Baseball and statistics have been linked since the game began. Baseball officials, players and fans document, research, even worship stats more than in any other sport. It is undeniable the game has changed since its inception, so why wouldn’t statistics evolve as well? Baseball, being the ‘Old Boys Club’ it is, naturally has been resistant to change.
Ever since Moneyball was written by Michael Lewis, though, the tide has begun to turn. More top baseball officials and journalists are beginning to see how new statistics can prove useful. Things like batting average on balls in play (BABIP), isolated power (IPO), home runs per fly ball (HR/FB), ultimate zone rating (UZR), walks and hits per innings pitched (WHIP), and wins above replacement (WAR) are beginning to outweigh traditional stats like batting average, errors, and earned run average.
While the verdict is still out on some of the stats, most help put quantifiable means on things we hadn’t been able to before, such as defense. Most of these Sabermetrics originated with Bill James, a Senior Advisor of Baseball Operations for the Red Sox. Before James’ break into MLB, he was widely shunned for his new wave ideas on how baseball should be viewed by statisticians. James created this new world as a means to more efficiently run his teams in rotisserie baseball leagues, the grandfather to fantasy baseball. Undoubtedly Sabermetrics have made their presence known and are here to stay.
I urge even causal baseball fans to dig a little deeper into this arena to see how the landscape is changing with player evaluations. Websites like fangraphs.com, baseballthinkfactory.org, and hardballtimes.com all offer wonderful insight as to how the stats are determined and what they all mean. I have to warn you though some of the explanations read more like analytical reports than game recaps. Even surface knowledge of Sabermetrics will prove useful as you debate transactions made by your favorite team’s front office.
The main stat I will be citing is WAR. WAR quantifies how many wins a player is worth against a league average replacement player would be. For a complete definition of WAR check out http://saberlibrary.com/misc/war/. For example, during Zack Greinke’s 2009 dominance he had the league’s highest WAR, 9.4. If for some reason Greinke suffered any injury before his first start and was replaced by a league average pitcher the Royals would have ended up theoretically with about 9-10 fewer wins. Albert Pujols’ 8.5 WAR is obviously derived a little differently than Greinke’s since he is a position player. What WAR boils down to though is essentially runs created for offensive players or runs prevented for pitchers. Players with WAR of 8+ are MVP caliber, 5+ All-Star, 2+ starters, and 0-2 reserves. For time and length purposes my explanations of these stats are primitive, once again I call upon the readers to educate themselves.
If we are able to determine how many wins a player is worth, the next logical step is to determine how much a win in MLB costs. In 2008, the average cost of a win was $2.31 million. In 2009, it was $1.8 million. For purposes of ease, let’s say a win costs about $2 million. Obviously as wins accumulate they become harder to get. For example, wins 40-50 are much easier than wins 85-95. The cost goes up exponentially as win totals rise. These numbers are a set average, as if all wins were equal. With this information it becomes a lot easier to determine whether a player is worth his contract. For example, the Royals could have justified paying Greinke almost $20 million in 2009 and still consider it a good investment. He earned the team 9.5 wins, while wins cost $2 million, equaling $19 million worth of production.
In the first move this season the Royals swapped Alberto Callaspo for Sean O’Sullivan and Will Smith. Callaspo provided the Royals with some versatility on the infield and a consistent stick in the lineup. He is 27, usually regarded as a player’s prime, and the numbers he put up this year are just a bit below his 2009 totals (.272/10 HR/55 RBI vs. .300/ 11 HR/ 73 RBI). That being said Callaspo’s WAR is 1.3. This shows he’s not quite productive enough to be a starter, but with a contract of only $460,000 he is well worth the money.
Since arriving Sean O’Sullivan has gotten rocked across the yard. His WAR is actually -1.0, far worse than a league average player. In seven of his ten appearances he has faced the Yankees, Angels, Rangers, White Sox, and Twins. A small sample size against some of the best teams in the league usually spells trouble for a young pitcher like O’Sullivan. Looking at his minor league record though, O’Sullivan was a pretty effective pitcher (.618 winning percentage, 1.2 WHIP, 6.6 SO/9). Considering O’Sullivan was a third round draft pick and broke into the big leagues at 21 years old, he must have some sustainable talent.
Will Smith is another young pitcher who got hit around pretty hard this season in the minors. Smith began the season in advanced A before the Angels fast tracked him through the organization to AAA Salt Lake. Kansas City sent him to AA Northwest Arkansas where he gave up 15 earned runs in his 18.2 innings pitched. He ran a .398 batting average against. All in all trading a reserve for a young talented pitcher is a quite common. With minor league infielders beginning to blossom for the Royals Callaspo probably wouldn’t have been around for much longer anyway.
Statistically speaking the Angels are the easy winners of this trade so far. The ages of the players the Royals received though leave a hung jury until a later date to make a full assessment.
The next move the Royals made with the Dodgers for Lucas May and Elisaul Pimentel, in exchange for Scott Podsednik. Podsednik was a worthy contributor for the Royals before he jetted to Los Angeles. He did his job of getting on base (.353 OBP) and getting over (30 SB), while patrolling the Kauffman Stadium outfield adeptly. This translated into a 1.2 WAR while with the Royals, and considering Kansas City signed him for $1.6 it was a worthwhile investment.
May was drafted in 2003 out of high school as a shortstop. He played his first three years of pro ball there until he was moved to the outfield for two seasons. In 2007, he finally found a home behind the dish. May has steadily advanced as a hitter while moving through his eight years in the minors, showing ability to get on base along with some decent pop (.435 SLG, .758 OPS, 145 2B, 92 HR).
Young athletes at positions in demand are always good to have in the organization. Although May is unproven on a Major League level, Dayton Moore calls him a “slam dunk MLB catcher.” May saw his first big league action during September call-ups this season.
Pimentel is a pretty much an unknown quantity at this point. He has only played two professional years in the low minors, producing pedestrian numbers. Podsednik has fallen off since being traded to the Dodgers. Considering the Royals needed to make room to audition Alex Gordon and Podsednik’s contract is up at season’s end, I’m going to give this one to the Royals.
It will be interesting to see how the Royals handle May in the future. Brayan Pena continues to disappoint as the Royals give him opportunities. Pena has barely played above replacement level since arriving on the scene. His highest WAR was posted this year at 0.5. Recently Pena has shown signs of life, winning the AL Player of the Week on Sept. 13 (10-23, 4 XBH, 9 RBI). The Royals are pretty high on their third round draft pick last year named Wil Myers as well. Myers tore up the rookie league last year and continued stroking in advanced A this season.
The last deal finalized by the Royals before the July 31st deadline sent Rick Ankiel and Kyle Farnsworth to the Atlanta Braves. In return, the Royals grabbed Jesse Chavez, Gregor Blanco, and Tim Collins. Ankiel signed with the Royals for $3.25 million, but didn’t play much because of injury. When he did play, it wasn’t very well (.261 BA, 15 RBI, 93 AB). Since going to the Braves he’s played even worse for a season total of 0.2 WAR (.204 BA, 7 RBI, 92 AB).
Farnsworth’s fate was the same. He pitched decently out of the bullpen for the first half of the season (1.1 WHIP, 2.42 ERA, 1.2 WAR), but turned back to his ‘gas can’ ways in a Braves uniform (5.40 ERA, -0.2 WAR). This along with the fact the Royals were paying him $4.5 million for his services bodes well for Kansas City.
I can call this one a win for the Royals without even discussing the players they received in return. Getting out from two players not worth their contract who don’t play into the future is a good move. Considering they both played significantly worse in the second half, any players in return for the Royals are icing on the cake.
But Jesse Chavez and Gregor Blanco aren’t much to write home about. These guys are cheap stop gaps with major league experience to hold down the fort until some young talent arrives. The real interesting piece of this deal is Tim Collins. Collins, 20, is an undersized (5’7’’, 155 lbs) lefty who has bounced around quite a bit this season. He was signed by the Blue Jays in 2007 as a non-draftee free agent, but got dealt to Atlanta in the Yunel Escobar/Alex Gonzalez deal. A few weeks later Kansas City acquired his rights and sent him to Omaha to pitch out of the bullpen. Collins, a career minor leaguer, doesn’t allow many men on base. He boasts a skinny career WHIP of 1.06 and is a strikeout machine (13.3 SO/9).
The last major deal with the Royals got done after the July 31st deadline, sending Jose Guillen to the Giants. Kansas City will receive a player to be named later. Even though Guillen still leads the Royals in home runs, I have to say this was a winner for Kansas City. The outcome of this deal is similar to the Atlanta trade: addition by subtraction. The Royals owed Guillen $12 million to the aging outfielder who only played at a 0.8 WAR clip. Guillen only has 27 at-bats since joining San Francisco.
The Giants gamble was understandable since they are making a playoff push. In my mind anytime you can get rid of a guy who constantly dogs it down the line after calling out his team for not ‘playing fundamentally sound baseball’ is a good day. Guillen is widely criticized as one of the worst clubhouse cancers in MLB. As the Royals transition to their young talent, Guillen is a personality management surely doesn’t want around to rub off on prospects.
Overall the Royals made some pretty good moves looking at them so far. They got rid of aging players who didn’t figure into the picture, while saving some money and grabbing a few intriguing prospects. This allows the organization some opportunity to showcase some youngsters who haven’t gotten a big league shot. With the extra money Kansas City will now be able to make some more sound investments on the free agent market like they did last winter in Podsednik. It may even free up enough money to take a shot at Greinke when his contract is up. Although, with his comments about the organization a month ago, I wouldn’t count on it.