November 21, 2013
Fielder, Kinsler, and the Trade That Put Everything in its Place
The phrase you’ll probably hear sometime in the next 12 hours is “old-fashioned baseball trade.” See? You just heard it. Baseball writers long for the days when trades weren’t aesthetic mismatches, veterans for prospects or bad contracts for relief or Mike Napoli for Tony Reagins’ job. This is the kind of trade we love: good player swapped for good player, both teams competitive and trying to get better now. It’s complicated, sure, but it’s also deadly simple. Home Runs goes one way, All-Around Star goes another. People who quit following the sport after the strike can muster up an opinion about this one.
Better still: This trade makes more good baseball. This trade is practically not even about Fielder or Kinsler, so much as the players who will be freed to be their best selves. Miguel Cabrera playing third was bad baseball. We’ll look back at the past two years and struggle to explain to our grandchildren why we allowed it to happen, why we didn’t say something (besides about a million jokes). Jurickson Profar, the best prospect in baseball last year, being permablocked was bad baseball. Pretty sure if the Rangers had made this move a year ago Profar would have been some sort of Mike Trout/Matt Harvey hybrid, because no prospects flop anymore. Nick Castellanos at third base, instead of left field—well, that could go either way, and maybe he ends up in left ultimately. But clearly the best solution for a prospect who can play third base is to play third base, and this will presumably give him the chance. The same way that a good housing market makes people suddenly richer, this trade makes baseball suddenly better. It’s a fun trade. What a fun trade.
If there’s any downside to this trade, it’s that every dumb fake trade any of us propose gets instantly more credible. Felix for Kemp? Votto for Tulo? Trout for Harper? WHY NOT!
Acquired 1B-L Prince Fielder and a reported $30 million in exchange for 2B-R Ian Kinsler. [11/20]
So what’s not to love? The argument will be that it’s the players. They are, after all, at ages where long-term deals go disproportionately bad. Check that; they’re at that age, plus the two years since they signed their current contracts.
For starters, here’s a preview of the 2014 PECOTA projections.
For Fielder, that’s a 4.6 WARP before considering his defense, which isn’t a part of the PECOTA projections we’ve run. Knock five runs of fielding off as a best guess and he’s about a four-win player. For Kinsler, again without defense, it’s 3.3 WARP. Tack on a half-dozen runs (he has averaged somewhere between +7 and +12 per year over the past five years, depending on metric) and he’s just about a four-win player. This is close.
But let’s go back to the day Prince Fielder was signed. R.J. Anderson wrote the Transaction Analysis, and the move was so overwhelming that he resorted to the final refuge of the overwhelmed: A Q&A with himself. In his defense, the move never really made sense from the Tigers’ perspective. They had a first baseman. They had a DH. They had power. They had fat guys nearing the decline phases of their career.
What happens when Victor Martinez returns?
That’s not to say he’s not going to hit, or that he can’t be a superstar, but just that every baseball player declines and unconventional body types raise unconventional concerns. More than that, though, it’s to say that if every team could guarantee that the free agents they sign could be traded two years later, they’d sign every player available.
“If he was coming off the best year of his career then [he wouldn't] be available,” Jon Daniels said in his teleconference Wednesday, which is true of buy-low successes like Hanley Ramirez and also true of every player who has declined past the point of return, like Vernon Wells. Which is Fielder?
Most of the lost value came in two areas: his walks dropped and he quit hitting as many of his fly balls over the fence. His plate discipline didn’t show much change—he didn’t swing more overall, he didn’t get thrown more strikes, he didn’t chase more; the only real change was a couple-percentage-point drop in contact rate—so we can chalk that up almost entirely to a drop in intentional walks, perhaps a combination of batting behind Miguel Cabrera (lineup protection sometimes works both ways) and batting in front of a switch-hitter for most of the season.
So then the home runs. Had his fly balls left the yard at exactly the rate that they typically do, he would have hit 10 more home runs. Say five of those lost homers turned into doubles and five into outs. Had he hit those 10 homers, and had he drawn 13 more intentional walks to match his 2012 total, his line goes up to .287/.381/.504, hardly a decline at all. Why give him credit for those home runs? You probably shouldn’t! But 10 fly balls pulling up just short is hardly enough to declare a guy’s career over. And his average fly ball, at 294 feet, went just two feet shorter than his average fly ball in 2012, and four feet shorter than in 2011.
But fair enough, what was true about Fielder’s body two years ago is true today. Similarly, what was true about Ian Kinsler is true. Going back to the Transaction Analysis when he signed his extension in April 2012:
Finding a gem like Kinsler in the draft might be easier than finding a flaw in Kinsler’s game. He hits well, fields well, and runs well. The only things to nitpick are a colorful injury history and the knowledge that second basemen have shown to age poorly. The amusing bit being that Kinsler might not be a second baseman for much longer.
Nate Silver once put together a chart showing second basemen’s declines. Findings are subject to change, but here’s that chart:
Kinsler is 31. That chart says he should be at about 80 percent of his peak value right now, but about 50 percent peak value by the time the contract is over. His 2013 WARP was 84 percent of his peak season, so that part holds up. If he keeps dropping, he’s around a two- or three-win player in 2017, at the outer edge of his contract. Second basemen age a little funny, but they're not catchers, for goodness' sake. Which is to say that even with the second baseman’s tax, Kinsler should continue to be a very good player, easily worth the $14 million to $16 million he’s due annually in the final two years of his deal. The club option for 2018—which amounts to $5 million for a 36-year-old Kinsler—could be the sort of bargain that gets its own category, like a John Lackey Option or an Evan Longoria Extension.
Notably, he had a down season in 2012. It was the worst of his career, and it came at age 30, when we start taking declines seriously. Notably not for what it says about Kinsler, but because of what it says about Fielder. Players have good years and bad years. Not every down season is the end. Kinsler rebounded to produce 5.2 WARP, to essentially match his prime seasons (he had one clearly superior year, back in 2008) and essentially match Dustin Pedroia and Robinson Cano in total value.
Oh, it’s so easy to focus on the downsides a player has. Certainly, the Tigers are excited to have Kinsler today—and they’re a little nervous, too. The Rangers are thrilled to finally land the Big Bat they chased two years ago, but they know it can go south as fast as Albert Pujols did. But there’s always a way that a player can go wrong. Right now, both of these guys are impact players whom projection systems love, and who fit their new clubs’ needs. The Tigers get to start over with an All-Star second baseman signed for, basically, five years and $97 million (or four and $92 million). The Rangers get to start over with an All-Star first baseman signed for, essentially, seven years and $138 million. We’ll have to see how the offseason goes, but my hunch is that each looks reasonable after this crop of free agents signs.
Go back to those Transaction Analyses quotes, and the real worry in each was not that the player was going to be bad. It was that the player was going to be in the wrong spot. Now, finally, we can quit worrying about that, and simply appreciate each player for the star he is.