The Cubs are a well-run organization who, relative to other buyers this summer, seemed to overpay for Aroldis Chapman. Do we need to reframe their choice?
Esteemed colleague and possessor of a terrific first name, Jeff Long, recently wrote about why teams in contention might pay a lot for relievers, even though, as Long writes, “It’s a formula that the sabermetric community sometimes finds difficult to rationalize. Relievers pitch so few innings and are so volatile that their value is almost certainly lower than that of the prospects dealt for them.” As to why teams in contention do this anyway, Long concludes that when the playoffs come teams cannot simply accumulate WARP; they need to actually win individual games, and really good relievers help teams do so. That makes sense to me. It makes sense to me why teams add relievers to improve their chances of winning right now even if they are going to end up accumulating less WARP from a given trade. But what does still does not quite make sense to me is why Aroldis Chapman was so expensive compared to other relievers or other players traded at the deadline.
How expensive was it? Please find an email from me to Chris Crawford, and Crawford’s responding email below:
The long-term deals signed last winter have turned into one of the ugliest in recent memory, from the teams' perspectives.
If you look back at the biggest multi-year contracts signed by free agents every offseason, the rate of teams at some point wishing they could get out of the deal tends to be high. On the most basic level, there’s simply a lot of room for a nine-figure investment in a baseball player to go wrong, particularly when the player is usually on the wrong side of 30 years old and coming off a stretch of good performance that makes for a natural regression candidate. Beyond that, the notion of a “winner’s curse” is at work, in that any team bidding enough to secure a high-end free agent likely did so by paying a premium. And, of course, players sign deals when they're in their prime. They end them when they're old, but still getting paid like they're not.
None of which is to suggest that handing out $100 million-plus deals to free agents is always a bad idea, but rather that for the contract to be a good idea the team has to get tremendous value in the early years. There’s a tacit understanding that, for instance, a six-year, $150 million signing will not provide the team with as much value in Year 5 and Year 6 as it does in Year 1 and Year 2, but the team lives with the later years of the contract in order to get the early years. Another way of looking at it is that, if things don’t go well in those early years of a big long-term contract, the whole signing may turn very, very ugly.
Does the jump from "good" to "great" make all the difference when it comes to acquiring a closer?
For a number of reasons, the move from this trade deadline that seemed to occupy the biggest portion of our collective consciousness was the Aroldis Chapman trade. He was sent from the Yankees to the Cubs in exchange for Gleyber Torres, Adam Warren, Billy McKinney, and Rashad Crawford. Chapman was suspended earlier this season for violating the league's domestic violence policy, firing a handgun during an argument with his girlfriend and allegedly choking her as well, which meant this trade was accompanied by numerous thorny moral issues. It also happened before the real madness of the 48 hours leading up to the deadline, which meant it had less attention competition for our attention than some of the later trades.
But most relevant to this article, the return seemed huge. Yes, the Cubs are almost definitely going to make the playoffs, and they'll appreciate having a lights-out closer if/when they do, and yes, Torres was almost certainly blocked by other Chicago players, but this still seemed like a high price to pay. Andrew Miller, one of the other elite Yankees relievers, was also traded, and his DRA this season is almost a full run lower than Chapman's. Miller brought back a package of Clint Frazier, Justus Sheffield, Ben Heller, and J.P. Feyereisen, and while I'm not a prospect expert, my sense is the Chapman return is more desirable. It's at least close, which is amazing, because Miller has not only been better than Chapman this year, he's also signed for two years after 2016, at $9 million annually, while Chapman will be a free agent and will probably cost a lot more than Miller over those two years.
What do we do with this? What are we supposed to make of a team like the Cubs, which by all indications is run by very intelligent people, making a decision that looks indefensible? A common reaction (and I think reasonable reaction) is to try to find the assumption that makes the decision look that way, and wonder whether the team might know a reason it's wrong, After the Chapman trade, the most common such argument I saw looked generally like this:
Danny Salazar is losing heat, and Max Kepler takes advantage. Meanwhile, Danny Duffy and Kyle Hendricks turn in signature starts.
The Monday Takeaway
The Indians had themselves a mighty fine trade deadline, even after Jonathan Lucroy nixed his ticket to Cleveland. Andrew Miller should fortify the bullpen and Brandon Guyer figures to provide a nice boost to the outfield. With a relatively stable and healthy rotation, general manager Mike Chernoff was able to use his myriad trade chits to patch other roster holes while steering clear of the extreme sellers’ market for starting pitchers.
Then the deadline passed, and game time came around for the Tribe’s August opener against the Twins, and… uh oh.
The Mets ad-lib a loss, Dee Gordon says sorry, and Aroldis Chapman pitches for a new team.
The Thursday Takeaway Jeurys Familia was not going to close on Thursday. Terry Collinssaid so the night before—no caveats or conditional statements, no probably won’t or isn’t expected to, just a straightforwardly simple declarative. Familia wasn’t going to close, and Addison Reed was. And that made sense, seeing as how Familia had pitched on two straight days, the second of which resulted in two runs that earned him his first blown save since May. Familia wasn’t going to close.
Voting your conscience is awfully difficult as a baseball fan.
There’s a freedom in helplessness. Sometimes, the act of choosing gets in the way of life. Imagine the burden of infinite possibilities: the information cost of picking a new breakfast cereal each morning, scrolling through a Netflix queue that never folds back on itself. The burden of deciding which people you help (and which you don’t) with your charity foundation, the way you allocate your infinite resources during your still-finite time on this earth.
It’s that time of year again. That last week in July when we swear that teams lose all sense of things big and small and ship otherwise valuable prospects in exchange for late-inning relievers who will pitch a few dozen innings over the balance of the season. It’s a formula that the sabermetric community sometimes finds difficult to rationalize. Relievers pitch so few innings and are so volatile that their value is almost certainly lower than that of the prospects dealt for them.
It’s difficult to look at the trade returns for late-game specialists and understand the thought process. The Cubs seemingly traded a king’s ransom to acquire Aroldis Chapman, a pitcher whose performance is only marred by the domestic violence charges that hang over him. Let’s not mince words either; that marring very real and deserved. For the purposes of this article, though, we're be ignoring that component of this trade, not because it doesn’t matter—it matters immensely—but because it didn’t dramatically diminish his value in the baseball world, which is what this article is about.
If you want a bunch of Zobrists, it helps to plant them early. Are teams doing it?
We live in an era of short benches. Recently, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred made news when he admitted that the league office has had discussions about new restrictions for teams around how they can use relievers (and how many). There’s nothing imminent, but Manfred cited the dominance of relievers in recent years and hinted that the move would bring a little offensive spark back into the game. Plus, we all know the complaints about innings where a team uses four pitchers. Because they have eight relievers on the roster.