Mark Trumbo, Pedro Alvarez, and Perception

We have come a long way in evaluating players and yet, perception still clouds our judgment. Perception awarded Derek Jeter several Gold Gloves during years where he was a poor defensive player. Perception will likely award Nelson Cruz a hefty contract this winter. While there is no way to know for sure, I fear that perception may have played a role in the biggest trade so far this offseason: the well-documented Mark Trumbo trade.

Plenty of writers have covered why this trade looks like a poor move for the Diamondbacks so I won’t dive deeply into that. I desire to understand how Trumbo could be valued so highly (assuming the Diamondbacks feel they gave up quality for quality). Dave Cameron wrote an interesting article about how Trumbo was both overrated and underrated. He stated that Trumbo’s one great skill, breathtaking power, is a frequently overvalued skill. Kevin Towers seems to be one of those who overvalues power and made the trade based on that one skill.  But is Trumbo’s power the only reason that a team might overvalue him? With this in mind, I decided to find a comparable player and at least speculate to the perception differences that may cause a team to overvalue someone like Trumbo.

That player is Pedro Alvarez. The similarities are actually quite amazing. The following table contains combined information from the 2012 and 2013 seasons, the two years that Trumbo and Alvarez were both full-time players.

2012-2013

HR

RBI

BB%

K%

ISO

BABIP

AVG

OBP

SLG

wOBA

wRC+

WAR

Mark Trumbo

66

195

7.1%

26.7%

.221

.293

.250

.305

.471

.333

114

4.7

Pedro Alvarez

66

185

8.8%

30.5%

.232

.292

.238

.307

.470

.332

112

5.4

Holy smokes! Every time I look at these numbers, I am shocked at how similar these two players were over a two-year span. Trumbo is one year older and right-handed, but that’s where the differences end. Neither gets on base much or is a great defender, but Alvarez wasn’t terrible at third in 2013. They both derive their value almost entirely from their power and strike out way too much. They are the right-handed and left-handed versions of each other from an offensive standpoint.

I’ll admit that if someone had forced me to pick between the two players before doing the research, I may have gone with Trumbo. Why does Trumbo seem to get more attention than Alvarez?  Well, the markets are obviously different. Los Angeles draws a lot more attention than the finally revived corpse that is Pittsburgh baseball. What else does Trumbo have that Alvarez doesn’t? Trumbo has one giant first half in 2012 where he flashed skills he probably doesn’t have.

Pedro Alvarez’s best half of baseball was probably the first half of 2013. Alvarez hit .250/.311/.516 with 24 home runs. That is an impressive stat line, but it doesn’t show any growth in other skills outside of Alvarez’s impressive power. He didn’t get on base much more than other stretches of his career, and his average remained similar to his 2012 line of .244. He has never given anyone any reason to believe he is more than a one-trick pony.

During the first half of 2012, Trumbo hit .306/.358/.608 with 22 home runs. He was an All-Star, and some people thought he had taken a big leap forward. It was the kind of first half that can change perceptions, even though it was a small sample size. The second half proved unkind. Trumbo hit .227/.271/.359 with 10 home runs. But what a first half!

I have no idea whether Towers put any stock into Trumbo’s first half in 2012. Probably not. But it isn’t hard to see how teams could talk themselves into thinking that Trumbo has untapped potential based on that half. Regardless, the perception of Mark Trumbo as an above-average player likely comes from his undeniable power and one monster half of baseball that he has never come close to duplicating. It makes me wonder whether Towers would have given up two young players with potential for Alvarez if he had been available. Considering Alvarez is another “100-plus RBI, 30 home run guy”, he may have. But then again, he may secretly be banking on Trumbo as a real impact bat that produces in more ways than one. While there is no definitive answer to that, this comparison is another precautionary tale to overvaluing short sample sizes.




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3 Responses to “Mark Trumbo, Pedro Alvarez, and Perception”

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  1. Compton says:

    Great piece, bro! Follow up– is the RH power premium caused by perception, or is there actually hidden value in RH power? I.e. should we be increasing Trumbo’s WAR compared to Pedro’s because Trumbo is RH?

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    • ncarrington says:

      Interesting idea. It is worth looking into. Based on his comments, Towers seems to think there is a lack of right-handed power available and therefore, thinks he gained a very valuable piece. Is there really a lack of right-handed power available in the league or is it just hard to obtain power of any kind?

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    • The Stranger says:

      It’s conceivable that there’s some hidden value there. I think this is FanGraphs heresy, but I can imagine a scenario existing where WAR generated by RH power is worth more than WAR generated in some other way. (Which isn’t to say I like the Trumbo deal for Arizona, this is just a thought exercise)

      I’m in way over my head with the math that goes into WAR, but my understanding is that it’s entirely context-neutral. It isolates the performance of an individual player and attempts to value that performance; in doing so, it implicitly assumes a league-average environment around that player.

      But real baseball isn’t context-neutral, except on a macro scale. I can imagine that, given the lineup peculiarities of a given team, the hitting context for players on that team could be weighted far enough from league average that specific skillsets are more valuable than others, even if they lead to the same WAR as we currently calculate it. And I could imagine that adding a specific skillset could weight the team-specific context in ways that would make other players’ skillsets more valuable.

      Sadly, I don’t know how to go about testing that hypothesis.

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