Tigers

Requiem for a Season

Yesterday, 43,013 people filed into Comerica Park to observe the Tigers end their season in miserable fashion, losing 2-1 to the Baltimore Orioles.  As noted repeatedly by the TBS announcers (who were terrible all series…yes, Dennis Eckersley, we are aware that you used to be a pitcher, you don’t have to keep reminding us), the crowd was eerily quiet.  On a gray, blustery Michigan afternoon, those in attendance were, as Mitch Albom put it, bearing silent witness to the potential end of an era.  After meltdowns by the bullpen in the first two games of the series, Detroit fans showed up to the party, but came empty-handed.  Sometimes, as fans, you bring the energy with you, but sometimes you need to be fed.  And these fans came hungry for any reason to hope, for any sign of life.  And they starved.

As the fans well know, the Tigers are not a team that comes back from the dead.  This is a team reliant on dominant starting pitching, building an early lead and holding on for dear life.  During the Tigers’ current run of four consecutive division championships, they have never come back to win a postseason game they were losing going into the eighth inning.  Not once.  Since 2011, they’ve been trailing after seven innings 14 times and lost all 14 games.  For that matter, the Tigers haven’t even won a single game where they were tied entering the eighth; they’re 0-4 in such games.  At the same time, the bullpen has registered five blown saves in the eighth inning or later.  Opposing bullpens have incurred a blown save against the Tigers in the 8th inning or later only once, in Game 2 of the 2012 ALDS, but even in that game, it was only after the Tigers’ bullpen had already blown a save.  The Tigers have only won a single game that went into extra innings in four opportunities, Game 1 of the 2012 ALCS, but again, that was only after the Tigers bullpen had already blown a save in the 9th.

Overall, the Tigers have played 38 postseason games since 2011, with a record of 17-21.  In those games, they were leading after seven innings 20 times, trailing 14 times and tied 4 times.  If they simply won the games they were winning, lost the games they were losing, and won half of the games that were tied, that would be 22 wins and 16 losses.  The difference between 22-16 and 17-21 is the difference between genuine hope and utter despair.

This isn’t all about the bullpen or performance in the late innings.  This is about knowing that crazy things happen in baseball, and sometimes, when the chips are down, all you can do is hope for a miracle.  And while Detroit fans still clung to that hope, they understandably felt like those miracles only happen in other places for other fans for other teams.  When you hope for the best but expect the worst, you’re never wrong.  And the Tigers never fail to disappoint.

Ausmus Not Awesome

The Orioles now hold a 2-0 lead in the ALDS over the Tigers.  It’s not over, but it feels over.  For the third straight year, the Tigers have been handicapped by severe bullpen management and managerial incompetence.  In 2012 and 2013, it was Jim Leyland bungling things from the helm.  There was some hope that changing to a younger manager in Brad Ausmus would help to alleviate these issues, but that hope has already been smashed to smithereens.

In Game 2, Ausmus made three decisions regarding pitching changes, and they ranged between questionable and outright terrible:

– Left in Justin Verlander to start the 6th inning, then brought in Anibal Sanchez after Verlander gave up a hit.  Verlander looked absolutely done in the 5th, but Ausmus sent him back out to the mound in the 6th since he had only thrown 95 pitches.  Having Sanchez as the first guy out of the pen was clearly the correct decision, but given his lack of experience as a reliever, it would have been optimal to have him start an inning or come in with no one on base.  There was no reason to bring Verlander back out with the heart of the O’s order due up.  Luckily, Sanchez escaped the 6th without any further damage and pitched a perfect 7th, so no harm was done.  But as much as Verlander was battling all game, he was clearly toast, and I don’t understand the hesitance to switch to a pitcher in Sanchez who had been better than JV all year long.
Decision rating:  1 out of 5

– Removed Sanchez for Joba Chamberlain to begin the 8th.  This is the decision that will haunt the Tigers and their fans all winter.  Sanchez is a starting pitcher by trade, and he was looking stronger the longer he pitched.  Sure, he’d only had a single one inning appearance since he’d returned from the DL, but if Ausmus was thinking he couldn’t handle three innings, whose fault was it that Sanchez hadn’t been handed more work to get a bit more stretched out before the season ended?  This was slavish obedience to Ausmus’ set bullpen hierarchy, plain and simple.  Joba pitches the 8th and Joe Nathan pitches the 9th, never mind that both have been terrible lately and that there were superior options available.  Joba proceeded to give up two hits and hit a batter while getting a single lonely out.  His postseason ERA actually went down from infinity to 108.00.  Even if Ausmus was resolved to remove Sanchez after he had pitched two innings, I would have preferred to see Soria get a chance to start the inning.
Decision rating:  0 out of 5

– Removing Joba for Joakim Soria with two on, one out in the 8th.  This decision is probably the most defensible of the three, simply because Soria was having a great season before he was acquired by the Tigers.  He proceeded to walk J.J. Hardy and give up a game-winning bases-clearing double to former Tiger Delmon Young of all people.  Soria hasn’t looked sharp as a Tiger at all, but his usage since acquisition has been extremely inconsistent.  It appeared he finally shook off some of the rust to retire the side after the damage was already done, but a less rusty option might have been Al Alburquerque, who has yet to appear in the series.  As I’ve written before, Alburquerque has had the best and most consistent season of any Tiger reliever this year, and is a good option with runners on base due to his strikeout ability.  Given the lack of the options in the Tigers bullpen, Soria was an acceptable choice, but it appears that Ausmus doesn’t view Alburquerque as an option in the 8th or 9th inning regardless of matchup or situation.  It’s that kind of closed-minded thinking that is killing the Tigers right now.
Decision rating:  3 out of 5

Perhaps the worst part of all of this is that the Tigers bullpen has completely imploded and that’s even without the negative contributions of the highly flammable Joe Nathan (who of course is being reserved exclusively for save situations and hasn’t yet appeared in the postseason).  Sure, a postseason series is a small sample size, and there’s no need to deviate from a sound plan if things go wrong, but that’s only if the initial plan was any good.  Ausmus entered the postseason with a rigid and moronic plan for his already struggling bullpen.  Going forward, he’ll either overreact in the worst way possible (perhaps asking Phil Coke to get through a full inning or calling Jim Leyland for advice) or do nothing at all.  Either way, there is very little hope in Tigertown.

Bold Predictions Revisited

In March, I made a few predictions about how the season would go.  Let’s see how I did:

Prediction #1:  The St. Louis Cardinals will win 100 games.

WRONG.  The Cards still won the NL Central, but they only won 90 games.  My prediction was based on the Cardinals’ impressive organizational depth, but what good is depth if it doesn’t yield any impact players?  Hot prospect Oscar Taveras failed to impress in his debut and Allen Craig fell flat and ended up in Boston along with Joe Kelly and his high 90’s heat that somehow doesn’t yield any strikeouts.  The seemingly deep rotation suffered heavier than anticipated losses, with Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia losing many games to injury and Shelby Miller experiencing severe growing pains.  But despite all that, the Cards were deep enough to weather a great deal of adversity and make the postseason for the fourth straight year.  So I was sort of right.  Okay, fine, I wasn’t right at all.

Prediction #2:  The Oakland A’s will win the most games in the AL.

WRONG.  This prediction looked great at the end of July.  The A’s had the best record in the majors, had just traded for Jeff Samardzija and Jon Lester and were gearing up for a deep playoff run.  I looked like a genius.  But then, as has been well documented, the A’s crashed hard to earth and barely snuck in to the playoffs as a wild card while it was the division rival Angels that captured the best record.  The A’s finished with the fifth best record in the AL, so I wasn’t even close…but it feels close to me.

Prediction #3:  The Toronto Blue Jays will contend for a playoff spot.

WRONG.  Again, this prediction looked really good earlier in the season, before the Orioles (!) pulled away from everyone in the division.  The Jays were flying high until their wings were clipped by injuries to Brett Lawrie and Edwin Encarnacion.  (I say their wings were clipped because Blue Jays are birds and have wings.  I have such a way with words.)  Anyways, the Jays weren’t officially eliminated until the final week of the season, but they weren’t a real contender at any point during the home stretch.

Prediction #4:  The Detroit Tigers will win less than 90 games.

WRONG.  Unlike the other predictions, I was actually close on this one.  The Tigers won exactly 90 games, and needed every single one because the Royals finished second in the AL Central with 89.  My concerns about the bullpen were exactly on point (except the part where I thought Joe Nathan would be any good) as were my worries about the depth of the rotation (Anibal Sanchez missed significant time and his replacements, such as Robbie Ray and Kyle Lobstein, weren’t very good).  The offense actually turned out to be better than I thought despite a down year from Miguel Cabrera, thanks to a career best season from Victor Martinez (32 homers) and a breakout performance from J.D. Martinez.  Anyways, I was close, but still 100% wrong…but I’m glad I was wrong.  Though it would be nice if I were even wronger, and the Tigers had won 100 games.

Prediction results:  0 for 4

Revised Postseason Predictions:

I predicted only two of five AL playoff teams correctly (Detroit and Oakland), but got four out of five NL playoff teams right (Washington, Los Angeles, St. Louis and San Francisco) plus all three division winners.  Though the teams I predicted to be in the League Championship Series are all still alive (Detroit, Oakland, St. Louis, Washington), I’m going to change my predictions because the Cardinals haven’t been as good as I thought they would be and because Clayton Kershaw is an animal.

AL Wild Card:  Oakland over Kansas City
NL Wild Card:  Pittsburgh over San Francisco

ALCS:  Detroit over Oakland
NLCS:  Los Angeles over Washington

World Series:  Detroit over Los Angeles

Detroit’s Ideal Postseason Bullpen Usage

Let’s face it: the Detroit Tigers bullpen has been a complete dumpster fire in 2014.  But as the Tigers prepare for the playoffs, the bullpen situation may not be as bleak as it seems:

– Thanks to a good starting rotation that pitches deep into games, Tigers relievers have thrown the least innings in the league.  The Tigers will likely lean even more heavily on their starting pitchers in the postseason, further minimizing the number of outs that will be required out of the bullpen.

– Anibal Sanchez’s injury may have been a blessing in disguise, assuming that he’s now fully healthy.  Without enough time to get stretched out to return to the rotation, Sanchez’s extended layoff takes a difficult question out of the Tigers’ hands.  Had Sanchez been healthy all year, the question at this time would be whether it would be Justin Verlander or Rick Porcello who would be demoted to the bullpen in the playoffs.  While moving Sanchez to the bullpen might cause a bit of an overall downgrade to the starting rotation, Sanchez has the tools to be a strikeout weapon out of the pen, unlike Porcello and this current incarnation of Verlander.

The Tigers have gone with a seven-man bullpen in the playoffs the past few years, and it seems unlikely that they’ll deviate from this number this year.  Here’s what that bullpen should look like (but probably won’t, thanks to Brad Ausmus’ misplaced loyalties), in order of ideal usage:

1.  Anibal Sanchez
Key stats:  125 IP, 3.46 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 102 K
Strengths:  2013 AL ERA champ, could see his velocity tick up a bit as a reliever, offsetting his drop in K-rate in 2014.
Weaknesses:  Has not pitched a game in relief since 2006, his rookie year.
Description:  Last year, Porcello was the starter that moved to the pen for the playoffs, and he was both criminally underused by then-manager Jim Leyland (only three batters in the entire postseason) and ineffective in his transition (gave up hits to all three batters).  Let’s hope that Sanchez can adjust quicker to relieving and that Brad Ausmus can figure out how to use him.
Usage:  Ideally, Sanchez should throw around 25% of all bullpen innings (for example, in a five game series, I envision perhaps two 2-inning outings).  Avoid (1) pitching him on consecutive days and (2) bringing him in mid-inning with runners on base.  Subject to those two restrictions, Sanchez should be the first guy out of the pen and allowed to pitch multiple innings.

2.  Joakim Soria
Key stats:  43.1 IP, 3.32 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 48 K
Strengths:  Fast recovery.  Soria’s numbers over the past few years are actually better when he’s pitching with zero days rest.
Weaknesses:  Inconsistent workload.  Soria has an ERA of 5.40 and a WHIP of 1.50 with the Tigers so far in only 12 appearances.
Description:  Granted, part of the lack of usage was due to a DL stint, but Ausmus hasn’t been able to figure out a way to get Soria into high-leverage situations with regularity, much less in back-to-back games, with the starters often working through the seventh inning and the eight and ninth rigidly committed to Joba Chamberlain and Joe Nathan, respectively.  I am really hoping Ausmus can become more flexible in the playoffs; if Soria isn’t getting a high percentage of high-leverage innings, it’s a huge waste of the expensive price the Tigers paid to get him.
Usage:  25% of bullpen innings.  Do not hesitate to use on consecutive days.  Note that Sanchez and Soria together should ideally account for 50% of all bullpen innings.

3.  Al Alburquerque
Key stats:  55.1 IP, 2.60 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 61 K
Strengths:  Strikeouts.  Sadly, Alburquerque projects to be the only member of the Tigers bullpen that has struck out more than a batter per inning in 2014 for the Tigers.  This is not good, given today’s strikeout-rich environment.
Weaknesses:  Walks.  Alburquerque looked to have a potential future as a closer a few years ago if he could only get his walks under control.  In 2014, the walks number (21) is finally manageable, though it appears he had to sacrifice a few strikeouts to do it.
Description:  He’s still erratic, but he’s probably been the most consistent member of the bullpen all season, which says more about the state of the other relievers than it does about AlAl.  In the 2012 postseason, the Tigers were scrambling for help when Jose Valverde imploded, and Jim Leyland for some reason turned to guys like Phil Coke and Octavio Dotel instead of Alburquerque and his impressive strikeout rate.  I have a feeling Alburquerque could get overlooked again this year and remain behind Nathan and Chamberlain in the postseason pecking order, but he shouldn’t.  If you need a big strikeout, this should be Ausmus’ guy.
Usage:  15% of bullpen innings.  Use in high-leverage situations where a strikeout is needed (e.g. runner on third and less than two out).

4.  Phil Coke
Key stats:  56.2 IP, 3.81 ERA, 1.48 WHIP, 41 K
Strengths:  Getting out lefties.  Lefties hit .238/.294/.366 against Coke this year.
Weaknesses:  Getting out righties.  Righties hit .325/.388/.463 against Coke this year.
Description:  This left/right split has persisted for years now, but believe it or not, this is actually one of Coke’s better years against righties, and they’re still hitting like freaking superstars against him.  Leyland simply didn’t get this in 2012 or 2013, and for the love of God, I hope Ausmus can figure this out in 2014.  Coke should not face any right handed hitters in any important situation EVER, and that includes switch-hitters who hit worse from the right side.
Usage:  11% of bullpen innings.  Ideally, Coke should be used for a single at-bat (against the opposing team’s best left-handed hitter) each game.

5.  Joba Chamberlain
Key stats:  61.1 IP, 3.67 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 58 K
Strengths:  Beard growing; not giving up homers (only 0.44 allowed per nine innings).
Weaknesses:  Fatigue.  After a good first half (2.63 ERA), Chamberlain has been Nathan-esque in the second half, posting a 5.32 ERA and seeing an increase in walks and a decrease in strikeouts.  His velocity is trending downwards as well.  He seems to be tiring; or perhaps there’s an injury in play?
Description:  Joba has earned a lot of trust with Ausmus as the 8th inning guy, but I’m not sure it’s warranted at this point; I hope to see Sanchez, Soria and even Al Alburquerque picking up more of the workload in the 8th.  Joba hasn’t had to deal with many inherited runners, usually always starting the 8th inning, and I’m not sure now is the time to start bringing him in mid-inning.
Usage:  10% of bullpen innings.  Use in lower leverage situations or for home run suppression.

6.  Joe Nathan
Key stats:  56 IP, 4.98 ERA, 1.59 WHIP, 52 K
Strengths:  Making obscene gestures to the home fans.
Weaknesses:  Old age; booing; men with bats in hands.
Description:  It appears that Ausmus and the Tigers intend to stick with him as the closer even after the horrendous year he’s had.  Sure, there’s always some luck involved in relievers’ numbers, given the small sample size, but the most alarming thing about Nathan’s 2014 performance is the 29 walks and embarrassingly bad 1.79 K/BB ratio.  I expect that Nathan will get his share of ninth inning opportunities (hopefully protecting multi-run leads), but under no situation should Nathan come into a game with men on base.
Usage:  10% of bullpen innings.  Use with extreme caution and only with the bases empty.  OK to use in the ninth inning, but for the love of god, please have someone else warming up.

7.  Blaine Hardy or Kyle Lobstein
Key stats:  37.1 IP, 2.17 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 30 K / 34.2 IP, 3.38 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 23 K
Description:  The proper usage of Coke as a LOOGY necessitates the inclusion of another left-handed pitcher to complete the staff.  Hardy has had a good year since he’s been called up, but has struggled this month with walks (five in 3.1 innings) while Lobstein has come on strong lately.  The difficult question for Ausmus and his staff in making this decision will be whether they prefer to have a guy comfortable working as a second LOOGY behind Coke (Hardy) or a more versatile swingman who can potentially pitch deep into an extra inning game (Lobstein).  I don’t think either rookie will get too many of the high leverage situations, unless Ausmus turns into the 2013 version of Leyland who overmanaged lefty-righty matchups, so I’d give Lobstein the slight edge here.
Usage:  4% of bullpen innings.

Slash Lines

.220/.281/.296.  This is the collective slash line (AVG/OBP/SLG) for Detroit Tigers shortstops this year.  Despite ranking among the top two or three offenses in the league, the Tigers’ contributions from its shortstops ranks dead last in the majors in terms of OPS.

.219/.268/.271.  Tigers shortstop Andrew Romine’s contribution to that awful slash line in 77 games and 227 plate appearances.  He has 9 RBI for the entire season.  NINE.  Nelson Cruz collected 7 RBI on Sunday in a single game.

.191/.265/.202.  Romine’s slash line with runners on base.  Awful.  But wait for it…

.182/.182/.227.  The slash line for Tigers pitchers in 2014.  In case you forgot, the Tigers are an American League team.  

.143/.208/.143.  Romine’s slash line with runners in scoring position.  Yes, to clarify, that is a slugging percentage of ONE-FOUR-THREE.  So combine general terribleness with incredible anti-clutchness and you get Andrew Romine.  THIS…is how you end up with 9 RBI for an entire season.

The Tigers’ In-House Shortstop Solution

Tigers starting shortstop Andrew Romine is currently on pace to hit .179/.256/.192 (yes, that is a slugging percentage of .192 to accompany his career slugging percentage of .247) with 101 strikeouts in 316 ABs and 8 RBI. EIGHT. This is all after the incumbent  Jose Iglesias got hurt and Alex Gonzalez couldn’t hit OR play defense. Romine can pick it at short, I’ll give him that, but the Tigers are winning despite basically trotting out a National League lineup on a nightly basis (Romine being the equivalent of a pitcher). 

Can it really be that hard to upgrade on Romine?  (I didn’t think it was worth the resources to chase Stephen Drew, so I was relieved to hear he re-signed with the Red Sox today.  I’ve wanted to write about his contract situation and the fact that his own greed backfired in his face…but really it just looks like Drew’s agent Scott Boras severely underestimated the impact of the draft pick that any team signing Drew would have to sacrifice.  But who knows…maybe Boras warned Drew that this would happen and it really was his greed that did him in.)  Um…does Tigers management realize they have one of the best defensive shortstops of all time on the field every night? I’m talking about the Tigers’ first base coach, Omar Vizquel. Now, I think the Tigers joked about this possibility back in spring training, but now that we know how bad the alternatives look, could a 46-year-old Vizquel really be that bad of an option? While Vizquel at his age probably couldn’t match Romine’s range or arm, Omar could probably play at least a passable short even if he were 60. And I’m 100% certain Vizquel would be an offensive upgrade over Romine. And more importantly, this would be fun! He can be fantasy eligible at both SS and 1BC (1st Base Coach). And the Tigers are all about fun: 

Most importantly, Omar Vizquel just seems like such a nice guy.  He has such a nice smile.  I just want to be his friend.

Max Scherzer in Verlanderland

mlb_scherzer_verlander_576x324

To the surprise of absolutely no one, Max Scherzer dominated the Lastros last night: 8 innings, 3 hits, 1 walk, 9 strikeouts. Despite a drop in fastball velocity this season, he’s still put up an impressive 1.72 ERA so far. Yet, after he spurned the Tigers’ six year $144 million extension offer, I feel slightly conflicted about rooting for him. Don’t get me wrong, I still want the Tigers to win every game he pitches, but part of me feels like it wouldn’t be the worst thing for him to be, like, slightly less awesome. If he puts up another monster season, does this mean he definitely leaves as a free agent next season (especially since the Tigers blew all their money on the insane Miguel Cabrera extension)? Is he leaving regardless? There’s definitely a bit of a mercenary sheen on him this year, and no one likes rooting for mercenaries.

That being said, I think I understand his rationale in turning down the Tigers’ offer. I’m convinced that the Tigers were unwilling to pay Scherzer greater than or equal to what Justin Verlander is making. And I don’t think Max wanted to be told, “Sure, we’ll pay you as a top five pitcher in the league, but as long as you’re in Detroit, you’ll always be #2.” What defending Cy Young winner would want to sign a long term deal like that?

So who’s #1? If Scherzer keeps doing what he’s doing and Verlander continues to be mortal, I’m interested to see if a debate develops between the Verlanderlanders and the Scherzerians. (If Justin Verlander were a country, it would of course be called Verlanderland and its citizens would be called Verlanderlanders. No, the country would not be called just Verland. That sounds dumb.) I’m a Verlanderlander. And Scherzer is pretty damn good, but the guy doesn’t have a single complete game in his entire career. That’s right. Not once has he retired all 27 guys; he’s always needed help. And that’s why he’s not #1. But prove it Max. Do it again, but sprinkle in a few shutouts and I just might be convinced to defect. And, more importantly, Scherzeria can have all of the gold in Ilitchtenstein. Well, whatever’s left, that is.

The Terrible Tigers Bullpen

phil coke

The Detroit Tigers bullpen is a flaming wet turd. You may ask, how can something be both wet and on fire at the same time? Such is the seeming impossibility of this craptitude. The Tigers bullpen has a 5.65 ERA, ranked 29th in the majors. The only team that is worse so far is Houston at 6.05, but the Astros are not a real team. Well, they are real in the sense that they are physical objects and not illusions, but, according to reliable sources, the entire Astros roster is actually a barnstorming team from the 1890’s (people were generally smaller back then, so this explains the existence of Jose Altuve) that has been resurrected via Edo Tensei, which best translates as Impure Reincarnation Summoning Technique. In other words, the Astros are literally the walking dead. But…the Tigers’ aggregate bullpen numbers include 6 innings of scoreless “relief” thrown by Drew Smyly, a starting pitcher. Subtract Smyly’s innings from the total and the bullpen ERA rises to a spectacular 6.22. As mentioned in my season preview, the Tigers will likely struggle to create any space in the division all year, because the bullpen is the terriblest in the league. They are even terribler than a bunch of zombies.

Other thoughts this week:

  • Hitter of the year, to date: Who the hell is Charlie Blackmon? And what the hell is he on? He’s the #1 hitter in fantasy at the moment, hitting .402 with 5 HR and 6 SB. I’ve heard him mentioned in the same sentence as Mike Trout, and that sentence is usually “Let’s not get carried away and compare Blackmon to Trout.” But Trout hasn’t been running this year and has 31 strikeouts. Blackmon has struck out six times. SIX. I’ve always said that Trout, with his square head, blocky frame and red garb, looks like an Autobot, specifically Hot Rod (I’m talking about Transformers the Movie from 1986, not any of this Michael Bay garbage. If you have not seen it, you need to go see it immediately. I just made it a requirement for league membership). Blackmon, swathed in black and purple, may be Trout’s perfect Decepticon counterpart. Charlie Blackmon is Cyclonus




 Hm…looks like Mike Trout could use some more courage. 



So what is Charlie Blackmon on? A little energon and a lot of luck. Or maybe it’s a little luck and a hell of a lot of energon. And steroids. And HGH. I don’t know. But we know now, thanks to my connecting the dots, that he is definitely a bad guy. Because all Decepticons are bad guys. So nothing would surprise me. 

  • Pitcher of the year, to date: Adam Wainwright is the #1 pitcher in fantasy, and right now looks like he can do whatever he wants. He has not been scored on in 25 straight innings, and has only given up 9 hits in that span. Waino had two starts last week; he left the first start after 79 pitches and 7 innings because he tweaked his knee and left the second start after 99 pitches and 8 innings probably because of lingering concerns about that knee.  It looks like the knee will be a non-issue, but in normal circumstances, that should have been two shutouts. We are inundated these days with good starting pitching performances (ESPN reports that Sunday produced a record 10 pitchers throwing 7 innings with 3 hits or less allowed), but Wainwright still stands apart from the crowd. Despite my well-documented loathing of the Cardinals (I found a new reason this weekend, as I discovered their Hawk-Harrelson-esque announcers are audio vomit), this is not an attempt to jinx Adam Wainwright. I can be objective (sometimes), and I think Wainwright finishes the year as the #1 pitcher in fantasy baseball. It won’t even be close. 
  • Pitching line of the week #1: On Saturday: Danny Duffy, 0.0 IP, 0 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 0 SO, LOSS, 3 batters faced. The mystery is in the line; if he faced three batters, how come his line is all zeros? This was a disaster for Duffy. Hit batter, then the next batter bunted and Duffy threw it away. Then the following batter bunted and Duffy threw it away AGAIN as the winning run scored. You’ve really got to watch it, it’s spectacular. For all that, Duffy still gets to have an ERA of 0.00 for the season. Sometimes stats make no sense. 
  • Pitching line of the week #2: Again on Saturday, Brandon Morrow: 2.2 IP, 0 H, 4 ER, 8 BB, 1 K. This is how you get pulled from a no-hitter in the 3rd inning. Thing is, he almost got away with it. Despite walking four batters in the first two innings, two double plays helped Morrow to enter the third inning unscathed. He then walked four batters to allow one run to score, got pulled, then the reliever came in and gave up a grand slam. I blame the manager for this. Only one run had scored at this point. Leave Morrow in and either let him work it out or go for the all-time walks record (16). No-lose scenario. 

Opening Day 2014: Bold Predictions

1.  The St. Louis Cardinals will win more than 100 games.

Let me just say first of all that I kind of hate the Cards.  I hate Ozzie Smith, who is one of the most overrated players of all time.  He’s in the Hall of Fame (on the first ballot, to boot) and Alan Trammell isn’t?  Seriously?  Dude contributed virtually  nothing with the bat for his entire career, I don’t care how good he was with the glove (and come on, is there really that much of a difference between Ozzie and Omar Vizquel?  For that matter, is there even much of a difference between Ozzie Smith and Ozzie Guillen?)  I hate Tony LaRussa, who is going into the Hall of Fame despite being a complete dick of a person and managing players who were some of the most egregious steroid abusers.  I hate the 2006 version of the Cardinals, who didn’t deserve to win a World Series over my beloved Tigers and are the worst World Series champion of all time based on winning percentage.  God I hate them.

But it’s been awhile since the franchise has really given me anything to hate, so my feelings are returning towards ambivalence, and with that comes objectivity.  Entering the 2014 season, the Cardinals are the only team that are an absolute lock for the playoffs.  If we fast forwarded to October and you told me that any other team (say the Red Sox or the Dodgers) missed the playoffs, I wouldn’t be too surprised.  But there isn’t any way in hell that St. Louis doesn’t make the postseason this year.  This team not only has a stacked rotation, bullpen, offense and defense, they have a loaded farm system and depth all around the diamond.  No other team is as prepared to handle the inevitable injuries that can pile up during the course of the long regular season.  Combine all that with their relatively weak division, and I think it’s completely reasonable that this team just runs away from everyone else in the National League.  No team has won 100+ games since Philly in 2011 and overall there might be even more parity this year, but the Cards, as much as I hate to say it, will be the exception.  I take no joy in this prediction whatsoever.

2.  The Oakland A’s will finish with the most wins in the American League (and get to the ALCS).

In 2012, no one picked the A’s to do much of anything, but they finished one game shy of the best record in the AL.  In 2013, very few people picked the A’s to repeat, but they again finished one game shy of the best record in the league.  I think most prognosticators have learned their lesson, so no one is picking the A’s for a complete collapse this year, but most are not picking the A’s to match their 96 wins from last year.  But I like their chances of not only winning their division, but having the best record in the league.

There’s still a lot of upside on this roster that wasn’t captured in 2013.  So while Josh Donaldson likely won’t match his MVP-caliber performance, Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes are both primed to improve on poor 2013 season.  Coco Crisp won’t fall off as much as people think as long as he stays healthy (see previous post), and the A’s are getting close to perfecting the art of the platoon at both first base and at catcher (where I like both Derek Norris and John Jaso to have good seasons).  The real question with the A’s is with their rotation, after losing Jarrod Parker for the year and Bartolo Colon to free agency.  On top of that, A.J. Griffin is out for the first few weeks of the season.  But Sonny Gray looks like he could be a legitimate ace, something the A’s didn’t really have the last two seasons, and if they need another starter mid-season, I trust Billy Beane to go out and get one.  Moreover, I think any deficiencies in the rotation can be overcome by what looks like an even stronger bullpen than the 2012 and 2013 versions, which were both pretty damn good.

As for the postseason, the A’s deserved better than their two consecutive first-round exits at the hand of the Tigers.  So, I’ll say that they win the ALDS this year and exorcise some demons…but then lose in the ALCS in seven games to the Tigers, with Justin Verlander winning games 1, 4 and 7.  Sorry A’s fans, but hey, it’s one step further than last year.  I love Justin Verlander.

3.  The Toronto Blue Jays will contend for a playoff spot.

In the past two years, all four of the other teams in the AL East have made the playoffs.  It’s the Blue Jays’ turn!  Okay, well, baseball (and life) doesn’t exactly work like that, but I loved this team on paper last year and I like them even more this year.  The offense was fine last year and should be even better this season if Jose Bautista and Jose Reyes can stay somewhat healthy; I also like Melky Cabrera to come back and contribute, well, anything.  The bullpen, led by Casey Janssen, Sergio Santos, Steve Delabar and Brett Cecil, should be nails.  Like the A’s, the question marks are in the rotation. I’m a huge R.A. Dickey fan, so I think he has a good year, though maybe not quite Cy Young caliber.  Mark Buehrle is consistently mediocre, but at least he’s not going to kill you the way Josh Johnson did last year.  So really it comes down to Brandon Morrow, Drew Hutchison and Dustin McGowan in the back half of the rotation.  That’s an injury-prone strikeout artist with control issues, a high-upside rookie, and one of my favorite breakout fantasy candidates…from 2008 (and who has pitched less than 100 innings total at all levels since then).  That’s a ton of question marks, but I like the upside potential from this group.  If the Jays can get even league average performance from their starters, I like their offense and bullpen enough to keep them in the mix for a wild-card slot all year.  I’m not saying they’ll definitely make the playoffs, but they’ll get close.

4.  The Detroit Tigers will win less than 90 games.

Ahh…my Tigers.  I don’t even know what to do with these guys right now.  After an offseason and spring training where it appears ownership and upper management have gone collectively insane (Fielder-Kinsler trade, Fister trade, trading for two garbage shortstops to cover for Iglesias injury, failure to re-sign Scherzer, WTF Cabrera contract), this team just has a really bad juju to it.  I’m now prepared for the worst, but of course still hoping for the best.  But there is a ton of downside to this team.

– Offense:  With Prince Fielder departing, it looks like Miguel Cabrera could lead the league in homers…and the Tigers could finish last in the AL in home runs.  Where’s the power coming from in this lineup?  Even if you disregard power, however you set this lineup, spots six through nine in the batting order just look like black holes to me.  I expect Nick Castellanos to struggle to make contact his rookie year and I don’t have much hope for Alex Avila to be anything more than okay.  Granted, as long as the Tigers have Miggy they’ll at least be average, but will average be good enough?

– Starting pitching:  Despite the horrendously bad Doug Fister trade, I still think this could be the best 1 through 5 rotation in baseball if everyone stays healthy, even accounting for declines from Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer, but the Tigers have been pretty fortunate the last couple of years health-wise.  If even one of these guys goes down, there isn’t a single guy in the organization who can step in as a serviceable starter.  Jose Alvarez could have been that guy, but we just traded him for SS A. Romine (can’t remember whether he is Austin or Andrew) in a panic move.  One injury will be tough to recover from; two and the season’s over.

– Bullpen:  The Tigers’ achilles heel the last two postseasons has been the bullpen, though maybe more due to Jim Leyland’s mismanagement.  But as mediocre as last year’s bullpen was, this year’s is stacking up to be much worse.  The best three guys from the Tigers’ 2013 bullpen (Joaquin Benoit, Drew Smyly, Jose Veras) are gone (or, in Smyly’s case, moved to the rotation) and have been replaced by Joe Nathan and a bunch of garbage.  Now, Joe Nathan is a pretty good closer, but there’s no way that one closer makes up for three solid bullpen arms.  Despite having the big names on their roster, the Tigers have underperformed during the regular season the last couple years, largely due to bullpen weaknesses.  This is only going to get worse this year.

The Tigers aren’t going to win 90 games.  Their only hope really is that 88 wins or so is enough to win the AL Central.  I think it just might be enough, but if the Royals or Indians get a little lucky this year, we could be looking at the end of the Tigers’ three-year postseason streak.

Postseason Predictions:

AL East: Boston
AL Central: Detroit
AL West: Oakland
Wildcards:  New York, Toronto

NL East:  Washington
NL Central:  St. Louis
NL West:  Los Angeles
Wildcards:  Honestly, I would not be surprised if it were any teams other than New York, Miami or Chicago.  Let’s just say Cincinnati and San Francisco.

ALCS: Detroit over Oakland
NLCS: St. Louis over Washington

World Series:  Detroit (88 wins) over St. Louis (101 wins).  Revenge for 2006!  Suck it St. Louis.

Brad Ausmus, Managerial Reform and the Great Spring Hope

For the second straight postseason, Jim Leyland completely botched the management of his bullpen.  But after no playoff appearances in 19 years, the Tigers have made the playoffs four times in eight seasons since Leyland took over.  Also, by all accounts, the players adored and respected him.  He wasn’t going to get fired, period.  So when Leyland announced his retirement this offseason, man, was I relieved.

But where’s the relief in getting rid of a strategically-challenged manager only to replace him with another one?  With candidates like Dusty Baker, Charlie Manuel and Lloyd McClendon being mentioned for the job, I have to say that I agree 100% with the choice to hire former catcher Brad Ausmus.  Because even though Ausmus has no managerial experience and we have no idea what to expect from him as a manager, the unknown is better than the known garbage.

The hope is that Ausmus turns out to be a superior in-game strategos while also commanding the same respect that Leyland enjoyed.  And that’s how I would break down the primary roles of a baseball manager:  Strategy and People.

  • Strategy: This includes all of the manager’s roles as the field captain (i.e. determination of lineups, substitutions and rotations; managing bullpens; making calls for pinch-hitting, pinch-running, defensive subs or double switches; defensive alignment).  Strategy gets the most scrutiny in the media, because it’s the most visible.  We see Grady Little decide to leave Pedro Martinez in the game in the 2003 ALCS and we all have an opinion as to whether or not it was the right decision.  (For the record, I think it was a justifiable decision.)
  • People:  This role regards the management of human capital.  This is where the term “manager” makes the most sense, because in this aspect the baseball manager’s role isn’t any different from the manager of any other kind of business.  The manager needs to be able to understand and connect with his personnel.  He needs to maximize the results of the team by understanding how to motivate his troops.  When the media refers to a manager that has “lost” his players or a clubhouse that is out of control, this usually reflects a perceived failure in the People portion of the job (e.g. Terry Francona with the 2011 Red Sox or Bobby Valentine with the 2012 Red Sox).

Both roles are crucial to the performance of a manager.  But few managers actually appear to be competent at both.  As most managers tend to be former players and/or older men who are, uh, perhaps, more set in their ways, they tend to make in-game decisions relying on either a.) not enough statistical data (i.e. rely on their guts) and/or b.) the wrong statistical data (e.g. small sample size batter vs. pitcher data).  With all of the information that is becoming available to us through more and more advanced statistics, it seems like we are getting closer to understanding the ideal choice in nearly any game situation.  But given the level of mathematical inclination required to truly understand advanced stats (much less develop newer and better models than your competition), it almost seems too much to ask for one man to be responsible for both Strategy and People.

So how about having co-managers, one for each role?  Alternatively, each team should employ a strategy guru that would be on the field and have discretion to make most on-field decisions, while ultimately reporting to the manager or the front office.  Look, I can tell you right now that I think I could handle the Strategy role for a major league baseball team; but from the People perspective, I don’t know if I could command the respect of a clubhouse with no baseball experience whatsoever.

But then again, maybe it doesn’t matter.  I do think the People role is important, but how much does it really matter?  Is there any way to quantify this in terms of wins and losses?  Most people would say that Leyland was good at the People part of his job, but I would say that his Tigers teams of the last few years have underperformed, despite the playoff appearances.  We have enshrined Bobby Cox, Tony LaRussa and Joe Torre into the Hall of Fame as managers, but we still don’t know definitively whether they were great leaders of men or just lucky enough to have been carried to championships by amazing players.

Do we even need field managers at all?  Honestly, they kind of look bored most of the time.  Can’t all of the Strategy decisions be handled by someone like the general manager, who can make those calls from a luxury box?  Can’t one of the players, like a team captain, handle the People portion of the role?  The demise of the player/manager role in baseball makes me slightly sad; I remember getting a Pete Rose baseball card when I was a kid and saw his position listed as “1B-MGR” and my mind was blown.  He’s a player…AND a manager???  How cool is that?!

Ultimately, stats have come a long way in determining the value of what players do on the field.  And it seems like we are getting closer, at least, to understanding the value of what managers do on the field (check out this paper from MIT Sloan’s Sports Analytics Conference).  But we’re still a long ways away from being able to quantify the effect of good managers on an organization off the field, much less figure out which managers are actually good and which are bad.  I mean, I have a pretty good idea, but it’s pretty hard to prove that because Joe Maddon brings magicians into the Tampa Bay clubhouse the Rays actually win more games.  Maybe these effects can’t be quantified.  And if that’s true, I guess that’s fine.  I’m okay with the mystery.  I’m okay with not knowing anything about how Brad Ausmus, the manager, will perform this season.  Because it’s spring, and because hope is the answer to every unanswered question in the spring.  Everything is going to be okay.