Posted by: Larry Smith Jr. | February 5, 2011

Orioles Add Vlad

Year    PA    BA    OBP    SLG    wRC+    WAR
2010    643    .300    .345    .496    121    2.6
2009    407    .295    .334    .460    106    0.8
2008    600    .303    .365    .521    128    2.6
Career    8469    .320    .383    .563    139    61.7

 

The Baltimore Orioles continued their off-season long quest to add punch to their offense yesterday when they agreed to a one year deal with Vladimir Guerrero reportedly worth $8 million.   This seems like something of an overpay for Guerrero when Manny Ramirez recently signed for $2m and Jim Thome for $3m, both players who are probably preferable buys to Guerrero at this point.  In addition, Guerrero was really the only remaining viable DH bat on the market.   That said, it seems that starting with the Mark Teixeira courtship the Orioles have been virtually begging players to take their money to play in Baltimore, and given the fact that they only gave Guerrero a one year deal and did not give it out until February when the free agent cupboard was essentially bare this type of overpay is not the most catastrophic expenditure of funds.

Guerrero is coming off of something of a bounceback 2010 season after looking close to done in the wake of the 2009 campaign.  It is highly possible that this was something of a mirage — His road wOBA in 2010 was .344, or exactly one point higher than his 2009 total in Los Angeles — However, the smaller confines of Camden Yards offer similar offensive advantages as Arlington, with a wOBA factor of 105 for right handed batters according to stat corner, as opposed to Texas’ 106.   In addition, the home run factor for right handed batters in Baltimore is much higher than that of Texas, so the move to Camden could be a boon to Guerrero’s power, which is his largest remaining skill.   Still, Guerrero is clearly not the player he once was at the plate, proved late last season that he is no longer a viable outfielder, and remains a prime candidate to completely fall apart this year, so the Orioles are taking some risk in forking over $8m to him.   If it works out for them they will sport a dangerous revamped lineup with legitimate power threats in Guerrero, new third baseman Mark Reynolds, Luke Scott, Nick Markakis, and (possibly) new first baseman Derrek Lee.   If not, they will be down $8 million.  While an overpay, it seems like a decent risk for a team that hopes to put a competitive product on the field after years of being also-rans in the toughest division in Major League Baseball.  With a revamped lineup and the further maturation of some rotation arms, there are reasons for the Orioles to believe they can compete in 2011 and if Guerrero is productive he could help push Baltimore to its first winning season since 1997.

Posted by: Larry Smith Jr. | December 31, 2010

My Thoughts on the 2011 CAIRO Projections

The Replacement Level Yankees weblog has published CAIRO projections for the 2011 season based on moves that have happened to date. CAIRO is a very strong projection system, but I have alot of questions about these projections. Of course, it is only late December. Some commentary I have on the projections are as follows:

* – Only 98 wins for the Red Sox? Projection systems (all of the credible ones) notoriously project a league of more parity than what ever actually exists, but I have a hard time seeing double digit wins for Boston unless they are ravaged by injury even worse than they were last year. Especially if they sign Brian Fuentes, as the rumor is going.

* – In general there are not enough wins in the AL East and too many in the rest of the AL and MLB for that matter. Boston, Toronto, and Baltimore have all improved — And I’d say they all improved dramatically. They also happen to be the returning third through fifth place teams in the division. I think Tampa got much worse, but they had the 2nd best record in the MLB last year, so “much worse” for them still should be around the 87 win range that they’re projected. I think the Yankees got marginally worse. 89 wins sounds about right. The net effect though, is that I have a hard time seeing a team with less than 76 wins in this division. CAIRO has two of them.

* – On that same note, I have a hard time seeing where Cleveland is going to win 74 games, or where they’ll win more games than Toronto or Baltimore. Even with the unbalanced schedule, Cleveland looks to be an awful baseball team heading into 2011. I’m not entirely convinced they’ll win more games than Kansas City. I could easily see both Cleveland AND Kansas City piling on 95+ losses. I think the drop-off between the 3rd best team in the AL Central and the 4th is dramatic, even moreso than what CAIRO projects. Which brings me to…..

* – How can they have Minnesota still winning this division? To be fair, it’s close. The projection is 86 wins, Chicago 85, and Detroit 84. That’s essentially saying it’s a three way toss-up. I don’t necessarily disagree with that but the ordering is still curious. I think Chicago has to be the front-runner right now. Detroit #2. Minnesota #3. The Twins lost half of their bullpen, Nathan is coming back from injury, they lost their entire middle infield, they lost Pavano (though he could theoretically re-sign), and they have not re-signed Thome. And even if they do, it’s unclear he’ll be as good next year as he was this past year. No way is Minnesota the top dog the AL Central, at least not looking at it at this point in the season.

* – I don’t think the Rangers are seven games better than Oakland, but in general the AL West looks about accurate.

* – I don’t think the Phillies are eight games better than the Braves, but in general the NL East looks about accurate. I think that the Braves are the second best team in the National League and have every bit of a shot at 92+ wins.

* – I’d switch the Cardinals and Reds in the NL Central and I’d narrow the gap between CIN/MIL/STL. I think that division is a three-way toss-up between those teams with an edge to Cincinnati based on the depth of their pitching staff and their decent offense. They’re a more well rounded team than St. Louis or Milwaukee. But really I think all three are very close, instead of the five win gap between first and third that CAIRO projects.

* – I like the Dodgers in the NL West but ultimately I have no problem with what they’ve projected. That’s a tricky division to call. I like the low wins totals though; There are no good, complete teams in the NL West.

One more thing about the NL Central: Even though Cincinnati is a more well rounded team, they don’t have the high end talent that Milwaukee and St. Louis does.

Milwaukee has Fielder, Braun, Greinke, and Gallardo. St. Louis has TWO of the three best position players in the entire MLB over the last five years (Pujols and Holliday) along with Colby Rasmus, Chris Carpenter, and Adam Wainwright. Cincinnati has Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips. That’s it for their high end talent. The thing is, both Milwaukee and St. Louis have ALOT of flotsam on their roster and it is everywhere. Milwaukee’s rotation is decent beyond Greinke/Gallardo, but their bullpen is something of a mess and lineup holes abound. St. Louis’s entire team beyond the five players I named above is a joke. Cincinnati has five legit starting pitchers plus Aroldis Chapman. None are as good as Milwaukee+St. Louis best, but they’re all decent. They have some so-so players at places on the field (shortstop and center, to name a couple), but they have very few spots on their roster reserved for players who are flat out bad, and they have some depth. It is for that reason that I like them over Milwaukee and St. Louis, because I think they make better use of their ENTIRE roster.

Posted by: Larry Smith Jr. | September 28, 2010

A Vision for the 2011 Tigers: What Would I Do?

As the Tigers finish up the final week of their season — The first purely mediocre season they’ve had in recent memory (This is their first time finishing in third place since 2000 and the first time they’ve won at least 80 games but less than 85 since 1991….or at least it will be if the White Sox don’t collapse and the Tigers don’t win at least five of their final six games) — I’d like to take my first shot at talking about their off-season before the playoffs happen and capture my attention, and before the off-season actually happens and more rumors and actual actions fly.

Prior to last season I was of the impression that the 2009-10 off-season would be one of the most exciting in recent memory, and to some extent I was correct. The hugely successful three way deal which sent Curtis Granderson to New York and Edwin Jackson to Arizona in exchange for Austin Jackson, Max Scherzer, Phil Coke, and Daniel Schlereth was the biggest move, but the signings of Johnny Damon and Jose Valverde both made waves in reshaping the roster for 2010 and beyond (except in the case of Damon with regard to the “beyond”).

Tigers General Manager Dave Dombrowski did a great job of trying to retool the team on the fly, swapping out older players like Placido Polanco, Marcus Thames and to a lesser extent Curtis Granderson (I would not classify Granderson as an “older player”, but he was replaced by someone six years his younger) and inserting younger replacements on the roster while signing Damon to a one-year deal, he accomplished making the roster much younger and avoiding the pitfall that besieged the Tigers (and Pistons, to use another sport) of the early 90s who held on too long to their aging stars and watched the team disintegrate, while still fielding a competitive product that stood a puncher’s chance at winning what appeared to be a weak division. Indeed, it seemed like they may have had the “punch” that gave them the chance when they held a division lead as late as the week of the All-Star game, but ultimately injuries and the lack of depth of a team that really wasn’t built for a full-blown “win now” championship run caused them to fall woefully out of the race by the end of July.

In spite of what appeared to be an exciting off-season before us in 2009/10, it appears that the 2010/11 off-season will trump it considerably. The Tigers have ALOT of money coming off of their payroll for 2011, and owner Mike Ilitch has already come out in the media and pledged to put it all back into the team, something that was a concern for those people like myself who felt that the Tigers were taking such a loss on the team that they may scale back on the payroll while they rebuild. Suddenly, there is a real possibility that in the span of one off-season, a team with arguably more money to spend than any other (including the Yankees) can build a lasting contender. There is a World of opportunity for a shrewd General Manager to make a major impact, both with signings from a generally mediocre free agent class that has a few big names, and with trades where they can extract players who have become too expensive with their current teams or have fallen out of favor. Of course, nobody except the guys in the Tigers war room know what is going to happen, but it’s my intent here to analyze what position they’re in and offer up some suggestions and observations about how they may go about building a contender in 2011. As of this instant I’m highly confident in their ability to build a team that can be championship class as soon as next year (2011), though that confidence can be subject to waning with a few ill-timed moves here and there.

One key to future success is to continue to infuse the team with younger players. The age and/or injury-prone nature of the team has been a constant problem in the years following their pennant run, as they’ve been plagued by severely ill-timed injuries (Bonderman/Sheffield/Guillen, 2007) and players having their careers fall off of a cliff (Sheffield/Renteria/Jones 2008, Guillen/Ordonez 2009, Damon 2010). Fortunately with their many free agents this year they have a prime opportunity to get a youth movement going, as their only 30+ players under contract next year are Carlos Guillen (35), Jose Valverde (33), Brad Thomas (33), and Ramon Santiago (31). Of course as wholly veteran teams generally fall to injuries and declining performance, wholly youthful teams tend to fall to erratic performance, thus making it important to have a generous mix of veterans, prime-aged players and younger players, with a particular emphasis on having prime-aged players. To that end, the Tigers are fairly well positioned, as many of their better players are prime-aged, and on the lower-to-middle ends of their prime age to boot: Miguel Cabrera (28), Justin Verlander (28), Max Scherzer (26), Joel Zumaya (26, though his health is never guaranteed), and Phil Coke (28). Austin Jackson, who has played well this season but whose improvement next year shouldn’t necessarily be assumed as a given, will be 24. Intriguing prospect Casper Wells will be 26. In terms of the players that are already under contract for next year, the skeleton is in place for the Tigers to be able to nimbly mix and match players of varying ages and levels of experience to provide a good mix, not just for 2011, but for the seasons to follow.

    Budget

The following players are due to be free agents after this year (2010 salary in parentheses):

OF Magglio Ordonez ($18m)
SP Jeremy Bonderman ($12.5m)
SP Dontrelle Willis ($11.7m)
SP Nate Robertson ($9.6m)
OF Johnny Damon ($8m)
3B Brandon Inge ($6.6m)
3B/SS Jhonny Peralta ($4.6m Plus a $250k buyout if his 2011 option is declined: $4.85m)
C Gerald Laird ($3.95m)
RP Bobby Seay ($2.475m)
SS Adam Everett ($1.5m)
SP Kenny Rogers ($750k)

Gross Salary Savings: $79.925m

The following players are under contract and due relatively significant raises. (Amount of raise in 2011 salary in parentheses). Because I have no idea of how contract negotiations may work out or arbitration decisions, I’ve taken semi-educated guesses as to how much each player would get in arbitration raises in reaching the “salary raises” figure. It could be wildly off-base, but I’m also trying to use the least conservative number possible, a number that would leave the Tigers paying the most. This would create the “worst case scenario” effect, if my guesses are in the neighborhood of correct.

SP Justin Verlander ($6m)
SP Rick Porcello ($511k)
UT Ryan Raburn (arbitration from $438k)
SP Armando Galarraga (arbitration from $435k)
RP Brad Thomas (arbitration from $1m. Could be non-tendered.)
RP Zach Miner (arbitration from $950k. Could be non-tendered, but unlikely.)
RP Joel Zumaya (arbitration from $915k)

Salary Raises: $14.561m

Net Salary Savings: $65.364m

So give or take one or two million dollars, the Tigers will have approximately 65 million dollars to spend on new players in the coming off-season. Of the players coming “off of the books”, six had significant roster spots on the 2010 team: Magglio Ordonez, Jeremy Bonderman, Brandon Inge, Jhonny Peralta, Gerald Laird and Johnny Damon. Add to those spots their pre-existing needs for a shortstop and potentially another starting pitcher, and you have eight roster spots to fill with that $65m either from within your organization or otherwise. At an average of $8.1m available per open 25-man roster spot, in theory a decent-to-good player could be acquired for each and every one of those spots. Of course, things don’t always play out in reality as they do theoretically, and the nature of the market along with the fact that the Tigers are not the only team looking to improve will certainly hamper their quest to fill each of those eight spots with a quality player.

    The Tigers Free Agents

Ignoring the players that the Tigers have already released and also ignoring Bobby Seay, whose career is in doubt and if retained would almost certainly be paid the league minimum or near it and signed to a minor league deal, the Tigers have six free agents that they will have to make decisions on.

Magglio Ordonez

.375 wOBA, 135 wRC+, 2.5 WAR (Fangraphs)
303/378/474, 12 HR, 3.1 UZR/150

Ordonez signed a five year deal with two vesting options for the Tigers in 2005 and has provided value roughly in line with his overall contract over the course of it, even if said value has been provided unevenly (relatively poor years in 2005, 2006, 2009; Very good year in 2008 and 2010 pre-injury; excellent year in 2007). The second of his vesting options failed to vest when he went out for the season with an ankle injury in July, thus freeing the Tigers from having to overpay him to the tune of $15m for the 2011 season.

While Ordonez — Who will be 37 next year and was the oldest member of the 2010 Tigers team — Is clearly no longer a $15m player, he still does things well at the plate. He hits for average, has a good batting eye to take walks when needed, and has some power even if much of it has diminished over the years (.171 ISO in 2010 is nothing to do cartwheels over, but it is nothing to shake a stick at either). His UZR of 2010 smells of a mirage, but I think it is fair to say that he plays a passable defense relative to his level of offensive production. Word has trickled out via Miguel Cabrera that Ordonez would be interested in returning to the Tigers for 2011, and the Tigers ought to be interested in retaining him — On their terms. Ordonez was paid handsomely by the Tigers for six years and while one would hardly blame him for seeking out the best market for his services, the Tigers should not allow him and his status as a fairly popular player to hold them hostage to making sound financial decisions for this team and its payroll. A deal similar to the one offered Johnny Damon last off-season seems fair. 1 year, $8m. No doubt there will be many suitors for Ordonez’s services. The market for aging outfielders has been limited in recent years, as Damon found out last off-season and Bobby Abreu discovered before him. However, it is hard to see where teams would consistently pass up on a player who can post a .378 OBP with moderate pop. Should the Tigers find their backs to the wall, adding an option year with some form of performance based vesting option shouldn’t necessarily be off the table, so long as that option year (2012) carry a low dollar value. They absolutely should avoid an all-out bidding war, and if some team is willing to give him two guaranteed years or a crazy dollar amount, it would be in their best interest to bid Ordonez adieu and seek out replacements in the trade or free agent (read: Jayson Werth) market.

Jeremy Bonderman

29 G, 28 GS, 166 2/3 IP, 111 K (6.0), 56 BB (3.0), 5.18 ERA, 1.42 WHIP
4.87 FIP, 4.66 xFIP, .303 BABIP, 1.0 WAR

Bonderman is one of the sadder stories floating around the Major Leagues at this time, to the point that I find it interesting that his story isn’t recounted more often, in the way that it has been for similar pitchers who have had their careers robbed or severely crippled by injury. In the final two years of his long-term deal Bonderman’s contract has appeared as a white elephant, but at the time the ink dried on it, it seemed to be an incredibly shrewd move of a committed organization. Bonderman was a 6 win starter as a 24-year old in 2006 (read: By far the best starter on one of the best staffs in baseball) and signed his extension that off-season. As a young pitcher with high potential, he went into 2007 and was even more dominant than he had been in 2006. By the Summer he’d clearly established himself as one of the premier young pitchers in Major League Baseball. Around that time, I often argued that he was already better than Justin Verlander would ever become (oops). He walked nobody. He struck out many. And he was fearless on the mound, relentless attacking hitters with that devastating slider. And shortly thereafter, came the horrible pitching. And soon after that, the revelation that he was pitching with injuries. And the injuries persisted for two and a half years until we were left with this: A 2010 season in which he bested 150 innings for the first time since 2007, and for it all was a one win pitcher, the worst performance of any full season in his career. During this year he’s talked about retirement if he isn’t resigned by the Tigers or doesn’t sign to a team nearer to his roots on the West Coast (he’s from Washington State), and to me there is a certain sadness about a player who seemed so clearly destined for greatness being close to cooked at age 28. Certainly the many millions he made will help him get over it, but it isn’t good to see. For the Tigers part, he could still be a decent end-of-the-rotation pitcher on a good team and still has a K/BB of 2. But it just seems like it may be time for the organization and its once budding superstar to call it quits with one another. Bonderman has already said that he doesn’t expect to be re-signed. He may turn up on another team and I hope he gets his stuff back, but it seems likely that Bonderman’s days as a Tiger are over. If he could be signed to a low-cost and/or incentive laden deal, it might be worthwhile to bring him back.

Johnny Damon

.341 wOBA, 113 wRC+, 1.8 WAR
272/357/403, 8 HR, 4.8 UZR/150

Damon was the second-oldest player on the 2010 Tigers and performed admirably. Other players seemed to like him as did the management, and as a fan he was a fun player to watch and to have as part of the team and organization that I root for. I was sure to give him a personal standing ovation in his final home at-bat of the 2010 season. He was essentially what we thought he was. An above average hitter who no longer is a great one. A guy who works deep into counts. A guy who plays the Outfield decently but is hampered by a ridiculously weak arm. A player whose overall power isn’t so great but is fairly decent for a guy who hits early in the lineup as he tends to. I would not like the Tigers to retain both Damon *AND* Ordonez, but if they fail to retain Ordonez I could see a spot for Damon on next year’s team if he is willing to take a similar deal to return. I would make Ordonez a priority because at this stage in his career he is a better player, but Damon could be useful, particularly if the Tigers make bigger free agent and/or trade splashes that give them a real contender. Still, Damon shouldn’t be a priority and really should only return to the Tigers if better options don’t reveal themselves.

Brandon Inge

.312 wOBA, 93 wRC+, 2.0 WAR
248/322/392, 11 HR, 4.3 UZR/150

Midway through the last decade, Inge managed to take advantage of Chris Osgood’s tour of other non-Detroit hockey teams to seize the mantle of “Most polarizing player in Detroit sports.” Beloved by many and reviled by equally as many, the impending conclusion of his contract is sure to cause tears in some circles and alcohol-infused binges of euphoria in others. His supporters will tell of his great play at third base and his critics will tell of his maddening check-swing strikeouts. Both are correct. What is true is that Inge has provided mostly surplus value over the course of his contract with Detroit and has been a roughly league average third baseman whose biggest attribute has been his strong defensive player. He has also offered power at the bottom of the lineup with relative consistency, having posting an ISO of .160 or better in three of the last five years (and four of the last seven). Of course, one of the years that he has failed to do so is this year, which also happens to coincide with his worst defensive season since the Tigers moved him to full-time third base, and to coincide with his age 33 season.

While his wRC+ of 93 is the best he’s achieved since 2006, it is still below average and would be difficult to carry in a starting role if his glove were to continue to decline. Betting on a bounce-back year with the glove at age 34 would be a very poor bet indeed. Inge has always been a versatile player, capable of playing both corner infield positions, catcher, and all of the Outfield positions. While his catching days are assuredly just about all over, he could be useful to the Tigers as a roving utility player. When he last played outfield his fielding numbers were comparably impressive as his performance at Third Base. If he’s willing to accept such a role, there is certainly room for a player who fits that description in 2011. He could essentially be the new Don Kelly, only much, much better at playing baseball. He is currently the longest tenured Tiger and in spite of his many detractors he is more popular than he is unpopular and may be the most popular member of the team among fans. The organization would do well to do what they can to create a situation where he can come back, but it would require flexibility on Brandon’s behalf as well. Performance such as that which he provided in 2010 is simply not the Third Base performance that a championship team should get. If his pride is such that he believes he should be a starter, the Tigers ought to wish him well as he seeks a contract with a team that believes the same. If he is willing to accept a roving utility role, the Tigers ought to welcome him back with open arms, even providing a two year deal if necessary to get the job done. He hits well enough and has enough power to be a highly valuable backup player, but his time as a valuable starting player has either run out or is at the witching hour, and the Tigers should be sure that he isn’t their starting Third Baseman when the clock strikes twelve and he becomes a pumpkin, which really could be as soon as next season.

Jhonny Peralta

.313 wOBA, 95 wRC+, 1.7 WAR
252/314/401, 15 HR, -5.8 (3B) 6.5 (SS) UZR/150

It would be better to re-sign Inge for $4-6m and run the risk of him turning into a pumpkin on their watch than to pick up Jhonny Peralta’s option. Repeat: It would be better to see a Pumpkin with an Inge jersey manning third base next year, than a $7.5m player with a Peralta jersey.

This isn’t to say that there’s no room for Peralta to return to Detroit. There is a hole at Shortstop and he could be a useful reserve player. There is no room for both Peralta *AND* Inge to return, however. The organization, if it is serious about building a winner, would have to choose between them. And it may very well choose neither, but it cannot choose both. Peralta has only had two seasons in his career that have been as good as an average Brandon Inge season, and Inge was a roughly league average player. Peralta’s an inferior fielder and a roughly equal hitter. He’s younger, but being less talented overall and not necessarily “young” (he’ll be 29 next year) makes age irrelevant. Then again, the lack of legitimate options in free agency at shortstop could back them into a corner and force them to pick up his option. A tough pill to swallow that would be. They’d be best served seeking out the trade market to try and make an improvement here.

Gerald Laird

.255 wOBA, 54 wRC+, -0.3 WAR
207/263/301, 5 HR, -2 DRS

There were reasons to believe that with a reduction in playing time that was sure to come in 2010, Laird could improve on his light hitting performance from 2009 to boost his 2010 output into the range of “acceptable”. Unfortunately, the opposite happened, as he spun out of control from terrible to atrocious. Literally being just over half as good as the *average* MLB hitter, he also saw a decline in the way he played behind the plate as well, a combination that led to him being a negative wins player in 2010. As a fan, I still like Laird. Drunken family brawls over NBA player’s wives aside, he comes off as an affable guy, and he plays noticeably hard. He runs well for a catcher and seems to always give it his best shot. No one who watches the games regularly can accuse Gerald Laird of being a quitter or loafer. No one who pays their money to go to games can say that Gerald Laird didn’t go all out to make sure they got what they paid for. Unfortunately, his best shot is really, really, really bad, relative to other Major League players. He’ll be 31 next season, and while the catcher free agent ranks are awfully thin and the Tigers don’t really have much in their farm system behind him, they’d be better taking a gamble on any number of random free agent catchers than bringing back Laird. By dumb luck it seems likely that an improvement on a .255 wOBA can be found.

Summary: And those are the six free agents. For my druthers, in a situation where all goes both well and realistically, the Tigers would retain Ordonez and Bonderman; Shedding Damon, Inge, Laird, and Peralta. I’d really like to see Inge return in that utility role, but he’s a highly prideful player who as far as I know (and I don’t know the man personally, nor am I privy to speaking to him) based on his behavior while in Detroit, would be loathe to accept a demotion from the starting role without seeing if he could start for another team. With that in mind, I lean towards saying he probably shouldn’t be back if we’re being realistic. It also is the case that they may *have* to keep Peralta due to the lack of available options at Shortstop.

Free Agents on the Market

    3B Adrian Beltre

    .393 wOBA, 145 wRC+, 7.1 WAR
    323/368/558, 28 HR, 15.1 UZR/150

    Those who know me personally know that I’ve been on the stump for Beltre for a long time. In fact, I advocated for the Tigers to pursue Beltre during last off-season. I am such a believer in his talents, that I was fine with him supplanting Brandon Inge at third base while Inge was still under contract, though I understood why the Tigers wouldn’t do such a thing. This year, Inge is not under contact, so there is no true impediment for the Tigers in pursuing Beltre. To be sure, the season he is having this year would not likely be replicated in Detroit and should the Tigers sign him, no Tiger fan should expect a year like this from him. However, his oft-cited struggles in Seattle were very much overblown on account of the depressing effect that SafeCo Field had on his numbers. Indeed, Beltre is a career 253/307/409 hitter in 1,524 PAs in SafeCo, rates that are well, well below his career numbers. As a Mariner, he consistently posted road numbers that were superior to his home numbers.

    Beltre’s Road wRC+ with the Mariners:

    2005: 95
    2006: 111
    2007: 122
    2008: 129
    2009: 95

    It’s worth noting that Beltre suffered through various maladies in 2009. It’s also worth noting that Brandon Inge — The incumbent Tigers third baseman — Posted a wRC+ of 110 in 2004, and that was a career high. The second best was 101 in 2005. Even if you look at Beltre’s hitting performance as a whole, he’s topped 108 in four of the last six years. When you excise the “SafeCo factor”, you suddenly have a player who has been better at hitting than Inge in every single year since 2006. So even the “disappointing hitting” Beltre is better than the incumbent. Beltre is also a better fielder than the incumbent. For as much value as Inge has brought to the Tigers with his glove, Beltre has been consistently better year after year. As Inge’s glove has continued to decline, it only has made the gap between their fielding talents wider. To boot, Beltre is younger. 2011 will be his age 32 season.

    While it would be foolhardy to expect Beltre to repeat his hitting performance of this year — The second best of his career — It would be more than reasonable to expect ~110 wRC+ performance out of him, which would be a dramatic improvement over what the Tigers have been getting from Inge in the last five years. He would also be an improvement in the field, which would help out Tiger pitching. This would do alot to shore up what has been consistently a black hole in the batting lineup without making a defensive sacrifice. In analyzing what was wrong with the 2009 Tigers, I cited that one of the organization’s problems is that they had too many one-dimensional players (defense only or offense only) and not enough two-way players. Beltre is a true two-way player. He is getting older but is younger than the best freely available option and dramatically better. He is worth overpaying for. Give him a contract for four years (and perhaps some form of vesting option(s)) and leave the dollar amount blank. Let him sign it. Shore up your third base. Use your monetary advantage (and the fact that the team with the biggest alternative monetary advantage, the Yankees, don’t have a need at third base) to outbid all suitors. Give him the “dumb money”. Get Beltre. This should be their top priority. Between the dearth of third basemen in the farm system, the general lack of availability of talented third basemen at any time — Be it the present market or future markets — And the Tigers pointed need to improve the offense, Beltre fits all of their needs perfectly.

    RF Jayson Werth

    .395 wOBA, 146 wRC+, 4.9 WAR
    294/387/527, 26 HR, -5.5 UZR/150

    There is no doubt, that Werth gains by playing half of his games in Citizen’s Bank Park. However, he is a devastating middle-of-the-order presence currently in his mid-30s who would add some much needed punch to a Tigers lineup that is lacking in that department. While his offensive numbers would likely take a step down in Detroit, he ought to be an upgrade over what is currently at the position and would allow for Magglio to slide into a DH role if he is retained (although it would appear that Magglio is a better defender than Werth, it seems unlikely that the younger player signing his first big free agent contract would do so to become a DH while the older player plays the field). In tandem with Beltre, the Tigers offense becomes considerably more dangerous with Jayson Werth in it.

    C Ramon Hernandez

    .354 wOBA, 118 wRC+, 2.6 WAR
    300/367/436, 7 HR, 0 DRS

    Hernandez has a vesting option for the 2011 season, but will fail to reach it. It required that he play in 125 games and he has only played in 93 with a week remaining in the season. He is coming off of one of the best seasons of his career, and there is no way he repeats a .354 wOBA in Detroit if he were to sign. However, he’ll be 35 next season and is the kind of veteran catcher that organizations like to have aboard. He’s an adequate defender and even if his hitting returns to what for him is “normal” (From 2007-09 he was remarkably consistent, putting up a line of 258/324/387 during that time. In the three seasons that comprised that time span, his numbers didn’t vary from that line much from year to year.) it would represent a dramatic improvement over Gerald Laird. His age and ability would allow him to split time with Alex Avila and allow the latter to develop while still being available to provide quality play behind the plate. The Reds are going to the playoffs this year and he was a part of the Oakland championship-less juggernaut of the early 2000s, so by the time he hits free agency he’ll also have the overrated-but-valuable-to-organizations “playoff experience”, both recent and extensive. Not including what may happen this year, he’s already played in 22 playoff games and gotten 79 plate appearances. Hernandez would be a solid, relatively low-cost option for the Tigers to boost their catching position.

    C John Buck

    .339 wOBA, 112 wRC+, 2.5 WAR
    274/307/482, 19 HR, -3 DRS

    Buck was famously one of the key players that Kansas City acquired in the Carlos Beltran deal, and then famously reviled as he failed to live up to his promise — Only to put up a career year in Toronto this year after Kansas City finally gave up on him. There are as many reasons to believe that Buck turned a corner in 2009 and built on it in 2010 as there are to believe that 2010 is a mirage, but it seems fairly reasonable that Buck could provide a level of performance much better than that which the Tigers received from Gerald Laird over the past two seasons. Next year is his age 30 season and unlike Hernandez (and this is the main reason why I listed Hernandez above Buck as being a more desirable player to pursue) may require a lengthier and more expensive contract in order to acquire. It’s also possible that there will be more teams in line for his services. While he has been in the league as long as Hernandez nor does he have the playoff experience, he has now played 70 or more games in six seasons and 100 or more games in five and has 697 games in the big leagues, which would qualify him as a legitimate veteran. If they cannot acquire Hernandez, they would be best served by then turning their eyes to Buck.

    SP Ted Lilly

    29 G, 29 GS, 186 2/3 IP, 157 K (7.6), 42 BB (2.0), 3.71 ERA, 1.09 WHIP
    4.40 FIP, 4.22 xFIP, .259 BABIP, 1.9 WAR

    The Tigers have not had a true left-handed pitching threat since Kenny Rogers retired, and Lilly would be a perfect signing for them given the needs of their team and the construction of their payroll. Lilly is certainly on the back half of his career, but he’s not necessarily “old” and hasn’t shown that he’s due to fall off of a cliff. Unlike Cliff Lee, he likely can be signed for a shorter term, which would minimize things such as injury risk and decline in performance. He also would allow the Tigers to reliably organize their payroll long term. Signing (or attempting to sign) someone like Lee to an expensive long term deal could hamstring their payroll for many years to come, especially if things go wrong. Lilly could likely be signed to a contract that would expire before players deemed integral to the Tigers’ future who play the same position — Like Porcello, Scherzer, and perhaps even Andy Oliver — Begin to get prohibitively expensive. A two or three year deal for Lilly gets him off the books in time to pay those guys, who will by that time be in their mid to late 20s (depending on who the conversation centers on) and will likely be better players to spend money on. In the meantime, Lilly would give the Tigers a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter. He has not walked many since moving to the National League, but in his last tour of the duty in the AL this was not the case. Still, he strikes out a respectable number of hitters and doesn’t give up an inordinate amount of hits. It would give the Tigers a legitimate lefty in the rotation and could keep them from pushing Oliver along too quickly — Or allow the two to team up in the rotation should Oliver be deemed ready next Spring. A two or three year deal in the low double digit million dollar range would not be out-of-line.

    CF Coco Crisp

    .360 wOBA, 129 wRC+, 3.2 WAR
    279/342/438, 8 HR, 20.2 UZR/150

    Crisp has a team option for 2011 and the Athletics would be foolhardy not to exercise it, but it’s possible that they may not based on Crisp’s injuries this season and their own slew of strong Outfield prospects, as well as his price tag ($5.75m) and their own payroll constraints. If they don’t, the Tigers should be first in line. Crisp is a very injury prone player and it is likely that he will not play a full season. Keeping that in mind, the Tigers have Outfield prospects (like Ryan Streiby and Casper Wells) who may be able to step in should an injury befall Crisp. In the meantime, Detroit can use whatever Crisp can give them. Such a signing would likely be predicated upon getting him to agree to move to either Left Field or Right Field (which could be a deal breaker) in order to not displace Austin Jackson, but when healthy Crisp is an elite caliber fielder with decent pop who can hit from both sides of plate. Signing him would give them a left-handed bat with power (though not BIG power) to put in the middle of what would be a greatly right-handed hitting lineup. Crisp will be 31 next season and would likely not require more than a two year deal to sign due to his perpetual injury issues. So long as the expectation is kept low — That he will only get into roughly half of the team’s games — He could still be a useful piece for a contending team, and the Tigers ought not let injury concerns scare them away.

    RP Jason Frasor

    67 G, 61 1/3 IP, 64 K (9.4), 27 BB (4.0), 3.67 ERA, 1.37 WHIP
    3.16 FIP, 3.88 xFIP, .331 BABIP, -0.11 WPA, 1.0 WAR

    Frasor is a former Tigers farmhand who was traded to Los Angeles in the deal to acquire Hiram Bocachica, and then later traded to Toronto for Werth. Since then he’s spent the last six and a half years as a solid reliever/sometimes-closer for the Blue Jays with periodic control problems and a strong ability to strike out the opposition. He lost a bit of velocity this year and along with it effectiveness on his fastball, though he was also the victim of misfortune on batted balls. With Joel Zumaya’s health forever in question, Frasor would give the Tigers a legitimate right handed back-of-the-bullpen threat to set up for Valverde should injury strike again. And if it doesn’t, it only makes the bullpen stronger as a whole. Frasor will be in his age 33 season next year.

    RP Grant Balfour

    55 G, 53 1/3 IP, 54 K (9.1), 17 BB (2.9), 2.36 ERA, 1.11 WHIP
    2.76 FIP, 3.82 xFIP, .288 BABIP, 2.16 WPA, 1.1 WAR

    The hierarchy in Tampa has already indicated that they may make drastic payroll cuts, and that would definitely mean that there’s no room for relief pitchers that could make upwards of $3-5m/yr., such as Balfour. There’s room for him in Detroit. Like Frasor, he’s 33, and he also has big time strikeout ability that has been demonstrated consistently over the years. A bullpen that adds he and Frasor to the mix suddenly becomes one of the scariest — Especially for RHB — To face in the American League.

    Summary: Obviously the above also ignores the possibility of the trade market, which is so dynamic that it is difficult to dissect with any degree of realistic accuracy. Three names that could be available for any number of reasons include CF Colby Rasmus, 3B Mark Reynolds, and SS Stephen Drew. Should Rasmus become available, he automatically ought to be the Tigers first priority (ahead of Beltre and in place of Crisp), and the Tigers ought to essentially be willing to trade everything short of Porcello for him. Dealing Oliver *AND* Turner for Rasmus should not be off the table. Rasmus is a young, cost-controlled player who is already very good and left-handed. He would be a perfect fit for the Tigers in both the short and long-term. It is more likely that the Cardinals will recognize that Rasmus is too valuable to trade and will smooth out their differences with him during the off-season. Even if he does become available, it seems that virtually every team would be looking to deal for him and the Tigers don’t have as much to offer as many other teams would, so it seems rather unlikely that Rasmus would be in Detroit next year under any circumstance.

    Reynolds should only be an option if they cannot acquire Beltre. He is a boom or bust player offensively who is fairly young (28 next season), slightly below average defensively, and overall average offensively. There are reasons to believe that he will improve this year and reasons to believe that he will trend downwards. He is not getting paid all that much and would certainly be cheaper to pay than Beltre, though also a far lesser player.

    Drew’s came up frequently at the deadline. Acquiring him would allow them to jettison Peralta. Drew is younger and has been thus far roughly equal in production. Drew would also be cheaper than Peralta, though he could potentially be expensive to acquire in trade.

    Beyond those three names, it is difficult to speculate about the trade market, but it is imperative for the Tigers to be creative and dynamic. In the theoretical World where they followed my general outline, their opening day 25 man roster could look like this:

    CF Jackson
    LF Crisp
    DH Ordonez
    1B Cabrera
    RF Werth
    3B Beltre
    2B Guillen
    SS Peralta
    C Hernandez

    C Avila
    UT Raburn
    IF Santiago
    OF Wells

    SP Verlander
    SP Scherzer
    SP Lilly
    SP Porcello
    SP Bonderman

    RP Zumaya
    RP Perry
    RP Coke
    RP Miner or Thomas
    RP Balfour
    RP Frasor
    CL Valverde

    Players such as Brennan Boesch, Scott Sizemore, Will Rhymes, Ryan Strieby, Charlie Furbush, Andy Oliver and Armando Galarraga could all be on standby in Toledo in the event of an injury or injuries. Perhaps some arms could be signed to minor league deals in order to safeguard against bullpen injuries as well. This is not a team without holes — In particular it seems that defense/range at the middle of the infield could be a severe problem and there still isn’t enough left-handed offense — But it is a very strong team with a good offense, decent defense, good rotation (that is especially good at the top) and downright scary bullpen. Ordonez, Lilly, Hernandez, and Guillen would be the only excessively old players. It’s entirely within the realm of imagination that even after all of those moves they could still have money left over to pursue someone at the trade deadline if needed. This is a Tigers team that could compete with any other for a division title and more.

    It is likely wishful thinking to believe that one team is even willing to shake up the roster enough to make seven free agent signings of 6-year free agents in one Winter. Or able to. Free agency is not like the general store, where you pick a player off of a shelf. Other teams are making offers and players have preferences and minds of their own. But it certainly can be afforded if they truly intend to spend all or most of the money coming off of the books, and they could strongly upgrade the team without getting too old or even hamstringing themselves on too many players. What they actually do is yet to be seen, but what has been laid bare here, is my vision of what a successful off-season might look like.

Posted by: Larry Smith Jr. | September 9, 2010

Austin Jackson’s Unusual March Towards History

Earlier in this season I wrote a piece about Austin Jackson and his prospects for the remainder of the season, during which I cautioned against undue optimism on account of his unsustainably high Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) of .514. I argued that he would need to make some adjustments in advance of the time when the number eventually fell into the more normal range for Major League players, otherwise his batting average — And along with it his On Base Percentage and Slugging Percentages — Would plummet into a region that would be unacceptable for a starting player in the Major Leagues.

I made the declaration based on an assumption that was more than reasonable: That Jackson would regress to a level of performance more typical of an average Major League player. The one thing that I did not count on was the possibility of Jackson maintaining what was very close to a historic pace — A pace that sets him apart from any other Major Leaguer in the last 85 years.

Entering play today Jackson’s BABIP sits at .415. The Tigers are playing right now and thus far Jackson has struck out four times and walked once, meaning that the number remains .415 because he has yet to put a ball in play. In my prior article on the matter I noted that no player in the last three years has posted a BABIP higher than .394, which David Wright did last season. Today I dug a little deeper and decided to see when a player last posted one above .410. The answer was so far in the past that I extended the research to simply looking at all players who have posted a BABIP at or above .400 since 1900. The results showed that Jackson generally has played his way into a rarified air — Assuming he maintains this pace through the end of the year. While there is still alot of time for that number to fall below .410, it seems that it would take a total collapse at this point for it to fall below .400.

Since 1900, only fourteen players (not including Jackson) have posted a BABIP at or over .400 in a season where they had enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. Those 14 players have done it a combined total of 21 times, with Ty Cobb (6), Rogers Hornsby (2), and George Sisler (2) being the only three players to have ever done it more than once. Of those fourteen players, twelve either are in the Hall of Fame, will be in the Hall of Fame after they retire, or would be in the Hall of Fame if they weren’t barred from being in it. None of those fourteen players achieved the feat as a rookie. Digging even deeper than that, of these twenty-one times that the .400 BABIP mark has been topped, only six of them have happened since 1930. It last happened in 2002.

That is just for .400. When you raise the threshold to .410, it becomes even rarer of a feat. .410 has only been reached eight times before by six different players. Ty Cobb (3) is the only player to have done it more than once. All six players who have done it are in the Hall of Fame. The last time a player posted a BABIP of .410 or greater was in 1924 — Eighty-six years ago.

This is what the list of players looks like, along with what each player did with the balls they didn’t put in play. In bold are the players who achieved the feat from 1930-on:

BABIP

Name

Year

BA

HR

K

BB

.423

Babe Ruth

1923

.393

41

93

170

.422

George Sisler

1922

.420

8

14

49

.422

Rogers Hornsby

1924

.424

25

32

89

.416

Ty Cobb

1922

.401

4

24

55

.415

Ty Cobb

1913

.390

4

31

58

.415

Austin Jackson

2010

.305

3

145

42

.414

Harry Heilmann

1923

.403

18

40

74

.412

Ty Cobb

1911

.420

8

 

44

.411

Nap Lajoie

1901

.426

14

 

24

.409

Rogers Hornsby

1921

.397

21

48

60

.408

Rod Carew

1977

.388

14

40

64

.404

Jose Hernandez

2002

.288

24

188

52

.403

Roberto Clemente

1967

.357

23

103

41

.403

Manny Ramirez

2000

.351

38

117

86

.401

Joe Jackson

1911

.408

7

 

56

.401

Ty Cobb

1912

.409

7

 

43

.401

Ty Cobb

1919

.384

1

22

38

.401

George Sisler

1920

.407

19

19

46

.400

Heinie Zimmerman

1912

.372

14

60

38

.400

Ty Cobb

1917

.383

6

34

61

.400

Bill Terry

1930

.401

23

33

57

.400

Luke Appling

1936

.388

6

25

85

 

 

Note that the chart was made before today’s game began. Jackson now has 149 strikeouts and 43 walks.

What does it mean from the standpoint of being a laudable achievement? Well, it certainly has some form of meaning. Most of the guys on that list are bonafide Hall-of-Famers. As a statistic BABIP is most frequently used almost as a form of litmus test to see if a player’s numbers are “for real”. While it is something of a misnomer to say that it “measures” luck, it often is a form presentation of the role luck plays in getting hits. This is more often the case with pitchers, who in all but the rarest of cases have no control over their BABIP’s. Hitters have been shown to have far more control over it, but there is still a large degree of luck involved in hitting the ball to where the fielders can’t field, and so it retains some of the same function of “measuring luck” even when applied to hitters. Generally you’ll find line drive hitters and speedy players near the top of the BABIP lists because those are skills (not luck) that heavily influence a hitter’s BABIP (the league batting average on line drives is consistently over .700) and Jackson has alot of both. It also can be influenced by hitting alot of home runs (which are not balls in play), getting alot of walks (ditto), and/or getting alot of strikeouts (ditto again). All things considered, when you can play an entire season and keep it over .400, it certainly runs well past the point where it is TOTALLY the dominion of luck and it should be lauded as a truly rare achievement.

What does it mean from the standpoint of evaluating Jackson the player? That part is considerably more tricky. Due to the fact that he is a rookie and has no previous Major League track record upon which to potentially glean conclusions, there is still a great deal of guesswork to be done with him. Is Jackson the type of player that will consistently run high BABIPs? It would seem so. He has the skill set (speed, line drive hitting, and a propensity for strikeouts, as mentioned earlier) and his career BABIP as a minor leaguer was .361. However, even a number as high as .361 — And that is really high — Is still 54 points below what he’s doing right now. If his current BABIP were .361 then his batting average would be .266, which is 39 points lower than where it currently sits. Given his below league average walk rate of 7.2% and below league average ISO of .109, if he were hitting .266 for the Tigers this year he would be a considerably less valuable player than he is at the moment. So the question really isn’t whether or not Jackson will continue to run high BABIPs, because the answer almost certainly will be yes. The question is if he can continue to run absurdly high (.390+) BABIPs. Even if we acknowledge that much of what has him on this historic pace is indeed skill, it seems to be a large leap of faith to believe that he will become the fourth player in the history of the Major Leagues to repeat a .400+ BABIP and the first to do so since the 20s. Then again, it seemed in early May to be a large leap of faith to believe that he would maintain an astronomical BABIP all season long and thus far he has done so, so anything is theoretically possible.

More likely the case is that he is simply having a special year. In the off-season he will have to improve both on his power numbers and his walk rate in order to become a player similarly as valuable to the Tigers as he has been this year. This may not be as difficult of a task as it sounds. Jackson was a prospect with a high pedigree and there is always reason to choose the more optimistic route with such players. He also has shown that he has skills that can already play in the Major Leagues — That he belongs — And therefore it is easy to believe that he can make the necessary adjustments in his game. Finally, he is only 23 years old, fairly young for a Major League player. Usually for a player to make it into a starting role so young — Especially for a .485+ team as the Tigers appear destined to become — He’ll have the ability to improve, perhaps dramatically, in the coming years. If he comes back next year doing the same things he is this year, it is likely to produce different and most likely worse results. Many fans would perceive this as him taking a step backward when more likely it would simply be that he DIDN’T take a step forward.

One of the alarming things in the above chart is looking at the K/BB rates of the players on the list. Only four of them had a K/BB rate over 1, including both of the players who are NOT Hall of Famers — Heinie Zimmerman and Jose Hernandez. Hernandez’s 3.62 K/BB is the highest of any of the list, though Jackson currently sits at 3.47. It is also striking that everyone else on the list aside from Jackson and Hernandez had their batting averages over .350, while Jackson will struggle to stay over .300 and Hernandez ended at .288. It seems that the Hall of Fame caliber players — With the caveat that many of them played in a dramatically different era of baseball — Kept their K/BB rates low while posting their high BABIPs, while Jackson is more comparable to Jose Hernandez in this regard. For this reason, it may be necessary to hold the phone before getting too excited about the fact that Jackson is sharing the stage with some of the greats of the game.

Having said that, regardless of the reasons why, whether it is luck or skill, and whether his K/BB rate represents something of a reality or a mirage, the fact of the matter remains that with three weeks left in the baseball season Austin Jackson is on pace to achieve one feat that hasn’t been done in eight years (BABIP of .400+) and another that has been done in eighty-six years (BABIP of .410+) and seems almost certain to become just the fifteenth player and seventh in the last eighty years to post a BABIP of over .400. That is something to watch for over the final three weeks and an interesting below-the-surface story of this 2010 season.

Posted by: Larry Smith Jr. | July 26, 2010

Make The Playoffs and the Sky Is The Limit

As we’ve moved closer to the trade deadline in this baseball season there are talks in every community where the team isn’t hopelessly out of the playoff race about whether each team is a buyer or a seller.   Just a few days ago I covered my opinion on the matter with regard to my own local team (a piece written before a pair of extremely devastating injuries befell said team).   If the talk in other places is similar to the talk around here, there generally is some form of evaluation going on amongst fans and presumably front offices around whether or not a team would have what it takes following a move to make a serious challenge for the playoffs.   One of the things that I’ve noted listening to the conversations as they tend to have gone locally have featured a faction of fans that believe that the Tigers are a team that, even if good enough to make the post-season would not be good enough to advance in the post-season.

Frankly, this is a train of thought that is very intuitive.   It would be fair for anyone to note that the Tigers don’t fit anybody’s definition of a “championship caliber” team, and no reasonable trade (or even series of trades) would turn them into one this season.   Based on the multiple experiences of watching one or two poor teams turn a playoff berth into a championship, and watching several very good to great teams get whisked out of the championship picture, I tend to abide by the standard that “if you get in, you can win”.   Part and parcel with this line of reasoning is the idea that even the best teams don’t win all the time, they often lose series, and sometimes they lose series to very bad teams.   This second argument is indisputably true, but even as I’ve verbally made the point many times over I’ve never actually looked at it closely myself to see exactly how true it was (or wasn’t).   That led me to think about matchups between the very best and very worst teams.   How often did the worst teams beat the best teams in a given year?   The answer?   Not often, but often enough that it shouldn’t be unfathomable to anyone.

For the purpose of looking at this question I limited my sample to the post-strike era of 1995-present, mostly because of the ability to acquire recent and relevant results in addition to the fact that interleague play makes it so that there is some degree of apples to apples comparison going on.   While there are still discrepancies between leagues with regard to talent level, the fact that the teams are at least playing each other during this time period gives slightly more meaning to matchups between the best and the worst teams.   In addition to looking at individual series, I looked at the number of games won and lost.    There were a few years where the samples I took were particularly noteworthy:

  • - In 2007 the Red Sox and Indians both finished tied for the best record in the league.  I used the results for both of their matchups against the Devil Rays.
  • - In 2002 the Devil Rays and the Tigers both finished tied for the worst record in the league.  I used the results for the Yankees matchups against both teams.
  • - In 2000 the Cubs and Phillies both finished tied for the worst record in the league.  I used the results for the Giants matchups against both teams.
  • - In both 1997 and 1999 the Braves finished with the best record in the league but did not play the team with the worst record.  In each case I selected the worst team that they played that year, which in 1999 was the Marlins, while in 1997 was two teams with identical records: Again the Cubs and Phillies.

 

After looking at all of this information (I included Yankees vs. Orioles matchups from this season), I found that since 1995 there have been 69 series comprising 210 games pitting the league’s worst team against the league’s best team and that the “worst” team only won 7 of the series while splitting 2.   As far as the individual games are concerned, the “best” team posted a record of 161-49 in the matchups.   At two ends of the spectrum were the 1996 Indians and the 2000 Giants.   The ’96 Indians won all 12 games they played against the ’96 Tigers, sweeping all four series between the two teams.   The 2000 Giants struggled against their generally hapless foes, however.    This was a 97 win team, while the ’00 Phillies and Cubs both only managed 65 wins during the regular season.   Both teams still managed to give the Giants a hard time.   The Cubs won 2 of 3 series against the Giants that year (the only team in the sample to beat a “best” team twice), getting swept in the series they lost and posting a 4-5 record overall.   The Phillies won 1 of the 3 series while getting swept in the other two, posting a 2-7 record overall.   The ’00 Giants 12-6 record against the “worsts” was the worst of a “best” team that played more than 3 games against a “worst”, and they were the only team to lose as many as two series in a year, much less the three that they actually lost.

While the matchups both at the individual level and in the aggregate were generally the blowouts that one might expect, depending on your expectations they also reveal something else: The “worsts” had a winning percentage of .233 in the actual games and .101 in the series (.116 if you count the two split series as a “half win” each).   Both are very poor numbers, but neither would rise to the level of “impossible to fathom”.   Whenever the best team in the league takes on the worst team in the league, essentially the “worst” team has a 1-in-4 chance to take any given game and a 1-in-10 chance of taking an entire 3 game (usually) series.   Scheduling isn’t done so neatly, but if we were theoretically to split up a 162 game season into 54 three-game series, that means that we should expect even the worst team in the league to take 5-6 of those series from the best team.   That seems like a lot to me, when judged against the standard of “possibility or impossibility”.    Also note that it takes eight years for 54 playoff series to be played, although those series are of best-of-five and best-of-seven variety; This format makes so while it would require a lower winning percentage to win the series, it would require beating the heavy odds more frequently than winning a three game series.

If the sample I’ve taken is representative of expectations (and if my math is correct), when the worst team matches up with the best team one would expect about a 13.9% chance that they would win a best of 5 series (with a 1.2% chance of a 3 game sweep) and a 13.1% chance that they would win a best of 7 (with a 0.3% chance of a 4 game sweep).   Considering that in reality they’ve won 10.1% of three game series’ (which would be easier to win) it seems that maybe the theoretical is overshooting the reality just a tad, but not by a whole lot.    With odds like those even the worst team in the league could be expected, if dropped into a playoff-style tournament like the MLB runs, to win a single series at least every other decade or so even if they’re matched up against the best team every time.    There are a few caveats that are specific to post-season play that might drive their odds down fairly significantly — Most notably the fact that the rules and the way teams are managed in the playoffs are quite different than the regular season and many of the backup players and end-of-the-rotation starters that appear in regular season games would not appear in a playoff game (or would only appear in highly specialized roles), which would tilt a theoretical matchup heavily in the favor of a “best” team than a “worst”.    Still, we are looking at the very poles of extremism — Best and Worst — And even when comparing the poles we can see that it is reasonable to think that while the worst team would regularly get trounced by the best, they would also could get lucky and even win an entire series very infrequently.

Given that even the worst teams could achieve this, the odds are exponentially greater that an average or slightly above-average team could do so.   While I haven’t done the analysis to put an exact number on it, just looking at the difference between the best and worst shows that it wouldn’t be an impossibility for the worst, so it certainly wouldn’t be for the #10 or 12 or 15 team out of a 30 team league to “make noise” in the playoffs.   While winning three successive series of a best-of-5, 7, and 7 nature would be a considerably tougher task, it really is true that in this game any team that gets in does have a legitimate shot at a title.   However, the even lesser goal of simply “making noise” — Generally defined as either winning a series or at least pushing the first round series to a fifth game — Is even more likely and attainable than winning a title.

This piece isn’t meant to be pro-buyer or pro-seller regarding your conversation about what your favorite team should do regarding the trade deadline.  There are many lines of reasoning and philosophies you can draw from to make your point regarding that issue.  In the case of my own team I argued for a “stand pat” position.   However, you cannot say that if even if your team makes it to the playoffs, they cannot make noise.  It simply isn’t true.  If you get there, you can make noise, and you might even get lucky and win a title even if you are nowhere near the best team.   You just have to hope that in a given year your team has the spirit (or unique fortune) of the 2000 Cubs come playoff time.

For those with interest, below is the data set that I looked at:

2010: Yankees 10-2 vs. Baltimore; 4-0

2009: Yankees 1-2 vs. Washington; 0-1

2008: Angels 2-1 vs. Washington; 1-0

2007: Boston 13-5 vs. Tampa Bay; 6-0

2007: Cleveland 8-2 vs. Tampa Bay; 3-0

2006: Yankees 13-5 vs. Tampa Bay; 5-1

2005: St. Louis 2-1 vs. Kansas City; 1-0

2004: St. Louis 5-1 vs. Arizona; 2-0

2003: Yankees 5-1 vs. Detroit; 2-0

2002: Yankees 8-1 vs. Detroit; 3-0

2002: Yankees 13-5 vs. Tampa Bay; 5-1

2001: Seattle 7-2 vs. Tampa Bay; 3-0

2000: San Francisco 5-4 vs. Cubs; 1-2

2000: San Francisco 7-2 vs. Philadelphia; 2-1

1999: Atlanta 9-4 vs. Florida; 3-0-1

1998: Yankees 3-0 vs. Florida; 1-0

1997: Atlanta 9-2 vs. Cubs; 3-1

1997: Atlanta 10-2 vs. Philadelphia; 3-0-1

1996: Cleveland 12-0 vs. Detroit; 4-0

1995: Cleveland 10-3 vs. Toronto; 4-0

1995: Cleveland 9-4 vs. Minnesota; 4-0

Posted by: Larry Smith Jr. | July 24, 2010

For the Tigers, What To Do About the Trade Deadline?

With one week remaining until the MLB trade deadline, one of the hot topics locally in Detroit is about what the Tigers should do at the deadline. Should they be buyers? Should they be sellers? Should they do neither? If they buy, who should they buy and at what cost? If they sell, who should they sell and for what return? One of the interesting and humorous tides that such talk has taken has come about due to the Tigers performance immediately following the All-Star break. Detroit lost their first six games following the break (making a total streak of seven losses, including their last game prior to the break) and all fans seemed convinced that the Tigers should give it up and sell while they still could. Two consecutive victories and a White Sox loss later, the popular consensus is that they should be buyers. Funny how that works.

In reality, it seems almost certain that the Tigers will be buyers. Whether the outlet is local or national, their name seems to come up the most often in talks of all kinds. They’ve been rumored to be in on Dan Haren for almost a month now, and even when rumors stated that Haren excluded the Tigers via his limited no-trade clause, it surfaced that the Tigers might promise to pick up the option year on his contract for 2013 in order to persuade him to lift the clause. Stephen Drew has also been rumored in links to Detroit for a month. They’ve been rumored to be in on Ted Lilly, Ben Sheets, and Jose Bautista. Rumors are just rumors, but when there’s smoke there’s usually fire and the Tigers have spent a lot of time smoking cigarettes in front of a bonfire under the “Smoker’s Association of Michigan” building over the last week. The trade that eventually gets done may not involve a big name, but it appears likely that the Tigers are going to make a move of some kind.

But should they make such a move?

It would depend on the nature of the trade, but speaking in a vacuum with endless possibilities ahead I’d lean towards advocating a “stand pat” approach to making deals at this year’s deadline. Obviously if another team can be fleeced or the “perfect deal” works out, then a deal should be made, but the Tigers should not try to force a deal in this spot. While I’m a champion of two axioms that would seem to lend themselves to the “go for it” way of thought (1. Play to win now because you never know when you will again be in position to win. 2. Just make it to the playoffs because playoff competition has almost completely random outcomes and each playoff berth is like the 1-in-8 lottery ticket.), in this specific year with the Tigers as an organization in their specific position I’m less inclined to support making a deal. It appears that Dave Dombrowski is attempting to “retool on the fly” with this team — Essentially making them a younger, more athletic, more versatile team without the lengthy rebuilding phase that would mean a long period of time being uncompetitive. To that end, he’s doing an excellent job, as the farm system appears to be improving and turning out “real” players, even if those players are of the backup variety. Even bringing on legitimate backups is advantageous for a team, and the Tigers seem to be poised to set up for a very strong team of young to middle-aged players in the near future.

In addition to the previous paragraph, this is an above-average but not great Tigers team. They have more than one hole, and moreover, more than one significant hole. They need help badly at Shortstop and Catcher. They need moderate help in the rotation and could use another reliable relief pitcher. While there are players that would help this team, there’s no one move out there that would make them any better than “above average”, which they already are today. The only moves available would make them “a little bit closer to good but still above average”. Conversely, the best moves available have the potential to ruin some of the positive momentum they have going for future years if they deal or jettison some of their younger players and/or prospects in the pursuit of making an above-average team a little bit closer to “good” than “average”.

Finally, barring big moves being made elsewhere in the division, the Tigers as currently constructed are good enough to beat the other above average teams (Chicago and Minnesota) that share the top of the division with them. They are not the favorites, and it is not a prediction, but it is a possibility and more than a small one. They’ve made it this far into the season and only find themselves two games behind the division leader. They’re a team that is too good to “sell” — That would be giving up on this year when they clearly have a chance. However, they’re not really good enough to “buy”, and their future looks too bright to consider risking it to buy when buying would only marginally increase their prospects for winning the division. It seems that if they absolutely had to make a deal, their best shot would come in one of two ways: 1. Making a minor deal of modest consequence. 2. Acquiring a player that would not just be a rental, but someone who could help the team in future years as well. Among players linked to the Tigers, Stephen Drew best fits this mold.

Drew will not be a free agent until after the 2012 season, though this year will be his first arbitration season. He’s 27 years old (entering or currently into his prime years). He’s a shortstop, which is arguably the Tigers greatest position of need. He’s played 150, 152, and 135 games the last three seasons (durable). He hits respectably for a shortstop and is a decent-to-slightly-below average fielder. He certainly isn’t the player that his draft position dictated, but he’s a decent, durable player whose best years may still be ahead of him. He also wouldn’t be a black hole in the lineup and would be a threat to hit for extra bases even if not home runs. Assuming the Tigers could make a deal in which they did not give up too much, a pre-free agency youthful player like Drew would be a deal that would make sense because it isn’t just a move for now, but a move for later as well. Any deal that has the mark of a “for-the-year” rental would be playing with fire, as the future for this team looks bright and the dogfight that has been the 2010 season thus far is not worth falling on the sword for what could set up to be a very good era of Tigers baseball.

Posted by: Larry Smith Jr. | July 11, 2010

Cliff Lee to Texas

On Friday the Texas Rangers landed the largest trading chip on the 2010 trading market when they acquired Left-Handed Pitcher Cliff Lee from the Seattle Mariners along with reliever Mark Lowe (RHP) in exchange for a large package of prospects. The biggest of these prospects was Rangers First Baseman Justin Smoak, who had played 70 games with the Rangers already this season. The other players were Starter Blake Beaven (RHP), Reliever Josh Leuke (RHP), and Second Baseman Matthew Lawson.

This trade followed a rather strange and surprising path and for those of us whose “day jobs” are actually night jobs, the way that this trade went down was particularly shocking. In the morning the deal was being reported everywhere as being almost completely done with Lee going to the New York Yankees. By the evening, it was reported as official that Lee was a Texas Ranger.

The Rangers eventual willingness to trade Smoak, who was rated as their #2 prospect by Baseball America in the pre-season (the Rangers as a team were ranked as having the second best farm system and Smoak was rated as the #12 overall prospect in the Majors) is what got the deal done for them. It is almost universally agreed that Seattle got more for Lee than they traded to acquire him and the Rangers now have a dominant pitcher to anchor their rotation as they attempt to win their first division title since 1999. In short, it appears that the trade will work out great for both sides.

The Rangers got the big prize in Lee, whose time in Seattle seemed to be leading to the most grand of all in a series of outstanding seasons for the Lefty. Three months and 113 innings into the season and Lee has yet to reach double digits in walks for the season, amazingly having surrendered more home runs (8) than walks (6) this year. Carrying the second best K/9 of his career (7.3) and the best WHIP (0.95), Lee had been the best pitcher in the American League in 2010 for a hapless Mariners team and will now bring his talents to Texas. His first start didn’t go so smoothly as he gave up six runs in a complete game effort, including three of the eight home runs he has given up on the season. However, this move is a huge one for Texas and shows clear dedication to gearing up for the second half of the season.

In addition to Lee, the Rangers received Relief Pitcher Mark Lowe. Lowe is out for the year with back trouble but will not be a free agent until after the 2012 season and had a productive 2009 season for the Mariners. A high strikeout pitcher who will be 28 next season, Lowe is a solid secondary piece to acquire in the deal. His health will determine whether or not he works out for the Rangers, but he could prove to be a useful player in the future.

The Mariners for their part in this received Justin Smoak, an extremely highly regarded first base prospect who has drawn comparisons to Mark Teixiera (also a former Rangers farm hand). To date Smoak has been more hype than production, having never shown that plus-plus power potential he is believed to have for any extended period as a professional. The Rangers first round pick (11th overall) in the 2008 draft, Smoak has only 17 home runs in 135 minor league games (599 PAs) and a decent-but-not-eye-popping .461 career slugging percentage (.168 ISO). After posting a 300/470/540 line in 66 plate appearances at AAA this season he was promoted to Texas where he struggled mightily in 70 games, posting a 209/316/353 line with 8 home runs. His debut in Seattle was even more disappointing than Lee’s debut in Texas, as he struck out three times in an 0-for-4 effort. Smoak is still only 23 years old and by no means should be written off at this point. He is a big time prospect and should have every opportunity to live up to the hype over the next two seasons. To date however, he has struggled to be much more than “good” as a pro, and he hasn’t yet shown the ability to be a dominant hitter for power.

The next biggest name acquired in the deal for the Mariners is Blake Beaven, a 21 year old who was the Rangers first round pick (17th overall) out of high school in 2007. As a prospect, Beaven has had a “case of the missing fastball” — He threw harder as a high schooler than he has thus far as a professional — But he still has managed to perform well and some of that lost velocity has returned in the years that have passed since. Beaven debuted at low-A Clinton as a 19 year old in 2008 and had a very strong season showing good control, walking only 1.5 per nine innings en route to posting a 2.37 ERA. He’s kept his walk rate low throughout his pro career and in 2010 has a very Cliff Lee-like one walk per nine innings (12 walks in 110 innings). In spite of his size (6’7, 250), Beaven has not shown himself to be a high strikeout pitcher as a professional, instead performing the part of highly successful control pitcher. He is currently doing very well in AA and could soon find himself in the Mariners rotation. While he is currently seen as someone who would be a mid to back-of-the-rotation guy, his performance record is strong enough for there to be hope that he could be more of a 2/3 type and less of a 3/4/5 type. “Control” minor league pitchers don’t necessarily jump to the Majors as well as power minor leaguers, but until Beaven fails, it seems safe to assume he can succeed. Even if he “only” reaches his current projection, an innings eating mid-rotation player has significant value, especially since Seattle will have him under team control for six full seasons and through almost all of his 20s. Beaven has walked 61 batters in 395 minor league innings while posting a 3.22 ERA. He has also only given up 28 home runs during this time span.

The other two prospects included in the deal are of considerably lower pedigree but have intriguing performance records. Lueke is a relief pitcher who just made it to AA this season. He has been a dominant strikeout artist, posting an 11.4 K/9 in 153 minor league innings while limiting his walks. One of the things to watch out for with Lueke is that he is currently 25 years old and just now has made it to AA. Often old for his league, his strong performance to date could be a mirage. At his age and performance level, he ought to be knocking on the door to a big league job soon to determine if his outcomes to date have been a mirage or indicative of a future piece to a good major league bullpen. Lawson is 24 and has seen the entirety of his time at AA this year. He has moved up the organizational ladder steadily each year to get to that point, having had his best full season to date last year when he posted a 293/350/418 triple slash, which is fairly productive for a middle infielder. In 2010 to date he appears poised to top that, currently holding a 277/371/438 line with 28 extra base hits in 76 games. I’m not sure of the scouting perception of Lawson, but his performance record indicates that he too could have a future, and he is currently doing it at AA.

Of the four prospects that the Mariners received for Lee, one is extremely highly regarded, a second is fairly well regarded, and the others are fringy prospects but have both contributed well and without a hitch at AA, which is generally the dividing skill class between prospects and non-prospects. In fact, all four of the players that the Mariners received either are currently at AA or have played there (Smoak). By contrast, of the three players they unloaded to acquire Lee, only one is currently in AA and only one (a different one) had played as high as AA at the time of the trade. None are doing particularly well right now. Except for Smoak, all of the players that the Mariners received (and they received more of them in terms of quantity) are doing well and doing so at a higher level. Considering that Lee was acquired for the sole purpose of leading Seattle to a division title, once it became abundantly clear that the plan was going awry they did the next best thing and got more for Lee than they gave up to get him. The Mariners definitely came away winners in this trade and in the entire Lee scenario, save for their inability to win the division this year — Something that had very little to do with Lee.

Texas is also a winner in this deal, as they acquired a huge boost to their rotation at no cost to their current roster save for Smoak (more on this in a moment). They dealt from the strength of their deep farm system to acquire him, and if they don’t re-sign him in the off-season or extend him (and it is unlikely they will be able to do either) they could still offer him arbitration and acquire two first round picks for him when he leaves as a free agent, thus helping them replenish some of the lost prospects from their system. Another facet of this deal that seems to have gone unnoticed is that in unloading Smoak the Rangers do in fact have a ready replacement for him at First Base. Chris Davis was the incumbent starter at the position coming into the 2010 season and had a decent sized prospect star himself at one point in time. After three consecutive seasons of .340+ OBP and .190+ ISO to begin his pro career Davis was brought to the Rangers in 2008 and put up a very impressive rookie campaign at age 22, hitting 285/331/549 with 17 home runs in 317 plate appearances. His performance tailed off considerably in 2009 and he got off to an atrocious start in 2010, hitting 170/237/264 before being demoted to make room for “the future” in Smoak. Since his demotion, Davis has hit 354/403/555 in AAA and will now return to reclaim his starting First Base job. Davis is only 24 and is still under team control for five more seasons. It is possible that there is still room for him to grow and show that he was the player he was in 2008 (and in the minor league seasons leading up to it) and not the player he has been at the Major League level in 2010. At any rate, while Smoak was considered the future and a can’t-miss prospect, he hadn’t been playing well this year and if Davis has improved even slightly from his time at AAA he should be able to pull his numbers up to the point where he will out-produce what Smoak was doing for the 2010 Rangers, thus becoming a boon to the lineup for the second half of the season.

This trade, with all of its pieces and the consequences of moving them, appears at the moment to be one of those deals where both sides benefit equally and fill their respective needs. Time will tell how it shakes out — Whether or not the guys Seattle acquire reach their potential, and whether or not Lee can lead Texas to a deep playoff run — But as of this moment it appears that both teams were able to more than adequately meet their needs in this first blockbuster deal of the 2010 season.

Posted by: Larry Smith Jr. | June 19, 2010

On Comparing Boesch to Chris Shelton

When the Tigers elected to call Outfielder Brennan Boesch up from Toledo on April 23rd to take the roster spot of the injured Outfielder/Designated Hitter (now starting second baseman) Carlos Guillen, it appeared at the time to be a case of “calling up the hot hand” with Boesch hitting much better than any of the Tigers Outfield prospects at AAA at the time. Very few could have predicted the breakout that has followed, as Boesch made his Major League debut that very day and went 2-for-4 with a double and has not stopped hitting since then. Boesch’s prodigious power has made him a hit with the fan base, a potential rookie-of-the-year candidate, and the team’s starting Left Fielder. He essentially replaced fellow rookie Scott Sizemore on the roster when Guillen returned, as Guillen was moved to Second Base and Sizemore was moved to Toledo (where he has been doing about as well as Boesch was when Boesch was in Toledo).

One of the main topics of discussion among the sports media, the local sports talk World, and even some fans, is the attempt to answer the question of whether or not Boesch is the next Chris Shelton. Many outside of Detroit may not remember Shelton, but he became part of the city’s sports lore in 2006 when he posted a 326/404/783 triple slash with 10 home runs in the month of April. Even within the full month split, a good portion of that production came in the first two weeks of the season: Through April 17th, 2006 (the two week point of the year), Shelton had 9 home runs in 13 games and a 471/500/1216 triple slash. Shelton’s production played a big role in the team getting off to a good April start, and became legend in no small part because prior to the 2006 season the Tigers hadn’t had a winning season since 1993. However, after that April, Shelton inexplicably declined precipitously and by August found himself back in Toledo as the Tigers acquired Sean Casey in a deadline deal. When rosters expanded in September Shelton returned, but hit .211 in 19 at bats in the month. He would never play another game in Detroit, and in subsequent seasons only played 50 more Major League games in Texas and Seattle, posting a 220/324/325 line and hitting just two home runs.

Given Shelton’s sudden demise and his place in Detroit’s sports lore, much of the talk comparing Boesch to Shelton has been couched in such a fashion as to ask if Boesch’s hot start to 2010 is foreal, or if he’s “just another Shelton”. Many fans have become convinced that Boesch has now performed so well for so long that the Shelton comparison is inadequate, as Boesch has moved past the point of such a comparison. I would agree with the conclusion, but not the premise. The comparison is inadequate, but not because Boesch has moved past Shelton. It is inadequate because he has not yet approached Shelton’s level of accomplishment.

Two paragraphs prior, I spoke of Shelton’s “legendary” 2006 campaign, and in the previous paragraph, I spoke of how the question is being approached. It is my contention that people are not approaching the question correctly. Many of the people — Sports talk types included — That would compare Boesch to Shelton’s 2006 are doing so because the Tigers became “relevant” in 2006, and Shelton’s performance was a big part of that. However, the Tigers did field a team in the years before 2006, and Shelton was a part of two of those teams — The 2004 and 2005 teams. While his hot start to 2006 was both amazing and unpredictable, one could make a strong argument that Shelton was the best hitter on the 2005 Tigers team — A team that had Ivan Rodriguez, Rondell White, Carlos Guillen, and Magglio Ordonez on it — And therefore while the extent of his hot streak was eye-popping, it wasn’t really all that surprising to all of us that followed the 2005 team that Shelton would be the team’s best hitter to start 2006. In forgetting his performance in 2005, the comparison by many of Boesch to Shelton is incomplete.

The Pittsburgh Pirates drafted Shelton in the 33rd Round of the 2001 draft as a Catcher. He signed quickly and immediately hit the ground running as a hitter. Playing at short season A ball Williamsport, he posted a 305/415/402 line. In 2002 they promoted him to lo-A Hickory, where Shelton developed power to go with his ability to hit for average and to take walks, posting a 340/425/587 line with 17 home runs. He started 2003 at hi-A Lynchburg and hit so well (359/478/641 with 21 homers in 95 games) that he earned a mid season promotion to AA Altoona where he struggled a bit (279/331/377) in 35 games. He was named the Pirates minor league player of the year that year, and then was inexplicably not protected on their 40-man roster. That Winter, he became part of a highly publicized debacle in the Pirates organization, wherein they lost several players to the Rule V draft in spite of having spots on their 40-man roster available. The Tigers, having come off the worst season in the history of the American League, had the first pick in the draft and selected Shelton from the Pirates with that pick.

Forced to keep Shelton — A player who’d only played 35 games above hi-A in his career — on their major league roster in 2004, he played very sparingly and struggled mightily when he did play. He came to the plate 56 times and posted a 196/321/283 line. His ability to take a walk was on display, but that was about all. In addition, his knock even in the Pirates organization was that he was more of a DH type. He was not a skilled receiver (and he showed this as a Catcher for the Tigers), not athletic enough for the Outfield, and not really tall or limber enough for first base. He got injured at a point in the ‘04 season and was assigned to AAA Toledo on rehab assignment, where he hit .339 with little power. And such was Shelton’s career prior to the 2005 season. He was a player who’d essentially hit at every level with decent to above average power save for a short stint in AA who did not truly have a field position. Having fulfilled the requirements of his Rule V selection, the Tigers were free to return him to the Minors in 2005 and they did so, putting him in Toledo. It was for the Mud Hens in 2005 that Shelton put it all together, posting a 331/417/569 line with 8 home runs in 48 games. The Tigers called him up on May 31st of that year, and he went on for the rest of the season as the best hitter on their team. This is the true story of Chris Shelton, and his history as a hitter in the minors and his strong 2005 in Detroit are why his sudden inability to hit in the majors was always so baffling in my eyes.

And so essentially when comparing Boesch to Shelton, it isn’t really fair to start at 2006, but more fair to start at 2005. The reason I would not go to 2004 is because Shelton was a Rule V pick that was obligated to remain in the Majors that year, and had barely played above hi-A ball at the time. It seems more fair to start the comparison at the time his “development” was finished — As a 25 year old then-first baseman in 2005 — Than in 2004. Boesch is also 25. The two players really aren’t similar in style at all. Shelton’s history was as a better hitter for both average and plate discipline while being an inadequate fielder. Boesch’s career to date has seen him as a decent hitter for average with poor plate discipline and outstanding power who is an average to slightly above average fielder. Shelton is six feet tall, somewhat pudgy and didn’t really have the “look” of an athlete, while Boesch is 6’4 and almost like Paul Bunyan in appearance.

However, when we compare their starts in the league, it is amazing to see that they have been almost equals offensively:

* – Boesch has played in 45 games to reach 182 plate appearances. He has a 341/390/617 line with 9 home runs, 34 RBI, 13 walks, and 21 runs scored for the Tigers this year.

* – From the time of his call-up on May 31, 2005 to July 24, 2005, Chris Shelton played in 48 games to reach 183 plate appearances. Shelton’s line?: 363/399/591 with 9 home runs, 33 RBI, 9 walks, and 32 runs scored.

They have essentially had the same start, with Shelton getting a few more hits where Boesch walked, and Boesch getting a few more extra base hits where Shelton got singles. Over the remainder of the 2005 season, Shelton would hit 249/331/447 with 9 home runs in 248 plate appearances, which preceded his strong start to 2006.

As Tiger fans, the Shelton experience has conditioned us to be very weary of rookies with exceptional starts, and Boesch has certainly become a fan favorite with not only his great play, but his tendency to come up big in big spots (his WPA this season is 1.9, compared to Shelton’s 1.26 as of 7/24/05, showing that he has many, many more hits in big spots) and therefore many are looking for any reason they can to distance Boesch from the Shelton tag. Unfortunately, to date they are running neck and neck and he will have to perform well for quite awhile longer to accomplish even as much as Shelton did, much less to have move beyond what he accomplished.

On the positive side, Boesch appears to be in much better physical condition and he doesn’t really have the “old people skills” as Shelton did. Players with “old people skills” tend to fade in the league much more quickly. In addition, Boesch is a far more valuable player overall due to his ability to play good Outfield defense. Even if Boesch isn’t as good as he has been playing to date (likely), it still stands to strong reason that he will continue playing good enough to justify a roster spot for many years to come, and he may even have taken the next step in his performance to justify being a starting player for many years to come. One of the fun things about baseball is seeing how players like this develop, and we do not yet know where the “water” is for his level, therefore making it a fun exercise to speculate. However, it is too soon to begin comparing him to Chris Shelton. He still has many months to go before he can pass that mile marker.

Posted by: Larry Smith Jr. | June 8, 2010

Everett Out, Worth In for the Tigers

Immediately following Sunday’s game the Detroit Tigers designated Shortstop Adam Everett for assignment, essentially ending his one-and-a-third year tenure with the team.   This was a move that had to be done.  Everett was a pox on the bottom third of the lineup, posting a batting line of 185/221/247.  Long a lightweight on offense whose presence in the lineup was mitigated by his outstanding defensive abilities, Everett’s defense had also taken a sharp slide this season.  Depending on the metric system used, he was either +1.4 (UZR), -4 (Total Zone), or 0 (Plus/Minus) defensively thus far this season.  All three metrics rate him the lowest that he’d ever been in his career, save for Plus/Minus, which had him as the second lowest of his career.   With his hitting worse than ever before (and it was always bad) and his fielding worse than ever before, the Tigers could no longer afford to carry him on their roster and mercifully designated him for assignment.

Up to replace him is Middle Infielder Danny Worth, a 2007 second round pick whose prospect status was much higher within the organization a couple of years ago but has since dimmed considerably.   While word has trickled out that Worth will likely be the Tigers primary shortstop in the wake of Everett’s release, his true talent is probably of a decent backup and a very low tier starter at this point.   In fact, the Tigers are probably hoping that Worth can become a v. 2.0 of Everett:  Essentially the player that Everett was before he got older and entered his decline phase.   If he can be that player, then he will have some value for the Tigers and would be a mid to low tier starting caliber player.  Consider the following:

* – Everett had 3003 PAs in his career, posting a triple slash line of 243/294/348.  This is terrible.  In fact, since Everett entered the league in 2001, his OPS+ of  66 is tied for the fifteenth worst in the Major Leagues among players who have at least 1000 plate appearances.  If you up the criteria to 2000 plate appearances, it is tied for the fourth worst, and at 3000+ plate appearances, it is tied for the third worst.  In that time, only Brad Ausmus has received as many chances to hit and been a less effective hitter, and only Cesar Izturis has been Everett’s equal.

* – Worth has had 1202 minor league career PAs, posting a very comparable triple slash of 251/317/346.

* – In 2010, Worth has hit 287/330/354 in Toledo in 176 PAs, while also posting a 333/333/333 line in 24 PAs for Detroit during his prior callup.

If Worth can equal Everett’s major league career numbers — And right now this is not a given — Then he can be an effective major league player if he can play strong defense.  His defense has never been in question at any point in his minor league career, and in fact has been a major driver of Worth’s consistent promotions up the professional ladder.  However, that is a big picture appraisal of Worth and his future value, which appears more likely to be as a backup than as a starter.

Smaller picture:  In the here and now Everett was providing nothing to the Tigers on offense or defense.   Worth almost certainly will top Everett’s performance defensively, and while he may be a black hole in the bottom of Detroit’s lineup, he still is likely to outperform Everett offensively, where the bar is set so low.   Worth’s worst season in the minors offensively was last year, when he hit 229/294/296 for Erie (AA) and Toledo (AAA).   As awful as those numbers are, if he even hit like that for the Tigers it would represent a significant improvement over what Adam Everett was providing, particularly if he plays great defense to go along with it.

In the long term, the Tigers are going to need to find a real resolution to their problem at Shortstop, but in the short term, this was a move that needed to be made.  Worth ought to provide a significant upgrade over Everett both offensively and defensively, even if his final offensive numbers are likely to look rather poor.   The Tigers gave Everett — Whose contract was worth $1.5m and was set to expire after this season — A sizable enough time to pull out of his struggles, but it simply appears that time on his career has run out.   This was the right move at the right time.

Posted by: Larry Smith Jr. | June 7, 2010

MLB, Its Many Young Stars, and the 2010 Draft

Today is the day of the 2010 MLB Draft and provides another occasion for teams to restock their cupboards and gear up for future success.  It also provides another round of excitement for fans of Major League Baseball, which really is at a high point right now when it comes to having an influx of young of talent into the league.

Last year Joe Posnanski wrote an article about how there was simply a dearth of great players in his childhood.  He identified his childhood as 1975-1980 and stated that there were many great stars that were leaving their prime or at the end of their careers, but that there were very few true Hall of Fame talents that were having their peaks during his childhood.   On multiple occasions he has offered this tidbit as a reason for the recent spate of mediocre Hall of Famers, hypothesizing that many of the baseball writers that vote for the Hall are about his age and grew up around the same time, and wish to immortalize the stars of their childhood even if those stars don’t truly compare to the stars at other periods in the league history.

For those people whose childhoods began roughly three years ago, they seem destined to have the anti-Posnanski childhood.  Obviously there is some danger in hype, and the history of baseball is littered with high draft pick failures (Brien Taylor, Ryan Anderson), careers that flame out prematurely for any number of reasons (Nick Esasky, Juan Gonzalez), and guys that simply don’t live up to their pedigree (Bryan Bullington, Scott Moore).   However, after a brief lull that followed the retirement and/or decline phases of the careers of many 90s and early 00s stars such as Barry Bonds, Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, et al., as well as the moderate disintegration of the steroid cloud that hovered over the era in which they dominated, it appears that there has been a legitimate reintegration of young star power into the league.  It is a list so long that it can turn into a lengthy trail of bullet points:

* – Tim Lincecum, a (soon-to-be) 26 year old with two (deserved) Cy Young Awards, two strikeout titles (both by rate and raw number) who currently leads the league in strikeouts.  Still only in his fourth full season.

* – Joe Mauer, a 27 year old with one (deserved) MVP, three batting titles (as a catcher!), a year when he won the “triple slash crown” (2009), who has walked more times than he’s struck out in four consecutive seasons, and who is already in top 25 all-time for runs saved defensively at Catcher in spite of only having been in the league for five full seasons heading into this year.  I’ve written before that I think he has already done enough to get into the Hall of Fame if he retired tomorrow.

* – Prince Fielder, a 26 year old former Home Run champion that already has three 30+ homer seasons, two 40+ homer seasons, and a .542 career slugging percentage to match with an OBP north of .380.  In his four full seasons he has only missed twelve games, meaning fans can essentially count on seeing him play every day.

* – Felix Hernandez, a 24 year old starter who already has established himself as a durable starter with electric stuff.  He has over 8 K/9 in his career and an ERA south of 3.50.  In his four full seasons he’s never pitched less than 190 innings.

* – Justin Verlander, a 27 year old fireballer with one strikeout title whose durability is even greater than that of Hernandez, Verlander has pitched four full seasons and only once had an ERA greater than 3.66.  He’s a former (deserved) Rookie of the Year.

* – Miguel Cabrera, a 27 year old slugger that already has a home run title and five 30+ homer seasons.  Cabrera has two .400+ OBP seasons, and in six full years in the league has never slugged below .510.  He has only missed 19 games in his six full years, which means that like Fielder fans can count on seeing him in the game every day for the most part.

* – Hanley Ramirez, a 26 year old slugging shortstop who has two 50+ steal seasons, a batting title, two .400+ OBP seasons, and three 20+ homer seasons to his credit.  In four full seasons in the league, Ramirez has only slugged under .540 once.  He also won a (deserved) rookie of the year award in 2006.

The list could go on, and note that nobody on that list plays for the Tampa Bay Rays, whose entire team is virtually composed of young future stars, particularly in the rotation.  Simply in 2010 alone the list of first-time Major Leaguers to hit the scene is amazing.   Jason Heyward was a much ballyhooed prospect coming into the season.  He opened the year on Atlanta’s opening day roster and hit the pavement running and has not yet stopped.  The 20 year old is 272/400/522 with slightly below average defense.   Mike Leake went straight from college to the Majors at age 22 with no minor league experience at all and has yet to register a loss as of the first week of June!  I’m well on the record for not caring for/paying attention to wins and losses as pitcher statistics, but not recording a loss for a regular member of the rotation this deep into June is impressive on its own, and doing so in your first year in the Majors having never even played in the minors before is exponentially more impressive.   Leake’s “official” record is 5-0, and he’s actually been worth slightly more than two wins to the resurgent Reds with his 2.22 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, and 3.1 BB/9.  He’s even proven that he can hit Major League pitching:  Leake is 417/440/458 in 29 PAs.  Detroit’s Austin Jackson is 23 years old and has gone 325/369/439 thus far in his first taste of Major League action while playing above average defense.

Neftali Feliz played last season but this is his first full year in the bigs and he already leads the league in saves (Another statistic that I don’t really support, yet it is still impressive that a rookie could lead it), a K/9 of 9.6, and a K/BB of 4 while allowing less than a base runner per game.   The Rangers also promoted Justin Smoak roughly a month ago.  The Giants promoted Buster Posey last week and this week we will see the debuts of Stephen Strasburg in Washington, Mike Stanton in Florida, and Brad Lincoln in Pittsburgh.

Simply put, this appears to be a dawn of a new era of stars in Major League Baseball and it is truly a refreshing thing to see.  The anti-Posnanski kids will have no shortage of great players to grow into adulthood watching as they continue on with their careers and let their career marks get etched into the books.    Which brings us back to draft day today, where the Washington Nationals, again with the top pick in the draft, are almost certain to select 17 year-old phenom Catcher Bryce Harper.   Harper is another so-called “can’t miss” player whose bat is considered to be so advanced that they’re considering moving him to the Outfield simply to get him to the Majors even faster.   If Harper is all that he’s cracked up to be — And it may take as long as ten years before we find out — The fact that he is so young gives him a leg up on the quest to retire as the best player in a quarter century (post Bonds era), a quest that would include essentially all of the above mentioned players.   Whether he does or doesn’t, until he either establishes himself or flames out, he provides another confluence of hope and hype that gives baseball another potential big name to add to their improbably growing list of young A and B list stars.  It is definitely a good time to be a baseball fan right now.

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