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So you’re a little bit older and a lot less bolder / than you used to be
So you used to shake ’em down / but now you stop and think about your dignity
So now sweet sixteen’s turned thirty-one / You get to feelin’ weary when the work day’s done
Well all you got to do is get up and into your kicks / if you’re in a fix
Come back baby / rock and roll never forgets

Mark Sands and AD have joined forces to bring you this hard-hitting preview of the hard-hitting Detroit Tigers’ 2015 season. All the answers are right here.

 

Run Production – Mark

How do they score runs? Are they notably home-run dependent? Notably light on power? Is their lineup predicated on depth, or on huge production from a few stars?

Source: Getty Images

The Tigers featured the 2nd best offense in baseball in 2014, scoring 757 runs and accumulating an MLB-best 1557 hits.

The Tigers had the 2nd most extra-base hits in the majors in 2014 (506), were 4th in isolated power (.150), and 7th in home runs (155).  The offense was led by superstar Miguel Cabrera, who was 10th in MLB in wOBA (.384) and wRC+ (147) and 16th in ISO (.211) despite a pedestrian (for him) 25 HRs.  That power drain, representing his lowest HR total since his rookie season in 2003, has been linked to core-muscle surgery in the 2014 off-season.  Interestingly, he had nearly the same percentage of extra-base hits in 2014 (11.4%) that he had in his monster, MVP seasons in 2012-2013 (12.1% and 10.9% respectively), resulting in a career-high 52 doubles.  Assuming no ill effects after off-season surgery to remove bone spurs and to fix a stress fracture in the ankle, that power should come back in 2015.  While Miggy’s power was sapped, the Tigers got huge power production from two unlikely players–J.D. Martinez, who was rescued from the scrap heap in Houston and put up monster numbers in Detroit (23 HR, 158 OPS+, .238 ISO) and Victor Martinez, an ordinarily excellent hitter who experienced an unprecedented power surge in 2014 (32 HR, 168 OPS+, .230 ISO).  The Martineii are certain to regress in 2015–J.D. had an unsustainable BABIP of .394 and 36-year-old Victor’s power numbers dwarfed his career totals (his HR% in 2014 was 5.0%, compared to a career average of 3.1%)–but both should remain very effective batters in 2015.  In J.D.’s case, he hit for power at every level of the minor leagues and made a decent showing in his MLB debut in 2011 before falling off a cliff in 2012 and 2013.  His peripheral numbers in 2014 were much closer to the relatively successful 2011 in FB% (36.8% in 2014, 35.6% in 2011) and IFFB% (2.5% in 2014, 5.2% in 2011) and his LD% of 22.7% was significantly better than 2012 (16.6%) and 2013 (21.7%) and given that, the ZiPS projection of a .283/.328/.483 batting line with a wRC+ of 126 seems reasonable.  As for Victor, he has been a consistently excellent hitter with a good eye for his entire career and there is no reason to expect those skills to suddenly degrade in 2015.

The Tigers have pretty good depth in the lineup beyond those “big three” hitters.  The Tigers upgraded at the corner outfield position, swapping free-swinging Torii Hunter for also free swinging Yoenis Cespedes.  As we noted when the Tigers traded for him, Cespedes has significantly more power than the aging Hunter and is also an upgrade on the basepaths.  Ian Kinsler was a moderately productive hitter for the Tigers in 2014 (17 HR, 102 wRC+, .319 wOBA), but was dreadful as a leadoff hitter.  That was because he apparently forgot how to take a walk when he got to Detroit, turning in a walk rate of 4.0% (less than half of his career BB% of 8.9%).

Nick Castellanos had moderate success as a rookie (11 HR, 94 wRC+, .307 wOBA), despite a sky-high K rate of 24.2%.  However, his peripheral numbers should give Tigers fans some comfort–he was 2nd in LD% (28.5%) and had the 12th lowest IFFB% (2.1%) in the majors. Thus, Castellanos made hard contact as a rookie, which portends well both for his development as a hitter and his upside for 2015.  Jose Iglesias is an outstanding defensive shortstop as AD notes below, but leaves a lot to be desired as a hitter.  While Igelsias hit over .300 for half a season in Boston in 2013, that was fueled by an unsustainable .376 BABIP.  

In addition, the Tigers will probably take advantage of significant platoon splits at both catcher and center field.

Incumbent C Alex Avila has been an average hitting catcher for the past 3 seasons, following an all-star campaign in 2011.  And that average performance is based mainly on his inability to hit left-handed pitching.  In 2014, the left-handed hitting Avila hit just .226/.287/.302 against southpaws, versus a much improved .215/.340/.380 line against RHP.  He should spilt time with rookie James McCann, who hit .295/.343/.427 in his first full season in AAA Toledo.

McCann has crushed lefties at every level, including a split of .336/.396/.469 in 2014.  In Center Field, the Tigers have a pair of flawed speedsters in Rajai Davis and Anthony Gose.  Davis hits left-handed pitching like career Derek Jeter (.304/.358/.446, .353 wOBA, 120 wRC+) and right-handed pitching like 2014 Derek Jeter (.254/.296/.349, .286 wOBA, 74 wRC+).

Gose doesn’t hit anybody, but his OBP in 2014 against RHP was league average (.329), which means at least he can get on base at a good enough clip to use his excellent speed.

Does the manager use pinch-hitters and platoons liberally? Does the team have the platoon advantage in an especially large or small percentage of their plate appearances?

The Tigers bench was dreadful in 2014, with the likes of Don Kelly, Andrew Romine, Bryan Holliday, and Ezequiel Carrera coming off the bench.  Kelly was at least a useful 25th man on the roster because of his ability to play multiple positions–he played every position but SS in 2014.  But none of these guys could hit, as displayed by the Tigers pinch hitters going .205/.265/.313 in 182 PAs.  The bench this year should be much more useful.  Whichever of Gose or Davis isn’t playing on a given day gives Brad Ausmus the option to pinch run with a true speedster in the late innings and the other of Avila/McCann are a better option than anybody the Tigers had to offer in 2014.  Left-handed hitting OF Tyler Collins displayed moderate power in Toledo in 2014 (18 HR, .160 ISO) and will compete with Romine and Hernan Perez for the last two roster spots.  23-year-old Perez isn’t much of a hitter, but has a decent glove and is out of options.

What is the team’s collective approach? Do they look to take a large number of pitches? Does the manager put on the 3-0 green light very often? Are players benched or criticized by management for striking out too much? Are they more than usually given to fouling pitches off?

Source: Associated Press

Overall, the Tigers take a fairly aggressive approach, both inside and outside the strike zone.  According to Fangraphs, the Tigers were 11th in swings at pitches outside the strike zone (O-Swing% of 31.7%) and were tied for 5th inside the strike zone (Z-Swing% of 68.0%), and were 5th in first-pitch strike percentage (F-Strike% of 61.3%).  Despite this, the Tigers did not strike out all that often (18.5% K rate was 4th best in MLB), but neither did they walk much, with a below-average rate of 7.1% (20th in MLB).  The walk rate could go up, with Gose having a significantly better walk rate than platoon partner Davis and could really improve if Ian Kinsler’s terrible walk rate in 2014 was just a blip.

Does the manager call for steals and hit-and-runs often? Is the team aggressive in taking the extra base on hits and outs? Do they lay down sacrifice bunts with unusual regularity, or irregularity?

Source: AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

When manager Brad Ausmus was hired at the beginning of the 2014 season, sabrmetrically-inclined fans dared to hope that one of their own might have taken over the team.  Alas, it was not so and Ausmus managed even more “by the book” than his grizzled predecessor, Jim Leyland.  While Ausmus has a reputation as a lover of the bunt, the Tigers actually only bunted 24 times in 2014–well below the American League average.  On the basepaths, the Tigers have gone from a slow-footed, station-to-station team to being almost exactly league average.  This was a significant improvement from the Leyland era.  According to Fangraphs’ Ultimate Base Running (UBR), the Tigers were a very slightly below league average -0.3, good for 16th in MLB.  This is massively better than the 2011-2014 campaigns, where the Tigers were in the bottom 5 twice (at -6.8 in 2011 and -6.2 in 2012) before their worst in MLB showing in 2013 at -12.3.  The team was very aggressive on the base paths, swiping 106 bases (good for 7th in MLB) with a very slightly below average success rate (72%).  Rajai Davis stole more bases in 2014 (36) than the entire 2013 Tigers team (35).  The Tigers were quite average in taking the extra base, coming it with an exactly league-average extra-base taken percentage of 40%.  This, once again, is up from dead-last in MLB in 2013 (33%).

Where are the pressure points? Who might need to be replaced? What will their optimal batting order be? Is it likely to be adhered to?

The biggest pressure point is Father Time, who will eventually catch up to the Tigers, and injury concerns.  Cabrera and Victor Martinez each come into 2015 with significant injury concerns and are at an age where those concerns will only grow.  Cabrera was hobbled for most of 2014 with a bum ankle and is still recovering from off-season surgery.  Victor hurt his knee working out and might be ready for opening day.  Iglesias missed all of 2014 with stress fractures to both legs and Alex Avila has had significant problems with concussions over his career.  It seems every foul ball finds some way to punish Alex.

Avila draws most of the ire of fans who think batting average is the most important baseball statistic.  Avila’s outstanding 2011 season was fueled by an unsustainable .366 BABIP and, as noted above, most of his so-called struggles afterwards (i.e., hitting like a league-average catcher with plus defense) come from his inability to hit LHP.  Avila’s production should increase significantly with McCann taking the majority of plate appearances from lefties.  Getting McCann significant PAs is also important because of Avila’s significant history of concussions.

As everyone knows, the Tigers farm system leaves a lot to be desired.  The one fairly close to MLB-ready hitting prospect is 23-year-old outfielder Steven Moya.  Moya had a monster year in AA Erie In 2014, hitting 35 HRs and turning in a .276/.306/.555 battling line.  While the power is real, the plate discipline is most assuredly not.  Moya struck out 161 times in 549 plate appearances against AA pitchers.  That was good for a 39.3% K rate, versus a miniscule walk rate of 4.2%.  And the K-rate was not an aberration, he struck out 27.3% in high-A in 2013 and 22.9% in low-A in 2012.  If Moya can learn even a tiny bit of plate discipline, he could be an MLB force.

If I were Brad Ausmus, I would be much more handsome.  I would also hit Miguel Cabrera 2nd to maximize his plate appearances.  Unfortunately, that is not going to happen.  However, Ausmus has suggested a willingness to hit Avila 2nd against RHP, which would at least give the Tigers a better shot to have runners on base in front of Cabrera, Martinez, Martinez, and Cespedes.  But Ausmus will also stick with Cabrera-Victor-J.D. in the middle of the order, which is not the most efficient use of Cabrera since the #3 hitter comes up with 0 on and 2 outs more often than the 4 or 5 spot.

Optimal Tigers Lineup:

Vs RHP                           vs LHP

2b Ian Kinsler                   CF Rajai Davis

C Alex Avila                     2B Kinsler

RF J.D. Martinez              RF J.D. Martinez

1B Miguel Cabrera            1B Cabrera

DH Victor Martinez           DH Victor Martinez

LF Yoenis Cespedes         LF Cespedes

3B Nick Castellanos          3B Castellanos

CF Anthony Gose               C James McCann

SS Jose Iglesias               SS Iglesias

 

Are park factors a large or small consideration? Does the team’s park favor a particular batter type or handedness? Will the schedule or overall level of competition they face vary widely from the league average?

Source: Joeyblsphotography.com

When Comerica Park opened in 2000, it had a well-earned reputation as a pitcher’s park that significantly depressed home runs.  Three years later, the fences were moved in and now Comerica is pretty neutral to slightly favorable to hitters.  Fast hitters love spacious Comerica, which is perhaps the best triples park in baseball.  Which is good, since triples are the most exciting offensive play anyway:

 

tigersSource:  fangraphs.com

 

Doubles are a bit depressed in Comerica, probably because of the extreme triples effect.  The park plays more favorably for right-handed hitters in doubles (102 versus 93) and triples (126 versus 122).  Comerica is slightly more favorable to lefties for singles (103 versus 101 for RH hitters).  The Tigers schedule should be fairly tough, as the entire AL Central except for the Minnesota Twins are a competitive team.

Run Prevention – AD

What is their balance between pitching and fielding? How is responsibility for keeping runs off the board apportioned?

Good one. The answer has to be pitching, of course, and starting pitching in particular. Except that the answer is hitting, because the Tigers are pretty good at hitting, and if they can just keep doing that, there’s no way their opponents can score.

True to The Narrative, the Old English D on the Tigers’ uniforms last season did not stand for “Defense.” The team posted the third-worst Defensive Efficiency Rating in 2014, to the surprise of nobody who’d ever seen Victor Martinez, Miguel Cabrera, or Nick Castellanos move laterally. 2015 should be better, though, and not just because 2014 literally could hardly be worse: Castellanos reportedly made fielding a focus of his offseason work, which couldn’t hurt given that he was the worst defensive third baseman in baseball last year, and shortstop acquisition Jose Iglesias, who is pretty good, is back after taking a year off to allow his shins to heal. (If Igelsias doesn’t prove durable enough, his likely backup will be Andrew Romine, who even PECOTA realizes essentially is the second coming of Ramon Santiago. At least Romine can hit .227 (.214 TAv) from both sides of the plate?)

The outfield should be somewhat better from a defensive perspective too, at least in comparison to the post-trade-deadline version (that being the one without Austin Jackson). Torii Hunter still had guts and heart in 2014, but those alone do not sustain outfield defense in a man entering his age-forty season. New Tigers Yoenis Cespedes and Anthony Gose promise to improve the team’s defensive profile in the outfield, and oven-mitt-wearing speedster Rajai Davis, who played a serviceable center field following Jackson’s departure, will be ready to spell Gose, his former Toronto teammate, whenever the latter’s empty bat becomes completely untenable in the lineup.

Is the starting rotation generally a flat one, or one dominated by one or two aces? Does the manager allow his starters (or some subset of them) to go especially deep into games? Do the starters share common characteristics, or are there any philosophies the team’s pitching coach seems to drill into each?

For the last few seasons, the Tigers featured perhaps the deepest starting rotation in all of baseball. The 2013 edition of the rotation — Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, Doug Fister, and Rick Porcello (not to mention Drew Smyly appearing in sixty-three games out of the bullpen) — was particularly solid, posting a collective 18.5 WARP.

 

Ready for golf today! #oldschool @davidprice14 and Tim Melville

A post shared by Justin Verlander (@justinverlander) on

 

2015 represents a paradigm shift for Detroit from a starting pitching perspective, however. At least at first glance, the staff composition looks more typical: an ace (David Price) on top, two decent arms to follow (an aging Verlander, who’s trending in the wrong direction, and Sanchez, who can’t seem to stay healthy enough to bring his skills to bear over the entirety of a season), and, new for this year, two inconsistent guys (Alfredo “Big Pasta” Simon’s masquerade as a starter in 2014 saw his numbers sour as he turned in a sub-replacement-level performance, and Shane Greene, coming off a decent rookie season with the Yankees, was described as “an average pitcher — in Triple-A” with a major-league “path for . . . success [that is] very rarely traveled”) whose true identities are unknown, even if their ceilings probably are.

The just-described conventional view of Detroit’s “more typical” starting rotation applies perhaps too much gloss to the men on top. In particular, Verlander merits closer attention. His velocity– perhaps his most obvious strength– was down last year, and his strikeouts followed suit. His ERA and FIP both were up, the former by more than a run. As a result, he contributed 1.5 fewer wins (by WARP) in 2014 than he did in 2013. None of that is good, yet it’s worth remembering that Verlander still turned in the seventeenth-best starting-pitching season of 2014, better than James Shields (who actually is about a year older than JV) and Madison Bumgarner. Maybe not “elite,” but the newly thirty-two-year-old kid is alright. Plus, to get Tigers fans feeling even better, PECOTA predicts a very solid rebound season for Verlander in 2015:

 

 

There’s little doubt that Price will be the team’s ace in 2015, though, not the least because his in-game endurance– he averaged almost a full inning pitched more per start than any other Tigers starter when he joined the team last July– should steal a few innings from Detroit’s notoriously rickety bullpen.

Rosy projections for Verlander and contract-year Price aside, there’s no question that, with Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello, and Drew Smyly gone, the Tigers are “a team that’s unquestionably weaker in the rotation” than they were in 2014.

When the middle and late innings come, does the manager have a long or a quick hook? Does he often make multiple pitching changes during innings? Is he aggressive and aware of matchups? Is the bullpen strictly hierarchical? Is it dominated by a set-up man and closer, or are there a large number of usable, interchangeable arms?

Speaking of that bullpen, ever since the departures of Jose Valverde, Joaquin Benoit, and Octavio Dotel (note: Wow!), the relief-pitching scene in Detroit has been reliably unreliable. Almost as frustrating is the combination of ineffectiveness and inattention that describes the team’s attempts to repair its most gaping liability. What’s new for 2015? The heavily utilized Joba Chamberlain (and his happily repaired elbow), who saw, by a clear margin and excepting 2010, the busiest season of relief work in his career, is gone, as is the lately ineffective thunder of Phil Coke. UPDATE: Coke is gone, but Chamberlain is back with the team on a one-year, major-league deal.

The Tigers added Tom Gorzelanny last month to offer Blaine Hardy and, especially, Ian Krol, some much-needed competition for the two lefty reliever spots. Other than that, the team’s approach seems to be: hang on and hope it can’t get any worse. De jure closer Joe Nathan‘s back, as is Joakim Soria, who joined the Tigers in July and promptly turned a career year into the wrong kind of career year. Reclamation project Joel Hanrahan was giving it another go, and while he entered spring training with a status that might nicely have been described as “medium,” hope proved fleeting: the team released him upon learning that he’ll need a second Tommy John surgery. In the category of relievers not nicknamed Jo, there’s the young, hard-throwing Bruce Rondon, who can touch 100-plus mph without much touch. Expect a smattering of the Tigers’ infamous prospects to fill in the gaps, and place your bets now on how soon any member of the starting rotation converts to a relief role.

Does the team deploy a large number of infield, or even outfield, shifts? Do they turn double plays well? Does the outfield control runners on hits into the gaps and on flyouts? Are any players out of position? If so, is it strategic, or does the team overestimate the defensive abilities of those players? Are any players on the bench used as late-inning defensive replacements?

A year ago, manager Brad Ausmus expressed skepticism about defensive shifts, and sure enough, only two teams shifted less than the Tigers in 2014. Ausmus is singing an ever-so-slightly-different tune this year, though, and it sounds like we can expect conservative infield and outfield shifting in 2015.

Does the primary catcher frame pitches well? Does he control the running game? Does the backup complement him, either by being excellent all-around or by doing things the starter does poorly?

If by “primary catcher” you mean the team’s manager, then the answer is an emphatic yes. In fact, by the latest and greatest pitch-framing metric, Ausmus is the best pitch framer to play during the period (1988-2014) for which the skill presently is measurable, and he has a sizable lead on the competition. If you meant Alex Avila, though, then the answer probably is no. Avila’s framing added some value in 2014; it just wasn’t much. He was better from 2011-2013, so last season could’ve been an uncharacteristic blip. It also could be a sign that his worrisome knack for sustaining head trauma behind the dish is beginning to adversely affect his receiving. He did post the eighth-best caught-stealing rate last season, though, the only top-ten performance of his career. With the exception of August 2011, Avila doesn’t hit too much, but his overall defensive profile is considered good enough to allow him to maintain a firm grasp on the starter’s spot. A redesigned helmet hopefully will give him the opportunity to stay there.

Meanwhile, rookie James McCann looks to have the inside track on the backup spot. He hit well in the minors and, like non-teammate Smyly, is a product of the University of Arkansas.

Does the team’s home park impact their ability to prevent runs in any unique way? Is the park factor drastic? Is the square footage of the outfield significantly off the MLB norm?

See Mark’s detailed comments above. Comerica Park does not have extreme park effects, although the outfield is considered spacious. Jackson, and Curtis Granderson before him, made their names as rangy centerfielders here, and although each has his flaws, Gose and Davis now have the opportunity to prove their defensive merit patrolling that same turf.

Final Prediction: 87-75 record, first place in the American League Central.

 

Follow Mark on Twitter at @sharkmgs.

More of AD’s work may be found at ALDLAND.

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7 Responses to “Season Preview Series, Part 19: The Detroit Tigers in a Box”

  1. Andy Evans

    Good stuff Mark! I hope to God they move Simon back to the bullpen – and lose Romine. Keeping Collins make sense, although I still wishfully hope for a “surprise” from out of nowhere. I know, Wynton Bernard !! (his name reminds of some lesser lights such as Sir Gene Kingsale, though?) 🙂

    Reply

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