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November 22, 2006

Prospectus Today

Free Agents and Costly Voting

by Joe Sheehan

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I got lots of feedback on the "stealth free agents" matter from Monday's column. It was interesting to see some of the names that I'd culled from an original, longer list show up in my inbox. Keith Foulke and Octavio Dotel were both names I'd looked at for the piece, and both had support among the readers as low-profile signings that could pay off. Dotel, like Randy Wolf, may be far enough from surgery in 2007 to get back to his established level. Foulke is a bit riskier, as his fastball has lost enough zip to make his change less effective, jacking up his home-run rate.

The most popular name among the readers was Jose Guillen, who had an injury-plagued year in D.C. A lot of people seem to think he can bounce back and be a power source for someone in '07. I have serious doubts. Never a patient hitter, his walk rate and strikeout-to-walk ratio are actually going backwards as he crosses 30. He's a good corner outfielder, not a great one, and whatever speed he may have had seems to be going, based on indicators such as steals, triples and GIDPs. He's not someone I would target.

The other player to garner lots of support was Trot Nixon, who's something of the opposite of Guillen in a lot of ways. Nixon was also on my original list, but really, it's hard to know what kind of player his body is going to let him be. He's a deep-count guy who posts good OBPs, but his power has been disappointing the past two seasons. He's 33 and coming off three straight years in which he lost 50 points off his slugging average. Clay's system likes his defense; I don't agree, and I don't think he's going to get better. I would rather have him than Guillen because of his approach at the plate, but it's possible that he's just an extra outfielder now.

There were a lot of non-stealth names submitted. Frankly, I don't think Mike Piazza or Andy Pettitte are flying too far under the radar. Other reader picks worth mentioning included Rich Aurilia, Shannon Stewart, David Riske and Bruce Chen. In all, 30 players received votes, with Guillen, Nixon, Dotel and Luis Gonzalez showing up at least twice.

Now, on to the guys who aren't free agents any longer. The biggest move of the offseason to date is the Cubs making Alfonso Soriano wealthy and secure, signing him to an eight-year, $136-million contract. That first part is notable in that it is the first deal of that length to be reached since 2000, and is yet another sign that the market has shifted once again. (Just another reminder: Vladimir Guerrero is entering the fourth year of a five-year, $70-million contract.) As I have written, the dollar figures don't mean much; there's so much money in the industry that it's hard to put free-agent salaries in context with what's come before. Everyone is going to look overpaid, and Soriano at $17 million a season-"Beltran money"-is no exception.

The length of the deal is where the problem lies. Even if you accept that Soriano's 2006 is a better reflection of his talent than his 2005 is, committing to any player for eight years, all of them in his thirties, is a massive risk. Nate Silver indicated that Soriano's combination of power and speed projects well, but that the last few years of the deal could be troublesome. I actually like the idea of playing him in center field, because Wrigley Field's outfield is relatively small. The Cubs can get away with a lesser flychaser, especially if they continue to have high-strikeout staffs.

For the Cubs, the problem with signing Soriano isn't defensive but offensive. They've had a blind spot about OBP for a decade now, and signing Soriano doesn't address that problem. At his best, he's slightly above average at getting on base, and it's likely that he'll be average or a bit below. Once again, the Cubs will be building their offense around high-power, low-OBP hitters, Derrek Lee excepted, and once again, they'll likely hit a lot of home runs and wonder why they're not scoring as many runs as they should. Then next winter, they'll talk about how they have to get back to little ball, the way they did when Dusty Baker was in town…

I just don't think this signing changes the Cubs' outlook all that much. Even if it works out, the Cubs don't look like a championship-caliber team, and there are many ways in which this might not work out.

Soriano for $136 million did make Aramis Ramirez for $75 million look brilliant. I'm not a big fan of Ramirez, whose decent OBP is BA-driven and susceptible to swings, but he's younger than Soriano, can play a serviceable third base and has a longer track record of success than does Sori. You want a good, quick-and-dirty way of evaluating a contract? Try this: is the deal for more years than the player has good ones in his career? Soriano has three star-caliber seasons and three others, and got an eight-year deal. Ramirez has four good years and one OK one. Most bad deals are like Soriano's.

The Cubs' activity-they also signed Mark DeRosa to a head-scratching three-year deal-highlighted the busiest November in memory, as teams made big signings right and left early in the free-agent period. The Blue Jays stole Frank Thomas away from the A's with a two-year, $18-million offer. In general, I don't think a contract of two years or less can ever be that big a mistake for a team. They're just not that exposed; most bad deals are about the length of the commitment, not the price. Even in his off years, Thomas been productive, so the Jays are unlikely to find themselves saddled with a 700-OPS DH.

I have two problems with this deal. One, it reflects a lack of imagination, something the Jays have been guilty of for a while. You don't succeed by signing Frank Thomas after he has his big comeback season; you succeed by signing him before it for a half-million bucks. Anyone can throw money at a guy coming off of a big year. The real skill is in finding the next Frank Thomas, whether that's Aubrey Huff or Cliff Floyd or Luis Gonzalez. At best, the Jays will break even on this deal, and it has very little upside for them.

The other problem is that Thomas, other than his high OBP, is a terrible fit for the Jays. The Blue Jays are as slow and right-handed as any team in the game. Adding Thomas to the middle of the lineup fixes neither of those problems, and in fact, makes them even slower. Moreover, Thomas is locked in at DH, which means that when Troy Glaus needs a day off from playing third-and he needs those with some frequency-either he or Thomas (or Lyle Overbay, at best) has to sit. Thomas doesn't fit the Jays' needs and he doesn't fit their roster.

Over in the NL, the Dodgers made a similar mistake in bringing back Nomar Garciaparra for two years and $18.5 million. Garciaparra was popular with their fan base, but that was as much because he hit the ground running for them last spring as anything else. In the second half, Garciaparra was alternately unproductive and unavailable, consistent with his 2004-05 work, and that's likely to continue as he plays out his ages 33 and 34 seasons.

What makes it worse is that by signing Garciaparra, the Dodgers have spent money without improving their team at all. Garciaparra will block either James Loney at first base or, as has been speculated, he will move to third base, a position he played poorly with the Cubs in 2005. If he slides over there, he'll block Wilson Betemit, who may be a better player than Garciaparra right now once you consider defense.

For $18.5 million, the Dodgers have chosen to block, and probably retard the development of at least one good young player, and they're not certain to get any more production than they would have by simply playing Loney and Betemit. Ned Colletti continues to value experience over talent, spending money just because he can and refusing to allow the fruits of the Dodger development program to be more than trade chits and insurance policies. The best move he made during the 2006 season was acquiring Betemit, and now he may be letting that value slip away.

Heck, the Garciaparra signing wasn't even the worst move Colletti made this month. This admittedly hasn't been confirmed, but the Dodgers are supposedly close to signing Juan Pierre for five years at $9 million per season. For $45 million, the Dodgers are bringing in a center fielder with less power, less OBP and a worse arm than the one they got on the cheap last year (Kenny Lofton). That's one neat trick.

Pierre isn't a terrible player, but this deal shows just how overrated he is because of his speed. His best assets are his speed and durability; the former allows him to be a good defensive center fielder and to rack up stolen bases, but not at a high enough success rate-under 75% for his career-to make that a major asset. He has played in every one of his team's games for four years running, which has value.

However, Pierre doesn't do the most important thing that a leadoff hitter can do: get on base. He had .326 and .330 OBPs the last two years, brutal for a #1 hitter. By one measure, adjusted OPS, Pierre had the worst 200-hit season in baseball history last year. He walks a bit more than once a week and he has virtually no power; many of his extra-base hits are speed-based, not power-based. He's a leadoff hitter from the 1970s, and that kind of player loses value in the modern game, where outs are the coin of the realm. Pierre makes the Dodgers a bit better defensively, but gives that back at the plate. It's a running-in-place signing.

Not all of the money being spent this offseason is going for naught, although you do have to look around for the bargains. The Mets got Moises Alou to come to New York on a one-year deal for $8.5 million, which reads like a typo amidst all of these other deals. Alou may not be able to get on the field for 150 games, but the 110 or so that he will play will make the Mets better. He can still hit. This is, by far, the steal of the fall.

The Yankees held on to Mike Mussina, committing to two years and $23 million. Mussina is unquestionably worth $11.5 million in this market, where there's talk of making Jeff Suppan a $10-million man, and any time you can get a player without committing beyond two seasons, you're ahead of the game. I can't make this point enough: it's hard for contracts of two years or fewer to have that much negative impact, because they don't tie up resources long into the future. Mussina was the Yankees' second-best starter this year, one of the 15 or so best in the AL, and his skills are largely intact. The Yankees did a good job of leveraging the gap between his actual value and his perceived value-Mussina is strangely underrated-to shore up their 2007 rotation.

The benefit of having a player on a short commitment is why the Mets' decision to cut Tom Glavine loose is questionable. They could have picked up his option for $14 million, but elected not to do so, making him a free agent. Now, they could re-sign him, but having him back on a one-year deal, perhaps slightly overpaid, would have been a boon for a team that is already down one starting pitcher in 2007. They may yet bring him back, but they've assumed a risk here that may cost them more money and years.

--

All of that, and no one is doped up on tryptophan yet. But before I turn you loose to your families for the Thanksgiving weekend, let's talk about some turkeys.

Although I couldn't remember exactly where you had ranked Justin Morneau in your AL MVP picks, I was surprised again to see that you had him 15th. Wow. I doubt you will ever concede a mistake, but perhaps it is time to re-think how you analyze these things. Your recognition of a mainstream bias against progressive statistics like VORP and RARP seems to have morphed into a bias of your own--against traditional HR and RBI guys. Today's announcement only highlights how far you've gone. C'mon now, can you admit that there's no way he should've been 15th?!? --K.F.
Yeah, I should let the BBRAA change my mind. That's a good approach to life.

The writers got it wrong, plain and simple. They identified two guys who had lots of RBIs on good teams and voted for them, ignoring all of the other information available. They ignored defense, they ignored doubles, they ignored OBP, they ignored pitchers and the value they have…they collectively saw the shiny things, got distracted, and further diminished the value of the awards they give out each year. The Most Valuable Player award is redefined to fit the storyline every year, but when it's defined as "having lots of RBIs and good teammates," we're well past the point of a defensible argument.

The problem isn't the results of any specific vote. The problem is that we have no expectations of anything better. We've simply conceded that the people charged with delivering these honors will make it up as they go along, picking the story they liked the best and inventing a rationaliztion to fit. So in some years, being an up-the-middle guy matters. In some years, having lots of guys on base in front of you matters. In some years, you win the award on style points. In some years, you win it on numbers. "Value" doesn't matter, except in sentences like, "statistics don't really capture the value of" Player X. The ballots attached to those lines quite often then list guys in order of their RBI counts.

That's what this year was about, you know. It was about throwing away 25 years of education about how RBIs don't tell you anything about the value of players. RBIs are a proxy for power and the OBP of the guys in front of you, and they do not, they have never, reflected specific skill beyond those figures. They're an accounting tool. So Ryan Howard and Justin Morneau can raise a glass to Harry Chadwick, because only in a world in which RBIs are tracked would anyone have alighted on them as the most valuable anything. Albert Pujols was superior to Ryan Howard in every advanced metric and most traditional ones.

The storyline argument for Howard over Pujols-the former carried his team down the stretch-breaks down once you apply any logic at all. For one, Howard "carried" the Phillies to a 162-game season, while Pujols' team won its division and moved on. In other years, as far back as, oh, 2005, "making the playoffs" has been valued enough to give the inferior player the MVP. Moreover, Pujols carried the Cardinals in April and May-when they built a record that allowed them to suffer slumps later in the season-just as much as Howard did the Phillies later in the year. The persistent myth that August and September count more than April and May is belied every season by the standings, which seem to lack such an adjustment. Finally, the Phillies were a pretty good team outside of Howard, with Cole Hamels and Jamie Moyer pitching well, and Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins becoming the NL's best DP combination, and an assortment of role players having good stretches. In fact, I would strongly argue that the Phillies-minus-Howard was a better team than Cardinals-minus-Pujols.

The voters elected Howard over Pujols because he had more RBIs and because he helped them fill more column inches. He's the Most Valuable Player, but in no way was he the most valuable player. The writers simply got it wrong.

Of course, the NL vote looks downright inspired compared to what happened in the AL. The electorate just decided that a guy with little or no defensive value and a .321/.375/.559 line was the most valuable player in the league. Justin Morneau wasn't the most valuable Twin, or even the second-most-valuable Twin. He was the guy who hit for power behind lots of guys who got on base.

The storyline argument for Morneau is even more ridiculous than it is for Howard. He was a part of the Twins' turnaround, but so many things changed for the Twins after the first six weeks-Francisco Liriano, Jason Bartlett, Nick Punto, the defense, etc.-that crediting one man for that rush flies in the face of the available evidence. The entire team played better, and when you run the numbers, you find that Joe Mauer and Johan Santana contributed more to the Twins' success than Justin Morneau did, and that a whole bunch of guys around the league had more value to their teams. The fact that the BBRAA voters, who will be the first to deride performance analysts as fantasy geeks who don't really know the game, couldn't see past the RBIs to look at the complete players who were much more valuable is just too rich an irony for me when I'm trying to eat light heading into the holidays.

The tools that we use to measure performance, things like VORP and Equivalent Average and Runs Over Replacement Player and such, may not be for everyone. I would certainly never argue that they capture everything about baseball, and I don't order my ballots that way as a matter of course. But certainly we can agree that if these tools tell us that a player is the 15th best in the league this year, and that player doesn't have some kind of overwhelming markers like defense in his favor, and that player is behind mutiple teammates in the metrics…can't we agree that perhaps that player is a ridiculous MVP choice?

Here's the way I see it. If your definition of "Most Valuable Player" takes longer than one breath to get out, it's too long. I say that the MVP is the player who adds the most value to his team. Most other definitions, ones that include words like "carried" or some date in midseason or small-sample statistics or cite the performance of the team, will require stopping to breathe. Once you hear that breath, the argument is lost. It's become too complex, and likely as not, it'll be a different argument in 12 months anyway.

As far as me having a "bias against traditional HR and RBI guys" goes, that's pretty silly, mostly because I couldn't tell you how many RBIs anyone has without looking it up. RBIs have no place in the evaluation of baseball players. If a guy has a lot of power, it'll show up in places like slugging average and isolated power and Value Over Replacement Player. The fact that I have to make this case in 2006 is an indictment of the last quarter-century of performance analysis. We're just not getting through to people.

"Value isn't just statistics." Right, and it also isn't who gave you the most to write about in August and September. I will take a panel of the next 30 people I get e-mails from, spammers included, and they'd come up with the right answer more often than the BBRAA does. Mind you, this is just one year we're talking about. These people also looked at Bartolo Colon and Johan Santana last year and chose the guy who was a distant second for Cy Young. These are people who slot Derek Jeter sixth and can't find room on the ballot for Joe Mauer, and who don't seem to think that the best pitcher and best hitter in league are better than its seventh and eighth most valuable players.

But I'm getting caught up in the outcomes, which is a mistake. Don't consider the outcome. Consider the process. The process for determining the nominally "official" MVP vote is that it's restricted to a subset of a subset of the people who cover the game for a living. There was a time when the BBRAA was representative of pretty much all of the people who covered baseball. That hasn't been true for a long time, and it gets less true each and every year. There's a strong argument that the BBRAA represents the dying wing of baseball coverage.

Now, some will argue that giving the vote to the people who follow the teams around all season is a feature, not a bug. I think it's the opposite. I think that the writers consistently get caught up in the narrative of a season, and are unable to pull back from the storylines to evaluate the value of players across the entire season. Howard and Morneau were stories, and they became MVPs, despite the large body of evidence that this should not have been so.

There's also the point that most of the voting pool covers individual teams first, and the game as a whole second. I don't believe that there's much in the way of a hometown bias in the voting, but if you spend your days immersed in the Mariners, are you necessarily going to be able to discern the differences between Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer that made the latter more valuable?

One of two things can improve this process. The first would be if the voting pool was expanded to include broadcasters and writers not currently welcome in the BBRAA. I'm not pushing for a vote here; the line of broadcasters who are essentially just as qualified as the writers for this task is extremely long, and the fact that one group gets the job and the other doesn't is simply an artifact of history. It is likely that the broader the group involved in the process, the greater likelihood that the group will reach the correct conclusions. (The Internet Baseball Awards are an excellent example of this.) I also think this has as much chance of happening as I do of showing up on "Dancing With the Stars."

The more likely path is that the BBRAA awards are replaced, in the minds of the people within the game and the fans that follow them, with something else. For my money, the IBAs would be a perfect replacement. If you compare the IBA results with BBRAA results for the history of the former, the IBAs hold up much better. The difference between the two is largely that the BBRAA awards have precedent on their side and the advantage of publicity. With each error-filled vote, though, the credibility of these awards erodes just a little, and eventually, it'll be whittled down to nothing.

If not the IBAs, then why not some other entity? MLB could empanel a hundred or so people, a cross-section of insiders, reporters, personnel and analysts to vote for the awards, rotating the group each year. The Harris Poll didn't exist 18 months ago; now, it will help determine what team plays for the national championship in college football. Some non-MLB entity could decide to do the same thing, and each year, as each group's awards were distributed, the public could choose which they thought had more validity. Over time, the better awards would come to be seen as official, and the others would become a footnote.

Right now, the process for selecting these awards is poor, and the outcomes it produces are poor. Why not see if there's something better out there?

Speaking of something better…here's hoping all of you have a happy Thanksgiving, surrounded by family and friends. We'll have all kinds of baseball-Gary Matthews, Jr. is a $50 million man?-to talk about next week.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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