Last Thursday, two free-agent hitters found homes, with Mark Trumbo returning to Baltimore and Luis Valbuena switching AL West cities, going from Houston to Anaheim. While the expectation was that Trumbo was going to sign something of an albatross contract — I named him the No. 1 Free Agent Landmine heading into the off-season — he ended up signing for a perfectly reasonable price; $37.5 million over three years. While the Orioles will need to resist the urge to put him in the outfield anymore, $12.5 million a year for what Trumbo can do at the plate is not some kind of franchise-killing overpay.
The Orioles did fine here, mostly; you could argue that they could have spent even less and gotten Chris Carter, a similar-enough player, but not making the most cost-efficient move doesn’t make this a disaster. Trumbo is a solid enough big leaguer, and $38 million in MLB these days just isn’t that much money.
I say all that up front to clarify that the rest of this post isn’t a criticism of the Orioles’ decision to retain Mark Trumbo. I just thought the juxtaposition of Trumbo and Valbuena signing on the same day was interesting because, well, look for yourself.
Trumbo and Valbuena, 2014-2016
Over the last three years, Trumbo and Valbuena have both established themselves as useful players, mostly based on their ability to hit the ball out of the ballpark. Trumbo has a bit more power, but Valbuena draws more walks, and thus gets on base more often, so he’s actually been the better hitter of the two during that time. Oh, and Valbuena’s also a little faster, so he’s added a little extra baserunning value, expanding his lead even a bit more. Over these three years, Valbuena has been worth +23 runs relative to a league average hitter, while Trumbo has come in at +11.
Now, sometimes, multi-year comparisons aren’t all that helpful in figuring out why player valuations diverge, because the more recent data is the most important one. And of course, Trumbo is coming off the best year of his career, as he put up a 123 wRC+ last year. But in this case, looking at just the most recent year doesn’t change things much, because interestingly, Valbuena also put up a 123 wRC+ last year, the best mark he’s put up in his career. This isn’t a case of one guy trending up and the other trending down; both were good hitters last year, and they’ve both been above-average hitters the last three years.
There isn’t an age factor here either. Valbuena was born in November of 1985, Trumbo of January of 1986. They are both 31, at the point where we can expect both to start declining in value, but not old enough where a catastrophic drop-off is imminent.
There are, though, two differences between Valbuena and Trumbo; the thing I find fascinating about these contracts is how those two differences drive the valuations.
The first difference is that Valbuena has some defensive value, and if he ends up playing a lot of first base — with Albert Pujols questionable for the start of the year, that sounds likely — he might end up being a solid defensive first baseman. In nearly 4,000 innings at third base, Valbuena has a career +10 UZR (though it has been worse the last few years) and as a former middle infielder, he’s more athletic than most guys who end up playing first base. Valbuena probably isn’t going to be a gold glover at first, but as a guy with the flexibility to play both corners and potentially be an asset at first base, there’s some real defensive value here. Trumbo is a solid defender at first base, but that position is blocked in Baltimore, so he’s either a liability in the outfield or a designated hitter, and won’t be adding defensive value in either case.
So, Valbuena has been a better offensive player the last three years, matched Trumbo’s wRC+ last year in the best year of Trumbo’s career, and adds some defensive value as well. I’ve held off including it as of yet since it can often be the only thing people focus on, but it’s worth noting that Valbuena has been worth +6.3 WAR over the last three years, while Trumbo is at +2.0. By overall production the last few years, it isn’t even really close; Valbuena has been significantly better.
And yet, while Trumbo got 3/$37.5 million with the qualifying offer attached, Valbuena got 2/$15M, despite not being tied to draft pick compensation. The market looked at these same-aged players and preferred Trumbo, despite a lack of a massive offensive advantage and definite defensive limitations.
Why? Because there remains a significant difference in how teams value everyday guys versus platoon players, and fair or not, Trumbo is seen as a player you can stick in your lineup regardless of who is pitching, while Valbuena is viewed as a part-time player.
With Trumbo, you’re basically getting the same thing no matter who is pitching; his career wRC+ splits are 113/110, so you can put him in the lineup and expect mostly the same production everyday. Valbuena, like most left-handed hitters, runs a bit larger split, with a career 86/98 wRC+ split against lefties and righties, and an even more extreme 79/126 split over the last three years. Valbuena’s entire emergence as a quality hitter has been based on his ability to hit for power against right-handed pitching; against lefties, he still hits like the middle infielder he came up as.
A corner infielder who hits lefties like Valbuena hits lefties shouldn’t be starting against them, so the Angels are almost certainly going to platoon him, and the fact that they have to pay another player — and more importantly, dedicate another roster spot — to a guy to share his job dramatically discounts his value on the market. Full-time guys get paid on a different scale than part-time guys, and Valbuena is a seen as a part-time guy, so he gets less than Trumbo despite the performance advantages he’s displayed of late.
But I wonder if the discount being applied between the two groups is too heavy, because while it makes plenty of sense to platoon Valbuena and get a higher overall level of production, you don’t actually have to. The Angels could choose to play Valbuena everyday and save the roster spot for some other use, if they really see it being a significant negative to have to carry a right-handed first baseman to share that job. And if we just project Valbuena out to Trumbo-like playing time, it’s still not clear that Trumbo is significantly better.
Let’s just say the Angels decided to just play Valbuena mostly everyday, not platooning him more heavily than any other left-handed hitter is. In general, LHBs who get about 600 PA per season end up having the platoon advantage in about 70-75% of their plate appearances, we’ll use 73% just to split the difference. With exactly 600 PAs, that would mean Valbuena would get 438 PAs against RHPs and 162 against LHPs.
Let’s take a fairly extreme position, and say that his true talent platoon split right now is something like 90/110 wRC+ — remember, that’s almost double Valbuena’s career 12 point split — which is actually a pretty significant split as far as MLB players go.
If we give him the 73/27 distribution of PAs that most regular LHBs get, that would work out to something like this in a regular role.
Trumbo and Valbuena, 2014-2016
That 105 wRC+ is an almost exact match for the average of the ZIPS and Steamer projections for Valbuena in 2016; Steamer is on the low side at 99 overall, while ZIPS is up at 113, so their blended average is 106. So that at least passes the smell test. But we don’t know what percentage of platoon advantage those systems were projecting, and since neither had him forecasted for 600 PAs, we should assume they’re probably letting him face a higher proportion of RHPs. So let’s make Valbuena a little worse than those overall projection numbers, and re-run the estimate to give us something a bit worse than what ZIPS and Steamer are projecting him for in part-time duty.
Trumbo and Valbuena, 2014-2016
In this estimate, we’re being pretty harsh on Valbuena; his wRC+ against RHP goes down 21 points from what it was the last three years, while his vs LHP number only bounces up six points, and is still below his career average. This is probably pretty close to what Steamer is projecting Valbuena’s splits at, and it is definitely the more negative outlook, given his recent track record.
But even with that pessimism, Valbuena still projects as a league-average hitter while playing everyday. Trumbo projects for a 110 wRC+ as an everyday guy, in both ZIPS and Steamer, so the forecasts agree that, for next year, you’d rather have Trumbo’s bat than Valbuena’s, especially if you’re not willing to use a roster spot to platoon Valbuena with an RHB.
But the difference between a 110 and a 100 wRC+ over 600 plate appearances is about seven runs. That’s not nothing; that’s most of the way to one extra win. But then, there’s the baserunning, where Valbuena makes up some of that gap. And then there’s the defensive value, which isn’t trivial. If you give Valbuena some credit for being able to still play third, he probably makes back a few of those runs, and in the end, we’re looking at a gap of a couple of runs between full-time Trumbo and full-time Valbuena, if there’s any gap at all.
And full-time Valbuena is an inefficiency; with just a modicum of work, you can find a decent right-hander to face left-handed starters, and end up with a better overall rate of production. Yeah, it costs you a roster spot and that guy doesn’t play for free, so his cost has to be factored into the equation, but most teams carry a right-handed bench bat anyway, and if you have to pay a slight premium to get a guy who is worth starting occasionally, you still come out ahead overall.
The big story this winter has been the market correction on bat-only corner guys, but interestingly, the Valbuena signing points out that there’s even more room for those kinds of guys to come down in price in the future. Instead of paying even this reduced rate for the full-time slugger, signing a guy with a platoon player label at the discount currently being applied is an even cheaper way to get similar production.