May 12, 2006
As Joe Sheehan pointed out last week, the Tigers are one of the big stories of the young 2006 season. At press time, they have a .618 winning percentage, and stand within easy striking distance of the AL Central leader, the White Sox.
Because the Tigers have turned things around in the early going, and have received conspicuous contributions from a few young players, there's a tendency to think of them as a "young" team. However, consider that for a moment. Their best pitcher (by VORP) is 41 year-old Kenny Rogers. Up the middle, they start a 34-year-old behind the plate (Ivan Rodriguez), and a pair of guys over 30 around the keystone. The closer's 38, and even some of the guys that are sometimes perceived as "kids," like Mike Maroth, Fernando Rodney, Craig Monroe, and Brandon Inge, are in their late 20s.
Now, this is only a problem if you think the Tigers have the beginnings of a dynasty here, with many years to take advantage of a core of young players. Detroit does boast a pair of 25-year-old boppers in Curtis Granderson and Chris Shelton, and a trio of special arms, all under the age of 24, in Justin Verlander, Joel Zumaya, and Jeremy Bonderman. Still, this is an overwhelmingly veteran squad, and management needs to keep in mind that in many ways, the future is now.
Detroit's success begins on the mound--the Tigers lead the AL with a 3.40 ERA, despite being middle-of-the-pack in strikeout rate. The bullpen is the third-best in the American League by WXRL (which measures the relievers' effect on the team's win expectation), and their rotation is the best in the league by SNLVAR (which measures the starters' performances, isolated from the support they do or don't receive from their offense and bullpen). They are the only team in the majors to have received above-replacement level performance from every pitcher they've used this year.
In last week's column, Sheehan pointed out that the Tigers lead the league in Defensive Efficiency. A less promising way to put that is that their pitchers have posted the lowest batting average on balls in play (BABIP) in the majors at .261. A low BABIP like that tends to be something of a fluke--no team has posted a BABIP of .261 or less over a full season in sixteen years (the 1990 Oakland A's were the last). For a team that doesn't have an outstanding strikeout rate, regression to the mean in this area could be particularly harsh.
Does this mean the Detroiters are doomed? Hardly. There's room for improvement, particularly on offense, where DH Dmitri Young hasn't gotten on track yet after early injury problems. Second baseman Placido Polanco has been doing his best impression of Jesus Alou, providing an empty batting average (.292/.308/.310). And while Monroe may not be an on-base machine, he's certainly capable of better than a .278 OBP. If the Tigers can get on base more often going forward, they'll do a lot to improve their chances of staying close to the White Sox in the Central division.
Things seem to have fallen into place almost perfectly for the Mets--look no further than Tom Glavine's 2.19 ERA, Xavier Nady's eight home runs and Duaner Sanchez's 13.3 VORP--contributing to a three-game lead over the surging Phillies in the NL East. However, the back end of the rotation is in tatters after the hamstring injury of Brian Bannister, the torn flexor tendon of Victor Zambrano and the finger injury of John Maine. Bannister will be back soon, although the 17/14 K/BB ratio he posted before getting hurt leads one to question whether he can be much better than replacement level this season, and Maine is not much of a better bet. Zambrano is not coming back, and while his poor performance will not be missed, his absence leaves the team with few viable options (and a lingering nostalgia for what might have been). The temporary solution is pretty ugly: dyed yellow dreadlocks have been sighted in the Mets dugout, the new hairstyle of Jose Lima, rehabilitated for another round of abuse. Lima would be bad enough by himself, but he comes from Triple-A Norfolk along with Jeremi Gonzalez, scheduled to start Saturday, who has given up 81 runs and 16 homers in 106 1/3 innings over the past two years.
Free-agent-to-be Barry Zito has been rumored as a possible replacement via trade, although the Mets should remember the lessons learned from Zambrano before dealing out of desperation. Lastings Milledge, the outfielder Billy Beane would demand in exchange for Zito, is hitting .303/.444/.479 at Norfolk in his Age-21 season. Milledge has already walked 23 times in 151 plate appearances, good for second in the International League and just ten less than he had in 483 PA last season. Interestingly, Milledge has also shown a Carlos Quentin-esque ability to get hit by pitches, having been pegged eight times this season after getting hit on 17 occasions last year. All that has led to the highest OBP in the IL, and raised expectations for Milledge's arrival at Shea.
While encouraging, Milledge's progress does not solve the Mets' main problem. The obvious fix is to move Aaron Heilman to the rotation. The Mets refused Heilman's request to start in the wake of Zambrano's injury, however, reasoning that he has become too valuable a reliever and the bullpen would suffer too much in his absence.
While the team's "ain't broke, don't fix" approach to the bullpen is questionable, it is true that Heilman would not find as much success in the rotation as he has pitching in the seventh and eighth innings. Last year Heilman put up a 4.71 ERA in 42 innings over seven starts, with a 34/13 K/BB and five homers allowed, versus a 2.18 ERA in 66 innings out of the pen, with a 72/24 K/BB and one homer allowed. While those numbers aren't reason to deny Heilman starts this year, they do point out a meaningful trend in pitchers that switch roles. BP's Keith Woolner and Nate Silver did a study of pitchers that changed roles in-season since 1960, and found that the difference between ERA in the two roles was over a full run, 3.93 for relievers to 4.96 for starters, along with significant differences in K% (15% for relievers to 12.9% for starters), HR% (2.1 for relievers to 2.6 for starters), and hits (increases across the board for starters). Relieving allows a pitcher to go full tilt without worrying about conserving velocity and stamina for longer outings, and eliminates the need for a third or fourth quality pitch to use on batters the second and third time through the order, among other considerations. Silver incorporated these findings in the new edition of PECOTA released this year (and outlined in BP 2006), so that the same pitcher would generate widely varying projections when "forced" into the exclusive role of reliever or starter. If moved to the rotation, Heilman would probably come closer to duplicating his PECOTA projection (4.78 ERA, 1.47 WHIP based on 19 starts in 31 appearances) than he would to continuing the lights-out bullpen work he has contributed thus far (1.96 ERA, 17/6 K/BB in 18.1 IP).
All this is not to say that the Mets shouldn't move Heilman back to the rotation--the improvement over Lima or Gonzalez would be substantial--but merely to point out that expectations of his impact as a starter should be somewhat tempered. Given that Heilman was a workhorse at Notre Dame and is used to throwing upwards of 100 innings a season, though, it would make sense to allow him to soak up extra starts when necessary. Last year Heilman threw 108 innings, and stunting him into a strict setup role seems like a waste of resources. Making Heilman more of an old-fashioned swingman likely would be the best match between his talents and the Mets' current needs, bridging the team over until help arrives via trade or the minor leagues, where 2005 first-round pick Mike Pelfrey and forgotten Cuban defector Alay Soler (both pitching at Double-A Binghamton) could be ready for second-half action.
Part of the reason for the Mets concern with Heilman's potential move is their belief that the bullpen would become particularly susceptible to lefthanded hitting without him: Heilman handled lefties to the tune of 47 strikeouts and just 38 hits in 52 innings last year. The worry in this regard, however, is overblown. Heath Bell could team with Duaner Sanchez to form a solid secretarial staff for Billy Wagner in Heilman's absence, and Bell also would fill Heilman's lefty-killer role:
Level Period Split IP H HR BB K ------------------------------------------------ Majors 04-06 vs. Left 29 30 1 10 23 Majors 04-06 vs. Right 43 51 7 9 49 Minors* 02-06 vs. Left 89.3 64 1 25 95 Minors* 02-06 vs. Right 127.7 123 10 30 154 *Mostly AAA and some AA
Bell has allowed fewer hits and virtually no homers against southpaws over a five-year period. New York doesn't appear to appreciate what it has in the 28-year-old Bell, though, as he will likely go back to Norfolk when Gonzalez arrives. Jorge Julio deserves to have his bullpen-low 0.88 LEVERAGE steadily increased with more important innings after allowing just three runs on eight hits in his last 13.2 innings, with only one homer allowed and a 24:5 K:BB ratio. With Sanchez, Bell, and Julio, the Mets have enough setup firepower in the pen to spare fans the agony of watching Lima and Gonzalez drizzle gasoline over open flames on back-to-back nights.