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2012 Preview: Detroit Tigers



Detroit Tigers


What They Did:        95-67, Won AL Central, Lost in ALCS

      Actual Runs:         Scored 787 runs, Allowed 711.

                                   Expected wins based on RS and RA:  88.5 (7.5 below actual)

        Restated*:        Scored 782 runs, Allowed 681.

                                  Exp. wins based on restated RS and RA:  91.2 (3.8 below actual)

(* Restated runs scored and runs allowed are based on expected runs scored and allowed given a team's underlying performance in the categories of batting average, on-base percentage, slugging, and isolated slugging.)

Wall Street has more than its share of outsized personalities.  Not surprisingly, due to the unique interpersonal skills needed to deal with the combustible combination of egos, money, and a high pressure work environment, a number of those outsized personalities find their way into management.  I started my career on Wall Street in 1996 working for a gentleman with a huge presence on the trading floor.  That’s not just an expression – owing to his background as a Division I defensive lineman, he literally had a large presence.  Able to inspire in a quiet voice or intimidate with a profane tongue lashing, he prowled the trading desk less like a business manager and more like a coach.  

The one thing that’s almost always true about coaches is this:  At their core, they’re teachers.  Specifically, my first boss, a granite block of a man who typed with the eraser side of a pencil because, those of us on the desk assumed, his fingers were the size of kielbasa, ended up teaching me one of the most elegant words I know: proprioception.  Defined as the sense, or awareness of how your body fits into the space it occupies, proprioception had relevance on the trading floor, as we were taught that the stocks we made markets in never traded in a vacuum, and our positions never existed in a vacuum within the structure of the entire desk. 

Years later when I correctly used proprioception in a sentence, it stunned my wife, a former dancer, because it’s a word almost all ballet dancers (but not Wall Street meatheads) are familiar with.  On stage, dancers learn early in their training that they must be aware of the movement of their limbs as it relates to the other bodies around them. 

The primary reason baseball can be modeled as well as it can, and the reason that a player's value, or his contribution to team wins, doesn’t vary regardless of the team he is on, is that to a large degree baseball is performed in a vacuum.  Sure there are exceptions, but for the most part a baseball game represents the sum of each team’s three dozen or so individual confrontations between pitcher and hitter.  In general, hitting and pitching can be modeled regardless of the surrounding teammates.  

For instance, it doesn’t matter who his catcher is, what league he’s in, or which teammates he’s drinking beer and eating chicken with in clubhouse, Josh Beckett is going to strike out just under one out of every four batters he faces.  That can be modeled with a high degree of certainty.  This also applies to projecting the skill sets of hitters. 

That is not true of defense and it’s due to what I call the Maddox/Luzinski Pact.  When I was a kid, my family had a partial season ticket plan to Phillies games and our seats were along the left field foul line.  When the visitors were at bat, Phillies left fielder Greg Luzinski used to face those of us sitting along the foul line.  He actually had his back to centerfield and his left shoulder pointed at the catcher, no different than if he were about to hit a pitching wedge to home plate.  Greg Luzinski was a terrible defensive left fielder and, owing to the way he aligned himself it’s no surprise that in 1977 Phillies left fielders were last in the league in putouts by a huge margin.  The Phillies were as far below the MLB average that year as the best team in baseball was above the 20th team (out of 26 teams).  Greg Luzinski single handedly wrecked the normal curve distribution of putouts.

Using this data today, sabermetric analysts would say that another NL left fielder at the time, say Montreal’s Warren Cromartie, would get to 100 more fly balls over a season, saving 50 runs, and therefore was worth roughly 5 more wins than Luzinski.  While this logic works in assessing changes to a batting order or a pitching staff, there is no way replacing Luzinski with Cromartie in the field would have saved the Phillies 50 runs.  That’s because center field in Philadelphia was patrolled by Gary Maddox, the Secretary of Defense.  Or, as Mets announcer Ralph Kiner once said of his range, “Two-thirds of the earth is covered by water.  The rest is covered by Gary Maddox.” 

Maddox caught many balls to his right that left fielders on other teams would have gotten to on their own, so the addition of Cromartie wouldn’t have been nearly as additive as the data might suggest; it would have cannibalized Maddox’s performance.  Luzinski and Maddox were perfect examples of athletes who understood proprioception.  Defense is a ballet, an unscripted synchronization of movement between nine different fielders.  

In 2012, the Detroit Tigers are staging their version of the defensive ballet and a look at the Playbill reveals a new cast.  Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder will be taking the stage together, front and center. 

Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder aren’t exactly Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis.

I spent a lot of time this winter looking at team defense and the ability to predict it and I’m convinced the Tigers are going to allow a good deal more runs this year than last year.  As a result they’ve not going to win as many games as people think, and it’s going to be due in part to a drop-off in defense, some of which won’t be readily identifiable and for which their pitching staff, therefore, may take undeserved blame. 

Just how important is team defense?  Last year the Chicago Cubs and San Diego Padres each had the same number of balls hit into the field of play by their opponents.  The Padres turned 129 more of those batted balls into outs than the Cubs did.  Using the league average of 2 hits = 1 run, the Padres’ defense was about 65 runs better than the Cubs’.  (While the Cubs allowed 145 more runs than the Padres in 2011, they allowed 37 more home runs – hits that are not counted as balls hit into the field of play – and they walked 59 more batters.  Those 80 extra runs are on the pitching staff.)  65 runs saved are worth nearly 7 wins and that’s usually the difference between the worst and best fielding team in the league. (Thanks to a level of defensive competence not seen this century, the Tampa Bay Rays' defense, in 2011, was actually about 10 wins better than the Minnesota Twins’, the American League's worst.) 

The Detroit Tigers, by my calculations had a slightly above-league-average defense in 2011 and there are three reasons why I think it will slide to the bottom of the league in 2012. 

·         Prince Fielder was a mildly worse fielding first baseman than Miguel Cabrera last year.  However, Fielder will be under greater defensive pressure in Detroit because the Tigers were one of only two teams in all of baseball to face more left-handed batters than right-handed batters.  Last year, 51% of all batters Detroit faced were left-handed and with an all right-handed staff in 2012, that percentage could rise.  By comparison, Fielder only looked up from his defensive crouch and saw a left-handed hitter aiming his way 39% of the time in Milwaukee last year.

·         As a result of the Fielder signing, Miguel Cabrera is moving back to 3rd base.  While it’s true that Cabrera played 3rd base as recently as 2008, it’s also true he was so bad at it that after 14 games the Tigers moved him to first base.  While no one looks more hypocritical than me (see stones, glass houses) in pointing this out, it must be noted that Cabrera has certainly gained a few pounds since 2008.

·         The Tigers outfield recorded 37 assists last year (2nd in the AL) including 13 double plays (tied for 1st in MLB).  Outfield assists are definitely talent based, but for the same reason Darrelle Revis of the New York Jets never gets a lot of interceptions – opponents have a say in the matter – outlying performance is rarely repeated from one year to the next.  For instance, none of the 13 teams that recorded at least 36 outfield assists in one year since 2007 have been able to match, let alone best that total in the following year.  Outfield assists mask poor fielding that occurred earlier in an inning, and do so in a big way since the assists almost always erase a runner in scoring position.  A reduction of these high-leverage, small-sample-size events to league average could amount in the loss of at least a full win (about 10 runs) worth of value for the Tigers.

If there were no change in the 2011 performance of Detroit’s pitchers I estimate the Tigers would still allow up to 40 more runs in 2012 due to drop-off in defensive performance. 

Fortunately for Tigers fans, Detroit’s pitching staff should be even better this year than last year.  One factor overlooked by oddsmakers, commentators, and fans during last year’s ALDS match-up between the Tigers and the Yankees was that Detroit had the starting pitching edge in every single game.  The mid-season addition of Doug Fister solidified a rotation that, anchored by Justin Verlander’s Cy Young/MVP Award-winning season, ranked sixth in the AL in runs allowed.  Even though no one should project Verlander to have that good a year again, the staff, overall, should be even better this year.  Every member of the starting five resides on the happy side of the aging curve as all projected starters are in their 20s.  Highly touted rookie, Jacob Turner, projects to be the fifth starter at the tender age of 21. 

Thanks to incremental year-to-year improvement players in the twenties generally exhibit, and thanks to the fact that Rick Porcello and particularly Max Scherzer pitched better (strikeout and walk rate, etc.) than their results (ERA and W-L) indicated, the Tigers pitching staff may be able to offset the projected defensive-related increase in runs allowed in 2012.  But the results will be intertwined and extreme groundball, low-strikeout pitchers like Doug Fister and Rick Porcello may be watching a lot more groundballs rolling down the outfield foul lines for doubles this year than last. 

According to the first set of odds posted, the Tigers are far and away the team most likely to win their division this year.  That’s based on the addition of Prince Fielder to a lineup that scored 787 runs in 2011, fourth in all of baseball.  Even if they allow more runs this year due to a porous defense, you might be saying, surely they will increase their scoring by at least as much, right?

That’s where my projections almost certainly differ with consensus thinking. 

The Tigers scored 787 runs last year because they got incredible performances (and a full season of playing time) from Miguel Cabrera and Alex Avila, and very strong ones from Jhonny Peralta and Victor Martinez.  Not one of the nine players who tallied at least 250 plate appearances for Detroit performed at a below-average level, a true rarity.  That is not likely to happen again.  Cabrera and Fielder will rake but the loss of Martinez for the year due to injury, as well as a near-certain regression from Avila, Peralta, et al results, according to my model, in fewer runs scored in 2012 than 2011, by a solid margin. 

Finally, here's a hidden factor of team success that I don't think you'll find written elsewhere:  Detroit has the toughest out-of-division schedule in the AL Central and the spread between the Tigers strength-of-schedule and the Kansas City Royals, the weakest in the division, is the largest spread of any division in baseball.  As fans of the NFL know, there is a big difference between the schedules of teams battling for division crowns and wild card berths.  But the difference is designed and transparent. Not so in baseball where it's haphazard, hidden, and basically unfair.  (The worst example:  The Texas Rangers and Anaheim Angels will be locked in a battle to win the AL West in 2012.  The Rangers get to play six games against the Houston Astros, baseball's worst team by a wide margin, while the Angels play six games against the Los Angeles Dodgers featuring 2011 Cy Young Award winner, Clayton Kershaw and MVP-runner up, Matt Kemp.)  You'd be surprised how dissimilar different teams' schedules are.  For instance, the Tigers will play the Red Sox, Yankees, and Rays 27 times this year while the Royals, a team in the same division as Detroit, will only play those three teams a total of 20 times. 

The Tigers are still the pick to win the AL Central as the rest of the division lacks a team sure to finish above .500 but I think it’s going to be a much tougher task, and closer race, than others do.  There will be considerable value in backing some of the other teams in the division and I’ll preview the rest of the division in the days ahead.

Oddsmakers' expectations:  The Tigers are prohibitive favorites to win the AL Central, currently listed on most sites at -1800 or higher.  (That translates to implied odds of winning of about 95%. Even backing out the excessive "juice" in this type of futures market, oddsmakers' expectations are about 90%.)  Initial over/under markets for total wins are 94 to 94 1/2.  Those expectations are wildly opptimistic in my view.  I may think the Tigers will win the AL Central, but in a twist on the logic of Daymon Runyon, that's not the way to bet it.  


2012 Outlook:


85-77 – First in AL Central

740 Runs Scored       700 Runs Allowed



Mop Up Duty:


Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, the Newsletter, a companion piece to Trading Bases, A Story about Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball*  (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) March, 2013 release. 

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You can follow me on Twitter here:  @MagicRatSF


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