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June 15, 2005
Can Of Corn
Recently, the Nationals and Brewers pulled off a fairly engaging swap that sent second baseman Junior Spivey from Milwaukee to Washington in exchange for starter-cum-reputed malcontent Tomokazu Ohka. The trade is interesting for a number of reasons, but mostly because Brewers GM Doug Melvin is quietly one of the best dealers around, and the Nats are surprise contenders in the muddled NL East.
Temperature readings in the analytical community at large suggest to me that most believe the Brewers got the better end of this particular swap, but I don't quite see it that way. Allow me to explain.
First, Spivey, although he's been a disappointment this season, addresses a need for the Nats. Jose Vidro, the regular and productive keystoner for D.C., is sidelined until at least the end of June with an injured ankle, and the club didn't have an internal solution. Jamey Carroll can't hit, and, suffice it to say, the corpulent stylings of Carlos Baerga won't pass muster at a critical defensive position. So in comes Spivey.
To date, Spivey is hitting .230/.310/.377--numbers that are, while better than Carroll's, not terribly optimal. Still, there's cause to believe Spivey will fare better than this the rest of the way. Coming into this season, Spivey was a career .277/.362/.447 hitter in parts of four major league seasons. To be sure, the hitting environment in Arizona and his likely aberrant season in 2002 inflate those figures, but even after adjusting for park and league and throwing his 2005 numbers into the calculus, his career line of .256/.339/.423 is still reasonably impressive by middle-infield standards.
But let's start with worst-case scenarios: let's suppose Vidro's injury doesn't heal as anticipated, and the Nats are forced to play Spivey at second for the balance of the season. Roughly speaking, the Nationals figure to have 400 remaining plate appearances from their second basemen. By using a player's rate stats, we can achieve a thumbnail estimate of how many runs he'll produce over a given span. To get an idea of what Washington might expect and what they might have gained from the Spivey trade, we'll compare two iterations of Carroll to a pair of Spivey variations. "Carroll-1" will be the level of productivity over 400 plate appearances should Carroll have continued posting his current rate stats (.250/.318/.288), and "Carroll-2" will be the rate stats and resultant runs found in Carroll's PECOTA weighted-mean profile (.253/.320/.343). Meanwhile, "Spivey-1" will be the runs provided by 400 PAs of his current level of production, and "Spivey-2" will be those afforded by his PECOTA weighted-mean forecast. To the numbers:
Player Rate Stats Estimated Runs Carroll-1 .250/.318/.288 33.3 Carroll-2 .253/.320/.343 40.0 Spivey-1 .230/.310/.377 41.9 Spivey-2 .264/.343/.432 52.9
As you can see, Spivey is the more productive player under all circumstances. In fact, Spivey-2 is worth about two wins more than Carroll-1 and a little more than one win better than Carroll-2. In a division that figures to be decided by an exceedingly narrow margin, that's important.
If, as anticipated, Vidro does return and remains healthy for the rest of the year, Spivey becomes a highly useful reserve. For his major league career, he's hit a robust .306/.410/.575 against left-handers, and this is a team that ranks 13th in the NL in terms of OBP vs. lefties and 13th in SLG vs. lefties. So Spivey helps the Nats even as a member of the reserve corps (and he dovetails nicely with Vidro's only relative offensive weakness--hitting portsiders).
As for what Washington gave up, color me unimpressed. In 62 innings this season, Ohka has a comely 2.90 ERA, but he has a paltry K/BB ratio of 0.81, and he's fanning a Rueter-ian 3.2 batters per nine. I'm only a partial DIPS adherent, but those grisly peripherals bellow "lucky bastard" from the rooftops. Heck, his 1.01 GB/FB ratio shows he's not even keeping the ball on the ground. So Ohka's probably making hay with a low BABIP. Indeed, his seasonal BABIP of .212 is the lowest of any qualifying starter in all of baseball. But is he one of those rare hurlers who consistently demonstrates an ability to control the fate of batted balls? Let's check Ohka's career major league BABIP numbers ...
Season IP BABIP 1999 13.0 .396 2000 69.1 .288 2001 107.0 .356 2002 192.2 .293 2003 199.0 .318 2004 84.2 .299 2005 62.0 .212
One of these is not like the others. Ohka's BABIP this season stands in sharp contrast to the rest of his career. Ergo, it's highly likely that Ohka is surviving by dint of good fortune and is ripe for a serious regression should those supporting metrics remain at basement levels. Ohka's new team, the Brewers, actually have a better Defensive Efficiency Rating than the Nationals, but good glovework alone won't maintain such an outlying BABIP. Recent shutout of the D-Rays notwithstanding, I'll eat my kitchen garbage if Ohka posts a sub 4.00 ERA as a Brewer*.
As for those who perceive a fleecing of the Nats, I don't see it. What I do see for them is a potentially significant upgrade at a key position at a cost of a pitcher who's about to come hurtling earthward in a hurry.