I think it was in the seventh or eighth grade that I first learned that subtracting a negative means the same as adding.
In evaluating how the Detroit Tigers improved their club over this past winter, you can start with all the negatives they erased from the squad: Delmon Young, Jose Valverde, Gerald Laird, and Ryan Raburn. Though it’s obvious to any serious fan that the Tigers are better off without this quartet, sabermetrics can help quantify just how much better.
Start with Young. Since Victor Martinez is returning, the Tigers had no place for Delmon as a DH and No. 5 hitter. Which is a good development, because he was about as much protection for Miguel Cabrera as a mall rent-a-cop. Yes, he had 18 homers, but that’s the extent of his contribution: he was, as always, allergic to walks and posted a .296 on-base percentage, below his putrid career .317 mark. He had an offensive WAR (Wins above Replacement) of -0.7, and if you had to play him in left, he’d cost another -1.7 in defensive WAR. So subtracting him is good for a win or two.
Laird, in his second stint with the Tigers, contributed exactly zilch if you measure him by WAR. He’s 33 years old and made an especially poor platoon partner with Alex Avila because he hit .204 against lefties and .382 against righties—and that kind of reverse split has been pretty consistent, if not quite as pronounced, throughout his career; in other words, no fluke. Apparently, however, this remained a mystery to Jim Leyland, who stubbornly kept starting him against southpaws, and in that role he was a major contributor to the team’s surprisingly anemic production against lefty pitchers.
Contributing also to this sore spot last year, Ryan Raburn was awful against lefties for the first time. He’s always been pathetic facing righties and a liability anywhere in the field. Raburn is now is 31 years old, so it’s about five years past the time when the Tigers should have given up on him. Geez, I don’t even want to look up his WAR. Yikes, I just did: -2.0 in 66 games! That’s a couple more losses to subtract.
That leaves Valverde. In the role all-around embarrassment, he certainly can’t ever be replaced. And not just because he was horribly unreliable in his role as a closer, the most overvalued position on any team. He never paid any attention at all to the runners he allowed to reach base, even in one-run games, because he was so busy fooling nobody with his falling-down heaving of all-over-the-place pitches. A few days ago, Leyland said he couldn’t understand why no team wants him as a free agent; the skipper still thinks he was awesome except for a few months last season. But then Leyland has a demonstrable affection for mediocrity (consider his endless affection for the useless Don Kelly). And maybe Leyland was watching a different dude than I was.
What club above AAA would want Valverde’s ridiculous dances, fake-scary-clown face, and ever-changing ugly dye jobs? His teammates would want to hide in a corner of the dugout. In an earlier era, his fist-pumping histrionics would have gotten him decked by opponents. He violated all the now-apparently-bygone rules that you don’t deliberately show up the other team’s players. Well, at least he had that incredible 0.5 WAR! But was that half a win a year worth the off-the-charts cringe factor and the countless nightmare “saves” that consisted of two hits, two walks, and a game-ending fly ball to the warning track?
I think not. The Tigers are three-plus wins better by advanced analytics measures, and a whole lot more professional-looking by this fan’s more subjective analysis, than they were at the end of October. Minus four minuses is a huge plus. And that’s not even adding in the actual positive changes: Torii Hunter, the return of the reliable VMart, and a whole year’s worth of Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante.
Hurray for math!