Mike Ferrin speaks with Ken Funck in this edition of Baseball Prospectus Radio. Click to download the mp3.
Mike Ferrin: It’s our weekly chat on “On Deck” with the folks from Baseball Prospectus, and joining us this week is Ken Funck. And Ken, it’s I think an especially appropriate time to talk to you because I know you’ve written a great deal recently about the Detroit Tigers, and as they kind of make their run to the top of the American League Central. I think the way that most people have seen them do it has been shocking. I know you followed them a little closely last week. Can they really keep this up with the starting pitching that they’ve gotten to this point?
Ken Funck: Well I’m not sure that the starting pitching can keep pitching at the level that they have but definitely can be good enough to win this division. When you look at the AL Central, you… I don’t really see any other teams that jump out at me as being the sort of team that would be able to have both the offense and the defense that the Tigers have. The White Sox have a good rotation currently with Buehrle, Floyd, and Danks and Contreras pitching well recently, but they’ve really had a lot of trouble scoring runs, and I’m not sure how much of that’s going to turn around for them. But the Tigers have been getting, as you know, incredible starting pitching from Edwin Jackson particularly, you know, with his 2.49 ERA. Rick Porcello has been just a revelation in his rookie season. It’s going to be interesting to see how they handle him down the stretch to try and keep his pitch count low, but he’s been pitching very well. And Verlander, of course, has pitched extremely well as well and currently sitting at eight and three. So… while I I’m not sure that Edwin Jackson is going to be able to pitch at that incredible level as he has so far, I don’t see any reason why they won’t have enough pitching at least to be able to carry them to the head of the division.
MF: You you talked about defense in there, and I think that that’s one of the things that maybe we’ve ignored in this Tigers’ story for 2009 a bit is maybe the addition of a guy like Adam Everett and moving Brandon Inge back to third base has helped to solidify this team as much as anything because they were not a good defensive club a year ago.
KF: That’s very true, that’s very true. When you look, when you look out currently at some of the defensive rankings and a lot a lot of the different defensive metrics don’t always agree but I looked at today at the the Tigers’ Ultimate Zone Rating, Mr. Lichtman’s defensive rating, and the Tigers are still number two in the American League, and a lot of that I think does have to do with the improvement in their defense.
MF: Explain for folks who don’t understand what UZR is. What Ultimate Zone rating means.
KF: Um, Ultimate Zone Rating is basically a metric that was devised by Mr. Lichman to be able, Mr. Lichtman I should say, to be able to look at where a ball goes, and determine which, whether a fielder should have been able to get to that ball or not, and the more likely that a player, you know, if a ball goes into a zone where they ought to be able to field it. It looks at the percentage of the times that they’re able to field that. That’s a really high-level overview of it. There’s a lot of different events and metrics but that’s one of the ones that I think is one of the, one of the most effective. And the Tigers have been able to turn a lot more of the batted balls into outs this year as compared to last year. Where they started last year was really a mess defensively with Carlos Guillen at shortstop, probably beyond the point at which he was able to capably play shortstop in the major league. They went with the idea of having Cabrera at third base and became apparent very quickly that he was not a third baseman. They’ve reshuffled the deck to a certain extent now with Cabrera at first base who’s probably never going to be a great defensive player, but at least he’s he’s not much of a detriment over there. And as you say, bring in Adam Everett to play at shortstop and platooning him somewhat with Ramon Santiago. They’ve definitely improved their their infield different defense and bringing Inge in to third base who’s always been a good defensive third basemen, especially for the young pitchers its got to be very… very easy for them to want to throw the ball over the plate and put it in play knowing that there are guys behind them that can go get it. Out in the outfield, they’ve got Curtis Granderson out in center who has, over time, become one of the better defensive center fielders in in baseball. He’s got a lot of ground to cover out there and really plays Comerica particularly well. So I think you’re right, a big part of the pitching story in Detroit has been the defense.
MF: Talking to Ken Funck from Baseball Prospectus. You mentioned Inge in there, I want to get back to him. We know that Cabrera’s going to make the All-Star team from Detroit, that Verlander most likely will, that Curtis Granderson most likely will. But I think that at this point you have to make a case for Brandon Inge. I mean, he leads the team in home runs, right? I mean, he’s had a a remarkable season so far. Is there anything in Brandon Inge’s history that maybe prove pointed to a season like this coming for him?
KF: Well, one of the articles I wrote for for BP several weeks ago looked a little bit at his history as far as how well he hit depending on when he was catching or was playing in the field. He started his career at catcher, and as everyone knows, playing catcher is a physically demanding position. You get beat up during the season, you get tired, and Inge really did not hit very well when he was a catcher. As soon as they moved him out from behind the plate, starting with the 2004 season, he started hitting much better. Not really to the level that he’s hitting this year, which might be a little bit off the line with whether what you might expect from him going forward. But the fact that he’s no longer catching and is playing third base, especially when you value, you know, how well he’s played defensively at third base, I think you can really make a good case for him being being an All-Star this year at third. And to me perfectly honest, to be perfectly honest it sort of expected, it surprised me. I expected him to have a better year with the bat but nothing to the level that we’ve seen of him this far.
MF: Does it, does Brandon Inge have the look of a good player?
KF: [Laughs.] Yeah, I would say he does has a good face. As a matter of fact, he reminds me of a guy that I went to high school with who was a good ballplayer, so I’ve always sort of have a fondness for Brandon Inge.
MF: [Laughs.] I didn’t realize that you were the president of the Brandon Inge Fan Club. I, you know, I kind of said that facetiously, but you actually have done some research on on the look of ballplayers, and I guess we should qualify this, by you know, there’s never been a real harmonious marriage between statistical analysis and scouting. Yet, there are plenty of sabremetricians that will laugh at the idea of a guy having “the look,” as scouts would describe it, but you may have found that there there is some correlation?
KF: [Laughs.] Right, and I’d like to put the word research in quotes.
KF: It wasn’t exactly what you would call a hardcore statistical study, but I did write a piece in which I was trying to determine whether there really was any correlation between some of the biometrics of players and their statistical profile. Specifically what I looked at was width to height ratios for faces. I had happened to have read a few studies that have found that a wider face compared to the height of the face tended in the study about hockey players to show that those players were more aggressive. And it made me curious as to whether, you know, that might be true for baseball players. So I went and-I don’t have access to major league players obviously, I’m just some random guy, so I, what I had to do is crop a number of photographs of of players in Major League Baseball. And I did see that, with the the small study that I did, that yeah, there did seem to be a small amount of correlation, and again I put the word correlation in quotes. But there seemed to be a a certain amount of truth to the fact that that sort of physiogomy, that narrower face would be a less productive hitter, and the wider face would be a more productive hitter.
MF: I wonder if that has to do with the placement of the eyes on the face. But I mean think I think it’s certainly worth worth looking into. … There was another part part of that article I found very interesting-the idea that these guys who were aggressive hitters, we certainly we certainly think of aggressive hitters in the mold, and I think you even mentioned in the article, of a Vladimir Guerrero. A guy who goes up there and just swings the bat, he’s swinging for the fences, or just swinging at just about anything that comes up to the plate. But the idea that an aggressive hitter is actually one who is more selective but is able to drive their pitch.
KF: Yeah, that that’s exactly what it seems to be. The the players that fit the profile as having the narrower face which the hockey study would have said were more aggressive hitters. Actually their numbers, even though Vlad Guerrero did fit into that profile, their numbers really weren’t as good, especially their plate discipline numbers. They… it seemed as though it was exactly the opposite of what you would have expected. So it seemed that the aggressive players were the ones that weren’t the… I was looking at pitches per plate appearance.
MF: Uh huh.
KF: And it seemed that the more aggressive players were the ones that were waiting out the pitcher more and had the confidence to be able to wait for a pitch that they could drive. So it wasn’t just the fact of going up there and aggressively swinging at any pitch, it was having the confidence to sit and wait for their pitch, and the confidence to wait to have two strikes and know that they have the ability to hit in that situation.
MF: And that level of patience, as you know, to bring it full circle, is something that that Brandon Inge has had shown at the minor league level, and is doing a much better job with this year too.
KF: Yeah, yeah, very much so, very much so. And he’s hitting a lot of his home runs, are… a lot of his flyballs are turning into home runs, moreso as a percentage then, it’s way out of line with what he’s done with the rest of his career. So I don’t expect that necessarily to continue, but the home runs he has already hit, he has those in the bank for the rest of the year. You know, so he’s definitely gonna outperform projections.
MF: And they call them career years for a reason, right?
KF: Exactly, exactly.
KF: And I’m very happy for him although I have to admit that at the Baseball Prospectus website they have a fantasy game called Hacking Mass, where you are supposed to select players for specific positions that are going to get a lot of at-bats but not provide a lot of production.
KF: My third baseman’s Brandon Inge.
MF: [Laughs.] Well, so you’re not doing very well at Hacking Mass this year?
KF: No, he’s… I’m doing OK, but he’s keeping me out of the Top 100. He’s definitely tanking my team. You know, so I don’t hold it against him though.
MF: I thought I was going to win that contest one year, and then Jacques Jones hit twenty-seven homers.
KF: [Laughs.] Oh yeah that stuff just happens.
MF: [Laughs.] So hey, Ken, I appreciate the time. Best of luck. You can read Ken’s stuff at Baseball Prospectus.com. Ken Funck from BP. Back with more after this on “On Deck.”
Mike talks with Ken in this special edition of BP Radio:
Click to download mp3