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January 3, 2010

Changing Speeds

Marlon Byrd and the Price of Chemistry

by Ken Funck

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Over the years, baseball analysts of a statistical bent have worked hard to quantify many of the basic components of major-league success. Batting, fielding, pitching, baserunning, even managerial decisions-each have been broken down to their atomic ingredients and reassembled into metrics that best correlate to scoring or preventing runs, producing wins, and generating monetary value. One factor that hasn't been quantified, however, is that hoariest of journalistic chestnuts: team chemistry.

Trying to isolate and measure such psychosocial factors can be virtually impossible. Yet when the Chicago Cubs signed Marlon Byrd to be their new center fielder on New Year's Eve, they provided us with at least one data point as to how much money a major-league club is willing to spend for essentially the sole purpose of making their fans, the media, and perhaps even the rest of the roster happy.

The Byrd signing, of course, is just the final shoe to drop following Jim Hendry's seemingly ill-fated decision to sign Milton Bradley to a three-year, $30 million contract prior to the 2009 season. Gallons of ink have already been spilled (or, perhaps more accurately, millions of text characters have already been rendered) detailing the sad story of Bradley's summer sublet in Wrigleyville, how his combination of mediocre production and self-inflicted PR wounds led to fan and management unrest, and how the organization's decision to publicly berate and suspend him resulted in one of the most visible examples of willful asset devaluation since the introduction of New Coke. Word is that Cubs players cheered when Bradley's season-ending suspension was announced to the team in September, so it's fair to say that the problems went beyond just standard fan unhappiness and media scapegoating in the midst of a disappointing season, and had become a sizable issue in the clubhouse. Regardless of which side you blame for that particularly ugly pas de deux, the unfortunate result was the Cubs felt compelled to trade Bradley to Seattle for a case of batting cage balls, delivered in the form of Carlos Silva and cash-a trade accurately described by Jay Jaffe on our internal BP mailing list as winning this offseason's "My Dung Heap For Your Compost Pile Award." The savings were used as a down payment on three years of Byrd to replace Bradley in the Cubs outfield.

Hendry's purpose in all this maneuvering was to attempt another timeworn cliché-addition by subtraction-so let's see how the numbers add up, starting with the salary figures. Bradley is owed $21 million over the next two years, while Silva is set to receive $25 million (including his inevitable $2 million buyout for 2012), leaving the Cubs $4 million behind. However, Seattle shipped over $9 million in the deal (broken into $5.5 million in 2010, and the remaining $3.5 million in 2011), putting the Cubs $5 million in the black. Byrd was signed for $15 million over three years. Thus the net result is the Cubs have shelled out $10 million to make Bradley disappear, but they also will have an outfielder (Byrd) in 2012, which they wouldn't have had if they kept Bradley. Since Byrd's 2012 salary is included as a liability in this calculation, Byrd's production that year needs to be counted as an asset as well. If we assume that Byrd is worth exactly the investment the Cubs have made in him (an assumption I'll address later on), and earns one-third of his $15 million total salary in each of the three years of his contract, then Byrd's 2012 production (in his Age 34 season) will be worth $5 million to the Cubs. Subtracting that from the additoinal $10 million in salary the Cubs are shelling out as a result of these two moves, and you have a net cost to the Cubs of $5 million to rid themselves of Bradley. For a large-market team, that's not a payroll-buster, nor is it exactly a rounding error, and it gives us some idea of the high price a major-league team is willing to pay to keep fans, reporters, and other players happy.

All of that, of course, assumes that the Cubs receive production from the Byrd/Silva combo similar to that they would have gotten from Bradley over the next two years. How likely is that? Let's assume the Cubs are smart enough to keep from letting Silva pitch enough to actually hurt the club and peg his value over the rest of the contract as precisely bupkis, leaving us to compare the likely contributions of Byrd vs. Bradley:


2009 Statistics
Player         Age    PA  HR  RBI  AVG/ OBP/ SLG   EqA  WARP3  Rate2  UZR/150
Marlon Byrd     31   599  20  89  .283/.329/.479  .272   2.0     91*    -9.5*
Milton Bradley  31   473  12  40  .257/.378/.397  .276   2.5    105**   -6.9**
Kosuke Fukudome --   --   --  --   --   --   --    --    --     106*   -18.5*
                                       
 *CF Defense
**RF Defense

Above, we see the 2009 numbers for both players, seasons described as a "breakout" for Byrd and a "bust" for Bradley. On the offensive side, Bradley's superior OBP was undercut by a lack of power, while Byrd's home runs were significantly undone by a low OBP, giving them similarly underwhelming EqAs for everyday outfielders. Comparing defense is trickier, as Byrd's arrival allows the Cubs to move Kosuke Fukudome to right field, a position the Cubs feel he is better suited to play, so the comparison really is Byrd/Fukudome vs. Fukudome/Bradley. In center field, both Rate2 and UZR show Byrd to have been well below average last year, while Fukudome gets wildly divergent marks. Most observers feel that both players are somewhat stretched as everyday center fielders, so most likely Byrd isn't much of an upgrade over Fukudome in center. Bradley plays an acceptable right field, though Fukudome is probably a small improvement.

Taken together, it looks like the Cubs haven't improved themselves on the field with these moves, and have probably taken a step back, with any small improvement in defense likely erased by the difference between the bats of Bradley and Byrd. Bradley's 2009 season clocked in around his 10th percentile PECOTA forecast, so he's a good bet to improve in 2010. Byrd's season reached his 60th percentile PECOTA forecast, and was really a breakout only in terms of playing time and counting stats, with the improved numbers flashed under his name during games masking a lineup-damaging OBP-his EqA actually dropped 24 points from 2008-and providing yet more evidence of how easy (and common) it is to draw incorrect conclusions from old-fashioned metrics like RBI. Byrd's walk rate plummeted from 10.2 percent in 2008 to 5.5 percent last year, a troubling trend that makes him an unlikely candidate to suddenly take his game to a higher level.

In a vacuum, or on a Strat-o-Matic team, it's easy to see that keeping Bradley would have been more beneficial than adding Byrd. The Cubs need Bradley's on-base skills more than Byrd's power, and Bradley usually provides more power anyway, with a career .450 SLG and .172 ISO, compared to .422 and .143 for Byrd. Moreover, Byrd's righty bat just adds to the Cubs' starboard-side lineup tilt, and his .285/.322/.419 line away from Arlington last year adds credence to the fear that he may join Gary Matthews Jr. and Bradley himself as post-Texas busts. One line of thinking is that the hiring of former Rangers hitting guru Rudy Jaramillo, Byrd's mentor the last three seasons, will help keep him clicking on all cylinders-but if that's true, why did he struggle on the road throughout his Texas career? Wasn't there room for Jaramillo on the team charter? The only advantages to Byrd over Bradley as a player are his durability (no small thing) and his ability to almost play center-but with Fukudome already on hand, that advantage doesn't much help the Cubs this coming season.

Of course, players aren't Strat cards, though, and it's been clear for months that Bradley would never play another inning with the Cubs. Byrd is a useful player, the length and size of his contract isn't unreasonable, and perhaps most importantly, by all accounts he's a likeable fellow. Signing him doesn't bring the Cubs much closer to a title, but it does go some distance to mitigate the damage caused not so much by signing Bradley in the first place, but the organization going so far out of their way to ensure he had virtually no value left on the open market. The decreased production they should expect from their outfield actually makes the Cubs' investment in team chemistry and media appeasement considerably north of $5 million, but both Jim Hendry and the majority of sports-radio callers seem to think it's well worth every penny. By September we should have a better idea of whether they're right. I'm skeptical, of course, but then again, I didn't have to go to work every day last summer and deal with Milton Bradley.

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

Related Content:  Cubs,  Milton Bradley,  Marlon Byrd

16 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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R.A.Wagman

Ken - this article, while interesting, is an anecdote - and we know what they say about anecdotes...
How about this as a series to tide us to Spring Training? - Compile a list of players deemed Bradley-like chemical hounds and look at the difference in performance in their old teams in following seasons as well as their potential negative effect on their new teams.
Quoting Shiraz Rehman, from his earlier interview with Laurila, "I think it's important to draw a distinction between classifying something as subjective, and suggesting it does not exist, because there's no question that certain players provide leadership and help bring out the best in those around them over a long season. I'm not sure about an exact percentage."
This type of research would dove-tail nicely with your earlier work on "The Good Face." I look forward to it.

Jan 03, 2010 20:22 PM
rating: 3
 
Nathan J. Miller

I agree this would make for an interesting series. I don't feel this article missed the mark though...it did exactly what the title said it would: answer how much a team was willing to pay for chemistry vs. for performance in the form of Byrd. It doesn't appear it was aimed in any form at answering whether that chemistry is a worthwhile investment, but that would definitely make an interesting followup study.

Jan 06, 2010 14:26 PM
rating: 0
 
BillJohnson

One consistent part of the "analysis" of the MB situation, which appears in this article as usual, is the implicit, sometimes explicit, contention that Silva is going to be completely worthless. I'm not entirely convinced that that's the way things will turn out. Yeah, it's probably the most "likely" outcome, but it's not like he's just been traded to the AL East. Just "assum(ing) the Cubs are smart enough to keep from letting Silva pitch enough to actually hurt the club and peg his value over the rest of the contract as precisely bupkis" strikes me as a bit lazy -- although as a Cardinals fan, I'd be more than happy to see the "precisely bupkis" part hold true, and the not-pitching-enough-to-hurt part, not.

Jan 03, 2010 21:20 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

The Cubs have a lot of strong starting pitching and if they have any strength in their farm system, it is their rookie pitchers. So Silva's presumed best asset as an innings eater probably shouldn't even come into play.

However, since he's being paid so much, I imagine it'll be tempting to make him a starter.

Jan 04, 2010 04:53 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Ken Funck
BP staff

I'd classify the Cubs' collection of minor league pitching as Not Ready For Prime Time Players. Guys like Cashner, Carpenter and Jackson might have bright futures, but they need some more time in the oven, and the options they have at Iowa (guys like Atkins and Mathes) aren't likely to be better than Silva. But I'd still rather see Marshall, Gorzelanny, or even (gulp!) Samardzija in the rotation than Silva. I hope I'm wrong, and as a Cubs fan I'll gladly take any production we can get from him, but I'm not holding my breath in anticipation of a Silva lining.

Jan 05, 2010 16:57 PM
 
CRP13

I see this as unnecessary criticism of a good article. Ken clearly states that it is next-to-impossible to look analytically at a psychological move, as is valiantly attempted by Russell Carlton today in another article.

The thought that Silva will probably be worthless is one that Ken shares with...everybody. He's not being unduly unfair to Silva or hopeful Cubs fans by taking a few well-deserved jabs at the guy and the teams that employ him. Silva's career ERA before his ridiculous contract and before his injury was 4.32, which despite pitching in hitter-friendly home fields, still places him squarely in the bad-4th-starter, decent-5th-starter range. It is not worth it to figure out his EQA or WARP3 over that time, but I suspect they translate to "not good".

And then he got hurt. Doing an in-depth "analysis" on Silva is scarcely needed. He's a bad, overpaid, injured pitcher with a 3.78 career K/9, so he doesn't even provide excitement to counterbalance his ridiculous salary.

Jan 04, 2010 11:11 AM
rating: 2
 
Peter7899

I was really hoping that Hendry would show some real wit and creativity with his opening in CF. There were so many avenues to look at via trade for CF's with the Yankees (Melky, Gardner) or the Braves (Jordan Shafer) or the Rays (Perez). Why not aquire a defensive whiz (+10-15UZR) that slugs .390 compared to Byrd who only slugs .410 away from Texas? Hendry had an opportuntiy to aquire a really athletic player, yet chose to sign a guy who is going to live and die by the long ball, just like the rest of the roster. I really try to give credit to the guy for the 2007 and 2008 teams, but gosh dangit he's not making this team any better. The roster makeup needs to change, and I don't think Hendry is capable of changing it.

Jan 04, 2010 09:04 AM
rating: 2
 
sbnirish77

This article completely ignores the point that Lou Pinella was MIA in controling the Bradley situation (just as he has been remiss in handling Zambrano) and is the real person responsible for the degradation of assets.

Lou is paid to manage and all he did after each game last year was throw up his hands as the team continued to spiral out of control.

Look for a similar Bradley situation to develop this year and torpedo the Cubs efforts again. And this time you won't have Bradley to blame.

Jan 04, 2010 14:36 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

What was the Bradley situation in 2008 that caused the Cubs to spiral in the playoffs?

Jan 05, 2010 06:41 AM
rating: 1
 
onegameref

I guess the closest thing was Soriano being exposed as a non-leadoff batter. Lou stuck with him through thick and thin when the average viewer can observe he is eaten up by good pitching.

Jan 05, 2010 23:47 PM
rating: 0
 
Tarakas

All I know, is that as a Cardinals fan, I'm excited to see the Cubs bring in Silva and Byrd.

Jan 05, 2010 10:06 AM
rating: 1
 
chriscaroy

when reading comments on ken's pieces, i often wonder if the same commentary would be offered if they were penned by someone with the initials JS, JP, or KG. i'm not saying any of the above opinions are invalid or vicious or anything, but there does seem to be a bit of "let's zing the new guy"/ condescending vibe in the comments whenever ken posts something...

i say keep up the good work. i always enjoy the salary vs expected performance component that is common to your work, and (perhaps more importantly) i like the personality you bring to the articles. the latter point is an issue my friends and i often discuss as lacking somewhat at BP (and the loss of sheehan will affect this tremendously as well), so here's a (small) tip of the cap to ken.

Jan 05, 2010 12:31 PM
rating: 3
 
CRP13

I absolutely agree, and I've noticed it with other BP Idol writers who stuck around. If these guys weren't better than me, then I would have won the contest, not them. People need to stop nit-picking and attempt to intelligently comment on the content, rather than the context.

Jan 05, 2010 13:52 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

Just from my point of view, I think the people who leave comments don't get wrapped up in who is writing but flame or praise equally. That being said, as Christina has written elsewhere, writing takes a lot of practice and so its easier to find holes to nitpick. Personally, I love Ken's stuff and want him to update his CHEERS metric :)

Jan 05, 2010 16:08 PM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Ken Funck
BP staff

If there's a 'let's zing the new guys' vibe in the comments I get, I have to say I haven't really noticed it. A little chin music makes the game more interesting, after all, and I think the vets and rookies both get their fair share of high-and-tight comments--almost all of which are fair. Knowing that our readers are going to point out flaws in our arguments, or the way we construct our pieces, or our striking physical resemblance to Rick Sutcliffe, makes us better at what we do, and if we can't stand a little criticism we shouldn't be posting our thoughts in the first place.

Jan 05, 2010 17:10 PM
 
onegameref

I think it was a bad signing because they could still play Fukudome in CF and platoon in RF (Hoffpauir and ?) while using the new found cash on Sheets. Byrd will disappoint and I don't think it will take very long. Pierre on the Southside too. It shouldn't take long.

Jan 05, 2010 23:52 PM
rating: -1
 
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