Monday, May 30, 2011

A Front Line Soldier in World War II

I'm not sure where I first acquired my interest in statistics and analysis, but I inherited my love of baseball from my father. He is a huge baseball fan who watches all the Cardinal games on Extra Innings.  He is currently puzzled by the slow start of slugger Albert Pujols, but also enjoying his team's position atop the National League Central Division. 

This blog post is going to be about something much more important than baseball though.  My father, who recently turned 87 years old, was a soldier during World War II.  This means that he was on the front lines fighting the enemy head on as a teenager.  As you can imagine, he has many strong memories - both good and bad - of his army experience. His experiences have affected the rest of his life and he is very proud of his service as he should be.  Today, he shares one of his most vivid memories on Tiger Tales.

On January 20th, 1944 during World War II, the 36th Infantry Division of the United States Army was ordered to cross the Rapido River in Central Italy.  The Germans had made the river an integral part of their defense of the Liri Valley and the area was aggressively guarded.   This made the crossing a bold and controversial move and resulted in one of the bloodiest battles of the war.  In fact, over 2,000 men of the 36th Division were killed, wounded or missing in just 48 hours.  My father is one of the survivors of the crossing and he  relates his story below.

As soldiers in World War II, we carried small spades on our pack used to dig our fox-holes.  A fox-hole was made as large and deep as the situation called for.  If we expected to receive mortar or artillery barrages, we dug them deep.  If we expected to move forward, we made them shallow or ignored them altogether, instead taking shelter behind large rocks, tree stumps or natural defiliations.  In the case of the Rapido River Crossing, it was clear that we needed deep holes. 
 

The ground leading to the Rapido River had a lot of clay which made digging awkward and difficult.  The spade dug up the clay in clumps that stuck to it.  When artillery shells burst, we lay alongside our holes, but continued digging more rapidly.  I recall digging many hours to excavate a hole large enough to contain my crouching figure.  There I was, ensconced in my new home, wet, cold and matted with Italian red clay and mud waiting for a signal to attack.
 

Suddenly, it seemed that every artillery gun in Italy opened up to send a barrage on the German defenses along the river.  Artillery sounds pretty much as they do in the popular war movies.  This broadside was laid on the enemy and we felt good listening to it. The guns roared for about thirty minutes and then our tanks took over the fire.  They came from our rear and sounded thunderous but tinny.  The tanks stopped and then our heavy mortars and machine guns peppered the river area.  I thought, “Dear God.  They’re working it down to rifle fire and that means ME!”


The enemy return fire was not as heavy as ours at first, but it was all aimed in my direction.  The Germans had mortars (Nebelwerfers) that let out screeching sounds as they wended their way to our positions.  The sounds had a paralyzing affect on me and I was truly scared.  The only other time I had experienced such deep fear was when I saw the movie “Frankenstein” at the Royal Theatre in Lowell, MA as an eight-year old and had to run home through dark Cummiskey Alley. 


The Germans followed the mortar shelling with a continuous volley of their notorious eighty-eights.  This firing was accurate and shells burst closer to my hole.  Eventually, the firing let up and I sensed that the time for the infantry attack had arrived.  


Someone approached my hole to tell me to follow him to an assembly area.  I now felt a fondness for my fox-hole asylum of the past twenty-four hours and reluctantly left it to gather in an open area with other members of Company “G”.  The fog and the dark of the night made the figures look phantom-like.  Somehow, we were lined in single file and proceeded to shuffle orderly through olive groves and down towards the river.


The Germans had fortified the river area with personnel mines and barbed wire.  They zeroed artillery, mortar and machine gun fire at likely strategic crossing areas and they did their firing from secure and safe bunkers.  That night, they heard the sounds of the American Infantry and they opened up with all their guns. 
 

The very early morning was filled with gun fire, flashes of light and the groaning screaming meemies.  We were told to advance with fixed bayonets and to follow the shadowy figure in front.  Things went well at first until casualties disrupted our lines and the frantic confused sounds of young infantrymen became more personal than the obscure sounds of guns.  I saw the shadowy figures fall and cry out in pain and surprise.  One soldier close to me was hit in the neck area and I saw blood gushing out.   


Despite the horror and confusion, we all moved forward until we could see the river just a few yards ahead.  Somewhere, there were smoke pots designed to obscure the enemy’s vision, but they affected my sight as well.  I still vividly recall the smells of the river and of fresh grass and the clammy feeling of the morning dew.  My private thoughts and feelings were overwhelmingly numbed by the sounds and reality of combat.   


When we reached the river, I scrambled onto a wooden boat along with ten or so infantrymen and paddled to the other side in less than a minute.  At times, the enemy fire was directed towards us and at other times it moved upstream in assault of others.  It got so we anticipated our turn under extreme fire and we took what cover was available.  


On the other side of the river, we crawled up the embankment and moved towards the town of San Angelo.  The command was for us to dig in because the fog had lifted and the morning light was beginning to show.  I went through my fox-hole digging routine and was able to excavate a hole large enough to hide my body from flying shrapnel.  


Lying there with little to do until the next command, I felt alone with the non-stop sounds of combat assailing my senses.  However, my tired and confused mind cleared enough to make personal observations.   I envisioned a mud-coated teenager curled up in the depressed ground.   I saw the grass at ground level and small pieces of sticks and pebbles in the moist soil.  I don’t recall the sun, but I think there was a blue sky when the mist and smoke dissipated.  


During one silent interruption in combat, I could hear a young voice in the distance.  The voice was sobbing and crying out for his mother.  Beyond were more muffled sounds of digging and garbled obscenities.  Still, I felt secure for the moment in the realization that there was one chance in a million a shell would fall directly in the hole.  
 

The guns on both sides pounded the area for several hours.  Enemy mortars and machine guns strafed us making movement dangerous and imprudent.  I knew that many American soldiers were being killed and wounded and I prayed I would not join their ranks.  


Suddenly, the din of combat came to a complete halt and we got an order to leave our holes and to return across the river back to our original point of departure.  We rushed to the river and crossed a Bailey bridge our engineers had constructed.  Strangely, our movements were not picked up and we returned without serious hindrance to the now friendly and secure foxholes of the night before the crossing.      

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Verlander Saves Tigers

Justin Verlander averted a doubleheader and series sweep by shutting down the Red Sox in the second game of today's twinbill.  Verlander shutout the powerful Red Sox for 7 2/3 innings allowing four hits and two walks.  It was not a dominant strikeout performance by Verlander (just three of them) but there were not a lot of hard hit balls either.  The patient Red Sox did force him to throw 132 pitches and he left after two were out in the eighth.  Fortunately, Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde finished the job uneventfully.

The combined shutout gave the Tigers an MLB-leading eight shutouts on the season.  They had only five all last year.  Despite a couple of recent poor performances, their starting pitching has been quite good this month.

The Tigers lost the first game today when Valverde allowed a tie-breaking pinch-hit homer to David Ortiz in the ninth.  The Tigers fell behind 3-0 after three innings when Andy Oliver struggled with his control in his season debut.  Oliver settled down and the Tigers came back due, in part, to solo homers by Andy Dirks and Brennan Boesch.

Many fans, including myself, were critical of a managerial non-move in the bottom of the ninth.  With the Tigers down 4-3 and hot-hitting Alex Avila on the bench, Jim Leyland allowed slumping Ryan Raburn to strike out to end the game.  Perhaps, Leyland was hoping that Raburn would get on so he could pinch hit Avila for Brandon Inge giving Alex a chance to win the game.  They needed a hit to extend the game though and I think Avila should have been in there.

The doubleheader split leaves the Tigers at 26-26, six games behind the Indians.  With the Yankees and Red Sox out of the way, the Tigers have a relatively easy schedule the rest of the way.  This should help them avoid their usual second-half swoon.  

Friday, May 27, 2011

Ryan Raburn is the Tigers Second Baseman

With the puzzling trade of Scott Sizemore for David Purcey now complete, another candidate has has enterered the revolving door at second base.  First it was Will Rhymes.  Then it was Sizemore.  Now, Tom Gage is reporting that Ryan Raburn is the new Tigers second baseman.

Raburn at second is not a new idea. He played 15 games there last year and 5 so far this year.  I know it's strange to think of the awkward Raburn playing in the infield, but I think he's adequate at second.  He won't field the position as well as Ramon Santiago or Danny Worth, but I think he plays second a little better than he plays the outfield. Still, I would imagine that he'll be pulled late in games for a defensive replacement

What Raburn can do that the others can't is hit.  I know he's been awful this year - .204/.248/.345 with 51 strikeouts in 142 at bats.  However, even the most rabid Raburn hater knows that he is better than that and will likely heat up soon.  He has a .265/.322/.451 career line which would would be good numbers for a middle infielder.  He's not the ideal second baseman but given the available choices, I think he's the best option they have at the moment.

Sizemore Traded to Athletics

In a surprise move, the Tigers traded Scott Sizemore to the Athletics today for left-handed reliever David Purcey.  The Tigers will be the third team for Purcey already this year.  He was traded from the Blue Jays to the Athletics for a minor league pitcher on April 18.  The 29-year-old Purcey has a lifetime ERA of 5.17 with 7.7 strikeouts and 4.5 walks per nine innings.  That doesn't sound like an impressive return for a second baseman who was highly regarded enough to be given the starting second base job as a rookie just last year.

It became clear that some in the organization had soured on Sizemore when Will Rhymes was named the opening day starter.  Sizemore was later recalled after a fast start in Toledo but has struggled in the majors for the second straight year (.233/.329/.238). The Tigers will bring up infielder Danny Worth to take his place.  Worth is not likely to hit much at all, but should help their infield defense.  I would guess that there will now be some combination of Worth and Ramon Santiago at second base. 

I haven't fully digested this move yet, but my initial reaction is disappointment.  It's not that I think that Sizemore is still a great prospect.  I just don't see any upside for the Tigers in this deal. It reminds me of Cody Ross for Steve Colyer.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Avila Powers Tigers Over Rays

I missed a good portion of the game tonight because I was running a 5K on what felt like the first day of summer in Massachusetts.  When I got home, I turned on the television and was not too happy to see Justin Verlander allow three runs in the sixth inning to put the Tigers down 6-4.  Apparently, he was hit hard tonight allowing six runs on nine hits in six innings. 

Alex Avila bailed out Verlander with a couple of home runs.  The first one was a solo shot in the sixth which closed the gap to 6-5.  He then blasted a two run bomb in the eighth to put the Tigers up 7-6.  Avila has been probably the most pleasant development for the Tigers in the first two months of the season.  He is now batting .292/.356/.562 with 8 homers on the season.  I doubt he'll bat .292 over a full season, but I think the power is real and he gets enough walk to keep his OBP up.   

In the past week, Joaquin Benoit has gone from set-up man to middle reliever back to set-up man again and today he was used as the closer.  With Jose Valverde unavailable after throwing a lot of pitches the last two games, Benoit pitched a scoreless ninth to preserve the one-run lead.  He did allow a hit and there was a line shot right at Cabrera, but he got the save. 

Coke to DL, Oliver to Start Saturday

Jason Beck has reported that the Tigers have placed Phil Coke on the 15-day disabled list with a bone bruise in his foot suffered last night trying to field a bunt.  Coke will be replaced in the rotation by left-handed pitcher Andy Oliver. This is unfortunate timing given that the Tigers have another series versus the lefty-heavy Red Sox line-up coming up this weekend  Coke had pitched seven shutout innings against the Red Sox last week.    

Oliver was roughed up in his first call-up last season, but is one of the Tigers top pitching prospects.  He had a 3.26 ERA and 48/20 K/BB ratio in 49 2/3 innings for Triple-A Toledo.  Oliver won't join the team until Saturday when he stats versus the Red Sox.

The immediate replacement on the 25-man roster will be another southpaw Adam Wilk, who will pitch out of the bullpen.  Wilk walked only five batters in 49 innings for Toledo, but also gave up eight homers.  Right-hander Robbie Weinhardt was designated for assignment to make room for Wilk on the 40-man roster.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Time for Another Streak?

The streaky Tigers beat the Rays 6-3 tonight giving them back-to back wins for the first time since May 14.  As you can see on the chart below, the Tigers have alternated between hot and cold since April 20. Hopefully, it's now time for another long winning streak.

4/20 - 4/24  4-0
4/26 - 5/12  0-7
5/03 - 5/14  10-1 (including 7-0)
5/16 - 5/21  0-5
5/21 - 5/22  2-0

Here are the highlights of tonight's game:
  • Phil Coke twisted his ankle fielding a bunt in the fourth inning and had to leave the game.  It didn't look too serious as he was able to walk off the field.  You sometimes don't know about that type of injury until the next morning though.
  • Charlie Furbush replaced him and looked impressive in his major league debut.  The eighth player from Maine to see major league action walked a batter (on what should have been a strikeout) to load the bases.  He followed that up with two real strikeouts to end the inning.  He pitched 3 2/3 shutout innings giving the Tigers uncertain bullpen a much needed boost. 
  • The struggling Joaquin Benoit moved back into the set-up role and pitched a scoreless eighth to preserve a 2-1 lead.
  • Andrew Dirks, who looks very good to this untrained amateur observer, hit his first major league homer in the fifth.
  • The Tigers scored more than three runs for the first time since a 9-7 victory over the Twins on May 11.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Coke Gets No Support

Rumor has it that Tigers lefty Phil Coke may be headed to the bullpen, but he sure looked like a starter tonight.  He battled pitch for pitch with Red Sox Starter Clay Buchholz in the rain, wind and fog at Fenway.  The Tigers left-hander departed after seven shutout innings and a brief rain delay with the score tied at zero.  Coke allowed only four base runners - three singles and a walk - and threw only 78 pitches. Unfortunately, he got no support from his offense or his bullpen and lost 1-0. 

If it were not for the 26-minute rain delay after the seventh inning,  Coke probably would have been able to go another inning or two. I think Jim Leyland did not want to risk putting him back out there in the eighth after sitting through the delay on a cold damp night.  Instead, Leyland went to the pen and we were reminded why there has been talk of Coke moving back to relief.

Joaquin Benoit is no longer the eighth-inning reliever and it is unknown who will claim that role.  Tonight it was Ryan Perry, who got the first two Red Sox in the eighth.  Next up was the lefty specialist, Daniel Schlereth, who walked Carl Crawford.  Leyland then walked out to the mound and everyone in the ballpark including Schlereth thought he was done.  The Tigers southpaw started to walk off the mound towards the dugout, but his manager told him to come back.

Leyland wanted Schlereth to pitch to the switch-hitting Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who does not hit left-handers well at all.  It was the right call, but it didn't work.  Salty smashed a double off the green monster to score the speedy Crawford with the eventual winning run.  It was his first extra base hit off a lefty so far this year.

The Tigers couldn't do anything versus Buchholz and two relievers tonight.  They managed five hits including four doubles, but they failed in all ten at bats with runners in scoring position. 

I had a ticket to the game tonight, but decided to stay home due to the miserable weather.  Given how it turned out, I think I made the right decision.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Hottest Team in Baseball Wins Again

Brad Penny pitched eight shutout innings today as the Tigers dropped the Royals 3-0 for their seventh consecutive victory.  Penny was masterful allowing just four hits and walking nobody.  As is usually the case when he pitches well, the big right-hander was effective in keeping the ball down and induced 15 ground outs.  He also received a good deal of support from his defense today with Brandon Inge, Austin Jackson, Scott Sizemore and Casper Wells makes fine plays behind him.  After a slow start to the season, Penny has allowed just six runs in his last five starts to lower his season ERA to 4.11.

The Tigers used a little small ball to do all their scoring in the first inning.  Jackson led off with a single and Sizemore followed with a perfect bunt single down the first base line.  Ryan Raburn also attempted a bunt hit to the left side, but settled for a sacrifice putting runners on second and third.  Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Jhonny Peralta followed with three consecutive singles to give the Tigers the 3-0 lead which they kept.

The Tigers are now 10-1 since May 3 and have outscored their opponents 71-34 over that stretch.  They have done plenty of hitting starting with the resurgence of lead-off man Jackson - batting .328 with seven extra base hits in his last 14 games.  Additionally, Victor Martinez has 7 extra base hits and 14 RBI in 7 games and the surprising Peralta is batting .429 with 4 homers in 10 games. 

The big story has been the starting pitching though.  Everyone knows about Justin Verlander's no hitter on May 7 and his bid for a second one five days later, but the whole staff has contributed.  The Tigers starters have combined for a 1.67 ERA and only once did a starter allow more than two runs in a start during the 11 game surge (Phil Coke gave up four in the lone loss to the Blue Jays on May 6).  During the stretch, they have allowed just 55 hits, 17 walks and 3 homers in 75 1/3 innings.

All is going well right now for the hottest team in baseball.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Dirks Recalled, Ordonez to DL

The Tigers have announced via Twitter that Magglio Ordonez has been placed on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to May 11 with ankle weakness.  Outfielder Any Dirks will take his place on the roster.  The left-handed batting Dirks was batting .328/.375/.527 with six homers for Triple-A Toledo.  

The 25-year-old outfielder is a legitimate prospect, although not an elite one.  He does not have one standout tool, but has pretty good skills across the board and is capable of playing all three outfield positions. He is also the type of gritty hard-working player who will appeal to manager Jim Leyland.  That combined with his strong start for the MudHens means that he should get plenty of playing time.  He probably won't arrive in time to start tonight's game, but look for him to start at one of the corner outfield positions against right-handed starters.

Since Ordonez is batting just .172 with four extra base hits, this move is only going to help the Tigers.  It gives them a potentially productive bat in the line-up while allowing Ordonez time to heal properly.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Tigers Win Road Series Over Jays

The Tigers topped the Blue Jays 10-5 tonight for their third win of a four game series at Toronto. Here are the highlights and lowlights:
  • Max Scherzer was not too efficient tonight throwing 97 pitches in just five innings.  He did manage to hold the Blue Jays to just two runs despite giving up five hits and three walks.  For those who like to follow pitcher wins and losses, Max is now 6-0.
  • The amazing Al Alburquerque carved up the Jays with his devastating slider pitching two shutout innings with four strikeouts.  He's got 22 strikeouts in just 12 2/3 innings.  He's a lot of fun to watch right now.
  • On the other hand, Ryan Perry was not a pleasure to watch tonight.  He came in with an eight-run lead in the ninth inning and proceeded to load the bases on walks to start the inning.  He later allowed two hits and hit a batter forcing Jim Leyland to bring in his closer Jose Valverde on what should have been a day of rest.
  • Offensively, the Tigers exploded for six runs in the fourth inning versus Toronto Starter Brandon Morrow who had cruised through the first three frames.  The key blow was a bases loaded three-run double by Austin Jackson.  AJax went one for six, but is now 15 for 44 (.341 BA) with five extra base hits in his last ten games.
  • Victor Martinez is also swinging a hot bat.  He went three for four with two doubles and a home run and is now 9 for 22 since his return from the disabled list.
  • The Tigers now travel to Minnesota for two games.  Tomorrow night will be an intriguing match-up with Rick Porcello facing Francisco Liriano (who pitched a no hitter last time out).

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Another No Hitter for Verlander

There have been only eight no hitters in the history of the Tigers and Justin Verlander has two of them.  Today, he pitched to the minimum 27 batters in no hitting the Blue Jays 9-0.  He also no hit the Brewers on June 12, 2007. 

Today's no hitter was almost a let down as Verlander was five outs away from a perfect game.   Justin retired the first 22 batters and then had two strikes on right-handed hitting JP Arencibia.  The young Jays catcher then fouled off several pitchers in forcing a 12-pitch walk.  Ball four was just barely off the plate, but not controversial.  It was a tremendous at bat for Arencibia.  Verlander quickly got third baseman Edwin Encarnacion to ground into a double play and the no hitter was in tact.  That would be the only Blue Jay base runner of the game.

The closest Toronto got to a hit was on the final out of the fifth inning.  Encarnacion hit a hard grounder back to the box which bounced off Verlander's arm.  The Tigers pitcher pounced on it and fired to first on one hop.  Miguel Cabrera held onto to the throw and it was 15 up 15 down at that point.

There were not a lot of close calls today because Verlander had everything working including his fastball which ran as high as 101 MHP late in the game.  Verlander had just four strikeouts and was very efficient  completing the game with 108 pitches. The final out came when Blue Jays speedster Rajai Davis chased an outside slider for strike three. 

Given his lack of strikeouts, one might wonder whether Verlander took Jack Morris's recent criticism to heart.  Morris had recently commented that Verlander was trying too hard to strike out too many batters and was throwing too many pitches.  I don't think Verlander had that in mind though.  I just think he had great stuff today and the Jays happened to hit into weak outs rather than striking out.  He was in such command today that you could sense him being aware of the perfect game as early as the fifth inning. 

Not to be forgotten is the Tigers offense today which gave Justin some rare run support.  They clubbed Toronto starter Ricky Romero for three runs in both the third and fourth innings to give their pitcher a cushion.  They added another in the fifth and two more in the ninth.  Jhonny Peralta hit a solo homer and Alex Avila a two-run shot.  Austin Jackson contributed three hits and is now batting .333 in his last eight games.

But today belonged to Justin Verlander who made history by becoming only the second Tiger with two no hitters.  The other one was Virgil Trucks, who recorded two in 1952.  It's been an up and down start to the 2011 Tigers season but today Verlander gave fans a memory that will last a lifetime.

Is Brandon Inge All Done?

The Tigers surprised a few people when they signed third baseman Brandon Inge to a two-year $11.5 million contract after last season.  One could reason that there wasn't much available outside the organization, so that signing him for another year might have been the best option.  It also made sense from a public relations standpoint to keep the popular and civil-minded Inge for another year.  Many wondered though whether it was really necessary to sign the soon to be 34-year-old .236 lifetime hitter with declining defensive skills for two more years. 

This year's slow start is causing fans to question the move some more.  Inge is currently batting .202 with just one homer and a woefully low .298 slugging average.  Is this it for Inge?  Is this what we're going to see all year?

I wouldn't worry too much about the batting average. Batting average is a volatile statistic and he's never hit for a high average anyway.  According to the FanGraphs database, he has struck out in 27% of his at bats which is awful, but not much different from his 26% lifetime rate. On the plus side, 19.2% of his batted balls have resulted in line drives which is higher than his 17.7% lifetime rate.  So, he has been a little unlucky perhaps, but it doesn't appear as if he has lost anything it terms of making solid contact. 

His lack of power stands out a little more than his batting average because were are used to seeing a little pop from the third sacker.  He has only one homer in 104 at bats, but he does have seven doubles.  He is actually hitting fly balls at a higher rate than usual (46% this year versus 43% lifetime), so why isn't he hitting more home runs?  The reason is because he has hit homers on only 2.8% of his fly balls which is way down from his 8.3% career rate.  The first thought might be that he's not hitting the ball as hard this year, but don't forget the elevated line drive rate.  The home runs should come, maybe not 27 like he hit in 2009 but his typical 12-15.

One noticeable difference in Inge this year is that he is more aggressive at the plate, swinging more often earlier in the count.  Aggressiveness is not necessarily a bad thing. Batters should swing at pitches they can hit, but patience can also be a virtue especially for a hitter that doesn't make a lot of contact.  After averaging 4.1 pitches per plate appearance in 2009-2010, Inge is down to 3.8 this year.  The result has been fewer walks.  He has walked in just 6.1% of his plate appearances this year which is down from 8.8 in 2009-2010.  Since his more aggressive approach has not resulted in more hits, a reversion back to a more patient style seems like a good idea.

The biggest concern might be Inge's fielding.  Just based on observation, the once stellar defender seems to have lost a step or two.  He does not appear to be making the plays he did in the past and the advanced fielding statistics agree.  Taking the average of his Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Total Zone (TZ), three statistics which can be found at FanGraphs, give us an estimate of how many runs he is worth with his fielding.  According to this aggregate number, Inge's defense has been on the decline for a few years.

Inge saved the Tigers an estimated 20 runs with his fielding compared to the average third baseman in 2006-2007 when he was in his defensive prime.  In 2008-2009, that number dropped to four runs.  Since the beginning of last year, he is just one run above average.  While these defensive measures are far from perfect, they suggest that what many are seeing is true - that Inge is no longer a plus fielder at third.  It appears that he is only an average fielder now. 

So, is Inge all done?  Not quite.  I think his hitting will bounce back to his career norms, as mediocre as those may be.  However, with his decline in fielding, he is no longer a real asset to a team that is trying to contend for a division title.

Will the Tigers replace Inge?  One possibility would be to recall Danny Worth or Cale Iorg from Toledo to play shortstop and to move Jhonny Peralta to third.  That won't help their offense, but might help them a little defensively.  Still, it appears unlikely that they would eat almost two years of salary without an obvious replacement available.

Another option is to trade for a third baseman or shortstop, but that's much easier said than done. Those are two positions which are thin around MLB right now and it would cost a lot in terms of prospects to get a significant upgrade.  Thus, I think we are stuck with Inge for the time being.  Hopefully, he'll emerge from his early season slump and put up some numbers that are a little more tolerable.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Tigers Take Series from Yankees

It's been a roller coaster ride for the Tigers the last two weeks.  First, they dominated the White Sox in a three-game sweep.  Then they lost seven in a row, getting swept by the Mariners and Indians and losing the first game of this week's Yankee series.  When Justin Verlander lost that first game, fans feared another sweep.  It felt like the season was slipping away and the fans demanded action.

The Tigers faithful (or unfaithful after losing seven games) got some of the changes they wanted starting on Tuesday when second baseman Scott Sizemore was promoted from Toledo.  On Wednesday, Victor Martinez returned from the disabled list and Jim Leyland constructed a new batting order.  He moved left-handed hitting Brennan Boesch up to the third hole and Mslumping Magglio Ordonez down to number six. 

Coincidentally or not the Tigers took the last three games of the series after the changes took effect.  Sizemore has gone 4 for 12.  Boesch recovered from a brief swoon by getting four hits in to games after the batting order change.  Ordonez is hitting the ball better and even got his first homer Wednesday night.  All in all the offense looked much better this series. 

They key to the series though was the Tigers starters stopping the powerful New York offense.  First, Brad Penny did not allow an earned run in six shutout innings on Tuesday's 4-2 victory.  He has now allowed just four earned runs in his last three outings. 

Max Scherzer followed with eight innings of brilliant scoreless pitching on Wednesady. Reliever Al Alburquerque finished off the 4-0 shutout with a scoreless ninth.  He now has 18 strikeouts in 10 1/3 innings. 

Finally Rick Porcello pitched the longest outing of his career today reaching 120 pitches in seven innings. He allowed just two runs and the Tigers held on to win 6-3.  He has surrendered two runs or fewer in each of his last four starts.

So, it was starting pitching that won this series and they'll probably go as far as their starters take them this year.  They won't win on hitting and fielding this year.  Starting pitching is the area where I think they may outshine the competition in the AL central and it appears to be heating up. 

Monday, May 02, 2011

Scott Sizemore is Free

Cries of "Free Scott Sizemore" have been heard around the Tigers internet community for the last couple of weeks.  Tonight, the second baseman was finally called up to the Tigers to take the place of Will Rhymes.  Sizemore's freedom was first reported by Bless You Boys and has now been confirmed by Jason Beck.

The sizzling Sizemore, who was batting .408/.495/.605 for Triple-A Toledo will probably start at second base tomorrow.  He may split time with Ramon Santiago initially, but should claim the second base job for himself if his hot hitting carries over to the majors. The Tigers are obviously hoping he'll provide a spark to a team that desperately needs offense.  Rhymes was batting .221 with one extra base hit in 81 plate appearances.

Sizemore is not the only player on the way to Detroit.  He'll likely be joined by designated hitter/ back-up catcher Victor Martinez who is expected to come off the disabled list on Wednesday.  There is no word yet on who he'll be replacing.  I would have assumed it would be Omir Santos but Jim Leyland has hinted that he'd like to carry a third catcher (although that doesn't seem necessary). 

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Catcher Defense in April: Avila in Middle of Pack

Last December, I ranked all the catchers in baseball in 2010 based on their fielding statistics (stolen bases, caught stealing, passed balls , wild pitches, throwing errors and fielding errors).  Today, I'm going to do the same thing for April, 2011.

The system is complex and I'm not going to rehash the whole thing here.  If you want to see the details, you can read my earlier article.  I do want to give credit to others who inspired me with similar work in the past:  Sean Smith, Justin Inaz, Matt Klaasen and Mike Rogers.

Before looking at the April data, remember that one month is a small sample size and that you should use the same caution you use with any short period of data whether it be hitting, pitching or fielding.  Also keep in mind that these numbers do not capture everything that a catcher does.  For example, they say nothing about game calling or understanding of pitcher abilities and tendencies. I am are only going to evaluate catchers based on what we can most easily measure - controlling the running game, pitch blocking and avoiding errors.

Table 1 contains data for all catchers with at least 100 innings in April.  The CSRuns column gives us an estimation of how many runs each catcher saved/cost his team compared to the average catcher by controlling the running game.  It is based on stolen bases against and caught stealing.  Athletics catcher Kurt Suzki is the MLB leader with 5.0 runs saved.  A negative sign before a number indicates that a catcher cost his team runs.  The worst receiver was A.J. Pierzynski who cost the White Sox -2.3 runs.  Alex Avila was right in the middle at 0.3.

The next column (WPPBRuns) tells us how many runs catchers saved/cost their teams with pitch blocking or preventing passed balls and wild pitches.  Number one is Cubs backstop Geovanny Soto with close to two runs saved (1.8).  Pierzynski and Mariners receiver Miguel Olivo have cost their teams almost two runs (-1.8).  Avila is closer to the bottom on that statistic costing the Tigers an estimated 0.6 runs with pitch blocking.

The TERuns column tells us about throwing errors.  There is not a lot of variation between catchers there, but Avila is tied for first with a few others at 0.3.  Conversely, Russell Martin has cost the Yankees 0.5 runs on throwing errors.

The FERuns column indicates how many runs catchers have saved/cost their teams with fielding errors.  Again, there is not a of of variation. There are a lot of catchers including Avila tied at 0.1.  The worst is Jonathan Lucroy of the Brewers (-0.5).

The final column (CatchRuns) is the sum of the previous four columns.  It tells us how many runs catchers saved/cost their teams on the above items combined.  The leader is Suzuki who has saved the Athletics almost five runs (4.7).  The worst is Pierzynski who has cost the White Sox four.  Avila has been right around league average (0.1 runs).

In summary, Avila has been average at controlling the running game, a little below average at pitch blocking and a little better than average at avoiding errors.  Overall, he is in the middle of the pack which combined with his strong hitting made April a successful month for the Tigers young catcher.  

Table 1: Catcher Runs Saved/Cost through April 30, 2011

Player
Team
Inn
CSRuns
WPPBRuns
TERuns
FERuns
CatchRuns
Kurt Suzuki
OAK
184
5.0
-0.6
0.3
0.1
4.7
Matt Wieters
BAL
195
1.7
1.7
0.3
0.1
3.8
Kelly Shoppach
TBR
122
1.4
1.4
-0.1
0.0
2.8
Buster Posey
SFG
193
2.3
0.9
0.0
0.1
3.3
Ramon Hernandez
CIN
115
2.4
0.5
0.2
0.0
3.1
Geovany Soto
CHC
203
1.2
1.8
0.0
-0.4
2.6
Drew Butera
MIN
106
0.5
1.2
-0.1
0.0
1.7
Nick Hundley
SDP
200
0.9
0.7
0.0
0.1
1.6
Brayan Pena
KCR
107
0.5
1.0
-0.1
0.0
1.4
Wilson Ramos
WSN
134
1.0
0.7
-0.3
0.0
1.4
Yorvit Torrealba
TEX
181
0.6
0.2
0.0
0.1
0.9
Matt Treanor
KCR
139
1.3
-0.6
-0.3
0.0
0.4
Yadier Molina
STL
180
0.9
-1.5
0.0
0.1
-0.6
Carlos Santana
CLE
172
-1.1
1.2
0.3
0.1
0.4
Rod Barajas
LAD
200
-0.9
1.0
0.0
0.1
0.2
Alex Avila
DET
187
0.3
-0.6
0.3
0.1
0.1
Hank Conger
LAA
110
-0.3
-0.1
0.2
0.0
-0.2
Chris Iannetta
COL
176
-0.3
-0.4
0.3
0.1
-0.4
Ryan Doumit
PIT
110
-0.3
-0.1
-0.4
0.0
-0.7
Jeff Mathis
LAA
125
0.0
-0.8
-0.1
0.0
-0.8
John Buck
FLA
198
-1.4
0.6
-0.2
0.1
-0.9
Humberto Quintero
HOU
149
-0.9
0.6
-0.3
-0.4
-1.0
Brian McCann
ATL
214
0.8
-1.1
0.3
-0.4
-0.4
Carlos Ruiz
PHI
164
-1.5
1.1
-0.0
0.1
-0.4
Miguel Montero
ARI
203
-0.2
0.1
-1.1
0.1
-1.1
Russell Martin
NYY
199
-0.7
-0.7
-0.5
0.1
-1.9
Ryan Hanigan
CIN
126
-1.6
0.6
-0.1
0.0
-1.0
Jarrod Saltalamacchia
BOS
128
-0.8
-0.7
-0.1
0.0
-1.5
J. P. Arencibia
TOR
146
-0.4
-0.8
-0.3
0.1
-1.5
Jonathan Lucroy
MIL
105
-1.2
-0.4
0.2
-0.5
-1.9
John Jaso
TBR
121
-2.1
-0.5
0.2
0.0
-2.4
Miguel Olivo
SEA
184
-0.7
-1.8
-0.3
0.1
-2.6
Josh Thole
NYM
177
-1.5
-1.6
-0.0
0.1
-3.0
A.J. Pierzynski
CHW
204
-2.3
-1.8
0.0
0.1
-4.0

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