Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Who's Your Closer?

I'll cover relief pitching as two different categories--closers and set-up men, using thresholds of 10 saves or holds as of Thursday, July 25th when I did the data gathering. This chart plots closer 2013 salaries vs. their FanGraphs $Value:
The horizontal axis is the closer's 2013 salary and the vertical his FanGraphs $Value. Pitchers with points above the line are delivering more value than their contract, and pitchers below the line and underperforming. Using these values, Greg Holland is delivering the most value and Huston Street the least.

Jerome Holtzman invented the save in 1969 as a writer at the Chicago Sun-Times, and while it's not perfect, it was a perfectly reasonable method to measure effectiveness in what was becoming an increasing phenomenon--games NOT finished by the starting pitcher. This chart illustrates that trend going back to organized baseball's beginnings in 1871 with the National Association:

Even as long ago as the middle of the Dead Ball Era pitchers were only completing 60% of their starts, and by the time Holtzman developed the save, the complete game was already more fondly remembered hagiographically than as actual fact. Today the complete game is essentially extinct and will remain so unless significant changes in baseball strategy occur. With teams carrying 12 and sometimes 13 pitchers, that won't be anytime soon.

To review, these are the criteria for a save:
1.       He is the finishing pitcher in a game won by his team;
2.       He is not the winning pitcher;

3.       He is credited with at least ⅓ of an inning pitched; and

4.       He satisfies one of the following conditions:

a)      He enters the game with a lead of no more than three runs and pitches for at least one inning
b)      He enters the game, regardless of the count, with the potential tying run either on base, at bat or on deck
c)       He pitches for at least three innings
Like every stat, by itself it has shortcomings but provides a way to measure effectiveness. That's why it's very helpful to have the FanGraphs $Values to help give additional context. It makes for some interesting observations.

This is FanGraph's all-time top closers as ranked by WAR:


I will never miss the opportunity to state that Mariano Rivera's WAR of 39.5 means ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to me--what gets my attention is that his value is over 43% greater than the #2 on the list, Rich Gossage. That is TREMENDOUS--here are the differences (also using FanGraphs WAR values) between the #1 and #2 all-time best by WAR by position:

I had to make some judgment calls that could affect this marginally--for example, what will Alex Rodriguez be remembered as (stop it), a shortstop or third baseman? I personally go with third for no good reason--he's played around 20,000 innings in the field, around 10,900 at short and 9,900 at third. If I put him at short, that gap between him and Honus Wagner would be smaller but still healthy--it cannot be overstated just how dominant Wagner was. FanGraphs has Stan Musial listed as the best first baseman (they list players at any position with significant playing time), but he's more of a left fielder to me. No matter what, Rivera's historical dominance is amazing, and the fact he came back from the horrific injury to have the year he's having is nothing short of miraculous. The only reason his data value is where it is stems from his salary--at the age of 43 he's still one of the top 10 closers in baseball. It will be a LONG time (and quite possibly never) before we see his like again.


What's a pitcher have to do to end up like Huston Street? The numbers themselves don't look bad--19 saves in 20 save opportunities, and using newer metrics like shutdowns and meltdowns, he appears only marginally worse--17 shutdowns and 5 meltdowns. Hitters are batting only .234 with a .790 OPS against him, so I guess it's the four losses he has that's held against him. Heath Bell, after a relatively decent career, could be a huge problem for the Diamondbacks if they make the playoffs, and with the Dodgers recent resurgence, that's becoming a VERY BIG "if"--I started hearing yesterday (Sunday, July 28th) that the Rangers might be making Joe Nathan available (more on that later). If this is true, Kevin Towers better be on the phone making that deal. They're already 2.5 games behind the Dodgers for the NL West and 5.5 games back in the wild card hunt, and they can't afford ANY blown saves.

The "screen door on a submarine" analogy describes decent closers on teams going nowhere like Greg Holland, Addison Reed and Glen Perkins. Holland won't be going anywhere since the Royals think they're on the precipice of success, and they very well could be--they have decent starting pitching, it's their offense that has been the shortcoming. Reed and Perkins are very different sides of the same coin--Reed is young (24), relatively cheap until he reaches free agency in 2018 and could be part of the next Sox team that is competitive. The obvious questions is "When will that be?" since the Sox are very old and have little replacement talent--they're poised to be the next version of the Marlins. Perkins ISN'T young (30) and the Twins successful days are behind them and they'll need to reload. Having written all that, trading a closer won't net much in return, so maybe these teams are better off holding on to what they have.

Before I did the research I thought there were more closers making $10 million or more than there actually are--three, which will drop to two after Mariano Rivera retires, leaving Jonathan Papelbon and Rafael Soriano. Papelbon's is stupid money as the Phillies are probably at the end of their successful run that featured Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard and outstanding starting pitching, and he's trying to work his way out of there.  The Nationals are stuck with Soriano through 2015--they're lined up to be a payroll disaster around 2016 when all their young talent comes due for serious money. Jason Grilli will be a reference point for future closer contracts, particularly for young talent like Craig Kimbrel and pitchers due for new contracts like Bobby Parnell. Grilli is having an outstanding year in his first year as a closer...at the age of 36. At some point GMs will recognize that the Mariano Riveras of the world are very much the exception and not the rule, making these big contracts relics of the past. I understand I've written that in just about every position post (this is number 10), but it's the natural evolution if contracts shift from overpaying for past performance to paying for future production.

I find the trade rumors on Joe Nathan intriguing, and I'm not sure I understand it (which should come as no surprise). I can only think the Rangers believe he's at peak trade value and are attempting to get the mos they can while they can. If they can get a decent return, I'll understand it, but I'm not sure who the market is--Detroit just picked up Jose Veras, and the Tigers were the rumored team interested in Nathan. 

Every now and then, you'll see a fact like this:
Atlanta wins 94.2% of games when leading going into the 9th inning.
This has a halo effect on Craig Kimbrel as he must CERTAINLY be the reason for that fact--he's a shutdown closer who GETS THINGS DONE. I like Kimbrel--he is a great closer, but there's one tiny issue:
MLB teams in the aggregate win 94.9% when leading entering the 9th. 
In 2013, closers have been successful in 821 of 1183 save opportunities, or 69.4%. Saving games IS difficult since it only occurs about 70% of the time. Apparently, not everyone can close games, and the golden era that saw closers like Billy Wagner, Trevor Hoffman, Joe Nathan and Jonathan Papelbon (in his prime) might be over. The replacement appears to be wide-ranging--converted veterans like Jason Grilli, young blood like Addison Reed or someone in the middle like Casey Janssen. Of the young closers, only Kimbrel has even a remote shot to get a big contract, and I suspect the definition of "big" will change to something in the $5-7 million range. I could be very wrong on that, but pitching is changing--it seems that almost EVERYONE can throw 95-97, and if they can master a pitch or two and have some movement on that fastball, GMs will ride that closer until he fails and then reload with the next guy.

I'll end with this pitch chart from Brooks Baseball:

Brooks Baseball uses MLB PITCHf/x data that breaks pitches into 10 separate types--since 2007 (and probably 1995, for that matter), Rivera uses TWO pitches, and the cutter accounts for almost 90% of them. Hitters KNOW what they're going to see, it's lost about 3 mph in velocity and they STILL can't hit him. He's a one-of-a-kind talent, as I stated previously, but that won't prevent GMs from trying to replicate this success--just on a different scale and at a lower cost. If a closer has success for a year or two (and at a low price), why not? What's happening is the realization of how unique Rivera was and that HE can't be replicated, so teams will stop trying--and likely stop paying 8-figure salaries to closers.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Who's Your Starting Pitcher?

As I was going position by position through the Major Leagues to determine the best and the, uh, not so good, I kept changing my methods and measures until I stumbled upon contrasting a player's 2013 salary with their FanGraphs $Value to see if they were delivering value. It was very eye-opening, but I dreaded getting to the pitchers because I knew the charts were going to be a total mess. With 30 teams and 5 starting pitchers, there were going to be data points galore, and once labeled I envisioned a chart that was such a disaster as to be meaningless. However, once I decided to separate the pitches by salary, it became much more manageable. I checked all pitchers with 100 IP as of Thursday, July 26th.

My first surprise was a shock--there weren't 150 pitchers, there weren't 120, there were 89 pitchers that met this modest threshold. It's not a harsh standard--Adam Wainwright leads the majors 154.2 IP, so 100 is reasonable. Around three pitchers per team met this threshold, suggesting the next time you hear anyone state "Our team needs a good #4 and #5 starter," RUN--you're in the presence of an idiot. Of these 89 pitchers, exactly ONE team has five in the list (Tigers) and two have four (Reds and Yankees). Injuries play a role, but still, teams are having a difficult enough time finding good front of the rotation starters--at the back end, a person that gives them a 50/50 chance of winning is all that can be expected. You know what they call a #5 starter who goes 15-9? A #3 starter.

I broke the pitchers into groups by 2013 salary:
Group 1--salary $10 million or more (23)
Group 2--salary between $1-$9.9 million (40)
Group 3--salary less than $1 million (26)

Here's the graph for the first group, pitchers making more than $10 million:

The horizontal axis is the 2013 salary and the vertical the FanGraphs $Value, a calculation of how much value a player has delivered. Pitchers above the line are delivering more value than their contract and those below are underperforming their contracts. It should be very obvious that there are exactly FIVE of these high-salary pitchers that are delivering the value--Adam Wainwright, Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, Jorge De La Rosa and C.J. Wilson. Pitchers like Ricky Nolasco and Hiroki Kuroda are close--it's the folks like Mark Buehrle, Ryan Dempster and unfortunately for the Giants, the triumvirate of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Barry Zito that are the problems. 

Adam Wainwright is the likely NL Cy Young winner unless Clayton Kershaw get hot. There are eight pitchers making close to $20 million--exactly one of them, Felix Hernandez, is delivering contract value. Barry Zito has been a train wreck for years, Tim Lincecum started having his issues last year and Matt Cain joined the group this year. What is the future for the highly-paid starter? Do not for one moment think that 30 baseball general managers aren't aware of this gap between salary and performance (and have been for years) making their 2014 plans. 2014 pitching free agents include players like Bronson Arroyo, John Lackey, de la Rosa and Jon Lester. I'll discuss some of the less-costly options (in 2013) after the next chart, but not a single one of these players is going to get $20 million a year, and some of them might be lucky to get contracts. It's taking time, but the era of silly money for starting pitching might be coming to an end--there's just too much downside for awful contracts like Zito's that are in no way counterbalanced by any facet of success. It's simply impossible to deliver that kind of value.

I write the previous knowing full well two very important things:
1. There will times when a pitcher that CAN deliver value will be overlooked--I take great solace in the fact that my chart for this year suggests it won't be very often.
2. GMs are infinitely much smarter than I am--just because something fails 70% of the time doesn't mean it has no value--30% of the time it works 100% of the time. GMs are paid to be right on those 30%, and become EX-GMs if they're wrong too often.

The chart changes a bit with the mid-value pitchers, those making between $1-$9.9 million a year:

A completely different story here. GMs LOVE these pitchers because they provide value and don't bust budgets. Max Scherzer won't end the season 15-1, but if he did he'd be only the second pitcher to do so, with Johnny Allen posting a 15-1 for the 1937 Indians. Anibal Sanchez has an 8-7 record--and a 2.68 ERA. There are few outright busts on this list, headed by Jason Marquis, the polar opposite of Sanchez--a 9-5 record with a 4.05 ERA pitching half his games in a very pitcher-friendly park. As long as the Royals are in the same division as the White Sox, Jeremy Guthrie will deliver value for them. Of these players, Paul Maholm and Scott Feldman, among others will be free agents after this season--and neither will get a contract significantly different from what they're making now. Stephen Strasburg (2017) and Jordan Zimmermann (2016) are payroll time bombs looming for the Nationals, but three years is an eternity in baseball. 

Consider the Tigers as a whole--they're lucky enough to have five starting pitchers who have been healthy enough to keep Jim Leyland's smoking habit down to three packs a day, the best hitter in quite some time in Miguel Cabrera and very good pieces throughout, and they're leading the Indians by only three games as I write this. I doubt they're sweating bullets--Baseball Prospectus has them with a 92.2% chance of making the playoffs, but solid pitching and decent hitting and they're not miles ahead of every other team. It shows there are no simple solutions in baseball. Then again, they have 12 guaranteed wins games left against the White Sox.

I strongly suspect the number of pitchers in this group grows larger for no other reason than the monster contracts of CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee very well could be relics of the past. Matt Garza isn't on this chart since he started 2013 late with injury issues, but he'll be a good test for what the market for solid #2-#3 pitchers are--I keep hearing numbers like $15 million a year for 5 years (or more), and I'm not so sure. That would put him right around the top 10 in pitcher salaries, implying that not only should be be considered a #1 starter, but one of the BETTER ONES IN BASEBALL. I don't know of a soul that thinks that today, but a good finish with Texas could go a long way toward creating a market for him--it only takes one team.

The pitchers making less than $1 million are the most difficult to show graphically:
There's no line on this chart, and not all data points are labeled. For the most part, these are pitchers on their first contracts but include some that show the way of the future in locking in pitching talent. The best example is Chris Sale, who signed a contract extension earlier this year. Before I continue, I'll post this picture of Sale's delivery:

I'm sure all would agree this is a perfect pitching motion right along the classic style of Tom Seaver. Sale is 6'6" and 180 lbs., a physical freak who already has had arm issues. So what do you do if you're the Sox--trust he won't fall apart and pay him big money? What do you do if you're Sale, fully aware that every pitch could be your  last?

Sale had an outstanding 2012, making it the ideal time for him to get new paper, and the Sox obliged him with an extension that could pay him $56+ million through 2019, when he'd be 30. I wrote "could," because the Sox have $1 million buyout options for the last two years, meaning the guaranteed money for Sale is closer to $32 million. If Sale stays in one piece and he continues to perform (he's 6-9 this year with a 2.81 ERA--it's not HIS fault the Sox are bad), he'll be a bargain, and if one day he throws a pitch and both the ball and his left arm arrive at the plate, the Sox won't be stuck with a bad contract.

The Rays went in a similar direction with Matt Moore except that he has THREE years of team buyout options at the end of a contract that runs through 2019 and could pay him anywhere from $13.25 million to $35 million--that's money even the Rays can afford. Madison Bumgarner is also signed through 2019 for anywhere from $33.25 million to $55.75 million. I'd be shocked if Matt Harvey and Patrick Corbin and other pitchers either not labeled or not on this list (i.e., Shelby Miller and Travis Wood) don't reach similar deals, because it makes all the sense in the world to pay for FUTURE performance instead of the past. These are contracts that give players all the financial security they'll ever need and leaves them free to sign ANOTHER generous contract in their late 20s or early 30s. It's a win-win for all involved and the way smart teams will treat their pitching talent going forward.

Other pitchers grouped around Mike Minor and Felix Doubront that are delivering exceptional value on first contracts include Wood, Miller, Lance Lynn, Eric Stults, Jose Quintana and Jose Fernandez. As a Cubs fan I'm probably prejudiced toward Wood (quick quiz--what's the difference between Wood, Gordon Beckham and Alexei Ramirez? Wood more home runs (3) than they do (2 and 1, respectively)), but other than Miller none seem appear worthy of the early big contract, but I could be wrong. If these pitchers continue to develop, they could easily get the Sale treatment, but they haven't put up the production yet to warrant it.

Take a moment and review these 89 pitchers again and ask yourself one very simple question:
"Is this guy worth $20 million a year for five years?"
$20 million for a year is one thing, but placing a five-year bet on a position that is becoming increasingly fragile is another. Pitching just might be trending the same as running backs in the NFL, commodities teams stockpile, use up, reload and start again with low-cost talent. There might be five pitchers, maybe fewer that deserve big-money long-term contracts in any given baseball generation, and the smart GMs know who they are and will be very creative in how they sign them. These special pitchers will be locked up until around age 32, right around when most pitchers begin their decline. The smart GMs will identify the Greg Maddux of the day that do defy the trends and continue to have success, but they'll realize that these players are few and far between. 

This list shows pitchers since 1950 with 100 or more wins after turning 33 (I know, #killthewin, but it's not dead yet):


It's a list populated with Hall of Famers, soon-to-be Hall of Famers and Roger Clemens. Successful pitchers at this age are the exception, not the rule, so when I ask "Who's your starting pitcher?" I humbly suggest it will be a man in his 20s on a first or very team-friendly contract, and if the pitcher is in his 30s, except in VERY RARE circumstances, will ALSO be affordable. Here's why:

Similar to the very first chart I used but filtering out the younger pitchers. Other than Cliff Lee and Hiroki Kuroda, who do you want? These facts have been known for some time, but GMs are beginning to act on them and it will only become more prevalent as time passes. The old adage "What have you done for me lately" has been around forever, but it's making the transition from words into action, and once every pitcher reaches 32-33 (with stunningly few exceptions), they would be well-advised to ask not for whom the bell tolls.

Sunday, July 28, 2013


I love researching questions but don't have the most imaginative mind in the world. That's why when I see intriguing subjects arise on Twitter, I'll take that kernel and flesh it out. It started with this tweet from MLB Network's Brian Kenny (@MrBrianKenny):

I was intrigued but didn't really understand the point and started figuring it out over the next couple of days. I've never been a huge fans of wins as a pitching statistic, especially in the modern era with teams routinely using four or more pitchers in a game, since it was established in a different time when it was much more likely the pitcher who started the game finished it. Kenny's point became much clearer once he tweeted out that pitchers with Game Scores of 60 were racking up no-decisions or losses in droves. It's bad enough to pin a loss on a pitcher that performs well, or in other words, held up HIS end of the bargain, but it's downright injustice to reward an effective performance with nothing. This became my research target--how pitchers with a Game Score of 60 or higher perform over time.
To begin, I'll use a screen grab from baseball-reference.com to define Game Score:
It's relatively straightforward and helps differentiate between the pitcher who won a 14-12 pitching duel and someone who was effective in keeping runners off the bases. Since Kenny set 60 as his threshold, I retrieved all games from 1950 through Friday, July 26th in which the starting pitcher (and he's the only one that gets a Game Score, by the way) had a Game Score of 60 or greater. There were a total of 80,363 games, a pretty robust sample size. To give a sense of how good a Game Score of 60 is, here's the Game Score breakdown for ALL games from 1950-2013:
Not too often you see a distribution THAT bell-shaped, and Games Scores of 60 or more are 32.6% of games pitched. This is the set-up--here's where I begin to prove Kenny's point.

This graph shows the winning percent of both the pitcher and the team in those games with Game Scores greater than 60:

There's a pretty serious divergence between team winning percent and pitcher winning percent, almost 100 points. I don't trust that gap around 1950-1952 since Game Score calculations require play-by-play data and only about 80% of those games have complete play-by-play vs. box scores, but as the data became more complete in the 1960s that constant gap continues. Pitchers pitched well enough that their teams won three out of four of these games but the pitcher was only credited with the win around  65%--and that number is trending down.

There are perfectly good reasons for this:
1. Pitchers simply don't pitch as many innings as they used to--everyone knows this, but why it matters is that modern pitchers aren't given the opportunity to let the offense help them out as often as in the past. In the modern era, if a pitcher is losing 1-0, and especially in the NL, coming to bat in the bottom of the 7th, he's done and won't be around to potentially benefit from a score in the 8th.
2. Teams lose games 2-1, 1-0 and the like all the time. That's Kenny's ultimate point--it's disingenuous to look at a pitcher's win-loss record and make snap judgments, like saying "Well, he was only 13-12, how good could he have been?" In Felix Hernandez's case in 2010, good enough to win a Cy Young. He had an OUTSTANDING year, one that was totally and completely not reflected in his win total. I don't claim to be an expert, but I was stunned when he won the award, and it gives me hope that going forward the full picture of a pitcher is reviewed without giving undue weight to one outmoded stat.

This chart shows the incidence of 60+ Game Score games over time:

The 1960s were a mini-Dead Ball Era, and it's up to people smarter than me to determine if it was truly ascendant pitching, a temporary decline in hitting or other factors (probably all three) that caused that to occur, but starting around 1970 a long-term decline in these types of games began, from around 35% of games down to the nadir of just over 25% around 2000. And look what happened around 2007--again, it's up to people smarter than me to explain, but pitching is back and back with a vengeance. As I listen to Chicago's 670 The Score I've been hearing quite a bit lately from their baseball experts (folks like Cubs broadcaster Len Kasper, Cubs beat reporter for the Sun-Times Gordon Wittenmyer and Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports) that good hitting is becoming much more difficult to find. While I don't doubt that, it's also very possible that good pitching is overwhelming the hitters.

I don't know what the replacement to the win is--it made sense back in the days when men were men and Old Hoss Radbourn went 59-12 for the Providence Grays, but that was in 1884 and nobody cares today. One of the blessings of baseball is its rich statistical heritage in that we can go back to 1871 and see how well players hit, pitched and fielded. The game has changed tactically for numerous reasons, but the underpinnings remain the same--hit the ball to drive in runners. Unfortunately, one of the shortcomings of that history is a fascination with numbers that no longer are relevant. Baseball stats have been invented almost since it's inception, and even in modern times they continue to be--the save by Jerome Holtzman, the blink-and-you-missed it Game Winning RBI in the 1980s, the hold and something I just saw this morning on FanGraphs--the shutdown and meltdown. The newer professional sports don't have these issues because they were organized 50 to 70 years after baseball and don't have the baggage of useless numbers that don't accurately reflect ability or accomplishment.

No other sport (except hockey, I think) measures wins for individual players--even in football, while pro-football-reference.com does have a quarterback's win-loss record it's rarely mentioned--broadcasters and sportswriters focus on QB rating, completion percent and TDs, because those are in the quarterback's control. A pitcher has no control over two-thirds of the outcome, his team's offense and their fielding, and while efforts to measure that using Fielding Independent Pitching are made they're not widely discussed outside of sabermetric circles. 

This chart will have to become better known as the game moves forward--it's the career wins for pitchers whose careers began in 1990 or later:
When Early Wynn won his 300th (and last) game in 1963, he stated he was going to be the last pitcher to win 300 games--other than the 10 that followed him, he was essentially correct, and he said that 50 YEARS AGO. Forget 300 wins as some kind of Hall of Fame benchmark (and there's 38 with less than that, not counting closers), getting to 200 is going to be tough enough. Mike Mussina is up for consideration this year and there will be no shortage of BBWAA voters who will come up with all sorts of bizarre reasons (didn't reach 300, only won 20 games once, etc.) to not elect him, and he's quite likely to be the leader of this generation of  pitchers in wins by a healthy margin. How can any sane voter keep Pedro Martinez out? The only two current pitchers that can even think about reaching 250 wins are CC Sabathia and Mark Buehrle, and Buehrle is a stretch at best.

This table shows the pitchers with the most games with Game Scores of 60 or more:

The proper way to read this table is to see that Nolan Ryan had a total of 428 games with Game Scores of 60 or more, and in 154 of those, he either had a loss or no decision. When people look at Nolan Ryan's record, they see a winning percentage of .526 (324-292) and just sniff "Overrated." It's more like "played on bad teams"--he did what he was supposed to do to help his team win but anemic offenses let him down. This type of analysis also places Don Sutton, Phil Niekro, Bert Blyleven, Tommy John and Jim Kaat in the proper context--other than Sutton, the others pitched for underwhelming teams and have the win-loss records to reflect it. For example, any objective look at Blyleven's stats OTHER than his wins depicts one of the most dominant pitchers in the past 50 years or so, but since he had the bad fortune to pitch for a lot of bad teams, it took him 14 tries to make it into the Hall of Fame.

Take a moment to consider those Greg Maddux numbers--as it was, he had a career record of 355-227, and accomplished that in a hitter's era and pitched well enough to win an additional 105 times and didn't.

I wish I had a solution, but I don't. None of the traditional pitching counting stats resonate (strikeouts, ERA), WAR is still new enough to generate blank stares, but tweets stating that Topps is including it in baseball cards gives me hope. WAR is how I evaluate pitchers because it's the most objective number out there that ties everything in a pitcher's control together. Different computational methods are constantly changing, but the number is far less important than the context--for example, since 1950, the highest WAR for pitchers (per baseball-reference):
4. Randy Johnson, 104.1
3. Greg Maddux, 104.8
2. Tom Seaver, 106.1
1. Roger Clemens, 139.2
I'll save my reasons why I have no problem with Clemens (or Barry Bonds) in the Hall of Fame for another day, but that's a healthy difference between #2 and #1, about 33%. That's a number that helps me understand not only whether a player was good, but by what magnitude--it's a keeper. In other words, I don't care that Clemens had a career WAR of 139.2, only that it was significantly better than the next-best player. It helps me understand how dominant he was without having to rely on an old anachronism that if all baseball statistics were thrown out and started anew wouldn't make the first cut.

Brian Kenny, for this alone you're my hero, but I fully support #killthewin--wins are as much of a dinosaur as a $20 million DH. It's definitely tilting at windmills and will probably never go away, but the focus can change toward measures that more effectively evaluate pitcher performance. Baseball CAN change--games are played at night, teams are integrated, artificial turf came and went, it just takes its sweet time. Kill the win (and the loss, and I'm not so sure about the save either) and our ability to accurately analyze pitching effectiveness will increase dramatically as a result. Hats off to you, Brian Kenny for getting this started--now all you need to do is enlist Ken Harrelson to help.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Trade Deadlines Trades Reviewed

As we near July 31st, baseball fans are worked into a frenzy as the trade deadline nears. Listening to Chicago's 670 The Score like I do, I have the privilege of hearing about TWO bad teams that are definitely sellers, which got me to thinking--how often DO these big trades work out? I decided to check all trades from 2000-2012 using data from Pro Sports Transactions. I only looked at trades between July 20th-July 31st of a given year, since I was looking for deadline trades. I'll go by year, starting with 2012.

2012--106 players moved
The BIGGEST trade was between the Blue Jays and Astros with 10 players switching teams, the big name being J.A. Happ going from the Astros to Blue Jays--whatever. Other important deals resulted in Wandy Rodriguez going from the Astros to Pirates and Anibal Sanchez from the Marlins to the Tigers, and both of those trades turned out well for the acquiring teams, but Rodriguez hasn't pitched since June 5th. 

It's too early to evaluate any trade from 2012 even though some of the players have reached the majors--Robbie Grossman for the Astros, Jacob Turner for the Marlins, but there's already one team that will come to regret a deal they made for years to come--the Angels, who acquired Zack Greinke from the Brewers and gave up three minor league players, one of whom was Jean Segura. With the year Erick Aybar is having, the Angels could have used Segura this year, and Greinke either didn't sign or was allowed to go to the Dodgers in the offseason. I'm not saying I want to pay Greinke the money he's going to get ($128 million through 2018), but I'll guarantee the Angels wish they had Segura now because they essentially traded him for NOTHING.

2011--109 players moved
The trade that jumps out at me is from an organization I've come to expect makes no mistakes. The Cardinals acquired Edwin Jackson and three other players from the Blue Jays and gave up four players, one of which was Colby Rasmus. They had half a season to evaluate him and Jon Jay in center field, both of whom put up similiar offensive numbers. The Cardinals decided to stick with Jay, who appears to have stopped hitting for power as soon as the trade was completed. Rasmus is one of the best young center fielders in the game today.

I was at a Brewers/Astros game in Milwaukee on Friday, July 29th, 2011. It was tied 0-0 when Hunter Pence was removed from the game after the 5th inning. I was surprised until I got back to my hotel room and saw that he had been traded to the Phillies. He had very solid production (.324 BA, .954 OPS) as the Phillies made the playoffs. Of the four players the Astros received, only Jarred Cosart has played in the majors. The acquired became the traded in 2012 as Pence moved to another contender in the Giants. Who knows what 2013 will bring?

The other big trade was Michael Bourn going from the Astros to Braves. The players the Astros received have all been underwhelming and not part of their current youth movement. Consider that--two valuable pieces traded for a total of eight prospects, none of whom have amounted to anything yet. It's one thing to acquire prospects, but totally another for them to have value. No wonder the Astros are where they are--they traded what talent they had and received nothing in return.

2010--106 players moved
The big trade featured the Angels again, acquiring Dan Haren from the Diamondbacks in exchange for Joe Saunders, another player and a couple of minor leaguers--Tyler Skaggs and Patrick Corbin--that's right, in two years the Angels got rid of Patrick Corbin and Jean Segura. I freely admit that hindsight is 20/20, but this is stunning.
The Indians sent Jhonny Peralta to the Tigers for a minor league player. Peralta has been a solid shortstop for the Tigers while the Indians are using Asdrubal Cabrera at short, who's delivering about $10 million less in value this year than Peralta, according to FanGraphs. I wonder who they wish they had at short now, particularly as they battle the Tigers for a playoff spot?

The Astros traded Roy Oswalt to the Phillies for the aforementioned J.A. Happ, Anthony Gose and Jonathan Villar. Happ was part of that 2012 Blue Jay trade that eventually produced, well, nothing so far, Gose was flipped the same day for Brett Wallace and Villar is just starting to play. From 2001-2010 Oswalt had the third-most wins (behind CC Sabathia and Roy Halladay), and that's all the Astros could get for him.

The Cubs sent both Ryan Theriot and Ted Lilly to the Dodgers and received Blake DeWitt and two players that didn't pan out. In essence, they gave away two major leaguers for one sub no longer in the majors. It was a classic move by the old Jim Hendry regime, one that is completely different today with Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer.

The White Sox dealt Daniel Hudson to the Diamondbacks for Edwin Jackson. This looked like a very bad deal initially as Hudson had a very good 2011 while Jackson continued his quest to pitch for every major league team, but Hudson hasn't pitched since last June. He's young and could absolutely bounce back, but if he doesn't, what could have been a terrible trade will be forgotten.

Before I move on, take a moment to reflect on the trades I've mentioned--in my mind, these are the BIG deals of the year, and how many big names have there been? Two hot prospects so far (Segura and Corbin), and how many of the acquired players helped their teams like Hunter Pence did? Not many, suggesting maybe, just maybe, the trade deadline might be, I don't know, HYPED? Just think about it.

2009--72 players moved
At the end of 2008 the A's made a very un-Billy Beane-like move and traded for Matt Holliday. Beane has to kick himself daily over that deal as he gave up Huston Street, Carlos Gonzalez and another player--quite a haul for a player the A's kept for only half a year. They traded him to the Cardinals for Brett Wallace, Clayton Mortensen and Shane Peterson, so they essentially gave up Gonzalez and Street for these guys. Don't tell White Sox TV announcer Ken Harrelson or he'll never stop talking about it. Up until this year, Holliday has been a key part of the Cardinals success, so it was a very good deal for them.

Cliff Lee was traded by the Indians to the Phillies in return for Lou Marson and three other players, essentially nothing. The Reds made what was considered an odd trade at the time (they were around 10 games under .500) and received Scott Rolen in exchange for Edwin Encarnacion, Josh Roenicke and Zack Stewart. Rolen was important as the Reds made the playoffs in 2010, but he hasn't played so far this year and is essentially finished, whereas Encarnacion has the third-most home runs since the beginning of 2012 (behind Miguel Cabrera and Chris Davis). The Reds don't seem to be missing Rolen much, but I'm sure they wouldn't mind having Encarnacion.

The White Sox acquired Jake Peavy in exchange for Clayton Richard and three other players. It looked like a bad deal for the Sox initially as Peavy had injury issues and Richard showed flashes of brilliance, but Chicago may indeed get the last laugh if they're able to trade Peavy and get something in return. However, as we progress through these trades, that appears to be difficult.

2008--47 players moved
The Dodgers acquired Casey Blake and gave up two players, one of whom was Carlos Santana. Oye como va ("How's it going"), Dodgers? The Angels acquired Mark Teixeira from the Braves for Casey Kotchman and another player. Jason Bay went to the Red Sox in a three-team deal that involved Andy LaRoche and Manny Ramirez, with Ramirez helping the Dodgers make the playoffs. Other than that, a very quiet trade season.

2007--58 players moved
There was one trade of interest, a big one that saw the Rangers trade Mark Teixeira and Ron Mahay to the Braves for five players, among them Elvis Andrus, Matt Harrison and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Both Andrus and Harrison are having down years this year but were solid contributors to the Rangers success in 2011 and 2012.

These are the trades that piqued my interest from 2000-2006:
2006--Indians trade Ben Broussard to the Mariners and receive Shin-Soo Choo
2006--the Rangers trade four players to the Brewers for Carlos Lee...and Nelson Cruz
2006--the Yankees received Bobby Abreu and Cory Lidle from the Phillies for essentially nothing
2004--Mets receive Victor Zambrano and another player from Rays for Scott Kazmir and another player
2004--Yankees received Estaban Loiaza from the White Sox for Jose Contreras. Contreras was a very important part of the Sox 2005 World Series championship.
2003--Cubs received Kenny Lofton and Aramis Ramirez from the Pirates for essentially nothing
2003--the A's received Jose Guillen from the Reds and gave up Aaron Harang and two other players
2000--the White Sox received Harold Baines and Charles Johnson from the Orioles for four players

From 2000-2012, 828 players changed hands, of which very few went on to great success or caused their teams distress over parting with them. It's a different day from when Jeff Bagwell was traded from the Red Sox to Astros for Larry Andersen--teams have a much better idea of not only their own talent, but other team's talent as well. A new emphasis on growth from within vs. looking for talent elsewhere is spreading across baseball, and the jewels of farm systems (unless it's the Angels) will be protected. When the Collective Bargaining Agreement gives teams six years of control over a player at reasonable money (three years at roughly the Major League minimum, three years of arbitration), why move them when there's an extended window to see what they'll become? That's why the chatter over the trade deadline is about 20 years too late--it reflects an era that no longer exists. Just to see, I'll go further back and see:
1998--Randy Johnson goes from the Mariners to Astros for Carlos Guillen, Freddy Garcia and John Halama (as a player to be named later)
1997--The A's traded Mark McGwire to the Cardinals for T.J. Mathews and a couple of stiffs
1997--the famous White Sox White Flag trade, in which 9 players changed hands between the Sox and Giants, the notables being Keith Foulke and Mike Caruso going to the Sox and the Giants receiving Roberto Hernandez and Wilson Alvarez. Notable more for the notoriety it gave the trade deadline than the quality of the players themselves.
1996--the Tigers traded Cecil Fielder to the Yankees for Ruben Sierra and another player. Fielder and Sierra were washed up by then.

Don't believe the hype.