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10 things we learned about the Tigers from the 2017 Baseball Prospectus Annual

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It’s time to get frustrated at computer projection systems again!

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MLB: Cleveland Indians at Detroit Tigers
PECOTA still doesn’t believe in J.D.
Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

In my eyes, baseball season doesn’t start on Opening Day. I can’t wait that long. It begins before that, before the first Grapefruit League game, even before players report to spring training. For me, baseball season starts whenever I receive the Baseball Prospectus annual (no, they’re not paying me to say this).

I have ordered the BP annual each of the past five years. Whenever I tear open that Amazon box, baseball season is officially underway. I’ve never read the annual cover-to-cover -- a feat I may finally attempt this year — but it is the one thing that holds me over for the last six weeks of winter.

Last year, I had the novel idea* to note a few observations from the Detroit Tigers chapter of the annual. It helped me gain an outside perspective of this team that few national writers are offering at this point in the year. Looking back, it was quite accurate. Let’s break down this year’s version.

*a.k.a. I stole it from Grant Brisbee

1. Al Avila might be better than we thought

Tigers fans have been relatively pessimistic about Avila’s first year as the team’s general manager. Essay author Matthew Trueblood was more complementary of the job Avila did last offseason, shoring up a flawed roster while adding depth wherever he could. Trueblood rightly panned the Mike Pelfrey signing — as did every other BP author whenever they had the chance — but points out how much value Avila extracted from the likes of Cameron Maybin, Francisco Rodriguez, and Justin Wilson. Those three moves helped provide support to a star-studded roster that nearly made the playoffs last season.

Like Tigers fans, Trueblood is still skeptical that Avila can capably steer the Tigers through the next few seasons given his relatively tepid approach towards last season’s roster.

“...it’s worth asking if Avila should have done more in 2016. There was a legitimate chance for two all-time great Tigers to get back to the playoffs together, maybe for the last time. It wouldn’t have been an especially clean shot at a title, but it might have been their best one between now and 2020, especially if they follow the course Avila seemed determined to trace going forward.”

We won’t be able to accurately judge Avila’s acumen for several more years, but few will complain if this team reaches the playoffs in 2017.

2. The Tigers’ depth was really bad last year

It wasn’t difficult to see the drop-off in production when players like Nick Castellanos and J.D. Martinez went on the disabled list last year. I mean, Mike Aviles was the starting right fielder for a while. Even without any hard data, one might argue that these few instances were the difference between the Tigers making the playoffs and staying home last October. Trueblood identified just how stark the difference was.

Position Starter WARP Replacement WARP
Position Starter WARP Replacement WARP
Shortstop 2.4 -0.1
Third base 1.8 -0.8
Center field 3.2 -0.1
Right field 1.7 -0.9

Luckily, the Tigers should be slightly better in those areas this year. Center field might be a bit of an adventure, but the Tigers have capable replacements in the likes of JaCoby Jones, Mikie Mahtook, a more experienced Dixon Machado in the infield, and possibly even Christin Stewart or Michael Gerber in the outfield.

3. PECOTA still doesn’t believe in J.D. Martinez

In 2015, PECOTA projected Martinez to hit .271/.319/.442. He hit .282/.344/.535 with 38 home runs and 102 RBI. Last season, PECOTA projected him to hit .271/.324/.465. He hit .307/.373/.535 with 22 home runs in only 517 plate appearances. This year, PECOTA projects Martinez to hit .271/.328/.480.

Notice a pattern here? While not overreacting to one breakout season is what established Baseball Prospectus and PECOTA as an industry leader, the system has been notoriously slow to realize that J.D. Martinez is really stinking good. The slugger should easily surpass PECOTA’s modest projections once again, and produce something close to the .302 True Average (TAv) he has managed in each of the past three seasons.

Of course, PECOTA’s projections for his defense — a full 10 fielding runs below average (-10 FRAA) — and baserunning seem accurate, limiting his overall value.

4. Michael Fulmer is probably going to regress

We knew this was probably coming. Originally projected as a mid-rotation starter, Fulmer surprised everyone when he dominated the American League en route to Rookie of the Year honors last season. He finished the season with a 3.06 ERA in 159 major league innings, and was a huge reason why the Tigers were in the playoff hunt at the end of the season.

Unfortunately, his advanced metrics weren’t as rosy. He sported a 3.72 FIP last year, and his 3.49 Deserved Run Average — BP’s newest attempt at an ERA estimator — was also well above his actual production. His 2017 PECOTA projections are even worse, with ERA, FIP, and DRA all above 4.10. He is coming off a big jump in innings pitched last season as well, which might make him more susceptible to injury or regression.

That said, Fulmer has a good chance to beat his long-term projections. Everyone knew the fastball and slider were good, but the “How you like me now?” changeup came out of nowhere. If he hones that pitch just a little more, his strikeout rate could climb back to the All-Star levels he posted in the minor leagues.

5. Dixon Machado might be a capable big league shortstop

PECOTA projects Machado for 0.1 WARP in a scant 92 plate appearances at the major league level in 2017. This isn’t noteworthy, but his projected .240 TAv and .249/.313/.368 batting line is. Small sample caveats apply, but this production is right in line with what starting shortstop Jose Iglesias managed (.234 TAv) last season. Iglesias turned in a 2.4 WARP season thanks largely to his defense, something Machado could replicate if he were able to carry that same offensive production through a full season. That’s a big “if” — I’m skeptical he would be able to produce a .119 ISO, personally — but one worth exploring if Machado’s bat impresses this year.

6. Joe Jimenez needs more time in the minor leagues

This was a very unpopular opinion among Tigers fans last year — I clamored for the opposite last June — but fans don’t run the team. The people that do said Jimenez wasn’t quite ready for major league action, and PECOTA agrees. Jimenez is projected for a 4.58 ERA and 4.65 FIP in 38 23 major league innings this year, numbers that would shock anyone who has glossed over his stat pages in the past couple seasons.

There are a few discrepancies, though. PECOTA projects Jimenez for a walk rate of 3.9 per nine innings, well higher than anything he has ever produced in the minors. Ditto a projected 57 percent ground ball rate, light years ahead of even the 44 percent GB% he managed in rookie ball three years ago. BP even hedges in their bets in the comments, saying “if you’re willing to put a bet down on a relief prospect fulfilling his destiny... go with Jimenez.”

6b. The farm system is getting better

After bottoming out as BP’s worst-rated farm system in 2015, the Tigers have improved in each of the past two seasons. Like ESPN’s Keith Law, BP thinks the Tigers’ farm system has gotten better since last year despite graduating Michael Fulmer and Steven Moya to the major league ranks. It’s still not great — they’re in the lower third of all teams — but at least it’s trending the right way.

7. The Tigers were lucky on the injury front last season

Some might argue otherwise, considering Detroit lost J.D. Martinez, Nick Castellanos, Jordan Zimmermann, and Daniel Norris for large swathes of 2016. However, according to BP, the Tigers saw just six percent of their payroll hit the disabled list last season, a figure that was third-lowest in all of baseball. Losing the aforementioned cast of characters was costly, but they were able to keep aging veterans like Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, and Justin Verlander healthy. Let’s hope the Tigers can repeat that feat with an aging roster — one that ranked fourth-oldest for position players and seventh for pitchers last season — in 2017.

8. PECOTA doesn’t like the Tigers pitching staff

Never mind the bullpen, which was projected for the doom and gloom we ultimately saw in 2016. Only one Tigers starter — Justin Verlander, naturally — is projected to have an ERA under 4.00. The problem? PECOTA thinks Verlander will only manage a 3.91 ERA and 3.80 FIP in 189 innings. Part of this harkens back to his injury-plagued 2015 season and an iffy 2014 campaign, but his age is also a factor.

Unfortunately, Jordan Zimmermann’s projections are even worse. PECOTA pegs Zimmermann for a 4.70 ERA and 4.55 FIP in 163 innings. Statistical projections are typically a little wonky after injury-plagued seasons, but his 2015 numbers don’t look great in retrospect either. In particular, a 4.75 DRA in 201 23 innings with the Nationals is a bad omen.

Here are the projected numbers for Detroit’s starters.

Player ERA FIP DRA WARP
Player ERA FIP DRA WARP
Justin Verlander 3.91 3.80 4.00 2.7
Jordan Zimmermann 4.70 4.55 4.83 0.8
Michael Fulmer 4.21 4.11 4.31 1.4
Daniel Norris 4.53 4.45 4.64 0.8
Anibal Sanchez 4.77 4.64 4.92 0.4
Mike Pelfrey 5.01 4.73 5.00 0.1
Matt Boyd 4.67 4.53 4.83 0.5

9. Nick Castellanos is once again ready to break out

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: PECOTA is down on a Tigers player. Projection systems are naturally pessimistic, as we have seen with J.D. Martinez three years running. Nick Castellanos is projected for a modest .261/.313/.434 season at the plate, a slight improvement over what he managed in 2015. Tigers fans are obviously expecting more following his .285/.331/.496 effort last year, and it seems the BP staff is as well. For one, PECOTA gives Castellanos a 60 percent chance of improving on his career numbers. It also compares him to late breakout types like Alex Gordon and Edwin Encarnacion for the second year in a row, and expect him to match his career-high total with 18 home runs in 2017. Will he ultimately hit his Evan Longoria ceiling (as his Annual comment alludes to)? Offensively, maybe. Defensively... probably not.

10. Bruce Rondon might be the real deal

I’ve spent upwards of 1,500 words noting how pessimistic projection systems can be, but Rondon’s are relatively tame. PECOTA projects a modest decline in his walk rate, but still pegs him at a palatable 3.8 walks per nine innings. It also projects him to hold opponents to a 3.99 FIP, only a slight dip from last year’s 3.66 in 36 13 innings. The puzzle here is Rondon’s strikeout rate. PECOTA projects Rondon to fan 9.5 batters per nine this year, and 10.5 per nine in 2018. He struck out over 11 hitters per nine last season, and nearly matched that rate in 2015. If he can repeat that feat — something I’d bet on over any of his other numbers holding steady — he could match last season’s top-notch production.

Note: Baseball Prospectus’ Annual makes liberal use of two unique stats. The first is wins above replacement player (WARP), their version of WAR. The second is True Average (TAv), a catch-all offensive statistic similar to weighted on-base average, but scaled to batting average. By their definition, “.260 TAv is average, .300 exceptional, .200 rather awful.”