Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Defense Could Cost Tigers In Post-Season

Earlier today, I picked the Tigers to win the World Series.  It was a homer pick, but the post-season is a crap shoot, so why not the Tigers?  The Bengals certainly have their strengths - hitting and starting pitching in particular - but they also have shortcomings.  The first one that comes to mind is their bullpen and perhaps the manager's usage of it, two topics that have been beaten to death recently. However, the bullpen might not be their biggest weakness.

The table below shows the estimated runs saved/cost by fielders on each of the ten playoff teams according to Defensive Runs Saved (DRS).  The Tigers defense has cost them a whopping -64 runs compared to an average team which suggests that they could have won about six more games if they had just an average defense.  Only the Indians (-74) and Twins (-72) were worse.

The Baltimore Orioles - the Tigers first round playoff opponent - was 50 runs better than average and a stunning 114 runs better than the Tigers.  That is .70 runs per game which would translate to 3.5 runs in a five-game playoff series.  The Tigers really need to tighten their defense in this series because they can't afford to spot the Orioles three or four runs just with fielding.

If the Tigers get by the Orioles, they will still be at a big disadvantage defensively no matter who they face.  The closest team to them is the Angels with -15 DRS.  That is a 49 run difference or a third of a run per game.  The only other team that is below average is the Giants at -4.

Table: Defensive Runs Scored for Playoff Teams, 2014
St. Louis
Kansas City
Los Angeles (NL)
San Francisco
Los Angeles (AL)
Data source: Baseball-Reference.com

So, you'll probably spend the late innings fretting about the Tigers bullpen, but keep an eye on their fielding as well.  It might be the facet of the game most likely to derail their championship dreams.  

Playoff Predictions

There is no formula for predicting success in the playoffs.  Some will tell you that pitching and defense beats hitting in post-season, or that teams heavily reliant of home runs will struggle or that teams that finish strong will carry momentum into the playoffs.  A recent Grantland article shows that those and many other popular narratives are not supported by strong evidence.  In reality, there is no reliable way to predict the outcome of a short series, especially in the playoffs where all the teams are good and pretty evenly matched.

The playoffs are largely a crap shoot, but we all like to guess who will win, so here are my predictions:

AL Wildcard
Oakland over Kansas City

NL Wildcard
Pittsburgh over San Francisco

AL First Round
Detroit over Baltimore
Los Angeles over Oakland

NL First Round
St. Louis over Los Angeles,    
Washington over Pittsburgh

AL Championship
Detroit over Los Angeles
Washington over St. Louis

World Series
Detroit over Washington

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Tiger Finally Clinch Division Title

Tigers starter David Price pitched 7 1/3 shutout innings in division-clincher
(Photo credit: FoxSports.com)

It was almost a foregone conclusion going into the season that the Tigers would win the American League Central division.  What nobody guessed was that it would take 162 games before they clinched it.  The Tigers finally secured their fourth consecutive division title today with a 3-0 shutout over the Twins in Comerica Park.  

Starting pitcher David Price was brilliant today in dueling Twins right hander Kyle Gibson into the eighth inning of a game that was reminiscent of the 1987 clincher versus the Blue Jays.   For those who are too young to remember, the Tigers beat Toronto 1-0 on the final game of the 1987 season to win the most thrilling pennant race life of my lifetime.  Left-hander Frank Tanana pitched a complete game shutout and outfielder Larry Herndon hit an early home run to provide the only offense.

Today, second baseman Ian Kinsler was Herndon putting the Tigers up 1-0 with a solo homer going in the third inning.  Price was Tanana keeping that slim lead intact into the top of the eighth inning.   He wasn't quite Tanana though.  In 2014, complete game shutouts are rare and even the durable Price was not going to get one today leaving after 112 pitches and one out in the eighth. It also didn't end 1-0 as the Tigers added two insurance runs in the bottom of the eighth.

The biggest fear of Tigers fans all year has been the bullpen blowing games late and no lead ever feels safe.  However, the much maligned Tigers bullpen duo of Joba Chamberlain and Joe Nathan closed this one out in surprisingly easy fashion retiring five batters in succession.  

The Tigers now face the Orioles in the first round of the playoffs starting on Thursday in Baltimore.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

It's Like 1964 Again

Phillies outfielder Johnny Callison hit three-run homer to win 1964 all-star game 
(Photo credit: New York Daily News)

By most measures, 2014 has been a down year for offense in baseball.  Going into the final week of the season, Rockies first baseman Justin Morneau leads the National League with a .318 batting average.  The lowest batting average ever for an NL batting leader was Tony Gwynn's .313 mark in 1988.  If Orioles slugger Nelson Cruz stays at 39 home runs and nobody else has a big week, it would be the first time since 1982 that no major league hitter reached 40 home runs.  White Sox rookie sensation Jose Abreu's .978 OPS would  make him the lowest MLB OPS leader since Wade Boggs (.965) in 1988.  

Teams have scored only 4.08 runs per game this year.  That's down 13% compared to 2009 and 26% to 2000.  It's also the weakest offensive output since 4.12 in 1992 and 4.00 in 1981.  The .251 MLB batting average is the lowest since .244 in 1972, the last year before the designated hitter was added to the American League.  Home runs are being hit at a rate of 0.87 per game, the lowest since .72 in 1992.  

While 2014 is is one of the worst years for offense in recent decades, it is not unusual compared to the entire history of the game.  In fact, there have been 28 years since 1901 where runs were scored at a lower rate, Many of those years were within the Dead-Ball era from 1901-1919, but there have been other seasons of depressed offense including most of the 1960s decade culminating in 1968 when batters hit .237 and produced only 3.42 runs per game.  There were also several years in the 1970s and 1980s and even early 1990s which were comparable to 2014.   

One thing I like to do every year is to identify a past season which is most similar to the current season.  This season is actually not too far away from last year when teams scored 4.17 runs per game, although there were 9% more home runs in 2013.  It's also fairly similar to a few years - specifically 1988, 1989 and 1992 - during the period just before the so-called Steroid Era.  Runs were scored at about the same rate those years as this year, but there were more walks and fewer home runs.    

One year stands out as a remarkably close match to 2014.  In 1964, there were 4.04 runs per Game which is just 1% lower than this year.  Table 1 shows that the two years were within 2.5% in most offensive categories including batting average, home runs and walks.   There have been a lot more strikeouts this year.  In fact, there have been more strikeouts this year than any other season, but that's a topic for another day.

Table 1: Offensive Comparison of 1964 Versus 2014
% Difference
Runs Per Game
Home Runs Per Game
Walks Per Game
Batting Average
On-Base Percentage
Slugging Average
On-Base Plus Slugging
Weighted On-Base

I'm too young to remember whether this year "feels like" 1964, but it's interesting to look back.  That year is probably most remembered as the season the Philadelphia Phillies managed by Gene Mauch blew a 6 1/2 game lead with less than two weeks to go.  They lost ten games in a row down the stretch and finished a game behind St. Louis.  The Cardinals went on to beat the Yankees in the World Series in seven games.  

Hall-of-Fame outfielder Roberto Clemente led the majors with a .339 batting average and Twins slugger Harmon Killebrew hit 49 home runs for the Twins, a pretty high total for that era.  The best hitter in the majors that year though was the legendary Mickey Mantle who batted .303 with 35 homers and a major league leading 1.015 OPS. 

The best all around player? Giants superstar Willie Mays had a WAR of 11.1, yet Cardinals third baseman Ken Boyer won the NL MVP with just 6.1 WAR.  You can imagine how that would have been received if it happened today.   

The Tigers finished 85-67 in fourth place 14 games behind the Yankees.  The most typical line-up included:

C. Bill Freehan
1B. Norm Cash
2B. Jerry Lumpe
SS. Dick McAuliffe
3B Don Wert
LF. Gates Brown
CF Bill Bruton
RF. Al Kaline.

Kaline led the team with a .851 OPS and 5.6 WAR.  Freehan batted .300 with a .812 OPS and 5.3 WAR.  McAuliffe also had a good season leading the team with 24 home runs.  The top pitcher was left hander Mickey Lolich who struck out 192 and compiled a 3.26 ERA in 232 innings.  Right hander Dave Wickersham posted a 3.44 ERA in 254 innings.  

So, that was 1964.  Fast foward fifty years and you would think not much has changed in the game.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Fan Scouting Report 2014

For the 12th year, Tom Tango is conducting his fan scouting report on fielding skills. The survey is a very valuable resource, so I'm encouraging all knowledgeable fans who watch a lot of Detroit Tigers games to participate.  Many readers of this blog have participated in the past and said it was fun and it only takes a few minutes.

The survey asks fans to rate the fielding skills of players on their favorite teams just based on observation. You will be asked not to use any stats at all and also not to vote based on what somebody else told you. Just use your own eyes as if you were a scout.  Past results were very interesting and informative, but a large sample size is needed in order for them to be useful again this year. Some of the results appear in the Bill James Handbook which comes out every November and also FanGraphs.com  So, I urge all of you to complete the ballot.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Do Big Innings Win Games?

Tigers manager Brad Ausmus recently claimed that most winning teams score more runs in one inning than losing teams do the entire game.  Long-time Detroit News writer Tom Gage wanted to know if this was true and asked his Twitter followers where one could find the answer.  There didn't seem to be an easy way to find it, so I went to the retrosheet.org play-by-play database to figure it out myself.

I took all 9,720 games from 2010-2013 and determined that the winning team scored more runs in one inning than the losing team scored the entire game 4,553 times (or 46%) of the games.  So, Ausmus was not quite correct, but he wasn't wrong in thinking that big innings have a substantial influence on the outcome of games,

Considering only the Tigers games during the same four-year period, a big inning produced enough runs for a victory 45% of the time.  Interestingly, it was 52% in 2013 and 50% so far this year. That is more than likely a small sample fluke, but big innings have had a slightly stronger impact than usual for the Tigers the last two years.


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