Detroit Tigers Analysis 2009
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Combining a lifelong coach's view with my statistical view


My Uncle Jack Sanders (first cousin once removed technically) has been the keen coach of a private boarding school in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan for over 50 years. Bob Sheppard – you’re baseball tenure is not secure! I could go on bragging about many amazing things my uncle is or has been. It suffices to say he is a very bright man and a very wise observer of baseball matters.


So allow me to relay my uncle’s review of the 2008 Tigers and I will follow that up with my own which I wrote back to my uncle. Then you will have a coach’s perspective with a stat-head’s perspective.


Jack Sanders:


. . . Tigers. How ever could it have gone so wrong after the bright prospects for 2008!


Let me take a stab at it. There were, of course, a n extraordinary number of injuries to key players – especially pitchers – and other players, like Renteria, who just did not have good years. That kind of stuff tends to feed on itself.


But at the core of it, I would contend, the Tigers just played too much dumb baseball. In all of my years of coaching and observing, I have never seen so much of it.


In me-August, I started a journal – “Teger Follies” of all the things which I saw the Tigers doing (on the telly) which our Cranbrook players don’t do. It ran a few pages, believe it or not. The last entry was a classic. Rays runners at first and third and one down. One hop, double play comebacker to Verlander – good throw – but Renteria and Raburn collided at the bag! In all my years, I had never seen that! No understanding on coverage.


The star of the Follies was unmistakably Marcus Thames – wholly apart from the fact that he is a liability in the field and strikes out one in every three trips to the plate. For example, he tries to shoe-string a two-out, nobody on base liner to left field – and turns a single into a triple. Or he head from second to third on a ground ball with no one out and no one at first base – the ground ball being directly at the shortstop and in front of Thames. Cardinal error! F the Tigers re-sign him, I’ll know that they aren’t serious.


Now, Brandon Inge was right in there in the journal. How about taking a routine grounder at third, stepping on the bag for the third out force, and heading to the dugout – but there was no force! Runner at second base only. He does make some outstanding plays – but often the routine stuff beats him. And, of course, you can’t have your third baseman hitting .205.


I hang the tail on Leyland for some of this. He seemed too tolerant of dumb baseball. But his coaches are suspect, too. The pitching coach, now gone, for instance; I have never seen a major league team whose pitchers threw fat, 0-2 pitches so consistently – squarely in the hitter’s zone with “hit me” written all over them. They must never have been told that that wasn’t a very good idea. I could have filled many pages in the journal with this one – but did not.


As for the hitting coach, still there, again I have never seen first pitch strikes – squarely in the hitter’s zone – taken so much by Tiger batters – principally Inge, Sheffield, and Ordonez. Word on that gets around the league’s pitchers union – and they tend to take advantage. Perhaps that enduring 0-1 count had something to do with Inge’s .205 average.


I may have mentioned in my January letter that we chart every pitch by our Cranbrook pitchers – with pitches in the “pitcher’s zone” ( mid-shin to mid-thigh) being a key. We had a sophomore last year throw three innings against the team which lost in the State finals for the largest schools – and he put 89% of his pitches in the zone. The result: two hits, nor runs and four strikeouts. Nick will probably be our best this spring – when he no playing at shortstop. Great baseball mind, too.


With due humility, I was reminded this summer in watching 20 or so of our kids playing ball on 15-20 travel teams that our kids know more baseball when they leave Cranbrook than their peers anywhere. We do teach – and that’s the greatest joy for me in coaching.


This is confirmed by our alumni who have played college ball in strong programs. Kurt Zimmerman, for instance, who played at Michigan with five future major league regulars (Barry Larkin, for one) – and he knew the game better than any of them.


Back to the Tigers – and pitching. The bullpen is in shambles. I have confidence in no one. Rodney is not awfully bright – and he has yet to prove that he can be an effective competitor. Zumaya -  if he recovers fully – has to understand that major league hitters will hit the 98-99 mph fast ball with consistency if it is not well located. He also needs a change.


Verlander could be much better, too, if he’ll focus on location. You just can’t throw the 98 fast ball by them. They’re too good. Robertson is still a riddle to me – and Bonderman, too, needs to go on a diet of smart pills. He does not show any evidence of being open-minded about learning. What a waste of a glorious arm – if he does not become a learner. Last year’s young starter – whose name I can’t begin to spell – is very promising, I think. He does not throw many pitches above our “pitcher’s zone”. It’s fun to watch.


I really think they should consider brining  up a couple of young arms – Porcello, for instance – and let them take their lumps. Those who will be major league pitchers will not lose confidence from that sort of experience. Let’s find them now.


I’m mindful of young Mark Fidrych, who came out of nowhere. But he kept the ball down – with just a fast ball and a wicked slider – and nothing bothered him. So much of it is attitude – an area where I have reservations about Zach Minor, too.


This is getting long, isn’t it! But let’s address positions – briefly. Catching. The trade of Rodriguez was probably correct in terms of his declining skills – but not in terms of his meaning to the team. When he left for New York (where he did not do well), he took a substantial part of the team’s soul with him. Their ratio of losses increased. The players, perhaps, saw a bit of white flag in that trade.


I liked what I saw of young Dusty Ryan behind the plate – though he did not hit well in fall ball. I think that he will hit – in time. Meanwhile, a stop-gap catcher may be on the last.


Another key position, of course, is shortstop. Renteria probably is gone – and the Tigers seem to feel that young Iorg needs another year or two. There is talk of Jack Wilson from Pittsburgh = but would he go with a shor contract? I doubt it. The Tiegers are dealing with the Pirates’ general manager – Neil Huntington, a former Al-American first basemant at Amherst and a good guy. [Note from me: my uncle has since I can remember recruited potential students for Amherst College his alma mater.]


We certainly can’t do better at second base; Polanco is just a gem. And Cabrera began to shap up pretty well, though he could lose another 20 poubds or so without hurting his bat speed.


Leyland has announced that Inge will be a third base and Guillen in left. This doesn’t thrill me, given my views on Inge – but who else will pay him $9,000,000? Guillen is still a force – and a good guy; perhaps he will be less injury prone in the outfield. His bat will be important.


In the outfield, there is talk of trading Ordonez. Maybe a blockbuster trade of some sort to fill our soft spots. It would have to be attractive, because I suspect that Magglio’s bat still has a couple of good years in it.


Of the young guys, I like Matt Joyce and Clete Thomas, though the latter will have to come along at the plate. I’m not convinced of where Larish will fit  - but he does hit some; there is talk of working him more at third base – which may not be a bad idea; not a spectacular glove – but maybe pretty steady in time. Raburn seems able to play anywhere – but probably not we3ll enough anywhere to help the Tigers back into contention. . .


P.S. I didn’t mention Willis, because I question whether he will really come back to form. I see mechanical problems that he does not seem to be able to correct.


I’m not a fan of Sheffield either. Great bat speed, enough to decapitate someone in the infield. But he takes too many hittable first pitch strikes – and swings at too many bad pitchers. An undisciplined swing!


My reply:


Your Tigers Follies would make terrific blog material. I’m sure it is more apt and entertaining than most verbiage out there. As a stat-head rather than someone who can make insightful observations by watching them play, here is my take on the Tigers.


If there is a biggest reason for the Tigers’ collapse in ’08, I’d say it was their reliance on young arms that couldn’t handle their workloads at such a young age. It’s one thing not to pitch smartly, but Verlander, Bonderman, Willis, and Zumaya each had quite a bit of success when they were quite young and tender – enough that their failures in ’08 shouldn’t necessarily be completely written off as the league adjusting to them and their refusing to adjust back. It seems some pitchers can handle the workloads expected of them and others cannot. However, the three young starters – especially Willis had enormous amounts of major league innings at very young ages. Bonderman may have had as many, but was brought along more slowly – although, may have been overstretched by the Tigers’ World Series run two years ago. Major League innings it is believed produce more wear and tear than minor league innings. Perhaps, that is reason enough to be cautious with Porcello. From a monetary standpoint, it may be prudent to try to get the best possible six years out of him by letting him develop as much as he reasonably possible in the minors. Mark Fidrych, by the way, is the Tigers’ patron saint of pitchers who were asked to pitch too much too soon: 250 innings his rookie year at age 21!


Medical treatments and training techniques improve every year. While younger pitchers allegedly get hurt more easily (excluding the very old), my understanding is they recover sooner and stronger, too. You may be more on top of their recovery progress than I, but from what I’ve read Bonderman should be good to go. Verlander reportedly had a “dead arm” last August. That’s not scientific, but it’s not an uncommon complaint among young pitchers and is usually something they recover from. No other pitcher ever had the type of shoulder surgery Zumaya endured, so we have no idea if can improve much beyond last year’s comeback. I would guess that he will come back further, but it won’t be as impressive as his rookie season.


Edwin Jackson has an impressive arm, but has not harnessed his potential. Perhaps, the new pitching coach Rick Knapp will help him do that. Hopefully, he will help all the Tigers pitch more smartly – as you point out, it is something they desperately need – and something more easily done than teaching un-hittable pitches. Given their success, the Twins must be an excellent organization from which to poach pitching coaches. Let’s hope Armando Galarraga can pitch nearly as effectively as he did this year. His percentage of balls hit in play that were turned into outs was incredibly lucky – especially for a pitcher who gave up quite a few home runs. His strikeout to walk ratio doesn’t suggest a pitching stud either, so I see Galarraga as a younger version of Nate Robertson – at best. In Nate Robertson, the Tigers had a solid 3rd or 4th starter who appears to have begun his decline. He wasn’t nearly as bad as his 6.35 ERA indicates, but at his best would not be as difficult to hit as Dontrelle Willis was at his best. However, it doesn’t sound like the Tigers are counting on Willis finding his way back to outstanding-ness, but are still hoping. Until they feel Porcello is ready or, perhaps, some other rookie, Zach Miner is the 7th starter to be used only in an emergency.


At this point, I completely agree with your assessment of the bullpen. However, the Tigers do better than most teams in coming up with serviceable pitchers out of nowhere. Perhaps, they will do even better under Knapp.


You are bang on with your comments about the Tigers’ catching. They did get their stop gap man, Gerald Laird – and that is all he is – no better than a slightly below average all around starting catcher. In Ryan they have someone who wasn’t even considered a good prospect skyrocket through the system, hitting sweetly at AA, AAA, and the Majors this year. That sweetness is nothing to rely on, however, as it came with much luck. Still, I’d take my chances on his being better than Laird very soon.


The Tigers could certainly use a boost from behind the plate. Their hitters are particularly weak on the left side of their infield. Inge had his three decent years. At 32, I don’t think he is suddenly going to return to respectability. He is Don Wert, now, or Auerilio Rodriguez. Both were good gloved thirdbasemen who peaked even younger than Inge and were essentially useless by 32. Let’s hope Jeff Larish can be more helpful at third-base some time soon.


If healthy, Adam Everett will have basically the same skill set as Ramon Santiago. All glove and not much bat at all. I don’t see how he helps the team other than giving the Tigers a more defensive option as a utility man than Raburn’s Follies fodder. Oddly, Santiago, who is two and a half years younger than Everett, showed significant signs of life in his bat this year. Apparently, it didn’t impress the Tigers enough, and the number of plate appearances weren’t enough to convince us stat-heads he is for real. Although, there wasn’t any undue luck involved and for the first time his walks matched his strikeouts. His walks totals had never been close to his strikeouts before which indicates to me that, perhaps, he has a new approach to hitting that is working. I would certainly give him the benefit of doubt over Everett.


Miguel Cabrera is a star and he’s still young. With the organization giving Larish a try at third-base, it may be Cabrera has finally settled into a position. If Larish, Iorg, and Santiago each blossom as much as we dream they will, then the Tigers might continue to have a pretty good infield even after Polanco gets old.


Polanco at 33 is old for a second-baseman, but is maintaining his value reasonably well. While the 2006 Tigers were powered by mostly young pitchers, the heart of their order was aged 30 and 31 – another major reason for their decline. For the 2009 season, Guillen and Ordonez will be 33 and 34. Gary Sheffield was traded for in ’07 to be a third impact hitter, but he hasn’t been one since 2005. He is now 40. To expect any them to be better than average corner outfielder / DHs would be expecting too much. I am encouraged that you say Sheffield’s bat speed is still a dangerous weapon. Given his long impressive history, he could come back enough to be a help. However, older players get hurt. The only promising young corner outfielder that I could see was Matt Joyce who was traded for the more greatly needed pitcher Jackson. I agree Clete Thomas is not much of a hitter. His mediocre stats in Detroit last year were luck inflated as they were. At 25, he can’t be counted on to do much more improving. All I can say about Thames is that as long as he continues to hit 25 homers in under 350 at bats, we will just have to grin and bear his lack of baseball thinking skills and enjoy his contributions to the Tigers Follies.


Curtis Granderson, of course, is the Tigers top home grown star. A championship team needs a few outstanding players, and the Tigers have Granderson, Cabrera, and Verlander, if he comes back. Neither of them are old, fortunately. If only the farm system was more productive, they could fill out the rest of the team better. Otherwise, they are on a treadmill of buying or trading for expensive players and watching them age resulting in even more holes to fill. At least, they seem to have a decent prospect at each of the positions they are most desperate to replace at the moment. . .

John Carter with contributions from Jack Sanders