There’s no sport that lends itself to advanced analytics like baseball; it is a game ruled by distances and numbers that have spawned advanced statistics to measure everything from a batter’s batting average on balls put into play (BABIP), a pitcher’s performance independent of his defenders’ field positioning and defensive abilities (FIP), and the expected marginal value of a win $/WAR.
I like to refer to all of these analytical tools as I consider the trades and signings teams make each offseason. Some teams use these very measures to great effect, the Tampa Bay Rays being one of MLB’s brightest organizations when it comes to the cold, calculated use of statistics in developing their 25-man roster.
And yet, at times, I think we can take such analysis too far. For me, Monday’s mega-deal (that sent Rays’ pitchers Jamie Shields and Wade Davis to the Kansas City Royals in return for #1 Baseball America prospect Will Myers, 3B prospect Patrick Leonard and pitching prospects Jake Odorizzi and Mike Montgomery) is such a case of over-analysis that heaped scorn upon the Kansas City Royal front office.
Let’s remember two true-isms that will forever apply to baseball:
1. Flags fly forever
2. Prospects represent the future, which is always greater (shinier) than the present
There’s a lot of intelligent experts arguing that Royals general manager Dayton Moore included too many valuable assets in return for Shields and Davis. They conclude that Myers, as the No. 1 prospect in baseball, represented a can’t-miss bat with six years of control. Those skeptics continued: Odorizzi could be a solid No. 3 pitcher in the American League and that past precedents of similarly rated, corner-bat prospects (Myers) have an 86 percent chance of MLB success.
I don’t argue with any of the above points.
What I counter with, is that the Royals have used the past six years to develop a strong minor league system that has consistently delivered the Royals with players that have strong-offensive upside. The fruits of this system are in the majors today (Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler, Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar and Salvador Perez). This core of players can be expected to improve their performance over the next two-three seasons, before the core offensive players either reach their peak or become too expensive for the small-market Royals through arbitration and free agency.
Moore, working in an organization that has not sniffed the playoffs since 1985 – in a division that is the weakest in baseball (AL Central), recognized that the window for his team to leapfrog the (2012 overachieving) Chicago White Sox and challenge the Detroit Tigers was now. With a solid offensive core, and outstanding young bullpen arms, he had to acquire significant starting pitching improvements or risk losing the window of opportunity provided by his core players’ peak years. He began the offseason by acquiring Angels’ SP Ervin Santana and re-signing free agent Jeremy Guthrie. Both represent solid improvements to the back-end of the Royals rotation. From here, one does not know the decision making process or full range of options available to Moore with regards to acquiring front-of-the-rotation help.
One has to assume that Moore, recognizing the value of his #1 prospect (Myers) across baseball, was loathe to trade him, and first pursued other trades or free agent signings. If in fact he was rebuffed by top pitchers unwilling to sign with the Royals (can you blame them?), then he pursued the best deal possible to acquire the high-talent pitching his club needed to compete in 2013 and 2014.
By acquiring Jamie Shields, Moore has a pitcher with six seasons of 200+ innings and four seasons of 4+ WAR. He acquires Shields for the following two years before he becomes a free agent and will likely have already achieved his peak years. What I’m saying here, is he acquired a starting pitcher that met his requirements of being an “ace” while not having to sign the pitcher to a prohibitively expensive contract that would have tied the Royals to years beyond the player’s peak performance. We can forecast that Shields performance and the pitchers he replaces from the 2012 Royals can be worth four additional wins in 2013.
In acquiring Davis, Moore has acquired a young pitcher that has two years of experience as a starting pitcher and exhibited vast improvement to his pitch velocity during his year re-tooling in the Rays bullpen. Davis has significant upside for the Royals; if he can sustain his 2012 improvements as he is re-converted to a starter, the Royals acquire a mid-20s pitcher that can perform at a level similar to present-day Shields. If Davis’ 2012 improvements were aided by the short length of his pitch outings from the bullpen, the Royals have a solid bullpen arm. In either scenario, Davis addresses real pitching needs and is signed to a team-friendly deal through 2017. In either scenario, we can assume that Davis can provide the Royals two additional wins in 2013.
Baseball analysts (myself included) are guilty of analyzing trades in a winner-loser framework. Using such a framework, it’s easy to argue the Royals lost this trade relative to the Rays. However, I think there’s a place to consider the circumstances and needs of each club in isolation, and evaluate the how each team addressed their needs. In this case, Moore has solidly addressed his current day needs (pitching) to compete for the AL Central, while potentially knowing more about his prospect (Myers) than he was willing to let on to the wider baseball community.