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March 16, 2007

Hope and Faith

How the Detroit Tigers Can Win the World Series

by Nate Silver

Will talks with Nate about the Tigers' chances on Baseball Prospectus Radio. Click to download the mp3.

The Tigers are the paramount example of just why we're running this series. Out of all of the major sports, baseball provides perhaps the best balance between luck and skill. The idea of the Cincinnati Reds or the Arizona Diamondbacks or the Baltimore Orioles winning the World Series might seem ridiculous, but so too did the idea of the Tigers winning the World Series twelve months ago. What's that? The Tigers didn't win the World Series? That rainy week in St. Louis wasn't just a bad dream?

I was momentarily tempted to begin this column with the three words that every Tiger fan has learned to hate--pitchers' fielding practice. But the truth is that the bigger challenge for the Tigers isn't going to be getting the ball to first base if the reach the World Series, but making the playoffs again in the first place.

This bring us to the most recent iteration of the PECOTA depth charts, which projects the Tigers to go 85-77. That would certainly qualify them as competitive, but it's not going to be enough to get them into the playoffs in the AL Central, especially when it seems likely that the Wild Card will go to the loser of the Yankees-Red Sox derby. More probably, the Tigers will need to win somewhere between 93 and 95 games to feel secure about having their ticket punched.

With that target in mind, let's review some of the places where PECOTA might have gone wrong, and some of the scenarios that might get the Tigers to overachieve its projection.

What: Gary Sheffield replicates his 2004-2005 production.
The Stakes: Roughly three or four wins.
Probability: Moderate.

There were few PECOTA projections that surprised me more than Gary Sheffield's. It was understandable that PECOTA wanted to hedge on Sheff's playing time, but projecting just a .279/.351/.436 batting line seemed like cruel and unusual punishment. Indeed, PECOTA is much more bearish on Sheffield than any of its competitors:

                AVG     OBP    SLG    OPS
PECOTA         .279    .351   .436    787
-----------------------------------------------------
ZiPS           .279    .374   .462    836
Marcel         .282    .366   .485    851
Hardball Times .290    .379   .492    871
Bill James     .296    .395   .487    882

It's rare to see differences of as much as 100 points of OPS in the projections for an established major league hitter. Here's the thing: if you're looking only at the objective evidence, I think that PECOTA is making the right call--most old players do not decline a little bit at a time, they have a more-or-less cataclysmic collapse, and then they're done. PECOTA thinks that Sheffield's injury in 2006, coupled with the fact that his power wasn't there when he played, hints strongly toward such a collapse, and it has plenty of evidence it back it up: a great number of Sheffield's comparables, from Al Kaline to Ellis Burks to George Brett, contributed almost nothing at age 38 and older.

But if you start to look at some subjective evidence, Sheffield begins to look a little better. He still has an amazingly quick bat. He's said to be pleased about not having to play the outfield any more, and his splits have been a little better in recent years when he has been DHing. I know that the Tigers did a fair amount of due diligence before trading for Sheffield, which you have to do with Sheff because he's not a guy you want around if he isn't happy.

So I think the other projection systems may be right, but for the wrong reason. Either way, it's absolutely essential that Gary Sheffield performs up to the Tigers' expectations if they're going to make a run at the title.

What: Sean Casey is replaced by Marcus Thames, Chris Shelton, or another superior alternative by Memorial Day.
The Stakes: We're already hedging on Casey's playing time, assigning him just 55% of the Tigers' first base playing time in our depth charts. Still, the opportunities for marginal gains are large. Probably two or three wins are at stake.
Probability: Medium to high.

Nothing personal against Sean Casey; I'm always going to root for the guy after having met his aunt and uncle last October. But unlike the trade for Sheffield, which was a high-reward if high-risk endeavor, re-upping Casey is the sort of feel-good move that tends to get you in trouble. Even if he can replicate his .312/.371/.423 performance from 2005, that still represents merely adequate production at first base, and there's a strong possibility that he'll be much worse than that.

The good news is that the Tigers have some ready alternatives on hand that should keep the pressure on Casey. Thames has been taking ground balls at first base this spring, while Shelton has hit a bang-up .364/.440/.591 thus far in Lakeland. If the Tigers get off to a fast start, they're not the sort of team to make rapid-fire changes to their lineup, but if they're struggling for any reason, there's some low-hanging fruit at first base that can be plucked fairly quickly.

What: Magglio Ordonez returns to 2000-2003 form.
The Stakes: Two or three wins.
Probability: Not very likely.

You might think that because Ordonez is finally healthy again, he's a good bet to get back to the form that he displayed in his peak with the White Sox, when he averaged a .311 EqA over the course of four seasons from 2000 to 2003. The thing is, the typical player loses about 25 points of EqA between 28 (Ordonez' age in 2002) and 33 (his age this year). Indeed, we have Ordonez projected for a .284 EqA this season, which is almost exactly 25 points off his peak. Could he put together another All-Star season? Sure, but there's probably more downside risk than upside potential here, and the decline he's experienced is very normal.

What: Justin Verlander repeats his 2006 performance.
The Stakes: About two wins.
Probability: High.

We have Verlander projected to drop from a 47.5 VORP to a 25.7, which would cost the Tigers about two games in the standings. Most of that is based on a simple reading of his peripheral statistics, which were good but not great: Verlander had a 4.27 PERA last year, and we're projecting him for a 4.21 actual ERA this year.

I've written about Verlander extensively in the past, however, and while I won't replicate that discussion here, I'm standing by my conclusion that he's an unusual pitcher and that his peripheral statistics aren't as much of a reason to worry as they would be for another pitcher. I do worry a bit about his getting hurt, but I'd bet he keeps that ERA under 4.00 if he stays healthy.

What: Curtis Granderson posts an OBP of .360 or higher. The Stakes: two wins, give or take, depending on how the rest of his numbers move. Probability: About 25% percent, according to PECOTA.

It's natural to associate a nimprovement from Granderson with a better-case-scenario season from the Tigers, but I'm not convinced that a breakout is extraordinarily likely. Granderson is already 26, and when I got to watch him a lot during the stretch run, I came away with the impression that he's always going to struggle to hit breaking stuff. I see no reason to believe that PECOTA, which places his 75th percentile OBP projection at .362, warrants some kind of tweak.

What: Andrew Miller goes gangbusters, owns a rotation job July 15th, and is much better than Mike Maroth.
The Stakes: Probably one or two wins.
Probability: Lower than I'm willing to admit.

Miller gets slightly mischaracterized as a polished, ready-now guy, when in fact he has a history of relatively high walk rates that he'll need to overcome. The Tigers have plenty of pitching and are going to play for the long-term with Miller. He's already been sent to minor league camp in Florida and …aw, screw it. We're not talking about Kevin Ritz or Steve Searcy here--Miller is a special pitcher, and there's a chance of something special happening. But it would be more of a luxury than a necessity.

What: Placido Polanco hits his 75th percentile projection.
The Stakes: Polanco has a fairly low Beta, so the impact of this isn't all that great. One win.
Probability: Moderate.

PECOTA's always been down on Polanco. It wants its put-the-ball-in play guys to have a bit more speed. It has missed on him in the past, but then again, PECOTA looked fairly prescient in 2006. I'd still tend to give the second base position the benefit of the doubt, especially since Omar Infante provides an interesting hedge if things go wrong with Polanco.

What: Todd Jones steps on crack, breaks Leyland's back. Joel Zumaya gets closer job.
The Stakes: Less than you'd think; probably not more than one win.
Probability: Fairly low.

This is likely to be one of the more overwritten storylines of the season. The difference in Jones' and Zumaya's PECOTA forecasts isn't all that great (a 3.89 ERA against 3.01), which probably doesn't amount to more than a few runs worth of leverage gains if you swapped their roles.

Sure, if Jim Leyland woke up one morning and decided that Zumaya should be his closer, that would help the Tigers a little bit. But Leyland is a "comfort zone" guy, and that switch isn't likely to happen based on inertia alone. If Zumaya does inherit the closer's job, it's because something's gone wrong with Jones--either he's been injured or he's blown a bunch of saves early in the season. Neither of those things are net positives for the Tigers.

***

At this point, it's pretty easy to play the Chinese menu game and get the Tigers to the finish line. If the Sheffield, Casey, Verlander, and Polanco scenarios come through--and each of those are fairly plausible--the Tigers are looking at 93-95 wins and a spot in the playoffs. The Tigers rate to be a good secret sauce team, and if they can get into the World Series again, I don't expect to see Brandon Inge diving around like an Italian soccer player.

Of course, that assumes that everything else goes to plan, which it usually doesn't. Kenny Rogers could implode. Jeremy Bonderman could underachieve relative to his lofty PECOTA. Carlos Guillen could get hurt again. But hope and faith? We've got plenty.

Will talks with Nate about the Tigers' chances on Baseball Prospectus Radio.


Click to download mp3
(4.3 MB)

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

Related Content:  Tigers,  Probability

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