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December 10, 2009

Changing Speeds

Quantifying Melvin's Master Plan

by Ken Funck

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In December, Wisconsin news tends to be dominated by two things: the weather, and the Green Bay Packers. This week's blizzard (which residents greeted with their standard mix of stoicism and whimsy) was definitely the lead story, but the latest Packer news was pushed below the sports page fold when the Brewers shelled out $30 million over three years for oft-injured starter Randy Wolf, and $7.5 million over two years for veteran reliever LaTroy Hawkins.

It's no surprise that the Brewers GM Doug Melvin went shopping for pitching. Their fall from playoff grace was caused primarily by the worst starting rotation in the league-despite the presence of wunderkind Yovani Gallardo, Milwaukee starters posted the league's lowest aggregate SNLVAR and worst ERA. Wolf was signed to replace Braden Looper, who unsurprisingly imploded shortly after moving outside the range of Dave Duncan's magical field, while Hawkins is essentially replacing Mark DiFelice, a likable and effective ROOGY who will miss the upcoming season after having had shoulder surgery. Coming off superlative 2009 seasons, both Wolf and Hawkins are sure to be an improvement on the men they're replacing, but they're both expensive, long in the tooth, and Wolf especially has a long injury history.

Melvin's quest to improve his club's run prevention on a limited budget actually started last month when he swapped shortstop J.J. Hardy for Minnesota's speedy center fielder Carlos Gomez. Hardy was coming off a bad year with the bat, and was seemingly made redundant by the emergence of top prospect Alcides Escobar, considered Hardy's equal (at least) with the leather and no slouch at the plate. Swapping out Hardy for Gomez, who currently defines the term "good field, no hit," would mean a defensive improvement over the aging incumbent, Mike Cameron, as well as a large payroll reduction at both positions.

The plan seemed clear: swap some expensive offense for cheap defense, use the savings to shore up the pitching staff, and when the runs saved on the mound and in the field outweigh the runs lost at the plate, Bob's your uncle-but after the trade and this week's signings has Milwaukee really improved, or are they spinning their wheels? To figure that out, we'll need to get a handle on how much worse their offense and better their pitching and fielding are likely to be by comparing the production that the incumbents would have provided to that likely to be produced by the men Melvin has tapped to replace them.

To get some sense of how much the offense will sag and the defense will improve, we can use a few of Clay Davenport's metrics: Equivalent Runs (EqR), which determines the number of runs a player generates offensively, and Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA), which calculates the number of runs a player saves compared to an average fielder at his position. These are aggregate stats which increase with additional playing time, so to compare them I've prorated them to the values each player would produce in a season with 600 plate appearances over 150 games:


Milwaukee SS/CF Batting/Fielding Changes, 2009-2010
 2009 Player    Salary* EqR/600    FRAA/150  Total Runs
J.J. Hardy      $ 5.0M    60.6       10.5       71.1
Mike Cameron    $10.0M    86.9        6.0       92.9
Total           $15.0M   147.5       16.5      164.0

2010 Player     Salary  EqR/600    FRAA/150  Total Runs
Alcides Escobar $ 0.5M    73.9       -3.0       70.9
Carlos Gomez    $ 0.5M    59.2       25.5       84.7
Total           $ 1.0M   133.1       22.5      155.6

Change:        -$14.0M   -14.4 EqR   +6.0 FRAA  -8.4 Total Runs

*: Salaries are best guesses for arbitration raises or free-agent signing costs.

Each row is based on the player's 2009 stats, which of course leads to lots of caveats. Hardy suffered a down year at the plate, so these numbers likely undervalue his 2010 production; conversely, Escobar's -3 FRAA belies his considerable defensive reputation. Projecting the offensive contribution of young players like Escobar and Gomez, who might be expected to improve, is especially dicey. While I was comfortable accepting Escobar's .310/.338/.378 line as a reasonable guess for 2010, I cheated a little with Gomez, combining his execrable 2009 numbers with his more respectable 2008 season to account for some growth.

Given all that, swapping out Hardy and Cameron for Escobar and Gomez results in a net loss of 14.4 runs on offense, a net gain of 6.0 runs on defense (mostly due to Gomez), for an aggregate loss of 8.4 runs. In exchange, the Brewers saved somewhere in the neighborhood of $14 million to use during their next trip to the Mound Store. Thus to make the Brewers better in 2010, the pitchers brought in at that price would need to be at least 8.4 runs better than the ones they'll be replacing:


Milwaukee Pitching Changes, 2009-2010
2009 Player     Salary    PRAA 
Braden Looper    N/A     -25.0       
Mark DiFelice    N/A       5.7       
Total            N/A     -19.3       

2010 Player     Salary    PRAA      PRAA(3-yr avg.)
Randy Wolf      $10.0M    14.5        0.7        
LaTroy Hawkins  $ 3.5M    14.1        9.8        
Total           $13.5M    28.6       10.5     

Change:        +$13.5M    47.9 PRAA  29.8 PRAA (3-yr avg.)

Nearly all of the savings from the Hardy/Gomez trade are used up by the addition of Wolf and Hawkins (DiFelice is still on the roster, and the $4 million of Looper loot coming off the books is assumed to go towards arbitration debts and/or Trevor Hoffman's raise), but the pitching upgrade seems to far outweigh the reduction in offense incurred to pay for it. As with the first chart, each player's 2009 numbers are used to calculate the runs saved, this time using Pitching Runs Above Average (PRAA), weighted to 200 innings for starters or 60 innings for relievers. Virtually anyone would be an upgrade on Looper's -25.0 PRAA from last season, and if Wolf and Hawkins stay healthy and pitch as well as they did last year, they'll prevent almost 50 additional runs for the Brewers in 2010. Combined with the 8.4 run loss associated with Gomez and Escobar, the net result of the trade and signings is about 40 runs, or a gain of four wins.

The problem with that assessment, of course, is the assumption that Wolf and Hawkins will repeat their 2009 performances. Even granting that Wolf has put his injury woes behind him and can be counted on for 200 innings, last year's numbers were unlike anything he's produced since 2002, while Hawkins hasn't been this good since 2004. To account for some level of regression, the last column above calculates the PRAA for Wolf and Hawkins based on their aggregated performance from 2007-2009. This more appropriately pessimistic calculation reduces Wolf to an average pitcher and results in a net 29.8 run savings for the Brewers, about 20 runs (or two wins) less than the more optimistic result.

Either way, it looks as if Milwaukee set themselves up to succeed in this season's free agent market by trading Hardy for Gomez, even when Hardy's value was low. But could they have done even better? Here's the same chart for two other starters that were available:


Milwaukee Free-Agent Starter Options
2010 Player     Salary    PRAA     PRAA(3-yr avg.)
Randy Wolf      $10.0M    14.5      0.7
Rich Harden     $10.0M    -1.7*    14.7*        
Jon Garland    <$10.0M     6.1      3.9  
Jason Marquis  <$10.0M    10.2      1.2

*: Harden's PRAA is prorated to 140 IP, all others prorated to 200 IP

Harden is of course a well-known injury risk, to the point that I calculated his PRAA for only 140 innings, so despite the obvious high upside it's perhaps understandable that Doug Melvin didn't want to spin that particular wheel. Garland and Marquis, however, are both several years younger and more durable than Wolf, and while their 2009 numbers don't match Wolf's they've outperformed him over a three-year span and would likely be somewhat cheaper.

The most common mistake when signing a free agent is to put too much stock in a player's most recent season, especially if it smells like a career year. The fear with Wolf is exactly that-you can argue that he's finally healthy and durable and has reached a new level of performance, but to do so you'll have to just wave away his 120 painful innings in San Diego as recently as 2008, and all the injuries that came before it. It's true that there's a better chance for Wolf to have a big year than Garland or Marquis, to essentially pitch like a second starter, but it's not a particularly good chance, and if you're looking to catch some lightning, why not just sign Harden? Or if you really just need a reliable innings muncher, isn't Garland your best bet?

Instead, it looks as though the Brewers tried to do a little of both, and might wind up getting less of either, and at a greater cost. As with the Hardy/Gomez trade, about which many asked whether Milwaukee could have gotten a better return, Doug Melvin's master plan to improve the Brewers for 2010 is clearly a good one, but the jury is still out on the quality of its execution.

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

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