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July 28, 2005

Lies, Damned Lies

Evaluating the Trade Bait

by Nate Silver

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One of the funny things about the trade deadline is that there is so much buzz about who is going to wind up with the empty chair that there is relatively little discussion about whether the players on the trade block are even worth acquiring. Why on earth would someone want Sidney Ponson? Is Eric Byrnes supposed to get people excited?

Part of this is a result of institutional incentives--GMs in most places are expected to bring their teams a postseason berth, and it's usually easier to frame a story around doing something rather than nothing. But the other part is a lack of liquidity in the market. During the off-season, a team will have plenty of alternatives available to replace a struggling player, potentially including evaluating its farm system options, so there is no reason to panic and come up with a less-than-optimal solution. At the trade deadline, exactly the opposite is the case.

Take the Yankees' center-field problem, for example. Bernie Williams desperately needs fixing--considering his inadequate glove and declining bat, he might well be worse than replacement level at the position. But Hideki Matsui, Bubba Crosby and Melky Cabrera have all failed in repeated trials at the position, and the Yankees don't have anyone left in the farm system. The best apparent alternatives are Mike Cameron and Randy Winn, but the former plays for a team that will not be eager to make a cross-town swap, and the latter might not be much better than replacement level himself.

With that in mind, let's take a PECOTA-informed tour of some of the more prominent names that may be available on the market (a quick note on adjective choice: I considered using "infused" or even "encrusted" rather than "informed," which is surely a sign that I'm watching the Food Network too much). The emphasis here is just what can be expected from these players from this point going forward in the season, particularly in the context of their potential acquirers.

A.J. Burnett, Marlins

PECOTA has nailed A.J. Burnett's performance almost exactly:


A.J. Burnett  IP       H       BB      K       HR     ERA
PECOTA        134.3    117     50      122     13     3.76
Actual        132.0    118     48      124     9      3.48

The strikeout and walk numbers are dead matches. Burnett has allowed somewhat fewer home runs than we had anticipated, but he's also inducing a much higher percentage of groundballs this year, meaning that performance is reasonably likely to be sustainable, even outside of Dolphins Stadium. There's no doubt that Burnett is a good little pitcher (actually, a good big pitcher--he checks in at 230 pounds). But is he also the sort of player that teams are likely to overpay for?

That depends on a couple of things, the most important of which is Burnett's health. The PECOTA projection you see isn't prorated, but properly mellow on playing time given the time that he had missed to Tommy John surgery in 2003 and 2004. Since we're likely talking about a two-month rental, the risk of a serious injury (or re-injury) might not be material enough for Burnett's suitors to worry about.

The risk of fatigue-related underperformance, however, is another question. Burnett is on pace for 216 innings this season, but had betted 120 innings just twice in his career before this year, and had never pitched more than 204. He's decidedly non-economical with his pitches. July has been his roughest month, and he ranks ninth in baseball in Pitcher Abuse Points. Compounding the problem, the teams making a play for Burnett are not only hoping for help through the stretch drive, but also in October. I'm not sure if you want A.J. Burnett, 3500-plus pitches into his season, starting a game for you in the LCS.

The other question is the Carl Pavano problem. Florida is a gentle environment for a pitcher; take the PECOTA projection listed above and put Burnett in U.S. Cellular Field, and his ERA rises to 4.35 (before accounting for the White Sox' vastly improved defense). I don't know that Burnett is an awful trade target--his strikeout ability will be valuable in any environment, and all cliches aside, good pitching is hard to come by. But I will say this: if I were running the Marlins, I'd think this was a pretty good time to deal him.

Jason Schmidt, Giants

Probably responsible for more roto league broken dreams this season than any player aside from Eric Gagne and Adrian Beltre, Schmidt's stock has cooled dramatically, to the point where he's sometimes been mentioned alongside names like Sidney Ponson as a sort of consolation prize in the A.J. Burnett sweepstakes. That's a shame, because Schmidt still has a lot of upside as a pitcher.

Although Schmidt's numbers have been worse across the board, the main problem has been a lack of command--his BB/9 IP is 4.5 to date, versus 3.1 last year. Schmidt's problems are compounded some because he's a flyball pitcher, meaning more two-run homers and fewer double plays when extra guys get on base. The increase in walk rate is probably too large to be accounted for by statistical fluctuation alone, and Schmidt's ERA is well higher than even his worst case, 10th percentile PECOTA projection.

The question is--do pitchers who show a sudden increase in walk rate like this have a good chance of finding themselves turning it around? Or does this usually signal the beginning of the end?

I ran a database search for pitchers who have exhibited a similar pattern to Schmidt. Pitchers had to be coming off two consecutive seasons of 150 or more innings, with an ERA at least 20 percent better than league average after accounting for park effects in each season. They had to be in the middle of their careers--between ages 27 and 34. And they had to have a walk rate increase of at least three additional BB per 100 batters faced, in a season in which they pitched at least 100 innings. There have been nine such pitchers since World War II:

  • Floyd Bannister, 1988 (Age 33). Washed out after tanking in 1988, winning only five more big-league games on his career.
  • Bert Blyleven, 1979 (27). Plenty of career left. Did not have his best year in 1980.
  • Bartolo Colon, 2000 (27). Higher walk rate in 2000 was counteracted some by higher strikeout rate. Productive in 2001 and had a career-best year in 2002.
  • John Denny 1985 (32). Strange career; Denny had excellent command in 1983 and 1984 but poor command otherwise. Once the walk rate rose again in 1985 he was in trouble, and 1986 was his last big-league season.
  • Roy Halladay, 2004 (27). On pace for a Cy Young season this year before fracturing his leg; walk rate recovered to previous low levels and then some. Has to be considered a successful precedent for Schmidt.
  • Sam McDowell, 1971 (28). Always had Rick Vaughnesque wildness problems, but 1971 was particularly bad. His strikeout rate took a nosedive in 1972 and he was not very effective from then onward.
  • Phil Niekro, 1973 (34). Hung around for a bit. His follow-up year, 1974, was perhaps his best season.
  • Nolan Ryan, 1974 (27). Ryan walked so many batters in mid-career that this bump could have been normal statistical variance. 1975 and 1976 were not his best seasons but obviously he had something left.
  • Sonny Siebert, 1968 (31). Stayed healthy and posted an ERA comfortably better than league average in each year from 1969 to 1971.

Of the nine pitchers listed, three (Bannister, Denny and McDowell) never quite regained their form after losing their command. The other six returned to form, however, and most are notable for their long, productive careers. I like to call this the Dan Duquette Fallacy, named in honor of the embattled GM's ill-advised proclamation in the winter of 1996 that Roger Clemens' productive days were behind him.

When a hitter with a great track record is in the midst of an off season in the middle of his career, he is generally given the benefit of the doubt, and the loss of productivity is written off as statistical variance (stathead parlance), or as a "slump" (Around the Horn parlance). When the same thing happens to a pitcher, however, the opposite is true, and all sorts of rumors surface about his having lost velocity on his fastball, pitching through a dead arm period, tipping his pitches, or what have you--the implication being that he's lost the magic and is never going to get it back.

The truth is, we don't know exactly what causes pitchers to have off-seasons, but we do know that it's worth looking further than a half-season back in projecting their performance--Schmidt's stellar 2003 and 2004 campaigns count for something. There's certainly some risk associated with Schmidt, much more than we'd have anticipated at the start of the season, and I'd want to scout him very carefully before making a move. But there's also the chance to get one of the league's better pitchers for a fraction of what he would have cost otherwise.

Alfonso Soriano, Rangers

PECOTA anticipated an offensive resurgence for Soriano this season, and he has made good on that promise, posting a .282/.316/.546 batting line that is an effective dead ringer for his .301/.348/.538 projection after accounting for the leaguewide offensive decline. Soriano's speed-power combination ought to age relatively well, whatever his problems with pitch selection.

But the problem has never been Soriano's bat. According to Clay Davenport's defensive statistics, Soriano has already cost his team some 20 runs in the field this year relative to a league-average second baseman, which goes a long way toward mitigating his 28.7 VORP. Defensive statistics, of course, are always something of a speculative exercise, but in this case there is good reason to give them a lot of weight, as Soriano has a long history of poor defensive performances.

To the extent that defensive statistics have their problems, they are mostly related to matters of context: perhaps the second baseman's numbers are impacted by the shortstop's, or the starting pitcher's, and so forth. But Soriano posted poor defensive numbers in New York, in a pitchers' park with a good pitching staff and a poor double play partner, and he's posted poor defensive numbers in Texas, in a hitters' park with a poor pitching staff and a good double play partner. His defense stinks, and between that and the offense-inflating environment of Arlington, its no wonder that the sharp knifes in Rangers management have been trying to move him virtually since the day he arrived in the Metroplex.

Phil Nevin, Padres

Nevin's .263/.305/.409 line has surprised some this season, but not PECOTA, which looked at a slow, aging first baseman with a long injury history and projected him conservatively at .263/.337/.437 and a 35.5 percent collapse rate. A 34-year-old with this profile usually isn't coming back, and any team hoping for better than a problem-for-problem swap a la the nixed Sidney Ponson deal is putting its focus in the wrong place.

Mike Lowell, Marlins

It took Lowell until he was 26 to really get established in the big leagues, and a good rule of thumb in forecasting is "Debut Late, Decline Early." For whatever reason--perhaps an underlying lack of athleticism--guys who take their time to reach the big leagues tend not to age gracefully. Lowell has always been an extreme flyball hitter, so any fundamental decline in his strength or bat speed is likely to be particularly devastating, leading to lots of warning track shots. PECOTA anticipated a non-trival risk of decline (23.8 percent collapse rate), citing some unfavorable comparisons like Chris Sabo and Doug Rader. A more neutral assessment would be that this is a good time to acquire Lowell on the cheap, but my PECOTA-encrusted hunch is that the end is nigh.

Ken Griffey Jr., Reds

Griffey's power remains intact, and he's been hitting more line drives this year instead of trying to loft everything. His athleticism is mostly a distant memory, however. Since 2002, Griffey has had one triple, and three stolen bases, and only manages in center field because he gets great jumps--the exact opposite of early in his career, when he let his wheels do the ranging. And players who have extensive injury histories don't suddenly become pictures of health at age 35, any more than banjo hitters learn to hit .320 at age 28.

The most likely scenario is an Ellis Burks-type usefulness at the end of his career. In that capacity, Griffey is probably a reasonable short-term acquisition target, particularly for an American League team who can slot him as a DH. It helps that the Reds don't seem to be demanding much of a ransom for him.

Randy Winn, Mariners

There haven't been many teams talking about adding Winn other than the Yankees, and there isn't much doubt that the Yankees would be acquiring Winn for his glove in center field, and not for his bat. Just what Winn's glove is worth is a little bit ambiguous, as he's played center only sporadically since becoming a Mariner, but a reasonable assumption based on Clay Davenport's fielding statistics is that he'll be roughly league average at the position. Does that provide a value-add for the Yankees?

The simplest way to resolve the question is to compare Winn to Bernie Williams. Surely, Winn's playing time wouldn't come entirely on Williams' behalf--Tino Martinez, Bubba Crosby and company would lose some playing time, too. But Williams has been playing center field in recent days for the Yankees, and would take the biggest playing time hit if Winn joined the team.

Without going into too much detail, the short answer is that it probably doesn't matter very much. The following is a quick best-guess based on a prorated version of each player's PECOTA forecast:


            VORP   FRAA     TOTAL
Williams    12.2   -5       +7.2
Winn        8.4     0       +8.4

This may be overrating both players somewhat, as they have both materially underperformed their PECOTA offensive forecast this year, especially since both are old enough that the decline needs to be taken seriously. The best answer may well be "none of the above"; the Yankees would be in much better shape if they had done what they needed to do this winter.

Kevin Millwood, Indians


Kevin Millwood    H/9     BB/9   K/9    HR/9     ERA
PECOTA            9.6     3.0    6.8    1.0      4.45
Actual            8.3     2.7    7.2    1.0      3.19

Millwood has been somewhat better than his PECOTA forecast in several departments this year, but the biggest difference is in his hit rate on balls in play. PECOTA anticipated a rate of 30.8 percent, or slightly worse than league average; last year, Millwood's rate was 32.1 percent. Instead, this year his rate has been 27.6 percent, one of the better figures in the league among AL starters. He's a good pitcher, but can expect some regression in the hit-rate department, and any team expecting a 3.19 ERA the rest of the way could be in for a surprise.

Still, my sense is that Millwood's talents are somewhat underappreciated around the league. It's not clear that he's worth any less than A.J. Burnett, and there's a good chance that he comes more cheaply. That is, of course, providing that Mark Shapiro is willing to deal him. According to our playoff odds report, the Indians still have around a 19 percent chance of making the post-season, which compares favorably to the Marlins' (Burnett) 15 percent or the Giants' (Schmidt) 2 percent.

Danys Baez, Devil Rays

Some of the worst deadline deals usually revolve around overpaying for closers, and Baez looks like he'll be no exception.


Danys Baez        H/9     BB/9   K/9    HR/9     ERA
PECOTA            8.8     3.9    6.9    1.1      4.40
Actual            8.4     5.0    8.6    1.2      3.18

Baez' peripheral numbers have not really been any better than PECOTA had anticipated this year; in fact, depending on how you want to evaluate that walk rate spike, they've arguably been somewhat worse. But his ERA is more than a full point better than our preseason projection. The reason? Baez has allowed just a .210/.288/.274 batting line with runners in scoring position, versus a .238/.315/.425 line with the bases empty. A starry-eyed GM might refer to that as clutch pitching ability, and tell some story about how Baez' makeup has improved. We refer to it as good luck. Caveat emptor on a closer with a walk rate this high.

Mike Cameron, Mets

Cameron's name comes up more often in blogs than on ESPN, which probably means that there's a fair amount of wishcasting going on; he's been an underrated player for a long time. The concern here is whether his injury history is starting to take a toll on his defense. Cameron's fielding has rated some four runs worse than league average this year, this in spite of the fact that he's played the vast bulk of his year in right field.

Our ability to forecast defensive performance is still very primitive, but my guess is that he's at best a run or two better than a league average defensive player in center field; 32 is about the age at which a lot of peripheral skills tend to decline, with or without an injury history. He's still a considerably more worthwhile player than someone like Randy Winn, but some of the advantage that a smart GM may have been hoping to arbitrage out is evaporating. The other concern is that this is likely going to need to be a win-now-for-win-now swap. It's easy to mock Omar Minaya's brashness, but our estimate is that the Mets still have a 26 percent chance of making the playoffs.

If I had to select some secret ingredients from this group, I'd go with Schmidt and Griffey.

Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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