Advance Scout: Tigers, July 27-29

Friday, July 27 2012 @ 05:34 PM EDT

Contributed by: Alex Obal

Next up, it's the Tigers, who were awarded the AL Central title by acclamation last winter. After a sluggish first half, they're starting to play up to the hype. They called up Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante from their NL affiliate on Monday, and they look good to go for the second half. The Jays will dodge Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, but they'll still have to navigate a lineup featuring several high OBP figures at the top.

This week's big news from the D is the latest marquee Marlins/Tigers trade. The Tigers patched two holes when they acquired righty Sanchez and familiar second baseman Infante. The Marlins received the Tigers' top pitching prospect, Jacob Turner, as well as catcher Rob Brantly and pitcher Brian Flynn. It's a clear buyers' trade for the Tigers and seems to have been met with widespread approval by their fans. Which, from my impartial position of relative ignorance, I agree with. Between Verlander, Scherzer, Porcello, Fister and blister-riddled lefty Drew Smyly, the Tigers' rotation is in good shape for the medium term. (Insert disclaimer about lessons learned from the 2012 Blue Jays here.) In the short-term, there was a hole: Turner himself, who'd been mauled in three big-league starts and had a sub-2 K/BB at AAA Toledo. Sanchez is a very safe bet to remedy that hole, and though Turner is talented and fending well for himself in the high minors at 21, the short-term gain easily justifies the loss from the Tigers' perspective. (As to Brantly, same idea. With Alex Avila holding down the tools of ignorance, the Tigers don't have a desperate need for catching prospects in the high minors.) Sanchez is a 28-year-old impending free agent, and this trade - two useful rentals for a Turner package - is one data point illustrating the effect of the new free agent compensation scheme.

Infante figures to help the Tigers immensely. He's one of the more underrated players around, an erstwhile Detroit utilityman who's hitting for the most power of his career. He may not be an all-star, but Tigers' second basemen have hit .198/.283/.271 - such anemic production that barring injury Infante is almost certain to be a big improvement and might be an enormous one. The plan is for Infante to hit ninth against righties, second against lefties.

The Tigers are 9-4 since the break. They just took a tough loss in Cleveland, as Justin Verlander got hammered in the seventh inning and surrendered a two-run lead. After drilling the White Sox last weekend, Detroit has fallen back into second place.

Tonight, it's Rick Porcello. Like Henderson Alvarez, Porcello is a young righty with an outstanding fastball who in hindsight might have benefited from spending more time in the minors. Porcello signed a four-year big-league contract with the Tigers when he was drafted, and in his first year as a pro he was the 2008 Florida State League ERA champ at age 19. So the next year, he made the Tigers out of spring training. (In his big-league debut, he pitched opposite Ricky Romero. The Jays won.) Porcello is now 23, and this is his fourth season as a big-league SP.

Porcello has improved slightly and gradually. He has steadily increased his K rate and decreased his BB rate over the past four years. This year, his fastball velocity is up to 92, and he's induced a ton of popups while reducing his home run rate. Maybe the improved peripherals are the second-last phase of Porcello's development before he starts to really dominate hitters. But he still can't strand runners. One reason he has trouble stranding runners is that he can be run on; baserunners are 14/17 this year. Green lights for everyone tonight.

Saturday, it's Sanchez, who started 132 games for the Marlins, fourth-most in that franchise's proud history, just ahead of A.J. Burnett and Brad Penny. He throws his heater and sinker in the low 90s and uses a variety of trash - slider, change, curveball. Everything about his profile screams "solid pitcher."  Oddly for a pitcher with such a deep bag of tricks, Sanchez's splits are extremely backwards this year: .288/.329/.485 vs RH, .229/.287/.333 vs LH. (For his career, he has a very slight reverse split: .255/.319/.408 vs RH, .253/.332/.369 vs LH. Suggests he tends to handle LH batters with more care than righties, no?) Lawrie is 3/3 against Sanchez with a triple. Rasmus is 1/8 with 5 K and a walk.

Sunday, it's Douglas Wildes FIster. 6'8" four-pitch righty with a good sinker who doesn't walk people. He's come back to earth a bit this year, with a 4.03 ERA, due largely to homer rate and BABIP increases. Fister's velocity jumped temporarily last year, and some have contended that was crucial to his career year, but his average fastball per Fangraphs is back down to 88.5 this year. He's been battling rib injuries throughout the season, and I assume he's not quite playing at full strength. Fister is inducing more swinging strikes and groundballs, and he's giving up more liners. (Incidentally, looking at the Tigers' lineup, I suspect Detroit has a high park factor for line drives.) Fister has a 224-point OPS split this year and pitches from an angle that just looks tough on righties. So who on the Jays has hit him? Obviously, Rajai Davis is 9/22, and Jeff Mathis is 3/6 with a double and two walks. Everybody else who's faced him has struggled. Go figure.

The closer is Jose Valverde, who's apparently moved to the "smoke and mirrors" phase of the Francisco Cordero closer career arc. He pitches around hitters, his out pitch is a splitter, and he's proven himself really hard to hit over the past few years. He leaves "overpowering" duties to his understudy Joaquin Benoit, righty killer Octavio Dotel (now on his 13th team), and 98-mph flamethrower Brayan Villarreal, all of whom have lofty strikeout totals. From the left side, the Tigers will throw struggling specialist Phil Coke, long man Duane Below, and Michigan native Darin Downs, no relation, who, between his hair, slowish delivery and mid-70s hammer, is such a dead ringer for Scott that you'll probably double-check that for yourself. Downs has forced his way to the show despite being hit in the head by a line drive in the minors.

Austin Jackson hits the ball extremely hard. If I had to guess who'll lead the AL in BABIP in 2013, I'd take him. Jackson has hit exactly zero infield flies this year, and he's started to add a bit of power: his 10 homers this year matches his career high. Throw in his above-average fielding stats three years running in a big centerfield, and you have an excellent player who's very well-suited to the Tigers' park.

Left fielder Quintin Berry and right fielder Brennan Boesch are struggling. Berry (who hasn't hit any infield flies, either) stormed out of the gate - he hit .318/.405/.436 before June 27, .244/319/.329 after. Berry is a speedster: he's 15 for 15 stealing bases, and he's dropped down 15 bunts, 7 of which turned into hits. Boesch has the kind of high-K, low-BB power hitter numbers that seem much more common from RH hitters, and he hasn't hit with enough power to be valuable. Lousy year, or fraudulent player? Who knows. His massive reverse splits from his rookie year haven't lasted; he's been better against RH pitchers over the past two years, like normal lefties. Tigers fans are starting to get excited about the impending return of Andy Dirks, which will push Boesch, Berry, or perhaps streaky DH Delmon Young out of an everyday gig.

OK, theoretical diversion time. When reverse splits and extreme splits collide! Suppose Boesch actually is something like his 2010 self, and his true talent OPS is .900 OPS vs LH, .600 vs RH. Boesch is up, and you can have either Octavio Dotel (kills righties, throws BP to lefties) or Randy Choate (vice versa) face him. Your only other option is Jeff Tam. Who you gonna call?

Home run derby champ Prince Fielder has zero home runs since the break. Curse! Actually, he's hitting .370/.474/.413. There are worse fates. Meanwhile, Fielder has released his own wine, which he is selling to benefit Detroit nonprofits: 2010 Prince Fielder Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. I'm no connoisseur, but I like how that rolls off the tongue.

Miguel Cabrera has picked up the longball slack by going deep six times. Cabrera has also fielded third base competently, according to the numbers - 0 DRS, -9 UZR/150. He's only made 9 errors. Open question whether he'd be hitting (even) better if he didn't have to carry the defensive load, and I'm sure Porcello, Fister and Sanchez are nonplussed by the revelation that their 3B is not horrendous but merely below average. But the doomsday scenarios don't seem to have materialized, and he is, of course, one of the absolute best hitters in the league.

Speaking of fielding stats, Jhonny Peralta is now an above-average fielder by the numbers, and over the years he's maintained his walks and power while shedding a few strikeouts. Jhonny Peralta: metaphor for sabermetric fashion?

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