So, last fall - when I was tweeting away about some of the things that interested me from the Bill James Handbook, I saw someone responded to my tweets by saying "will somebody please tell Dan how to do a FanPost"....after finding out exactly what that was, I was intrigued. I like having baseball discussions with fans - I really like talking about baseball, but I've been frustrated by the limits of Twitter. Hard to have a good debate/discussion in 140 (now 280) characters (fan: "he sucks" me: "no, he doesn't, he just had a bad night." fan: "you suck") I liked the idea of posting something a little longer on blessyouboys -and then getting feedback. So....I'm giving it a shot. Throughout the season, I'll just be randomly posting about things that interest me -something I might have looked up, an observation from last night's game, or maybe something interesting from a conversation with a player or coach. Some will be short, some might be longer - and any feedback you have is welcome.
As we get ready for Opening Day I thought I'd review the spring, and talk about some of the performances that should give Tigers fans hope for a much better 2018. We all like to try to figure out what the coming season holds, right? I'm endlessly fascinated by the process of putting together a winning roster -and how the pieces fit (and sometimes don't fit) together. There are so many pieces, and so many moving parts with every team, it usually makes it impossible for even the very best writers/broadcasters to accurately predict how a season will unfold. I admit this year feels a little different -six or seven teams do seem to have separated themselves from the other 23. But still -we see it every year - you can just about guarantee one (or more) of the "sure things" will falter, and several surprise teams will move into contention.
When it comes to individual players, based on 19 years of watching hundreds of spring training games, I know one thing - I do not have the ability to watch a player's spring performance, and then accurately predict how he'll do in the regular season. And I'm talking about the guys who either don't have a track record, or who are coming off an injury, or guys who have been inconsistent in the major leagues -but appear to have the talent to be better. It's just so hard to make any judgments - based on results -when the end of every game features mostly minor leaguers, guys who played anywhere from short-season A ball to AAA. Or when your ABs come against established starters who are "just working on some things."
But still -we can try, can't we?
So what can you do? How can you evaluate whether a spring performance is a sign of something new - and better, or just a mirage? For pitchers, we can pay attention to what they're working on - and see if the stuff looks different. And then try to figure out if the new, improved stuff translates into a more effective major league pitcher. I think Chris Bosio is one of the better pitching coaches around, because of his ability to figure out how to get the most out of each individual pitcher. He has an endless supply of ideas -and a pretty impressive track record. Here are some performances from the spring that give me hope for a better 2018:
Jordan Zimmermann: Zimmermann said last year that he felt healthy, but knew his mechanics were out of whack, and that it would probably take the off-season to fix things -it was just too hard to fix things on the fly during a season. So what did Bosio do? In his first conversation with Jordan, he mentioned nothing about mechanics. He just told him to pick up the pace - that he was almost a full second slower in his windup than when he was with Washington. Zimmermann did, and immediately felt like he'd found his old delivery. Better rhythm, better tempo - everything felt better. And in a game against the Yankees in Tampa, facing that loaded lineup, he dominated with a swing and miss slider that we simply haven't seen in his two years in Detroit. Add in the fact that he's developed a two seam fastball for the first time, and he certainly looks ready to pitch more like a guy who averaged 4.0WAR/yr for the last four years with the Nats than the guy we've seen struggle the last two years.
Michael Fulmer: Fulmer's strikeout rate dropped to 6.2/9 last year - and yet with that power arm, he still pitched most days like an ace. Opponents had an OPS of .644, which was 4th-best in the American League behind Kluber, Severino and Sale. But I don't think Fulmer ever felt his slider was where he wanted it to be last year, and he also felt it was a little too hard at 88-89. So this spring he tried a new grip, took some velocity off, got more swings and misses -and generally dominated in every outing. I do think you have to have a certain level of swing-and-miss for consistency and long-term success. With an improved slider -and a fastball that averages almost 96MPH, I expect Fulmer to rack up a whole lot more Ks, eventually reaching the strikeout an inning level.
Joe Jimenez: no one has the ability to change the look of the Tigers bullpen like Jimenez does. The Tigers have seen few relievers come along who dominated at every level like Jimenez did (and please don't mention Bruce Rondon - he never dominated with a low walk rate like Jimenez did in the minors). Jimenez had as bad a debut as a rookie could have last fall - his mid-90s fastball was hittable, his slider was very much a work in progress. It certainly was not a weapon. What we saw this spring was a much better slider, still inconsistent at times, but much-improved. The one game we saw him where we actually had a monitor to see the movement on his pitches - his slider darted, and his fastball just seemed to have more life at 95-96. Jimenez K'd 15 in 9 innings with 5 walks, and allowed just seven hits. I have no idea whether he'll have a breakthrough year this year, but it sure does seem like he took a big step in that direction this spring.
Buck Farmer: here's the biggest test of all - a guy who has always had a good arm (even if we haven't always seen it), who has bounced back and forth between starting and relieving, and back and forth from the major leagues to the minor leagues for years. A guy who was pushed to the ML before he was ready - making his debut after pitching just twice above low A ball. And a guy who has really struggled to throw strikes, and get people out with any consistency in the major leagues. But -but - what if he's figured some things out? What if Bosio's work with him made some things click? Stranger things have happened. The track record is fairly well established, and it's not very good. But you could say the same thing about Jake Arrieta (just go back and look at those numbers with the Orioles) when Bosio got him in Chicago. Or Pedro Strop. Or Jason Hamel. All guys who had talent, but with little success in the major leagues until they got to Chicago, and, working with Chris Bosio, turned their careers around. I'm not saying Buck Farmer is the next Jake Arrieta. But everyone has always agreed he has a good arm. And most of the best relievers in the major leagues are former starters. With Buck, we've mostly seen a fastball 91-93 the last few years. This spring we saw 94-95, and a much more confident-looking pitcher on the mound. Farmer did not give up a run in 11 innings, with 11 strikeouts, 4 walks and 5 hits. It's not beyond the realm of possibility he becomes a nice bullpen piece.
Now - the hitters. I remember a spring where Pudge Rodriguez -who was in his power-decline phase, hit seven spring home runs. A sign of things to come? No - I think he went on to hit 11 home runs that year. I think trying to predict a season based on spring hitting performances may be even trickier than for pitching. Having said that, here are some thoughts from spring about guys who could have a big impact on this year's lineup:
Miguel Cabrera: we heard all spring he was healthy, that the back issues were behind him. And he did look great -the right workout routine can keep back issues in check and allow you, even in your mid-30s to be great again. Miguel said the bad back last year (and he says it went back farther than that) prevented him from extending, from being able to drive the ball with authority to the gaps. And this spring, that swing - that beautiful, classic swing - did seem like it was back. There wasn't much power early as he just got used to having healthy ABs again. Then the last two weeks, we saw him hit three home runs, each a little longer than the one before it, to right, right-center, and then even deeper right-center (on a line) in one of the last games in Lakeland. He looked like he was swinging free and easy, and looked like he was ready to get back to his usual levels of production. The injury history worries you, but you also remind yourself that Miggy has played with injuries in four of the last five years, and had a .950+OPS each year until last year.
Victor Martinez: the hard-hit data from last year (top 5 in ML, according to Bill James Handbook) at least gave fans hope Victor's last year with the Tigers could be a much better year than last year. This spring we still saw a quick bat, the ability to hit a good fastball, and the ability to drive the ball - with multiple home runs from both sides of the plate. With his heart problems behind him - he looks like he could get back to something like 2016 levels. Maybe not 27 home runs - but .290/.830OPS with 18-20 home runs. Back to being a guy opponents don't want to see at the plate in a big situation.
JaCoby Jones: I bring up JaCoby because he's so intriguing - a player who most agree can play Gold Glove-level defense, but who simply hasn't shown he can hit major league pitching. If he can hit enough, he can become an extremely valuable player patrolling the vast expanses of Comerica Park's outfield gaps. Think Kevin Pillar - a below-avg. hitter (by OPS) most years, but with superior defense, a player who has accumulated 11.1WAR the last three years with Toronto. I wanted to see Jones make more contact (obviously) this spring. Jones has struck out in almost half of his major league at bats. Last year, we saw him struggle to hit fastballs, especially ones up in the strike zone. Lloyd McClendon has always believed in JaCoby's ability to hit at the major league level (he had him Toledo two years ago), and his work with Jones has clearly worked wonders this spring. Jones looked confident right from the start, and made consistent contact all spring - with authority. He hit a 99MPH fastball out a few days ago - through the teeth of a strong wind blowing in at Joker Marchant Stadium. Maybe more than any other AB this spring, that seemed to indicate all the hard work has paid off. He walked five times, and struck out 12 times in 53PA. I asked him about his spring yesterday - and his simple reply, with a smile, was - "I'm older."
Other quick impressions: Jeimer Candelario just looks so comfortable - in the field, and at the plate. He looks like a fixture for years to come at 3B....Dixon Machado played a superb 2B all spring - he'll be a plus defensively...Nick Castellanos worked extremely hard on his defense all spring. Al Kaline couldn't have been more impressed with his work ethic and commitment to excel....Daniel Stumpf needed an improved changeup to get out RHBs - he wanted it to be in the 83-85MPH range, and it was. Seems like that will be key for him to be more than situational lefty....Drew VerHagen is learning to use his power right arm to get swings and misses. Never a strikeout pitcher -he finished last year with 19K in 19IP, then K'd 14 in 10IP this spring.
Spring training is a tricky time to evaluate players. But there are always guys who truly have made improvements, and are ready to surprise with a breakout performance. And sometimes their spring numbers really are an indicator. I'd love to know what you think.