Archive for September, 2012

Best Free Agent Signings of the Year

Here’s the piece for tomorrow.

With the regular season winding down, those who won’t be playing in October are beginning to look forward to the Hot Stove season, and are picking through the list of free agents that will hit the market this coming winter. Part of that preparation is looking back at how previous free agents have fared after landing a big contract, and seeing what lessons can be learned from history. It turns out that the early results of last winter’s class holds some interesting lessons for those who are preparing to spend again this winter.

First, let’s just look at the free agents who had the best years in 2012 on the field. While first season performance doesn’t dictate whether a contract was a wise choice or not, these five players provided the largest boosts to their franchises with their play this year.

1. Aramis Ramirez, 3B, Milwaukee: 6.2 WAR

Ramirez was brought in to replace Fielder’s offense in Milwaukee, and he actually provided an upgrade over what the team got from their slugging first baseman the year before. Already 34, Ramirez is unlikely to repeat his career year, but swapping out Fielder for Ramirez looks like a net win for Milwaukee even before you consider the massive cost differences.

2. Aaron Hill, 2B, Arizona: 5.6 WAR

Another surprising result, Hill has been rejuvenated in Arizona, finding his early career power and supplementing it with a .300 average for the first time in his career. He’s cut down on his pop-ups and is driving the ball regularly, and there aren’t many second baseman in baseball who can match what Hill did at the plate this year.

3. Yu Darvish, SP, Texas: 4.9 WAR

While Darvish was not techncally a free agent, all teams had the option to bid on his rights, so for all intents and purposes, he was available to the highest bidder. His command has been up and down, but over the last six weeks, he’s been pounding the strike zone with nasty stuff, and his ability to keep the ball in the yard even when he’s struggling to throw strikes has allowed him to thrive in Texas.

4. Jimmy Rollins, SS, Philadelphia: 4.8 WAR

Rollins may be the surprising name on the list, but after a slow start to the year, he’s been a monster in the second half of the season, carrying the Phillies back into the playoff race despite injuries to Roy Halladay, Chase Utley, and Ryan Howard. Rollins ended up back in Philadelphia after finding the market for his services pretty dry, but in retrospect, teams should have been anxious to get one of the game’s best middle infielders away from the Phillies.

5. Prince Fielder, 1B, Detroit: 4.7 WAR

The Tigers haven’t played up to expectations this year, but don’t blame Fielder – he’s done his part, providing the kind of offensive complement to Miguel Cabrera that the Tigers were expecting when they gave him a massive contract to replace the injured Victor Martinez. How Fielder would hold up as he got older was always the concern, but the Tigers will take the value now and worry about the long term ramifications of the deal later.

Shopping in free agency isn’t just about getting the best results from the players you sign, however. Since teams have budgets to operate under, getting value for the dollar frees up money to spend on other players, so franchises can often be better off landing a couple of good players at bargain prices rather than focusing on trying to pay market value for one big name star. So, instead of simply looking at the best signings by total production, here are the best free agent values of last winter.

1. Fernando Rodney, RP, Tampa Bay: 1 year/$2 million AAV plus a team option – 2.2 WAR – $0.9 million per WAR

Rodney has an outside chance to best Dennis Eckersley’s 0.61 ERA in 1990, which currently stands as the lowest ERA any pitcher has produced in a full season in Major League history. Relievers in general are generally overvalued on the free agent market, but Rodney has been an amazing bargain, and perhaps the best part of the deal is that the Rays had the foresight to include a team option for 2013 in the contract, so Rodney can’t even cash in on his amazing performance this year.

2. Aaron Hill, 2B, Arizona: 2 years/$5.5 million Annual Average Value – 5.6 WAR – $1.0 million per WAR

The going rate for free agents last year was about $5 million per win, while Hill only cost $1 million per win, an 80% discount off the market rate. Keeping the deal to just two years minimized their risk last winter, but in retrospect, they probably wish they would have gotten him locked up for three or four years now. If he comes anywhere close to repeating his performance in 2013, he’s going to land a much, much bigger paycheck next time around.

3. Josh Willingham, OF, Minnesota: 3 years/$7 million AAV – 3.9 WAR – $1.8 million per WAR

Concerns about his age (33) along with the wrong-way trends of his walk and strikeout rates drove down Willingham’s price, but he didn’t take long to make teams regret passing on one of the cheapest sluggers to sign in the last few years. He’s set a career high with 35 home runs in part because he got his contact rates back under control, and is a reminder that trends don’t always continue on a straight line.

4. Aramis Ramirez, 3B, Milwaukee: 3 years/$12 million AAV – 6.2 WAR – $1.9 million per WAR

The most productive free agent of the winter signed for just $36 million total, or just 17 percent of the total that Detroit guaranteed Fielder over the life of his deal. In a market where offensive performance is heavily rewarded, it’s rare to see a power hitting run producer come out as such a bargain, but that’s exactly what the Brewers got in Ramirez.

5. Hiroki Kuroda, SP, New York: 1 year/$10 million AAV – 3.6 WAR – $2.7 million per WAR

Kuroda’s production in LA was viewed with skepticism, especially when Brian Cashman asked him to make the switch from the NL West to the AL East. However, Kuroda’s sinker has proven just as effective against stiffer opponents, and he’s been a stabilizing force in the Yankees rotation. Perhaps most interestingly, the Yankees make him a qualifying offer and receive a draft pick as compensation if he signs elsewhere this winter, so they’ll either get him back on an another low-risk one year contract or gain an additional prospect for the future.

The one key strand that runs through the top five values? They were all on the wrong side of 30 and presumed to be on the downside of their careers. Each came at a discount due to questions about their long term value, and whether they could sustain recent successes while adjusting to their advancing age. Teams willing to place bets on older free agents did very well last winter, receiving a large bang for the buck without having to enter into a long term commitment to improve their teams in the short term.

Are Second Half Surges Predictive?

On July 1st, the San Diego Padres stood at 29-50, a worse mark than every team in baseball besides the Chicago Cubs. They’d been outscored by 80 runs, and simply looked like a team that was far from being competitive. Since that day, however, the Padres have won 42 of 70, a .600 winning percentage that is tied for the fifth best mark in baseball. The addition of top catching prospect Yasmani Grandal and a resurgent Cameron Maybin have the offense clicking, and their second half success has people talking about the Padres as contenders in 2013.

And certainly, the Padres do have several interesting young players, and their farm system was rated as the best in the game by Keith Law before the season started, so there are reasons for Friar-related optimism. However, before we get too carried away by their recent string of strong play, it would be helpful to know whether these kinds of second half surges have actually carried over to the following season.

Over the last five years, I found eight examples of teams that posted losing records before July 1st, but had a winning percentage at least 100 points higher in the final three months of the season than they did in the first three. While the Padres mid-season turn around seems unexpected based on how they played in the first three months of the year, this phenomenon happens pretty much every season, and sometimes multiple teams pull off large second half improvements in the same year.

So, how often did those gains carry over to the following season? Well, Padres fans, you might not want to read any further, because you’re probably not going to like the answer.

Year Team 1st Half 2nd Half Next Season
2008 Rockies 0.386 0.532 0.568
2009 Braves 0.474 0.581 0.562
2006 Phillies 0.456 0.590 0.549
2011 Dodgers 0.439 0.582 0.513
2007 Reds 0.383 0.506 0.457
2010 Orioles 0.312 0.494 0.426
2008 Indians 0.446 0.557 0.401
2010 Astros 0.392 0.542 0.346

Of the eight clubs that had similar leaps, only one team — the 2008 Rockies — actually improved upon their second half winning percentage in the following year, and that example comes with a fairly large asterisk, because the 2007 Rockies team made it to the World Series. They started their NL title defense with a thud, and their second half rebound and subsequent 2009 improvement was more about returning to established levels of performance. The Rockies played poorly in the first half of 2008, but those were really their only poor stretch of baseball over a three year time period, so they don’t necessarily fit the model of an upstart team having a strong finish as a precursor to what is to come.

Besides that Colorado team, every other club played worse in the following season than they did during their second half improvement. Of course, there was far more room to go down than up, so perhaps that was to be expected, but the magnitude of the overall declines doesn’t speak particularly well for the Second Half Surge theory.

On average, the seven decliners lost 67 points off their second half winning percentage, dropping from a .548 aggregate winning percentage as a group to just .478 in the following year. The 2010 Braves had the smallest decline at 19 points — and they did manage to win the NL Wild Card, so perhaps you would like to count them as a success story as well — but they were also the best of the first half teams that we were examining, having posted a .474 winning percentage in the first three months of 2009.

Four of the seven posted losing records in their follow-up season, and two of them — the 2009 Indians and 2011 Astros — posted lower winning percentages in the next season than they did in the first half of the prior year. Overall, the .478 winning percentage posted by these teams in the season after their “Second Half Surge” was slightly lower than the .480 winning percentage they posted during the season in which they appeared to be two totally different clubs.

And perhaps that small difference is the real takeaway here. At the group level, these teams posted an almost identical record in the next season as they did to their total record in the prior year, suggesting that the first half record of a team that improves significantly is just as important as the second half data. Had we just used total season winning percentage as a predictor of next season winning percentage, we’d have hit the overall mark almost dead on for these eight teams.

The Padres play of late is certainly encouraging, but it doesn’t mean that we can just ignore all the problems that were on full display in the first three months of the season. If we want to understand how teams will do next year, we should look at their entire season as a whole, and not fall into the trap of putting too much weight on recent performance. The Padres may very well be a team on the rise, but their record since the calendar turned to July is simply not enough evidence to suggest that they should be penciled in for a playoff run in 2013.

The Five Toughest Decisions of the Winter

With the regular season just a few weeks away, teams are beginning to have to make their off-season plans, at least as it pertains to players on their own roster. In situations where a player has a guaranteed contract, the decision of whether to retain them or not has already been made, but arbitration eligible players and guys who have team options for 2013 force teams to make often difficult decisions. Based on their performance and their 2013 salaries, here are the five toughest calls that teams are going to have to make this winter.

Jake Peavy, SP, Chicago White Sox – $22 million team option or $4 million buyout

While Adam Dunn and Alex Rios have both had big comebacks to spark the offense, Peavy’s return to prior form has been the biggest driver of the White Sox success this year. After dealing with a variety of arm problems, Peavy is going to throw 200 innings for the first time since 2007, and while he’s not quite as dominant as he was then, his K/BB ratio (3.89) is nearly the equal of Justin Verlander (3.93), and ranks seventh in the American League among qualified starters. He’s also the rare fly ball pitcher who can succeed in the White Sox home ballpark, and while it might seem like he’s been around forever, he doesn’t turn 32 until the end of May.

However, is a pitcher with Peavy’s track record of injuries worth $18 million (the net cost of retaining him, considering the presence of the buyout) for 2013? Last winter, Hiroki Kuroda only was able to land a one year, $11 million deal with a similar skillset, and while he was several years older, he didn’t have Peavy’s history of arm problems. It is a weak market for starting pitching, however, and Peavy could probably land a three or four year deal at a reduced annual average value if the White Sox grant him free agency. The White Sox may be looking at a choice between paying him $22 million for 2013 or paying the $4 million buyout and then bidding against others who might offer something like $36 million over three years. However, even if they had to pay the buyout, signing him to 3/36 would value the additional two years at just $9 million apiece, which is probably a gamble worth making given his production.

Verdict: Decline the option, attempt to re-sign to multi-year deal at a lower AAV.

Dan Haren, SP, Anaheim: $15.5 million team option or $3.5 million buyout

Before the season, this looked like a lock to be picked up, but Haren has struggled with back problems that have led to reduced velocity, and in turn, his worst season since his rookie season in 2002. However, an off-season of rest could solve all of his issues, and he’s had stretches of effectiveness this year, including his most recent few starts in September. However, Haren’s strikeout rate has been trending in the wrong direction for four years now, and even early in the season, he wasn’t the same frontline starter he was in Arizona.

At a net cost of $12 million, the question for the Angels will really come down to whether they can afford to keep both Haren and free agent starter Zack Greinke, or if they need to choose between them. If picking up Haren’s option stands in the way of retaining Greinke, then paying the buyout and hoping to bring him back at a lower salary seems like the best bet. If they don’t believe they can re-sign Greinke, however, then they can allocate a few million that would have gone to keeping him around to picking up Haren’s option, making sure they don’t lose two starters in one fell swoop this winter.

Verdict: Decline if they can re-sign Greinke, exercise if they can’t.

Hunter Pence, OF, San Francisco: Offer arbitration at expected $14 million or non-tender

When the Phillies traded Pence to San Francisco, the fact that he was not eligible for free agency until after the 2013 season was touted as a virtue. However, as a player who has already gone through arbitration three times (thanks to achieving Super-Two status earlier in his career), Pence’s salaries have escalated to the point where offering him arbitration might result in a paycheck that is too large for what he brings to the table.

After posting a career best .378 wOBA and +4.7 WAR last year, Pence has regressed to a career worst .324 wOBA and +1.8 WAR this season, as he’s just not getting balls to fall in for hits like he used to. His core statistics are all mostly unchanged, so there isn’t evidence of massive decline, but Pence overachieved in 2010, and his current salary reflects numbers that he probably can’t put up again. If Pence is more of a +2 to +3 win player headed into his age 30 season, $14 million may just be too rich for the Giants blood, especially if they also want to retain the more productive Angel Pagan. However, if they think that Pence could bounce back to something closer to his prior form, $14 million isn’t an outrageous sum for one year, and they would have the right to make him a qualifying offer after next season, which would give them draft pick compensation if he signed elsewhere as a free agent, which they would not get if they non-tender him this winter.

Verdict: Offer arbitration, hope he’s willing to settle for a smaller raise.

Kevin Youkilis, 3B, Chicago: $13 million team option with $1 million buyout

Since the White Sox took Youkilis from their red-stained brethren, his power and walks have come back and he’s performed as well as they could have hoped, though still not at the kinds of levels he’s achieved previously. Still, at +1.7 WAR in just 266 plate appearances in Chicago, his numbers would project out to a +4 win season in over 150 games played, which is easily worth the $12 million net cost of exercising his team option.

Of course, Youkilis has actually never managed to play 150 games in a regular season before, and has only averaged 115 per season over the last four years. So, while he’s been productive when healthy, the injuries are starting to take a toll on his body, and committing a significant chunk of the payroll to a guy who might best profile as a part-time player might not be the best use of resources for the White Sox. On the other hand, this is an absolutely miserable crop of free agent infielders, so he’d be fighting guys like Jeff Keppinger for the title of best available third base option if the Whtie Sox cut him loose. Given the relative lack of alternatives, he probably won’t have to settle for much less than what the option would guarantee him.

Verdict: Decline, but don’t expect a big savings if they try to re-sign him afterwards.

Tim Hudson, SP, Atlanta: $9 million team option or $1 million buyout

Hudson has been an excellent pitcher when healthy, and $8 million isn’t a lot of money for a guy who can still get opposing batters out, but Hudson’s future comes with a lot of red flags. He turned 37 in July, and right about that time, his velocity and strikeout rates both headed south in a hurry. After averaging 90 MPH with his fastball after coming off the disabled list in May, he bottomed out at 88 MPH in July, though he’s creeped back up to 89 in the last month or so. However, his 12% strikeout rate in the second half of the season is a problem, as even a groundball specialist like Hudson needs to miss bats every now and then in order to keep opposing runners from scoring.

Given his advancing age, his back surgery last winter, and his declining velocity and strikeout rates, committing $8 million to Hudson might not be in the Braves best interests. As a Georgia resident near the end of his career, Hudson may be more willing to take a paycut to stay close to home, but how low he’ll be willing to go while still being a rather effective pitcher remains to be seen. If the Braves put him on the market, he might be this winter’s Roy Oswalt.

Verdict: Decline, then try to re-sign to an incentive-laden contract.

Missing Velocity A Concern For These Hurlers

As we head into the final month of the season, teams that are out of the pennant chase can utilize the expanded rosters to give their pitchers a bit of a breather after a long five months, backing off workloads and skipping starts or shutting pitchers down entirely if need be. However, for those still in the race, these games are more important than ever, and the pitching staff does not have the luxury of taking such breaks.

In some cases, however, recent trends in velocity might suggest that giving an important pitcher a couple of days off might be in everyone’s best interests, especially if these teams want to see their hurlers at full strength for an extra month of playoff baseball.

Chris Tillman – Baltimore Orioles

When Tillman was a top pitching prospect in the minors, he was routinely throwing in the mid-90s, and profiled as a true power pitcher. However, his velocity the last couple of years has hovered around 90 MPH, and his results have been nothing short of terrible. So, when Tillman arrived back in the Majors in July and promptly averaged 95 MPH with his fastball in his first start of the season — a game in which he gave up just two hits in 8 1/3 innings — it gave the Orioles some hope that the Tillman of old was starting to reemerge. Unfortunately, with each subsequent start, that velocity looks farther and farther away.

Average fastball speed, by start:

Date FBv
7/4/12 94.9
7/16/12 94.1
7/21/12 93.0
7/26/12 92.8
7/31/12 91.6
8/6/12 91.0
8/11/12 92.5
8/16/12 92.6
8/21/12 92.4
8/28/12 91.9
9/2/12 89.6

Not surprisingly, Tillman was removed from his start last Sunday with elbow soreness, as his fastball was off two miles-per-hour from his previous start and over five from his electrifying debut in July. An MRI showed inflammation in his elbow, and it’s not clear when he’ll make his next start, but this was clearly not just a one day issue, as his fastball has been eroding all summer. The Orioles have seen what Tillman can do with a 90 MPH fastball, and it isn’t pretty — getting him back to throwing 95 on a consistent basis, even if it requires a break during a playoff push, should be priority number one.

Jered Weaver – Los Angeles Angels

Like Tillman, Weaver has been diagnosed with inflammation and temporarily removed from the rotation, as his recent performances haven’t been very Weaver-esque. Weaver’s biggest asset throughout his career has been home run avoidance, and in the first three months of the season, he was keeping the ball in the yard as always, allowing just five home runs in 82 innings pitched. Since the calendar turned to July, however, he’s allowed 12 home runs in 79 innings, and his gopheritis has the Angels concerned. And rightfully so.

Since Weaver has made 25 starts, we won’t list the average velocity for each, but will instead break his season into thirds, with his final start before going to the doctor listed separately.

First eight games: 88.4 MPH
Middle eight games: 87.8 MPH
Last eight games: 87.5 MPH
Final game: 86.4 MPH

Weaver’s never been the hardest thrower around, but the last month or so, he’s started to shift into Mark Buehrle territory. Because he pitches up in the zone, throwing 87 instead of 89 can change a routine fly ball into a home run, and with the Angels trying to run down a wild card spot, they’ll need the version of Weaver that throws 89 again for the stretch run.

Phil Hughes – New York Yankees

Unlike Tillman and Weaver, Hughes has not reported any issues with his arm, and he is still a member of the Yankees rotation. However, his velocity trends should have the Yankees watching him closely, as his fastball has also been getting slower the last month or so. From April through July, Hughes averaged 92.4 MPH with his fastball, and was pretty consistent in that range, sitting between 92-93 in 14 of his first 20 starts.

The last seven have been a slightly different story, however. His highest average velocity game was against Detroit, when he sat at 92.2 for the day. He only got his average over 92 in two other starts, and his fastball registered just 91.1 in his last start against the Orioles. Six of his nine starts on the season with an average fastball velocity below 92 have come in the second half of the year, and his two lowest have both come in the last five weeks.

It’s more of a subtle decline than we see with either Tillman or Weaver, but it is there, and the recent trends aren’t terribly encouraging. Given that his 15% strikeout rate was also a season low in August, the Yankees should keep a close on Hughes’ fastball in his start on Friday night.

No Cy For Sale

The White Sox hold a two-game lead over the Tigers in an up-for-grabs AL Central division. The rivals squared off this weekend in a crucial series, and tonight’s finale pits respective aces Chris Sale and Justin Verlander against one another. Sale has been a major reason the White Sox have held the division lead for this long, leading to speculation that he could dethrone Verlander in the Cy Young Award race.

While the 23-year-old lefty has turned in a fantastic season – especially considering it’s his first in the starting rotation – his award prospects should be tempered. His opponent is still king of the jungle.

The major difference between Sale’s and Verlander’s cases is playing time. Obviously, great pitchers help their team more and increase their own individual value by toeing the rubber more often. The near 40-inning gap between Sale and Verlander is integral to the discussion, because it truly has been all that separates the two starters. Aside from sheer playing time, they are having almost identical seasons.

Sale: 24 GP (23 GS), 157 IP, 25.0% K/PA, 6.3% BB/PA, 44% GB, 2.81 ERA, 3.23 SIERA
Verlander: 27 GS, 196.1 IP, 25.3% K/PA, 6.4% BB/PA, 40% GB, 2.80 ERA, 3.26 SIERA

Identical is being used in its literal sense here, as these pitchers are mere rounding errors away from each other in each of the relevant rate stats above. However, Verlander’s increased playing time has led to a WAR advantage of 1.5 wins. Verlander currently leads the junior circuit at 5.6 WAR, while Sale ranks third at 4.1. Though it’s easy to argue that Sale has pitched as effectively as Verlander on a start-by-start basis, Verlander has simply made more starts, and that goes a long way in accruing value.

The AL Cy Young Award landscape isn’t two pitchers deep, however, and since Sale ranks 3rd in WAR there is clearly someone sandwiched between him and Verlander. Felix Hernandez ranks between these two, and is actually just a hair behind Verlander with 5.5 WAR. Then again, Hernandez has thrown over half of his innings at Safeco Field, which has doubled as both the Mariners home park and a museum that reenacts the Deadball Era for interested fans this season. Even after accounting for the extreme disadvantage hitters face at Safeco, the playing time disparity bumps Hernandez over Sale.

Then there’s the matter of Sale’s teammate, Jake Peavy, having an equally good season. Through 26 starts and 181 innings, Peavy has 3.8 WAR to his name and similarly efficient and impressive peripherals. Of course, many voters still look at W-L record as a proxy for determining pitcher value and performance, and Sale’s 15-5 mark trumps Peavy’s 9-10 record. It also bests Verlander’s 12-7 and Felix’s 13-5. While Hernandez himself won the award with a 13-12 record in 2010, he was the clear choice that season. Right now, there are three reasonable choices and W-L record may loom large.

This season’s award race should prove interesting down the stretch, as Sale is the only pitcher in the race with a shot at 20 wins. However, he isn’t even likely to reach 200 innings, while his main opponents have 240 innings on their peripheries. Even if they did rack up that much playing time, voters could find reasons to not vote for them. Team performance could come into play for Hernandez, while a White Sox division title, plus a sexy wins total, could be enough to sway the vote in Sale’s favor.

This conflates will-win and should-win, which often happens in award discussions. Who will win is obviously up in the air right now, but there isn’t a clear-cut favorite. In terms of who should win, well, it shouldn’t be Sale. He has pitched very well this year but hasn’t pitched as often as Verlander or Felix, and the gap in WAR of over 1.5 wins is too much to ignore.