For whatever reason, I’ve come to know several Tigers bloggers over the years, so rather than do a Q&A with just one of them, I’ve decided to put together a little roundtable discussion. My guests today are Bill Ferris (Detroit Tigers Weblog, Baseblogging, Lee Panas (Tiger Tales), and Brian Borawski (TigerBlog). I’ve known all three gentlemen for a long time.
Bill and I are among the very few who were blogging about baseball in 2001 that still are today, while Lee and I go back to the old AOL STATS message boards from the late-’90s, if anyone remembers those. Brian, of course, is a colleague of mine at the Hardball Times.
I’ve always had a certain fondness for the Tigers. Maybe it’s because the first big-league game I attended outside of California was at old Tiger Stadium in 1984, or maybe it’s because Alan Trammell was one of the keys to my first ever fantasy baseball team (fourth place, 10% of the pool) that season. Either way, it’s time for me to shut my trap and let Bill, Lee, and Brian talk about their team…
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Ducksnorts: The Tigers, like the Padres, won nearly 90 games last year and entered 2008 with high expectations. Both teams have struggled so far this year. What has gone wrong for the Tigers, and is there still time to right the proverbial ship?
Ferris: In the case of the Tigers it is a case of under-performance. There have been some injuries, like [Curtis] Granderson missing a few weeks, and [Gary] Sheffield playing injured, and [Jeremy] Bonderman and [Dontrelle] Willis missing from the rotation. But the bigger issue is guys like a healthy Granderson and [Miguel] Cabrera not hitting like you’d expect/hope. The starting pitching was horrific the first 6-7 weeks and the offense has been wildly inconsistent, with the ability to drop double-digit runs on a team, but also likely to be held under 2 runs.
Panas: Just about everything was wrong with the Tigers the first couple of months. Justin Verlander, Kenny Rogers and Nate Robertson were awful in April. Dontrelle Willis was hurt and couldn’t get the ball over the plate when healthy. Their corner infield defense was so bad that they had to switch Miguel Cabrera and Carlos Guillen after two weeks. The highly touted “1,000 run” offense was shut out nine times and most of the lineup was scuffling. Miguel Cabrera took the brunt of the criticism from fans but Gary Sheffield, Edgar Renteria, Placido Polanco and Pudge Rodriguez were all slumping along with him, and Jacque Jones was a disaster. Curtis Granderson missed the first few weeks with a broken finger and still hasn’t found his stroke.
Not only were they not pitching and hitting but they were making inexcusable baserunning and fielding blunders, and looked totally listless. They were the most disappointing team in my 41 years as a fan and it was getting really tough to watch. Then, when it was announced that Jeremy Bonderman would probably miss the rest of the season due to circulation problems in his shoulder, many Tigers fans gave up on the season and started talking about deadline deals that would help them get younger.
Lately, though, there has been a turnaround and renewed optimism for the season. They have won 10 of their last 12, including a sweep of the first place White Sox, and have cut an 11-game deficit down to six. Their starting pithing has actually been pretty good for a month now and their offense has become much more consistent — they haven’t been shut out this month. I’m cautiously optimistic for the rest of the season. They have left themselves little margin for error and their pitching is a little thin (although the activation of Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya this week should help). Much of the hope comes from the facts that they play in a weak division this year and that their upcoming schedule looks relatively easy. There is hope, though, and that’s not something Tigers fans had much of two weeks ago.
Borawski: The Tigers are finally playing well and they’ve won seven of their last nine games. They even had a good showing against the first place White Sox not too long ago and while you can hardly say they’re back in it, they’ve at least stopped the bleeding. The Tigers’ biggest problem seems to be simple timing. Their expected win/loss has them right at .500 (they’ve scored two fewer runs then they’ve given up) but they’re 2-34 when they scored four runs or fewer, so while their pitching has improved, their hurlers haven’t been there to bail out the team when the hitters falter. When they win, they win big. When they lose, everything goes wrong.
Ducksnorts: Two off-season acquisitions, Miguel Cabrera and Edgar Renteria, were expected to help improve an already-potent offense, but both have hit below their career norms. What’s going on with them?
Ferris: Cabrera was playing with a bad leg early in the season, plus I think he was carrying around some pretty lofty expectations. Renteria has been much like the offense in general. He has a handful of 4-5 RBI games but then can’t hit anything for a week.
Panas: A little while ago I analyzed Cabrera’s season through the plate discipline and batted ball data at Fan Graphs. I learned that Cabrera is not taking a different approach this year. The pitches per plate appearance are the same. He is not swinging at bad pitches or looking at good pitches any more than he has in the past. He is even making contact at the same rate. What has happened is he not hitting as many line drives. In the past couple of weeks he has been hitting the ball harder, though, and is slowly coming out of his slump. I think it has mostly been a matter of learning a new league. I’m not worried about him. He should be an elite hitter again soon enough.
Renteria’s problems may also be related to a switch in leagues. He didn’t do well the last time he was in the American League with the Red Sox either. Some of it could be age, too, as he looks heavier and seems to have slowed down some.
Borawski: With Renteria, he has an odd track record the previous four seasons. He had two bad seasons at the plate in 2004 and 2005, and he followed that up with an average season in 2006. Then he had a career year in 2007. If you take out Renteria’s two really good years in 2003 and 2007, his career batting average drops from .291 to .283, which is a lot closer to his current .269 batting average. And even with an 84 OPS+, Renteria isn’t even having the worst season of his career at the plate, although it’s definitely close. Of his 13 seasons, this would be his seventh season under a 90 OPS+ so it’s hardly an anomaly.
With Cabrera, it makes a little less sense. Cabrera has been very consistent against both righties (.904) and lefties (.978) over his career, and for whatever reason, he seems to be struggling against left-handed pitching. Despite a .333 batting average on balls in play, he has just a .729 OPS against lefties and he has just one home run. He also seems to be a lot less patient with a left-hander on the mound (is he forcing because he’s struggling) and he’s drawn just four walks in 59 plate appearances.
Ducksnorts: Speaking of off-season acquisitions, Dontrelle Willis is 26 years old, but his numbers this year have been dreadful. What does he need to do to turn his season/career around, or is he beyond hope?
Ferris: A reader of mine sat next to some scouts for Willis’s start against the A’s and said that the scouts thought Willis looked okay when he was letting it go. That the arm is still live is encouraging. The Tigers think it’s mechanical. I think it’s mental. I also think he’ll be back this year.
Panas: Willis couldn’t get the ball over the plate in spring training or in his first start of the season. Then he hurt his knee in the second game of the season. He’s healthy now but still can’t get the ball over. His final start before his demotion to Lakeland was almost Ankielesque. He is signed through 2010 for a lot of money so you can be sure he’ll get every opportunity to figure things out. I haven’t given up hope but I’m not counting on him turning things around.
Borawski: My guess is, Willis needs to spend at least a month in the minors, where he can just aim for the strike zone and get back his location. He’ll be throwing down in High-A Lakeland, so he’ll also be throwing in a warmer weather state like he’s used to. While I’m not giving up hope yet, if he’s in his fifth or sixth minor league start and his ERA is in the four to five range, it might be a stretch that we’ll see him in a Tigers uniform the rest of the year.
Ducksnorts: Justin Verlander has gotten Cy Young consideration in each of his first two full big-league seasons, but his numbers are off through the first 2 1/2 months of 2008. From an outsider’s perspective, one thing that baffles me about his game is the low strikeout rate. Is his velocity down this year, or is something else going on here?
Ferris: The velocity was down earlier in the year. This appeared to be in part due to mechanics, and in part due to preparation. The Tigers tried to go easy on the starters during the spring so that they wouldn’t tire later in the year. That seemed to backfire across the board, but the rotation has gotten itself righted since about mid-May.
Panas: Verlander’s velocity was down quite a bit at the beginning of the season but he has regained most of it the last few weeks. There are lots of theories as to what happened but there is no evidence of an injury and I think the drop in velocity was largely by design. He has slumped the last couple of summers and I believe he is pacing himself so he won’t tire in August. I don’t know if pitching lousy in April to prepare for August is a great idea but he has been better over the past month. His strikeouts are down but they were down in his rookie year, too. I’m not too concerned. He’s still young and learning how to pitch.
Borawski: If you count Verlander’s innings in the 2006 playoffs, he logged in with 200+ innings the past two seasons. There has to be some wear and tear on that arm, and his velocity is down a touch. He does seem to be throwing better, though. In six of his last seven starts, he’s given up three runs or less, and in three of those, he’s struck out at least seven.
Ducksnorts: One pleasant surprise has been right-hander Armando Galarraga. Where did the Tigers find this guy, and can he sustain his early success?
Ferris: Galarraga was acquired in the off-season for a low level minor leaguer by the name of Mike Hernandez. He has a ridiculously low BABIP, which makes me think sustaining his performance will be tough. But for the time being he’s entered the ROY discussion.
Panas: The Tigers acquired The Big Cat from the Texas organization for nondescript outfield prospect Michael Hernandez. Since Hernandez may never even reach the majors, I think they’ve already won this trade. Galarraga has been good but also lucky with a .212 BABIP. That combined with his relatively high walk rate tells me he likely won’t sustain all of his early season success. I think he’ll end up as a fifth starter or swing man.
Borawski: If it were start five or six, I’d be hesitant but he just had his eleventh start and he’s still going strong. One thing to be concerned about is he has just a .212 batting average against on balls in play so there’s been a little bit of luck there. If that turns, you could see a slide, but he’s been able to completely shut down right-handed hitting (.127/.236/.222).
Galarraga has been all over the place. He went from the Nationals to the Rangers when Texas traded Alfonso Soriano. The Tigers then traded minor leaguer Michael Hernandez (who’s hurt and has only played in 16 minor league games at the A level as a 24year old).
Ducksnorts: I have a soft spot for players I’ve seen in the minors. Former Padres farmhand, knuckleballer Eddie Bonine, recently made his big-league debut for Detroit. How did Bonine look, and does he fit into the Tigers future plans or is he strictly a stopgap solution?
Ferris: Bonine threw strikes, which for a team that leads the league in walks allowed was nice. He got knocked around a little, but he had a few tough luck doubles in his last start. I don’t know that he’ll be a fixture in the rotation, but do think he could do okay as a swing man/sixth starter type.
Panas: Bonine is probably just a stopgap solution but he does have excellent control which is something that the Tigers have lacked this year. I would guess that he’ll end up as a middle reliever. His repertoire includes a knuckleball, which is always intriguing.
Borawski: Bonine got some run support to pick up the win in a rough start in his debut, and I thought Chris Lambert would have made a better option. He’ll get his second chance in the opener against the Padres so hopefully he’ll improve. Bonine is one of those pitch-to-contact guys that worries me at the major league level, though.
Ducksnorts: Finally, Johnny Grubb or Ruppert Jones?
Ferris: Gotta go Ruppert for the roof shots at Tiger Stadium.
Panas: I’ll go with Grubb because I like his name and he was with the team longer. I’ll never forget Johnny Grubb.
Borawski: Ruppert Jones. Gotta love the Lumber Trance.
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There you have it: Two Rupperts beats one Grubb. Thanks again to Bill, Lee, and Brian for joining us today. Best of luck to the Tigers, with the obligatory “once they leave San Diego” thrown in at the end. Here’s to a most excellent series…