next year.

While Boyd is something of a project, it is a shame that Michael Fulmer is again dealing with arm issues after seemingly putting that ghost to bed. From both perspectives, his beginning of the season was truly ace-like, but the creep in his expectations carried forth over the course of the season. His actual performance oscillated mostly on the good side of average, but the middle of the season was mostly a house of cards ready to collapse. Which happened right around the time the team finally shut him down to figure out what was going on internally. The game is in dire straits when it comes to young, GOOD pitching, but hopefully rest and recovery is all that will be required for Michael Fulmer to get that bear beard and his electric arm back on the bump.

Lastly, I want to close on the legend as he closes the book on his Tigers career. His first 500 batters didn’t go exactly to plan as he was quite a bit worse than league average with actuals mostly in line. Then he flipped a switch, found his velocity, and started to shove again. Fortunately for the Tigers, he was able to right the ship over those last 200+ batters so that the team could get a fairly solid return on one of the best pitchers in recent memory. Without that it would probably have been a sadder end for one of the best team-pitcher pairings in memory. You’ll have to wait a while to pick up the thread with his Astros career, but my guess is that it will look very similar to how he closed his career as a Tiger.

 

 



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