“Baseball is not played on paper.”
“Computers don’t play baseball – human beings do.”
“If you could project player and team performance, why would the teams even bother to show up?”
“Anything can and does happen in baseball. That’s why they play the game!”
The thing is, before the season started, here were the nearly unanimous consensus AL Central predicted standings among the various mainstream and sabermetric media:
1. Detroit Tigers
2. Kansas City Royals/Cleveland Indians
3. Cleveland Indians/Kansas City Royals
4. Chicago White Sox
5. Minnesota Twins
And here are the standings at the All-Star break:
4. White Sox
Surely it’s impossible to project every team’s win/loss record using spreadsheets and computers, right?
Average projected win/loss records versus actual won/loss records prorated to the end of the season:
OK, it’s not a perfect match, but it’s pretty darn close. The Tigers have been remarkably healthy this season, with nary an impact player missing any time due to injury, so it’s not at all surprising that they would outperform their W/L projection by a few games.
Let’s take a look at some of their individual position players and see how they’ve performed as compared to their pre-season projections by four of the most respected and accurate forecasters in the blogosphere – Steamer, ZIPS, and Oliver, as well as my own deadly accurate (sarcasm alert) super-duper projection system.
It appears that the offense, collectively, has overachieved during the first half of the season to the tune of around 12 points in wOBA over 3,115 PA, which corresponds to approximately 33 runs. Base running has been right on the money. The defense, on the other hand, has been around 30 runs worse than expected, so offensively and defensively it is a wash. The bulk of their lineup has performed overall almost exactly as expected.
Speaking of lineups, let’s see how first year manager Brad Ausmus has constructed his lineup compared to what The Book would recommend. The Book suggests a lineup where your three best hitters bat in the one, two, and four slots (one and two are OBP slots and four is power slot), with the third and fifth slots occupied by your fourth and fifth best hitters. This is a bit different from the conventional lineup where managers usually slot their best overall hitter third, their best power hitter fourth, and fast, good bat-handlers first and second, even if they are not good offensive players overall. In slots six through nine, The Book recommends putting your worst hitters in descending order. Of course, the handedness of the batters and opposing pitchers, as well as their platoon splits, must be considered when crafting an optimum lineup.
A typical lineup for the Tigers is:
Most of the Tigers’ players are right-handed, other than Avila and utility man Don Kelly. Victor Martinez is a switch hitter with a small platoon split.
Let’s reprint the above lineup with their current Steamer wOBA and OBP projections. If you were to look at most players’ pre-season and current season projections, you will see that they are very similar even if a player has been significantly over or under-performing his original forecast. Forecasts move slowly, even when a player has been hot or cold several months into the season. That is especially true for players who have a few seasons of full-time major or minor league play under their belts.
Each player’s projection is adjusted for the handedness of the starting pitcher, who is assumed to pitch six innings per game.
This is not a terrible lineup, although there isn’t any reason why the lefty batter, Avila, should be batting eighth versus a RH pitcher. He is being deprived of too many PA and his moderate power is wasted batting behind three low-OBP guys in J.D., Hunter and Castellanos.
A better lineup against a RHP would be the following:
Versus LHP, you can move Avila down to the seven or eight hole.
Now let’s look at the Tigers’ pitching performance thus far in 2014 compared to their pre-season projections:
If we average all of the above projections, we get a total projected ERA for the entire Tigers’ pitching staff of 3.66. Their current ERA is 3.67. They have pitched, collectively, exactly as expected. Either they all were aware of their projections and we are seeing a miraculous self-fulfilling prophecy, or these projections are remarkably prescient. (Or perhaps these are very good projections and this is a minor coincidence of chance.) In any case, the Tigers’ pitchers have neither over nor under-performed thus far in 2014, as a collective unit, despite Justin Verlander’s and Joe Nathan’s obvious struggles, Joba Chamberlain pitching better than expected, Ian Krol worse than expected, and Drew Smyly’s slightly inflated ERA.
Detroit starters have pitched very well. Their ERA is currently 3.54 whereas the league-average AL starter is at 4.05. Comerica Park, despite its reputation for being a pitcher’s park, is nearly neutral, so the Tigers’ excellent ERA is not a result of pitching half their games in a friendly environment. The projection systems above, Oliver, Steamer, ZIPS, and MGL, nailed the starters’ collective ERA before the season started. (Who said that these games can’t be played on paper?!)
The Tiger’s bullpen, at least the pitchers listed above, were projected to carry an ERA of 4.00 and collectively, they currently sport a 3.99 ERA (.29 runs worse than the AL average). Once again, the forecasters nailed it!
Let’s look at Ausmus’ use of the bullpen so far this year, using leverage index (LI) and projected ERA. A good manager should, as a general rule of thumb, use his best relievers in high leverage situations, situations where the game is on the line, usually in the late innings, and his worst relievers in low leverage situations, typically minor and major blowouts. Keep in mind that a manager should use projected ERA and not actual ERA to determine optimum usage. As I indicated earlier, a player’s projection is the best estimate of his expected performance in the very next game or the next week or month. His performance to-date, whether it be in 50 PA, 300 PA, 30 IP or 100 IP is often significantly different from his in-season, to-date projection. The investment adage, “Past performance is no guarantee of future earnings,” is especially true in baseball.
Let’s look at the relievers above, their projected ERA at the start of the season, their current ERA and the average LI (leverage) when they entered the game so far this year.
Based on pre-season projections, their best reliever and closer, Nathan, despite the inflated ERA of 4.64 and five blown saves, has been used in mostly high leverage situations, which is a feather in Ausmus’ cap. However, when all is said and done, you would like your ace to have a LI of at least 2.0. “Everyday Al” Alburquerque, clearly their second best reliever, has not been used in enough “game on the line” situations – your set-up men should average a LI of around 1.50.
Both Nathan and Alburquerque are facing too many lefty hitters, although neither pitcher has extreme platoon splits – they have around normal splits for a RHP. Nathan has faced 66 RHB and 81 LHB and Al Al, 68 and 71. The same goes for Joba who has seen 73 lefties and 70 righties. Obviously Ausmus is using Nathan in the traditional closer’s role, as most managers do, where your ace pitches mostly the 9th inning in close games, regardless of the handedness of the batters. A more effective use of your bullpen, in the 9th inning for example, is to bring in a lefty like Phil Coke or Blaine Hardy to face a leadoff lefty or two and then bring in your closer, or even to take out your closer and bring in a lefty to face a LHB with two outs, if the game is on the line.
Using current season projections, the fourth column above, you could argue that Alburquerque or even Hardy should be their closer, or ideally a tandem of Alburquerque and Hardy or Coke. While I am not suggesting that veteran closer Nathan be demoted, I’m not sure that too many Tiger fans would shed any tears should that occur (which is not likely unless Nathan completely blows up in the second half).
Surprisingly, Krol, despite his 5.83 ERA has been used in fairly high leverage situations, which is another feather in the Tigers’ skipper’s cap since he has the fourth best pre-season projected ERA in the bullpen. I suspect that as a lefty with a fairly large platoon split, he has been used often as a LOOGY with the game on the line. Also, because of his poor showing in 2014, his current projection is a quite a bit worse than before the season started, so Ausmus should be using him in fewer high and medium leverage situations in the second half.
Joba, not surprisingly, has a LI of 1.34, likely because he has pitched well. However, his projected ERA is barely above replacement level for a reliever, and he should really be used mostly in low and medium leverage situations. The same goes for Robbie Ray. However, like Krol, perhaps Ray has been used as a LOOGY in close and late games. In fact, all of the Tiger lefty relievers have faced around 50% LHB or so, which is about all you can expect from your LOOGY’s.
If you were to graph projected true talent ERA (not necessarily how a pitcher has pitched in the current season) against LI, you should see something resembling a line with a steep negative slope if a manager is using his pen optimally. To be fair, the relationship between average LI (when a reliever is brought in) and projected ERA should not necessarily have a perfect inverse one-to-one relationship when deploying a bullpen in an effective manner, especially in small samples. For one thing, it depends on what projection you are using, pre-season or current season. Ideally, a manager should be using a real-time true talent estimate in making all of his decisions, whether it be bullpen management, lineup configuration, pinch hitting duties, or roster construction.
Let’s look at that graph for the Tigers’ bullpen, although I wouldn’t read too much into it, especially only halfway through the season. If you squint, you can vaguely see a best-fit line sloping from upper left to lower right.
Overall, the Tigers’ pen is fairly weak, especially after Nathan, Hardy, and AA, so some of those high and medium leverage situations have to go to the mediocre and bad relievers in Joba, Justin Miller, Krol, and Ray. Coke, despite a mediocre overall ERA projection, has a large platoon split, and is their best reliever by far to face lefty batters. Consequently, he should be used almost exclusively as a LOOGY and in high leverage situations as much as possible.
Overall projection for the second half
The Tigers as a team have outperformed their pre-season W/L projection by four wins through the All-Star break, yet their offense, defense, base running, and pitching combined have performed almost exactly as expected, suggesting that they’ve been a little lucky in the W/L record department.
What does the rest of 2014 look like for the Detroit Tigers? We would expect their collective pitcher projections for the rest of the season to be nearly the same as before the season began. Their hitter projections might be a tad better and their defensive projections a tad worse. Overall, we wouldn’t expect their rest-of-season (ROS) win percentage to be much different from their pre-season win percentage, which was .543. That would give them a final record of 92 wins and 70 losses, enough for an easy first place finish in the AL Central.
In fact, if we look at Fangraphs’ projected final standings, lo and behold, we see a final W/L record of 92-70, 10 games ahead of the second place Royals and 11 games above the third place Indians. If we look at Baseball Prospectus’ projected standings, we see a slightly less optimistic forecast for the Tigers – a final record of 90 and 72, 7 games ahead of the Royals and 10 games ahead of the Indians. The good folks at BP also have the Tigers’ playoff chances at 89% and their chances of winning the World Series at 12.3%, behind only the Oakland A’s (at 14.9%), and ever so-slightly being the Los Angeles Angels (13%) and Los Angeles Dodgers (13.1%).
The Tigers are a fine team with a solid offense and excellent starting pitching. They can absolutely upgrade their bullpen, especially the front end. If and when veteran flamethrower Joel Hanrahan comes back from Tommy John surgery, that will be a boost to the pen, assuming that he’s still effective. (Reports are that Hanrahan MAY NOT be available during the regular season). It would also be nice if they had a dominant ace or two rather than the aging and sometimes ineffective Nathan and the good but not great Alburquerque. Their defense is not as bad as their first half team UZR suggests, although they are likely a little below average in true talent with the gloves. Expect them to run away with the American League Central division and with a little luck win a pennant and perhaps the World Series.