Eleven. It’s the number painted on the wall out in center field at Comerica Park honoring the former manager Sparky Anderson. It’s the name of one of the characters on the wildly popular Netflix show Stranger Things. It’s what Nigel Tufnel’s amplifier goes to. It’s also the amount of games manager Brad Ausmus was able to use his intended regular season starting lineup for this season. Eleven. That’s only 6 percent of the games the Tigers played in 2016.
Things didn’t exactly get off on the right foot. The club rolled out of Lakeland, Fla. with four players on the disabled list. One of them was Cameron Maybin, their starting center fielder. Two more were from the bullpen in Alex Wilson and Blaine Hardy. Just five games into the season, catcher James McCann joined the crew with an ankle injury, and near the end of the month Shane Greene began his strange transition from starter to reliever with a DL stint that would last until early June.
In mid-June, J.D. Martinez and his elbow met a right field wall that wasn’t as forgiving as one would hope. By early July, Justin Zimmermann and Daniel Norris were on the disabled list, as well. August was a rough month in Detroit, with Jose Iglesias, Maybin, Zimmermann, Nick Castellanos, and Mike Pelfrey all spending time on the shelf.
So, how did these injuries affect the success (or lack thereof) of the team as a whole?
Runs alone may seem like a poor way to look at things (especially for the more saber-inclined folks in the audience), but you need them to win games. I figured it would be interesting to see what overall run production looked like when each of the injured starting players were in or out of the lineup. The team saw injuries requiring significant missed time to five key hitters throughout the season.
Here are the Tigers' average runs per game for each player while they were in and out of the lineup:
|Player||Avg. R/G in the lineup||Avg. R/G out of the lineup|
Anything pop out at you there? According to this crude metric of measurement, the greatest negative on the offense occurred when Maybin was out of commission. This may not be that surprising of a discovery, though. After all, the Maybin lovefest hit full swing soon after his return helped break a four-game skid and usher in a nice little 8-2 run near the end of May.
The loss of Nick Castellanos' bat was felt to a lesser degree which isn't surprising considering the season he was putting together before he went down. The other surprising stat there is the difference in J.D. Martinez’s numbers. As Tigers Twitter and Tigers fandom in general began to collectively melt down on that fateful June night when our ruggedly handsome right fielder proved no match for an outfield wall, the major concern was how it would affect the offense. It’s a little surprising to see how well they continued to chug along without him.
There are better ways to look at lost production, though. That’s why we’re also going to take a look at an advanced metric from the folks over at Man-Game Lost. They have a formula that uses WAR and expected WAR to calculate Lost-WAR and something they call Injury Impact to Team or IIT-WAR. As they describe it, IIT "is a single-value metric that attempts to quantify the impact of a player not playing for their team due to injury." You can read about Lost-WAR and IIT in more detail on their FAQ page. The higher the IIT number, the greater the influence of the injury.
On the offensive side of the ball, Maybin's injuries had the largest negative effect on the Tigers' season. His injuries resulted in an IIT of .93 and a lost WAR of 1.07 for the season. Rounding out the top three are Castellanos and J.D. Martinez, with .64 and .60 IIT, respectively. If we look at the pitching staff, Norris leads the crew with Zimmermann, Alex Wilson, and Hardy also notching IIT numbers above zero. Look at the numbers in the table here.
The IIT numbers above indicate that Zimmermann was the only one of that crew of injured starters who was really missed, and the WAR numbers show that the younger guys did more than an adequate job of filling in.
If there was a reason this year felt particularly difficult to stomach injury wise it’s probably because this was the worst season the Tigers suffered in quite some time. As you can see below it was the first year of double-digit injuries since 2012 and the highest IIT and total missed games of the last seven years.
|Year||Players Injured||Total games missed||Team IIT|
Offensively, Maybin’s time on the DL had the largest effect on the Tigers performance. They scored fewer runs without him in the lineup and he had the highest Lost WAR and IIT numbers of anyone on the team. For whatever reason, he was a more crucial part of the team’s success than sluggers like J.D. Martinez and Nick Castellanos.
The stats measuring IIT and Lost WAR above measure just the effect of the loss of a particular player. There is no attempt to quantify the effect of the players actually replacing those who were injured. I took a look at the WAR for bench players who had nearly 100 plate appearances and compared them to some similarly situated teams.
As you might expect, Detroit did not grade out too well. When other teams had to rely on bench bats to help fill space for various injuries they didn’t have to rely heavily on a crew where the best player accumulated just 0.3 WAR. They certainly weren’t trotting out a dude who was worth -1.3 WAR for 68 games. What hurt the Tigers this year wasn’t so much the injuries, but the lack of serviceable options to fill the gaps.
The pitching has me drawing some interesting conclusions, as well. The Tigers lost three-fifths of their Opening Day starting rotation to significant injuries. In most cases, this would be catastrophic. However, when you consider these injuries removed players worth 0.2, 0.0, and -0.6 WAR and replaced them with three more valuable players, there’s an argument to be made that things may have ended up better with the injuries. Although, a healthy Zimmermann or Pelfrey could have kept Anibal Sanchez from getting 26 starts.
The Tigers' injuries this season were unfortunate, but they had less of a negative effect on pitching than position players. Despite the disappointment of coming so close to the playoffs only to fall short, this is a team that still finished better than their Pythagorean expectation by three games. Injuries are to be expected over the course of a 162-game season, and perhaps better depth could’ve helped alleviate some of the injury issues. It’s hard to say that this would have make much of a difference, though.