June 23, 2016
The Increasingly Lopsided Everybody-Wins Trade
Three offseasons ago—November 20, 2013 to be exact—Detroit and Texas made a rare one-for-one, star-for-star trade between contending teams, with the Tigers sending five-time All-Star first baseman Prince Fielder to the Rangers in exchange for three-time All-Star second baseman Ian Kinsler. In addition to the obvious star power involved, this particular trade had some interesting money-related factors and featured the analytical juxtaposition of a traditional slugger with shiny RBI totals and negative defensive value being swapped for an up-the-middle defender with less of a bat and a far more varied all-around game.
Three-and-a-half years later the trade looks like a blowout victory for the Tigers, to the extent that they added one of the best all-around infielders in the league and saddled the Rangers with a bad player on an albatross contract that runs through 2020 at an annual salary of $24 million. All of which is much different than things appeared around this time last year when Fielder, not Kinsler, was chosen for the All-Star team on the strength of his .339/.403/.521 first half that seemed to be proof of a full recovery from the neck surgery that halted his first season in Texas after 42 games.
Fielder’s production fell off in the second half, as he hit .264/.348/.394, and this season he’s been arguably the worst everyday player in baseball. WARP sees him as producing the sixth-worst overall value, with all five of the lower-WARP players—A.J. Pierzynski, Mark Teixeira, Dioner Navarro, Ryan Howard, Chris Coghlan—playing part-time or sitting on the disabled list. Fielder has started 67 of 72 games for the Rangers, hitting .203/.273/.325 with his usual bad defense and poor baserunning, which is how he’s the lone big leaguer with more than 200 plate appearances and a WARP worse than -1.0. Dating back to last year’s All-Star break Fielder has hit a combined .235/.313/.356 in 140 games.
At the time of the trade Kinsler was coming off the two least-productive offensive seasons of his career and then in his first season with the Tigers he set a new career-low in True Average. He bounced back somewhat last season, hitting .296/.342/.428, but it was his third season out of four with a TAv below his career norm. Of course, part of what made the Fielder-for-Kinsler swap so intriguing in the first place is that Kinsler’s other skills meant his all-around value could remain great with merely good hitting, whereas Fielder’s value was entirely tied to his posting huge numbers offensively. It’s true that Kinsler’s hitting had declined somewhat from his Rangers prime, but he still tallied 2.4 WARP in 2014 and 2.7 WARP in 2015 to rank as a clear top-10 player at his position.
Kinsler turned 34 years old yesterday and, like most middle infielders by that age, his defensive skills have slipped, but he’s offset any decline on that side of the ball by having perhaps the top offensive season of his career. He’s hitting .301/.355/.510 for an .865 OPS that’s second only to his .892 mark as a 26-year-old for the Rangers in 2008, when his home ballpark was a launching pad and the AL as a whole had a .760 OPS. Kinsler topped his 2015 home run total two weeks ago and is on the way to reaching 20-plus homers for the first time since 2011. He’ll soon pass 2014 and 2015 in WARP too, as his 2.3 WARP ranks fifth among second basemen behind only Jose Altuve, Robinson Cano, Daniel Murphy, and Ben Zobrist. And he’s doing all of that for $10 million less than Fielder, with even lower salaries in place for 2017 and 2018.
Fielder’s rapid decline from prototypical slugger to big-name burden is probably more startling considering he’s 32 and was one of the league’s best hitters as of 12 months ago, but Kinsler’s ability to keep chugging along as a very good all-around player before busting out with a possible career year at 34 is remarkable. So much so that it got me curious about where he stands among the best second basemen of all time. Kinsler has admittedly never struck me as a Hall of Famer, but more nuance is often required to get beyond perceived value and in the case of up-the-middle players the eye test can easily fall short for even the most RBI-phobic among us. Kinsler is 12th in career WARP among all second basemen since 1950:
He’ll probably clear 40 WARP within the next month or so, but cracking the top 10 would mean clearing 55 WARP and that would require three or four more standout seasons. It’s certainly possible given how well he’s playing right now, but that’s asking a lot for a 34-year-old middle infielder. Kinsler’s career totals are hurt by his not debuting in the big leagues until age 24, and he lacks MVP-caliber years, but he’s currently in his 11th consecutive season as an above-average second baseman.
And if WARP isn’t your thing, he also fares pretty well in more traditional measures. He’s a four-time All-Star with a chance to make it five times this year. He’s played often and well in the postseason, hitting .291/.400/.448 in eight playoff series. He doesn’t have any Gold Glove hardware despite 64 career Fielding Runs Above Average, but has generally been well regarded defensively. He’s likely to top 2,000 hits and is two homers from joining the 200-homer/200-steal club. It’s a really good resume, but not quite a great resume. If nothing else, it seems clear that Ian Kinsler is closer to being a Hall of Fame-caliber second baseman than Prince Fielder is to being a Hall of Fame-caliber first baseman, which would have struck an awful lot of people as improbable in November of 2013.