As I’ve mentioned on this site for the past couple years, baseball season doesn’t truly start until I get my hands on the Baseball Prospectus Annual. I’ve ordered the book for several years running now, but only just started using it as a writing device back in 2016. In the past two years, I’ve used the book’s essay on the Detroit Tigers and their player comments to dive into a preview of sorts for the Tigers season, all under the guise of what Baseball Prospectus and their PECOTA projection system are forecasting for the year ahead.
In other words, when this stuff is wrong and the Tigers win the World Series, you can mock them.
Fortunately, the folks at BP are good at what they do. The last two versions of this article were quite prescient, minus the part where they didn’t think J.D. Martinez was very good. So, while we hope they’re wrong and the Tigers barnstorm their way to the playoffs, it probably won’t happen. Let’s learn why.
1. The Tigers are very boring
We’ve spent the last four months talking about how the Tigers are building for the future. Early on, our conversations centered around how the team needed to target low-cost, high-upside players, even if those guys weren’t going to be very good in 2018. Sure, the long winter wore on our sanity a bit — okay, a lot — but that’s because there isn’t much for the team to do right now. They need to build up their farm system, but their next big chance to do that doesn’t happen for another five months. They can take chances on the Arismendy Alcantaras of the world, but they can also only house so many of those guys within their organization.
So, we’re left with imaging hypotheticals like the one Tigers essay writer Zachary Levine cooked up. In hit, he imagines two scenarios: one in which the Tigers improve dramatically on their 2017 record and push into playoff position, and one in which they basically replicate the 2003 season. The optimistic viewpoint doesn’t stretch reality too much (besides Jordan Zimmermann becoming a three-win pitcher again), but involves a lot of things going right. The second scenario? Well, we know how 2003 went.
Either way, this involves the Tigers hitting one extreme end of an otherwise lackluster spectrum. They are projected to be the third-worst team in baseball by PECOTA, and will finish there in the dullest division in baseball. When this mediocre roster bores you to death in June, just remember that we (and Zachary) told you first.
2. Miguel Cabrera is primed for a bounce-back season
National analysts have long since derided Cabrera for his poor defense and baserunning, all the while hinting that he wouldn’t stay productive into his late 30s. The 2017 season was their Exhibit A, as Cabrera hit just .249/.329/.399 with 15 home runs. It was the second time in three years he failed to hit 20 dingers after being a stone-cold lock for 25 homers and 100 RBI for a decade.
PECOTA doesn’t believe this is the end of Mighty Miggy, though. Baseball Prospectus’ projection system has Cabrera pegged for a .300/.381/.505 batting line, complete with 26 home runs and 92 RBI. These figures aren’t far off from his career totals, minus a few points of slugging. His .296 True Average (TAv) is 11th among all hitters, ahead of younger stars like Anthony Rizzo and some guy named Aaron Judge.
3. Jeimer Candelario will probably take a big step back
Jeimer Candelario’s emergence as a solid hitter and average defender was one of the only reasons to watch the Tigers last September. He bounced back from a poor showing in a few games with the Chicago Cubs to hit .330/.406/.468 in 106 plate appearances in a Tigers uniform. He didn’t flash a ton of power, but showed a patient approach at the plate with 12 walks to 18 strikeouts.
Unfortunately, the computers don’t think his production is sustainable. Candelario is projected to hit just .258/.332/.442, a .262 TAv that ranks right around league average. Pair that with below-average baserunning and defensive numbers, and his overall projection comes to just 0.8 WARP in a full season’s worth of plate appearances. For a player who was on a two-win pace last fall with those same baserunning and defensive numbers, it’s a disappointing outlook. Hopefully he improves just enough in each facet to beat the odds.
4. Dixon Machado will likely out-produce Jose Iglesias
This one comes with a caveat. As a gifted defender at shortstop, Machado is already going to be one of the best defensive second basemen in baseball. Hell, he might actually win a Gold Glove this year. He has a shortstop’s range, and a cannon for an arm, and shouldn’t have any trouble transitioning to the other side of the bag for a year.
So, when we point out that he is projected for 1.4 WARP to Jose Iglesias’ 0.7, know that it is almost all defense. Machado is projected to be worth +12 Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA), a figure only one MLB second baseman eclipsed in 2017. Colorado’s D.J. LeMahieu, the guy that put up 20.7 FRAA last year, is projected for +5 this year. We know computer projections to be notoriously conservative, so know that this is a gaudy number for Machado. Even if he doesn’t hit, he could be close to a league average player on the glove alone.
5. This pitching staff is going to be really bad
Of the 25 pitchers listed on the Tigers’ roster within the Annual, only one is projected to finish the season with an ERA under 4.00. That pitcher is closer Shane Greene, who is projected to finish the year with a 3.87 ERA and 52 strikeouts in 54 innings pitched. While many of the pitchers listed don’t play for the Tigers anymore — Edward Mujica, Kyle Ryan, and Bruce Rondon are just a few listed — it’s not like the team has brought in any proven reinforcements.
Speaking of Greene, his numbers are tinged somewhat by Deserved Run Average’s (DRA) pessimistic take on his 2017 season. Greene managed a 2.66 ERA and 73 strikeouts in 67 2⁄3 innings last year, but his DRA was over a run and a half higher at 4.19. According to DRA, last season was nearly a mirror image of 2016, when he posted a 5.82 ERA in 60 1⁄3 frames. My guess is he will beat those projections — remember, they’re also colored by his injury-riddled 2015 campaign — and make himself into a valuable trade chip come July.
6. Michael Fulmer should be just fine, though
While Greene is the only Tigers pitcher with an ERA projected under 4.00, Fulmer isn’t far off at 4.04. We tend to forget just how much Fulmer’s ERA regressed in 2017, though one might argue that his abysmal finish to the year (6.15 ERA in his last seven starts) was due to injury.
Prior to that, he had been the same Michael Fulmer we saw in 2016. He managed a 3.06 ERA through his first 18 starts, complete with the high ground ball rate and low homer totals we’ve already come to expect in Fulmer’s early career. His lack of strikeouts certainly don’t help the projections — high strikeout pitchers have always caught the computers’ eye — but 2.7 WARP in 180 innings is a decent benchmark for what we should expect this year.
7. PECOTA doesn’t see Joe Jimenez getting much better
Okay, sure, Joe Jimenez will get better after a disaster of a debut in 2017. He put up a 12.32 ERA in 19 big league innings last year, and looked about as overmatched as any young pitcher in recent memory. But his minor league numbers are still stellar, and he’s still in his early 20s with a high-90s fastball.
I felt the gaudy numbers in the minors, in particular, would have scored well in PECOTA’s eyes, but that isn’t the case. Jimenez is projected to finish with a 4.14 ERA this year, a far cry from what we hoped he would do when he burst onto the minor league scene back in 2016. The strikeout rate should be just fine — he’s projected for 64 punchouts in 54 innings — but his iffy command in the high minors is one reason why he is only projected to finish with a 4.20 DRA and 0.6 WARP.
8. Christin Stewart’s power should translate well to the majors
Of the few Tigers prospects listed in the Annual, Christin Stewart’s projections are the best by far. The 24-year-old slugger is projected to hit .237/.326/.475 in a handful of plate appearances at the major league level this year, good enough for a .261 TAv. While we will be hoping for more than league average production at the plate down the road, this would be a solid debut for Stewart. The .238 ISO, in particular, is a positive sign. His 2019 projections are also a bit rosier, complete with 20 home runs in a partial season’s worth of plate appearances.
9. Beau Burrows has some interesting company
PECOTA’s player comparisons are one of the more interesting parts of the BP Annual. Sure, they aren’t exactly predictive, but they are fun to monitor nonetheless. For instance, two of Dixon Machado’s closest comparisons at his age are Ben Zobrist and Brian Dozier. Machado probably won’t ever hit 40 homers or compile an eight-win season.
But dammit if Beau Burrows’ player comps aren’t a little encouraging. The 21-year-old is coming off a monster season at High-A Lakeland that saw him get an early promotion to Double-A Erie, where he still struck out a batter per inning at age 20. PECOTA thinks he would continue to do so at the major league level this season. Better yet, it compared him to Jose Berrios and Michael Pineda, two hard-throwing righthanders coming off solid 2017 seasons. Burrows doesn’t necessarily have the upside of either pitcher, but should still provide useful mid-rotation innings once he reaches the majors in a couple more years.
10. PECOTA finally believes in J.D. Martinez
Okay, so this one isn’t Tigers related, but those who have read this post — or the Annual itself, I guess — over the past few years may have noticed that PECOTA’s projected output for one J.D. Martinez has been rather low. In 2016, he was projected to hit .271/.324/.465. He actually hit .307/.373/.535. Last year, he was projected to hit .271/.328/.480.
He hit .303/.376/.690 and mashed home runs at a quicker pace than Giancarlo Stanton.
Top ten in homers per 600 plate appearances last year:— Eno Sarris (@enosarris) February 12, 2018
1) JD Martinez 62.5
2) Giancarlo Stanton 59.3
3) Aaron Judge 57.6
4) Joey Gallo 54.8
5) Mike Trout 49.3
6) Cody Bellinger 48.8
7) Josh Donaldson 47.7
8) Khris Davis 45.6
9) Logan Morrison 44.5
10) Michael Conforto 43.4
This year, PECOTA is finally kinda-sorta buying into the hype. Martinez is projected to hit .281/.343/.546. Detractors may point out that his projected home run total (28) is one fewer than he hit with the Arizona Diamondbacks last year — yes, just the Diamondbacks — but that’s still a projected .889 OPS. Let’s hope he signs somewhere soon so he can get back to work.
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.”