Baseball season has begun.
“Umm, yeah,” you may say. “It started two weeks ago when players reported to spring training.” Or when the Super Bowl ended, as MLB Twitter so famously loves to point out. You may have your somewhat arbitrary end point as to when the season officially begins, and I have mine: the day I get my hands on the Baseball Prospectus annual.
For the past three years, I have pored over the Tigers section of the annual, both the essay and player comments, in search of interesting nuggets about how the statistical community views our favorite baseball team. Some years, they have been relatively positive. Other seasons? Not so much.
Either way, the annual — and this article, by extension — means that the regular season is around the corner. Let’s see what the Tigers have in store for us in 2019.
1. We’re still not sure what to make of the Tigers rebuild
Early on in his essay, author Zach Crizer compares the 2018 Tigers to the 2003 club, who famously lost 119 games before returning to the World Series just three years later. It was a rags-to-riches story we all love, one just three wins shy of being turned into a whale of a Hollywood script. Crizer points out that owner Mike Ilitch’s commitment to free agents Ivan Rodriguez and Magglio Ordoñez, while potentially not the smartest moves at the time, helped pave the way for the team’s return to contention.
But that Tigers team wasn’t fully formed yet, and neither is this one.
They had the no. 1 overall pick in June, taking Auburn right-hander Casey Mize. They will have the no. 5 pick in the 2019 draft. A few prospects acquired in the sell-off have begun to pop, like Daz Cameron (son of Mike, acquired for Verlander) and Isaac Paredes (an infielder who came over from the Cubs). There’s a void in premium position-player talent, but it’s too early to be worried; uncertainty is always going to be present in this phase of talent collection.
As much as we want the Tigers to start spending and winning now, they have had to do a lot to build up their farm system in the few years since former general manager Dave Dombrowski’s departure. I don’t feel an ounce of regret for those years — as Crizer notes, “every other fan base has been waiting decades to see a Triple Crown winner” — but if there’s one thing we have forgotten in the past 10-plus years of Tigers baseball, it’s that teams don’t always return to contention overnight.
2. Every roster move and transaction has ripple effects
Part of Crizer’s essay is a thought experiment; what if the Tigers had re-signed J.D. Martinez? The actual ramifications of keeping Martinez aren’t discussed for long. Instead, we are left to ponder if signing Martinez — or any other number of moves aimed to pry the window open longer — would have ultimately hampered the team’s chances at success in the long-term.
Would employing J.D. Martinez or a third solid starting pitcher have eliminated the 40-man spot used to add discarded former Twins minor league Niko Goodrum? Or blocked Joe Jimenez from running with a setup role? Goodrum’s average-hitting season in a super-utility role could be an aberration, or it could be the start of a useful career as a productive, flexible lineup stopgap. Jimenez may be the last Tigers All-Star you remember in a Sporcle quiz in 10 years, or he may be a contributor to the next Tigers contender. They are threads worth pulling on, and that’s at least half the battle.
While the Martinez trade is still a sore subject for some, we can ask similar questions about other veterans traded within the last couple years. Would the club be any better off with Justin Verlander still around? Or Justin Upton still in tow? Would signing another catcher cause the Tigers to lose their next breakout candidate on waivers (the next J.D. Martinez, if you will)? We will never truly know the answers to these questions, but they are all something the Tigers front office has to ponder every day when deciding on how the team is constructed.
3. The Miguel Cabrera of old might be long gone
Many suspected this earlier in his career, citing Cabrera’s body type as a reason to worry about how he would fare as he got further into his 30s. Even more have suspected that Cabrera’s best is long behind him after two more injury-riddled seasons, including a torn biceps that cost him most of 2018. He has been worth just 0.5 WARP over the past two seasons, with DRC+ figures (102 and 104) just a hair over league average.
While PECOTA thinks Cabrera to bounce back after two down years, the rebound might not be as high as we expect. He is projected to bat .265/.364/.424 with 15 home runs in 574 plate appearances. This 117 DRC+ is a great season for most hitters — it’s a hair better than what Nicholas Castellanos produced last year (116) — but is a long way off from the 149 DRC+ Cabrera managed* in 2016. It’s possible he flirts with his old production for stretches, but it would be a surprise to see him turn back the clock and put together a full season at his previous five-win level.
*There is a four-point difference between Cabrera’s 2016 DRC+ in the Annual (149) and what is listed on their website (153). His listed numbers for 2017 and 2018 are also higher on Baseball Prospectus’ website.
3a. Justin Verlander might be too
That’s only if you believe PECOTA, of course. Despite amassing 16.3 WARP over the past three seasons, including 7.3 in 2018, Verlander is projected to produce just 3.0 WARP in 2019. The former Tigers ace threw 214 innings last season, and has eclipsed the 200-inning mark for three years running after a couple of injury-riddled campaigns, but is projected to toss just 182 2⁄3 frames with a declining strikeout rate and 3.81 ERA.
He may not pitch for our favorite team anymore, but we’re still Justin Verlander homers around here. Forgive us for taking the over — way over — on PECOTA’s projected numbers for our beloved ace.
4. Jeimer Candelario still has something to prove
Tigers fans could not have been happier with Candelario in the first half of 2018. He hit .275/.367/.526 through April and May, and boasted an .802 OPS as late as July 2. A balky wrist and general struggles at the plate tanked his number after that, however, and he finished the year with a .224 batting average and underwhelming 91 DRC+. While most players his age improve — PECOTA gives him a 53 percent chance to do so in 2019 — his projections are underwhelming: a .228/.301/.368 line and -0.2 WARP in 553 plate appearances.
Part of PECOTA’s pessimism seems to stem from how DRC+ views Candelario. Since 2016, Candelario has managed above-average production at each of his three minor league stops. However, his DRC+ figures — 105 at Double-A in 2016, 121 and 108 at Triple-A in 2016 and 2017, respectively — are much lower than where he was valued by wRC+. This specifically holds true at Triple-A, where his same batting lines in 2016 and 2017 produced wRC+ figures of 155 and 122, respectively. As a result, Candelario’s Steamer projections (.239/.323/.411) are much higher than PECOTA’s prognostication.
5. Grayson Greiner might be better than we think
When manager Ron Gardenhire named Greiner the team’s starting catcher way back in December, the most common response among Tigers fans was “why not?” No one expected the Tigers to be in the mix for a top free agent like Yasmani Grandal, and any other addition likely would have pushed John Hicks out of the catching rotation, not Greiner. Top prospect Jake Rogers is the presumed catcher of the future, but won’t spend much (if any) time in the majors in 2019. Free agent signing or not — we’re still holding out hope for a late addition — Greiner was bound to get more playing time in 2019.
If we are to believe PECOTA, this could go very well for the Tigers. Baseball Prospectus’ defensive metrics, which include pitch framing, have loved Greiner’s numbers over the past couple years. He was worth 11.2 Framing Runs Above Average (FRAA) in a handful of games for Triple-A Toledo last year, and amassed a whopping 27.5 FRAA for Double-A Erie in 2017. Given a full-ish season of plate appearances at the MLB level, Greiner is projected to be worth +10 FRAA, and 1.6 WARP. His offense might not be great — they only project him for a 76 DRC+, 24 percent below league average — but Greiner’s defense, his calling card since draft day, could be a big upgrade over what James McCann managed in 2018.
And since you’re wondering, Greiner’s fielding numbers for Erie in 2017 compare favorably to defensive wizard Jake Rogers, who was worth 29.3 FRAA for Erie in 2018.
6. Casey Mize isn’t ready for the majors yet
Those hoping to see Mize make an early appearance in the major leagues are bound to be disappointed, and not just because PECOTA isn’t in love with Mize just yet. The 21-year-old righthander will get a full season’s worth of minor league innings under his belt before any promotion talk begins, especially if he continues to adjust to the pro game like he did last summer.
Given this reality, it’s almost not worth mentioning the projections, but here goes: a 5.41 ERA and 5.64 DRA, with mediocre strikeout and walk rates. The upside to documenting them? We get to compare them to his 2020 projections when I perform this exercise next February.
7. There are levels to Daniel Norris’ player comparisons
Analyzing PECOTA’s player comparisons is something of a fool’s errand. These are statistical comparisons to other players at the same age level, but offer little in the way of true statistical analysis. Some of them are interesting, such as Joe Jimenez being compared to current bullpen stalwarts Corey Knebel and Keone Kela, while others — one of Jake Rogers’ comps is Josh Donaldson — are downright bizarre.
Then there are Norris’ comparisons. First up is Luke Hochevar, another high draft pick and promising prospect who took a while to find his footing in the majors (he stayed healthy, though). Hochevar eventually transitioned to the bullpen and became a dominant reliever for a few years during the Royals’ brief reign atop the AL Central. Then there is Jordan Zimmermann, who was coming off a breakout age-25 season before he turned in four more excellent years with the Washington Nationals. Zimmermann also missed time earlier in his career, though that was largely due to one big injury (Tommy John surgery) rather than the myriad ailments Norris has suffered.
8. Christin Stewart’s defense should be just fine for now
This claim may not be well-timed after what was, by many accounts, a rough day for Stewart in the field on Monday, but statistical projections aren’t too worried about how he will fare in left field this season. PECOTA projects Stewart to be just one run below average (-1 FRAA) in 2019, a hair lower (-0.9 FRAA) than what he managed in a few games with the Tigers last year. This optimism likely stems from Stewart’s performance at Triple-A Toledo last season; in their eyes, Stewart was nearly a full win above average while playing in left.
9. Victor Alcantara and Drew VerHagen will take a step back
One of the more exciting mid-season developments we saw from the Tigers last year were a pair of unsung breakout performances in the bullpen. Both Drew VerHagen and Victor Alcantara put up monster numbers in the second half of 2018, putting them on the inside track to make the team out of spring training this year. Alcantara didn’t strike out many hitters en route to a 1.59 ERA in 17 second-half innings, but he also cut down on his walks in a big way. VerHagen had a little more trouble with his command, but he too cut down on the walks in the second half; he also struck out nearly a batter per inning, and gave up just three home runs across 31 innings.
PECOTA wants to see more, though. VerHagen’s hot second half hasn’t outweighed his overall performance in the computers’ eyes, as he is projected for another 4.31 ERA with only a modest increase in his strikeout rate. Alcantara’s a command is still a worry to the projection systems, as he is pegged for a 4.46 ERA and 1.41 WHIP in 50 2⁄3 frames.
10. Michael Fulmer should be just fine
Fulmer’s projected ERA starts with a four, but don’t let that fool you. Despite coming off yet another offseason surgery, Fulmer is projected to have his second-best season (in terms of WARP) in 2019. If all goes well, he will shake off the rust to throw a handful of innings (159 2⁄3, to be exact) while striking out his usual number of hitters. Low walk and home run rates will help him keep runners off the basepaths and limit the damage he faced. Fulmer was a bit homer-prone in 2018, so that will be something to watch, but the computers like him to return to normal this year.
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 Deserved Runs Created Plus (DRC+), a catch-all offensive statistic similar to FanGraphs’ weighted runs created plus (wRC+). If you are interested in learning more about the latter statistic, check out Baseball Prospectus’ website.