Thursday, 5 December 2013

Hijacking a FanGraphs Chat: Pitching, Price, Marginal Wins and the "Dickey Effect"

I'm not sure if this will become something I do regularly or not, but there were a few Jays-related tidbits in last week's FanGraphs Chat with Dave Cameron that I felt were worth unpacking a little bit more. The format of the chat doesn't really lend itself to lengthy responses so Cameron can definitely be forgiven the brevity of some of his answers. I just thought it would be fun, without pretending to know Dave Cameron's mind of course, to expand on what he was saying a little bit. 

Comment From Tom
Shark gets traded or extended? Whats your gut tell you?

Dave Cameron: Traded.

Comment From Jays fan
As a Jays fan am I wrong for not wanting to give up either Sanchez or Stroman for Jeff Samardzija?

Dave Cameron: No. Only two more years of team control.

Obviously these two comments sort of go hand in hand, and if you've been paying attention I'm sure you're already familiar with the trade rumours that have been swirling around the Cubs and Blue Jays. Basically, the Cubs have been having trouble getting a contract extension done with Jeff Samardzija so he may be available in a trade. The Jays were rumoured to be "putting together a package of young players" to land the Shark, which of course sparked a lively debate in Blue Jays circles about whether the Jays should be willing to part with one or both of their prized pitching prospects Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman in order to get a deal done.

I sided with Dave here, pretty much deciding that parting with either of Sanchez or Stroman would be too much for Samardzija. Unlike Cameron though, my primary concern wasn't the Shark's two remaining years of team control.
Years of team control is rightly a major consideration when dealing prospects for established major leaguers, but not all years of team control are created equal as not all players are created equal (as I'm sure Dave would agree). A team's short-term goals are also a huge factor, as a deal that might not make sense for a 75 win team trying to get to 80 wins might make perfect sense for a team trying to go from 85 to 90 wins, as those marginal wins are much harder to come by (more on this later). Focusing only on the years of control as Dave did here understates the complexity of the considerations. 

For me, it's not necessarily that parting with six years of Sanchez or Stroman for two years of an established pitcher is out of the question, it's more that I'm not sure Samardzija is the guy to go down that road for. Don't get me wrong, I see the front of the rotation potential in his strong peripherals, but so far they haven't translated to front of the rotation results in terms of run prevention. I just wish he had at least one season of turning his great stuff into great results, or even a longer track record of being a durable innings eater, so I could feel more comfortable considering trading a Sanchez or Stroman for him, especially since both have a chance of contributing at the big league level in 2014. 

For two years of David Price, on the other hand...

Comment From Mo Speights
Do you think the Rays would consider trading Price to another AL East Team?

Dave Cameron: Sure, if the deal were so lopsided that they were both helping themselves and harming their division rival. I’d say that’s unlikely though. 

Well shucks! That was fun while it lasted, eh? Current rumours be damned, I can't say I disagree with Dave here, and it should come as no surprise. I imagine even he would entertain trading Sanchez or Stroman for two years of an elite starter like Price, but let's face reality. It would take Sanchez AND Stroman to even keep the Rays on the line, and significantly more beyond that to get a deal done.

Price is going to cost a boatload of young talent, most likely of the close to the majors variety. In fact, I'm not even sure the Jays have the pieces to put together the most appealing package for him even before considering the punitive price the Rays would demand to trade him within the division. With the upper levels of the Jays' farm system already thinned out by the Marlins trade, paying what it would take to pry Price away from a divisional rival could potentially hamstring the prospect pipeline for years to come. They might be able to replenish it by dealing other veterans next off-season should 2014 be another flop, but they could do that AND still hang to the guys they already have, hopefully making for a strong core of a future Blue Jays team. 

As great as David Price is, I don't think paying the premium it would take to acquire him from a divisional rival (if it's even a possibility), only to watch him become a Yankee two years from now, is the best use of the organization's prospect capital from a long view perspective. 

Comment From SK
Happy Thanksgiving! Should the Blue Jays look to land a starter through free agency (Ubaldo, Kazmir or Nolasco perhaps) or trade away prospects for someone like Samardzija? Wouldn’t it be better in the short and long term to sign a free agent and not further deplete the farm?

Dave Cameron: Yeah, I like a lot of the FA starters, so I’d probably go that route. 

So obviously I'm a little slow off the line here, as two of the free agents mentioned in this question (Nolasco and Kazmir) have now signed with non-Blue Jays teams. The sentiment still stands though, that the Jays should be making a push to acquire at least one starting pitcher through free agency this off-season. For me, it just makes the most sense given the resources the Blue Jays have at their disposal, or should have at their disposal given the deep pockets of their owner (no small assumption, I know).

Any trade for a starter will all but certainly require some of their young pitching going the other way, and I'm really hoping they can retain as much of it as possible for depth in 2014 and as building blocks for the future should this season be another disappointment. Obviously it may not be possible to avoid venturing into the trade market altogether, but as I've been saying all along, after last year's trades I'd rather see them spending money than prospects to add to the core they assembled. 

With all the money potentially coming off the books after 2015, I'm even okay with them "overpaying" for a free agent if it allows them to hang on to as much of that young talent as possible. That impending payroll flexibility could allow them to get a bit creative with contracts, for example by back loading a deal, and means that the tail end of any free agent contract (usually the bad part) won't be the albatross it could be otherwise.

Comment From chuckb
If the price of a win is around $6 mill or so now, how much above $6 M should teams who are in the critical spot on the win curve (85-90 wins) be willing to pay? Should they be willing to go to $8 M/ win? $7.5?

Dave Cameron: Depends on their revenue situation and payroll flexibility. Marginal value of that 90th win to a team like NYY is probably north of $10M.

So this isn't directly related to the Jays, but it does speak to why I'm so in favour of them dipping into free agency rather than pursuing trades this off-season. I refer to $/WAR calculations from time to time, in the context of a win being worth $5-7 million on the free market. However, that's a bit of an oversimplification of the matter.

For those unfamiliar with the concept of the value of a marginal win, the thinking being explored here is that not all wins have the same value. A 70 win team presumably has a lot of bad players on it, so there are opportunities to make significant upgrades all over the diamond simply by acquiring average players. An 85-90 win team, on the other hand, presumably already has a bunch of average or better players which makes it that much more difficult to find players that will serve as upgrades to an already strong team. Basically, they have a much shallower pool from which to draw potential upgrades and fewer positional needs than bad teams. With how slim the margins are for making the playoffs (with the associated revenue) in baseball, that makes those extra few wins that really take a team from good to great more valuable in terms of revenue and competitiveness, and therefore more expensive than the commonly accepted $6-7 million or so. 

How much this applies to the Blue Jays depends entirely on how representative of their true talent level you consider their 74-88 record last season to be. Personally, I think they're much closer to a true talent 85-90 win team, even before their modest upgrade at catcher, than to the 74 win train wreck we saw last year. If you buy into that, and the notion that those marginal wins are more valuable, then the risk of overpaying a free agent becomes less scary. Those extra few wins to put a team over the top are hard to come by, and teams tend to pay handsomely for them.

 Comment From Jays fan
What are your thoughts on the ‘Dickey Effect’? Seems Chris Carruthers is making a name for himself with that and TIPS.

Dave Cameron: It was a really interesting study, and I liked seeing that others found a similar thing with Wakefield back in his prime. It seems like this could be a real thing, which would be another point in favor of the value of knuckleballers.  

If you're not familiar with the context of this comment, go check out the work of Chris Carruthers and the gang over at Breaking Blue, an excellent new saber-friendly Blue Jays blog. In particular, check out this piece on the "Dickey Effect" and whether starting pitchers perform better against a team the day after Dickey blows their minds with his knuckler, and if relievers perform better in games Dickey starts. Seriously, go read the whole thing. It's really great work and, more importantly, it finds that Dickey does in fact boost the performance of pitchers that follow his starts, either in relief that game or the following day. 

According to Carruthers' work, starting pitchers have experienced an 18.9% improvement in their FIP when following Dickey in a series, and relievers see a 10.3% improvement. Before regressing the numbers a bit (which may or may not be necessary) he concluded that Dickey adds an extra 1.4 WAR (0.9 WAR after regression) to a pitching staff. If you include his excellent fielding in his WAR total, it adds an additional 0.7 WAR, taking his overall 2013 total from a somewhat disappointing 2.0 WAR up to 4.1. That's starting to look a little bit more like the guy the Jays thought they were acquiring from the Mets, no?

I can't say it enough, even though I've lifted the highlights, if you're into statistical analysis and the Blue Jays you should go read the whole piece and everything else at Breaking Blue. It's great stuff. 

Still keep coming here to read my stuff too though, k? Thanks!

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