To Trade an Ace, or to Trade Rick Porcello

A pretty common question we see in FanGraphs chats is what one statistic we’d use to evaluate pitchers, if we could use only one. The truthful answer is always a non-answer: You shouldn’t ever use just one statistic. It’s an unrealistic hypothetical, and good evaluation is done with a blend of different data. But I will say that I tend to look at xFIP early on, just to get a sense of what I’m dealing with. It’s a number that can scrape out a whole bunch of noise. Something I noticed is that, this season, Max Scherzer posted a 3.16 xFIP. Rick Porcello┬áposted a 3.19 xFIP. Both were full-time starters for the same team, and one of them, presumably, is about to win the American League Cy Young Award.

It’s a comparison that’s interesting enough on its own, but adding more significance to the comparison is talk that the Tigers will explore trading one of these two pitchers in the weeks and months ahead. There’s skepticism everywhere that a team like the Tigers would actually think deeply about moving Scherzer, considering everything, but the ace is one year from free agency and he’s represented by Scott Boras. Porcello is two years from free agency, and the Tigers have Drew Smyly just about ready to resume starting. Really, the Tigers aren’t limited to picking one between Scherzer and Porcello, but things could well work out that way. And in talking about this, xFIP is only the start.

Let’s consider the pertinent information. By certain peripherals, Scherzer and Porcello are coming off similar seasons, at least on a per-inning basis. By runs allowed, Scherzer was much better, and that’s why he’s about to win a major award. Scherzer, again, has one year left, and he seems destined to test the market. Porcello has two years left, but he’s one of those Super Two guys. For 2014, both starters are arbitration-eligible, and MLB Trade Rumors projects Scherzer for $13.6 million and Porcello for $7.7 million. Those are going to function as our best salary estimates.

Right at the heart of this is trying to figure out the real difference, going forward, between Scherzer and Porcello. The xFIP numbers are meaningful, because they demonstrate the difference isn’t as massive as it is by name alone. Yet, Scherzer seems more able to work deeply into games. He made an improvement this past season by adding a curveball. Porcello, too, improved by adding a curveball, suddenly figuring out how to make batters miss. Porcello comes away looking a lot like Doug Fister, but one notes that Porcello’s ERA doesn’t match his peripherals. It seems like there could be more to this than just being a groundballer in front of the Tigers’ infield.

This past season, Porcello threw a lot more strikes with the bases empty than with runners on, with a much better strikeout rate and a much better walk rate. This is consistent with his career splits. Most pitchers are worse in from-the-stretch situations, but Porcello could be worse than average, his ability tilted toward pitching with no one on. His wOBA allowed with the bases not empty has been worse by 43 points. Scherzer’s has been better by 11 points. If this is capturing true talent, beyond just random noise, it could highlight a real difference, where Scherzer is more able to pitch effectively when a hit could be more damaging. Put a lot simpler: Scherzer could be better by more than a few hundredths of a point of xFIP.

How much better, is the important question. Steamer projects a 1-WAR difference. Last year there was more like a 3-WAR difference, and if you go by runs allowed, it was more like a 4-WAR difference. Seems to me like two might be reasonable, with arguments in either direction. Max Scherzer is better than Rick Porcello. Scherzer is not so much better than Porcello that attempting a comparison is a laughable waste of time.

If the Tigers are to trade either Scherzer or Porcello, dealing Scherzer might make them a couple wins worse. Conveniently, the difference between their projected 2014 salaries is roughly the market rate of one win, so that helps the trade-Scherzer case. That’s money the Tigers might elect to put toward second base, left field or the bullpen. Working in the other direction is that trading Scherzer now would presumably cost the Tigers a future draft pick, valued at some millions. Porcello is not nearly the same guarantee to end up receiving a qualifying offer and turning it down.

So the question becomes one of the expected difference in trade returns for Scherzer and Porcello. Scherzer would be marketed as an ace, as a Cy Young winner, while Porcello would be marketed as a durable sinker-baller with an extra year of admittedly expensive team control. Teams are smart enough to be aware of Porcello’s improvement. Teams also know Scherzer could be a very short-term addition.

We don’t have a long track record of good/great starters getting dealt with a year left. R.A. Dickey went to the Blue Jays with one year left, but he quickly signed an extension, and at the time he was an old knuckleballer with a $5 million salary. He brought the Mets back a great prospect and a good prospect. Anibal Sanchez went to the Tigers with a few months left, and he brought the Marlins back an interesting pitching prospect and a potentially useful catcher. Sanchez, however, was packaged with Omar Infante. Matt Garza went to the Rangers with a few months left, and he brought the Cubs back a frustrating high-level prospect and an interesting low-level prospect. Zack Greinke went to the Angels with a few months left, and he brought the Brewers back a good shortstop prospect who was just about big-league ready.

The Blue Jays intended to re-sign Dickey. The Tigers intended to re-sign Sanchez. The Angels, at the time, intended to re-sign Greinke. A team trading for Scherzer might intend to re-sign him, but that wouldn’t be guaranteed. It seems like he could bring back a package highlighted by at least one really good young player close to the majors, if not already there. That young player, probably, wouldn’t be a future superstar, since Scherzer does just have the one year left. The acquiring team would at least stand to pick up a draft pick after the season.

Meanwhile, Porcello likely wouldn’t bring back a top prospect, or an established young regular position player. He would have a big market, because he’s young and durable and possibly improving. But Porcello won’t be cheap the next two years and there’s reason to believe he’s not quite as good as his peripherals. Maybe Porcello would turn into bullpen help. Maybe he’d turn into a project, like a Dustin Ackley. Maybe he’d turn into intriguing low-level prospects with an eye toward re-stocking the system. Keep Porcello and the Tigers add more future value. Keep Scherzer and the Tigers preserve more current value.

That’s the real thing here. Scherzer is a dominant starter one year from free agency. As a target, he’d appeal to a competitive team with a shorter-term window. A team with a lot riding on trying to win it all in 2014. Maybe that team turns out to be the Nationals, but on paper, it sounds an awful lot like the Tigers. The Tigers are more interested in winning now than in winning in five years. With all of his strikeouts, Scherzer is a better fit for the team defense than Porcello, who allows more balls in play to the infield. Jose Iglesias can help, but he can’t cancel out Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera. Scherzer’s the win-now acquisition. The Tigers are a win-now team. It would be strange for them to make themselves worse.

The nuance is in the fact that it wouldn’t make them that much worse. We’re talking a win or two or maybe three, without knowing anything about the return. The salary difference between Scherzer and Porcello could be put toward a short-term improvement, and other moves could be made as well. Even trading Scherzer, the Tigers would remain World Series contenders, and they’d presumably be in better shape in the long run. It would be an interesting roll of the dice, and it could certainly be a reasonable one.

I just can’t really see it. I can’t see a team built for now unloading the Cy Young winner for youth. Not looking at another winnable AL Central. Maybe the Tigers could bring back a good young left fielder or a good young second baseman. Maybe the Tigers could make a move such that they’re not even worse in the short-term. But my guess is that the Tigers explore the Scherzer trade market and come away underwhelmed. They’re unlikely to fetch the blockbuster they might be seeking. And for that reason, I think Porcello’s the odd man out. Picking between Scherzer and Porcello is a fascinating question, but in this particular case I think it’s a question with a predictable answer.




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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


68 Responses to “To Trade an Ace, or to Trade Rick Porcello”

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  1. Tak says:

    This entire ordeal is tearing me apart. Max is easily my favorite Tiger and I’d hate to see him go, but on the other hand his contract is up after 2014 and he will never be as valuable as he is right now. Should we rebuild on the fly, or go all-in this year?

    AHHHHHHHHH!!!

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    • carl says:

      That’s an easy one for me: No way the Tigers should deal Scherzer. No way. If he’s gone in two years and the Tigs get nothing but the draft pick, so be it.

      (Coming from the fan of a different AL Central team.)

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  2. jwise224 says:

    Per usual, this is excellent. I’ve been thinking a lot about this situation and I’m just not convinced the Tigers would deal a presumable Cy Young winner unless they get an absolutely killer package in return. There aren’t too many teams that can afford to take on Scherzer’s salary and give up the pieces that Detroit will likely command. Thanks for articulating the thoughts I couldn’t nail down, one of your best qualities!

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  3. here goes nothing says:

    any comment on a scherzer-cespedes pairing? (not something i really favor, but it’s been brought up elsewhere)

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  4. Joebrady says:

    It’s about identical to the situation in Boston. Boston has 6 legit starters, with the worst probably Dempster. However, dumping the worst usually results in the worst return, or in Dempster’s case, the highest negative return.

    So, as with Scherzer, if I were the RS FO, I’d be asking Lester what his intentions were. If he wanted a reasonable extension, then I would sign right there. If it was his intention of playing out his option, then I would start asking other teams what their interest might be.

    I would do the same with Scherzer. Detroit and Boston, with all their money, can’t afford to treat this as their last invite to the big dance. Both should be good with or without Scherzer and Lester. And I would explain to the other GMs that they either get a good haul, or they keep them.

    The TO trade was over the top, but no team, no matter how close, could afford to pass up a package of D’Arnaud and Syndergaard. BTW, you mentioned one was a good prospect and one a great prospect? Which one do you think is only good?

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  5. GilaMonster says:

    The Tigers have to go for it. The window is closing. Verlander has shown decline. Fielder is already awful. MArtinez is a free agent after 2014. Miggy is a free agent in 2015 and will probably get close to $300m.

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    • Boris Chinchilla says:

      Cabrera is signed through 2015 and will not be getting 300

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      • GilaMonster says:

        He will be roughly the same age as Pujols and there is even more money in the game. Pujols got $240m, so if Miggy keeps chugging and putting up MVP seasons, I could see close to $300m.

        He isn’t Pujols, but he doesn’t have to be. He just has to be the best hitter in the game. I think he’ll get less years, but higher AAV.

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      • Jason B says:

        There is more money in the game than ever, but I would think a few teams are noticing the poor returns of long-term (6-9 year) deals to former superstars on the wrong side of 30.

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    • Cory says:

      Amazing, you overreacted about literally everything in this comment.

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    • Kevin says:

      Funny that “Decline” still has him as one of the top 5 pitchers in all of baseball, year in, year out.

      This kind of thinking is what gave us Prince Fielder at the ungodly contract he has for still 6 more years. I’m open to dealing Max, provided we get the right deal. I’m skeptical such a deal will happen.

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  6. mockcarr says:

    I think having six starters with one beginning the year in the pen is reasonable too.

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    • Bip says:

      One narrative to start 2013 for the Dodgers was “OMG we have 8 starters, what are we going to do with them?!” Only Aaron Harang was traded, but Capuano has various injuries, Ted Lilly turned into dust, Chad Billingsley needed TJ surgery, Josh Beckett has a shoulder thing, and Zack Greinke got Quentinitis.

      So yeah, starting a season with six starters will probably seem a lot less pointless when the season starts.

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    • jfree says:

      Who’s going to jail? And why should the Tigers wait around for him to be released?

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  7. byron says:

    I think the long term key for the Tigers is not giving Cabrera more than ~$110 million on an extension or new contract in 2 years. They can’t offer him $200m and expect him to keep being an MVP candidate into his mid and late 30s. If Cabrera’s gone or less expensive than Fielder, the Tigers might be able to keep Scherzer.

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    • GilaMonster says:

      $110m for Miggy in 2 years would be an absolute steal. That is less than Jayson Werth money…

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      • byron says:

        Well Werth got that over, what, 7 years? I’m worried about total dollars on Cabrera, but I’d do $110m over 4 years for sure, probably even 3. But I think someone will pay him 7/$200+ and I just hope it’s not the Tigers.

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    • bdhudson says:

      Nobody offers those deals expecting MVP like production into the late 30s. You pay for the first half of the deal and hope the back half doesn’t bite you too hard.

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      • byron says:

        Cabrera is going to turn 33 a couple weeks after the first season under his new contract starts. You’re not likely to get more than one or two MVP caliber seasons in a whole 7-year deal, which leaves a lot of “back half” to bite you. Anyways, it’s unlikely he’ll be as good the next two years as the last two, and there’s no reason to try and sign him to an extension at the peak of his market.

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      • byron says:

        Oof, check out what 34 and older players have been doing the last four seasons: http://www.fangraphs.com/leaders.aspx?pos=all&stats=bat&lg=all&qual=y&type=8&season=2013&month=0&season1=2010&ind=1&team=0&rost=0&age=34,58&filter=&players=0

        3 5-win seasons, another 6 4-win. And this is the age of the second year of Cabrera’s next deal. Do you want be paying him $30 million that year (let alone the next 5) and betting he can be the first 6-win 34-year-old-or-older since Jeter in 2009? It gets even uglier if you look at corner types.

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      • Joebrady says:

        The problem with these deals is that the first half of the contract isn’t all that good either. Theoretically, you sign a guy like Pujols and Hamilton, you are already starting off with declining years.

        Fielder was probably a candidate for early decline with the weight issue.

        Teixeira is probably the model for overpaying for the real tail end. Signed at 29, he figured to have 3 good years before declining moderately for 3 years, then declining hard for the final two. So if you need the guy, you roll your eyes and hope the last two don’t get too painful.

        Signing guys that are 32 means you have only moderate decline and hard decline as your alternatives.

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  8. Chris says:

    What is the upside for Smyly? Are people looking at him as a #3 potential starter? Lower/Higher? I see he was ranked in some top 100 prospect lists not to long ago.

    Is he a guy you would grab over Tyson Ross or Ivan Nova next year?

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  9. I’m almost positive Porcello is a FA after 2014. He needs 1 year, and 2 days of service to reach 6 years and I’m given to understand an MLB year is about 183 days compared to a service year of 172. Am I missing something?

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    • byron says:

      You are missing something because your conclusion is wrong, but I’m not sure what. It might be that you can only accrue one service year per MLB year and that the fractions all come from short years. But Baseball-Ref says FA after 2015, and they’re not going to get a super common calculation like this wrong.

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    • Mr. X says:

      He debuted the first week of 2009. After 2014 sounds right to me but I guess not…

      1.2009
      2.2010
      3.2011
      4.2012
      5.2013
      6.2014

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  10. Pith and Vinegar says:

    Favorite Porcello minutia: over his career, with the bases loaded (70 PA’s), Fred-Fred has more walks than strikeouts. (MLB-wide, the strikeout-to-walk ratio is not surprisingly always, every year, the *highest* with the sacks jammed. Not Rick, though.)

    Whether it’s physical, psychological, or a bit of both, the man just stinks pitching from the stretch. Yes, with that infield defense behind him, he’s almost certainly better than his ERA… but he’s much much much much worse than his FIP or xFIP.

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  11. John C says:

    Do you actually watch baseball, or just churn out the numbers that your computers give you? There’s no comparison between Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello, no matter what your “xFIP” says. Trust your eyes. Or better yet, ask the Boston Red Sox’ hitters. When the best team in baseball can barely hit one guy and treats the other one like a batting practice machine, that should tell you something.

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    • Scherzer is better, yes, you nailed it. Kudos to John C.

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    • Jim says:

      How many batters did Porcello face. C’mon that is not a fair comparison and you know it. Porcello was stuck out in the pen and got in to two games for about 15 pitches. Most of them were very very high leverage that not many number one starters could handle after throwing 180 innings as a Starter.

      I like Max and hope the Tigers sign him, but I will bet anyone, that when careers are over and all is said and done, Rick Porcello will win more games than Max Scherzer.

      I would much rather trade Max at maximum value and see what Dombrowski can bring to Detroit. I’m guessing one of the Rangers infielders, a bullpen arm and a couple of mid level prospects. Max would make the Rangers the favorite in the West. The infielder plus bull pen arm (along with well spent 13 million $$ savings on Scherzer)that the Tigers get put them over the top again in the Central and if Smyly is what everyone thinks, it is a good move

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      • Bip says:

        Even if Porcello and Scherzer really were equal quality pitchers, it’s pretty obvious that Scherzer’s skillset meshes well with the Tiger’s team construction, while Porcello’s doesn’t.

        John is wrong to take one series and pass judgment on the two pitchers based on such a small sample. However, it doesn’t make much sense to look at the careers of both and conclude that Porcello will have the better career of the two. Treating xFIP as the sole determiner of effectiveness is just as bad as dismissing it offhand.

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    • Bip says:

      Stick around, John. You might learn something.

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    • Joebrady says:

      As a RS fan, I’d much rather face Porcello.

      But Scherzer will get you a much better return.

      So, if your only goal was to win in 2014, then Scherzer is the guy. But if your intent was to compete every single year forever and ever, Id keep Porcello and try to clear the table with Scherzer.

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  12. David Bruno says:

    Does anyone know where I can read how the weightings for the three true outcomes were derived when calculating FIP (13*HR, 3*BB, -2*K)? Thanks.

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  13. Bip says:

    If I was a Tigers fan, I would not have faith in Porcello performing up to his xFIP (whether it’s his fault or his defense). I would see trading Scherzer as a considerable downgrade in the rotation. However, with Scherzer at the height of his value, they might be able to pull off something like the Wil Myers trade. By that I mean, they could pull off a trade that gives them young talent paired with big-league-ready talent that could help them both now and in the future.

    Scherzer has one fewer year than Shields, but he will definitely be seen has a higher quality pitcher. There may still be teams that, given Scherzer’s great record, can be duped into giving up more than they would otherwise. I don’t know every team’s system well enough to construct a realistic trade scenario, but this could be the Tigers’ way of having their cake and eating it too. Having an ace you know you won’t resign can be a valuable thing, as the Rays know.

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  14. Bill says:

    I don’t get it. Scherzer is NOT an ace. Any team willing to give him 20 million right now is nuts (or rich beyond shame). He’s winning this Cy Young because of pretty much one thing. Wins and losses. Anything else and there’s already somebody better than him who’s locked up on the Tigers. Scherzer also has 0 career complete games. He’s not a workhorse and he’s not an ace.

    Porcello on the other hand has a complete game. Tigers re-sign Ricky (the younger guy) on the cheap and trade Scherzer for all he’s worth. They’ll be fine with Verlander, Sanchez, Fister, Porcello, Smyly. They’re okay.

    I would also be willing to let Porcello go since the Tigers infield doesn’t seem to work with him very well. For his sake, I would trade him and try to negotiate with Max Scherzer for a mid level, short term deal. 36 million, 3 years is as high as I would go with Maxamillion.

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  15. DD says:

    The question might be framed this way – who will be more valuable going forward? Scherzer may have “maxed” himself out this year production wise, while Porcello has been getting better each year. Why not try to sell high? Worked for the Mets with Dickey and Rockies with Ubaldo.

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  16. steve says:

    Maybe this is all about getting prospects and trading salary to make a run at a much cheaper starting pitcher that fits the Tiger profile such as Matt Garza.

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  17. Cybo says:

    Sherzer for Profar. Lets make it happen Dombrowski. Rangers need the arm and got the depth. Seems like a good fit to me.

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  18. Jordan says:

    As you sort of acknowledge, which pitcher it makes more sense to trade depends a whole lot on the return the Tigers could get for each. And that’s not something any of us are in a position to know. So the more interesting question is, how large would the gap in the return have to be in order for it to make more sense to trade Scherzer? The Tigers should – and I’m sure will – explore the trade market for both players and see how much they could get for each. Then, factoring in the 2-3 WAR gap, the appx $6mil in savings from keeping Porcello, as well as the extra year he’s under team control, they’ll have to ask themselves which of their trade options puts them in the best position for the next 2-3 years, which seems to be their realistic window.

    If we assume that the Tigers could buy about 1 WAR with the money they’d save by trading Scherzer and not Porcello, they’d presumably need to get something in the ballpark of a 2 WAR greater return on Scherzer than they could for Porcello. And since they’re likely prioritizing the short term future, those wins will have to come from players who are either in the majors already or are near major league ready.

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  19. eric chase says:

    What does anyone think of this Scherzer package.

    Rendon, Abad or Roark, Golito, plus one more solid but not premium prospect.

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  20. conmc says:

    I think they should try to swing a Sox-Dodgers style salary dump trade. Forget about return for Scherzer, deal him with Prince to anyone that will take the contract. Shift Cabrera to 1b and extend him, re-sign Infante, then spend the Prince savings on either LF or 3b (Ellsbury, Beltran, Peralta…) and let Castellanos take the other position. Fister and Porcello would both have huge seasons with a defense that features upgrades at 1b with Victor/Cabby, 3b with Peralta/Casellanos, and Iglesias/Infante up the middle.

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    • Swissmade says:

      The problem with this is that there is only one Dodgers organization

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    • Joebrady says:

      I suggested this yesterday on a ‘Trade Fielder’ thread, but then realized that 1 year of Scherzer is not worth a career of Fielder. Not really even close. Its a little like the Trout + Pujols for nothing thread earlier this year.

      You’d have to get pretty lucky, but I wonder if it would be possible to entice someone in a Verlander/Fielder for nothing trade. $50M/year implies 10 WAR. I think they are both capable of accumulating a 10 in 2014, but both have 7 years left, and the decline could be steep.

      You’d still have a 5-man rotation, but replacing Verlander with Smyley, and could send Miggy back to first, or VMart and sign a DH-type. I don’t think you’d be much worse off, and the $50M you just freed up should more than pay for improvement elsewhere.

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  21. Tigerdog1 says:

    FIP or xFIP are not the best numbers to use in comparing Scherzer and Porcello. Rick Porcello is the poster child for the flaws in FIP. A high BABIP is not pure luck, especially in the case of a Porcello. Kid Rick is a sinkerball pitcher. His bread and butter is a two seam fastball that gets hit hard when he leaves it up over the plate.

    Porcello’s BABIP has been consistently high his whole career since his rookie season because he gets hit hard, not because of bad luck. The fact that he is a ground ball pitcher on a team with lousy infield defense doesn’t help, and an acquiring team might benefit from the change of infielders (a full season of Iglesias and Infante wouldn’t hurt, either), but Scherzer is just a much better pitcher.

    Max himself has seen an improvement in his BABIP, partly due to an abnormally high BABIP in 2012, but also due to improved command. He’s a harder pitcher to hit than Porcello. Scherzer really is worth that much more than Porcello right now.

    All that being said, I am still a big fan of Porcello. The kid is still just 24, and has savvy beyond his years. He’s getting smarter every year and he will be getting hitters out in the major leagues for a long time to come.

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  22. Jason says:

    Unless the Tigers are absolutely sure that they’ve fixed what’s wrong with Prince, the “salary dump – pair Scherzer and Fielder” idea is exactly what they should do.

    I’d then move Miggy back to first base (which will improve his long-term health and productivity), sign either Infante or Peralta to play 3B (where both have experience), and use the money saved by trading Fielder on Robbie Cano.

    On the pitching side, ease Smyly into the rotation and pair Joe Nathan with Benoit on the back end.

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    • Jason B says:

      Not going to be a lot of takers for that albatross of a contract, or many teams with the financial wherewithal to take it on (and who have holes to fill at 1B). I imagine it’s a non-starter.

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      • Jason says:

        It’s still worth pursuing. We (on Fangraphs) may know better, but I’d think at least one owner would go “OMG, the Cy Young winner? And a 50-HR man? For a low-tier prospect?” and force it on his GM.

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  23. Why trade a starter for a position player? If they have 6 solid starters, why not trade the bottom two for another ace? Porcello/Smyly (or whichever 2) for Price?

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  24. JasonBVT says:

    Why do you use xFIP to compare different pitchers?

    I only use xFIP to compare individual pitcher seasons in an effort to predict what might happen if they changed teams and called a different stadium home.

    For example: Scherzer typically gives up more HRs than normal, but in 2013 did not. You could use xFIP to predict that his 2014 will likely see him regress to giving up dingers more than normal. But, with Porcello can you realistically expect him to decrease his HR rate? No, that’s an anamolous season that can’t be predicted while he’s calling Detroit his home. But, what if Porcello were traded to Pittsburgh? You could then use xFIP to predict future performance.

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  25. Lance Glazier says:

    Getting Sherzer was a great trade when dombrowski trades him again it could be a total blockbuster. Most teams get by with 4 quality starters and the Tigers without Sherzer still have a better than most rotation. At 25 years old Porcello is at the age most guys are getting to the major leagues. Yet he has 6 years experience. Peralta, Cabrera and Fielder are far from an ideal infield for either fister or Porcello so if you could move fielder that would be ideal. watch for a blockbuster.

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  26. Ron Paul says:

    Nary a mention of the value of a dominant starting pitcher for the playoffs? The Tigers are a likely playoff team in 2014. A dominant SP is the most valuable piece for a team in the playoffs. M.Scherzer is a potentially dominant SP. I like WAR, FIP, xFIP, etc. Let’s remember it’s not all about 162 games for a team like the Tigers.

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