There’s been a lot to like about Alex Anthopolous’ work so far as the Toronto Blue Jays General Manager. On Monday night, he traded Travis Snider, a 24-year-old outfielder dripping with power, for Brad Lincoln, a 27-year-old maybe-reliever maybe-starter in the midst of a career season in the Pirates bullpen. Twitter was incredulous and awarded Neal Huntington the win immediately. There’s probably more to this… right?
Both players’ value is highly dependent on the strikeout, which is appropriate considering it might be a whiff of a trade for one of the general managers.
That’s a more obvious statement for the pitcher. Lincoln was moved to the pen this year, and gained over a mile per hour on his fastball in the process. Throwing over 93 instead of around 91 has been good for his strikeout rate — his 25.1% so far this year is a career high (he’d never topped 21.8% at any level). He’s always had good control, and that has continued so far this year, but if the strikeouts are dependent on his gas and therefore his role, the fastball/curveball is more useful piece than former first round pick ready to finally perform as a starter in the toughest division in baseball.
Strikeouts are hugely important to your valuation of Travis Snider as well. The outfielder has struck out in 27.2% of his 914 career major league plate appearances to date. Among players 24 and younger with more than 500 PAs before since free agency began, that strikeout rate ranks 24th-worst. Strikeouts are correlated with power, however, and the list is littered with sluggers. If Snider had shown better than a .181 isolated slugging percentage, maybe the Blue Jays would have been more excited about their young outfielder. Only seven of those 24 players had a worse ISO than Snider, and their names don’t inspire confidence: Jared Sandberg, Chad Hermansen, Pedro Alvarez, Benji Gil, Michael Saunders, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Nick Esasky. Add in Shane Andrews, and you’ve got all eight players that didn’t show a .200 ISO along with their strikeouts. Not a great group.
There’s always time to turn it around if you debut at 20 years old as Snider did. If you look at his record since he debuted, there are some medium-sample highs and lows that catch your eye: A .123 ISO in 202 MLB PAs in 2011; A .208 ISO in 391 MLB PAs in 2010; A 24.8% strikeout rate in that same year; and a 35.1% strikeout rate in 37 MLB PAs so far this year. The power and the strikeouts are yo-yo-ing, and one GM is betting on the highs, one’s taking the lows.
Huntington is dreaming on his most recent performances, in a way. This year in Triple-A, Snider has shown a .263 ISO and a 17.1% strikeout rate in 246 PAs, and that’s the best combination of the two that he’s ever shown. It’s added up to a .271/.344/.480 major league equivalent line (.355 wOBA) according to Brian Cartwright and his OLIVER system. Some scouts have praised his work and think he’s turned the corner. The player himself credits being fully healthy after a wrist injury, and also talks of making mechanical adjustments to his swing.
Anthopolous might be fretting about the context of that performance. It’s Snider’s third shot at Triple-A, and he’s 24 and finally age appropriate for his level, and his best work has come in Las Vegas in the PCL, perhaps the most hitter-friendly situation in the minor leagues. He’s shown nice strikeout rates in the minors before (15.9% in 277 Triple-A PAs in 2011) only to lose those gains in the bigs (27.7% strikeout rate that same year in 202 MLB PAs). His swinging strike rate, sampled from over 3400 pitches so far, is well worse than average (12.9%, average is around 8.5% most years). And even though he’s walked in the minors (10.7% career MiLB), he hasn’t managed the same feat in the majors (7.4%).
Given the fact that manager John Farrell has already confirmed that Lincoln is headed to the Jays’ pen, your opinion of the trade hangs directly upon your evaluation of Snider. If he can’t walk or make more contact in the majors, then you like it for the Jays. If he’s destined for more work that looks like his career .247/.305/.429 line, which has been about 6% worse than league average so far, then you’ll take what you can get for him — his glove and baserunning in the corner outfield would not carry a below-average offensive line.
But if you think that 24-year-old Travis Snider can trim the strikeouts while keeping the power (or even showing a little more than he has so far), then you might feel that Alex Anthopolous just made a bad trade.