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August 8, 2006

Doctoring The Numbers

Building the Best in Motor City, Part Two

by Rany Jazayerli

Picking up from yesterday

A month after nabbing their franchise shortstop, the Tigers signed a franchise catcher, Ivan Rodriguez. On the surface, this made all kinds of sense; it's not often you get the opportunity to sign a surefire Hall of Famer who just turned 32. On the other hand, catchers age quickly, and Rodriguez caught more games (1564) before his 32nd birthday than anyone other than Johnny Bench, who was finished as a catcher by the time he turned 33 and was finished as a ballplayer when he was 35. While Rodriguez's 4-year, $40 million deal was eminently reasonable, it still represented a gamble in that it was likely the Tigers would never be competitive enough during the life of the contract to make the addition of Rodriguez meaningful.

Rodriguez had a terrific first season with the Tigers, but last season looked like the beginning of a very expensive decline phase for him, as he hit just .276 (his lowest average in 12 years) and walked just 11 times all year. This season he's back in .300 territory, with enough power to make up for his typically low walk rate. Behind the plate, he has quietly undergone a remarkable renaissance. In the two years before joining Detroit, Rodriguez threw out an uncharacteristically low 35% of baserunners after throwing out 48% or more for seven straight years. He then threw out a career low 32% in his first year in Detroit. But in 2005 he threw out 35 of 68 potential thieves, and this year he has thrown out 14 of 23 (61%). Read that again--Rodriguez has permitted a total of 9 successful steals all year, or one for every 75 defensive innings. That would easily be his career best; his previous best showing was 2001, when he allowed one every 37 innings.

Signing Rodriguez had another, unforeseen benefit. As Christina Kahrl ended her analysis of the Rodriguez signing, "if it kills off that 'Brandon Inge is a prospect' nonsense once and for all, well, so much the better." Inge, to that point, had spent three seasons and over 900 plate appearances in the majors, and not to say that he had done poorly, but he had just hit .203/.265/.339 in 2003--and those numbers all represented career highs. (OK, except for on-base average, which he missed by one point.) He had shown impressive aptitude behind the plate, particularly for a guy who was drafted out of college as a shortstop--but he wasn't a major league hitter, and he was almost 27. The nicest thing said about him in Detroit was that he had tremendous raw power--apparently his golf drives were legendary.

It's not usually a good sign when a ballplayer's best asset is his golf game. But freed from the responsibilities of catching every day, Inge learned to harness his power. In 2004, he served as Rodriguez's backup while playing all over the field--it's not often a player appears in 19 games at catcher, third base, and center field in the same season. (Actually, it's almost unprecedented--the only other modern major league player to accomplish the feat was Wally Schang, in 1915.) He also hit an impressive .287/.340/.453. Made the everyday third baseman last season, Inge again set career highs in doubles, triples, and homers, and he's upped his power once again this year, already smacking 20 homers and slugging .472. Meanwhile, his defense at third base has surpassed all expectations; his defensive rate this season is a ridiculous 115, and he's saved 16 runs above average with his glove, both marks the best of any major league third baseman this year.

As much as signing Ivan Rodriguez has meant to this franchise, the conversion of the man he replaced into Graig Nettles Lite has been an awfully nice fringe benefit.

Stephen Drew was the consensus #1 talent available in the 2004 draft, but like his brother he fell from the top spot because of his bonus demands. And like J.D., most of the teams that passed on Stephen will live to regret it. The Padres, with the first overall pick, made the 11th-hour decision to draft Matt Bush instead. This was unwise.

The Tigers, drafting 2nd, also passed on Drew. There are no regrets in Detroit. Two years later, Justin Verlander is 14-4 with a 2.79 ERA, making him a candidate for not only Rookie of the Year, but Cy Young honors.

Verlander was far from a consensus as the best college pitcher in the land. While Baseball America wrote that he "might have the best pure stuff in the draft," there were concerns that his lack of command would hold him back. He pitched at Old Dominion University, where he didn't exactly face top-flight NCAA competition every time out, and still walked 43 batters in 106 innings his junior year, along with 20 wild pitches and a so-so 3.49 ERA. With Rice's three-headed hydra of Jeff Niemann, Philip Humber, and Wade Townsend all available--not to mention Jered Weaver having a season for the ages at Long Beach State--Verlander's selection was far from a slam dunk. Various pre-draft rankings slotted Verlander as the fourth or fifth best college pitcher available.

But as they did with Zumaya, the Tigers made some mechanical tweaks to Verlander's delivery after he signed, and suddenly they had a starting pitcher who not only threw 99, he threw 99 with precision. Verlander walked just 26 men in 119 innings in the minors last year, he's walked just 38 men in 135 innings this season, and suddenly the knock on him is that he throws too many strikes, as he has "only" 92 strikeouts so far. (As Nate Silver has written, this complaint is a tempest in a teapot.)

2005

Of all the moves that shaped the 2006 Tigers, the one that was panned the most at the time was undoubtedly the decision to sign Magglio Ordonez. Not that Ordonez wasn't a capable hitter, or that at 31 he was a likely candidate to see his numbers collapse. It was more that no one was sure if his knee would collapse if he ever took the field again. Ordonez injured his knee while with the White Sox the summer before, and then following surgery developed a complication involving bone marrow edema, a condition essentially unprecedented among baseball players. He missed more than two-thirds of the season, and with his injury shrouded in mystery, over the off-season winter Ordonez had flown to Austria for sound-wave treatments that were not even approved in the United States.

So it was quite the shock when the Tigers agreed to give him a five-year contract purely on the faith of their medical reports. It was even more of a shock that they agreed to pay him $15 million a year, with only a one-season rider that would allow them to nullify the deal if Ordonez suffered a knee injury in 2005. Just three games into his contract, Ordonez hit the DL--with a hernia that required surgery and kept him out until July. But since returning, he has been completely healthy, the occasional day off the only concession to any lingering knee soreness he might have. His power is down from his peak with the White Sox--although some of that is the park--and $15 million is still a little pricey for a man of his talents. But Ordonez has been an integral, if overpaid, member of the team.

The Phillies missed the playoffs by 2 games in 2002, 5 games in 2003, 6 games in 2004, and each near-miss was accompanied by the usual finger-pointing, most of it at their bullpen. It wasn't a fair complaint--the Phillies ranked in the top half of the NL in WXRL all three years--but scapegoating the innocent is tradition in Philadelphia. (See Rolen, Scott.)

So 2005 came, and once again the Phillies were a reliever short. The Tigers, sensing an opportunity and wisely deciding that middle relief was a luxury they could afford to part with, dangled Ugueth Urbina, who they had signed as a free agent before the 2004 season. The Phillies bit, sending Placido Polanco to Detroit for Urbina and Ramon Martinez.

As a general rule, anytime you have the opportunity to trade a middle reliever for an everyday hitter, take it. Polanco had long been an underrated player for the Phillies and Cardinals, deftly shuttling between all three key infield positions while hitting a consistent .290 every year. He hit an impressive .338 for the Tigers after they acquired him; this year he's back down to the .290s and his secondary skills have evaporated. He still plays a mean second base, and is a key part of the team's defensive renaissance. More on that later.

Urbina, sadly, has proven he has more in common with Julio Machado than simply a propensity for the Three True Outcomes.

2006

The Tigers made only one significant player acquisition before this season--yes, I know they signed a new closer too--by signing Kenny Rogers to a 2-year, $16 million contract. Eight million a year is the market rate for league-average pitchers, so it's hard to fault the Tigers for ponying up the money for a pitcher who averaged 33 starts with a 4.16 ERA the previous four years, three of them spent in The Bandbox in Arlington. It still represented a gamble to sign a 41-year-old pitcher with anger management issues, no matter how effective he had been. Rogers has in fact declined some this season, and despite starting the All-Star Game for the AL, actually has the worst ERA in the Tigers' rotation at 4.59. He's been effective enough, though.

Brought in to manage all this talent was Jim Leyland, who managed the Marlins to their World Championship under Dombrowski in 1997, and took three consecutive Pirate teams to the NLCS from 1990-92. Leyland's last managerial stint ended poorly, as he survived only one year in Colorado before essentially quitting out of burnout in 1999. Dombrowski bet that six years away from the field would cure Leyland's burnout.

Leyland was primarily brought in because Dombrowski felt that his predecessor, Alan Trammell, was too much of a player's manager and had lost control of the clubhouse, and Leyland has always had a reputation as a stern, if fair, disciplinarian. It doesn't hurt that he can manage a little, too. Leyland has always had a knack for getting the most out of all 25 roster spots, as his teams won in large part due to their depth, particularly on the bench. His division-winning Pirates had a terrific Don Slaught/Mike LaValliere platoon behind the plate, and alongside Barry Bonds and Andy Van Slyke in the outfield was a hodgepodge of guys like Gary Varsho, Lloyd McClendon, and uber-fourth outfielder Gary Redus. The 1997 Marlins had a bench filled with valuable role players like Jim Eisenreich, Kurt Abbott, and the Practically Perfect Backup Catcher himself, Gregg Zaun.

Leyland has also never been shy about throwing rookies straight into the fire, whether it was Tim Wakefield knuckling his way from obscurity to postseason hero overnight in 1992, or Livan Hernandez saving the Marlins' bacon several times in 1997, or Craig Counsell batting with the season on the line in Game 7 just two months after the Rockies waived him. It is this skill that has served Leyland the most this season, with the uncannily seamless transitions of Verlander and Zumaya to the majors, along with good work from callups like Zach Miner.

While Leyland has his strengths, he also had one striking weakness which manifested itself with the Marlins: he worked his starting pitchers way too hard. Leyland's abuse of Livan Hernandez, not to mention the shredding of Alex Fernandez's arm down the stretch that year, and most famously the 147 pitches he let Felix Heredia throw in a start in 1998, was in fact the impetus for the creation of our PAP system to measure pitcher abuse.

Happily, Leyland's biggest weakness has been almost completely neutralized by the sea change in pitcher management that has occurred during his sabbatical away from the game. Pitch counts above 130 have essentially disappeared from the major leagues, and 120 pitch outings are an endangered species. The cultural shift away from high pitch counts would be difficult for Leyland to surmount even if he wanted to, but thankfully he hasn't tested those limits. The Tigers rank just 22nd in baseball with a team Stress score of 5; no Tiger pitcher has thrown more than 121 pitches in a single start. The Tigers are also taking advantage of their lead in the division to be proactive with their pitchers' health; they skipped Verlander's most recent start for no other reason than to keep his arm fresh down the stretch.

So how did the Tigers get from there to here? Here's the synopsis of this year's roster, including a few guys we haven't discussed yet:

Pos  Player            Acquired               Note

C    Ivan Rodriguez    Free Agent (2003-04)   Minimal decline despite intense workload
1B   Chris Shelton     Rule 5 Draft (2003-04) Obvious pick after Pirates failed to protect
2B   Placido Polanco   Trade (2005)           Sweet payoff for a middle reliever
SS   Carlos Guillen    Trade (2003-04)        Mariners never knew what hit them
3B   Brandon Inge      Already There          Blossomed after moving away from C
LF   Craig Monroe      Waivers (2002-03)      Good minor-league numbers; see Marcus Thames
CF   Curtis Granderson Draft (2002)           Developed much better than expected
RF   Magglio Ordonez   Free Agent (2004-05)   Knee has stayed healthy
DH   Marcus Thames     MLFA (2003-04)         Good minor-league numbers; see Craig Monroe

S1   Jeremy Bonderman  Trade (2002)           Jumped from A-ball to the majors
S2   Justin Verlander  Draft (2004)           Command improved dramatically after signing
S3   Kenny Rogers      Free Agent (2005-06)   Started the All-Star Game!  Honest to God!
S4   Nate Robertson    Trade (2002-03)        Strikeout rate jumped in the majors
S5   Mike Maroth       Already There          Injured most of season
S6   Zach Miner        Trade (2005)           Mediocre numbers in minors before acquired

CL   Todd Jones        Free Agent (2005-06)   Everyone makes mistakes
SU   Joel Zumaya       Draft (2002)           Mechanics keep improving; hardest thrower in MLB?
SU   Fernando Rodney   Already There          Could close for a number of teams
SU   Jamie Walker      MLFA (2001-02)         LOOGY has never had an off-year with Detroit
With apologies to the likes of Omar Infante and Vance Wilson, those 19 players are 95% responsible for the Tigers' performance this year.

There are a number of lessons that can be learned from the success of the 2006 Tigers. Here's what stands out to me:

The Tigers are playing .670 ball without a single superstar offensive player on their team.

Admittedly, they're only fifth the AL in runs scored, but when you factor in that Comerica is a pitcher's park, the Tigers rank as one of the top offenses in the league. Yet only Carlos Guillen really ranks among the best offensively at his position. Marcus Thames is the only player with an OPS above 900, and his season is a little fluky to begin with.

The key is that while they don't have any superstar hitters, neither do they have any holes in their lineup. Every one of their hitters has an OPS above 770 except for Placido Polanco, whose 696 is likely to come up as the season continues. There's an old adage--if there isn't, there should be--that says it's much easier to patch a hole in your lineup than it is to balance that hole with a star player. Having a Vladimir Guerrero in your lineup doesn't make up for the fact that you're also sending Darin Erstad and Jose Molina to the plate. The Tigers don't have a Guerrero, but they also don't have any Erstads. The opportunity to grab a superstar doesn't come around very often, but there are always opportunities to grab an average player to replace the dregs of your lineup. The Tigers nabbed a third of their lineup--Shelton, Monroe, Thames--essentially for free. None is a star by any means, but they sure beat the heck out of replacement level.

The synergy between good defense and good pitching is undeniable.

You might not be impressed with the names on paper, but on the field the Tigers have had the best defense in baseball this year, and it isn't close.

Team           Def Eff

Detroit        0.722
San Diego      0.715
San Francisco  0.708
Chicago (NL)   0.708
New York (AL)  0.708
Breaking the Tigers' defense down by position, we have:
Player              Pos    Rate    FRAA

Ivan Rodriguez       C     114     + 10
Chris Shelton       1B     108     +  1
Placido Polanco     2B     105     +  8
Brandon Inge        3B     114     + 16
Carlos Guillen      SS      95     -  6
Craig Monroe        LF     100     -  1
Curtis Granderson   CF     110     +  8
Magglio Ordonez     RF      94     -  6
Once again, the excellence is a team effort. Only Guillen and Ordonez, both of whom have had knee problems over the years, rank as below average. Inge, in particular, receives little attention for his Gold Glove defense, but the entire infield other than Guillen grades very, very well.

The eight regulars combine to be 31 runs above average; even accounting for slightly below-average defense from the bench, the Tigers' defense has been worth about 3 extra wins this year.

There are likely indirect benefits as well. As Nate Silver has discussed, one of the advantages of a catcher with a great arm is that by eliminating the threat of the stolen base, it frees the pitcher to concentrate on the batter without needless distractions like pickoff throws and pitchouts. Rodriguez's arm has been worth 10 runs purely in terms of eliminated baserunners, but that doesn't account for the fact that he has shut down the opposition running game as completely as any catcher in modern memory.

Having confidence in your defense to make the plays behind you, and confidence in your catcher to take care of the runner at first base, is going to give any pitcher a boost. It may have even more of an impact on a young pitcher trying to break into the majors. Would Justin Verlander be throwing so many strikes if he didn't have faith in the guys playing behind him? We have no way of measuring this directly, but empirical evidence from such teams as the 1989 Orioles and 1991 Braves suggests that a dramatic improvement in team fielding can lead to breakout performances on the mound as well.

And finally, unquestionably the most important lesson to be learned from the 2006 Tigers is this:

When it comes to building a championship team, there is simply no substitute for good scouting.

This may seem like a pretty basic point, but it's not. While we've gone to great lengths to destroy the notion that the scouts vs. stats debate is anything like an either-or proposition (beer and tacos, remember,) it would be silly to deny that different teams emphasize each data set differently, and that on the extremes there are teams that emphasize one almost to the exclusion of the other.

For obvious reasons, at Baseball Prospectus we have always held a candle for teams that favor performance analysis, and the embodiment of that principle, the Moneyball-era A's, will always hold a special place with us for that reason. But the paradigm has shifted.

In my series of articles on the draft, I found that while college players held a significant edge over high school players throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, that advantage almost disappeared in the 1990s, around the time that teams became aware of the discrepancy. More than that, I found that since the mid-1990s the pendulum has swung so far in favor of drafting college over high school talent that today high school players are likely to be underrated. The same factors at work in the draft are at work in front offices today.

When no one took statistical analysis seriously, a team that bucked the trend could find major inefficiencies in the market. But over the last decade the acceptance of statistical analysis throughout the game--there isn't a major league team that doesn't employ someone doing statistical work for them--has squeezed most of the inefficiencies out of the market. Statistical measures of offense were the first to catch on, because they were the most accurate. Using those measures before everyone else allowed the A's to build an offense that ranked in the top four in the AL in runs scored between 1999 and 2001. But as other teams have caught on, their old tricks don't work anymore. The A's haven't ranked higher than sixth in runs scored since, and this year rank dead last in the league.

The best way to find inefficiencies in the numbers today is to have access to data other teams don't have--which may explain why the A's, with their own proprietary fielding numbers, have allowed the second-fewest runs (only the Tigers have allowed fewer) in the league. And certainly, combining the best of statistical analysis with the best in traditional scouting measures is always going to be a recipe for success, as it was for the Red Sox in 2004.

The best way to find inefficiencies worth exploiting is to have better information than your competition. The beauty of data--that it is discrete and precise--is also its weakness. If everyone has the same numbers, then everyone has the same information. While there is such a thing as good data analysis vs. bad data analysis, anyone qualified to work for a major league team is unlikely to make any egregious errors on that front. Some writers might think it's meaningful that Joe Shlabotnik has hit .320 in the #2 hole and .280 in the #5 hole in 100 plate appearances each; I doubt any professional analyst would make that kind of mistake. The very fact that statistical analysis is mainstream makes it that much more difficult for the very best analysts to hold much of an advantage on the second-tier guys chasing them.

But while there's not much difference between good and bad data analysis, there is definitely a difference between bad scouting and good scouting. By "scouting" I don't simply mean the filing of a report on a player by the scout in the field; I mean the dissemination of that data to the front office, the development of player's skills in the minor leagues, the ability to see a fixable mechanical problem in a pitcher that another team has soured on, and the ongoing self-evaluation of every link in the chain to see where the team can improve--by getting rid of incompetent scouts or getting the right minor league hitting coach to work with the players he can help the most.

Look at the key parts of the 2006 Tigers:

  • Carlos Guillen was a perfectly average shortstop who suddenly became an offensive beast after the Tigers acquired him. There was no statistical evidence that such a transformation would occur.
  • Brandon Inge blossomed into an above-average overall third baseman after three years of stinking the joint in the majors. Few, if any, saw it coming.
  • Justin Verlander was a question mark to ever develop major-league command when he was drafted out of college.
  • Jeremy Bonderman was pitching in A-ball when the Tigers' acquired him. The only analytical principle working here was TINSTAPP. The player the Tigers traded to get him, Jeff Weaver, has never again shown the promise he did with Detroit.
  • There was little to no reason to believe either Nate Robertson or Zach Miner would develop into anything more than fringe major league pitchers.
  • Joel Zumaya was a risk to blow out his arm or walk his way out of baseball before he even reached the majors.
  • Jamie Walker? I mean, really--Jamie Walker?
  • The team's two big free agent signings, Ivan Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez, were both enormous risks--Rodriguez because of the historical baggage that accompanies thirtysomething catchers who have already exceeded 1500 career games caught, and Ordonez because no one knew if his knee would ever be healthy again.

Every single player above has performed significantly, in some cases dramatically, better than we might have expected purely based on statistical analysis. No doubt the Tigers got lucky in some cases. But in at least some cases, they had information that no one else had. Maybe it was a scout's impression that Carlos Guillen had untapped offensive ability waiting to be unleashed. Maybe someone in the organization helped Inge figure out how to turn his batting practice power loose in the games. Someone envisioned the mechanical tweaks that have made Verlander and Zumaya twin rookie sensations this year. Someone thought that Jeff Weaver was as good as he was going to get, and that Jeremy Bonderman was almost ready for the majors even though he was still pitching in the California League. Some doctor made the decision that Ordonez's knee would be fine, and someone in the organization trusted that doctor's diagnosis enough to wager $75 million on it. And so on.

That's not to say that statistical analysis played no part in the building of the team. Again, one-third of the Tigers' lineup consists of hitters who were freely available even though they put up impressive minor league numbers. Trading Urbina for Placido Polanco is a move every stat guy can get behind, given how unreliable and overrated relievers generally are.

And it's not like the Tigers' scout-oriented approach has been perfect. Many of the Tigers' high draft picks in recent years, like first-rounders Scott Moore and Kyle Sleeth, have been complete busts so far. Signing Fernando Vina to a two-year deal didn't exactly work out. Most egregiously, the Tigers wasted an enormous pile of money to sign an overrated, washed-up closer in Troy Percival...and then repeated the mistake almost to the letter two years later when they signed Todd Jones. (Jones has pitched better of late, but be honest: would you feel comfortable handing him a one-run lead in the ninth inning of a playoff game?)

But by any reasonable standard, the team's successes vastly outnumber their mistakes. Trading Ramon Santiago for a Carlos Guillen by itself outweighs the combined impact of just about every bad decision this administration has made.

Dave Dombrowski has never been accused of being a fan of statistical analysis. As this season has proven, he doesn't have to be. In today's game, every team uses stats and every team uses scouts. If the Tigers are any indication, it might be possible to obtain a bigger edge from out-scouting your competition than from out-computing them.

The ending to this story has yet to be written. The Tigers may well prove to be a flash in the pan; they may be three-and-out in the playoffs and sink back to mediocrity next year. They might even collapse and miss the playoffs altogether, although our Playoff Odds Report puts the odds of that at under 2%. But they just as well may follow the path of the 2005 White Sox, a team whose strengths (pitching, defense) and weaknesses (OBP) they largely mirror, to a World Championship and a permanent place in baseball lore.

It's too early to know exactly what this Tiger team will be. It's not too early to enjoy them for what they are: one of the greatest renaissance stories in baseball history, and a shining example that no team's situation is so hopeless that it can't be turned around with smart baseball management at the helm.

Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Rany's other articles. You can contact Rany by clicking here

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