anibal sanchez

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.

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.