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MLB Opening Day: Tigers offense should be one of league’s best in 2017

The Tigers have too much talent to be merely league average again this year.

MLB: Spring Training-Detroit Tigers at Atlanta Braves Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Tigers struggled to score runs at times in 2016. This is an odd predicament for them, as they have ranked among the league’s best offenses for the past several years. Only four MLB teams have scored more runs than them in the past decade, and one of them plays their home games at Coors Field. Throughout the Tigers’ four-year run atop the AL Central, they were second only to the Boston Red Sox in runs scored.

Last season, however, things fell a little flat. The Tigers finished with 750 runs scored, the 11th-highest total in Major League Baseball.

This was not for lack of trying, though. The Tigers had the second-best batting average and on-base percentage in the American League, and their .438 slugging average was third. They managed a 105 wRC+, the third-best figure in the league, and hit 211 home runs, their highest total since 1999.

We can diagnose the problem later — spoiler: it’s baserunning — but with Opening Day less than a week away, it’s more important to look forward. The Tigers don’t rate highly among statistical projections in general heading into 2017, but the offense in particular seems a bit overlooked. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system projects the Tigers for 741 runs scored, the seventh-highest total among AL teams. FanGraphs’ projections are a bit rosier at 4.70 runs per game (or 761 runs over a 162-game season), but still rank the Tigers seventh in the AL.

It’s easy to see how things could improve, though. If the Tigers become a little more efficient in driving runners in, and get a little bit luckier with the timing of their hits — FanGraphs’ BaseRuns metric thinks the Tigers should have scored 16 more runs than they did last year — they could return to the upper echelon of the American League.

Offense at a glance

2016 runs scored: 750 | 2016 team wOBA: .330 | 2016 team fWAR: 20.2
2017 runs projected (PECOTA): 741 | 2017 projected WAR (FanGraphs): 18.0
Note: Numbers below are based on FanGraphs’ Depth Charts projections.

Catcher: James McCann

2016 numbers: .221/.272/.358, .273 wOBA, 0.8 fWAR
2017 projections: .241/.286/.365, .283 wOBA, 1.4 fWAR

While catchers are not always chosen for their capabilities at the plate, James McCann’s 2016 numbers were pitiful even by their standards. He struck out nearly 30 percent of the time, and his 66 wRC+ was third-worst among MLB catchers who logged at least 300 plate appearances. Part of the problem was a balky ankle, which he sprained early in the season. Now healthy, McCann wants “to be a tough out” in the latter half of the Tigers’ lineup. He is already doing just fine against lefthanders — he managed an .858 OPS against southpaws last season — but needs to improve considerably against righties. Even a slight uptick in performance against them would do wonders for increasing his value as a starting catcher.

Of course, that’s only half the battle (if that) for catchers. McCann has always been a great catch-and-throw backstop; he proved that once again in 2016, throwing out 45 percent of attempted base stealers. The real improvement came as a receiver. Once one of the worst pitch framers in baseball, McCann was roughly league average last season. According to Baseball Prospectus, McCann went from nearly 16 runs below average as a defender in 2015 to three runs above average last season.

First base: Miguel Cabrera

2016 numbers: .316/.393/.563, .399 wOBA, 4.9 fWAR
2017 projections: .306/.386/.531, .384 wOBA, 4.1 fWAR

We all know Miguel Cabrera is superhuman. I sent our BYB staff on a mission this preseason to write an article about the things Cabrera doesn’t do well offensively, and, well... they’ve come up empty so far. Cabrera’s superlative performance has even gotten to the point that he might be underrated. At least, that’s what MLB.com’s Mike Petriello says.

But as we rolled out our latest Statcast™ metric, Hit Probability, earlier this month, we noticed something very interesting: Of 268 hitters who had at least 100 plate appearances last year, only one had a larger difference between what actually happened and what was estimated to happen. That is, as great as Cabrera was, his batted-ball profile -- based on exit velocity and launch angle, and not on the positioning of the defense against him -- suggested the outcomes should have been even better.

Barring injury, Cabrera will hit. He has been at least 50 percent better than the average hitter in six of the past seven seasons, and he was “only” 48 percent better in that seventh year. However, his back has already started barking at him this spring. Cabrera is still playing, but the Tigers need him 100 percent healthy for this offense to become fully weaponized.

Second base: Ian Kinsler

2016 numbers: .288/.348/.484, .356 wOBA, 5.8 fWAR
2017 projections: .272/.323/.425, .323 wOBA, 3.0 fWAR

Last spring, I wrote an article titled “Ian Kinsler is starting to decline.”

Whoops.

In my defense, FanGraphs’ Tony Blengino pointed out some warning signs in Kinsler’s batted ball data from the 2015 season. He was not making as much contact, and his exit velocity was below what one would expect given his high line drive rate. Kinsler responded by having his best offensive season in a Tigers uniform, and winning his first Gold Glove to boot. His strikeout rate continued to rise, but he increased his fly ball rate to that of his heyday with the Texas Rangers. This resulted in 28 home runs, his highest total since a 31-homer season in 2011. His age is still a concern — 35-year-old middle infielders aren’t normally six-win players — but he will still be one of the Tigers’ best all-around players in 2017.

Shortstop: Jose Iglesias

2016 numbers: .255/.306/.336, .283 wOBA, 2.1 fWAR
2017 projections: .273/.321/.359, .298 wOBA, 1.8 fWAR

When the Tigers acquired Jose Iglesias in 2013, fans expected him to hit roughly .250 with an on-base percentage just north of .300. Two .300 seasons later, Iglesias’ .255/.306/.336 batting line from 2016 felt like a major letdown. If you believe the advanced metrics, Iglesias’ defense took a major step forward last year, resulting in the highest WAR totals of his career. However, the Tigers would like a little more offensively out of the 27-year-old Cuban. He maintained an elite contact rate last season, but put the ball in the air more often, resulting in more outs. He is one of the few hitters in baseball that should look to lower his launch angle, and get back to legging out infield hits at the bottom of the Tigers’ lineup.

Third base: Nick Castellanos

2016 numbers: .285/.331/.496, .350 wOBA, 1.9 fWAR
2017 projections: .267/.318/.446, .326 wOBA, 1.2 fWAR

Last season may have looked like a bit of a breakout for Nick Castellanos, but to those paying attention, it was just a continuation of how he finished 2015. Since a well-timed benching in June 2015, Castellanos is hitting .284/.330/.492, good enough for a 120 wRC+. He has 29 home runs in 787 plate appearances during this stretch, just over a full season’s worth of at-bats.

Speaking of home runs, Castellanos looked poised to finally reach the 20-homer plateau in 2016, only for a broken hand to sideline him for most of the second half. Should he stay healthy, he will probably reach that level this season. Castellanos’ fly ball rate has increased in each of his three full MLB seasons, and he produced a .212 isolated power (ISO) in 447 plate appearances last year. As he continues to pull the ball more — another thing he did better last season than in 2015 — his numbers will continue to improve.

Left field: Justin Upton

2016 numbers: .246/.310/.465, .329 wOBA, 1.4 fWAR
2017 projections: .259/.335/.475, .345 wOBA, 2.5 fWAR

For the first half of 2016, Justin Upton looked like the flop of the offseason. He got off to an ice-cold start last year, hitting .221/.242/.326 in April and .235/.289/.381 in the first half. A torrid finish saved his season-long numbers, but fans were left to wonder if Upton’s streaky ways were part of the reason the Tigers missed the playoffs for a second consecutive season.

There’s reason to believe Upton will bounce back, though. If we look at his numbers from May 15 onward, Upton produced a 125 wRC+ and 29 home runs, totals slightly above his career norms. In that case, one might refer to his .208 batting average and .549 OPS during the first six weeks of the season as a lengthy adjustment period. Luckily, his numbers this spring suggest all is well; in 20 games, Upton is hitting .281 with a .561 slugging average and five home runs.

Center field: JaCoby Jones

2016 numbers (AAA): .243/.309/.356, .302 wOBA
2017 projections (MLB): .227/.280/.364, .279 wOBA, 0.0 fWAR

We’re still not sure how exactly the Tigers’ center field situation will shake out, but J.D. Martinez’s recent foot injury seems likely to force JaCoby Jones into an early starting role. To his credit, Jones had forced his way into the conversation even prior to Martinez’s injury, batting .333/.391/.548 in 20 games this spring. Everyone associated with the Tigers has raved about his defense in center field, but the omnipresent question with Jones is his ability to hit at the major league level. He struggled in a brief stint last fall, hitting .214 with zero walks and 12 strikeouts in 28 plate appearances. Ideally, the Tigers would give Jones more time to develop in the minors before handing him the keys in center, but they might not have time for that. If he can manage to out-perform his statistical projections, fans should be happy.

Right field: J.D. Martinez

2016 numbers: .307/.373/.535, .384 wOBA, 1.8 fWAR
2017 projections: .279/.341/.505, .357 wOBA, 2.2 fWAR

If there’s one place the projection systems are severely underrating the Tigers, it’s with J.D. Martinez. The waiver wire steal of the decade hit .307/.373/.535 with 22 home runs in 120 games played last season. Since he arrived in Detroit, he has been as valuable a hitter as sluggers Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista. However, the computer projections have continued to lag behind; FanGraphs’ Depth Charts (a combination of ZiPS and Steamer) have Martinez pegged for an .846 OPS, while PECOTA thinks he is a 1.1 WARP player.

While there are some questions about his defense — some of the pessimism in his projected WAR totals is due to a wild fluctuation in his defensive statistics over the past couple years — his sprained foot is now the bigger issue. Martinez seems upbeat about his progress so far, but foot injuries can be notoriously slow to heal.

Designated hitter: Victor Martinez

2016 numbers: .289/.351/.476, .351 wOBA, 0.9 fWAR
2017 projections: .272/.332/.433, .325 wOBA, 0.3 fWAR

With the way Tigers fans talked about Victor Martinez down the stretch in 2016, one would think he was enduring another replacement level season at the plate. Sure, he nearly was, but that’s almost entirely thanks to some of the worst baserunning baseball has ever seen. At the plate, Martinez was his usual self, hitting .289/.351/.476 with 27 home runs in 610 plate appearances. He seems to have lost a bit of bat speed, as his strikeout rate climbed to a career high 14.8 percent; however, that is still well below the league average, and almost unfathomably low for a player with Martinez’s power.

Like so many other players on the Tigers’ roster, Martinez’s health is critical. He produced a 120 wRC+ at age 37 last season, but we have seen what the drop-off looks like when Martinez is hobbled. If he can reproduce last season’s 120 wRC+, I imagine most Tigers fans will be happy.

Opening Day 2017 Preview!

Nai-post ni Bless You Boys: For Detroit Tigers Fans noong Miyerkules, Marso 29, 2017