2007 Sabermetric Year in Review: Detroit Tigers

This is a dangerous one for me to write.  I’ve made no secret that I’m an Indians fan, and the Tigers and the Indians are shaping up to challenge one another this coming season for the AL Central.  Oh well… looks like my next stop (#21) is a jaunt across I-94 to Detroit to take a look at the Motor City Kitties.
Record: 88-74, 2nd in AL Central
Pythagorean Projection (Patriot formula):  89.45 wins (887 runs scored, 797 runs allowed)
Team Statistical Pages:
Baseball Reference
Baseball Prospectus
FanGraphs
MVN Blog:
Roar of the Tigers
More Tigers Resources:
Latest News
Contract Status 
Trade Rumors
Overview: The 2006 Tigers had all the makings of a “scrappy upstart wins the big one” sports movie.  (Aren’t all sports movies “scrappy upstart wins the big one?”)  It’s just that the movie came crashing to a halt when the Cardinals interjected a little bit of reality.  The 2007 version of the Tigers was actually dueling with the Indians for most of the year for the AL Central and a playoff spot, and at the All-Star break, the general consensus was that the Tigers would certainly at least make the Wild Card, if not win the division.  Somehow the Yankees ruined it.  The Yankees ruin everything.
What went right: Who woulda thunk that Bobby Seay would have become the Tigers’ most reliable reliever last year.  He’s always had some good strikeout numbers, but last year, he suddenly got his walks under control, stopped giving up so many line drives, and benefitted from a little luck (his BABIP was a little below average, but his HR/FB was way below average… look for a correction.)  Did he learn himself a new pitch?  One that actually gets Major League hitters to chase, rather than lay off?
The emergence of Placido Polanco has been a nice one to watch.  Three Tenors jokes aside, he’s developed from a guy who the Tigers got for Ugueth Urbina to an All-Star.  In fact, if you cover up his 2006 season, you see a nice gentle upward slope in performance to where he got here.  Position players tend to peak around 27 or 28, and Polanco is going to be 32 on Opening Day, so that slope probably won’t keep going up, but I suppose Tigers fans would be happy with a nice plateau at this point out of their second baseman.
What went wrong: Joel Zumaya got hurt, although I’d argue that was more of a public relations problem than a baseball problem.  Zumaya throws 523 mph or something like that.  The problem is that while he strikes out something like 8 guys per nine innings, he walks 4.  Zumaya can throw fast all he wants, but if it’s not over home plate, it’s just a really fast ball. 
Then, there was Brandon Inge.  Inge now has to deal with Miguel Cabrera and has to either resign himself to being a backup or re-re-invent himself as a catcher or learn to pitch or something like that.  Or get traded.  Inge functioned below replacement level last year (at least at the plate).  Inge has always struck out a lot, not walked all that much, and occasionally been able to put one over the fence, but even at his peak, he never had an OPS over .800 and he’s been declining since then.  The Tigers would do well to get rid of him now while he still has some perceived value.
Yeah, that about sums it up: Curtis Granderson had a higher OBP and SLG than Jimmy Rollins.  He out-VORPed Rollins.  Granderson also had a 20-20-20-20-20-20-20-20 season (or whatever it was that Rollins did that presumably won him the NL Award.)  Now, clearly A-Rod was the AL’s MVP last year using just about any measure, but Granderson finished a distant tenth in the voting.  How is it that in one league, having a 20-20-20-20-20-20-20 season gets you the MVP, while in the other league, you get a couple of lovely parting gifts? 
Remember that it’s the sportswriters who vote for the awards and who are also the medium for conveying most information to the public about the game of baseball.  For a measurement to be a good one, it must have validity and reliability.  Validity in this case means that the sportswriters would pick the most valuable player in baseball as their MVP.  Reliability means that whether they’re right or not, at least they’re consistent.  Sportswriters fail both tests here.  Ever wonder why people hold so many screwed up ideas about baseball?
Why Magglio Ordonez didn’t deserve those two first-place MVP votes: Let me be clear on something here, because in our culture, if you say that someone is not the best, then it’s pretty much an insult.  (Try it some time with a parent: “Your kid wasn’t the best… pretty good, but not the best.”)  I think Magglio Ordonez was the Second Most Valuable Player in the American League last year.  He had a really really really good year last year and he got two first-place votes, both from the two Detroit-based sportswriters who voted (two beat writers from each team get a vote.)  They mumbled something about “you have to see him play every day to understand how much he means to the team.”  As good as Magglio was last year, A-Rod was measurably better, and the man-crush that these two writers developed does not change that.  I suppose the job of a writer is to sell papers and emotions sell papers, and these two gentlemen apparently let their emotions get the better of them.  One of the basic things to understand about Sabermetrics, indeed science more generally, is that wishing something is so does not make it so.
Someone out there will retort that Magglio did win the batting title last year.  It is true that Magglio Ordonez had the highest batting average in the American League.  If there’s something else to understand about Sabermetrics, it’s that batting average, despite its place in the pantheon of baseball stats, is neither a very reliable stat, nor is it a good measure of something that’s helpful in winning a baseball game.  But, at least Ordonez does have a trophy to take home this winter for all that hard work.  (They still give you a trophy for the batting title, right?)  So, Ordonez was the best at a badly-designed stat and had two guys who were overly attached to his team vote for him.
This unfortunately is the same way that people choose for whom they will cast their vote for President.
How much does Miguel Cabrera mean to the Tigers?: Suppose that it has been Miguel Cabrera that had been in the lineup at third base, instead of Brandon Inge, last year.  Inge rated out as 6.0 wins above replacement (WARP3).  Cabrera rated as 10.9.  Cabrera is worth almost five extra wins to the Tigers, or at least he would have been last year.  Seems about right that the Tigers would give up the farm for him.
Neifi!: A eulogy for a punching bag.  Mr. Perez, you were a career .267 hitter, and a couple of years in pre-humidifier Colorado gave you the illusion of having “some pop.”   You were good for a handful of stolen bases per year, but an almost equal number of caught stealings.  You rarely walked, hit a lot of weak ground balls, and yet, in a number that I simply can’t comprehend, you were actually walked intentionally 24 times in your career.  I suppose you are living proof of exactly how hard it is to find a decent-fielding shortstop nowadays.
Outlook: So they picked up Edgar Renteria, Jacque Jones, Miguel Cabrera, and Dontrelle Willis.  In doing so, they basically depleted their entire stock of good minor leaguers who could step into the Majors and fill in if necessary.  Many of the players on whom they’ll be relying (Sheffield, Guillen, Pudge) are in their 30s and have injury histories.  On paper, this is one of the scariest offenses around (although the pitching is… not).  The problem is that if any of those guys get any paper cuts, there’s nothing down below to fill the gaps.  But, as an Indians fan… I’m worried.

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5 Responses to 2007 Sabermetric Year in Review: Detroit Tigers

  1. […] Statistically Speaking | MVN – a statistical and sabermetric baseball blog » Blog Archive » 2007 S… Pizza Cutter previews the Tigers […]

  2. KJ says:

    I imagine the intentional walks for Neifi were a function of batting #8 in the NL a lot?
    Agree that, as good as Magglio was, A-Rod should have been the unanimous MVP. Makes Detroit look a bit second-rate for our beat writers to cast homer votes.
    Agree that injuries are a big concern. That’s why it’d be nice if Inge would accept his role for now and hang around to fill in any holes that open up in the lineup.
    Go Tigers!

  3. dan says:

    Whats your take on the kind of season Dontrelle will have?

  4. Pizza Cutter says:

    From my Marlins piece:
    Dontrelle Willis somehow has the reputation as one of the game’s pretty good pitchers (he’s never been elite, but he did start for Team USA at the World Baseball Classic in 2006). Last year, he was barely above replacement level. Yeah, his luck indicators were down, but his walk rate has been creeping up in recent years, and his strikeout rate has stayed flat. Willis is a head-scratcher. In 2005, 34.8% of his pitches went for balls. In 2007, it was 39.3%. Is he simply losing his control? Is that weird delivery taking its toll on him? In good news, he did put up a .856 OPS at the plate. Too bad that in the AL, he can’t do the one part of the game that he still appears to be pretty good at.
    Willis isn’t as bad as he looked last year. His BABIP and HR/FB were both up. What concerns me is that walk issue. He does appear to slowly be losing his control. Talent-wise, I’d look at 2006 as his most representative season (3.87 ERA), but watch his walk rate early in the season. If it doesn’t go back down, start worrying.

  5. RollingWave says:

    I dunno man Pizza, Willis 05 was pretty damn elite no matter how you slice it.
    he’s kinda like Barry Zito. peaked young / over worked young then declined young.
    And you managed to not only infuriate Tiger fans but Yankee fans too lol.
    I kinda agree that the main issue with the Tigers this year will be
    a. complete lack of depth
    b. just about everyone outside of Miguel due for some regression
    they NEED one of Bonderman or Willis to bounce to what they could be to have a real shot IMHO. the whole team looks better on paper then reality. they turned themself a little like the Yankees in this process… too many guys with big names and look great the year before but due for major regression. and they sold away the backup plans in the process to getting those guys

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