Yesterday, a BYB reader named Winter created a Fanpost (unfortunately) titled "How the Tigers fail as a franchise." The post itself basically boiled down to:
- "The Tigers tend to post losing records in the 2nd half."
- "The last time the Tigers went to Minnesota, they got swept"
- "There's about a whole team's worth of salary that's useless"
Hence the Tigers won't win the AL Central.
Among topics discussed were Brandon Inge versus Ryan Zimmerman: which would you want as your starting 3rd baseman,1 and the state of the Tigers' franchise in general. But there was also some flaming due to the tenor of the original post, so I thought I'd try to address these issues directly. I'll go in reverse:
There's a Whole Lot of Salary Going Down
This almost can't be overstated (though some are trying):
- Jeremy Bonderman- $12.5 million
- Dontrelle Willis- $10 million
- Nate Robertson- $7 million
- Carlos Guillen- $10 million
- Magglio Ordonez- $18.97 million
- Gary Sheffield - $14 million
What you are looking at is this year's salaries of players whose values, in wins above replacement, to the Tigers have been, well, less than.
What you are not looking at is $72,470,000 down the drain. Allow me to explain:
First and foremost, you are ALWAYS going to have incongruities like this if you assess salaries on a year-to-year basis. Salaries are made by contract, long-term. For example, Brandon Inge was given a 4-year deal worth $24 million after 2006. He has been paid $11.1 million of that for 2007-08. That means there is another $13 million worth of winning contributions that he owes us over the next two years to make good the contract. So if he plays like a $13 million a year player this year, he could take 2010 off and his contract would be justified.
The way to gauge this is Wins Above Replacement, a brilliant statistic which, at the end of the season, will tell you how many wins the team got by playing Player X over "replacement," i.e. bringing up a AAA player (or Chris Truby) to fill the position.
Based on his WAR scale against league salaries, Brandon projects to $13.7 million this year, according to FanGraphs. I think that's a bit inflated,2 but it's what we have. On the same scale, he was worth $5.7 million last year, and $7.3 million in 2007. Considering we're 75 games into the season, that means he has already justified $6.3 million for this year. So in the 2nd half of this season, and over 2010, Inge would have to give us just $4.66 million. If he played solid defense, and hit .190, that would justify the contract.
The reason that looks so inflated is because you have to get more than the actual value out of your players, because they will get injured, or they will slump, or others will slump. A team that ends the season with 162 games from every position player and gets 32 starts from each starter is unheard of.
The question is, then, are you getting enough back out of your overperformers like Inge to cover the injuries, etc.
In the Tigers' case, the value of their hitters this year, in total, is $51.30 million, including contributions of $13.7 million from Inge, $12.2 million from BigMig, and $11.40 million from Grandy. From the pitching staff, the Tigers are getting $39.6 million in wins, including a staggering $15.9 million from Verlander and $14 million from Edwin Jackson. All told, the Tigers roster justifies a roster, by current performance, of $90.90 million. That's hardly the $115 million payroll they have now. But it's not as dire as you think.
It also includes losses from Carlos Guillen (a very small sample who is predicted to be positive once he comes back), Dane Sardinha, and Matt Treanor, plus our pitchers' hitting in national league parks. All of these numbers will depreciate as the season progresses, since the pitchers won't hit anymore, Guillen will come back, Ryan will replace Sardinha and Treanors' negatives, etc. All told, that's $10 million of wins over the season, or $5.2 million over the remaining games.
If you're really going to judge Dombrowski, you have to consider all of his contracts, over all of his years. That means you have to count Magglio's $36 million-worth 2007 season. It means you have to count Guillen's $22 million play in 2006. You have to count the consistent $10-million-worth years he has gotten from Granderson and Polanco. Etc.
To judge him on only this year, it's clear that we are (i.e. Ilitch is) not getting full value for the $115 million. But all told, we can say, as fans, that this team is worth $95.5 million for us to go see. That's a good team; that's the kind of team that goes to the playoffs. That's exactly the level of team we want around here. As for the rest, well, we should just thank Mike Ilitch for the difference.
The Twin City Killings
There are the bests of times, and there are the worst of times. And the worst of times, more often than not, seem to always happen in the Metrodome, which is the biggest home field advantage in MLB. The Twins have been a problem for AL Central teams pretty much since they built that place. They're also the masters of Moneyball economics. If you followed the  reference above when discussing Inge (or if you go there now)2 you will have seen that salaries scale exponentially. If your goal, then, is to maximize team value per actual salary you don't become involved with high-end free agents -- you play around in the area under the curve:
The blue line is the WAR-$ value, i.e., what a player should be making based off of his performance, if everything was fair. It begins at zero, since a player at replacement value is worth $0 in wins. The red line is actual player salaries. It begins higher than zero, since the league has a minimum salary, but that until you start getting into the upper half of the league, salaries remain at or near the minimum.
The yellow area is where the Twins and A's, et al. like to play. Players in that category typically make around $1 to $3 million per year, but will generally have a playing value much higher than that, say between $3 and $5 million. Many of them are young, on their entry-level or early arbitration contracts. If value's your game, you play in the yelllow. The Twins do this, and lo and behold, for a $65 million payroll, they get a team with a total winning value of around $82 million, which is a team in contention. However, they seldom win it all, since a team typically needs to compete at a level between $100 million and $150 million to be world champions.
The way these teams function is to have a constant overflow of MLB-ready prospects, which raises the franchise's level of replacement player. So if one $2 million guy dips to below-replacement production, they have plenty of $450K guys in AAA ready to jump in with over-replacement value. The downside is you almost never have a team that is a runaway favorite, and early in the season, when all the big clubs have their monsters healthy, you can get beaten out of contention.
It's a great way to compete, but not a great plan to win championships. This is because your ultimate strategy for toppling the clubs worth $100 million and more is that you are much less affected by injury than they are. Over a long season, injury will strike randomly, and when it strikes one of your divisional rival's top guys, that's a huge performance hit they take. If it works, you get into the playoffs, where you now put your faith in the luck of a hot streak in a few odd series. On the other hand, at this point you are facing the teams that are most likely a) monsters, and b) relatively healthy. The odds are now stacked heavily against you.
Note that the marquee players are the ones you overpay for. If you plotted the Yankee and Red Sox contracts on here, you'd see a lot of them over the blue line (meaning they're overpaid for the actual value of their perforance). Sometimes, though, they too are above. A-Rod in 2007, for example, was paid an astounding $25 million for his services, but he also turned in a performance worth $39.2 million in wins. He was, for all intents and purposes, more valuable than the Marlins.
So if your goal is simply winning, the best strategy would be to say "cost be damned," because there is a direct correlation between how much a player is worth in the open market, and the value he will return to your team in wins.
The Tigers are a combination of these strategies. A lot of this team is all over the yellow area of typical overperformance (Edwin Jackson, Gerald Laird, Marcus Thames, Armando Galarraga, Ramon Santiago, Adam Everett, Rick Porcello, Zach Miner).
But the meat and potatoes of this team is built on guys just past the point where the blue and red lines reconnect: guys worth about $6 to $7 million, who are getting paid $6 to $7 million. This looks awesome when one of those guys (Inge, Granderson) is on a tear, and stupid when one of those guys (Robertson) is nigh useless, and, strangely, nobody comments when they quietly perform at their expected level (Polanco).
The last third of this team was built high above that, in the region of guys who were All-Stars at least once in their career, or are expected to be All-Stars in the future, and can command about $10 to $14 million (but are, on average, worth about $9 to $10 million). Verlander is one. So is Magglio. And Guillen. And Willis. And Bonderman. And Cabrera.
What's happened to the Tigers this year is there's a HUUUUGE discrepency in that top group between guys who are performing at that ultra-high salary value, and guys who are not.
But I would postulate that this is part of Dombrowski's strategy. The majority of the team is made up of guys who can get you $80 million in wins for $70 million, typical for, say, Atlanta, or Toronto, or the L.A. teams. Then you take a few fliers on the tippy-top guys. They're the ones meant to get you over the top. They'll never all be there. But if you have five out of this seven -- Verlander, Cabrera, Bonderman, Willis, Guillen, Ordonez, Sheffield -- performing at level, you have a ballclub competing at $130 million for one that costs $115 million. It's big-guy strategy, mixed with little guy strategy.
This year, it's paying off, even with the bad luck of getting next to nothing from five of those seven, because Edwin Jackson and Brandon Inge are playing at an All-Star level in their stead. It's a difference of $10 million in WAR-$, which also happens to be the difference between the Tigers and the Twins this year.
Detroit Gets Cooler in August
In the Jim Leyland years, they say, the All-Star break is our drop-off point. Even in 2006, we had a significant drop-off in the latter half, to go with more noticeable ones in 2007 and 2008. Don't forget, though, that this happened, too, in 2004 and 2005 (in 2003 we were so bad a "dropoff" was nigh impossible, since we were generally playing at replacment level to begin with). I think it's a Dombrowski thing, not a Leyland thing.
The reason for it is our strategy of building the team on All-Stars and solid players in the expected performance range of $6 million plus. These kinds of guys are very difficult to replace. You don't just plug a guy into left field, or shortstop, or 3rd/1st base, or whatever Guillen's position is this year. You lose Guillen for a season, you lose a guy who can give you $9 to $10 million in WAR-$. And since we tend to re-sign our super-talents like Bonderman and Verlander and Granderson and (likely) Jackson and Porcello, we don't get to fill up on other teams' top-end prospects. But this is baseball, and you're going to have random attrition every year. Attrition hurts a team built like this way more than a team built like, say, the Twins. This means, as injuries take their toll, unless these teams have another means of replacing high-end players (such as the Yankees and Red Sox trading for other teams' superstars at the trade deadline), a team built on this model will decline, to varying degrees, every season.
Teams that are built to compete at the same level all year are those that have an abundance of MLB-ready talent in the minors. You need more than what even a very good drafting team like the Tigers can dig up in order to have this kind of replaceability.
The Twins had a guy like Verlander -- better even -- in Johan Santana, but they turned him into prospects. One was Carlos Gomez, who gave them a solid centerfielder in 2008 who this year lost his spot to a 1st round draft pick of theirs, Denard Span, who has been brilliant. They also got two pitchers. All told, this makes them a worse team today. But Gomez gave them value over replacement (Span) last year, and now still gives value over replacement while Span shines. And the two pitchers in the deal will likely do the same, for the next five to six years or so.
The thing to note above all with this franchise, then, is how well they can replace a broken piece. Not always, of course -- a hit to Joe Mauer earlier this year had a very noticeable effect, as did a dink on Morneau in 2006, and the loss of Liriano in 2007. But when Punto isn't doing, there's always a Brendan Harris to jump up. If Delmon Young is having a rough year, there's a Jason Kubel to jump in. This is why the Twins seem to compete so well in the 2nd half each year. As the injury train rolls over us, we could lose a Polanco (as we did in late '06) and end up with Ramon Santiago, who, God love him, is a big drop-off. This year we lost Guillen, who has become Anderson/Raburn/Thomas/Larish/Thames/Ramirez/Kelly -- all guys a bit better than replacement level, but none have the pedigrees of Delmon Young, Jason Kubel, Denard Span and Carlos Gomez.
Our wins, then, have to come early, before the wrecking ball of injuries tears us apart. Or we could get really lucky, getting some star play out of guys expected to be back-of-the-rotation starters or platoon outfielders. It happens. But statistics would tell you it's more unlikely than likely.
So there's our problems, in a (supersized) nutshell.3
The pessimistic among us can take all of this and say "we're going to lose the Central." Well, we could. Keep in mind that the Twins, though deeper in AAA than we are, don't have the upside potential we have if, say, Willis gets it together, or Bonderman comes back with his sick sick sick slider, or Magglio's reverse-Sampson brings with it a great renewal, or Guillen comes to bat again. With all of that talent on the bench, you could see it as wasted potential, or you could see it as an astounding amount of potential. It could be either, so why bother making a fuss?
Dombrowski has built us a team that is worthy of rooting for. They have outstanding players -- once in a lifetime players like Cabrera and Verlander whose visages will one day be in Cooperstown, and guys you love to watch like Inge and Granderson and Polanco who make the game so enjoyable, and the sloppiest-but-somehow-usually-gets-it-donniest bullpen ever known to man- (and cow) kind. The Tigers are in first place. That means that the Twins and the Sox (the other garbage in our division isn't even worth mentioning this year) don't just have to be better than us, but have to be 4 to 5 games better than us.
And after watching this team struggle and bounce and will their way to a 7-game winning streak in June, spending the entire time at the top of the AL Central, I think we have a manager who can squeeze the most out of Detroit's baseball club, even if that most, at times, leaves you gasping.
And finally, it's baseball, people, the greatest game ever devised by man, in which anything really can (and does) happen,4 even -- though I know you doubt me -- the 1st place team in July finishing there in October.
Here, have a Terry Cashman break. You read all of that. You deserve it:
1. MLB 3rd Basemen in Wins Above Replacement (WAR):
1. Evan Longoria: 3.8
2. Ryan Zimmerman: 3.2
3. Brandon Inge: 3.0
4. David Wright: 2.9
12. Alex Rodriguez: 1.4
They are almost exactly the same value. Both are ahead of David Wright, though I expect this will change once David grows a mustache.
2. FanGraphs gets their number by taking all MLB salaries and dividing 'em up based on that player's WAR rating for that year. There are several problems with this.
- WAR is cumulative, so if, say, Alex Rodriguez spends a month of a young season on the DL, his WAR numbers, while reflective of his actual contribution to the team, will not be very reflective of his expected contribution. And when we talk about "who's the best..." it's expectation we're judging on, not actual contribution.
- While I think everyone would consider a "fair" scaling of salaries to be a straight line, salaries actually scale exponentially. So while a guy like Don Kelly may be worth $1 million for his play, you can usually find a Don Kelly level of contribution for $450,000. However, guys who consistently produce $10 million-plus level like Miguel Cabrera go for much more than that.
3. If you actually can print this out and fit in in a nutshell, I want to see.
4. Except the Cubs winning the World Series.