There is something to be said for getting the jump on the trading deadline. You get an opportunity to set the market, rather than react to it. Making a big move for pitching in advance of the trading deadline has other, salient benefits, such as the ability to get an extra start or two from your newly acquired arm(s) as you restructure your rotation going into, and out of the All Star break. This rings especially true to me personally, having been with the Brewers the year of the C.C. Sabathia trade, when we wound up needing almost every exceptional start and inning he gave us.
The A’s jumped the gun on this year’s deadline, getting not one, but two of the premier available arms, Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, albeit for a hefty price. The A’s are obviously playing for now – so how much better does this deal make the A’s in the short term, and does it materially increase their chances of finally bringing home some hardware this fall?
One can make a fairly convincing argument that the A’s did not need to make this trade. They’ve been rolling along with the best record in baseball for most of the season’s first half, and possess a deep, talented and versatile roster that would seem to be relatively slump/matchup-proof. Their offense paces the AL in runs scored, OBP and walks, and ranks near the top in virtually every meaningful category except for doubles. Their overall run prevention ability is stellar as well – they have the best staff ERA in the AL, and are a well above average defensive club. They were very likely on their way to 95+ wins before their two new additions came to town.
Jeff Samardzija has come a long way since being signed to a massive major league contract after being drafted on the 5th round by the Cubs in 2006. Baseball was arguably his second sport at Notre Dame, where he was a star quality wide receiver in the fall. I saw Samardzija pitch several times during his draft year, and liked him a great deal – but he was extremely raw. He could get his fastball up to 95-97 MPH and keep it there, but his secondary pitches were quite crude and his command came and went. The athleticism, projectability and competitiveness were readily apparent, however, and made you worry a little less about his lack of consistent dominance. One figured it would all come together once he made baseball his sole focus.
He wasn’t much better for much of his minor league apprenticeship, however, posting a very ordinary 4.30 ERA in 485 1/3 innings, with a nondescript 339/208 K/BB ratio. He turned the corner with a dominant season out of the bullpen in 2011, and was then a very productive member of the Cubs’ rotation afterward.
Jason Hammel was never a big fish as he worked his way through the Tampa Bay system after being tabbed on the 10th round of the 2002 draft out of noted baseball hotbed Treasure Valley Community College, in Oregon. The key seasons in his development were 2004 and 2005 – he experienced success at both Class A levels in the former, and both upper minor league levels in the latter season. Major league success in his initial major league organization was not meant to be for Hammel, who first thrived in the unlikely environment of Coors Field as a member of the Rockies.
Hammel is now in his sixth season as a full-time major league starting pitcher, and truth be told, there are a great number of inconsistencies in his profile. His K rate has been at or above league average most of that time, but was way below the mean in 2011 and 2013. His control has been well better than league average at times, but he has not been a particularly good contact manager for most of his career. Coors Field obviously did him no favors during his tenure there, but his 2013 season as an Oriole was a nightmare, when in addition to his subpar K rate, he allowed a well above MLB average .336 AVG-.546 SLG on all BIP, with the contact authority he allowed supporting an even higher level of production. An inflamed pitching elbow cost him some time late in the season, and limited his free agent possibilities afterward, as he was only able to secure a one-year, $6M deal with the Cubs.
The first thing one must do in an analysis of the impact of this deal upon the A’s is to identify the players being replaced by Samardzija and Hammel, and assess their relative talent level. In this case, Tommy Milone and the three-headed monster of Dan Straily, Brad Mills and Drew Pomeranz – we shall henceforth call them Dan Mileranz in this article – were the odd men out. Let’s take a closer look at both the incoming and outgoing group of hurlers’ 2014 plate-appearance outcome frequency and production by BIP type data to learn a little more about them. First, the frequency information:
|FREQ – 2014|
Hammel has experienced significant success this season despite a high line drive rate (93 percentile rank). The bad news here is that regression in this department is not a given, as he has had liner percentile ranks of 89, 60 and 97 in three of the previous five seasons. His K rate percentile rank has spectacularly bounced up and down since 2010, from 59 to 13 to 83 to 19 to this year’s level of 79. He has shown much more of a fly ball tendency in 2014 than in any previous season, with his 87 percentile rank far exceeding his previous high of 51.
Samardzija’s greatly improved control is his most significant 2014 development – his 36 percentile rank compares quite favorably to the 75 and 61 marks posted in 2013 and 2012, respectively. He has steadily evolved into a fairly extreme ground ball generator, with his grounder percentile ranks escalating from 48 to 69 and now to 89 in his three years as a starter. So far, 2014 marks his first season with a below average line drive rate (41 percentile rank). There are signs of growth dotting his frequency profile.
Milone’s chief strength is his ability to generate popups, and lots of them, as suggested by his 99 percentile rank in that category. He has posted a popup mark in the nineties in each of his three seasons as an MLB starter. Milone hasn’t allowed hitters to square the ball up very often this season, as suggested by his liner percentile rank of 5, but that is way out of line with previous career norms, so regression would have been expected if he had remained in the rotation. As with most any popup pitcher, there is a corresponding fly ball tendency (77 percentile rank) and the added risk for damage in the air that it brings. More on that in a bit.
Now for our fictitious amalgamation of a pitcher, Dan Mileranz. He has a high popup rate (94 percentile rank), though some of that is a home park effect. There is a high liner rate (93 percentile rank), which would have been ripe for at least some regression. There is also a high BB rate (86 percentile rank), which is a problem when not accompanied by a similarly high K rate – good ol’ Dam Mileranz has an average 51 K rate percentile rank. The displaced #5 starter is looking pretty mediocre so far.
Obviously, we can already see that the former two profile represent an upgrade over the latter two, but we already knew that. Next, let’s look at the production by BIP type allowed for these pitchers, both before and after adjustment for context, and attempt to quantify the upgrade:
|PROD – 2014|
|Hammel||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD||ACT ERA||CALC ERA||TRU ERA|
|Samardzija||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD||ACT ERA||CALC ERA||TRU ERA|
|Milone||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD||ACT ERA||CALC ERA||TRU ERA|
|Mileranz||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD||ACT ERA||CALC ERA||TRU ERA|
The actual production allowed by each hurler on each BIP type is indicated in the AVG and SLG columns, and is converted to run values and compared to MLB average in the REL PRD column. That figure is then adjusted for context, such as home park, team defense, luck, etc., in the ADJ PRD column. In the three right-most columns, the actual ERA, calculated component ERA based on actual production allowed, and “tru” ERA, which is adjusted for context, are all presented. For the purposes of this exercise, SH and SF are included as outs and HBP are excluded from the OBP calculation.
Limiting fly ball damage has not been a strength of Hammel’s in the past, but it has been a centerpiece of his fine 2014 season. There is some skill and some luck at work here. His actual production allowed on fly balls is a remarkable 44 REL PRD. Hammel has amazingly not allowed a single fly ball single this season – basically, no bloopers have fallen in to date. That is good fortune, pure and simple. Still, after you adjust his fly ball production allowed for context, he has a very strong 75 ADJ PRD on fly balls, a major improvement over his 2013 figure of 117.
Interestingly, Hammel is allowing relatively authoritative line drive and ground ball contact, and even with his hard fly ball suppression, has an overall adjusted contact score of 104 on all BIP, which aligns with career norms. Add back the K’s and BB’s – a real strength for him this season, and you have an overall ADJ PRD of 87, and a “tru” ERA of 3.28. That’s 0.30 higher than his actual ERA, but good enough to call him a #2-3 starter. He’s a perfect guy to get on a one-year deal, as he has been unpredictable from season to season. The A’s will worry about the long term down the road a bit.
Samardzija has allowed a little less than MLB average authority on all BIP types to date this season, which combined with his positive grounder-centric frequency profile gives him an adjusted contact score of 94, almost mirroring his 2013 mark of 95. Add back his strong K/BB profile and he has an overall ADJ PRD of 84 and a solid 3.19 “tru” ERA. Like Hammel, that’s a bit higher than his actual ERA, but in the range of a solid #2-3 starter. Given his stronger underlying fundamentals and greater year-to-year consistency than Hammel – Samardzija’s 2013 overall ADJ PRD was 86 – I’d be more inclined to call him a #2.
Those are the replacements……how about the replaced? Milone not only gives up a lot of fly balls, he gives up a lot of hard ones. His 143 ADJ PRD on fly balls was exceeded by only three 2013 ERA qualifiers, Ervin Santana, Joe Saunders and Ian Kennedy. The actual damage allowed by Milone this season has been mitigated both by his ballpark and a strong outfield defense.
Context also does quite a number on his liner and grounder ADJ PRD figures as well, pushing them into the worse than MLB average range. Overall, he has an adjusted contact score on all BIP of 107, which is in line with his past history. His unimpressive K rate causes his overall ADJ PRD to increase to 114, giving him a “tru” ERA of 4.30, fully 0.75 above his actual ERA. Milone is a #5 starter.
How about our departed three-pitcher hybrid? They have given up an obscene amount of hard fly ball contact, good for a stratospheric 176 ADJ PRD. Again, defense and ballpark have lessened the actual damage on all BIP types, but actual line drive and grounder authority were both also well above MLB average. The adjusted contact score on all BIP is a hefty 123, and once K’s and BB’s are added back, the overall ADJ PRD remains poor at 120, good for a “tru” ERA of 4.53. That’s pretty much replacement level in the current run-scoring environment.
So the A’s are basically improving by 1.18 earned runs per 9 IP if you swap in Hammel and Samardzija, and swap out Milone and Mileranz. Probably a touch less than that, as the NL/AL difference counts for something. If the two new guys pitch 90 innings apiece the rest of the way, that’s about 24 runs saved the rest of the way, or between 2 and 3 wins added to the A’s cause. WAR tells a similar tale, as Hammel and Samardzija have combined for 4.5 wins to date, with the four replaced hurlers combining for 0.9, a difference of 3.6 wins over a little over half of a season. It’s not the 2.5 to 3.0 additional regular seasons wins that represent the A’s reason for making this deal, however.
The A’s, with or without this trade, had a very high probability of reaching the postseason. They had a very high probability, though a bit less, of winning their division. This trade was not about the regular season – it’s about the part that comes afterward, the part that has bitten the A’s time and time again over the last decade-plus. Come October, the A’s regular season starting pitching advantage over their playoff counterparts – which was rooted in depth rather than individual excellence – would have largely evaporated once the playoffs began and the rotations were scaled back from five to four, with aces getting a second, often pivotal start.
Seattle has Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, the Angels have Jered Weaver, Garrett Richards and C.J. Wilson, and even the Royals, Yankees and Blue Jays came trot out top twos that would compete with the pre-trade A’s.
Then there’s the A’s chief nemesis, the Tigers, who have taken them out the past two seasons. Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, etc.. As good as the A’s pitching has been, Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir would have been solid in the #1 and 2 playoff holes, but wouldn’t necessarily have given the A’s a true advantage. Placing some combination of Gray, Kazmir and Hammel in the #3 and 4 slots is a totally different story, with Jesse Chavez and a recovered Pomeranz fortifying an already strong bullpen.
Too many teams attack the trading deadline one-dimensionally, scouring both leagues in a singleminded attempt to shore up weaknesses, instead of realizing that further bolstering existing strengths can make as much or more difference in the end. The A’s know better than anyone that exceptional regular seasons often end in disappointment, and are redoubling their efforts to improve the chances of a different result this time around.
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