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:
Reimagining the trade deadline with just one small difference.
Consider this scenario: On July 1 a butterfly flaps its wings, which causes Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski to scratch his nose two weeks later, briefly postponing a scheduled phone call with Padres general manager A.J. Preller. In the meantime, Josh Byrnes, senior vice president of baseball operations for the Dodgers, calls Preller for a casual pre-deadline chat . . . so, how are the kids? Wait, do you have kids? Is Drew Pomeranz available? Dombrowski calls Preller, but it’s too late—by the time he gets through, LA’s cavalry of current and former GMs have all talked to Preller. Pomeranz is a Dodger, and the world is changed forever.
It’s a silly scenario, sure, but it’s fun to think about how much the trade deadline could have changed if just a single move had gone another way. The deadline—and the weeks preceding it—consists of many (many!) discrete trades, all interesting in various ways, even in isolation. But they’re all connected, too, and it’s always more entertaining to imagine what could have been rather than what is, at least after we’ve already analyzed what is to death. How would the baseball world have turned out different if Josh Byrnes beat Dave Dombrowski to A.J. Preller’s smart phone?
Acquiring a player midyear disprupts him and his family during the most stressful part of the season. How much does it affect performance?
It’s never easy to start a new job. You have to learn where the water cooler and the restrooms are, study the subtle corporate values embedded into each group of working teammates, figure out when you can get away with wearing jeans. You have to learn new software, make new contacts. You have to memorize people’s names. You have to study their foibles, learn the archetypes, figure out which person is the rat and which is the scapegoat. You have to figure out how often and when people leave early, so that you’re not staying later and showing them up or going earlier and looking lazy. Then you have to embark on your new commute, testing various side streets and shortcuts to see where, if possible, you can shave off half a minute.
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:
On Clay Buchholz, potential hero of the eighth month.
It’s the second of August, the Boxing Day of baseball. The buyers have bought, the sellers have sold, the fans have gnashed and fist-pumped. The players have been given their hugs and their plane tickets, published their thank yous on Twitter and the local paper, the various power rankings have been revisited and renumbered. Names have been tested, sounded out the way preteen girls don the last names of teenage heartthrobs. The games continue, even grow in importance, but there’s a psychological lull, like a racetrack straightaway.