In the week leading up the season opener, you get asked a lot about divisional races, asked to make predictions and provide reasons for them. Whenever I was talking about the AL West–a division most people seem to think is the Angels’ to lose–I found myself using a variation of a particular answer:
“Even though they traded Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder, I expect the four pitchers the A’s got back in the trades to replace, on an inning-for-inning basis, what Hudson and Mulder gave them last season.”
I hadn’t actually tested the notion, but the quote reflected both my confidence in the guys the A’s acquired and my concern over the two guys being dealt away, especially Mulder, whose peripherals took a big step backwards last season, one year after he’d missed his last eight starts with a hip injury. In Dan Haren, Kiko Calero, Juan Cruz and Dan Meyer, the A’s had picked up four pitchers with considerable ability, for whom opportunity, not talent, was the major issue.
Let’s just compare the six pitchers’ 2004 performances, to begin:
A'comin' Pitcher IP ERA BB SO HR VORP WARP Haren 46.0 4.50 17 32 4 6.3 0.9 Cruz 72.0 2.75 30 70 7 21.6 3.2 Calero 45.1 2.78 10 47 5 14.7 2.1 Meyer 2.0 0.00 1 1 0 1.3 0.1 TOTALS 165.1 3.21 58 150 16 43.9 6.3 A'goin' Pitcher IP ERA BB SO HR VORP WARP Hudson 188.2 3.52 44 103 8 48.6 6.1 Mulder 225.2 4.43 83 140 25 37.2 5.9 TOTALS 414.1 4.02 127 243 33 85.8 12.0
The four pitchers the A’s got back in the trades out-pitched the departed “Big Two” on a per-inning basis, allowing fewer runs and putting up better ratios, save for home runs, and generating more value–as reflected in the Value Over Replacement Level and Wins Above Replacement Level–per inning pitched.
The A’s starters, of course, added a lot of value by pitching more innings in the majors. If you were to credit Haren, Calero and Meyer for their work at Double- and Triple-A last year, even on a translated basis, the value gap would close considerably.
If you take the names off the stat lines above, it’s clear which set of pitchers is the better bet for 2005. Strikeout rate is the critical indicator for a pitcher, and the A’s dealt away two guys with a strikeout rate of 5.28 per nine innings for four guys who had a collective 8.17 K/9 in 2004. The gap between the two groups isn’t quite that wide–the guys the A’s got back aren’t going to be 50% better than Mulder and Hudson this year–but when you look at the strikeout rates, you can see why I think the A’s might win these trades on the field in 2005, before even considering the money saved, the extra years they’ll have these pitchers, or hitting prospect Daric Barton. I’ll stand by my off-the-cuff evaluation.
I don’t mean to seem dismissive of Hudson and Mulder. Actually, one of the mistakes we’ve all been making is lumping the two together. In fact, Hudson is the better pitcher and the much more likely of the two to sustain his level. Hudson’s lower strikeout rate is part of an approach that keeps his GB/FB ratio well above 2.00 and his home runs allowed among the lowest of any starting pitcher in the game. His walk rates have fallen in tandem with his strikeout rate; even last year, the ratio between the two was 2.34, well into the comfort zone. His strikeout rate would look better on a per-batter basis (and evaluating pitchers this way is a topic for another day, although Nate Silver has already expressed his thoughts). He may be evolving into a right-handed Tommy John, and the direction of his rates this season is one of the more interesting stories in the game. The trade involving Hudson is likely to be a win for both teams.
Mulder comes with more issues. His protests aside, Mulder’s health is going to be questioned until he puts up a full, effective season. As Will Carroll notes today, observers have serious questions about whether he has anything left. I would, without a doubt, rather have Dan Haren than Mark Mulder in 2005, and that’s without considering money.
The A’s have traded perceived value for actual value, and in doing so, made their team better in the short term and in the long term. Whether they win the division remains to be seen–the Angels’ deep roster will have a lot to say about it–but the idea that they’ve dumped 2005 to build for the future is patently false. They’re a contender right now.
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