Game 120, Mariners at Tigers – Historical Ineptitude

marc w · August 13, 2019 at 3:30 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Yusei Kikuchi vs. Matthew Boyd, 4:10pm

I talked a bit about how bad the Detroit Tigers are at playing baseball back when they came to Seattle, but I must emphasize: the Detroit Tigers are truly, memorably awful. There was a lot of chatter early in the year about Baltimore, and if they’d make a run at history with Chris Davis’ mummified remains at 1B and without a half-season of Manny Machado, and indeed, they’re pretty bad, but that’s got more to do with their pitching staff than their position players. Because of the way replacement level is calculated, and given that every team has a farm system and access to the waiver wire, it’s really, really hard to trot out an entire position player group that’s at or below replacement level for a year. Think of the worst M’s teams you can think of: 2011, 2010, 2008, etc. They came close, but in general they’d do SOMETHING at a league-average-ish level. Maybe it was defense, or base running, or something to balance out atrocious hitting. The M’s fWAR, as a group, was 3.9 in 2011, their low mark by Fangraphs’ reckoning. Baseball Prospectus thinks even less of the 2010 unit, but they’re above 0 in BWARP. The only M’s team I can find to field a position player group with a negative WAR total for a season was 1983, a club with serious black holes at SS (Spike Owen/Todd Cruz), Catcher (Rick Sweet, Orlando Mercado) and RF (Al Cowens). That group wasn’t the worst hitting club in baseball – that’d be the Mets, who’d turn great in a year or two – but combined awful hitting with awful defense. Even with that, they finished at -0.2 fWAR, so just barely over (under?) the line. After that, they developed enough good ballplayers like Alvin Davis, Phil Bradley, etc. to tide them over until the Griffey/Vizquel/Buhner generation made a 0 WAR mark unthinkable. Why mention this? Well, the Tigers enter play at -1.9 fWAR, and they just traded Nick Castellanos. This could get ugly.

The early 80s weren’t exactly an era of rationality and sabermetric front offices, which may be why it became so rare around this time. In 1979, the Oakland A’s finished at an astonishing -9.7 fWAR, though this is propped up by a huge negative in defense, and it’s hard to know what to make of team defense marks in the pre-play-by-play era. Still, it took a late-period Charles Finley-owned team to do that; the 1977-79 M’s were comfortably over the line. What about the worst teams in recent memory, like the Lastros and the infamous 2003 Tigers? The 2003 Tigers team came in at -1.2, but the 2012-14 Astros never really got close. For a variety of reasons, it’s just *easier* to be awful at pitching. By BP’s DRA-based WARP, many teams finish with below-replacement-level pitching staffs each year, and they have the M’s comfortably below 0 this year. Some bad Rockies teams of recent vintage are -10 or more wins below RL, which is remarkable. Fangraphs’ FIP-based WAR makes it nearly impossible for a club to finish below 0, on the other hand. The Orioles have a real shot at it this year, but even the 2003 Tigers are over +2 by this accounting, which is equally remarkable in the opposite direction if you remember watching that club.

So while I’ve lamented that the M’s future may not be as bright as they claim it is, Detroit shows us how bad things can get. They don’t really have effective young players, as only Niko Goodrum looks league average-ish. They don’t have a great farm system either, or rather, their farm system is deep in pitching, but less so in position players. I think M’s fans underrate the young talent that we’ll see in Tampa, Anaheim, Minnesota, Cleveland, etc. in 2021, but I’m not too worried about the Tigers. As disheartening as the sweep against Tampa was, it’s nice to play Detroit again and remind ourselves – if we needed reminding – that we could have it so much worse.

Even there, though…the Tigers are awful in large part because they leveraged their future to try and win a championship. They didn’t quite make it, but in bringing in Miguel Cabrera, in assembling a rotation of peak Justin Verlander and just pre-peak Max Scherzer, they won a pennant and gave their fans a year-in, year-out contender. They ran into the Giants weird magic one year, and made playoff runs in many other years as well, and all of this came after they unexpectedly won the pennant in 2006. 2019 probably isn’t any fun for their fans, but forgive me if I’m not feeling too sorry for them. This is a trade off any M’s fan would make.

The brightest star the Tigers have now is today’s starter, Matthew Boyd. The Seattle/Mercer Island native has broken out in a big way this year, posting eye-popping strikeout totals. His defense can’t really field, and he’s shown serious home run troubles, but he’s clearly a solidly above-average starter. The Tigers thought about moving him at the deadline, but opted instead to hold on to him. We’ll see if they keep him around or move him in the off-season. He only throws about 92-93, but his four-seam fastball has proven exceedingly tough to hit. This has been a theme among M’s opponents recently, with Charlie Morton and even Ryan Yarbrough throwing tough fastballs from low 3/4 arm slots. Boyd, too, dropped his arm slot from a very traditional 3/4 to a more Morton-esque mid 5-feet release. That adds deception, probably, because Boyd’s fastball – like Ryan Yarbrough’s – looks completely boring from a movement point of view. It has plus spin, so part of it may simply be batters swinging over the top, but I’d bet deception is the key to his huge rise in strikeout rate this season.

1: Smith, CF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Santana, DH
4: Vogelbach, 1B
5: Nola, RF
6: Seager, 3B
7: Murphy, C
8: Gordon, 2B
9: Lopes, LF
SP: Kikuchi

I’ve written at length about my frustration with the M’s seeming inability to help Yusei Kikuchi, but he’s got a chance to build off of an encouraging start his last outing, and against a line-up that, as I’ve just written, is the worst he’ll face all year. Still, there was something painful about watching M’s cast-off Ryan Yarbrough dissect the M’s. A year or two after spin rate frenzy took the analytical world by storm, it’s interesting that the M’s – and other teams – are having so much trouble with so many pitchers who exhibit none of the freakish spin rates or vertical movement numbers that made, say, Gerrit Cole or Justin Verlander famous. The league average four-seamer spins at 2,286 RPMs this year. Charlie Morton and Shane Bieber are comfortably below that, and Yarbrough’s sinking fastball is under 2,000. The Astros acquired Joe Biagini from Toronto and immediately CUT his spin rate by 150 RPMs. I think too often the story of how the Astros or Rays or whoever “fixed” a pitcher centers on things like pitch mix, but that’s not really the story at all. Some teams have the ability not only to plan out changes, but work with players to put those changes into effect at remarkable speed. I don’t think the M’s are such a team. Not yet, anyway.

JP Crawford’s in quite a slump at the moment, batting .160/.260/.264 since the start of July. Much of it is BABIP driven, but his K rate’s surged in August. He’s always had the reputation of a streaky player, and I think we’re seeing that now. Over the same time period, Dan Vogelbach’s at .186/.282/.412. They’re both better than this, but I’d argue the M’s still haven’t located a star-level talent that can anchor this rebuild. We’re all super high on Jarred Kelenic, but for 2021, who’s going to be the focal point of the offense?


One Response to “Game 120, Mariners at Tigers – Historical Ineptitude”

  1. heyoka on August 14th, 2019 4:46 am

    Who’s this Kyle Seager Guy?

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