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A Low Cost Gio Gonzalez Alternative

Last week, reports began to surface that the Marlins were interested in acquiring Gio Gonzalez from the A’s. Depending on how much credibility you put in various rumors, the A’s have asked for the likes of Mike Stanton and Logan Morrison in discussions, and no matter who you believe, they’re clearly not going to sell Gonzalez on the cheap. Any team looking to acquire his services is going to pay through the nose to get him, so being the helpful soul that I am, I’d like to suggest a significantly cheaper path to acquiring a pretty similar talent.

Gonzalez debuted in 2008, and since then, he’s posted the following career numbers:

BB%: 11.3%
K%: 21.9%
GB%: 47.5%
BABIP: .293
LOB%: 73.9%

Over those same four years, here are Edinson Volquez‘s numbers:

BB%: 12.4%
K%: 23.3%
GB%: 49.0%
BABIP: .292
LOB%: 73.7%

Pretty hard to spot any differences between them. Volquez’s walk and strikeout rates are both marginally higher, but their ratios of walks to strikeouts are nearly identical. Their ground ball rates are also almost exactly the same, as are their rate of allowing hits on balls in play and the amount of runners they’ve stranded. The only area where there’s much of a gap is in HR/FB rate, where Volquez’s 12.5% is a bit higher than Gonzalez’s 10.6%, which explains the slight advantage that Gonzalez has in the results categories.

Gonzalez, ERA-/FIP-/xFIP-: 96/100/95
Volquez, ERA-/FIP-/xFIP-: 100/102/96

In terms of skillset, both pitchers have demonstrated some success with the a combination of plenty of strikeouts, some groundballs, and too many walks. In both cases, iffy command has kept them from being truly great pitchers, but they’ve done other things well enough to produce decent results.

Of course, we’ve left out one pretty key fact, and it’s the reason that Gonzalez is currently a highly coveted trade chip while Volquez is an after-thought who might not even crack the Reds starting five next year – the sequence in which those numbers have been accumulated over the last four years. Instead of putting up cumulative results, here are the two pitchers minus stats by year, 2008 to 2011:

Gonzalez:

2008: 182/168/118
2009: 133/104/90
2010: 81/93/97
2011: 79/93/92

Volquez:

2008: 73/81/89
2009: 105/98/94
2010: 102/116/108
2011: 145/135/106

They’ve been on essentially opposite paths over the last four years, as Volquez started off strong and has gotten worse each year since. Meanwhile, Gonzalez’s results have improved dramatically, and the memories of his early career struggles have now mostly faded. With their most recent performances fresh in our minds, Gonzalez looks like a young ace in the making, while Volquez appears to be more of an erratic arm who hasn’t adjusted to life in the big leagues. However, the reality is that both pitchers have essentially performed in about the same manner over the last four years – they’ve just taken different very paths to get there.

That isn’t to say that recent performance shouldn’t weigh more heavily in our evaluations of players, or that a team should see the two as equals going forward. Clearly, recent performance should weigh more heavily than older data in shaping our projections, and the divergents paths they’ve taken suggests that Gonzalez is certainly a better bet for 2012 than Volquez. I just wonder whether recent performance is weighing too heavily on their respective market values.

In talking with Dan Szymborski about projecting pitchers, he noted that he’s found that the weights that work best are something in the 8/5/4/2 range for players whose prior four year totals stretch back prior to age 24. In other words, the projection will count the most recent year as 42% of the total, 26% for the second most recent year, 21% for the third most recent, and 11% for the fourth most recent.

Running the last four year totals using these weights to give more influence to the most recent years, we come out with the following results:

Gonzalez:

BB%: 11.0%
K%: 22.1%
GB%: 48.1%
BABIP: .292
LOB%: 75.6%
xFIP-: 94

Volquez:

BB%: 12.9%
K%: 22.9%
GB%: 50.6%
BABIP: .291
LOB%: 72.2%
xFIP-: 100

Giving more weight to recent years shows that you’d prefer Gonzalez going forward, but the gap is perhaps less significant than you might expect. This reflects that most of the divergence in their results over the last few years have been directly related to their HR/FB rates, which have gone in very different directions since 2008. While there may be some skill in turning fly balls into outs, it’s certainly minimal when compared to skills like throwing strikes or missing bats, and in those two areas, Volquez and Gonzalez haven’t actually been all that different, even when you give more weight to the most recent performance.

There are certainly times when trends for pitchers can be important to look at – velocity loss being a clear example – but it is also possible to get too carried away with looking at the sequence of performance and putting too much emphasis on the results that are still fresh in our mind. If I’m a Major League team shopping for a new arm for my rotation, I’d be pretty tempted to see Volquez as a bargain-bin version of Gio Gonzalez, and question why I should pay the full market price for that skill set when there’s a chance that I could get a similarly talented pitcher for a fraction of the cost.