Reliever X for Player Y
Whenever a reliever, young or old, is traded for a young position player, Twitter rages. For years, the sabermetrics community has drilled the idea of relief pitchers — even closers — as fungible assets. In general, any reliever can close and the lot of them don’t produce enough WAR to have significant value.
Additionally, failed starters end up relievers which is used as further proof of the theory. When a top closer produces half the WAR value of an above average regular at another position, it’s difficult to argue against the math of it.
Within minutes, my Twitter timeline flooded with tweets lamenting Diamondbacks General Manager Kevin Towers. White Sox General Manager is a genius. Davidson is a steal. Reed is a whatever. End of story.
Is it really that easy though?
A couple of years ago, I took in a game with a scout who was influential in my writing for FanGraphs. A proponent of both scouting and advanced statistics, we had conversation in the stands about the value of closers.
From an hour long conversation, a single comment has stuck with me. “People — even in the industry — will discount the value of closers until they have one who’s unhittable. There’s value in knowing the game will be over whenever Mariano Rivera pitches.”
If the Diamondbacks view Addison Reed as this type of closer going forward after a 40-save, 1.7 WAR season, then this trade makes perfect sense from their perspective. Think of relief pitching value more in terms of precipitous drop instead of a sliding scale. Craig Kimbrel is x-number times as valuable than Jim Johnson in Major League Baseball because Atlanta earns a win whenever he pitches. The same can’t be said about Johnson.
In 2013, only Koji Uehara and Greg Holland surpassed 3 WAR as relievers. Six more relievers accumulated 2.0 to 2.9 WAR. Twelve additional relief pitchers accumulated 1.5 to 1.9 WAR. Statistically, this creates tiers of relief pitchers in terms of value from a statistical standpoint. If a win is worth about six million, then multiply WAR value by 6 and what’s left is the value to the team. Simple enough, right?
In a vacuum, Neal Cotts was worth .1 WAR more than Glen Perkins. Sean Doolittle AND Ryan Cook were both as valuable to the Athletics as Aroldis Chapman was to the Reds. Admittedly, more advanced statistical analysis measures leverage situations to break things out further, but not during the period of post trade knee-jerk reactions.
During this period, a common tweet might include, “The Diamondbacks just traded for Addison Reed. They would have been better off getting Nate Jones instead.” Yes, Jones was worth 2.0 WAR while Reed was worth less, but that’s completely ignoring the human element. By trading Reed, it appears the White Sox are comfortable giving Nate Jones a shot to close. However, he’s never done it at the MLB level. That matters and is worth millions.
So when I read a tweet to the effect of, “Team “A” just traded for saves.” or “Team “B” just signed a free agent for saves.” My answer is, you’re flipping right. They signed or traded for the guy who’s done it before because the downside of handing the reigns to a strong set up man who falls on his face can cripple a team’s chances by May.
Matt Thornton anybody?
As for Matt Davidson, he’s a fine prospect whose value is propped up by the fact he has always produced offensively while being young for the level of competition. When prospects — even ones who scout poorly — carry similar production from level to level, doubters begin to paint more rosy pictures.
Over the past few months, how many times have I mentioned Matt Davidson as a trade candidate? Why? Because he has limitations and was not a Kevin Towers draft pick.
The “third baseman” has shown power and ability to draw a walk while striking out too much. He’s a three outcome player who has no defensive value to speak of. In truth, he’ll eventually wind up at first base. It’s more a question of when than if.
Didn’t the Diamondbacks already play that game with Mark Reynolds. Sure, Reynolds is pushing towards extremes but he smashed 44 home runs, walked 11.5% of the time and was still only able to muster 3.2 WAR in 2009. His other six seasons? 4.9 WAR. This equals 8.1 wins above replacement in nearly 4,000 plate appearances. That kind of blows, no?
Mark Davidson won’t automatically be better than Reynolds. Prospect followers take this for granted.
A rational look at this deal and the perceived motivation behind it have me thinking it’s fair. Overall, Arizona blew 29 saves — ten more than the league average. Reed blew eight. If the DBacks blow 19 in 2014 because of its new closer, one can flush Reed’s WAR value down the toilet. The on field result will be friendly on the win column and well worth Davidson.
For the White Sox, a 99-loss team, adding a “third baseman of the future” as a replacement for Conor Gillaspie is a strong return too. On a team not going anywhere, why not develop a new closer and add a young third baseman during a partial-rebuild?
Addison Reed was once considered the 66th best prospect in baseball. Davidson has never been higher than 88th. Reed has a track record of Major League success. Davidson does not. Yes, Davidson is younger and has more years of team control, but the third baseman has to perform. It appears this has been forgotten.
4 Feb 2014 / Mike Newman /
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