Huston Street Deal: A Good Omen for the Sellers

With the trading deadline still 10 days away, there have been, as might be expected, a whole lot more rumors than deals to date. A fairly significant one did take place over the weekend, however, as the Angels acquired RHP Huston Street and minor league RHP Trevor Gott from the Padres in exchange for four prospects – 2B Taylor Lindsey, RHP R.J. Alvarez, SS Jose Rondon and RHP Elliot Morris. The big picture trade market has been slow to develop in part due to the imbalance between a large group of potential buyers and a relatively small – but growing – number of sellers and should-be sellers. This trade should be a reassuring development for those confirmed sellers, and a prod to get the undecideds off of the fence and down to some serious selling.

Ah, relief pitching, and in particular, closers……an enduring battlefield of discussion between traditional talent evaluators and analysts who are more focused on advanced metrics. The traditionalists focus on the extreme importance of the “proven” closer, and assert that the ability to record the last out of a ballgame is an extremely specialized skill possessed by few. The analyst focuses on the overrated nature of the save statistic, and is reluctant to overpay for 60 or fewer innings of relief over a 1450 inning season.

Both sides have valid points. I am all for retaining a truly dominant closer, with traditional closer characteristics – huge K rate, big velocity, a second out pitch if possible. That said, I would prefer that such a closer be used in a non-traditional way, more often late in a tie game, or for more than three outs. I’d also prefer that the closer be used less often with a two or three-run lead, solely to begin the 9th inning. I’d prefer that my closer, being my best relief pitcher, also be my most frequently used relief pitcher, in terms of total innings load. The 60-inning, low-leverage closer concept currently in vogue simply makes no sense.

In the last couple of offseasons, the marketplace has begun to show greater restraint when valuing closers. The WAR statistic is imperfect, but the extremely low totals posted by closers in that category has clearly made an impact on front offices. The day of the $10M per season closer may not be over, though such paydays are now going to be reserved for only the best of the best.

This brings us back to Huston Street. The Angels’ primary needs are on the run prevention side of things, and they have made bullpen improvement a major focus throughout the season, getting a boost from the callup of RHP Mike Morin and the swapping out of previous closer Ernesto Frieri for Jason Grilli. Street, clearly, is likely their big trading deadline bullet, as this deal has thinned their stockpile of tradeable assets considerably – we’ll talk more about the package given up for Street later. How good is Huston Street? Is he an impact closer? Is he the type of player a buyer builds a successful trading deadline around?

First, let’s focus on the word “proven” as it relates to closers. Going back to 2012 – just two seasons ago – and going through this weekend, a grand total of only 14 closers have saved 10 or games in each of those three seasons. This means that fully half of the closer population has turned over since then. That gives one pause at defining the “proven” closer. Closers turn over faster than starting pitchers and position players. Their sample sizes are smaller, and they are more prone to wild swings in performance. A bad week, or month, can cost a closer his job, and make an investment go bad in a hurry.

Let’s take a closer look at those 14, including Street, to get a better feel for them, and to identify the group that can be clearly designated as impact closers.

Kimbrel 26 168.34 43.4% 7.6% 35 37 7.2 2017 $7,000,000 Sign thru 17, tm opt 18
Chapman 26 165.01 45.7% 9.5% 52 44 6.7 2014 $5,000,000 Player opt 15
Holland 28 168.67 36.6% 9.0% 50 46 6.5 2014 $4,680,000 FA in 2017
Jansen 26 180.34 38.4% 7.3% 66 58 5.3 2014 $4,300,000 FA in 2017
Rodney 37 178.67 27.8% 8.6% 50 64 4.7 2015 $7,000,000 Sign thru 15
Perkins 31 172.33 29.9% 5.6% 63 65 4.3 2017 $4,025,000 Sign thru 17, tm opt 18
Nathan 39 163.67 28.4% 7.6% 71 69 4.3 2015 $10,000,000 Sign thru 15, tm opt 16
Papelbon 33 170.00 26.5% 5.5% 61 74 3.3 2015 $13,000,000 Sign thru 15, vst opt 16
R.Soriano 34 171.34 22.7% 7.5% 59 82 2.7 2014 $11,000,000 Tm opt 15
Balfour 36 173.67 25.3% 11.4% 82 89 2.1 2015 $4,000,000 Sign thru 15
A.Reed 25 165.00 24.3% 7.3% 103 91 2.0 2014 $539,000 FA in 2018
Romo 31 153.33 25.3% 5.0% 84 95 1.2 2014 $5,500,000 FA in 2015
Frieri 28 170.67 33.2% 10.0% 104 104 0.7 2014 $3,800,000 FA in 2017
Street 30 129.67 26.2% 6.5% 56 99 0.5 2014 $7,000,000 Tm opt 15

Above you will find the cumulative 2012-14 statistics for the 14 “proven” closers. From left to right, their age, cumulative innings load, K and BB rates, ERA- and FIP-, cumulative WAR and contract status are listed. The players are listed in order by cumulative WAR.

Before going any further, one notices that Street ranks dead last in WAR, but let’s not read too much into that at this point. One very key point with regard to Street is his light innings load. He has had his share of nagging injuries over the years, and has not logged as many as 60 innings in a season since 2009. The other 13 hurlers’ cumulative 2012-14 innings totals are in a fairly narrow band between 153 1/3 and 180 1/3 IP, and Street lags well behind all of them. This is a legitimate major strike against Street and any argument he might have for impact closer status.

Street’s 2012-14 walk rate is the 4th lowest among this group, but his K rate is 5th lowest, and the spread between the two is the 4th lowest. His ERA- is the 5th best, but his FIP- is the 2nd worst. This is largely due to his exceedingly odd 2013 season, when he somehow allowed 12 HR – but only 17 earned runs – in 56 2/3 IP. By comparison, Craig Kimbrel has allowed 11 HR – in his career.

Just by looking at this summary info, it is easy to conclude that Street is not an elite, impact closer. The stratospheric K rates of Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman, Greg Holland and Kenley Jansen give them extreme margin for error with regard to contact management. How long they will be able to maintain such dominance is another question, but they reside on their own plane for now. Can Street match up with the next group of closers behind them?

It is interesting to note the respective differences between each closer’s ERA- and FIP-. With the exception of Street and Rafael Soriano, the differences are fairly nominal. Street’s is by far the largest. Which is more indicative of Street’s true talent level – his 56 ERA-, or his 99 FIP-? His ability to manage contact should be at the core of the answer. True talent should be the driver of his WAR, so answering this question is a big deal. To this end, let’s take a closer look at his 2013 and 2014 plate appearance outcome frequency and production by BIP type data. First, the frequency information:

FREQ – 2013
Street % REL PCT
K 20.7% 107 48
BB 6.3% 84 46
POP 13.4% 177 99
FLY 38.2% 136 99
LD 19.1% 89 6
GB 29.3% 68 1

FREQ – 2014
Street % REL PCT
K 28.0% 138 93
BB 5.6% 72 20
POP 9.2% 120 86
FLY 34.2% 123 98
LD 21.1% 101 38
GB 35.5% 81 7

Street’s K and BB rate percentile ranks of 48 and 46 in 2013 were quite ordinary, especially for a closer. They have moved in the right direction this season, to 93 and 20, respectively, but still don’t stand out in this population of closers. Street is clearly a popup/fly ball pitcher. His 13.4% popup rate (99 percentile rank) in 2013 was exceptional, and though it has declined a bit in 2014, his percentile rank remains high at 86. His grounder percentile ranks in both seasons have been extremely low, at 1 and 7, respectively. Having such an extreme popup/fly ball tendency can be a positive, but it does come with raised home run risk, which Street bore the brunt of in 2013.

Now let’s take a look at the production by BIP type allowed by Street in 2013-14, both before and after adjustment for context:

PROD – 2013
FLY 0.250 0.783 97 64
LD 0.733 1.133 144 109
GB 0.130 0.130 28 96
ALL BIP 0.273 0.553 93 80
ALL PA 0.213 0.262 0.430 87 76 2.70 3.38 2.94

PROD – 2014
FLY 0.308 0.731 108 97
LD 0.500 0.563 50 88
GB 0.037 0.037 2 59
ALL BIP 0.228 0.380 53 82
ALL PA 0.158 0.207 0.263 44 64 1.06 1.67 2.42

The actual production allowed by Street 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, his actual ERA, his calculated component ERA based on actual production allowed, and his “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.

First, let’s get back to those 12 homers allowed by Street in 2013. Despite that fact, Street allowed lower than MLB average actual fly ball production (97 REL PRD) WITHOUT adjustment for context. Included among that group of homers were a bunch of cheap ones, particularly at home. Recall that Petco’s fences were brought in for the 2013 season, quite significantly. The park inflated homers last season, but for some reason, isn’t doing the same this season. I’ll put that fact into the “requires further study” pile. Anyway, after adjusting for Street’s hard and soft fly rates, his 2013 ADJ PRD on fly balls drops substantially to 64. Interestingly, Street has allowed just three HR so far in 2014, but has allowed harder overall fly ball contact (97 ADJ PRD).

The average authority of the liners allowed by Street was above average in 2013 (109 ADJ PRD) and below average in 2014 (88 ADJ PRD). Let’s call that average, on balance. He has allowed extremely low levels of actual production on grounders in both 2013 (28 REL PRD) and 2014 (2 REL PRD), but those figures move closer to the average range after adjustment for context, to 96 and 59 in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Overall, Street posted relatively uniform ADJ PRD figures on all BIP – or Adjusted Contact Scores – of 80 and 82 in 2013 and 2014. Add back the K’s and BB’s, and Street’s “tru” ERAs for those two seasons are 2.94 and 2.42, or 76 and 64, relative to the league.

First of all, for those of you who consistently defer to FIP rather than ERA when perusing a basic stat line, consider that Street’s 2013 ERA was 2.70, his 2013 FIP was 4.92…..and his “tru” ERA was 2.94. ERA “wins” in this case, as FIP fails to take into consideration that not all home runs are created equal. Going back to the 14-closer table above, this revision of Street’s 2013 ERA/FIP would give him about 1.0 WAR for that season instead of (1.0), and would nudge him ahead of Grant Balfour, Addison Reed, Sergio Romo and Frieri on the list.

Street’s “tru” ERA- for 2013-14 would be about 71, which quality-wise, places him above Soriano and Jonathan Papelbon as well, though quantity-wise, Street suffers and should probably valued overall around their level talent-wise. Street’s contract terms are more favorable than those two, however, so he should return more than Soriano/Papelbon in a trade package.

Let’s get back to what the Angels actually did give up for Street. For argument’s sake, let’s assume Gott and Morris cancel out. That brings us to Street for Lindsey-Alvarez-Rondon. Each year, at mid- and post-season, I compile ordered lists of minor league position player and starting pitcher prospects, based both upon production and age relative to the league. It’s basically a follow list, that isn’t adjusted for position, but the beauty of it is that I now have lists going back to 1993, and can see where every MLB regular ranked during their minor league career.

Lindsey, 22, barely made the list at midseason, ranking #262, but ranked #75 in 2013 and #253 in 2012. His offensive performance has been up and down, but he is a middle infielder, and has always been young for his level. His rankings are roughly comparable to those of Scooter Gennett, D.J. Lemehieu and Derek Dietrich, three incumbent starting MLB second basemen. The latter two also qualified for my minor league list three times, with one Top 100 ranking. Gennett, who has been the best the major leaguer of the three, actually qualified only twice, peaking at #118. Lindsey doesn’t look like an impact talent, but he has a chance to be an average MLB regular 2B.

Rondon, 20, is ranked #107 on my midseason list, pretty impressive for a shortstop in his first year in a full-season league. Most regular MLB shortstops cracked my Top 100 at some point in their minor league careers, and Rondon still has time to do that. Even if he doesn’t, however, his current ranking rivals the peak minor league rankings of Alcides Escobar and Andrelton Simmons. Rondon lacks their fielding chops, but should remain at his current position, and like Lindsey, has a shot to be a solid, non-impact MLB regular. His range of outcomes is wider than Lindsey’s – Rondon has a greater chance to be above average, but a greater chance of washing out as well.

Then there’s Alvarez. He could turn into San Diego’s closer before too long. He just turned 23, throws in the upper 90’s, and has struck out 155 batters in 100 professional innings to date. I don’t rank minor league closers, as the vast majority of them don’t have MLB futures. There are a handful of exceptions at any given time, and Alvarez is one of them. He has had some injury issues, and is far from a sure thing, but the ability is there.

So that’s a pretty sizeable package for any club to give up for a reliable, but non-impact closer with a year-plus of control. For the Angels, however, this represents an extremely large percentage of the Angels’ overall organizational prospect value. Full season minor league position players who project to be MLB regulars? I’m not seeing them, with the possible exception of non-impact 2B Alex Yarbrough, who was a level behind Lindsey, at the same age. Full-season minor league pitchers with the ability to be above average MLB performers? I’m not seeing them, either.

The Angels just cleared out their already weak minor league system to acquire a solid, non-impact closer who might pitch 25 innings for them this season. This does make them better, but at a very substantial cost to this particular organization, at this particular moment in time. The same night this trade was consummated, Erick Aybar pulled up lame running out a grounder. It remains to be seen how much time he will miss, but the asset base from which the Angels can now address this and any other additional needs they might have between now and the finish line has been significantly depleted.

This trade may not have a direct impact on any single other trade made in the coming days, but it does change the trading environment a bit. The sellers woke up on Saturday morning afterward with some additional trade discussion ammunition – the going rate for stretch run help just got a bit more expensive.

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