Are the Tigers Really Too Right-Handed?

Somebody finally signed Justin Upton to a contract late Monday night, and it was the Tigers who seemingly came out of nowhere to lock up the 28-year-old slugger to a seven-year contract. It’s reportedly worth $132 million with a second-year opt-out, but the details aren’t important — at least not in this post. Jeff Sullivan’s got the details, if you want the details.

I’m interested in something specific, something I saw pop up a few times on Monday night after news of the signing broke. I’ll use this one tweet, from the esteemed Jon Paul Morosi of FOXSports, as an example of a common line of thought:

There’s no denying the Tigers now have Justin Upton on their baseball team, and there’s no denying the Tigers now have a deep, formidable lineup. The Tigers already had a formidable lineup, before Upton, and now it’s deeper, and even more formidable. There’s no denying, either, that the Tigers lineup leans very right-handed. It’s something worth questioning, whether it’s a cause for potential concern. It sounds less than ideal, but is it really a problem, given the quality of the right-handed bats in question?

Last year’s Tigers had the most righty-on-righty plate appearances in baseball, and also lost plenty of games when a right-hander started. But their lineup actually didn’t have any real issues with right-handed pitching. They were league-average, right in the middle of the pack, and that was without Miguel Cabrera’s bat in the middle of the lineup at all for more than a month, and without a healthy Victor Martinez for much of the season, whose sudden struggles against right-handed pitching were unprecedented. The bigger reason the Tigers went 53-70 against right-handed starters last year is simply because the Tigers were a bad team, with a bad bullpen and a bad rotation. They lost plenty against right-handed starters, and they lost plenty to the rest of the starters, too.

This year’s right-handed heavy Tigers project to continue not having issues with right-handed pitching, according to Steamer’s platoon projections:

Tigers Projected Lineup vs. RHP
Player Pos Bats wRC+
Ian Kinsler 2B R 88
Justin Upton LF R 115
Miguel Cabrera 1B R 139
J.D. Martinez RF R 106
Victor Martinez DH S 111
Nick Castellanos 3B R 91
Anthony Gose CF L 86
James McCann C R 69
Jose Iglesias SS R 81
AVERAGE 101
SOURCE: Steamer projections

On one hand, maybe league-average against more than half the league’s pitchers could be considered an issue, given the amount of money invested in this lineup and the expectations that follow. On the other hand, a cursory glance at recent history reveals that Cabrera’s outperformed this year’s projection for each of the last seven seasons, by an average of 27 points. Since reinventing himself as a hitter in 2014, J.D. Martinez has been 30% better against righties than his. Kinsler’s would be his worst year against righties in three years, by between 10% and 20%, with Upton in a similar boat.

Of course, this is the nature of projections — as players age, we expect them to get worse, and when dealing with something as fickle as platoon splits, they’re to be regressed heavily. It’s probably better to err on the side of the caution, but there’s a reasonable case to be made if you wanted to take the over, or somewhere in between. Either way: the expectation is that the Tigers will be at least a top-15 lineup against righties, and that can be tweaked based on how much closer, if any, you think the heavy hitters will be to their most recent years’ numbers. What’s known is that Detroit’s lineup represents an imposing threat to left-handed pitching. Last year’s team hit lefties as well as anyone, and did so without a now-improved lineup. There’s no reason to believe that won’t continue; mashing lefties will be the Tigers’ main strength, where they really make their mark.

Just for fun, let’s consider the most right-handed heavy lineup of the last 40 years: the 2001 Astros. The Astros won 90 games that year with eight righties in their everyday lineup, a mediocre rotation and an above-average bullpen. In other words, something that sounds like what this year’s Tigers could be. And in the lineup, the comps just so happen to line up nicely across the board. The Tigers’ very own skipper Brad Ausmus set a low bar offensively for McCann and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Miggy’s got Jeff Bagwell. The Kinsler-Craig Biggio comp is obvious. Jose Iglesias plays the Julio Lugo role of slap-hitting shortstop, and Nick Castellanos only has to be league-average with the bat to match Vinny Castilla. Same with the combined production of a Gose-Cameron Maybin platoon in center field and Houston’s Richard Hidalgo. In the corners, there’s Upton-Martinez, and Moises Alou-Lance Berkman

Of course, an N of 1 proves nothing on its own, although team-wide platoon advantage has actually shown almost no correlation with winning. It’s an enjoyable comp, more than anything else, revealing a similarly constructed team that was largely successful doing what the Tigers will be doing. More recently, there’s the case of last year’s Diamondbacks, the most right-handed lineup in baseball after Detroit. They were also above-average against right-handed pitching, and scored the most runs in the National League by a team that doesn’t play 81 games in Coors Field. The next-most right-handed lineup was Toronto, and they were the best offense against righties in baseball. Granted, Toronto’s lineup was simply better than Detroit’s looks to be, even now, but that’s kind of the point — as long as the hitters are good enough and don’t possess drastic platoon splits, the handedness shouldn’t much be a problem.

If there’s a criticism to be made of the Tigers’ roster, it could be found in the rotation depth, which is still dangerously thin after Jordan Zimmermann, Justin Verlander and an injury-riddled and recently-underwhelming Anibal Sanchez. Or in the defense, which, while improved from the Prince Fielder days, could still be considered suspect at any position outside the middle infield. A completely revamped bullpen looks like it should be able to hold its own, but if you needed to see a decent Tigers bullpen before you believed it, I wouldn’t blame you.

This isn’t to say there still aren’t potential drawbacks with the construction of the lineup. It’s possible that teams could slightly juggle their rotation during the season to better match up against the Tigers. Aside from the White Sox, who will be fascinating matchup with their slew of extremely talented lefties, the starting pitching in Detroit’s American League Central Division leans very right-handed. And, as Dave noted with Toronto before this year’s postseason, a team whose lineup leans heavily toward one side or the other is more prone to being exploited during the playoffs, when managers are more able, and willing, to play the matchups. But teams don’t build playoff rosters in the offseason. They build lineups to get them to the playoffs. And if the Tigers and their $190 million payroll are to miss the playoffs this year, something tells me it won’t be because of their right-handed hitters.

We hoped you liked reading Are the Tigers Really Too Right-Handed? by August Fagerstrom!

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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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Ernie Camacho
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Ernie Camacho

August, are the 2016 Steamer splits publicly available? As far as I can tell, the splits tool on FGs is still showing 2015 projections as of same 2015 date (not ROS projections as of the end of the season).