The Rockies have done some things the past eight months. They did a thing a couple weeks ago. Like most of the things the Rockies have done lately, trading four years of Corey Dickerson for two years of Jake McGee has caused much head-scratching. The reaction to the trade was a combination of said head-scratching and “LOL Rockies” with a splash of “hey, McGee’s really good and his fastball-heavy approach might be a good fit for Coors.” The analyses of the trade all generally led to the conclusion that the Rockies do not really have a plan and that, if they do, it is simply a plan to try and be mediocre.
I do not think that this is likely. If the plan is to be mediocre or there is no plan, then why do anything at all? Why trade Troy Tulowitzki? Why sign an outfielder, just to trade another and add more payroll along the way? To me, these actions and the motivation to be mediocre do not jibe. That said, we can believe that these moves are unlikely to be successes, while having a different theory as to what is motivating this behavior.
What could be the motivation to sacrifice long-term production (the third and fourth years of the team’s control of Dickerson) in order to potentially be better, albeit likely not significantly better, in a short term in which one is not likely to make the playoffs anyway? Let us start by getting the simplest (which admittedly are often the best) answers out of the way. First, maybe the public is overrating the value of Dickerson’s final two arbitration years. Maybe lefty corner outfielders who do not provide much defensive or baserunning value are not that hard to find and thus not that in demand. Fine, but that still ignores that McGee as a return merely moves the Rockies’ needle to “slightly less below average.”
The next simplest explanation is that the Rockies think they can compete this year and the next. We know that people are overly optimistic in general (hello optimism bias), and we know that most people think that they are above-average drivers and are of above-average intelligence. It is not that difficult to imagine the Rockies’ front office believes its roster has a better chance than less invested analysts and projection systems believe. Fine, but then why trade Tulowitzki? Maybe if we squint hard enough we could believe that Jose Reyes and Jeff Hoffman will be more valuable in 2016 and 2017 than Tulowitzki alone. But that’s a heck of a squint: Even if Tulowitzki is injury prone, Reyes is a year older and not not injury prone; his game is predicated on the footspeed that has been fading for several years now. It’s unlikely that many people, if given the goal to compete for a playoff spot in 2016 and 2017, would choose Reyes and Hoffman over Tulowitzki (unless we are significantly underrating Hoffman’s trade value).
This is all well and good, but if it is not misperception about Dickerson’s trade values and it is not purely overconfidence, then what is motivating the Rockies’ behavior?
My best guess is that the Rockies have a philosophy-derived strategy that is motivating their behavior. This philosophy-derived strategy is as follows: Investing in starting pitching in free agency has produced terrible returns on investments (ROI) for the Rockies, who likely have to overpay beyond any free agency/winner’s curse premium to get a pitcher to sign up to go to work in the most unfavorable pitching conditions in major-league baseball. Consequently, the Rockies have decided it best to spend their money and resources more effectively, and have thus sought out higher ROI methods of acquiring pitching such as the trade market (Jake McGee, Jeff Hoffman, and every other minor leaguer acquired in those trades), the draft (where the Rockies have skewed toward taking more pitching in the early rounds), and reliever free agency (where the Coors premium might not be as high as it is for starting pitchers). The Rockies might also be applying the other side of this ROI-driven-philosophy coin to acquiring hitting, where they appear to feel fine about spending in free agency, particularly on players coming off of down seasons, as seen in Gerardo Parra’s three year, $27.5 million contract—and, to a lesser degree, Mark Reynolds’ one-year, $2.6 million contract—while feeling just as comfortable trading away hitting in order to acquire pitching. To summarize this hypothesis, it appears the Rockies are looking to buy low on hitting in free agency in order to sell high on hitting in the trade market in order to acquire pitching more cheaply than they could in free agency.
Also, we do not have to squint nearly so hard to see a bit of trend-following going on here, to see the Rockies focusing on the latest in strategy, that being the Royals strategy of placing value on relief pitching, baserunning, and defense. Often though, the copycat overpays when chasing these perceived market inefficiencies because other copycats are driving up the acquisition price and/or the market has already corrected these arbitrage opportunities, thus making the market no longer inefficient and the strategy no longer as effective or even viable.
The copycat thing aside, buying low, selling high, and seeking higher returns on investment are all good things when it comes to trying to create a team that will win. No disagreement here with all that. However, there is a problem. The problem is that the most brilliant of strategies will crumble if they ignore context. A company could develop a cheap and efficient way to provide the world’s best customer service, but if there is no market for its products, the resources spent on creating the world-class customer service were certainly a waste. Just as we often let a good story get in the way of the facts, we often allow theory to get in the way of the realities of the situation faced. The Rockies are not making an uncommon mistake in not seeing the context through the strategy.
Additionally, falling in love with one’s strategy might also be fuel for one’s apparent overconfidence. How often have any of us devised a plan only to see it fail because we failed to properly consider the context of the situation? No matter how sleek our resume and how good our references, we are almost never going to land that job we are completely unqualified for. The difference between this example and the Rockies example, though, is cost. Applying for a job we have 99.99 percent chance of not getting costs very little, whereas the cost of misallocating resources over a season is likely the delaying of one’s ability to consistently (or ever) make the playoffs.
Lastly, we should mention that this is pretty similar to the article that was written about the Royals after the James Shields-Wil Myers trade. That said, just because our analysis of the Rockies’ strategy could end up looking as dumb as the analyses of the Royals’ strategy, does not make what we are analyzing the same. The Rockies are not a team that built one of the best minor-league systems in baseball, nor do they appear to be a team that is taking advantage of several undervalued types of players. As of right now, the Rockies appear to be a team with a strategy, albeit one that often seems to ignore the competitive situation they are in at any given point of time, particularly the one they are in currently. Maybe the Rockies will be able to flip McGee for far better prospects than they could have for Corey Dickerson (plus the extra funds they spent on Parra), but just because it is a potential outcome does not make it a likely one. Time will tell and the Rockies plans might become clearer, but at this juncture the most likely plan appears to be a misguided one.
Oh, and good on the Rays for taking advantage of this.
Thank you for reading
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