When it was announced last week that Victor Martinez suffered a torn ACL during off-season workouts, I advised on Twitter that we not “overreact” to the news. While Martinez was a good player in his first year for the Tigers, his value on the field was likely overstated through having a high average and getting to bat behind Miguel Cabrera. That combination led to 103 RBIs and a 16th place finish on the AL MVP balloting, but his 130 wRC+ as a guy who spent most of his time at DH led to just +2.9 WAR. He was essentially the Tigers version of Michael Young – a nice player, but not one who couldn’t be replaced with a little bit of effort.
The most obvious candidate to step into Martinez’s vacated role was Carlos Pena, who posted a similar-ish 126 wRC+ last year, even if he got there in a very different way. However, he settled up with Tampa Bay last week, and now the team is kicking the tires on the likes of Johnny Damon, Raul Ibanez, Hideki Matsui, and yes, even Juan Pierre. Those four players combined for +0.1 WAR last year, and Damon was the only one who even resembled a guy who a contender should be willing to give regular playing time to. If the team does decide to pick a replacement out of that crop, then Martinez’s loss will represent a pretty significant downgrade.
And, honestly, I’m not sure the Tigers are in a position to be accepting that kind of loss right now. While the AL Central is neck-and-neck with the NL West for the title of weakest division in baseball, both the Indians and Royals have enough interesting young talent on hand to win 90+ games if things break right. And, given all the regression that Detroit needs to be expecting from the talent they are retaining from last year’s division winning roster, winning 90+ looks like it could be a challenge.
This isn’t to say that Detroit has a bad team, but they do need to prepare for a number of their most important players from 2011 to perform significantly worse in 2012.
Let’s start on the offensive side of things, where the team is going to need quite a few players to step up if they want to match last year’s total of 787 runs scored. From a macro perspective, we can see that the Tigers led the American League with a .318 BABIP, 23 points higher than the league average of .295. That’s the eighth highest mark any team has posted in the last 10 years, and after you adjust for the lower league BABIPs of recent years, only the 2008 Texas Rangers posted a mark further from the norm. Posting the second best mark in a decade for any type of category is a point of likely regression, but even with hitter’s influence on batted ball outcomes, BABIP has a lot of year to year fluctuation. Those 2008 Rangers that posted a .325 BABIP? They came in at .296 in 2009.
Now, the Tigers do have some players who are likely to consistently post higher than average numbers on their balls in play average. Miguel Cabrera’s career mark is .347 – he hits the ball really hard, or so you might have heard – so his .365 mark isn’t as prone to regression as it might seem on the surface. Austin Jackson‘s speed and ground ball tendencies mean that he’ll probably be among the league leaders again, and his true BABIP is probably not that far from the .340 mark he posted last year. However, even with those two guys holding fairly steady, the Tigers still have a bunch of guys poised to get significantly worse results on their balls in play in 2012.
At the top of the list is Alex Avila, who ran a .366 BABIP last year. For comparison, all Major League catchers combined for a .283 BABIP a year ago, easily the lowest of any position on the field. After all, catchers are generally a pretty slow bunch, which hinders their ability to get infield hits. Avila showed some real power last year, so you could try to claim that he’s a hit-balls-hard exception, but he had a .284 career BABIP before last season, and he only ran a .310 mark during his final year in the minors. Even an aggressive projection for a slow catcher’s true talent BABIP is going to be in the .300 to .310 range, which would represent a 50 to 60 point drop from Avila’s performance a year ago. If he puts 350 balls in play, a 50 point drop in BABIP would account for 18 fewer hits, and consequently, 18 more outs. That’s a lot of lost value, and because of BABIP regression, the Tigers can’t be counting on Avila to post anything close to a 140 wRC+ again.
Likewise, the Tigers need to prepare for a significant step back from shortstop Jhonny Peralta. His .325 BABIP wasn’t too far out of line for him based on his career numbers, but he’d been trending downwards for three years running (pretty normal, given advancing age and the overall league trends) and had posted marks closer to .300 as of late. However, the big step back for Peralta will likely come from his UZR, which was a strong +9.9 at shortstop last year. His career UZR at the position coming into the season was -28.1. The Indians had already moved him off of the position due to a medicore-at-best defensive evaluation. While the Tigers decision to move him back to shortstop seems to have been vindicated, it’s highly unlikely that Peralta will rank among the league’s best defenders at the position again.
Peralta and Avila combined for +10.7 WAR last year – more reasonable projections should expect the combination to produce +5 to +7 WAR this year, a substantial step backwards for two key position players.
On the pitching side, the picture might look a little rosier. After all, Justin Verlander is still around, Brad Penny is not, and the team will get a full season of Doug Fister rather than just having him for the stretch run. However, no matter how good you think Verlander and Fister might be, they combined for a 2.27 ERA in 320 innings between them. Even if you increase the projected innings total to 420 to account for Fister’s full-year presence, the increase in runs allowed will more than off-set the increased quantity of innings. Even if you project the pair to combine for a 3.25 ERA (probably a bit optimistic, honestly), that is 151 runs allowed in 420 innings pitched. That would mean that the duo would combine to pitch an extra 90 innings than they did a year ago, but give up 70 additional runs in the process. That’s the equivalent of adding a pitcher to the roster who would post a 7.00 ERA during a half season of work.
Yes, there are a few guys on the pitching staff that could perform better – Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello certainly have the ability to post lower ERAs than they did a year ago. That will help. But, with so many high profile regression candidates on the roster and Martinez now on the sideline, the 95-win Tigers of a year ago look more like an 85-90 win team as currently constructed. That’s still good enough to make them the favorites in the division, but it shouldn’t make them comfortable in that position, and they should not be working under the assumption that their large cushion from a year ago will give them room to absorb Martinez’s loss without a real replacement.
Whether it’s jumping in on Roy Oswalt or making a move for a real OF/DH who can provide value, the Tigers would do well to add a player to their roster who represents a significant upgrade over what they already have in house. Their current team is probably good enough to contend in the AL Central, but if they want to reap the benefits of having Verlander and Cabrera in their primes, they can’t waste those years by surrounding them with a roster of inferior talents.
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