Thursday, April 30, 2009

One Third of the Way Home

One month into the season, the Tigers seem to be the very definition of mediocrity. They are 7th in the league with 5.3 runs per game and 8th in runs allowed with 5.0 per game. According to the Pythagorean Theorem, they should be 11-10 which is exactly where they are. Even the division is mediocore with no team more than two games above .500 and four teams within a game of first place. Things should get interesting the next two weeks as the Tigers have a stretch of 13 games versus the Indians, White Sox and Twins.

The Bengals are middling in almost every offensive category:
  • 8th in batting average (.265)
  • 9th in slugging (.417)
  • 7th in OBP (.339)
  • 8th in Isolated Power (.252)
  • 8th in homers (23)
  • 9th in walks (71)
One area where they actually rank pretty well is strikeouts where their 133 total is 5th lowest in the league. With all the talk of Josh Anderson and the speed he brings to the Tigers you might think they are running the bases well but they really aren't. According to Baseball Prospectus Equivalent Base Running Runs (EqBRR) Statistic they rank 13th with 2.54 runs below average.

On the other side of the ball, their pitching staff is 9th overall with a 4.84 FIP. Bullpen implosions have been most responsible for their relatively low ranking as their starting pitching ranks 5th in FIP.

It may look like their fielding has been bad but the defensive measures do not agree. They rank fifth in Defensive Efficiency Ratio at .700 and second on The Hardball Times Fielding Runs Above Average statistic (+11).

While the team has been very average overall, they have been some fine performances by individual players. The biggest surprise offensively has been Brandon Inge who leads the team in the following categories (found at FanGraphs):
  • OPS 1.114
  • Slugging .667
  • Isolated Power .348
  • Weighted Runs Above Average (wRAA) 9.1
  • Walk Percentage 15.9%
  • BB/K ratio 0.93
Miguel Cabrera leads in batting average (.377) and On Base Average (.455). Their top base runner has been Josh Anderson (.432 EQBRR) but he is just barely ahead of Carlos Guillen (.430) and Gerald Laird (.391).

This will likely create an uproar but the pitching categories are divided among Armando Galarraga, Edwin Jackson and yes Justin Verlander who has done very well in the Fielding Indepencent Statistics:
  • ERA - Galarraga 1.85
  • FIP - Verlander 3.21
  • BB/9 IP - Jackson 2.25
  • K/ 9 IP - Verlander 10.93
  • HR/ 9 IP - Galarraga 0.37
That 2.25 walk ratio for Jackson has probably been the single most surprising and encouraging element of the Tigers pitching staff so far.

The bullpen has been led by Bobby Seay who leads the relievers in the following statistics:
  • ERA 0.00
  • FIP 2.08
  • BB/ 9 IP 0.00
  • Win Probability Added (WPA) 0.52
Despite his 5.63 ERA, Fernando Rodney ranks right behind Seay with a 0.51 WPA.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Live Blogging at Tigers Corner

Long time writer, analyst and Tigers fan Gary Gillette will be blogging tonight's game from the press box at Comerica Park so don't forget to drop by Tigers Corner for this unique perspective of the game.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Inge Showing Patience

We all know that Brandon Inge is off to a tremendous start offensively. A line of .328/.442/.688 with 7 homers in the first month is not what we expected from Inge. We know about his new stance and approach but I also wanted to take a look at the fangraphs statistics to get a clearer picture of what's happening.

Table 1 below looks at Inge's plate discipline. The 2009 sample is small but he is swinging at smaller percentage of pitches outside the strike zone (OSWING%) this year. It was as high as 23.3% in 2007, fell to 20.4% last year and is down to 18.6% this year. He is also swinging at a smaller percentage of pitches inside the zone (ZSWING%). After swinging at over 60% of pitches in the zone the last two years, he is down to 56.5% so far in 2009. When he does swing he is making contact more frequently (75.5% in 2008 and 78.8% in 2009).

Table 1: Plate Discipline Stats - Brandon Inge

Year

OSwing%

ZSwing%

Contact%

2007

23.3

63.0

74.4

2008

20.4

60.1

75.8

2009

18.6

56.5

78.8


Table 2 shows that the the result of his increased patience is more walks and fewer strikeouts. He walked in 8.5% of his plate appearances in 2007, 11.0% in 2008 and 14.7% this year. His strikeouts have gone in the opposite direction (29.5% in 2007, 27.1% in 2008 and 20.3% in 2009).

Table 2 - Walks and Strikeouts - Brandon Inge

Year

BB%

K%

K/BB

2007

8.5

29.5

3.5

2008

11.0

27.1

2.5

2009

14.7

20.3

1.4


Why all the home runs? The batted ball data in Table 3 so that he is actually hitting fewer balls in the air so far this year. His ground ball percentage is up from 37.1% last year to 45.1% this year. His line drive percentage is down (16.4% in 2008 and 9.8% this year). His Fly ball percentage is about the same but his home run per fly ball is way up (9.2% last year to 30.4% this year). So, he's hitting the ball in the air less but when he does hit one, it really goes.

Table 3 - Batted Ball Data - Brandon Inge

Year

LD%

GB%

FB%

HR/FB

2007

22.0

37.0

40.9

9.5

2008

16.4

37.1

46.5

9.2

2009

9.8

45.1

45.1

30.4


It's too early to make any conclusions but the lower swing percentage along with more walks and fewer strikeouts is interesting and worth watching. His home run rate is fluky but getting back to his 14.3% HR/FB rate in 2006 is certainly possible.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Verlander Finally Gets Results

Justin Verlander had shown great stuff through the first four games this year. He had excellent velocity, great movement and a 25/9 K/BB ratio in 21 innings. At times, he looked absolutely dominant but it never lasted for a full game. Every time he got into a jam he would get hit hard. He came into tonight's game with a league low by far 39.6% Left On Base Percentage. (Billfer did an analysis of Verlander's pitches from the windup versus from the stretch). The result was a lot of frustration and a pitiful 9.00 ERA.

Today, Justin had the good stuff for seven shutout innings before yielding to Bobby Seay after to singles leading off the eighth. He struck out nine and walked none giving him a 34/9 ratio in 28 innings for the season. Bobby Seay got him out off the hook by retiring the Yankees one two three and has now gone 10 games and 7 1/3 innings without allowing a run or a walk. Fernando Rodney then did his best Todd Jones imitation allowing the first three Yankees to get hits before settling down to finish off a 4-2 victory. He got some help from a nifty double play turned by Brandon Inge and Placido Polanco.

The Yankees CC Sabathia was pretty good too allowing six hits and no walks in eight innings. However, as other teams had done against Verlander prior to tonight, the Tigers were able to bunch their hits and score four runs. Placido Polanco was in the middle of both rallies getting doubles in both the one one run first and the three run sixth. Magglio Ordonez capped the sixth inning rally with a two run blast, his second of the year.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Winning Road Trip

Armando Galarraga was a bit wild today but gave up only three hits and one run in six innings as the Tigers topped the Royals 3-2 to give themselves a winning road trip. Galarraga allowed five walks and hit two batters but once again managed to prevent runners from scoring. He came into the game with a very high 87.4 LOB% and should stay in the vicinity of that with today's performance. A pitcher can get away with a high walk game when he gives up no homers, strikes out seven and has a ground out/fly out ratio of nine to one.

The most pleasant surprise concerning the first place Tigers this year has been the work of the bullpen and the relievers did not fail them today either. Bobby Seay pitched a perfect seventh and still has not allowed a run this year. Ryan Perry followed with a scoreless eighth and Fernando Rodney preserved the victory, although he did allow a solo homer to Mike Aviles.

The second surprise in the early going has been Brandon Inge and the slugging third sacker belted his seventh homer of the year today to put them up 2-0 in the second. The other run scored in a fashion that is becoming more common for the Tigers this year. Josh Anderson led off the fifth with a single, stole second, went to third on an Adam Everett grounder and scored on sacrifice fly by Dane Sardinha. The bottom of the lineup has kept the offense alive while some at the top of the order have struggled so far.

So, the Tigers went 5-4 on the first west coast trip of the season. They started the trip by taking took two of three from a hot Mariners team. They then lost two of three to the Angels including a couple of hideous performances that reminded us of the 2008 season. Finally, they recovered this weekend by taking two of three from the Royals. Next up is an eight game home stand versus the Yankees, Indians and Twins.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Tigers Pitching Calms Down

After allowing 26 runs in the past three games, five Tigers pitchers combined to allow just one run on six hits tonight in a 9-1 win over the Royals. Zach Miner went five shutout innings before allowing a lead off single in the sixth. I was surprised to see him removed at that point but Jim Leyland wanted Bobby Seay to face left-handed batters David DeJesus, Mark Teahen and Mike Jacobs. One run did score but that would be it as Brandon Lyon, Nate Robertson and Joel Zumaya held them scoreless the rest of the way.

Zumaya looked OK in his first appearance of the season. He allowed two singles but was helped out by a double play. He threw a couple of pitches as fast as 99 MPH and had good movement but just middling command. He was a bit wild but didn't walk anybody.

Jeff Laird continued his hot hitting with two singles and his first home run as a Tiger. He is now batting .342 but it shouldn't be a surprise that he is off to a good start. He generally has big first halves before tiring later the season. For his career, he has hit .280 before the all-star break and .229 after.

Magglio Ordonez also got his first round tripper of the season in the ninth. In fact, it was his first extra base hit in the 17 games into the season.

Curtis Granderson hit his sixth homer of the season and his fourth of the week. Mario Impemba mentioned during the broadcast that Granderson is second in the American League behind only Alex Rodriguez with 152 extra base hits since 2007. That statistic surprised me so I confirmed it using Lee Sinnis's Baseball Encyclopedia. It turns out most of the biggest extra base hitters have been in the National League or both leagues. There were ten Major League hitters ahead of both ARod and Grandy including Miguel Cabrera with 155. Hanley Ramirez is the Major League leader with 163.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Tigers Scoring with Less Power

The Tigers typically rely on power for a large proportion of their scoring. A case in point was last year when they finished fourth in the league with 821 runs on the strength of 200 home runs ( second only to the White Sox). Their isolated power (slugging average minus batting average) was .173, good for 3rd in the league. They finished 5th in batting average at .271 and 9th in batting average with runners in scoring position at .268.

This year, they are still fourth in the league with six runs scored per game but they are doing it without power. Their 16 homers entering Thursday night's game was 8th in the league and they are 9th in isolated power with a .157 mark. While their power output is down, they are second in the league in batting average (.293) batting average with runners in scoring position (.316).

Another thing they are doing this year is scoring more consistently. Last year, they got shutout twelve times including four in the month of April. This year, they have not scored fewer than two runs yet. They scored two runs twice and actually won one of those games. They have scored three runs in two games. Some think that less reliance on power helps to prevent shutouts because a versatile offense has more different ways to score. I know of no studies which back up that theory but so far their offense is working well this year.

Individually, they only have three hitters showing much power - Brandon Inge and Curtis Granderson with five homers apiece and Miguel Cabrera with four. nobody else has more than one round tripper. Conversely, they have five batters batting over .300 - Cabrera (.440), Josh Anderson (.368), Magglio Ordonez (.321 without an extra base hit), Inge (.320) and Adam Everett (.308).

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Willis and Zumaya Updates

According to Jason Beck, Dontrelle Willis and Joel Zumaya both had encouraging rehab outings tonight. Willis pitched in Lakeland and Kyle from Motownsports captured the game on UTube.
In his first game off the disabled list, Willis pitched seven innings allowing four runs (two earned) on seven hits but what really matters is that he threw strikes. He threw 58 strikes on 75 pitches and walked nobody. It was only a single-A game but he hasn't shown that kind of efficiency anywhere for a long time. He'll get another rehab outing for Double-A Erie on Sunday.

Zumaya threw one inning for Toledo tonight and retired the side including two strikeouts. He is also scheduled to pitch tomorrow which would be his first time pitching in back to back games this spring. If he passes that test, he might be back with the Tigers soon.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Beyond Tiger Tales

If I have blogged in a little less detail the past few months, it is because I've been involved in a couple of other projects. First, I am doing some work for John Burnson over at Heater Magazine. It's an online magazine for fantasy baseball players which covers every Major League team team in great statistical detail. My job is to give semiweekly updates on the the Detroit Tigers. If you want to check it out, you can download a sample issue.

If you decide to subscribe, you can get a discount by using the following link: Heater Magazine

I'm also working on a book involving sabermetrics. I've been blogging and debating about sabermetrics for years and have decided to organize a lot of my thoughts into a book which I hope will give people a greater understanding of baseball statistics. My first draft is complete but there is still a lot of work to be done. I'll give you more details as I move closer to completion.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Another Good Start for a Tigers Starter

I was celebrating Greek Easter with my family today and could not watch the Tigers 8-2 victory over the Mariners. All I saw was scores at the bottom of ESPN but it looks I missed an excellent pitching performance by Rick Porcello. He got through seven innings on just 86 pitches, allowing just five hits, walking nobody and compiling a solid 11/7 ground out/air out ratio.

That kind of efficient performance is becoming commonplace with the Tigers staff this year. They now lead the league in fewest walks per game (2.75) and strikeout/walk ratio (2.70). Compare that to last year when they walked 3.98 batters per game and and had a 1.54 K/BB ratio. It sounds like Rick Knapp is turning them into the Twins, a team which consistently walk among the fewest batters in baseball. Like last year's Twins, the Tigers pitchers also have a below average ground ball rate (39%). That won't be a problem though if they continue to keep runners off the bases.

Ramon Santiago continues to fill in nicely for the flu ridden Adam Everett. Ramon got two more hits and five RBI today and is now batting .320 with 11 RBI in 26 at bats. He is going to take Everett's job if Adam continues to field as poorly as he did the first week of the season. Everett has a history of brilliant defense though so they'll likely have some patience with him.

Another role player who is doing a good job is Josh Anderson. Anderson is doing well filling in for Carlos Guillen when Carlos needs to be the designated hitter. He is batting .353 in 17 at bats and also fills in as a pinch runner and defensive replacement. I was originally concerned that Jim Leyland might over use him but so far he is picking his spots and using him appropriately I think.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Edwin Jackson Under Control

Edwin Jackson has always had outstanding stuff but has struggled with his control throughout his career. Coming into the year, he had walked 4.5 batters per nine innings for his career. Last year, he was still wild but he improved his walk rate to 3.8 batters per nine innings. This year, under the direction of pitching coach Rick Knapp, he was walked just five batters in his first three games. Today, he walked just one Mariner, the last batter he faced after 7 2/3 innings of shutout ball. Edwin threw 71 strikes on 98 pitches for an impressive 72 percent strike rate.

Bobby Seay and Fernando Rodney finished off the combined 2-0 shutout with 1 1/3 scoreless innings. Seay has now gone 3 1/3 innings without putting a runner on base while Rodney allowed his first base runner in five innings, a leadoff walk to Endy Chavez in the ninth.

The Tigers scored their only runs against a very tough Erik Bedard in the sixth on singles by Miguel Cabrera, Gerald Laird and Brandon Inge and a throwing error by Ichiro Suzuki. Bedard had stymied them for the first five innings getting six called third strikes along the way.

The defensive play of the game for the Tigers was a fly out double play where Curtis Granderson cut down Jose Lopez at the plate in the fifth inning. It was a really nice set and throw by Grandy and an excellent block of home plate by Laird.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Tigers Blank White Sox 9-0

The Tigers blanked the White Sox 9-0 today to gain a split of the rain shortened series at Comerica. It was another solid game for Armando Galarraga who worked through 6 1/3 innings allowing just four hits and two walks. He now has a 13/3 K/BB ratio and has yet to allow a homer in two games. He will likely need to improve his peripherals this year in order to repeat the low ERA he had last year and so he's off to a good start.

Offensively Miguel Cabrera had another big game with three hits and his fourth homer of the year. Josh Anderson also had two hits and walked twice. It was good to see him get a bunt single as well. He had a bit of trouble in some of his earlier bunt attempts and bunting for hits is is something you want to see from this guy. The two walks were nice too as that is something he has not done much in the past.

The bullpen was sharp again today as Bobby Seay, Ryan Perry and Fernando Rodney pitched 2 2/3 hittless scoreless innings. Perry was a bit wild and walked a batter but got strikes when he needed them. Rodney has now gone four games and four innings without allowing a base runner.

the Tigers are now 5-4 and are second in the league with 6.2 runs per game. However the statistic which encourages me the most so far this year is K/BB ratio - for hitters and pitchers. Offensively, they have 52 K and 41 walks for a 1.2 ratio. That is good for second in the league behind the Orioles. On the pitching side, they lead the league with a 67/29 or 2.3 K/BB ratio.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Kalas and Fidrych Pass Away

It was a sad day in sports today as two of my all-time favorite sports personalities and two important links to my childhood passed away within hours of each other. Harry Kalas, who was a broadcaster for 43 years - the last 38 with the Phillies, died today shortly after collapsing in the broadcast booth. Mark Fidrych, the Tigers 1976 rookie sensation, died at age 54 shortly afterwards while working under his truck at his home in Northboro, MA.

Kalas is one of my earliest baseball memories. I spent many nights as a youngster listening to Cardinals games on the radio with my father. I remember the Phillies games the best because the Philadelphia signal was always strong and Kalas's voice was so powerful and distinctive. Whenever I heard his voice in later years , I immediately went back to my childhood. Other than Ernie Harwell, there is no other announcer that defines summer nights and baseball for me as Kalas did.

I've been following the Tigers since 1968 and Mark Fidrych's 1976 season was the single most thrilling individual season of my lifetime. Whenever I see that game against the Yankees that they show on ESPN or the MLB channel from time to time, I immediately go back 33 years to that night and remember how I felt watching the same game on television. It's difficult to explain the Mark Fidrych experience to those who were not there to see it. I did my best to recapture it in my summer long tribute back in 2006:

http://www.detroittigertales.com/search/label/Fidrych%20Diary

It's appropriate that Kalas died in the broadcast booth. It's equally appropriate that the down to earth Bird died while fixing his pick-up truck. I mean that in a good way, of course. It's who they were and there will never be anyone else like them. It's a sad day in baseball today.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Tigers Come Back, Sweep Rangers

kevin Millwood blanked the Tigers for seven innings today. Last year, they were shutout more times than any other team despite finishing fourth in the league in runs scored. I was thinking: here we go again. But I was also thinking that the Rangers have an awful bullpen so if they can just get Millwood out of there, there was a chance.

C.J. Wilson took over for Millwood in the eighth and the Tigers broke loose. Brandon Inge greeted him with an opposite field home run, a league leading fourth of the year. Adam Everett followed with a single and then rookie short Elvis Andrus misplayed Curtis Granderson's soft liner. That put runners on first and second with nobody out and suddenly the Tiger were back in the game. They scored a second run when Polanco pulled a double down the third base line. They eventually tied the game 4-4 on another double down the line, this one by Carlos Guillen. Inge then put the team ahead 6-4 with a two run single to cap the six run inning.

For the second time in two days, Fernando Rodney came in with a chance for a save and for the second time, he retired the Rangers 1-2-3. He got some help from Inge who made a beautiful bare handed play on a bunt by Nelson Cruz. Rodney has now pitched three games without allowing a base runner. Brandon Lyon also pitched two perfect innings so the Tigers bullpen has now pitched seven consecutive scoreless inning over two games. That's something we certainly did not see last year.

Edwin Jackson was not nearly as sharp as he was in his first game. His control was off and he allowed a pair of two run homers to Josh Hamilton and Ian Kinsler in the first three innings. He managed to keep the team in the game though working his way out of jams in the fourth and fifth. He gave up four runs on five hits and three walks in six innings.

The first place Bengals will now host the White Sox in a three game series Monday through Wednesday.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Tigers Rout Rangers in Home opener

The Tigers could not have provided a more entertaining home opener for fans at Comerica Park today. They collected 14 hits including five for extra bases as they pounded the Rangers 15-2. Red hot Miguel Cabrera lead the way with three hits including a grand slam and a two run double and six RBI. In contrast to his painfully slow start in 2008, Cabrera is batting .611 with three home runs and a 1.222 slugging average in his first five games this year.

Jeff Larish got his first start today at designated hitter and had an opposite field home run and a single in five at bats. Others with two hits were Placido Polanco, Magglio Ordonez and Gerlad Laird.

All of the slugging was nice but the most encouraging performance of the day was by Armando Galarraga. The Big Cat worked seven innings allowing one run on five hits and a walk and had a career high eight strikeouts. It was the second outstanding performance of the week for a Tigers starter, the other being Edwin Jackson's gem on Tuesday.

One of the reasons for bringing in pitching coach Rick Knapp from the Twins system was the Twins propensity to develop strike throwing pitchers. Last year, Tigers starters had 602 strikeouts and 375 walks for a very sub-par 1.6 ratio compared to a league average of 2.1. This year, in five games, they have been throwing strikes and it shows in the starting pitcher's 24/7 K/BB ratio.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Tigers Lose Opening Series

The Tigers have opened the season by losing a series to the Blue Jays three games to one. That is better than last year when they started off 0-7 but still not a great start. It's nearly impossible to draw any solid conclusions from a four game series but here are my thoughts:

Other than the opening night when Justin Verlander got shelled, the starting pitching was pretty good. Edwin Jackson was excellent and showed much better control than he usually does. Zach Miner recovered nicely from a rough first and pitched a solid 5 2/3 innings. Rick Porcello gave up a couple of homers but also had some good moments while giving up three runs in five innings. There is some concern that Verlander's bad start is an indicator that he is going down the same road as last year. It's just one game though so I'm not going to read too much into it.

The bullpen has been awful as expected. The only time it wasn't bad was Wednesday when they got their one victory. Bobby Seay, Ryan Perry and Fernando Rodney combined to pitch 3 1/3 perfect innings in that game which was encouraging. Brandon Lyon and Juan Rincon looked very bad. Nate Robertson was a mixed bag. Joel Zumaya is supposedly getting close to being ready for a minor league rehab but we all know there could be a set back at any moment. The bullpen is a problem but we knew that coming in.

The plan this year was to strengthen the defense at the expense of the offense. It didn't work out in this series as the infield defense was surprisingly shaky. Some of it may have been the turf in Toronto but I'm not sure what the turf has to with dropped balls. Adam Everett in particular had a rough series. Again , it's too early for concern but he needs to make plays because he can't hit a lick.

Offensively, three players did most of the hitting. Miguel Cabrera was 8 for 13 with two homers and three walks, Curtis Granderson went 5 for 16 with two homers and Brandon Inge belted three round trippers. The top five should do a lot of hitting this year. The bottom of the line-up is weak but if Inge can continue hitting for power as he has all spring that would be a big boost.

Now, they head home for a three game series versus the Rangers. Hopefully the Tigers bats can feast on the weak Rangers pitching. Of more interest will be the pitching though. It will be Armando Galarraga, Justin Verlander and Edwin Jackson, supposedly their three best pitchers at the moment. I will also keep an eye on the bullpen to see how that take shape as well. That will likely be one of the biggest, if not the biggest, keys all year long.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Miner Solid, Bullpen Perfect

The Tigers got their first win of the season tonight, a fairly easy 5-1 decision over the Blue Jays. Zach Miner had a rough start tonight allowing a run and loading the bases before anyone was out. However, he worked himself out of the jam with some help from a nice through by Josh Anderson cutting down Alex Rios at the plate. There would be no more runs scored against Miner who went 5 1/3 innings allowing just one run on six hits and two walks.

Amazingly, the bullpen was perfect tonight starting with Bobby Seay who retired all four batters he faced. Ryan Perry retired the Blue Jays in order in his big league debut in the eighth. Fernando Rodney then pitched a perfect ninth with Curtis Granderson making a catch against the center field wall. The best part about the pitching tonight was that they were throwing strikes.

All of the runs scored on home runs. Miguel had a three run shot in the first to put the Tigers in front to stay and he later added a solo blast and a line drive single. Brandon Inge also hit a solo homer, his third of the year already. According to Tigers broadcaster Mario Impemba, Inge became the first Tiger since 1954 to hit a home run in each of the first three games. It is not known whether it happened prior to that time.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Lyon, Leyland Let One Get Away

The Tigers lost a tough one tonight 5-4. They blew a 3-1 lead in the eighth inning tonight, came back to tie it in the ninth and then lost it in the bottom of the ninth. The same pitcher blew it both times and Jim Leyland sat there and watched. I am not usually critical of in game managerial decisions but how can you allow Brandon Lyon to give up a three run homer to lose the lead in eighth, bring him back out in the ninth, let him load the bases and then give up a game ending sacrifice fly? With a bullpen full of fresh arms, I just don't get it. With this bullpen, he has no reliable options but it was clear Lyon did not have it and Leyland needed to try something else. Lyon, obviously doesn't escape blame here. He was awful and deserved the loss.

All of this spoiled an excellent performance by Edwin Jackson. I've been preaching ad nauseam about the inadequacy of win/loss records in pitcher evaluation lately and this is a perfect example why. I've been hearing all winter how much Jackson improved last year because he won 14 games. He wasn't good last year. He was mediocre but won games thanks to run support and a strong bullpen. Tonight, he pitched great but did not get a win because the bullpen couldn't hold the lead.

Jackson threw 75 pitches over the first seven innings, 54 of them for strikes. That is amazing efficiency for a pitcher with a history a control problems. He seemed to tire in the eighth allowing a lead off homer to Scott Rolen and started having trouble with location. Still, he pitched 7 1/3 innings allowing just one walk, two hits and one earned run.

The vaunted left side of the tigers infield has not been sharp in the first two games. They did not help in the eighth tonight. Brandon Inge made an error and almost made another one. Then Everett couldn't make a play on an infield hit.

Inge made up for his error with a game tying home run in the top of the ninth, a long blast into the upper deck in left center. He also had a double and has been swinging the bat well all spring.

Miguel Cabrera had a single, a double and two walks and seems to be laying off bad pitches so far, something he failed to do last year. He swung at 34.2% of pitches outside the strike zone last year (OSWING%). The league average was only 25.4%. Previously, he had percentages of 23.1% in 2006 and 30.2% in 2007. Not surprisingly, his OBP went down as his OSWING% went up: .430, .401., .349. This is something I will be revisiting frequently this year.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Ugly Opening Day

This year, we saw the longest spring training in recent memory but maybe it wasn't long enough. The Tigers got off on the wrong foot getting pounded by the Blue Jays tonight 12-5. John who writes Tiger Geist asked Tigers bloggers yesterday what they were looking for in the first ten games of the season. My immediate response was that I felt it was important that Justin Verlander get off to a good start.

Unfortunately, Verlander's first effort could not have been much worse. He retired the first two Blue Jays he faced in the first inning but then proceeded to give up four runs in a 35 pitch inning. He settled down in the second and third but then got pounded for four runs in the fourth. Justin struggled through a lot of games last year but tonight was about as bad as I've ever seen him. He was shelled for eight runs on eight hits, including six extra base hits and there were not many cheap ones. The biggest Blue Jay hitter was Adam Lind who had four hits, including a home run and six RBI.

The Bengals were down 9-1 after four innings versus Roy Halladay, the only run coming on a solo blast by Curtis Granderson in the fourth. They tried to mount a come back in the seventh when they scored four runs highlighted by a two run bomb by Brandon Inge. That would be it however as the Toronto bullpen held them the rest of the way.

The one bright spot on the pitching staff tonight was Nate Robertson who who retired the Jays 1-2-3 including two strikeouts in the eighth. You know you're in trouble when Robertson is your best pitcher on the night. Eddie Bonine and especially Juan Rincon were not as sharp as they had shown in spring training. Rincon had control problems and gave up three runs (two earned) in the eighth. An error by, of all people, Adam Everett did not help.

As if the game was not bad enough, the fans at the Rogers Centre in Toronto were even uglier. They sounded loud an obnoxious the whole game and they erupted in the eighth inning by throwing trash onto the field. When one fan threw a ball at Tigers new left fielder Josh Hernandez, Jim Leyland pulled his team off the field for ten minutes. Stranely, it took stadium security that long to make an announcement to the fans to settle down or forfeit the game. A forfeit wouldn't have been so bad but they did manage to finish the game without further incident.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Tigers 2009 season preview

With the acquisitions of Miguel Cabrera, Edgar Renteria and Dontrelle Willis during the off-season, fans and media across the country were predicting a division title and more for the Tigers in 2008. Some thought they would score as many as 1,000 runs. I thought the 1,000 runs was a bit far fetched but I had them pegged for around 900 runs and a divisional battle with the Cleveland Indians. Nothing went as planned though.

A hand injury to Curtis Granderson near the end of spring training set the tone for one of the most disappointing seasons for Tigers fans in years. The whole offense sputtered in the early going with new centerpiece Miguel Cabrera one of the main culprits. The offense eventually got moving and they finished a very respectable fourth in the American League in runs scored.

Unfortunately their pitching staff was awful all season. Jeremy Bonderman developed a blood clot and underwent complicated surgery causing him to miss most of the season. Justin Verlander had command problems all year and had his worst season as a Tiger. Kenny Rogers had a bad season, Nate Robertson was a complete disaster and Dontrelle Willis was worse than that. Their bullpen was no better as Todd Jones crumbled in the second half and Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney predictably struggled with injuries. The staff finished twelfth in the league with a 4.93 ERA.

They had a few flashes during the season where it looked like they might turn it around and challenge in a weak division but they they could not sustain any momentum. They finished in an unthinkable last place with a record of 74-88 14 1/2 games behind the division winning White Sox.

It was a season almost devoid of good memories. The only saving grace for their pitching staff was a break out season for Armando Galarraga who led the team in with a 3.73 ERA in 178 2/3 innings. Miguel Cabrera had a strong second half and led the league with 37 home runs. Otherwise, it was a season to forget.

After expanding their payroll drastically the previous year, the Tigers had little money to spend this off-season so they needed to be creative. They concentrated on improving the defense and with good reason. After finishing in the top five in baseball defensively in the 2006 and 2007, they were 24th in the majors in 2008 with 15 runs saved below average (according to the Fielding Bible plus/minus system). In 2007, they were 54 runs saved above average. That's a 69 run swing between 2007 and 2008 which translates to roughly 7 wins.

First, they moved Brandon Inge back to third base and Carlos Guillen to left. That will certainly help them at third and possibly in left as well. They then subtracted Renteria and added Adam Everett which should be a big boost. They also acquired Jeff Laird to replace Pudge Rodriguez who had a difficult time blocking pitches last year. Another position where they should improve is center field where Granderson had an off year defensively in 2008. He is a very good bet to return to his previous form.

To bolster their rotation, they acquired starting pitcher Edwin Jackson in exchange for Matt Joyce. Jackson has so far failed to live up to his promise but should be a substantial improvement over Rogers/Robertson/Wills. They absolutely have to get a rebound season from Verlander if they are going to contend this year. They also need Jeremy Bonderman to get healthy again. Bonderman's recovery from Thoracic surgery has been expectedly slow but I'm still fairly optimistic that he will make a positive contribution this season.

Galarraga is not likely to repeat his sub-4.00 ERA but they need him to be league average and I think he will be. Twenty-year old Rick Porcello could also give them a lift but there are likely to be some bumps in the road for him as well. Zach Miner, who had had two successful partial season runs as a starter will get a chance to open the season in the rotation this year.

The other area where they needed to improve was the bullpen. They added Brandon Lyon to help out in the late innings but that was about it. They still don't have a really reliable stopper and this could prove to be their Achilles heel this season. Some combination of Rodney and Lyon will close games which does not inspire a great deal of confidence. The hope is that a couple of relievers can capture lightning in a bottle. One possibility is rookie right-hander Ryan Perry who had an excellent spring winning a spot on the 25 man roster after just 14 innings of professional experience. They have also added former Minnesota Twins right-hander Juan Rincon. Rincon had a lot of past success but struggled the last two years.

Offensively, their top five - Granderson, Placido Polanco, Magglio Ordonez, Cabrera and Guillen - can match any team in the majors. Polanco, Ordonez and Guillen are getting older but should be able to maintain their performance of last year. Cabrera and Granderson are candidates to get a little better this year. Marcus Thames and Jeff Larish should be able to combine to replace Gary Sheffield's .726 OPS of 2008. The bottom third of the line-up is weak with Gerald Laird, Brandon Inge and Adam Everett. I do expect Inge to hit better than he did last year though.

The release of Sheffield gives them a more flexible bench. They no longer are tied down by a full-time designated hitter who tries to play through injuries. Instead, they will be able to use the DH spot to rest Cabrera, Ordonez and Guillen without removing their bats from the line-up. This will open up opportunities for Larish and speedy outfielder Josh Anderson. Ramon Santiago will take on the utility infielder role and could play more frequently if Everett proves to be brittle again. Matt Treanor will be the primary backup catcher.

The Tigers offense should be fine and their defense much improved. I think that there are two keys to success for the Tigers this year (other than the usual "stay healthy"): (1) They need bounce back seasons from Verlander and Bonderman. If Bonderman can't come back, then they'll need a surprise season from a Jackson or a Porcello but you can't rely on those types of break outs. (2) The bullpen is probably not going to be good but it can't be awful if they are going to stay in contention. Leyland's use of the bullpen will probably be important as he'll need to mix and match a mediocre crew carefully.

In the end, I think they'll be able to compete in the relatively weak American League central. They should once again score between 820-830 runs. Last year, they gave up 857 runs and they'll need to cut that down to 800 or fewer to contend. I actually think they can cut at least 30 runs off that just with improved defense. The rest will need to come from better pitching. The staff is full of question marks but I'm going to predict 84 wins for the Tigers this year. This should be enough keep them in a divisional race which could involve all five teams. It's a really tough division to project but I will guess the Tigers finish second behind the Indians.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Spring Wrap-up

It's been an eventful last few days and I haven't had a chance to comment on all the comings and goings so I'll give a brief wrap-up here.

Sheffield Cut

I was surprised to see the Tigers eat Gary Sheffield's $14 million contract but I think it was a good move. He is still a useful hitter when healthy but when he gets hurt he stays in the line-up and does not produce. The result last year was a pedestrian .726 OPS for a full-time designated hitter. With Sheffield gone, they no longer have to use up one of five bench spots on a man who can't play a position.

Marcus Thames will be the primary DH but he won't play as regularly as Sheffield. This allows them to use the DH spot to give Carlos Guillen, Magglio Ordonez, and Miguel Cabrera a rest once in a while without taking their bats out of the line-up. When Thames is not in the line-up, Jeff Larish and recently acquired Josh Anderson will get playing time and I expect both to get plenty of opportunities.

There was a chance Sheffield would make a come back this year in his contract season but with his age and injury history, it was not probable. I think they are better off trading the high risk high reward for increased roster flexibility and more opportunities for younger players.

Josh Anderson Acquired

I still don't know what to make of this deal. They traded Rudy Darrow who is only a marginal relief prospect but how much did they gain? Anderson has tremendous speed, something the team lacks. He is also a solid defender who can play all three outfield positions. He makes a good fifth outfielder and I'm looking forward to watching him pinch run in key spots late in the game.
He makes good contact but has no power and does not draw walks so I'm hoping he isn't used too often or in the lead off spot.

The acquisition allows them to give Clete Thomas, who I think has more upside, regular at bats in Toledo. If the need arises for an outfielder to play more frequently, Thomas would be a better choice than Anderson.

Closer by Committee

Jim Leyland is talking about bullpen by committee with Fernando Rodney getting the first opportunity. I know many Tigers fans are not happy with Rodney closing but I don't think the alternatives are any better. Brandon Lyon has been pretty bad this spring and there is not anyone else who has closed before. It doesn't really matter who closes for this team. The bullpen is going to be a problem regardless. I'm just hoping a couple of relievers catch lightning in a bottle.

One thing for certain, is that they can't rely on Joel Zumaya to give them innings. Anything they get from him has to be considered a bonus at this point. The new young fire baller is Ryan Perry
who had a great spring and will be heading north with the team. He is a potential future closer and might close on occasion this season but I wouldn't expect him to actually acquire the role until next year at the earliest. I'm definitely excited to see him pitch though.

The Starting Rotation

We talked all spring about who would win the job of fifth starter. It turned out that they needed to fill two spots as Jeremy Bonderman is not ready to go yet and won't be for at least a few weeks. Zach Miner, who many felt should have been number five all along, gets one spot. Young Rick Porcello gets the other. I think these are the right choices. Of the healthy pitchers on the staff, they rewarded the five best starters.

I think the rotation should be better than last year but they still need to get Bonderman back. I don't think they can contend without a healthy Bondo. It's not surprising that he needs time as his surgery was serious and extensive but. The good news is that it is surgery from which other pitchers have successfully returned. There is no need to panic yet but if it drags on too long, the Tigers could be in trouble.

Nate Robertson was sent to the bullpen and may eventually get released if he does not perform.
I have not given up on Robertson. I think he has chance to be a decent reliever but he will likely have a short leash.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Tigers Roster Almost Set

The Tigers pitching puzzle was completed this morning with the announcements that Clay Rapada has been optioned to Toledo, Scott Williamson has been reassigned to minor league camp and Nate Robertson has been sent to the bullpen. With these moves, this means that rookies Rick Porcello and Ryan Perry have made the team as a starter and reliever respectively. The rest of the staff looks like this:

Starters:

Justin Verlander
Armando Galarraga
Edwin Jackson
Zach Miner
Rick Porcello

Relievers:

Brandon Lyon
Bobby Seay
Fernando Rodney
Juan Rincon
Eddie Bonine
Ryan Perry
Nate Robertson

The Tigers also announced this morning that Ryan Raburn has been optioned to Toledo, Dane Sardinha has been reassigned and Mike Hessman has been placed on waivers. There is one more cut to be made and that will be either Jeff Larish or Brent Clevlen. I'm pretty sure they will keep Larish but there have been lots of surprises the last couple of days so you never know. Clevlen is out of options and will need to clear waivers if they try to send him to Toledo. I believe he will clear waivers but that possibility that he won't is probably delaying the decision. The positional roster is below:

Starting line-up

Curtis Granderson CF
Placido Polanco 2B
Magglio Ordonez RF
Miguel Cabrera 1B
Carlos Guillen LF
Marcus Thames DH
Jeff Laird C
Brandon Inge 3B
Adam Everett SS

Bench

Matt Treanor C
Ramon Santiago IF
Josh Anderson OF
Jeff Larish 1B-3B (or Brent Clevlen OF)

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