Today was the day for pitchers and catchers to report to Spring Training. Tomorrow is the first workout day. This officially ends the worst part of the off-season by bringing us actual baseball, and a sign of the season to come.
I say that this ends the worst part of the off-season, because once you’ve reached the last month of the off-season, you just can’t wait for baseball to return. In most years, there are very few moves, and the roster is pretty much set. This wasn’t exactly the case with the Pirates, as we saw with the Travis Snider trade, and a lot of depth moves more recently. But those moves didn’t stop the other common occurrence from taking place: repeating the same conversations that have been discussed over and over for the last four months. Spring Training is here now, and that means we have new stuff to talk about.
There’s another thing that happens each year leading up to camp. The roster gets set, and fans start creating a wish list, hoping to add one more player that would be key to a championship. Maybe it’s the lack of anything else to talk about during this time. I usually stick to discussing players who have been linked to the Pirates in actual rumors, so I stay away from the wish list commentary. That said, I found this great article by Dave Cameron very interesting.
In the article, Cameron talks about how veteran players aren’t a guarantee, and can be just as risky as prospects. He went back to look at the top 100 players heading into 2012, based on their success in the majors leading up to that season. He then found that 25 percent of those players reached “bust” status the following three years. Adding to that, only 41 percent continued playing at an above-average rate over the next three years.
I loved the article because it goes against one of the most frustrating and incorrect narratives that come up every year. Whether it’s the off-season, the trade deadline, or any other moment during the year, it’s inevitable that someone will argue that prospects are too risky, and you should trade them for a guaranteed upgrade. That doesn’t consider that the “proven” players in the majors aren’t a guarantee at all.
I feel like I experience this more, since I run a prospect site. But anyone who writes about prospects will be the first to acknowledge that prospects aren’t a guarantee, and shouldn’t be treated like a guarantee. The best approach is to plan for a prospect to work out, but don’t commit to that prospect working out.
You don’t see that admission on the other side of the debate. For example, James Shields just signed a four-year deal that will pay him $75 M in his age 33-36 seasons. The deal is seen as a good one for the Padres, for the simple fact that they’re adding a talented MLB pitcher. But there is a very strong chance that this deal will look like a disaster in three or four years. As an example, it was only three years ago that C.J. Wilson signed a huge deal for his age 31-35 seasons. That started looking bad last season (at age 33), and yet he’s owed $38 M over the next two seasons. Maybe he bounces back and maybe he doesn’t. The Angels are in a position where they don’t have to care about his massive amount of wasted payroll if he continues to struggle.
Going back to Shields, there was a topic that Cameron didn’t cover in his article that is related to adding a “proven” player. It’s adding a name. Earlier this off-season, I was looking at the numbers from Shields. They’ve been solid throughout his career. In the last three years, he has a 3.29 ERA and a 3.51 xFIP. Those both rank 29th overall out of 131 qualified starters during that time.
But then I removed the names, and looked at another pitcher. This pitcher had a 2.85 ERA and a 3.54 xFIP last year. The xFIP, which is the more important number here, is the same as what Shields has put up in recent years. This pitcher is also six years younger than Shields.
That pitcher is Vance Worley.
The numbers I cited from 2014 were a small sample size. But consider Worley’s 2010-11 numbers: a 2.86 ERA and a 3.63 xFIP. Very similar to the 2014 numbers. You probably know the back story here. Worley got injured in 2012, which messed up his mechanics in 2013 after returning from the injury. The Pirates worked with him last year to get him back to his mechanics from before the 2012 season. And with those mechanics, he put up almost identical numbers to the 2010-11 campaigns.
I’m not saying that Vance Worley is the same as James Shields. And I don’t know if Worley is going to repeat the xFIP numbers above. But this highlights what I feel is one of the biggest flaws in evaluating big league players: focusing on their names.
If you’re presented with a choice of James Shields or Vance Worley, then anyone is going to take Shields. You don’t even look up the numbers before making the decision. And it’s not just name value. It’s why Shields has the name value. He’s a good pitcher, and has been for some time. But if you ignore the names and look at the numbers and the other important details, it becomes a much tougher decision.
On one side, you have a guy who is guaranteed $75 M for his age 33-36 seasons, which are typically prime years for a decline. He’s got a good xFIP over the last few years, and that lines up well with what he’s done in his career.
The other side features a pitcher who is making $2.45 M in his age 27 season, which is in the middle of a player’s prime years, and is an age range that is no stranger to a player settling in at the Major League level. His xFIP, when healthy, is the same as the first pitcher, and the “when healthy” disclaimer totally makes sense when you consider the back story.
If I’m faced with those two decisions, I roll the dice with the younger, cheaper option who had similar stats, and hope the stats hold up. The alternative is taking a much bigger financial risk on a player who is entering an age range that provides a bigger risk for a decline.
Cameron’s article is the first time I’ve really seen someone make the argument against “proven” players on a big platform. I’m hoping it will be the start of a new trend in baseball. And maybe that trend is already starting inside the game, considering how so many teams are reluctant to trade top prospects for Cole Hamels right now. I hope that there is also a trend to move away from evaluating players based on name value, and looking at their numbers, their specific situation, and letting that determine the value.
The current system allows for teams to sign ridiculously horrible deals where they pay a potentially declining James Shields almost $19 M per year on average, or pay Max Scherzer for the rest of his life, and we’re supposed to act like these are good moves simply because the team added a familiar name, and might be better in the upcoming season. If the “guaranteed” tags go away, and the players aren’t evaluated on name value, then maybe we can one day get to a place where we can call these types of moves what they are: bad signings.
**The first workouts for pitchers and catchers will take place tomorrow. You can prepare for the season by purchasing the 2015 Prospect Guide, which gives scouting reports on 200+ prospects in the system, along with the top 50 prospects.
**This week we’re going to start a new Q&A feature. I’ve placed a form on the right side of each page where you can submit your questions for each week. I’m aiming to have the first one done by Friday, so submit your questions. I will say that with Spring Training starting up, I’m not going to have much time to check the comments, which is where a lot of questions get asked. So if you’ve got a question for me specifically (or for John Dreker, although he will probably answer in the comments), then use the form on the right side of every page.