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August 3, 2006

Lies, Damned Lies

Is Bigger Better?

by Nate Silver

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Which was the more important trade deadline acquisition: Carlos Lee, or Todd Walker?

If ESPN took a SportsNation poll on that one, the map would probably be about as monotone as the 1984 presidential election. But, as we discussed last week, a huge amount of trade deadline strategy boils down to context. Replacement value means one thing in the abstract, and another when the potential replacee is Melky Cabrera, Geoff Blum, or Scott Podsednik. And moves have an awful lot more impact when a team is on the playoff fence, with just about an even-money shot of playing on to October with their existing roster.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the trades made since last Monday, July 24. A couple of very brief methodological notes before we proceed. The numbers you see represented in the tables are the expected number of runs added or lost, based on comparing the projected MLVrs or NRAs of the ingoing and outgoing players. These projections apply a combination of pre-season PECOTA projections, and year-to-date performance--the year-to-date component receives a 50% weight when a hitter reaches 650 PA, a starting pitcher 200 IP, or a relief pitcher 80 IP. Finally, some of the players included in the trades will be part-time players for their new clubs, or will take playing time away from a variety of incumbents. Where this is the case, we indicate the playing time split with percentages in parenthesis.

Yankees      Bobby Abreu replaces Bernie Williams +14.3
             Craig Wilson replaces Melky Cabrera (35%), Andy Phillips (35%) +6.8
             Sal Fasano replaces Kelly Stinnett (25%)  +1.3
             Cory Lidle replaces Shawn Chacon +6.8
Yankees      Total +29.2

I wrote about the Alex Rodriguez trade in Mind Game--the trade that the Yankees made three winters ago when the Red Sox could not. What was remarkable about that trade was the efficiency of the Yankees’ tactical strike. One minute, the possibility of Rodriguez going to the Yankees was a running joke/lament on Baseball Primer and Sons of Sam Horn. The next minute, he was in pinstripes.

That’s exactly what I’m reminded of here. The Yankees identified their areas of need--not that this is so difficult when you have corpses like Bernie Williams and Shawn Chacon in your everyday lineup--identified capable replacements, and acquired these players at a bargain price. In terms of bang for the buck, this might be the most effective trade deadline parlay of the past decade. In the standings column, it should mean about three very important wins.

(I realize, by the way, that I’ve made things out to be slightly simpler than they are, since Williams will remain in the lineup from time to time. But, since Bernie, Melky Caberera and Andy Phillips all have similarly moribund PECOTA forecasts, it doesn’t have much effect on the end result).

Rangers      Carlos Lee replaces Kevin Mench +5.2
             Matt Stairs replaces Mark DeRosa (50%) +1.7
             Kip Wells replaces John Rheinecker +4.7
             Josh Rupe replaces Francisco Cordero -3.6
Rangers      Total +8.0

This is a nice series of moves by the Rangers, but degrees of magnitude less important than what the Yankees did. Kevin Mench is a league average corner outfielder, rather than the truly replacement level guys that the Yankees have supplanted. Meanwhile, while Francisco Cordero has burned a lot of rotisserie owners with his performance this year, his peripherals aren’t much different than what he did in 2005, and he was probably the second best pitcher in that bullpen after Otsuka. The Rangers have always had trouble filling out their pitching staff--Josh Rupe is representative of a number of equally undesirable alternatives--and that isn’t something that gets easier to do in August and September, when fatigue and injury sets in and the trade wire shuts down. I think this team needed to add a relief pitcher, not subtract one.

Dodgers     Julio Lugo replaces Izturis, Martinez, Saenz and Lofton (25% each) +5.8
            Greg Maddux replaces Chad Billingsley +1.2
            Elmer Dessens replaces Odalis Perez +0.3
Dodgers     Total +7.3

There’s been some griping that Julio Lugo doesn’t have a place to play if everyone in the lineup is healthy. However, a healthy Dodgers lineup is about as common as a solar eclipse or a clean urine test at the Tour de France, so I like the depth that this provides. If need be, the Dodgers can explore permutations involving shifting one of the utility infielders into the outfield, displacing a washed-up Kenny Lofton.

That said, Lugo is having a bit of a Jhonny Peralta kind of career year--this is a 30-year-old whose lifetime high OPS was .777 entering this season. And while Greg Maddux and Elmer Dessens provide some depth, they are not clearly better than the men they are replacing. All in all, this was not a prudent series of moves for a club that has fairly faint hopes of reaching the playoffs, and which probably does not have the front-line pitching to succeed if they get there.

Mets      Endy Chavez (50%) and Lastings Milledge (50%) replace Xavier Nady -7.5
          Roberto Hernandez replaces Heath Bell -3.0
Mets      Total -10.5

I’m surprised that these moves haven’t drawn more criticism. Yes, Xavier Nady is an average player, but Endy Chavez isn’t someone you want playing in a corner outfield spot every day, and expecting Lastings Milledge to provide something approximating Nady’s .813 OPS at this nascent stage of his career is ambitious. Yes, Roberto Hernandez has a nice ERA this year, but his peripherals suggest that he’s a bottom-feeding reliever whose best seasons came a decade ago, which is exactly what he is. Yes, Oliver Perez provides some flexibility, but the Mets had already addressed the depth problem by acquiring Orlando Hernandez and promoting John Maine.

And yes, this probably won’t cost the Mets much, since they would need an anti-miracle to miss the post-season. But I’d have played a hold strategy here, or perhaps hedged my bets a little more at second base by acquiring a Walker type. As it stands, there’s a good chance that Chavez and Milledge won’t hit, and the Mets will need to overpay for someone like Shawn Green at the end of the month.

Brewers     Kevin Mench repalces Carlos Lee -5.2
            David Bell replaces Jeff Cirillo (40%) -0.2
            Tony Graffanino replaces Corey Koskie (40%) -1.1
            Francisco Cordero replaces Jorge de la Rosa +6.3
Brewers     Total -0.2

I don’t know if Doug Melvin is eating too much chorizo, but this is a strange series of moves by the Brewers. I’m not sure that I can remember a team hedging its bets in this fashion at the trade deadline before. That said, “strange” doesn’t necessarily mean “bad.” Mench isn’t that big a downgrade from Carlos Lee, and will provide a respectable, arbitration-eligible bat in 2007 and 2008 while the team leverages its young talent and addresses other areas of need. Cordero is a good “buy low” guy, and comes to a team that can make good use of him--his impact could be even greater than what’s represented here if we consider that he’ll be pitching high-impact innings for a team that plays a lot of close ballgames.

Now, there was an opportunity for the NL Wild Card pretenders to step up and play hardball. The Brewers are a much better team with Ben Sheets and Tomo Ohka pitching again, and perhaps Melvin should have thrown caution to the wind, recognized that being six games under .500 means something much different in this year’s National League than it usually does, and made a move for a front-line bat. But, as it stands, the Brewers probably push on the trades for this year, and help themselves out going forward.

Tigers     Sean Casey replaces Chris Shelton (75%), Dmitri Young (25%) -0.9
Tigers     Total -0.9

One thing this analysis can’t properly account for is depth. The Tigers now have a good hedge in place in the event that Dmitri Young injures himself for the umpteenth time, the magic pixie dust wears off on Marcus Thames, or something else. But, the decision to replace Chris Shelton with Sean Casey is strange on its surface. That Casey creates a better OBP/SLG balance in the lineup is a positive, but is offset by the fact that both his numbers this year and his PECOTA projection are based on his playing in Pittsburgh, which is just a great environment for a left-handed singles hitter. Almost certainly, there was an internal scouting judgment here--that Shelton’s poor results of late, for whatever reason, are likely to be indicative of the ongoing reality. Whether that judgment is accurate or not we may never know, since Shelton will be stationed in Toledo.

Mariners        Ben Broussard replaces Greg Dobbs (75%) +9.1
Mariners        Total +9.1

We now get into a series of low-wattage moves that could be surprisingly impactful on the pennant races. Reuniting Ben Broussard with platoon partner Eduardo Perez is a nice stroke by the Mariners, particularly if they stick to that platoon arrangement as strictly as possible. Of course, almost any move would have been desirable, when as of last week the alternative was Bronty Everett.

Padres    Todd Walker replaces Geoff Blum (50%), Mark Bellhorn (50%) +7.7
Padres    Total +7.7

Similarly, the Padres do a nice job of picking up a league-average player at the position where the incumbents were costing them multiple runs off the scoreboard each week. This was a really awful move by the Cubs, by the way. Todd Walker has a reasonably good chance of being a Type A free agent (a distinction that has been bestowed on infielders like Tony Graffanino and Royce Clayton in the recent past), and for the mere gambit of offering arbitration to a player that they could probably use anyway, the Cubs would have a good chance of drafting two prospects with much more upside than the A-ball reliever they picked up in this deal.

White Sox  Mike Macdougal replaces Sean Tracey +6.5
           Total +6.5

Kenny Williams’ inactivity at the trade deadline was out of character, and as we described last week, perhaps no team stood more to gain by trading for a big bat than the White Sox. But, picking up Mike Macdougal shouldn’t be overlooked, considering that the last couple of slots in the Sox bullpen have been a revolving disaster between Tracey, Boone Logan, and a handful of others.

Cardinals    Ronnie Belliard replaces Hector Luna, Aaron Miles (50% each) +6.4
Cardinals    Total +6.4

This move is out of character too, as it isn’t like Walt Jocketty to move a player like Luna who is in the midst of a career year of sorts. It’s a good move, though, as Luna was radically outperforming his PECOTA projection, and as Aaron Miles wasn’t a good idea to begin with.

Reds    Rheal Cormier replaces Brian Shackleford +4.8
        Kyle Lohse replaces Justin Germano -0.8
Reds    Total +4.0

Wayne Krivsky was the Assistant GM in Texas when the Rangers were using folks like Dale Mohorcic as their closer, which perhaps explains his strange obsession with building the bestest bullpen ever.

Rockies        Jeremy Affeldt replaces Scott Dohmann +1.1
Rockies        Total +1.1

Included merely for the sake of completeness. Jeremy Affeldt is a good bet to post a sub-4 ERA in Coors Field, but only because of the park effects.

We’ve saved the best for last. Just what impact will each of these moves have on the pennant races?

Team         Runs Added   Before       After        Change
----------------------------------------------------------
Yankees      +29.2        75.0%        94.7%       +19.7%
Padres        +7.7        59.0%        67.5%        +8.5%
Rangers       +8.0        23.2%        30.2%        +7.0%
White Sox     +6.5        33.5%        40.2%        +6.7%
Dodgers       +7.2        14.8%        19.4%        +4.6%
Reds          +4.0        59.8%        63.6%        +3.8%
Cardinals     +6.4        82.9%        86.5%        +3.6%
Mariners      +9.1         6.8%        10.1%        +3.3%
Rockies       +1.1        12.8%        13.1%        +0.3%
Tigers        -0.9        97.6%        97.5%        -0.1%
Brewers       -0.1         7.0%         6.7%        -0.3%
Mets         -10.5        99.9%        99.3%        -0.6%

Unsurprisingly, the Yankees emerge as the clear winners. We’re using the PECOTA version of the playoff odds report, as of the morning of the trade deadline (July 31); by that standard, the Yankees were already in pretty good shape. Nevertheless, they’ve gone from being 1:3 favorites to reach the playoffs to a virtual lock, and have substantially strengthened their lot once they get there.

But who would have thought that the second most important move of the trade deadline cycle was the Padres’ pickup of Todd Walker? The lesson here is that it doesn’t necessarily take a move that makes headlines to have a tangible impact in August and everything after. I suspect that a lot of the teams that came up short at the trade deadline--like the two clubs that have ‘Sox’ in their name--had grandiose plans that proved impossible to execute. The Red Sox merely adding a Cory Lidle type, or the White Sox a Xavier Nady, would have made their rosters much more robust. As Jim Bowden learned, we have moved out of the era in which teams are willing to grossly overpay for two-month rentals at the trade deadline. But, that’s all the more reason that aggressive GMs like Brian Cashman and Kevin Towers, who are willing to admit to areas of weakness on their rosters, stand to help their clubs tremendously.

Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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