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August 24, 2009

Checking the Numbers

What Can Wagner Do For You?

by Eric Seidman

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By signing Francisco Rodriguez to a lucrative three-year deal and acquiring J.J. Putz from the Mariners over last winter, the Mets virtually ensured that their ties would be cut with Billy Wagner, the injured left-handed closer with an $8 million club option for 2010. After all, Putz has an option valued at $8.6 million next year, but with his market value plummeting due to ineffective outings and a subsequent injury and the team not willing to spend over $16 million on injury-prone set-up men or closers, Wagner clearly became the odd man out. Entering the season, PECOTA did not factor in Wagner's recovery from ulnar collateral ligament surgery, projecting a 3.03 ERA and 1.9 WXRL in 49 1/3 innings. Though his rehab and recovery was always going to preclude him from amassing a good chunk of playing time, many thought of Wagner as a potential bullpen boon to a contending Mets team upon his scheduled August return. Wagner did return this month, but with the Mets' nonexistent playoff hopes and confirmed lack of interest in exercising his option, as well as the waiver claim placed on his services by the Red Sox, Wagner may still find himself in the position to provide a bullpen boon to a contending team. But can he deliver, if given the chance?

Normally, standard protocol for valuations along these lines dictates a vacuum-based context and prorated projection; as in, Player A has $5 million remaining on this year's deal and projects to add 1.5 wins from here on out, therefore surpassing his salary with production. Extenuating circumstances rear their ugly heads in Wagner's case, however, as he is a 37-year-old pitcher who derives success from blistering fastball velocity and a devastating, tightly spun slider, and is coming off of reconstructive elbow surgery.

On top of the factors that could potentially hinder his production over the final 40 or so games, removing ourselves from the vacuum and realizing that his production could drastically enhance the playoff probability of the Red Sox, a team battling to stay ahead in the wild-card standings, it stands to reason that Wagner's numbers could actually be worth twice the vacuum value. With these caveats in mind, the Red Sox-or any team who kicked the tires on placing a waiver claim on Wagner-should have asked themselves a few questions along these lines:

  1. Has he shown enough in rehab outings and one major league game to merit aggressive pursuit?
  2. Is his projected upgrade more than marginal?
  3. Is his projected production worth $3.5 million or more this season?
  4. Do you get Wagner for this season and next?

The first question is terribly difficult to answer given how teams employ different scouting techniques, but by placing the claim on Wagner the Red Sox are indicating that they feel strongly about his recovery. The middle questions essentially walk hand in hand with one another, as Wagner could certainly earn his keep if he pitches to expectations and aids the Red Sox in their quest for the AL Wild Card and if his numbers help them reach the postseason, then the upgrade would certainly be more than marginal. The current season is certainly the most pressing issue, making the fourth question much less of a priority to answer for the Red Sox.

Theo Epstein and company could always buy Wagner out for $1 million next season if he either fails to produce down the stretch run and/or becomes cost-ineffective next season, but the events are not exactly dependent on one another; Wagner could help the Red Sox make the playoffs this season and still become cost-ineffective next season if other off-season moves enhance their pre-season odds to the point that his projection as a set-up man or specialist actually appears to be marginal at best.

So what should we expect from Wagner? Coming off of such a strenuous surgery and potentially heading to a team with an All-Star closer already in place, the late-inning stopper role is out of the question, even with Jonathan Papelbon apparently struggling with his mechanics and regularly inducing irregular heartbeats throughout Red Sox Nation. Even consistent set-up duty may be too heavy a workload, leading us in sort of a roundabout fashion to the conclusion that the optimal usage pattern for Wagner would look like that of a specialist reliever, in his case, a LOOGY.

Earlier in the year I implored everyone to use the appropriate context when evaluating specialists, comparing results of the individual to that of the league rather than utilizing self-splits. Wagner would be considered a tremendous specialist candidate because his numbers against lefty hitters have routinely bested those of the average southpaw pitcher against his same-handed brethren, not because his self-split shows that lefties have fared much worse than righties. Or, taking things a step further, a comparison of Wagner to all other lefty pitchers against the same lefty hitters he faced.

Unfortunately, despite Wagner posting REqA marks against lefty hitters of .414, .713, and .556 over the last three seasons (compared to league average LHH-LHP REqAs of .752, .761, and .747, respectively), his productivity was on display in a minuscule number of plate appearances. While it is unlikely that the Mets were consciously hiding Wagner from same-handed hitters, the lack of a sample against can potentially inflate our value of the numbers and therefore lead us to inaccurate conclusions. However, as I also suggested in our look at platoon splits, when dealing with the smaller samples it may actually behoove us to trust the eyes of trained scouts as far as picking up on tendencies against same-handed opponents. At the very least, the qualitative information would be just as reliable as the small samples.

Scouting reports on Wagner have always pegged him as being extra tough on lefties based on his deceptive delivery and the late break of his slider. Wagner might not dial the radar gun up to Zumaya-land any more, but his compact delivery, complete with arm-slinging action and near identical release points on the fastball and slider can definitely still induce buckling knees and feeble attempts at contact. Some of the best LOOGYs-guys like Pedro Feliciano and J.C. Romero-utilize their sliders with great frequency, and while this may be more of a back-of-the-envelope idea, it does seem that southpaws with plus sliders have the potential to become tremendous specialists.

All of this brings us back to what we can expect Wagner to produce from here on out, and whether or not that production truly merits the Red Sox dishing out at least $3.5 million this season before even pondering Wagner's fate with the team next season. Since his injury throws a wrench into the projection machine, we are instead going to call upon what I have termed The Neftali-Meter, a barometer by which we can gauge production added in a very short period of time, named after Rangers überprospect Neftali Feliz. As of Sunday morning, Feliz had appeared in eight games, throwing 14 1/3 fantastic innings and producing a 1.046 WXRL. Wagner's playing time will be limited in Boston so as to avoid further injuries, and he is incredibly unlikely to match Feliz's brief dominance, but it does not seem like a stretch to expect half of a Neftali over the remaining month and a half. If Wagner produces anywhere from 0.4 to 0.6 wins from here on out, is his value to the Red Sox greater than his stipend?

Last month, Matt Swartz discussed a method that would incorporate playoff odds for various teams in order to determine the monetary utility of an acquired player. As an example, at the time of publication Roy Halladay projected to be worth $18 million to the Tigers based on how drastically he might have improved their playoff odds, a figure that equated to 90 percent of his entire seasonal value with just 43 percent of the season left to play. Matt ran my assumption of 0.4-0.6 wins for Wagner through his system and determined that, depending on whether or not we use the non-PECOTA or PECOTA-informed playoff odds, Wagner would be worth $3.6 million to $4.2 million. While 0.4-0.6 wins may translate to "just" $1.8-2 million in vacuum-based valuations, the impact of a relatively productive and healthy Billy Wagner would help the Red Sox solidify their playoff position and therefore transform what may be traditionally viewed as average-ish production into numbers definitively worth the price of admission, sort of akin to how we might pay an extra dollar or two for a glass of water if severely dehydrated.

Acquiring Billy Wagner certainly carries the inherent risk of injury or ineffectiveness, and pitchers respond differently to Tommy John surgeries, making relatively useless the comparison to how others have fared in their returns. In fact, Wagner looks like he can become a guinea pig of sorts for the marriage of Tommy John surgery recovery and PITCHf/x data. Performance-wise, if he can simply muster up some semblance of pre-season expectations and if he is not counted on as a savior, it becomes quite hard to imagine that Wagner would fail to meet the 0.4-0.6 win assumption, meaning that, at the low end of that range he would still break even this season.

Given that these calculations peg Wagner as, at worst, a break-even candidate and at best an incredibly valuable asset to the playoff hopes of the Red Sox, the waiver claim makes sense on paper. Current members of the Red Sox bullpen-cough, Papelbon, cough, Delcarmen-may be a bit confused as to the reasoning for the claim, and wary of the potential for clubhouse chemistry combustion, but if Wagner meets the aforementioned assumptions and produces like he has in the past, in the optimal role of lefty specialist, the Red Sox have a much greater chance of playing deep into October than they do by standing pat.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

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

Related Content:  Red Sox Nation,  Year Of The Injury,  Claim

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