I Want Candy…To be a part of the future in Detroit

(For educational purposes a key is included at the end of each section for all sabermetrics and non-routine lingo referenced in this article. For further reading on what these stats are, what they mean and how they are calculated please visit https://library.fangraphs.com/getting-started/)

Jeimer Candelario is steadily improving. (photo by Alexandra Simon)

July 31, 2017 – The Chicago Cubs were on a win-now playoff push with the corner infield positions anchored by Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. Meanwhile, prospect Jeimer Candelario was in AAA for the Iowa Cubs, nearly ready to play every day in the big leagues. With his positions blocked on a team looking for immediate upgrades Candelario would have to get his opportunity with a new club. The Detroit Tigers acquired Candelario and Isaac Paredes from the Cubs in exchange for veterans Justin Wilson and Alex Avila.

Candelario’s first full season with the Tigers showed a lot of promise. At age 24, he slashed .224/.317/.393 with 19 HR, 54 RBI and a 93 wRC+ in 2018, the production of a hitter 7% below league average. Combined with his defensive value at third base his production netted 2.4 fWAR, the total of a solid MLB regular. It appeared the Tigers acquired an average-to-slightly-below-average power hitter with good defense to help the rebuilding efforts.

The 2019 season did not go as smoothly for Candelario, however. His strikeout and walk rates stayed about the same but the power had disappeared. In 94 games he slashed .203/.306./.337 with 8 HR for a wRC+ of 72, the production of a hitter 28% below league average. Only Candelario’s defense saved him from posting net-negative value with 0.2 fWAR, or in other words: a replacement-level player. Candelario went from a promising young prospect to a potential bust in just a calendar year.

Key: Slash line – batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage. wRC+ – weighted runs created plus. fWAR – FanGraphs formula for wins above replacement. Replacement-level – the statistical value of a fringe major-leaguer

The Paradox

SeasonK%BB%AVGxBASLGxSLGExit Velocity
201825.8%10.7%.224.205.393.34987.2
201925.6%11.1%.203.228.337.36588.2

On the surface these numbers are very similar. Many of the categories that would need improvement had improved from 2018 to 2019. Here is an extensive but not comprehensive list: K%, BB%, xBA, xSLG, EV, HardHit%, xwOBA, ZoneSwing%, LineDrive%, and a decreased GroundBall%. The results of 2019 do not make much sense on paper compared to 2018. Candelario became a better baseball player with worse production.

While it is likely true Candelario suffered from bad luck that impacted his production in 2019, Statcast is not a religion. As opponents learned more about Candelario they learned how to get him out more frequently. His skills were improving under the current approach, but this did not transition to results on the field. Something had to change.

Key: K% – strikeout percentage. BB% – walk percentage. xBA – expected batting average. SLG – slugging percentage. xSLG – expected slugging percentage. Exit Velocity (EV) – average speed of baseball in mph off the bat. xwOBA – expected weighted on-base average. ZoneSwing% – swing rate at pitches inside the strike zone.

The Framework and the Breakout

With his career on the line, Candelario erupted in 2020. Across 52 games in the pandemic-shortened season he slashed .297/.369/.503 with 7 HR, 29 RBI, 136 wRC+ and a 1.5 fWAR. To understand what led to this breakout, it first needs to be understood what makes him unique.

Jeimer Candelario’s plate discipline skills have been a highlight of his play since his prospect status. After becoming an everyday player in 2018, Candelario’s plate discipline transitioned well into the Major Leagues. This skill has been the framework to his success ever since. Each year he has placed himself well above the league average in pitches per plate appearance (Pit/PA) and posted solid walk rates. His 4.10 Pit/PA in 2021 ranks 30th of all qualified hitters in Major League Baseball.

Candelario vs league average among qualified hitters according to Baseball Reference

SeasonJeimer Candelario Pit/PAPlayer League Average Pit/PA*
20184.303.91
20194.203.93
20204.103.97
20214.103.92
*Player league average Pit/PA is calculated per 600 PA on bbref

As his plate discipline improved Candelario has seen fewer pitches without sacrificing walks. His 2021 walk percentage is currently the highest of his career at 11.2%. This can be explained by improved pitch recognition and contact skills. His strikeout percentage has decreased each season since 2018 and currently sits at 21.8%. This is the lowest mark he has posted since becoming an everyday player and sits below the league average of 23.5% in 2021. To further explain, here is a batted ball profile of Candelario from FanGraphs.

SeasonO-Swing%Z-Swing%Swing%O-Contact%Z-Contact%Contact%
201828.6%61.9%42.7%62.3%85.2%76.3%
201931.0%62.4%43.7%61.3%86.0%75.5%
202029.9%69.3%44.8%57.3%86.9%74.6%
202131.0%68.2%46.2%62.4%88.0%77.8%
Total30.1%64.5%44.2%61.2%86.0%76.1%

On the most basic level Candelario is swinging the bat more often each season. Unlike the previous three seasons in which his contact rate decreased in each subsequent season, Candelario is now making more contact than ever before. His in-zone contact percentage has increased each season, too. The most notable change in this graphic is Candelario’s in-zone swing percentage. Without sacrificing walks or increasing strikeouts he is significantly more aggressive attacking pitches in the strike zone.

For my non-baseball-savvy readers, here is the summary: More walks, more swings, more contact, more power, more aggression and less strikeouts. The foundation of a complete hitter.

Wait, foundation? What could be missing from the puzzle that has not yet been covered? The most important piece of all: launch angle.

Key: O – outside of strikezone. Z – inside of strike zone

The Final Form

For those who have followed baseball over the past decade, the launch angle revolution transformed the 2010s. In general, hitting the ball in the air more frequently resulted in better offensive production and more home runs. The thing about baseball is that there is no rule of thumb to hitting. Each player possesses a unique profile that contributes to their success or failure.

After his promising first full season the Tigers and Jeimer Candelario had reason to believe their approach combined with his skillset would produce power. They were wrong. The game adapted to this model. The more Candelario put the ball in the air with his swing path, the more outs he made. In 2020, this model was scrapped for a new one. By changing the trajectory of the baseballs Candelario hit, the Tigers changed the trajectory of his career.

Batted ball data from Statcast Baseball Savant

SeasonGroundBall%FlyBall%LineDrive%Average Launch Angle
201842.2%22.4%24.5%15.3°
201938.4%26.6%24.9%15.8°
202040.4%19.1%35.3%13.3°
202140.9%24.7%29.9%12.7°

After having success with 19 home runs in 2018 the Tigers and Candelario attempted to build on this by hitting more fly balls. His average launch angle and fly ball percentage increased from 2018 to 2019. While Candelario steadily improved his underlying skills, he was not meant to play under this model. His production plummeted and soon prognosticators were talking about Candelario like his days as a Tiger might be numbered.

Searching for answers amidst the launch angle revolution, Candelario and the Tigers went in the opposite direction, literally and figuratively. From 2020 to present day, Candelario’s new approach paid huge dividends. His game power manifested with a lower launch angle focused on hitting line drives. Attempting to hit fly balls for power was no longer at the forefront of his approach. With his skill improvements, this change in approach quickly lit up the stat sheets.

Across a larger sample in 2021 this approach has been tweaked. However, it is proving 2020 was no fluke. In 110 games Candelario is slashing .279/.363/.433 with a 120 wRC+ and 2.3 WAR. His 32 doubles are tied for second in all of baseball. The most value was found in Candelario’s play by harnessing his skills to create gap-to-gap power, especially in Comerica Park.

The Future

On a non-statistical note, it is becoming a lot of fun to watch Candelario play. His personality is a fan favorite, his confidence is soaring with consistent production on the field, and he is showing emotion more consistently and controlling it to get the most out of his game. It seems the best days of his career are ahead. It would be a mistake for the Tigers to let those happen anywhere other than Detroit.

Spencer Torkelson likely gets a crack at third base in 2022, Candelario’s primary position, but positional versatility is more important than ever in today’s league. Candelario already has experience at first base; he and Torkelson being able to play both corner infield positions will add more flexibility to the roster.

Candelario is set to hit free agency in 2024. With Miguel Cabrera approaching the end of his career, the Tigers will most likely need to fill a corner infield position in 2024, if not sooner than that. Spend money, Chris. #ExtendCandy.

Much Maligned Broadcaster Suspended, Tigers Fans Finally Free (For Now)

Bally Sports Detroit color commentator Jack Morris has been suspended following a major faux pas in last night’s Angels/Tigers broadcast. During the sixth inning of last night’s broadcast, Morris performed a piss-poor caricature of an Asian accent during Shohei Ohtani’s at bat, which soon prompted an apology… of sorts:

We’re not here to speculuate about what Morris’ intentions might have been or debate whether or not he was trying to imitate a cartoon character (who has no relevance to Ohtani). The fact he apologized later on in the game, on air, seems telling. The fact Bally Sports responded swiftly and decisively, also seems to speak volumes:

It’s simple: Morris messed up. It is unacceptable, especially for someone in his elevated position, to do this. Ohtani is having an MVP-caliber season and we’ve now had multiple instances of broadcasters and sportswriters lashing out with racist comments and culturally insensitive jokes rather than celebrating his considerable talents.

This is not an example of so-called “cancel culture” taking down a good man for no reason. This is an example of a man who committed an error in judgment and is now facing the consequences of his actions. Morris should take the time to reflect on why he chose to do what he did and why his behavior was inappropriate and potentially hurtful. If he’s given another chance with Bally Sports, one can only hope Morris uses this experience to grow as a person.

SchoopIN’ the Future

Schoop is sticking around. (Photo by Alexandra Simon)

Good news everyone, Chris Ilitch has made his first foray into extension-land, backing his words that the Tigers were going to spend money this offseason. Today the Tigers announced they’d re-signed fan favorite second baseman Jonathan Schoop to a two year deal worth 7.5 million a season with an opt out in 2022 (much to the chagrin of a VERY vocal minority that wanted him traded for a 40 FV prospect).

Schoop, 29, was likely days away from getting DFA’d in May after hitting a paltry .180/218/243 for a .461 OPS from opening day to May 8th. He has now found himself as the focal point of the Detroit offense. Schoop is a key cog in the rebuild machine as he’s brought his statline up to a cool .289/.333/.468 for an .801 OPS, with 18 homers and a nice 2.6 bWAR.

Since May 10th, Schoop has torn the absolute cover off the ball, hitting .328/.374/.549 for an incredible .923 OPS. This move allows the Tigers to let Paredes cook in Toledo for another season and let him develop instead of thrusting him into the lineup and counting on him to be an immediate producer for the ballclub.

Avila landed himself a Schoop. (photo by Alexandra Simon)

All in all, this is tidy work from Avila. Mutual interest from Schoop wanting to stay and Avila wanting him back likely kept the VAUNTED Scott Boras from capitalizing on Schoop’s blistering last three months of baseball and is hopefully a sign of things to come from Chris Ilitch’s wallet and into our hearts.

Jobe Well Done

Oh now I know writing this article is going to be very fun given how Tigers Twitter reacted to the drafting of Jackson Jobe, so why don’t we get right into it. This might’ve been the best start to a Tigers draft that we’ve seen in a very long time. In drafting Madden and Jobe, the Tigers have seemingly selected two frontline starters that can help the team compete for years to come.

Jackson Jobe, 3rd overall

The controversial pick, the pick that’ll have Tigers Twitter ranting and raving about for the foreseeable future just like a certain Tigers writer has done for last three years about Mize and Kelenic.

Prep shortstop Marcelo Mayer was available for the Tigers at three. Mayer would’ve filled an organizational role that the Tigers desperately needed, and they still passed on him to get the guy they felt most comfortable with. This is where the disconnect is, with scouts and experts raving about the Jobe selection while Twitter goes on about how much this pick sucks and how Jobe is an abject failure from a lame duck GM. The actual scouts that work in baseball for a living did nothing but rave about how talented Jobe is and how this pick was utterly fantastic, crediting the Tigers for sticking to their guns and listening to the scouting and analytics departments about Jobe.

Avila and co. got the guy they wanted (photo by Alexandra Simon)

To quote what a scout told me about Jobe: “I love Jackson Jobe. He’s the best prep arm I’ve ever scouted but taking prep arms that high is historically, objectively risky. That’s just the facts… but Jobe is the arm in this class who could be SPECIAL.”

This is pretty in line with the scouting report we got in this tweet from Brian Sakowski:

Jobe features a potential 70 fastball and a 3200 RPM slider that’s a potential 80 (the max on the 20/80 scale), and two above average pitches in his change and curve, 55 on that scale. The wide array of pitches make his arsenal an absolutely elite and eclectic mix, a mix that will keep hitters from being able to sit on certain pitches because the others in his arsenal lag far behind. With an underslot value for Jobe at that, it was the perfect fit for them and helped set up their next pick.

This isn’t a make or break pick and the Tigers have had great success with prep pitchers, more specifically in flipping them, and his profile is completely different than Beau Burrows’ was. Jobe is a window extender, possibly. They’ve really pushed their elite talents through the farm to the show fast in the past when they’ve felt it necessary, with Porcello and Turner both within two years of draft, but if they slow play it he could be to the Tigers what Dustin May and Walker Buehler are to the Dodgers: window extenders.

Ty Madden, supplemental A, Pick 32

And to the steal of the draft, Ty Madden. What an outrageous fall for Madden, for reasons that range from signability concerns to data driven concerns that MLB Network mentioned about his fastball, though no one is completely sure. The Tigers will take this and run laughing all the way home yelling “no take backs.” Ranked #9 by MLB pipeline, he’s got a prototypical pitcher’s frame at 6’3 and 220, and is an absolute unit on the mound with a high 90’s fastball and a good slider.

Brian Sakowski has another great succinct report:

Madden may need work on a change-up but it doesn’t seem like it’s that far behind and the Tigers have shown the ability to help pitchers develop a third pitch, especially changeup (remember Michael Fulmer?) so there are a lot of encouraging signs here and a lot to like about these top two picks. Some publications have concerns that Madden may be a reliever long-term with his limited arsenal but other reports that are floating out there are very encouraged by his changeup, even with his limited use of it.

The Tigers are able to replace two elite graduating pitchers in Mize and Skubal with two incredibly elite arms, and one of them has flat out, seemingly, Cy Young-caliber potential. It’s time for Chris Fetter to work his magic in the offseason with these guys, and the rest of the Tigers coaching staff in the minors to assist him and the players and turning them into the best possible versions of themselves.

World Series Recap: Spend money, Chris.

Game 6: Rays 1, Dodgers 3. LA wins the World Series 4-2

After their conservative approach to game 2, the Dodgers rested their best arms and threw everything at the Rays for games 3-5. Outside of a catastrophic 9th inning meltdown in game 4, the Dodgers were able to secure an advantage in the series 3-2. They won games 3 and 5 after clutch pitching performances from Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw. 

Going into game 6, the Dodgers faced an identical matchup to game 2: Tony Gonsolin vs. Blake Snell. Snell dominated in game 2, surrendering only a 2-run home run to Chris Taylor as the Rays went on to win 6-4. In game 6, Snell picked up right where he left off; he carved through the Dodgers’ lineup, striking out five of the first six batters.

The Rays’ Randy Arozarena broke the scoring open in the first inning, taking a slider to the opposite field for a single-postseason record 10th home run. The Dodgers’ game plan was to have Gonsolin function as a regular starter. That plan quickly fell apart as his pitch count elevated and he struggled to throw strikes. Gonsolin exited having thrown just 48 pitches in 1.2 innings. 

Everything changed in the 6th inning for the Dodgers. Battling with a one run deficit, the offense finally arrived. Austin Barnes led off the 6th inning with a single up the middle off Blake Snell. It was just the second hit given up by Snell at that point, on only 73 pitches. With one out and one on in the 6th, Rays manager Kevin Cash pulled Snell and went to the bullpen. 

The Rays turned to reliever Nick Anderson. After missing in location with the first few pitches, he gave up a double down the line to Mookie Betts. With Austin Barnes at third and Mookie at second, Anderson spiked a slider that got away from Mike Zunino and the game was tied. With Corey Seager batting next, he weakly grounded to first and similarly to game 1, Mookie made a phenomenal jump and beat out the throw to score a critical run.

The former MVP came up huge for the Dodgers. (photo by Alexandra Simon)

With this appearance, Anderson had given up a run in his 7th consecutive postseason appearance, breaking the previously held record by José Paniagua with the 2000-2001 Seattle Mariners. As Cash’s plan imploded, so did the Rays’ season. This begs the question, did Kevin Cash cost the Rays a championship? The obvious answer seems to be yes. My answer? No, but he is not free from blame. More on that later.

Mookie again proved why he is worth every penny of his 12-year $365 million extension. He homered in the 8th, extending the Dodgers’ lead to 3-1 and sealing victory for a long-awaited championship in Los Angeles.

In a similar fashion to game 7 of the NLCS, Julio Urías entered the game and pitched 2.1 perfect innings to close out the World Series. The Dodgers bullpen went on to do everything asked of them and Dave Roberts played his matchups perfectly. They threw 7.1 scoreless innings, striking out 12 batters and giving up just 2 singles. The Dodgers won the 2020 World Series and ended a 32-year title drought.

Kevin Cash’s management was less than perfect, but analytics are not to blame.

It seems easy to bash the decision to remove Blake Snell. It prompted an onslaught of anti-analytics rhetoric and how it “ruins the game.” Here’s the breakdown by the numbers.

Removing Blake Snell was the correct analytical decision. Snell last completed 6 innings of work in July of 2019. After hitting the upper 90s with his fastball for most of the night, the last fastball Snell threw was his slowest of the night, registering at 94.3 mph. This season, including the postseason, here are Blake Snell’s splits each time through the batting order entering game 6.

Snell 2020 SplitsBatters FacedOpponent AVGOpponent OPSStrikeout %
1st time144.137.48433.3
2nd time125.295.92528.0
3rd time34.303.96023.5
An-Snell-ytics

It is no question Snell’s effectiveness decreases the longer he stays in the game, and with more appearances the opponents’ power jumps off the charts. With former MVP Mookie Betts stepping to the plate for a third time and a lefty/righty matchup, it was the correct decision to end the night for Snell and move to the bullpen. Kevin Cash’s choice of Nick Anderson is where he made a fatal mistake.

Nick Anderson had been dominant in the 2020 regular season posting a 0.55 ERA, a strikeout rate of 44.8% and posting an even 1.0 WAR. The postseason was a different story, however. Entering game 6, he had given up a run in 7 of his 9 postseason appearances, with 6 of those runs allowed coming in consecutive appearances. He posted an ERA of 5.11, had given up 15 hits, 4 walks, 3 home runs and collected just 9 strikeouts in 14.1 innings. To put it simply, he was bad.

Peter Fairbanks or Diego Castillo were better options to face Betts. Cash’s trust in an underperforming Anderson in the biggest moment blew up in his face, and the Rays lost the World Series. This was not an analytical decision. This was a mistake.

This may raise the question, “You argued in favor of Brandon Lowe last article about sticking with the best players in the biggest spots. Doesn’t this contradict the argument?”

It is a little complicated, but the argument is different for two reasons. First, the Rays do not have many offensive weapons, as the previous article stated. They ranked in the lower half of the league in most offensive categories. Demoting Lowe in the batting order or replacing him entirely likely would not yield different results. Sticking with Lowe in the two hole gave the Rays critical home runs that provided them victories in game 2 and 4. He had proven himself to stay in his role, delivering in the clutch to keep the Rays’ season alive. The second reason is the Rays are known for their arsenal of relief arms. They can plug many different talented relievers in different situations to find success. The difference here is Anderson’s performances had presented no recent signs of success, and his failure cost them the World Series. The Rays had more reliable options to turn to that they failed to use.

So, analytics are not to blame, Kevin Cash royally screwed up and the Rays lost. The blame goes to Kevin Cash, right? Well, again, it’s not so simple.

The Rays have managed baseball games in this style for years, and it rewarded them with an AL pennant, coming up just 2 victories short of a championship. The way the Rays play baseball was a massive success. There was no reason for them to abandon their philosophy with their season on the line. The failure lies within their choice of replacement, not the removal of Snell itself. Cash can be blamed for his mistake, but the holes in the Rays roster that were repeatedly exposed by the Dodgers were out of his control.

Andrew Friedman is a genius and Rays owner Stuart Sternberg cost them the World Series.

Friedman, President of Baseball Operations for the Dodgers, previously made a name for himself with the Tampa Bay Rays. As Friedman and Sternberg shared a love for the analytics, they began to mold the former expansion franchise into what it is today. Friedman started his career in their front office in 2004 and became the club’s General Manager in 2005. In 2008, the Rays reached their first World Series. The Rays continued to field successful teams despite coming up against their big money counterparts within the AL East.

In 2014, Friedman left the Rays for the Dodgers, bringing along his analytical model and marrying it with the Dodgers’ big spending ways. Since 2014, the Dodgers have been the most successful team in baseball and show no signs of slowing down soon. 

The problem with Sternberg’s analytical model is his refusal to invest money into the product on the field. Smart spending correlates with winning. Check out this article from GHF in 2019: https://glasshalffulmer.com/2019/09/30/spend-money/ 

The Tampa Bay Rays were third to last in baseball with a 2020 payroll of $28.3 million. The biggest trick of the league is owners making us believe there are “small markets” and “big markets.” The reality is there are just big markets and bigger markets. The Dodgers had a payroll of $107.9mil, second behind only the Yankees. When one takes into consideration the value of these franchises, the Rays are still not proportionately spending as much on their roster as the Dodgers. They might not be able to afford players like Mookie Betts or Clayton Kershaw however, they can easily afford some free agent upgrades to improve their roster. The highest paid player on the Rays was Charlie Morton at $15 million before pro-rated for the shortened 2020 season. He is one on a very short list of free agents for Tampa Bay.

The Rays offense sputtered in the World Series. Their inability to score runs ultimately led to their demise. The Rays were forced to rely on inadequate offensive options in the face of one of the greatest teams ever constructed. It is a remarkable achievement and a testament to the players and coaching staff that they only fell 2 games short of a title.

The blame for the Rays failure resides with Stuart Sternberg, who refused to invest into his product. With a few offensive upgrades, the current Rays roster likely turns the tide against LA and probably doesn’t end up in the situation of preserving a 1-0 lead to save their season. No manager is perfect. Cash’s mistake was his own doing. Without a lineup to provide any cushion, though, Sternberg created the situation for his manager to fail.

Where do the Tigers end up in all this?

This World Series is a lesson to all that a lack of investment is not enough to win. Against their toughest challenge, the Rays’ formula crumbled. It was not solely because of analytics; it was not solely because of Kevin Cash. It is because they refuse to spend money at the rate of their competition.

What’s next for Al Avila and the Tigers? (photo by Alexandra Simon)

The Dodgers are truly MLB’s model franchise. Their commitment to analytics and a payroll of All-Stars won them a championship. Tigers owner Chris Ilitch is a multi-billionaire. With the Tigers’ commitment to analytics, they are taking the right steps toward success. Since they started their rebuild in earnest in 2017, they have consistently avoided spending money and produced subpar results. This rewarded them with top prospects Casey Mize, Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson through the draft. 

Unfortunately, these players won’t be enough to bring a championship to Detroit. As the Tigers emerge from the rebuild, it is time to spend and spend big. Through the Ilitch family, the Tigers have the power to establish themselves as leaders of the new school, marrying the analytical approach with a large payroll. Will they seize the opportunity? Or will greed hinder their opportunities in their franchise’s most important moments? Only time will tell.

The Detroit Tigers dropped a 6-3 decision to the Cleveland Indians on Thursday, continuing Cleveland’s run of dominance with another sweep.

  • Matthew Boyd was good, mostly, but a fastball that leaked over the plate resulted in a two-run home run for Jose Ramirez. He’s been having very bad luck with home runs lately, which is probably coming at the wrong time for his trade value.
  • As an aside, the rest of the AL Central, particularly the Minnesota Twins, can thank the Tigers for waking Jose Ramirez up. You’re welcome.
  • Another defensive miscommunication resulted in a dropped popup in the ninth and the sixth Cleveland run. This team should thoroughly eviscerate Ron Gardenhire’s reputation as a manager of fundamentally sound teams.
  • Harold Castro had a nice little series, hitting a two-run homer that briefly looked like it would be decisive.
  • There’s not a lot to say at this point other than Cleveland is a substantially more talented team that play better on the field and make fewer mental mistakes. The Tigers are going to be at a talent disadvantage against the majority of teams they face. They do not have to be at a mental disadvantage, but they often are anyway. It’s the worst combination to watch.

The Tigers are on pace to lose 111 games. They will play again Friday night as they return to Detroit to open a three-game series against the Toronto Blue Jays, with Jordan Zimmermann on the mound.

Bullet Recap: Indians 7, Tigers 2

The Tigers lost again on Wednesday, which is not a surprise. They struck out 17 times as a team in a 7-2 road loss to the Cleveland Indians.

  • The way Cleveland scored their third run is, perhaps, a perfect microcosm of this team. With a runner at second and two out, Cleveland’s Mike Freeman tried to bunt for a hit to bring in what was a huge third run, with the Indians up just 2-1 at that point. It worked, mostly because the Tigers are a fundamentally inept baseball team. The first baseman, Brandon Dixon, charged in to field the bunt. The pitcher, Nick Ramirez, didn’t seem to expect to have to cover first until it was too late to beat Freeman to the bag. Dixon spent that time staring at Ramirez instead of second baseman Gordon Beckham, who was on his way to cover the bag. Dixon didn’t notice until it was too late, Freeman won the race and Cleveland scored the third run. Combining a lack of talent with a lack of fundamentals leads to plays like that.
  • Joe Jimenez has nothing to get hitters out, is not a Major League pitcher at this point, and is rapidly hurtling toward Bruce Rondon future-closer-that-never-was territory.
  • Mike Clevinger is actually good. Combining his stuff tonight with this lineup and its approach was just going to end in tears.
  • Nicholas Castellanos was the only Tiger with more than one hit — two, in fact, one a home run. He still seems unlikely to command much in the trade market given his defensive limitations, but he could help someone, and he’s not hurting himself right now.
  • Spencer Turnbull was solid. The efficiency problems linger, but he got quicker outs — and a bit of luck with a line drive double play. I’m not sure he’ll ever be a reliable pitcher on a good team, but he’s definitely a Major Leaguer with something to work with.

The Tigers are on pace to lose 110 games. They will play again Thursday night in the series finale in Cleveland, with Matthew Boyd on the mound.

It’s Hard To Care When The Tigers’ Decisionmakers Don’t

I genuinely do not remember the last time I was less excited for the start of baseball season.

Oh, I’m going to watch. I’m going to care. I’ve renewed my season tickets, which I fully admit is probably the only thing that matters as far as the organization is concerned, so in that sense they’ve already won. But I’m not counting the days until the opener. I’m not marking my calendar for the first spring training broadcast of the season. I’ll consume it when it comes, but I will do so because it’s been put in front of me, not because I actively sought it out.

Yes, this is likely an odd thing to read, a Tigers writer on a Tigers blog made by Tigers fans opining on how uninterested I am in the 2019 Detroit Tigers. I accept this. But my lack of care comes from a place of care. After all, I’m roughly as interested in the on-field product this season as ownership and the front office is.

Harsh? Perhaps. But would you argue it? This can no longer be properly classified as a rebuild. No one is attempting to build or rebuild anything. It is more akin to a surrender.

Let’s go back a bit, and let’s agree to a fact: this entire offseason has been the hot stove equivalent of a root canal. It’s not just because the Tigers have been completely inactive. It’s because roughly a third of the league is trying. Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are still unsigned on February 18, and I didn’t expect them to last past the end of January at the absolute latest. Player after player has chosen to take a safe one-year deal to find a landing spot and a payday, sacrificing the long-term security they undoubtedly sought and would have received five years ago.

The Tigers used to be one of the lucky few teams that had an obsessively motivated owner. It is a bit funny that Mike Ilitch has ended up so revered by Tigers fans considering the first decade of his ownership was marked by a lack of ambition and investment that culminated in the worst baseball team in American League history. It was so embarrassing that he was moved to sign Ivan Rodriguez to a four-year, $40 million deal that looks downright quaint fifteen years later, and what followed was, essentially, a decade of fantasy baseball. Ilitch saw it, he liked it, he wanted it, he got it. He cared. He wanted to win. He was willing to ignore profit margins to do it. That is exceptionally rare in a sports owner, and perhaps we didn’t appreciate how good we had it when he would go out and wave his checkbook around at press conferences, telling everyone watching in no uncertain terms that he was open for business.

Ilitch liked stars. He wanted blockbuster players. He had a general manager in Dave Dombrowski who thought the same way, but was also smart enough to curb his owner’s worst instincts and focus him on more beneficial talent. The Tigers didn’t need Fielder, and the story didn’t end the way anyone wanted it to, but it was undeniably fun and exhilarating to watch Ilitch flex his muscles in a market where most of his peers were more focused on budgets and revenue and sustainability. Sure, it was going to lead to a major burst bubble down the line – the Tigers gave out a lot of big contracts that were not going to age well. But as we sit here in 2019, it’s worth noting that they’ve gotten out from under every one of those contracts aside from Miguel Cabrera’s and Jordan Zimmermann’s. Zimmermann has two years left on his, though, and the Tigers essentially have no committed money beyond this season except for that which is wrapped up in those two deals. Their 2019 payroll current sits around $112 million, 21st in the league and their lowest mark since 2011.

The official explanation is a rebuild. That’s fine. After a dreadful 2017 season when a $200 million Opening Day payroll yielded 64 wins and the worst record in the league, they were really left with no choice but to cut payroll, try to shed some of the dead weight, and start over. GM Al Avila has actually done an admirable job of that, and will essentially be free to start from scratch next offseason.

And that makes this offseason all the more frustrating.

The situation across the league has developed, theoretically, to the Tigers’ advantage. If they wanted to, they could have spent money. Their payroll is below league average. They faced a market that included two generational talents that, at times, struggled to find suitors they liked. They would not have had to compete with the Yankees, Red Sox, or Dodgers, three of the sport’s biggest draws, for their attention. They could have signed one of them to a contract long enough to carry them into their next period of contention and then some just as each hit the peak of his physical prime.

It didn’t even have to be Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, really. The free agent market totally and completely crashed for so many players this offseason. Mike Moustakas signed on Sunday. Marwin Gonzalez remains on the market. Adam Ottavino and Craig Kimbrel, both unsigned, would make for a pretty solid 1-2 punch at the back of a bullpen. Some of these guys have or could have been signed on one-year deals. They could, at the very least, have been trade chips in July.

The Tigers did none of these things. Two-thirds of the league has the problem of refusing to be competitive, and instead of taking advantage of that, Detroit chose to be a part of that problem.

I do not know where this begins. Perhaps it’s ownership. Christopher Ilitch has shown little inclination to spend money on the baseball team he inherited from his late father, and to date, he’s been able to hide behind the rebuilding excuse for two years now without extensive scrutiny. He’s been able to send Avila out to be the public face of it, too, with the GM repeatedly claiming that he’s under no mandate from ownership to cut or cap spending. Maybe that’s true. Maybe it’s not and Avila is taking the slings and arrows from the public so Ilitch doesn’t have to. I don’t have sources, I don’t know, and while I have my own personal guesses, they’re irrelevant to the point.

Look around the league. The Red Sox, Astros, and Yankees are indisputably trying. So, too, are the Washington Nationals, judging from the Patrick Corbin addition. A number of other teams are trying to contend with their existing cores without really adding anything to them. Among them are the Cleveland Indians, who went as far as to explore a Corey Kluber trade this offseason and didn’t really make any effort to improve the team. They’ll probably win the division anyway, because the Minnesota Twins made little effort to overhaul them. The Chicago White Sox have been involved in the Manny Machado sweepstakes, but they’re probably more than one player away.

That’s also irrelevant. They are still trying. The White Sox may strike out on Machado, but by all accounts, it won’t be for lack of effort. They have a young core of prospects, and they identified a 26-year-old superstar available who will grow into his prime at the exact same time those prospects are beginning to mature into MLB-quality players. It’s smart. It’s more than defensible. And in this environment where the bulk of teams are openly demonstrating that they have no ambition or willingness to compete, the White Sox should be commended for it.

The Tigers should be condemned for it. It’s hard to imagine a Mike Ilitch-owned team sitting quietly while two of the biggest talents in the sport sit at home waiting for a phone call. Perhaps that is wishful thinking on my part; the Tigers were, after all, transitioning toward their full-scale rebuild in the months before his passing. As late as 2016, however, the Tigers were tossing money at Zimmermann and Justin Upton to try to keep their window open. Perhaps that was a mistake – Ilitch’s thinking could be flawed – but you couldn’t fault the ambition.

You can now. If the Tigers were serious about rebuilding, they would also be serious about bringing in players that would suit their rebuilding timeline. Perhaps in 2021 or 2022 or 2023 they’ll be serious about beginning to contend again. Those would be Harper’s age 28, 29, and 30 seasons. In Miguel Cabrera’s age 28-30 seasons, he won three consecutive batting titles, hit 40 home runs twice, and won two MVP awards. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a top middle-of-the-order bat in the lineup just as the Tigers mature into contenders again?

I think so. The Tigers don’t seem to think it’s worth exploring. Perhaps they know something I don’t. Perhaps money really is that tight, but considering league revenues are at an all-time high and they’ll have a nice new TV contract to negotiate after the 2021 season, I rather doubt that. Perhaps they don’t actually think they can be competitive again within three or four years, in which case the entire front office should probably be swept out of town. Perhaps they think Harper’s inconsistency or Machado’s hustle really would be that toxic on a young team.

Or perhaps the obvious answer is the correct one. They’re willing to spend $13.5 million on Matt Moore, Tyson Ross, and Jordy Mercer because they’re three players who ensure that the team isn’t pushing a ridiculously high amount of losses while still not winning enough to jeopardize draft picks, in the off chance they draft the next Harper or Machado instead of simply signing one of them. They just don’t really want to win that much. They’re not interested in fielding a competitive Major League Baseball team right now, even if it costs them a Harper or Machado who could be the centerpiece of a young contender within a four-year window. Because why be mediocre when you can lose and rack up that revenue sharing cash? After all, this is the same team that took Michael Fulmer to arbitration over a $600,000 difference in valuation.

I try to think the best of this organization, but it’s become increasingly difficult to defend their non-efforts this offseason. The rest of the league is sitting idly by, and one smart organization could take advantage of their unwillingness to move their feet. Someone inevitably will when they sign Harper or Machado. Instead, like everyone else, the Tigers are more interested in keeping salaries low than competing. The team that once gave Prince Fielder $214 million while nursing a higher payroll than the one they have now suddenly won’t justify spending less than $100 million more on a player who is younger, better, and more likely to age gracefully over a period of time when the organization claims it wants to contend again. Try to sort that one out.

I can’t. Sorry, Tigers. The players will play hard; of that I have no doubt. I will root for them and cheer for them when they do well. It’s simply a shame that ownership and the front office will let down those same players, some of whom signed several years ago with the promise of a contending organization, only to see that promise broken once their deals were locked in. They thought, under Mike Ilitch, they were joining an organization that would do whatever it takes to win.

A few short years later, that organization is quite comfortable losing. It is an organization whose definition of rebuilding seems to involve ignoring franchise cornerstones in their mid-20s, letting a pair of foundational building blocks sit untouched while the existing structure rots beyond recognition, all while claiming poverty despite being part of a league that made $10 billion last year. And they bank on us not questioning it. We have to be bad to be good. Just bear with us. We have a plan. You’re not seeing it yet, but you’ll just have to trust us, even if it starts to come into place at the same time several other teams decide to spend money again, too, because that’s the risk you’re running right now.

Hey. They’re playing within the rules. They’re only doing what the system encourages them to do. Fair enough. Maybe they’ll ultimately succeed in spite of themselves — and let’s be clear, it will be in spite of themselves and their reticence to try to move the organization forward and infuse it with new top-line talent. But if the Tigers are going to refuse to consider moves that would benefit them long-term and instead shrug their way through the 2019 season with no effort being made at an organizational level, don’t blame any of their fans for doing the same and then some.

An eight-step guide to watching the 2018 Detroit Tigers

The Detroit Tigers are not going to be very good this year.

This is not news to anyone reading this. They’ve spent the last eight months gutting their roster and trading anything with value that isn’t nailed down. (Sorry, Miguel.) It means that, for the first time in over a decade, the Tigers are embarking on a season in which pretty much everyone involved thinks they have no chance. Sure, there have been years where they’ve floundered or finished well off the pace before – 2008, 2010, 2015 – but it wasn’t for lack of effort.

It has come to my attention that there are a lot of people who are going to find this jarring. If you turn 22 this year, that means you were only 10 years old in 2006, and over half of your life has been lived with the Tigers being relevant. Heck, if you’re currently in college, your memories of non-contending Tigers teams are fuzzy at best and more likely nonexistent. Even if you’re older like me and do have rather vivid memories of those late-90s and early-2000s teams, it’s been a while. We could all use a refresher course.

That is the question. How do you watch – and derive entertainment from – a team that will be mediocre at best and horrendously awful at worst?

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What we know — and don’t know — about Al Avila’s trade record

Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila has a very busy two weeks ahead of him.

Despite whatever conjecture there will be via public or private comments, the Tigers are likely to at least sell some assets at the trade deadline. This will be the first time this happens under Avila, though he was heavily involved in Dave Dombrowski’s 2015 selloff.

I have, at times, been a bit surprised by the antipathy some Tigers fans harbor toward Avila. The truth of the matter is that his list of moves, particularly on the trade front, is not that long. There are the ones that he didn’t make, but according to those in the know, was hugely responsible for — Michael Fulmer was his idea, as was J.D. Martinez.

A majority of Avila’s free agent signings have been criticized, but looked sound at the time. Justin Upton looked like a disaster, but is now an All-Star. Jordan Zimmermann hasn’t worked out, but not even the most cynical fan could have predicted a spate of injuries and what happened after. Mark Lowe was iffy, but it was really only the Mike Pelfrey signing that commanded significant resources and was ripe for criticism immediately. Even that, as bad as it was, will have no long-term implications, as Pelfrey’s dollars will come off the books after this season. It was just the wrong choice.

What about Avila’s trades? Let’s go through the significant ones.

November 18, 2015 — Tigers trade infielder Javier Betancourt and catcher Manny Pina to the Milwaukee Brewers for relief pitcher Francisco Rodriguez.

Whatever you think of what Rodriguez turned into in 2017, the Tigers did give up nothing of value to get him. Pina is a career backup, while Betancourt is a career .234 hitter at AA.

In 2016, Rodriguez posted a 3.24 ERA and saved 44 games for the Tigers. He did it for $7.5 million dollars. Was he elite? No. Did he blow some bad ones? Yes. Was he good enough overall? Pretty much. The Tigers got a year of decent relief pitching for nothing.

November 20, 2015 — Tigers trade relief pitcher Ian Krol and pitcher Gabe Speier to the Atlanta Braves in exchange for outfielder Cameron Maybin.

Again, Avila gives up little of value here. Speier has some potential, but doesn’t look like he’s about to become an elite reliever or anything like that. Krol is an inconsistent LOOGY. Maybin hit .315 in an injury-plagued season for the Tigers before being dealt again. Good deal, though, one that fans can have no complaints with.

December 9, 2015 — Tigers trade pitchers Chad Green and Luis Cessa to the New York Yankees in exchange for pitcher Justin Wilson.

Outstanding. On one hand, both Green and Cessa have turned into big leaguers, and Green has turned out to be a pretty good reliever. So is Wilson, though — a hard-throwing lefty who should command a significant return on the trade market. The rare trade that works for both sides, but it’s safe to say there are few regrets from the Tigers side of the deal.

November 3, 2016 — Tigers trade outfielder Cameron Maybin to the Los Angeles Angels for pitcher Victor Alcantara.

A salary dump, pretty much. Doesn’t look great on the surface. Alcantara has good stuff if he can ever get command of it.

That’s it. There are some other minor ones — swapping Bryan Holaday for Bobby Wilson, and the Mikie Mahtook deal — but Avila is, near as I can tell, loathed by certain segments of the fanbase on the basis of four trades — three of which were good — and four free agent signings, as well as his retention of Brad Ausmus as manager.

Why? Who knows. The obvious answer is the team hasn’t succeeded despite a high payroll, but a number of the contracts that have led to this situation were handed out by Avila’s predecessor. The same goes for the lack of prospects and roster flexibility — the result of an organization under a mandate from ownership to stretch the window out as long as possible, even when it probably shouldn’t have been. Was Avila second in command during that time? Yes. We don’t know how much or how little input he had on all these moves.

The reality is, as much as some Tigers fans would like to write Avila’s epitaph now, his record as general manager of the team is very much a blank slate. What happens in the next two weeks will go a long way toward defining it.