January 3, 2010
Marlon Byrd and the Price of Chemistry
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.