Saturday, September 29, 2012

Yaz, Cabrera and the Triple Crown

My earliest memories of baseball are from the summer of 1967 when I was a four-year old boy growing up on Puffer Street in Lowell, Massachusetts. I was not a Tigers fan at the time or even a baseball fan yet, but I was slowly figuring out that baseball was about the most important thing in the universe.  That was the summer of the impossible dream Red Sox, who surprised the baseball world by capturing an improbable American League pennant after finishing ninth in a ten-team league the previous season.

Turn arounds like the one the Red Sox made between 1966 and 1967 were more difficult in those days as there no playoffs where a team could sneak into the World Series by virtue of a weak division or a wildcard berth.  They had to beat out every team in the 162-game season.  So, the Red Sox were a big deal in Massachusetts that year.  The exception was in my household where my father was a Cardinals fan. The Cardinals of course, defeated the Red Sox in the World Series that year, so I was hearing it from both sides.  I had no idea what was going on, but I was captivated nevertheless.

The words "pennant" and "World Series" became part of my vocabulary for the first time that year along with "Red Sox" and "Cardinals".  I imagine the word 'Tigers" must have been uttered at some point as they were part of the epic AL pennant race that year.  I did not become a fan of the Tigers until some time in 1968 though.

I also probably heard the phrase "Triple Crown" that summer because that was the the year of the last triple crown winner.  Red Sox left fielder Carl Yastrzemski led the league in all three triple crown categories that year batting .326 with 44 home runs and 121 Runs Batted In.  Some called him by his proper name of "Cahl Yascrimski", but mostly it was just Yaz.

The whole neighborhood was talking about Yaz. The Cote boys were yapping about him.  The girl across the street worshipped him. My eight-year-old sister Vera had a Yaz baseball card of which she was very proud.  Her friend Brian next door had a bigger collection of cards including multiple Carl Yastrzemskis. I admired their card collections, but would not get  my first pack until the following year.  Always the contrarian, I would corner the neighborhood market on Lou Brock cards by the middle of the summer of 1968. 

When the neighborhood kids would play baseball in the yard next door, there was a tall kid with an eye patch who was apparently very good as everyone would get excited  when he came up.  He was like the Yaz of Puffer Street.  Everyone would wait for him to go into his Yaz stance with his bat held exceptionally high.  

Local fans admired Yaz so much there was even a song about him.  I distinctly remember the chant "Cahl Yascrimski Cahl Yascrimski"   There were other players who were mentioned such as Cy Young Award winner Jim Lonborg.  They also liked Lee Stange for some reason.  His record was 8-10 that year which didn't normally earn a pitcher a lot of love in the sixties.  Either they were early sabermetricians or they just liked his nickname "Stinger".  I think they had a song about him too.  Still, it was clear that Yaz was some kind of god above all the others.

Forty-five years later, Tigers star Miguel Cabrera has a very good chance to be the first triple crown winner since Yastrzemski.  His three-run homer in the eighth inning this afternoon gave him 43 home runs tying him with Rangers slugger Josh Hamilton for the home run lead.  Cabrera also leads the AL in batting average (.327) and RBI (136).

Things are more complicated now than they were for a four year old boy or any fan in 1967.  Many fans today are much more analytical about baseball now than their counterparts five decades earlier. The triple crown stats are no longer universally accepted as the best statistics for evaluating players. Some modern fans go so far as to speak of them in disdain.

Instead of a community of Tigers fans simply being in awe of Cabrera's potential accomplishment as Red Sox rooters were of Yaz in 1967, internet fans argue about the importance of the triple crown.  They debate endlessly whether Cabrera is a better player than Angels rookie sensation Mike Trout who trails Cabrera in the triple crown numbers, but excels in areas less recognized by traditional numbers.  These debates can get quite heated and some fans have grown to dislike them.  While there is a lot of stubbornness on both sides, I personally think these discussions are healthy and good for the game. 

As a fan who grew up before sabermetrics, the internet and satellite TV and radio broadcasting every game though, I think the triple crown chase is also great for the game.  The analyst in me will not focus on the triple crown numbers in any serious evaluation of players, but the old-time sentimental fan in me understands the tradition and symbolism of the crown.  I won't let it influence my MVP vote (not that I have one!), but I'm enjoying Cabrera's quest in the same way the Puffer Street gang enjoyed Yaz's feat in the Summer of 1967.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Tigers On The Road Again

After sweeping the Royals in a four-game series at Comerica Park, the Tigers finished the season with a 50-31 record at home.  Tonight, they hit the road for a three-game series at Minnesota and opened with a 4-2 loss.  They are now 34-42 on the road which gives them the biggest home/away differential in the American League by far.

The Bengals had their usual road problems tonight getting shut down by young lefty Scott Diamond who held them to two runs on five hits in 7 1/3 innings.  They scored their only runs on a two-run homer by second baseman Omar Infante in the eighth.  They could do nothing against a Twins bullpen which easily retired all five batters.

The Tigers now have a home OPS of  .793 with 92 homers and 4.9 runs per game at home.  In contrast, they have posted an OPS of .728 with just 64 homers and 4.1 runs scored per game on the road.  Their home/road run prevention split is less extreme: 4.0 runs allowed per game at home and 4.3 on the road.

They also had their usual error in a key spot tonight when first baseman Prince Fielder booted an easy grounder to start the bottom of the seventh.  Manager Jim Leyland then left in southpaw Phil Coke one batter too long and he allowed a two-run homer to the switch-hitting Ryan Doumit.  On one hand, leaving Coke in the game forced Doumit to bat right handed which is his weaker side.  On the other hand, Coke struggles versus right handers (.390 BA, 1.011 OPS) and probably should not face them in a tie game in the late innings. 

The Twins scored their other two runs in the bottom of the eighth when rookie reliever Brayan Villarreal loaded the bases on walks and then allowed a two-run double to Doumit.  Villarreal has been good for the most part this year, but has had control troubles in high-leverage situations in recent games. 

So, the Tigers lost another road game and are now just a game ahead of the White Sox who beat the Rays tonight.  The Bengals better figure out how to win away from Comerica pretty soon, because that's where all the rest of their games will be played - two more at Minnesota and then three at Kansas City.  Meanwhile, Chicago is at home to finish the season. 

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Fister Punches Out the Entire Royals Line-up


Photo credit: Matthew Mowery, Oakland Press

The Tigers completed a four-game sweep with a 5-4 walk-off win over the Kansas City Royals this afternoon.  The win moved the Tigers a game and a half ahead of the White Sox in the AL Central pending Chicago's game versus Tampa Bay tonight. The game winner came on a bases-loaded ground out by catcher Alex Avila in the bottom of the ninth.

It's not too often a walk-off gets upstaged by a pitcher who left the left the game in the eighth inning, but the story of the day was Tigers starter Doug Fister.  It's always exciting when a pitcher strikes out the side, but how about striking out the side three times in a row?  Fister didn't actually do that, but he achieved the equivalent by striking out nine consecutive Royals.

The six-foot-eight-inch right hander retired catcher Salvador Perez to end the fourth.  He then struck out the side in the fifth and sixth giving him seven straight strikeouts tying a team record previously set by both Denny McLain and John Hiller over 40 years ago.  Fister then broke the team and American League records by striking out the first two Royals in the seventh.  That's nine straight strikeouts or the entire Royal;s line-up.  The string finally ended when Perez grounded to shortstop Jhonny Peralta.

The major league record for consecutive strikeouts in a game is ten by Mets superstar Tom Seaver in 1970.  I was only seven years old when that happened, but I remember thinking that was the most amazing feat ever when I heard about it on the radio.  I was listening to today's game on internet radio at work and was really hoping - as we all were - for number ten when Fister got two strikes on Perez.  Still, nine strikeouts in a row is an incredible feat.

The previous AL record of eight was last accomplished by Blake Stein of the Royals in 2001.  Others with eight in a row include Angels legend Nolan Ryan twice, Red Sox fire baller Roger Clemens and Ron Davis of the Yankees.  Other National League hurlers with nine consecutive strikeouts are Adam Harang with the Dodgers earlier this year and Ricky Nolasco of the Marlins in 2009.

Mister Fister has  posted a 3.38 ERA and 135/35 K/BB in 157 1/3 innings this year.  Since becoming a Tiger, he has a very impressive 2.89 ERA and 192/40 K/BB ratio in 227 2/3 innings.  Those are Cy Young type numbers if he can do it in a single season. 

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Alex Avila Looking Solid Defensively

Tigers catcher Alex Avila has been battling injuries all year which has limited his playing time and hampered his offense compared to last year. After batting .295/.389/.506 in 551 plate appearances in 2011, Avila is down to .248/359/.389 in 2012.  This is drawing a lot of criticism from Tigers fans who had high expectations coming into the season, but he is actually performing better than the average American League catcher this year (.242./.310/.398) especially in terms of on-base percentage.

Along with his more than acceptable offense for a catcher, Avila has looked quite capable behind the plate in 2012.  In  this post, I will take a close look at the defensive numbers.

The system used to evaluate catchers 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.

First, a near full year of defensive data is still a relatively small sample size so you should use caution in interpreting the results.  Also keep in mind that these numbers do not capture everything that a catcher does.  For example, they say nothing about game calling, pitch framing or understanding of pitcher abilities and tendencies. I am 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 550 innings through September 24 which covers most of the MLB starters.  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.  Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina is the MLB leader with an estimated nine (9.4) runs saved over an average catcher.  Avila is 9th out of 31 catchers with 3.1 runs saved.  A negative sign before a number indicates that a catcher cost his team runs.  The worst receiver in this category is Kurt Suzuki who has cost the the Athletics and Nationals an estimated 12 (-11.9) runs. 

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 Orioles backstop Matt Wieters with about five (4.9) runs saved. On the other hand, Wil Rosario has cost the White Sox about 12 runs (-11.9).  Avila is about average (-0.2) on this statistic which is an improvement over last year when he cost the Tigers an estimated four runs with his pitch blocking.

The TERuns column tells us about throwing errors.  There is not a lot of variation between catchers here, but Braves receiver Brian McCann leads with 1.3 runs saved.  Conversely, Rosario has cost the Rockies -2.3 runs on throwing errors.  Avila is right around average (-0.2). 

The FERuns column indicates how many runs catchers have saved/cost their teams with fielding errors.  Again, there is not a of of variation.  The leader is Molina with 0.8 runs saved.  The worst is Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz (-1.4).  Avila is in the top five in the majors on this measure saving the Tigers 0.6 runs.

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 catcher Ryan Hanigan who has saved Cincinnati about 14 runs (14.1).  The worst is Barajas who has cost the Pirates about 11 runs (-10.7).  Avila has saved the Tigers between three and four runs (3.3) with his defense according to this measure.  That ranks him 10th in the majors.

In summary, Avila has been good at controlling the running game and avoiding fielding errors and right around average at pitch blocking and throwing errors.  Overall, he is in the top third among major league catchers defensively.  Combine that with slightly above average offense for the position and you've got a pretty solid catcher. 

Table 1: Catcher Runs Saved/Cost through September 24, 2012



Data source: Baseball-Reference


Friday, September 21, 2012

Where Does Cabrera's Season Rank in Tigers History?

I have spent too much time recently trying to explain why I think Mike Trout should be the MVP over Miguel Cabrera.  So, today I'll just talk about Cabrera and where his season ranks in Tigers history.

Everyone knows that the Tigers slugger is closing in on a Triple Crown.  He is currently leading the American League in batting average and Runs Batted In and is just one behind Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton in homers.  Winning the Triple Crown would be a rare event.  It has been accomplished only 13 times since 1901, nine in the AL and four in the NL. The only Tiger to do it was the legendary Ty Cobb who batted .377/9/107 in 1909.

I think it would be really cool if Cabrera won the triple crown, but most of you know that those are not my preferred statistics.  I'll start by using the OPS+ statistic.  If we compare a batter's OPS to league average and adjust for home ballpark, we get his OPS+.  An OPS+ of 100 is league average.  An OPS+ of more than 100 is better than average and an OPS+ of less than 100 is worse than average.  Cabrera currently leads the league with a 170 OPS+. 

The Tigers single-season leaders are shown in Table 1 below.  As of today, Cabrera is 16th on the Tigers all-time list.  Interestingly, this is only his third best season as a Tiger as he posted marks of 181 in 2011 and 178 in 2010.  Three consecutive years with an OPS+ of 170 or better would be quite remarkable.  The only other Tiger to do that was Cobb from 1909-1912.

As is always the case, Cobb dominates the leaders appearing nine times in the top 20.  Other Tigers showing up multiple times are the great Hank Greenberg (four), Cabrera (three) and the under appreciated Harry Heilmann (three). For someone who grew to love the game in 1970s, it's pretty exciting to finally see a modern Tiger finally making a top twenty list more than once. 

Table 1: Tigers Single-Season OPS+ Leaders  

Player
Year
PA
OPS+
Ty Cobb
1917
669
210
Ty Cobb
1910
590
206
Norm Cash
1961
673
201
Ty Cobb
1912
609
200
Ty Cobb
1911
654
196
Harry Heilmann
1923
627
194
Ty Cobb
1909
651
193
Ty Cobb
1915
700
185
Miguel Cabrera
2011
688
181
Harry Heilmann
1927
596
180
Ty Cobb
1916
636
180
Miguel Cabrera
2010
648
178
Al Kaline
1967
550
176
Hank Greenberg
1937
701
172
Hank Greenberg
1940
670
171
Miguel Cabrera
2012
646
170
Hank Greenberg
1935
710
170
Hank Greenberg
1938
681
169
Ty Cobb
1922
613
169
Harry Heilmann
1922
526
169
Ty Cobb
1908
635
169

Data Source: Baseball-Reference


A limitation of OPS+ is that it weights OBP and slugging equally.  In actuality, OBP is more important than slugging and should carry more weight.  It also does not give a batter credit for playing time.  So, I'll also take a look at Batting Runs.  It has been determined from the results of thousands of games that the following linear weights are most appropriate:

single 0.47
double 0.77
triple 1.04
home run 1.40
walk 0.31
HBP 0.34

Based on that, we can arrive at a player's Batting Runs (BtRuns).  Cabrera currently has 57 BtRuns which means that he has contributed 57 runs beyond what you would expect from an average player.  As shown in Table 2, that ranks him 18th on the Tigers all-time single-season list.  Cabrera still has 13 games to go, so he has a chance to move up the list. As with OPS+, Cabrera had even better seasons in 2011 (71) and 2010 (64).

First baseman Norm Cash is the Tigers all-time leader with 85 BtRuns in 1961.  Beyond that, we see the same familiar names populating the table - Cobb, Cabrera, Geenberg and Heilmann.

 
Table 2: Tigers Single-Season Batting Runs Leaders

Player
Year
PA
BtRuns
Norm Cash
1961
673
85
Ty Cobb
1911
654
76
Ty Cobb
1917
669
75
Harry Heilmann
1923
627
74
Miguel Cabrera
2011
688
71
Ty Cobb
1915
700
70
Ty Cobb
1912
609
69
Hank Greenberg
1937
701
67
Ty Cobb
1910
590
66
Miguel Cabrera
2010
648
64
Hank Greenberg
1940
670
64
Harry Heilmann
1927
596
64
Ty Cobb
1909
651
62
Hank Greenberg
1935
710
62
Magglio Ordonez
2007
679
61
Hank Greenberg
1938
681
61
Harry Heilmann
1921
672
60
Miguel Cabrera
2012
646
57
Ty Cobb
1916
636
56
Ty Cobb
1922
613
56

Data Source: Baseball-Reference


What I find most interesting about these compilations is Cabrera's three-year run of 191 Batting Runs which is surpassed only by Cobb's 211 in 1910-1912.  Cabrera's 2012 season has certainly been outstanding, but his consistent greatness over three years has been even more impressive.   

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