The Dodgers’ Decision To Be Intentionally Inefficient

Last week, when discussing the Dodgers second base options, I talked about Logan Forsythe as a reasonable alternative to Brian Dozier, a similar player on a similar contract, but finished the section with this reason why I thought maybe they should look elsewhere.

I could potentially see a Forsythe deal working if the Dodgers were floating some pieces that could help Tampa Bay maintain the status quo and give them some long-term value, but Forsythe isn’t good enough to extract Jose De Leon, and I’m not sure the Rays really need more pitching depth.

Well, yesterday, the Dodgers traded De Leon for Forsythe in a one for one swap, so the Dodgers decided I was wrong about that whole “not good enough” part. While they deemed the Twins asking price of De Leon and something else of substantial value too high for Dozier, they were willing to part with one of the game’s best young pitchers in order to land Dozier-Lite. And as you probably guessed based on my write-up last week, that decision surprised me a bit.

Jeff did a good job of showing why the Dodgers viewed Forsythe and Dozier as similar enough to go with door #2 when they found the Twins asking price too high, but in all of the recent talk we’ve done about how comparable some of their rate stats are, there’s something that we should make sure doesn’t get lost: Dozier is better than Forsythe.

In both of our write-ups, Jeff and I showed how Forsythe has looked a lot like Dozier the last two years. The reason we didn’t go back the normal three years, though, is that in 2014, Dozier was amazing — he put up +4.7 WAR in 707 plate appearances — while Forsythe was a sub-replacement level player, a guy who ran a 78 wRC+ and was a liability in the field. Forsythe has made substantial enough changes that it’s easy to buy into the fact that he’s a different hitter now, but that doesn’t eliminate the fact that he’s only been a productive player for the last two years, while Dozier has been an above average player each of the last four years, and a star for each of the last three.

It’s tempting to point to Dozier’s late career breakout as reason to think that Forsythe’s career up to 2014 isn’t relevant anymore, but the reality is that we necessarily have to have fewer reasons for optimism about Forsythe than we do about Dozier, because his track record of success is half as long. Forsythe looks like Dozier if you squint, but I feel like it’s important to point out that he isn’t yet at Dozier’s level by any reasonable objective standard.

The projections, likewise, don’t see two similarly valuable players. Steamer projects Dozier for +2.8 WAR per 600 PA, while they have Forsythe at +2.2 WAR per 600 PA. ZIPS sees both as more valuable players, but maintains the same gap, with Dozier at +3.9 WAR/600, and Forsythe at +3.0 WAR/600. That’s nearly an extra win that both systems think Dozier will add in 2017 and 2018, and would have made Dozier an upgrade over what the Dodgers already had in a way that Forsythe is not. And that’s equalizing the PAs, which isn’t fair to Dozier, who has been one of the most durable players in the game the last three years, while Forsythe has only played more than 130 games in a season once in his career.

So, while I enjoyed Jeff’s piece and his catchy headline, I think it’s worth pointing out that it’s not entirely accurate. The Dodgers acquired “basically Brian Dozier” in the same way that Jose De Leon is basically Stephen Strasburg. If we’re discounting the value of big league track records by equating Forsythe and Dozier, then we have to also acknowledge that De Leon’s forecasts made him a highly valuable asset, which is why the Rays were willing to trade Forsythe for a pitcher they didn’t really need even though they don’t really have a second baseman to replace him.

The Rays looked at De Leon as a piece too good to pass up for a good-not-great second baseman under control for just two more seasons. And while health is obviously going to be a huge factor here, I think that’s pretty much the right assessment; when you can land a pitcher who Steamer projects as a +4 win starter right now — assuming he was able to throw 200 big league innings in 2017 anyway — for a guy who is more of a nice piece than a franchise building block, you have to do it.

Now, there are plenty of reasons to think that Steamer is too high on De Leon. The breaking ball isn’t great, and he’s probably going to have a home run problem in the big leagues. The durability is an open question. There are risks here, but the projections are so good that you can’t reasonably walk De Leon back into a position where he isn’t one of the game’s most valuable young arms. He looks, mostly, like a big league ready pitcher, and maybe a really good one.

So why’d the Dodgers trade six years of a high-value asset for two years of a guy who, in a vacuum, might not actually be all that more valuable? The easy answer is that they needed a second baseman, and they had enough pitching. They traded from significant depth to fill a hole, and that’s part of the point of stockpiling players, so that you can make a move like this when you’re in a win-now position. But while that explanation is true-ish, it also rings a bit hollow, because there isn’t a team in baseball — the Dodgers included — that couldn’t have gotten real value from De Leon this year.

The Dodgers’ pitching depth, after all, is based on a lot of things going right. If Clayton Kershaw’s back doesn’t act up again, and if Rich Hill stays healthy, and if Kenta Maeda — who one friend in the game told me last year had “the worst medicals we’ve ever seen” — doesn’t miss time, and if Julio Urias doesn’t run into an innings limit, and if the team can find a viable fifth starter from the pile of rehabbers they have collected, then they wouldn’t have room for De Leon in the rotation. At least, assuming the projections are wrong and De Leon isn’t just better than those guys anyway.

But there’s just no way all those guys are going to stay healthy. The Dodgers used 15 starting pitchers last year, and this group didn’t get more durable by getting a year older. Maybe De Leon was #7 or #8 on the depth chart headed into the spring, but that still put him in line for something like 100 innings in the rotation, given how these things usually play out.

And even if De Leon hadn’t been able to crack the team’s rotation, it’s still not really true that they didn’t need him. Because, right now, the team’s best non-Jansen right-handed reliever is Pedro Baez. They’re currently projected to give a bunch of medium-leverage innings to Josh Fields. Say what you want about the Dodgers rotation depth, but this is a team that could use a dynamite reliever, and the easiest way to find yourself a dynamite reliever is to take a two-pitch starter with health issues and tell him to throw 15-20 pitches an outing instead.

Maybe moving De Leon to the bullpen would have been a waste of his potential, but the price of good relievers has gone up astronomically, and if he turned into a dynamite bullpen arm, six years of a lights-out setup guy is probably still more valuable than two years of a good-not-great second baseman. The idea that the Dodgers turned a guy they didn’t need into a guy they did is an easy story to tell, but it doesn’t really look to be true; they turned a guy they can more easily replace into something that was harder to find internally, but the long-term price of doing so looks substantial.

Five paragraphs ago, I asked why the Dodgers did this, and I haven’t really answered that question yet. One potential answer could be that their medical staff doesn’t like his chances of staying healthy long-term, and so they’re trading him before another few DL stints makes him less valuable than he is now. But I don’t know that Friedman would stick his old friends in Tampa Bay with something he thinks is likely to break, and in general, predicting future health is really hard.

So, I think the answer can be summarized in this comment from Andrew Friedman during the winter meetings.

Since Friedman arrived in LA, the team has operated as rationally as any organization in baseball. They’ve stockpiled talent, built an impressive farm system, and created a team that is in position to win now and in the future. But over in Chicago, there stand the Cubs. The Cubs are equally rational, equally talented, and equally young. They’re also a well-financed big market team that will be able to keep their young stars around, and afford to acquire new ones. The Cubs aren’t going anywhere.

If the Cubs were in the A.L., maybe the Dodgers don’t make this trade. But for the foreseeable future, the Dodgers have to build a team not just good enough to win the NL West, but to reasonably be able to go up against Chicago in the postseason and like their chances. And because the Cubs are so good, your options are to either build a behemoth or to hope you get lucky.

I think Friedman is trying to do the latter. Forsythe does make the Dodgers better in 2017 than keeping De Leon would have. Even if it’s not a big difference, every little upgrade matters. This is the kind of finish-off-a-roster move that you make when you’re pretty confident that the guy you’re getting can help you in the postseason. De Leon’s utility in October is less certain, but the Dodgers look like huge favorites to win the NL West again, and now they have a good right-handed hitting second baseman to give them a better chance to score runs against the Cubs in October.

These types moves are dangerous. This is the kind of move that, once in a while, turns into an embarrassing disaster that fans talk about for a decade. If De Leon turns into what the projections think he might turn into, Forsythe can’t do anything to make this a good deal. These are the kinds of trades you don’t really want to make.

But sometimes, you have the best pitcher in baseball in the prime of a Hall of Fame career, a team around him that projects for 95 to 100 wins, and you still aren’t confident you’re the best team in your own league. And that’s when rationality gets frustrating, because at the end of the day, the goal is to win, and there’s a beast of a team in Chicago that stands in the Dodgers’ way of winning. You don’t want to go into that fight less armed that you could have been, and so, you make a move that you hope helps you while praying it doesn’t come back to bite you.

I’d bet the Dodgers wished they didn’t have to make this trade. I’d bet that, internally, their calculations agree that they lost this deal in terms of single-player value. But while cold rationalization is often the best defense against emotional mistakes, as Friedman said, there is a time and place for both. And because the Cubs exist, the Dodgers need to take some risks and hope they work out. This is one of those.

De Leon could make this deal a disaster from LA’s perspective, but if Forsythe provides enough short-term value that they can get past the Cubs in either of the next two years, they’ll comfort themselves with the warmth of a World Series appearance, and maybe a big shiny trophy. Deals that require postseason success to work out are the worst kinds of trades to make, but the best kind of trades to have to make. The Dodgers have already built a winner; with this kind of trade, they’re trying to build a champion.

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southie
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southie

Maeda a ticking time bomb? Like Tanaka?