Some Thoughts Inspired By a Late Night Trade Rumor

At around 11 pm eastern time last night, Philadelphia television and radio host Howard Eskin reported the following on Twitter:

As I write this several hours later, no other media entity has followed up on the report, either confirming or debunking, so as I get write this before I go to bed, I am unaware of whether this is a rumor to be taken seriously or something that is more conjecture than reality. So, consider this post less of an analysis of a potential Jose Bautista/Domonic Brown trade and more a collection of thoughts that I’ve had since reading the reactions to the rumor. I will note that these thoughts are mostly directed towards Phillies fans who find abhorrent the idea of acquiring one of the game’s best players.

Be careful not to overstate the predictive power of apparent trends.

A common criticism of Jose Bautista’s future value is that he’s 33 and is trending the wrong way. Both of these statements are true. Over the last three years, Bautista’s wOBA has gone from .443 to .378 to .372, driven primarily by a significant reduction in power; his ISO actually declined for a fourth consecutive year, and has now gone from .357 to .309 to .286 to .239 since the start of the 2010 season. If you just extrapolate the line on its current path, Bautista begins to look much more like like an ordinary player over the next few years rather than the star he has been.

However, extrapolating trends into the future is often completely incorrect, because the reality is that performance often regresses back towards the average of a larger sample performance rather than continuing to move further and further away from a peak. Or, put another way, players who are labeled as “trending downwards” often have a very good performance in their recent history which should continue to inform our opinion of what they will do in the future.

We should not think that Bautista is likely to age poorly because he appears to be quickly decelerating from lofty heights; if he had been less good in 2010 and 2011, his decline would appear less aggressive, but our projection for him would actually be less optimistic, not more. Bautista’s remarkable 2010 and 2011 seasons still hold some predictive value, and the fact that they were amazing instead of just okay is a point in Bautista’s favor, not a point to be held against him because he has not sustained that level of performance since.

For instance, the excellent Steamer projection system forecasts Bautista for a .385 wOBA/144 wRC+ in 2014, marks that are better than his numbers in both 2012 and 2013, even though he’s getting older and his skills are eroding. Relative to his 2013 performance, Bautista’s expected future production is actually an upwards trend, not a continuation of a linear decline. It is one thing to expect a natural and continued decline in a player’s skills as he ages, but make sure you’re decaying from the right starting spot. The most recent single season isn’t it, especially if the seasons that came before it were significantly better.

One can protect the future with finances as well as with talent.

A key part of the value of acquiring Jose Bautista is acquiring his contract. He is under team control for another three seasons at $14 million per year, but only the next two of those three seasons are guaranteed, as the third year is a club option. In essence, Bautista is a star player guaranteed just $28 million over the next two seasons, which is essentially what the market chose to give to Torii Hunter and Ryan Dempster last year. If you solely describe Bautista’s contract in terms of annual average value, $14 million per year doesn’t sound like such a great deal, especially considering that Brown is slated to make something close to the league minimum again in 2014.

However, as we discussed last week, the contract trend for elite players now is length over annual cost, and teams that want to acquire players of Bautista’s stature have had to choose to take on expected dead money in order to obtain a few valuable years at the front end of a long term contract. There is simply no way to acquire a player of Bautista’s caliber on a two or three year commitment in free agency. Hunter Pence, an inferior player to Bautista, recently landed a five year deal without even testing the market. Shin-Soo Choo, also not as good as Bautista, may very well get six or even seven years.

The short term of the commitment to Bautista essentially insulates any team who owns him from the risks that are almost required now to have a star hitter on the roster. If you want a +4 to +5 win player, you basically have to accept that a contract that will carry them well beyond their productive years. Unless you trade for Jose Bautista. If you do that, then you get the short-term rewards of an elite player without any of the long term pain. Losing Domonic Brown might deflate the Phillies future talent base, but acquiring Bautista without sacrificing additional financial flexibility would leave the team with the chance to sign a Domonic Brown replacement when Bautista’s contract runs out, rather than suffering through more years of paying a player for what he used to be.

Future team performance is not bound by recent team performance.

Forgive me if this sounds too similar to the first thought, but nearly every time a team coming off a losing record adds quality Major League veterans, there are always the comments suggesting that moving from 75 wins to 80 wins is meaningless, and I saw similar responses to the idea of the Phillies acquiring Bautista. This is a team that went 73-89 in 2013, and their starting catcher is probably on his way out the door, leaving yet another hole for a team that lacks young talent to fill the gaps. According to some, this means they should simply pack it in and accept 90 losses. I heartily disagree.

At the risk of being obnoxious, I am going to quote an article I wrote last year, entitled Why I’m Not a Fan of Losing on Purpose.

Just one standard deviation on pythag last year was +/- four wins, and that variance is based on knowing runs scored and runs allowed. When you factor in the sequencing gap on those events, your standard deviation grows to something closer to eight wins. And that assumes that you have perfect forecasts, both in terms of performance and playing time.

Which, of course, no one has. We can make pretty decent guesses about player performance and slightly less decent guesses about player health, but these forecasts aren’t anywhere close to being perfect, and one team isn’t a large enough sample for all the missed forecasts to come out in the wash. Some teams just over-perform their true talent levels for six months. Other teams are destroyed by injuries or sell off their best players at the trade deadline, and these are things we basically can’t predict in advance.

Realistically, when you add up the uncertainty around the projections themselves, the wide variability in team health, and then the effects of mostly random sequencing on events that lead to runs and wins, we’re left with a team forecast that can’t really be any more precise than some projected mean, plus or minus at least 10 wins, and quite possibly more. If we think the Marlins were an 80 win team before the big trade last week, then what we were really saying is that they were likely to finish with somewhere between 70 and 90 wins, and maybe more like 65 and 95.

We don’t know what the 2014 Phillies roster is going to look like yet. We’re pretty sure about some players, and we have a general idea of how much improvement is possible in off-season, but we can’t really put together a reasonable forecast of how any team is going to do next year, given that there are still so many pieces to be moved this winter. And then, even when all the rosters are set, we still have something like +/- 10 to 15 wins as our error bars on preseason forecasts. To pretend that we know that the 2014 Phillies cannot and will not be a competitive team is simply overstating our ability to predict the future.

The Phillies have work to do to become a contender, sure. They weren’t very good last year, and they would need to import significant upgrades in order to get back in the race next year. But acquiring Jose Bautista is a significant upgrade. You would have a tough time coming up with more than a half dozen teams that could run out a better Top 4 than Bautista, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and Chase Utley. Steamer projects those four players to produce about +15 WAR between them next year, so to be a contender, they’d need to get +20 to +25 WAR from the other 21 spots on their roster. Are we really prepared to call that an impossibility without even knowing who those 21 players are going to be?

It’s a good thing the Red Sox, Indians, and Pirates didn’t pack it in after losing seasons in 2012; each pursued quality veteran free agents last winter, and each got to the postseason thanks in large parts to free agent veterans acquired a year ago. Not every losing team is a free agent spending spree away from turning into a winner, but deciding in early November that a team perhaps adding its fourth All-Star caliber player is still a non-factor in 2014 would require an ability to see the future that none of us actually possess. Teams should not fail to improve their rosters simply because they were not playoff contenders the year before.

It is entirely possible to sell high on a young player.

Consider this the flipside of the aging curve argument from point #1. Breakout seasons most often occur when a player has been, to that point, mostly terrible, or at least unremarkable. To have a breakout season requires there to be some past history of mediocrity. A recent surge of excellence following a steady diet of underperformance does not mean that we can simply dismiss entirely what came before the breakout.

For instance, here are some of the players who “broke out” at age-25 in 2012, as Brown did at the same age in 2013.

Player Pre-breakout wRC+ 2012 wRC+ 2013 wRC+
Austin Jackson 94 134 107
Pedro Alvarez 91 112 111
Josh Reddick 84 108 92
Michael Saunders 59 108 98
Alcides Escobar 69 96 49
Average 79 112 91

These five young players had all hit pretty poorly up until the 2012 season, then produced at an average or better clip to provide hope that they were finally living up to their prospect hype. Alvarez is the only one whose offense didn’t take a step the wrong way last year, but even he just maintained his prior improvements and didn’t continue to build on them. The average (non-weighted, to not bias the data in favor of those who played well and thus earned more playing time) performance of the group in 2013 was actually closer to their pre-breakout numbers than their age-25 season, even though it was the most recent data point.

Just like old players can have “fluke” seasons, so can young players, only when a young player has a fluke season, it’s usually called a breakout instead. Maybe Domonic Brown really did take huge sustainable steps forward last year, but history suggests that it’s probably more prudent to expect him to maintain or regress than it is to improve yet again. Just like Bautista shouldn’t be expected to linearly trend downwards, taking Brown’s 2013 performance and forecasting upwards from there is also a mistake.

Whether or not this rumor ever amounts to anything, I think it’s worth noting these points even as a general reminder not specific to Phillies fans or Blue Jays fans. If the Phillies acquire Bautista, we’ll do a breakdown of the deal and what it means to both teams. For now, though, let’s at least be willing to accept that trends aren’t linear and there are way too many things that aren’t knowable to be telling the Phillies that they should stop trying to win.



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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


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