When the Royals and Rays matched up on the big James Shields/Wil Myers (and others) trade in the winter of 2012-13, the judgement from the baseball community was swift and decisive. It wasn’t necessarily that you couldn’t trade a budding star like Myers away under any circumstances; after all, plenty of people liked the Jeff Samardzija / Jason Hammel trade for Oakland even though it cost them Addison Russell. It was that the 2013 Royals, unlike the 2014 A’s, didn’t appear to be close enough to success to make a “win-now” move at that price. It was that the Royals already had a Jeff Francoeur-sized hole in right field and could have made a similar overall improvement by just putting Myers out there instead.
It seemed that Dayton Moore was trading the future for the present, even though the present wasn’t likely to work out, and so far, that’s been the case. The 2013 Royals won 86 games, a huge 14-game improvement over the 72-win 2012 team, but didn’t come close to the playoffs. The 2014 Royals are two games over .500, and our latest playoff odds give them just a 14.7 percent chance of making it to October. Recent reports that they’re looking for a right-handed right fielder have led to some pretty easy snark considering who they gave away. Dave wrote last week that they should trade Shields now, since he’s an impending free agent; I argued that they were the team most likely to mistakenly “go for it” before the deadline.
If the Shields trade was made on the premise that they needed to get to the playoffs for it to be a success, then it certainly looks like it’s going to be a failure, just as most predicted the day it was made. Needless to say, nearly two years later, the trade still looks bad for Kansas City… but maybe not exactly in the way that we might have thought.
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Shields has been pretty much everything the Royals could have hoped for as the ace of their staff. Depending on how you look at it, you can argue that he’s been one of the 15 best starters in baseball over the last two seasons. Wade Davis, failed 2013 starter, has become Wade Davis, dominant 2014 reliever. Myers won the AL Rookie of the Year award in a half-season debut for Tampa Bay last year, but was off to a slow start this year before fracturing his wrist, which has cost him the last two months of play. If those are the three principals of the trade, and you pretended that the world was going to end the day after the 2014 season, you could maybe tilt this a little more towards the Royals. Shields has been as expected, Davis has given more, Myers has given less.
Of course, those three weren’t the only ones involved in the trade. Patrick Leonard is hitting well in Single-A for the Rays; Mike Montgomery is in Triple-A still trying to turn his career around. And Jake Odorizzi, well..
I’m not ready to say Odorizzi is better than Shields right now, today. Obviously, the 30 additional innings that Shields has pitched carry value, and since they’ve started a similar amount of games, that means Shields is working deeper, taking stress off the bullpen behind him. That’s worth something, and considering his extensive track record, both Steamer and ZiPS have him projected to be more valuable for the remainder of the season. Perhaps that’s how it will play out, but you look at those stat lines, and it’s hard to to come to a conclusion other than that these two pitchers have been very similar in overall value this year.
That carries even more weight if you realize that after a tough first month, Odorizzi has been absolutely outstanding since the end of April. In 90 innings over 16 starts since losing to the White Sox on April 28, Odorizzi has a 107/30 K/BB, with a 3.00 ERA backed by a 3.12 FIP. He’s not the only reason the previously moribund Rays have made a massive turnaround, but he’s a huge part of it, having allowed more than two earned runs just once in his last nine starts. Meanwhile, Shields was getting progressively worse each month of the season (FIP from 3.29 to 4.35 to 5.02 from April to June, before a stellar July) as the Royals struggle to keep even a winning record.
For Odorizzi, the turnaround isn’t all that hard to see. He’s not really throwing harder than he did before, and he’s not even showing better control. (His 8.7 BB% is up from last year’s 6.6; his Zone rate is down from 49.6 to 47.0.) What he’s doing is pitching differently, and missing a ton more bats because of it. Last year, and granted that we’re dealing with small samples because Odorizzi was in the bigs for only 29.2 innings, he was primarily a fastball pitcher, mixing in a slider, change and curve, but using the four-seamer more and more.
That was a problem, because while his fastball is fine, it’s hardly elite. His change was okay, but not exactly a weapon. (Hitters only offered at it half the time, and half of those times, they fouled it off.) The curve and slider were rarely used, and somewhat unremarkable. Odorizzi’s fastball had a 17.1 percent K rate last year, which again is fine, but hardly outstanding.
Now? Well, it’s just a bit different:
That’s a splitter — more accurately, probably, a split-change — taught to Odorizzi by teammate Alex Cobb, which is now referred to as “The Thing.” He’s thrown it 485 times, and though it’s not unhittable (a .260 batting average on it, which is 32 singles and seven extra-base hits), it’s become a real out pitch, on which he’s collected 44 strikeouts.
But just as importantly, and thanks to pal and Rays fan R.J. Anderson for the tip on this one, the new pitch has also allowed him to lessen the usage of his less-effective secondary offerings and served to amplify the effectiveness of his fastball. Last year, his fastball had that 17.1 percent K rate and a 115 wRC+ against. This year, the strikeout rate is up to 29.5 percent, and the wRC+ is down to 102. As you can see from the Baseball Savant charts below, he’s keeping batters off guard by giving them something to think about at multiple eye levels. At left, the swinging strikes on the splitter; at right, the swinging strikes on the fastball. It’s not hard to see the difference:
A great way to take a decent fastball and make it look like a special one is to have hitters not be able to sit on it, and have to worry about a different pitch in a different part of the zone. Odorizzi didn’t really have that last year, and now he does. But really, we’re somewhat off track here. Others far more qualified than I can do a better job of the deep dive into the pitching strategy of Odorizzi. The point here is that a talented young pitcher, thought of highly enough not only to be a first-round pick in 2008 but to be a big part of two different trades for an ace (he went from Milwaukee to Kansas City in the Zack Greinke deal), has made it to the majors, made necessary adjustments in order to improve his game, and has turned himself into a very successful pitcher — one currently pitching essentially as well as the pitcher he was traded for.
There’s certainly a bit of “let’s see if he can keep this up” with Odorizzi. Maybe hitters adjust to his new approach, and he can’t adjust back, while Shields is more of a known quantity. But Odorizzi is also not even going to be 25 until March, and can’t be a free agent until after the 2019 season. Shields is going to be 33 in December, and is almost certainly leaving Kansas City this winter. Over the long term, this was always going to be a lousy deal for Kansas City, and maybe if Odorizzi had stayed there, he would have never met Cobb and never learned the pitch that has changed his career.
Viewed through that lens, perhaps it’s unfair to say that had the Royals kept Odorizzi, they’d have received the same value this year that they are getting from Shields. But it’s easy to look at the return for Tampa Bay and think that this is now an even better deal than it looked like back in 2012. Not only did they get Myers, still only 23, but all it really cost them was Davis and a 2013 of not having the value that Shields would have given them. For 2014, they’ve made up what they lost. For every year afterwards, when Shields was almost definitely going to be pitching in Boston or New York or wherever else anyway, they’re looking likely to come out massively ahead, even moreso than we originally thought. (If not for the fact that the AL has a ton of great rookies this year, from Jose Abreu and Dellin Betances to Masahiro Tanaka and George Springer, Tampa Bay might have had two consecutive Rookie of the Year awards out of this trade.) And the Royals, who most likely aren’t making the playoffs with Shields on their roster, now have a future to look forward to without Shields or Myers or Odorizzi.
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