Two Reasons to Consider the Tigers in the AL Central

The Detroit Tigers, though they have yet to win the ultimate prize, have clearly been one of the game’s premier franchises over the past few seasons. Before 2015’s 74-87 disappointment, they had reached the playoffs the previous four seasons, earning one AL pennant and two other ALCS berths over that span. In the five previous seasons, going back to the beginning of the Jim Leyland era, they reached .500 in all but one season. It’s been a while since the Tigers’ immediate future appeared bleak.

Last year had to be quite a shot to the old solar plexus for Tiger fans. A team that had been built for the present, featuring relatively newly acquired mercenaries such as Yoenis Cespedes and David Price, was reduced to trading-deadline seller. They have continued to resist the impulse to rebuild; Mike Ilitch isn’t getting any younger, you know.

Well, in the tightly congested 2016 AL Central, within the just as tightly congested AL, there is reason to be bullish on the Tigers. Yes, it is a stars-and-scrubs type of team, and they do lack impact depth at both the major and minor league levels. There are two veteran players, in particular, who were significantly better than they appeared to be last season, and could be key drivers to a post-hype drive to the front for the club this time around: starting pitcher bounce-back candidates Anibal Sanchez and Justin Verlander.

Sanchez, who will turn 32 at the end of the month, took a circuitous route to Detroit. He was involved in a pair of mega-trades, first moving from the Red Sox to the Marlins along with Hanley Ramirez in the Josh Beckett deal, and then to the Tigers in July 2012, in a steal of a deal that also sent Omar Infante to Detroit in exchange for prospects Rob Brantly, Brian Flynn, and Jacob Turner. Verlander, another February baby who is soon to turn 33, has been a Tiger from the get-go, selected with the second-overall pick in the 2004 draft.

Both hurlers have, at times, ranked among the game’s best. Sanchez peaked in an illustrious 2013 season, in which he struck out 202 batters in 182 innings and led the AL in both ERA (2.57) and FIP (2.39). Verlander is an entirely different type of animal. In 2011-12, he was arguably the game’s very best, winning the Cy Young Award one year and finishing second in the other. He’s led the AL in wins (twice), ERA (once) and strikeouts (three times). The two pitchers have thrown three no-hitters between them.

For all of their accolades, however, they were front and center as reasons for the Tigers’ 2015 struggles, due both to performance (Sanchez) and absence due to injury (both). Sanchez’ season ground to a halt on August 17 because of a strained rotator cuff, mercifully ending a 10-10, 4.99 campaign in which he allowed 29 homers in 157 innings. Due to a triceps injury, Verlander’s own season didn’t even begin until June 13. And while his record was a moribund 5-8, his other traditional numbers were relatively solid, including a 3.38 ERA and 113/32 strikeout-to-walk ratio (K/BB) in 133.1 innings.

Were these two pitchers’ numbers an accurate representation of their respective 2015 performances? Let’s take a deeper dive into granular data, including their plate appearance outcome frequency and relative production allowed by ball-in-play (BIP) type information, to get a better feel:

Plate Appearance Outcome Frequencies, 2015
An.Sanchez % REL PCT
K 20.9% 105 64
BB 7.4% 102 56
POP 5.0% 137 81
FLY 34.1% 109 76
LD 21.0% 100 45
GB 40.0% 90 22
Verlander % REL PCT
K 21.1% 106 65
BB 6.0% 82 26
POP 6.3% 174 96
FLY 39.2% 126 93
LD 19.9% 95 30
GB 34.6% 78 7

Sanchez’ K/BB profile deteriorated quite significantly last season. His K rate ranked in the 64th percentile, actually picking up just a bit from the 61st in 2014. This from a pitcher who has twice posted K rate percentile ranks in the 90s. The real problem was on the BB side: his walk rate was actually higher than the average of AL qualifiers, in the 56th percentile, well up from the 29th in 2014. The Tigers hope that much of that walk rate increase was injury related; the first thing to go, and the last thing to return, for an injured pitcher is command.

Sanchez was a fairly extreme fly-ball pitcher last season, with a fly-ball rate percentile rank in the 76th percentile, and a pop-up rate in the 81st. Now, a high pop-up rate is always a good thing, and a high fly-ball rate can be, depending on the level of authority allowed. More on that in a bit. His relative pop-up rate was a career high, and his relative fly-ball rate was his highest since an abbreviated 2009 campaign. In recent years, Sanchez had been more of a ground-ball generator, racking up grounder-rate percentile ranks above league average in the previous three and four of the last five seasons, before plunging to 22 in 2015.

This is no longer your father’s (or at least your older brother’s) Justin Verlander. From 2009 to -12 he posted sky-high K rate percentile ranks between 91 and 97. While his 2015 mark of 64 pales in comparison, it at least represents a strong step up from his K rate percentile rank of 34 in 2014. His BB rate percentile rank improved quite a bit, from 45 in 2014 to 26 in 2015, his best mark since 21 in 2011.

Verlander possesses an even more extreme fly-ball tendency than Sanchez; his 2015 fly-ball percentile rank of 93 marked a career high. He has never posted a pop-up percentile rank below 76; his 2015 mark of 96 also represents a career high. Verlander has actually allowed hitters to square the ball up relative frequently over the years: his liner rate percentile rank was 61 or higher in five of the previous six seasons before he posted the second-lowest mark of his career (30) in 2015.

So what do we have, frequency-wise? Neither pitcher should ever again expected to be a top-shelf strikeout guy. That said, their K/BB profiles project to be better than average going forward, as Verlander seems to be transforming himself into a different type of pitcher, and at least some of Sanchez’ 2015 struggles would appear to be temporary, and injury-related. Both are fairly extreme fly-ball guys, with Verlander’s tendencies a little more established, though his liner rate should to expected to regress a bit upward moving forward. Both are potentially average or better profiles, subject to the level of BIP authority allowed. To get a line on that aspect, let’s examine both pitchers’ relative production allowed by BIP type data:

Relative Production Allowed by BIP Type, 2015
FLY 0.238 0.845 213 101
LD 0.664 1.109 111 96
FLY + LD 0.479 0.995 131 96
GB 0.241 0.291 95 99
ALL BIP 0.322 0.587 117 98
ALL PA 0.249 0.305 0.454 106 91 4.99 4.2 4.73 3.59
FLY 0.132 0.374 49 48
LD 0.647 1.029 100 96
FLY + LD 0.352 0.654 63 60
GB 0.284 0.314 123 108
ALL BIP 0.292 0.455 82 77
ALL PA 0.226 0.273 0.352 75 70 3.38 2.96 3.49 2.78

The actual production allowed on each BIP type is indicated in the batting average (AVG) and slugging (SLG) columns, and is converted to run values and compared to MLB average in the REL PRD (or Unadjusted Contact Score) column. That figure is then adjusted for context, such as home park, team defense, luck, etc., in the ADJ PRD (or Adjusted Contact Score) column. For the purposes of this exercise, sacrifice hits (SH) and flies (SF) are included as outs and hit by pitchers (HBP) are excluded from the on-base percentage (OBP) calculation. One quick note here: I have presented this type of analysis many times, but only recently have I begun to show fly ball and line drive line items both separately and combined.

First, let’s look at Sanchez. It’s immediately noticeable that most of his Unadjusted Contact Scores are way above his Adjusted Contact scores. Look at the damage he allowed on BIP classified by Statcast as “fly balls”: a .238 AVG and .845 SLG, for an unsightly 213 Unadjusted Contact Score. Well, after adjustment for context, that drops precipitously to a 101 Adjusted Contact Score. On fly balls/liners combined, Sanchez posted a poor 131 Unadjusted, but slightly above average 96 Adjusted Contact Score. Why is this?

Bad luck is obviously part of the answer: he gave up more than his share of “just enough”, or relatively cheap homers. Another factor was the relative ease with which hitters were able to pull Sanchez’ offerings last season. Roughly 45% of the batted balls he allowed in 2015 were pulled, by far a career high. Again, let’s go back to the command drop-off he experienced in 2015: a healthy Sanchez simply does not, and will not, allow the power numbers compiled against him last season.

On all BIP, Sanchez posted a poor 117 Unadjusted Score, but slightly better than league average 98 Adjusted Contact Score last season. Add back the Ks and BBs, and his “tru” ERA is a well better-than-average 3.59, miles better than both his actual ERA and FIP. He wasn’t nearly himself last season, but Sanchez was still a better than league average true-talent starter in 2015. No, he’s never pitched 200 innings, and he probably never will, but if healthy, the Tigers still possess a starter who can provide much better than average quality per inning pitched in Anibal Sanchez.

Now for Verlander. Look at the way he squelched fly-ball contact last season, allowing a .132 AVG-.374 SLG line for a 49 Unadjusted Contact Score. And guess what? The authority figures back it up, as the contextual adjustment barely moves the needle to a 48 Adjusted Contact Score. When fly balls and liners are combined, he remains well above average, with a 60 Adjusted Contact Score. All of these aforementioned figures outpaced all ERA-qualifying AL starters last season. While authority level doesn’t correlate as well as frequency from year to year, and some regression should be expected, bear in mind that Verlander has a history of being a much better than average contact manager.

Verlander allowed a relatively paltry .292 AVG-.455 SLG on all BIP in 2015, for a strong 82 Unadjusted Contact Score; the contextual adjustment says he’s even better than that, with a 77 Adjusted Contact Score. If he had pitched enough innings to qualify for the ERA title, Verlander would have finished second to Marco Estrada (74) for AL Contact Manager of the Year honors. Add back the Ks and BBs, and Verlander’s “tru” ERA was a glittering 2.78, again much better than his ERA and FIP, which don’t give him credit for his ability to mute contact in the air.

When healthy, Sanchez has proven to be an above-average contact manager with a strong K/BB profile. In his signature 2013 campaign, his K rate was over a full standard deviation above league average, and his BB rate was over a half STD lower. That combination yields a 85.6 K/BB Contact Score Multiplier, which coupled with a 84 Adjusted Contact Score, made him a viable Cy Young candidate. Those days are likely gone; his K and BB rates were both in the average range in 2015, though his BB rate has a solid chance to decline moving forward. There is a very real chance that he is an 85-90 “tru” ERA- pitcher in the near term.

Verlander is no longer the fire-breathing monster he was at his peak, when his fastball and curveball were among the single best offerings in the game. He now, however, possesses four at least slightly above-average pitches, with his slider and changeup joining the party. At his physical peak, say 2009, his K rate was over two STD, and his BB rate over one STD, better than league average; that’s a phenomenal 72.3 multiplier, which combined with better than average contact management ability, made him that era’s premier pitcher. He’s not a force of nature anymore, but he’s arguably a more complete pitcher. Expect a little negative regression contact management-wise moving forward, but don’t be shocked if he has more 75-80 “tru” ERA- seasons in the tank in the intermediate term.

These two guys staying healthy for a full season and performing at these levels gives the Tigers more than a fighting chance in the ridiculously tight AL Central, which Steamer currently says is separated by six games from top to bottom.

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The Ghost of Johnny Dickshot
8 years ago

I think you can throw KC, Detroit, Minnesota and Cleveland into a hat and whoever you pull out wouldn’t be a surprise winner. Chicago is clearly last. KC, well, champs. Detroit has a very good offense and the potential for above average pitching, not sure about defense, Minnesota will have full years from Sano, Buxton, Park and Cleveland has the best starting pitching in the division.

8 years ago

It is magical thinking to believe the White Sox are clearly behind the Twins.

8 years ago

It’ll take a minor miracle for the White Sox to be contending, but emphasis on minor.

Rational Fan
8 years ago
Reply to  LHPSU

They have the highest projected team WAR, but it would take a minor miracle for them to contend? Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.

8 years ago
Reply to  Rational Fan

> They have the highest projected team WAR

That’s just not true.

Rational Fan
8 years ago
Reply to  Rational Fan

They did prior to the Upton signing; maybe the Tigers passed them barely, but the highest projected WAR based on ZIPs in the Central was the White Sox.