Last Updated: 2018-02-25
How do we define an owner in sports? Are you a good owner if you spend a ton of money in search of a championship? Philanthropy? Avoid meddling? Let the GM and the front office make decisions? Is it simply a matter of leaving things better than you found them? Is it a title? Sustained contention?
Quite frankly, everybody probably has a different definition. That brings us to Mike Ilitch. Ilitch died last February after serving as the owner of the Detroit Tigers from 1992 until his passing. His family has since taken over the team. He was also the owner of the Detroit Red Wings from 1982 until his passing, during which the Red Wings constructed one of the longest playoff appearance streaks in pro sports history, won four Stanley Cups, and the city became “Hockeytown”. A new arena for the Detroit Pistons and the Red Wings bears the sponsorship name of Ilitch’s Little Caesars Pizza. The tributes and the ceremonies following Ilitch’s death certainly conveyed what he meant to the city and the franchises that he owned.
In 2018, however, the Detroit Tigers are in crisis. This is a situation that many saw coming long before it actually arrived. As teams around the league focused on getting as much surplus value and equity out of contract signings as possible, the Tigers spent frivolously in free agency and doled out contract extensions that would cripple the franchise’s financial flexibility for years to come. All in search of a title and all in a quest to keep what was a flawed team together.
This isn’t to say that all of the problems fall on Ilitch, who had no problem filling out the checks. General Managers, including Dave Dombrowski, have played a huge role in creating the mess that is the Tigers. Following a 64-win season, which marked the fewest number of wins for the team since the 43-119 season in 2003, the scramble is on to both salvage something for the bad contracts and replenish the farm system. At this point, it is a Herculean task and one that will play out before our very eyes this season and beyond.
Credit to Al Avila for getting a decent head start last season with the trades of Justin Verlander, who became a World Series hero for the Astros, Justin Upton, JD Martinez, his own son Alex Avila, and Ian Kinsler. All of the sudden, the Tigers only have two over-30 players in the projected starting lineup and two in the projected starting rotation.
It won’t be pretty in the Motor City this year, but how miserable and depressing of a season will it be at Comerica Park? Let’s find out, shall we?
Season Win Total Odds:
5Dimes: 67.5 (120/-140)
BetOnline: 67.5 (-110/-110)
Bovada: 68.5 (125/-155)
Additions: Leonys Martin, Alexi Amarista, Francisco Liriano, Victor Reyes, Mike Fiers, Travis Wood, Derek Norris, Brayan Pena, Edwin Espinal, Ronny Rodriguez, Pete Kozma, Niko Goodrum, Ryan Carpenter, Johnny Barbato, Enrique Burgos, Phillippe Aumont, James Russell
Losses: Ed Mujica, Anibal Sanchez, Andrew Romine, Alex Presley, Tyler Collins, Bryan Holaday, Omar Infante, Steven Moya, Efren Navarro, Brendan Ryan, Bruce Rondon, Ian Kinsler
Why bet the over?
When expectations are this low in a pretty popular market, that is a team that is highly scrutinized. The changing of the guard in the American League Central happened a while ago, but the Tigers were often thought to be a tough out and won the division crown as recently as 2014. There are always overreactions to the trading of household names. Yes, Justin Verlander, Justin Upton, and Ian Kinsler are all great players. The writing was on the wall for the Tigers long before they were moved. This was a Tigers team that went 17-40 over the last two months of the season when the rebuild started and was officially in motion by the 6-23 month of September. Up until that point, the Tigers weren’t great, but they were a semi-respectable 39-48 with a -31 run differential in the first half. We’re talking about one of the lowest season win total lines on the board and a team that totally tanked once trading began.
I guess we’ll start with the lineup as we try to put together a case for the Tigers to go over the win total. There are some really interesting players here. Nick Castellanos had a pretty strange season. He followed up a solid 2016 campaign by posting a .272/.320/.490 slash line with a .341 wOBA and a 111 wRC+. That was a good effort for a player that got moved from third base to the outfield during the year. He was horrible defensively in both places, but it can be a challenging thing for hitters to switch positions and keep performing at the plate.
The reason why Castellanos had to move is because of Jeimer Candelario. The 24-year-old was the centerpiece of the trade that sent Justin Wilson and Alex Avila to the Cubs. In 106 plate appearances with the Tigers, Candelario slashed .330/.406/.468 with a .379 wOBA and a 137 wRC+. He has always shown good walk rate in the minor leagues and decent contact quality. That’s not to say that a 137 wRC+ is coming this season, but he did have a 122 wRC+ in Triple-A over 330 plate appearances in the Cubs system last year. He slashed .333/.417/.542 in Triple-A in 2016. I actually like him as a hitter. We’ll see what the defensive metrics wind up showing, but I do think Candelario will be a potent hitter for this club.
The fall of Miguel Cabrera has been pretty painful to watch. Cabrera, who turns 35 in April, had 529 plate appearances in his worst offensive season ever. Take away Miggy’s rookie year in 2003 and he had posted at least a 129 wRC+ in 13 straight seasons. He’s 38 home runs away from 500. He’s a career .317/.395/.553 hitter. Last season, Cabrera still walked at a decent clip, but the power was gone and the contact quality went with it. He posted a BABIP below .310 for the first time in his career. He posted a SLG below .512 for the first time since his rookie year. I don’t know how much is left in the tank, but Cabrera has played through injuries each of the last several seasons. Projection systems are somewhat bullish on a bounce back. I don’t know. I know that he is a top-three right-handed hitter in my lifetime with Albert Pujols and Manny Ramirez. Is any semblance of vintage Miggy in there? I don’t know. I know that we’re only one year removed from a 4.8-win season with a .399 wOBA and a 152 wRC+. I like to think that something in between 2016 and 2017 is possible. That would certainly go a long way in helping this team and this pitching staff.
Mikie Mahtook was a nice little addition last year. Mahtook suffered a pretty bad groin strain late in the year, but still managed a .276/.330/.457 slash with a .335 wOBA and a 107 wRC+ in 379 plate appearances. He showed a bit more power against lefties, but had nearly identical wOBA and wRC+ marks against both sides. Defensive runs saved wasn’t a fan, but UZR was a little more favorable towards his performance. Leonys Martin isn’t much of a hitter, but he’ll play a better defensive center field than last year’s options. He had a three-year run in Texas with 45 DRS from 2013-15 and was +5 last year.
Jose Iglesias can’t really hit, but he’s a plus defender at shortstop. James McCann is an adequate offensive catcher. The lineup has a tiny bit of upside, especially if Cabrera can return to being a decent hitter.
As a team, the Tigers had a 5.36 ERA, but a 4.73 FIP and a 4.87 xFIP. Detroit had a 67-95 Pythagorean Win-Loss record, which was three games better than their actual record, but a 69-93 BaseRuns record. They were actually five games worse than they should been in that metric. When you see a team ERA that high with metrics that are lower, it is generally a sign that the Tigers got a bit unlucky. The Tigers had the highest BABIP against in baseball at .320. Part of that was bad defense, which has been addressed to an extent, but another part of that was bad luck. The Tigers pitching staff had a 39.4 percent ground ball percentage. Fly balls are obviously hurtful because they go for extra-base hits, but they also go for hits less often than ground balls. To carry a .320 BABIP is pretty outlandish. There was a lack of talent on this staff to be sure, but the Tigers had a team xwOBA against of .331 and their actual wOBA against was .351. To be fair, a .331 xwOBA was still the second-highest in baseball, but the Tigers deserved a mildly better fate.
The best pitcher in fWAR for the Tigers last season is still around. That gentleman is Michael Fulmer, who posted a 3.83 ERA with a 3.67 FIP and a 4.24 xFIP in 164.2 innings of work. It was a weird season for Fulmer. He stayed well below the league average HR/FB% rate, which was good and is the reason why his xFIP was so high. He also saw a big drop in strikeouts, which hurt him badly in terms of stranding runners. Fulmer’s LOB% fell to 65.6 percent. When you look at Fulmer’s 2016, when he stranded 79 percent of runners, he had a 3.06 ERA with a 3.76 FIP and a 3.95 xFIP. Both years, he did a great job with contact management that led to low BABIPs against. I actually like Fulmer a lot moving forward. The projection systems don’t understand that some guys with elite contact management can carry low HR/FB% marks. If Fulmer’s LOB% regresses back to a league average level, a 3.50 type of ERA with a 3.80 FIP isn’t out of the question. If his strikeout rate comes back up, that would be a huge help as well. Fulmer’s 16.9 percent K% isn’t ideal in today’s MLB. His swinging strike rate was 1.1 percent lower because he had fewer swings and misses in the zone. His first-pitch strike rate was the same. His Z-Contact% of 89.3 percent was 16th in all of baseball. It isn’t a terrible thing, since guys like Jose Quintana and Marcus Stroman actually had higher Z-Contact% marks. It just means that contact management is so important. As long as Fulmer can continue to do a good job with that, he can succeed. That’s where plus command plays such a huge role. He should be good for another three-win season as the unquestioned ace of the staff.
Matt Boyd is an interesting name. The full-season numbers weren’t great, as he posted a 5.27 ERA with a 4.51 FIP and a 5.01 xFIP. But, FIP is a huge component of Fangraphs’s WAR calculations for pitchers and 4.51 was basically league average. So, he was worth 1.9 fWAR. As the Tigers fell completely into the tank, Boyd was busy having a great month of September. He posted a 2.95 ERA in 36.2 innings of work with a .216/.278/.381 slash against and a .284 wOBA against. Is it sustainable? It’s hard to tell from such a small sample size, but Boyd has shown flashes in the past of being at least an adequate back of the rotation arm. After a hellacious start to the year in April and May, Boyd returned after the All-Star Break and posted a 4.97 ERA with a 4.33 FIP and a 4.90 xFIP. He struck out 73 in 79.2 innings and fell victim to some unfortunate sequencing with a 67.3 percent LOB%. Guys with 33.5 percent GB% marks usually don’t allow a .310 BABIP either. If Boyd can improve his contact profile, there might be something here.
Mike Fiers, Jordan Zimmermann, and Daniel Norris will make up the rest of the rotation. Fiers and Zimmermann are what they are. They are veteran hurlers that can munch innings. The only upside guy of the bunch is Norris, who is only 24 years old. He had a 3.38/3.93/4.00 pitcher slash in 2016 and then fell backwards last year with a 5.31 ERA, a 4.39 FIP, and a 5.06 FIP in 101.2 innings. It was a weird season for Norris with injuries. He could very well wind up an average pitcher with some better fortunes.
Shane Greene slots into the closer’s role with Justin Wilson gone. Alex Wilson will be the primary setup man. This isn’t really that great of a bullpen, but Greene is decent.
The Tigers should be a little more positive of a ballclub with Ron Gardenhire back in the skipper’s chair. I’m going to be blunt here. Brad Ausmus seemed like a dick. He orchestrated media stories about teams stealing signs and had an overall negative demeanor from what we could see with the team. Gardenhire is the polar opposite. Gardenhire has been actively trying to embrace more analytics after getting a deeper appreciation for them with the Diamondbacks coaching staff last season. The 60-year-old endured some tough seasons with the Twins, so he knows what he’s in for with this process and his patience with the younger players and pitchers should be a big help.
Why bet the under?
There are a lot of reasons. Let’s start with the middle of the order. Miguel Cabrera’s downward spiral is a major cause for concern. Cabrera will be paid $30 million per season until the end of time. Okay, so it will actually be until 2013, with two option years that are never going to get picked up. He’ll make $30 million this season and through 2021 until the contract bumps up to $32 million in 2022 and 2023. Woof. He’s been hurt. Comerica Park has hurt him in a big way. He slashed .230/.288/.342 in the second half of the season. His exit velocity was embarrassing as his health deteriorated. Cabrera has had various lower body injuries, but he’s also dealt with herniated discs in his back. By the end of the season, as I watched Miggy, he became a guess hitter. He was cheating on fastballs. Pitchers had taken notice. I have a hard time believing that 2018 becomes anything different for him. He may start out fine and look something like the Cabrera of old, but I’d expect him to fall off by the summer months.
I will forever love Victor Martinez. I am not ashamed to say that I cried the day that the Indians traded him and cried again when I saw the video of him openly weeping in his locker. It became about more than baseball last season when Victor had to be treated for an irregular heartbeat. He’s been given a clean bill of health from that, but the skills have deteriorated. In 2015, he was awful with a .286 wOBA and a 77 wRC+. In 2016, he picked it back up with a .351 wOBA and a 119 wRC+, but last season he had a .303 wOBA and an 85 wRC+. This is the last year of his $17 million dollar a year deal. He’s 39 years old. I think this is about it for VMart. He still draws walks and still puts the ball in play, but not with a whole lot of authority anymore.
Jeimer Candelario was great in a small sample, but buyer beware. Candelario had a .392 BABIP in that span. His 17 percent K% doesn’t have any real hint of sustainability because those were his best years in the minors and Major League pitching is better. Candelario has never really hit for much power at any level either. He did hit 18 HR last season across Triple-A and the bigs, but the Pacific Coast League is a haven for hitters and 12 of those 18 HR came in 330 PA with the Cubs’ Triple-A affiliate. Similarly, I’m not really ready to buy into Mikie Mahtook, who struck out a lot in the upper minors and in his previous MLB stints.
Jose Iglesias can pick it, but he can’t hit it. He posted a .283 wOBA and a 71 wRC+. The top three position players in fWAR were Justin Upton, Ian Kinsler, and Alex Avila. They’re all gone. Leonys Martin is a bad hitter. JD Martinez had a big say in Detroit’s early-season offense and he’s gone.
Michael Fulmer is coming off of ulnar transposition surgery. It is the same procedure that Jacob deGrom had in September 2016 and he was fine, but you never know with these kinds of procedures. Fulmer is also working on some pretty razor-thin margins where any drop of command will cripple his effectiveness. He doesn’t miss enough bats. Jordan Zimmermann is horrible. That was a brutal signing and one of those ones that happened on Ilitch’s watch that really needs to be talked about for what it is. Zimmermann has a 5.60 ERA in 265.1 innings with the Tigers and a 4.88 FIP. He’s making $24 million this season and $25 million the next two seasons. Oops.
Mike Fiers really isn’t very good either and the launch angle revolution hurt a dude that throws in the upper 80s with no margin for error and a penchant for giving up gopher balls anyway. Matt Boyd and Daniel Norris still have some upside, but they need to prove it. Francisco Liriano is in this starting rotation, which is a sign of just how bad things really are. Also, it is a pretty sad commentary on what the Tigers think of Daniel Norris that they’d entertain bumping him from the rotation for Francisco Liriano. Even if he pitches out of the pen, it is still a cry for help.
The bullpen is not good. The Tigers bullpen combined for -1.2 fWAR last season with a 5.63 ERA, a 5.10 FIP, and a 5.01 xFIP. Justin Wilson was the best reliever and he’s gone. Shane Greene is adequate, but he has a high walk rate. Alex Wilson pitches to contact as a setup man, which is terrifying. This is one of the worst bullpens in the American League.
The Tigers were -69 defensive runs saved last season. Justin Upton and Ian Kinsler were the two best defenders in that department and they are both gone. This is a pretty poor defensive ballclub, which adds pressure to a pitching staff that doesn’t strike out very many hitters. Even Fulmer, who is technically the staff ace, had the 11th-lowest K% among qualified starters. Zimmermann didn’t qualify for the ERA title, but if we lower the threshold to 100 innings, you’ll see his name eighth on the list.
Not missing bats is a cardinal sin in today’s MLB. As you can see, it’s a pretty big deal with a Tigers team that can’t field. With some of the assets lost to trades, it will be hard for the Tigers to outhit their mistakes and shortcomings.
There aren’t a whole lot of assets left to move, but you can bet that Al Avila will be looking to deal whenever possible. Miguel Cabrera’s albatross deal is stuck, but maybe the Tigers can find a taker for the escalating cost of Nick Castellanos. There is only $69 million committed to the books for next season in Cabrera and Zimmermann plus the costs of trading Prince Fielder and Justin Verlander. Financial flexibility is coming, but the Tigers farm system still isn’t very good because the assets they’ve had to offer have capped ceilings because of the dollars still owed.
It is a pretty ugly state of affairs in Detroit.
Pick: Under 67.5 (-110; BetOnline)
Ugly enough to consider an under with this team. Here’s the thing, though. I don’t see a lot of value in playing season win totals with the extremes, unless I’m going over a low total or under a high total. I like to find teams in the middle, where there are some high-variance ballclubs, and get my edges that way.
I know that the Tigers are going to be bad. I’m really not interested in investing money on exactly how bad they are going to be. In order to win this bet, I have to bet on a team to lose 95 games. Two teams did that in the AL last season. One team did that in the AL in 2016. Zero teams did that in the AL in 2015. One team did that in 2014. You get the idea. There is very little equity in a bet like this.
Maybe this is a situation that I’ll revisit in the second half, much like I did last year by playing Detroit’s win total under at the All-Star Break. For now, I just know that they’re going to be really bad and I’ll leave it at that.
-END OF 2018 PREVIEW-
The window for the Detroit Tigers is on the verge of slamming shut. The aging core of this roster and the passing of deep-pocketed owner Mike Ilitch have the Tigers in a precarious position. Unlike other teams that are on track for a rebuild, Detroit doesn’t have a whole lot of movable contracts to trade in order to build up what has been a weak farm system for the better part of a decade. Former general manager Dave Dombrowski’s effort to help got him fired before the 2016 season. New general manager Alex Avila took on a very challenging job, but the Tigers did very well to win 86 games last season.
It will be interesting to see how the team is run in Ilitch’s absence. Most of the day-to-day dealings had been taken over by relatives and business associates as Ilitch got older, but his passing signals the end of an era in Motown. The Tigers have spent and spent and spent in an effort to win their first World Series title since 1984. That probably won’t be the modus operandi for the Tigers from this point forward, so we’ll have to see what the plans are and how quickly they are put into action. Some surprising individual performances in 2016 led to a much better record than I expected. The Tigers posted a 83-78 Pythagorean Win-Loss record, but an 87-74 BaseRuns record, so we definitely have a lot of things to consider heading into 2017.
One major consideration is that all of the key contributors for the Tigers are another year older. In the cases of Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Ian Kinsler, Justin Verlander, and Anibal Sanchez, that’s not a good thing. In the cases of Michael Fulmer, Matt Boyd, Daniel Norris, and Nick Castellanos, that’s a good thing. Before I dig deep into the Tigers, I can assure you that they are going to be one of the most difficult teams to peg over the course of a season. There is some good, up-and-coming young talent paired with a group of veteran hitters that have put up exceptional numbers over their careers. There is also a starting staff that features a wide range of outcomes and a bullpen that isn’t very good. There is also one of the worst managers in Major League Baseball.
In a division that features three punching bags plus one of the American League favorites, the Tigers have a pretty wide range of outcomes, which are mostly tied to health. They are the only team in the AL Central capable of challenging the Indians, but that even seems like a stretch. For our purposes, though, the only question is the season win total.
Season Win Total Odds
BetDSI: 82.5 (-105/-115)
BetOnline: 83 (-110/-120)
5Dimes: 83.5 (115/-145)
Additions: Alex Avila, Mikie Mahtook, Daniel Stumpf, Efren Navarro, Omar Infante, Brendan Ryan, David Lough, Edward Mujica
Losses: Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Erick Aybar, Cameron Maybin
It was a rather uneventful offseason for the Tigers, but that speaks to the situation that they are in. There is very little that they can do. Talks about trading JD Martinez never came to fruition. There isn’t a whole lot of wiggle room financially and there’s really no sense in buying with the Indians favored so comfortably in the AL Central. Spending for a wild card spot seems ill-advised.
Detroit added some depth, which makes a lot of sense with an old lineup and an older pitching staff. Alex Avila was reunited with his father. Mikie Mahtook is a decent, low-risk gamble on a guy that has shown decent minor league numbers, especially against LHP in his career. Brendan Ryan and David Lough are great defensive players. Edward Mujica is a bounce back candidate in the bullpen.
There’s nothing here that really moves the needle one way or another.
Why bet the over?
Like last season, the one certainty about the Tigers is that they are going to hit. The projected top six in this lineup is Ian Kinsler, JD Martinez, Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Justin Upton, and Nick Castellanos. That is one of the strongest groups in the American League. The Tigers had the fourth-highest wOBA in all of baseball last season at .330. Only seven teams hit more home runs than Detroit. As a team, the Tigers were fourth in wRC+.
Miguel Cabrera will have a plaque at Cooperstown someday and he’s most definitely going to deserve it. The aging curve is coming, but Cabrera ignored it again last year with a .316/.393/.563 slash and a 152 wRC+. Only Mike Trout, David Ortiz, Joey Votto, Daniel Murphy, and Josh Donaldson posted higher wRC+ marks than Cabrera last season. For those that like the traditional numbers, Cabrera hit 38 homers and drove in 108 runs. It’s also important to point out that Miggy batted .293/.370/.507 in the first half and .346/.423/.635 in the second half, so he got stronger as the season went on. Cabrera will turn 34 a couple weeks into the season, but he’s not slowing down. Any lineup with him in it is off to a good start.
Ian Kinsler has been an above average defender throughout his career with a .277/.344/.451 slash line. He had a big bounce back season last year, raising his wRC+ 12 points with a big spike in slugging percentage. Kinsler struck out five percent more often, but he also hit 17 more home runs and that’s definitely significant. Even though the aging curve hits second basemen harder than anybody else, Kinsler’s defense was still very strong at the pivot and he could be in line for yet another five-win season. I’m not sure we can expect the same level of production from Kinsler, who last had a 123 wRC+ season back in 2011, but he might have a year or two of prime left before age catches up with the 34-year-old.
Much-maligned slugger Justin Upton was blasted for much of 2016, but he wound up finishing with a 105 wRC+ and hit 31 home runs. It wasn’t the year that the Tigers were hoping for but he was an above average hitter, even with a 28.6 percent K%. Upton was playing in the AL for the first time, so there were a lot of unfamiliar pitchers, new ballparks, and other things that can make the transition hard. We generally expect to see about a 10 percent change from NL to AL and that was roughly the case with Upton, whose numbers mostly dropped across the board. Given another year in the Junior Circuit, we may see some improvement.
Victor Martinez just keeps on hitting. If his knees had allowed him to stay at the catching position, we could be talking about a borderline Hall of Famer. Because he’s mostly been a 1B/DH, his .301/.366/.467 career slash doesn’t stand out as much, but he had a really good bounce back season with a .289/.351/.476 slash last year. Martinez can hit from both sides of the plate and says he’s healthy heading into his age-38 season. He’s taking grounders at first in the Spring, but I don’t see many games out there. It doesn’t matter. He’s a good weapon in the middle of this lineup. The Tigers are hard to evaluate for me because they have some guys that carry more practical value in terms of the counting numbers than they do in terms of analytics value with WAR and wRC+.
Nick Castellanos was on a bit of a fast track to MLB and it showed with 95 wRC+ marks in his first two seasons. He got over the hump in his 110 games last season with a 119 wRC+. Castellanos posted those numbers in just 447 plate appearances with a .285/.331/.496 slash, so he is definitely on the right development path. The Tigers really have a dangerous top of the order and a full season of Castellanos and JD Martinez, who hit .307/.373/.535 to actually post a better wOBA and wRC+ to his 38-homer season in 2015. There’s a lot of power potential among these six guys and they’re going to make solid contact and create a lot of runs.
I have a ton of respect for Justin Verlander. Kate Upton aside, which is pretty damn impressive, Verlander went from a pitcher that looked like he was done in 2014 to a pitcher that nearly won the Cy Young in 2016. Verlander’s declining strikeout rate and velocity in 2014 looked like a sign of serious problems, but he built his velocity back up last season and really sequenced well. Too many pitchers lose velocity and give in. Verlander made adjustments to his pitch selection and made some mechanical fixes. I really don’t think he’ll set another career high in K%, but he’s back to being an ace and he’s a good one. One of the changes I really like is that Verlander started to work up in the zone more to give the impression of more velocity in the face of a decline on the radar gun. Allow this exceptional video to demonstrate from Rob Friedman, @PitchingNinja on Twitter. He’s always had a heavy curveball and good secondaries, so the perceived velocity of working up with a high spin rate has turned things around for him. While I don’t think a full repeat of last year’s 28.1 percent K% and 3.04 ERA is coming, another 3.50 FIP probably is and that’s good enough to be well over four fWAR and probably up around five wins again.
The Tigers really have something in Michael Fulmer. One of the deals that got Dave Dombrowski fired was his move to send Yoenis Cespedes to the Mets. The centerpiece of that deal was Michael Fulmer. In his first MLB season, Fulmer worked 159 innings with a 3.06 ERA, a 3.76 FIP, and a 3.95 xFIP. Fulmer’s 49 percent ground ball rate and a lot of weak contact really helped out what was a slightly below average strikeout rate. Fulmer has an elite changeup. Jordan Zimmermann should be healthy. The Tigers threw a lot of money at him and Justin Upton last season and both underperformed. Zimmermann only made 18 starts and one relief appearance and wasn’t very effective with a 4.87 ERA. It was his first season in the American League and he wasn’t healthy, so we should probably expect some improvement.
Matt Boyd and Daniel Norris are the two keys to the Tigers season from a win total standpoint. I wouldn’t expect anything from Anibal Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey, so hopefully the Tigers opt to go with the youngsters. Norris looked quite good in 69.1 innings at the big league level last year with a 3.38/3.93/4.00 pitcher slash (ERA/FIP/xFIP). He struck out over a batter per inning. He gave up some home runs, but he also made a concerted effort to throw strikes, which is what he needs to do because his career BB numbers have not been great. Boyd didn’t impress with his 97.1 innings and a 4.53/4.75/4.74 pitcher slash, but there’s upside here. He actually pitched better in the second half and got some better batted ball luck to post a 3.86 ERA over 63 innings.
The Tigers bullpen has a few guys that can miss bats. Francisco Rodriguez reeled off 44 saves with a 3.24 ERA, a 3.83 FIP, and a 3.84 xFIP. He induced more ground balls than he had at any other point in his career and that was a good thing because his strikeout rate plummeted. Journeyman Mark Lowe can miss bats, though he didn’t do it nearly enough last season with a 7.11 ERA. Justin Wilson is a good lefty matchup guy and Alex Wilson, no relation, is a decent middle relief arm that pitches to weak contact. Bruce Rondon struck out over 32 percent of batters in his 26.2 innings in the second half of the season.
Why bet the under?
The pitching staff is a series of question marks. The bullpen has potential to be really bad. Francisco Rodriguez’s average velocity has dropped every year since 2012, so that’s clearly not a good thing. This past season, it finally coincided with a significant drop in strikeouts. As his fastball velocity drops, the separation between his fastball and his changeup gets smaller and smaller and that’s something that hitters are going to make adjustments to this season. They started to do it last season, when his K% dropped by 5.1 percent from first half to second half and his BB% jumped 1.5 percent.
Mark Lowe posted a 7.11 ERA. He walked a bunch of guys and gave up 12 HR in just 49.1 innings of work. Alex Wilson was very fortunate to post a 2.96 ERA in spite of a 3.60 FIP and a 4.58 xFIP. There really isn’t a lot of help on the depth chart unless Bruce Rondon gets it figured out. The hard-throwing righty posted a 2.97 ERA with a 3.70 FIP and a 3.79 xFIP, which was a big upgrade to his 2015 season, but he still couldn’t hold a steady big league job on a team that was desperate for relief help.
The starting rotation presents a lot of challenges. Let’s assume Justin Verlander’s worst days are in the past, although he did turn 34 in February. He did allow a .406 SLG in the first half of 2016 before putting it together in the second half to be one of the best pitchers in baseball down the stretch. He was coming off of an injury-filled 2015, so maybe it just took him some time to get on track, but he had a 90.6 percent strand rate in the second half with a .229 BABIP against. That’s unsustainable.
The Tigers were very careful with Michael Fulmer, but the 23-year-old worked 174.1 innings. He had not worked more than 117.2 in any previous season. He also shows some signs of regression. Fulmer carried a .268 BABIP against and a 79 percent strand rate, which is really high for a pitcher whose K% was around league average. As a result, you can see that his FIP was a little bit on the high side. The Tigers have a much better defensive infield than they have had in recent years, but those are still some worrisome signs. As the league adjusted, Fulmer went from a .318 SLG allowed in the first half to a .399 SLG allowed in the second half. His K% went from 23.2 percent to 17.9 percent. He’s never been a strikeout guy, even in the minors, so the margin for error looks a bit thin for Fulmer, even with an elite changeup.
We found out that the margin for error for Jordan Zimmermann was really thin. As I mentioned, he was hurt, but it’s very hard to carve out a niche as a pitch-to-contact guy in the American League. Zimmermann’s K% dropped, his BB% was a career high in a full season, and so was his home run rate. Zimmermann is a guy that regularly posted lower ERAs than his FIPs and xFIPs in the National League. I think it caught up with him in the AL. Most projection systems have his ERA well over 4.00. With unknowns like Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd and has-beens like Anibal Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey, this pitching staff has a pretty high risk of being a bust.
Offensively, it’s all about health. Does 34-year-old Miguel Cabrera stay healthy? He hasn’t the last two seasons, though he just went ahead and raked while hurt last season anyways. Victor Martinez is on the wrong side of 38. Ian Kinsler is approaching 35. JD Martinez really cut into his offensive production by being horrendous in the outfield. We’re not only talking about offensive drop-offs, but defensive as well. A drop-off defensively from Kinsler would be really problematic. Jose Iglesias was much better defensively, but we’ll have to see if that was one-year variance or not. The Tigers don’t have a center fielder right now. Depth Charts lists Mikie Mahtook in CF. Roster Resource has Tyler Collins there. Whatever the case, neither of those guys are good options.
Brad Ausmus probably should have been fired, but he wasn’t. The Tigers won in spite of him last season. Another thing about the Tigers, which isn’t necessarily Ausmus’s fault, but this is an extremely right-handed-heavy lineup once again. The Tigers were third in number of plate appearances featuring a RHB against a RHP. They posted the second-best OPS in the AL in that situation, but that was with a .322 BABIP. League average was a .746 OPS with a .301 BABIP. I would expect to see those numbers come down a little bit this season. Detroit had the most R/R plate appearances in 2015 and posted a .760 OPS with a .327 BABIP. League average was a .721 OPS and a .293 BABIP. The Tigers have some very good right-handed hitters and the pitching in the AL Central isn’t great outside of Cleveland, but those numbers have been well above the league average.
Season Win Total Pick: Over 82.5 (-105; BetDSI)
I actually think this number is a little bit of a gift. The Indians are going to run away with the AL Central. Projections show us that. The betting market shows us that. The Tigers easily have a vastly superior lineup to the other three teams in the division. I think the starting rotation has just enough to help, but the Tigers are just going to outhit a lot of teams. They should be able to beat up on the three bottom feeders in this division and may grab seven or eight of their 19 games against Cleveland. The right-handed heavy nature of the Tigers lineup is not a good match for Cleveland’s all-righty rotation.
I just don’t see the Tigers falling off that much. They are a year older, but pitchers like Michael Fulmer, Matt Boyd, and Daniel Norris are a year older as well. Granted, the bullpen has potential to be really terrible, but the Tigers are also the kind of team that can hang a four-spot in the blink of an eye and render the bullpen useless.
The last time we had an AL division in which only one team won 83 or more games was 2011 when the Tigers won 95 and the Indians won 80. I don’t see that being the case this season. The Tigers lineup is certainly good enough and the bad teams in this division are certainly bad enough for Detroit to go over this number.
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