Archive for July, 2013

Deadline Deals Are Often Overrated

We’re entering the final days before the July 31 trading deadline, and that means the rumor mill is running on overdrive. Every team within sniffing distance of contention looks at the available talent and prays they’ll be able to add the final piece that pushes them over the top into the playoffs, hopefully without needing to sacrifice too much of their future to do so.

The gold standard for this type of trade in recent years has been the deal the Los Angeles Dodgers pulled off in 2008, acquiring Manny Ramirez from the Boston Red Sox at the deadline and then watching as he put up a .396/.489/.743 line and nearly 3 WAR in barely two months of play. The Dodgers won their division by two games that year, and none of the prospects they surrendered ever amounted to anything. As far as deadline deals go, that’s the dream scenario.

But back here in reality, it’s incredibly rare that a late-July acquisition ever pays off like the Ramirez deal did. For all the attention and passion that gets put into following every rumor as the the deadline approaches, the most essential question often gets overlooked: Are the trades teams make to upgrade even worth the trouble?

Over the past two seasons, more than 40 trades have been made involving major league players within the six weeks of the deadline, and most are quickly forgettable. (Case in point: The hardly earth-shattering move last July 30 in which Pittsburgh and Toronto swapped Brad Lincoln and Travis Snider.) Just 11 of those players contributed even a single win of value to their new teams during that time and just two managed 2.0 WAR.

There’s obviously some additional context to be examined in here, since the new acquisitions may be taking time away from those who are decidedly less than replacement level (Matt Garza’s recent entry into an injury-tattered Texas rotation being a good example), but it’s a quick and effective way to compare across teams and seasons.

By definition, deadline moves are somewhat limited in the value they can offer a team simply because the players have spent most of the season playing elsewhere. As we cross the 100-game threshold this week, slightly less than 40 percent of the season remains to be played, so for starting pitchers that means they might be able to make 11 or 12 starts for their new clubs. Since even the best starters are worth in the 7 WAR value range for an entire season, that makes it difficult to expect more than a one- to two-win boost over replacement in the limited amount of time left in the season — and even that minimal expectation must be lowered if you’re not adding one of those truly elite pitchers in the first place, which rarely happens and won’t this year.

We’ve seen that play out over the past two years in that only five starting pitchers — Ryan DempsterZack GreinkeJ.A. Happ and Anibal Sanchez in 2012, and Doug Fister in 2011 — contributed at least one win above replacement for their new clubs after their deadline trades. Greinke’s Angels sacrificed a package including All-Star shortstop Jean Segura to acquire him, yet of that group, only the two Tigers, Fister and Sanchez, ever threw a postseason pitch for their new clubs even though all five joined rosters that were already among the most talented in the game. With the limited impact relievers can offer over the final two months — maybe 20 to 30 innings — few deadline bullpen additions can make or break the season, either.

It’s a similar story on offense, as just six hitters added even 1.0 WAR to their new teams over the past two seasons — and that’s being generous by including Kevin Youkilis, who was traded from Boston to Chicago before June turned to July last year. In 2011, Carlos Beltran played well for the Giants but at the high cost of pitcher Zack Wheeler, and the Giants missed the playoffs. While Hunter Pence was outstanding for the Phillies that year, providing 2.5 WAR as the only recent offensive example of a player giving his team a huge boost, he also did it for a team that won its division by 13 games. (The next year, Pence was among the least valuable additions at the 2012 deadline, hitting just .219/.287/.384 for San Francisco.)

If there’s value to be had from players moved in deadline deals, it’s more often than not found in subsequent seasons. That seems obvious when you’re the team doing the selling, as David Schoenfield noted when he outlined how much success Texas has had picking up prospects over the past decade (despite being on the losing end of such a deal in 2011 when the Rangers sent Chris Davis to Baltimore). But it’s also why buyers place so much value on adding players who aren’t simply rentals, since the future full year(s) of control they’re adding can be so much more important than the two months immediately ahead.

For example, Hanley Ramirez provided the Dodgers with a nice boost over incumbents Dee Gordon and Luis Cruz when he came over from Miami last July, but the 1.5 WAR he brought wasn’t enough to get them into the playoffs. This year, when healthy, he has been among the most valuable players in the game and a focal point of the Dodgers’ recent run to first place.

Fister was not only excellent down the stretch in 2011, but he has continued to be one of the more valuable and underrated starters in the game ever since. It’s team control that makes Houston starter Bud Norris an appealing target, even though he may not be as desirable otherwise as a rental like Garza.

With the recent changes in the collective bargaining agreement to restrict draft pick compensation, midseason trades have become even more problematic. Players traded midseason are no longer eligible to receive qualifying offers that would entitle their teams to collect an extra draft pick if they leave, further limiting the value of those acquired during the year. It also means that the trading team wants to be compensated for the loss of that pick as well.

As we’ve already seen this year, there are fewer impact players on the market than ever, hurt by the second wild card and the industry trend of locking up young players on long-term contracts before they reach free agency. That may make the trade deadline less fun, but it’s probably a good thing for teams looking to buy — more often than not, the desired in-season impact just isn’t there.


Beware Bud Norris

With a handful of non-contenders reportedly deciding to hang on to their best trade chips, the supply of quality pitchers on the market is quite thin. As a result, teams in the playoff hunt are having to look at players they wouldn’t otherwise be interested in, and tarnished pieces start looking more attractive given limited options. However, even for a contender in need of a rotation boost, Bud Norris should not be viewed as the answer to anyone’s problems.

The Astros 28-year-old right-hander will have some superficial appeal due to his 3.93 ERA and multiple years of team control, as he isn’t going to be free agent eligible until after the 2015 season. Unlike other pitchers changing teams this summer, Norris would not just be a rental, and could be penciled into a team’s rotation for the next few years. The only problem? Bud Norris isn’t particularly good, and shouldn’t be trusted to start a game in the playoffs.

His 3.93 ERA is mostly a mirage, based around an unsustainably low rate of fly balls flying over the fence. From 2009 to 2012, Norris posted an 11.4% HR/FB ratio, a little bit higher than the league average. This year, his HR/FB rate is just 6.9%, the 13th lowest mark of any qualified starting pitcher in the Majors. While not giving up home runs is definitely a positive, history has shown that HR/FB ratio is not very predictive, and Norris is more likely to go back to giving up something closer to his career number of home runs per fly ball over the rest of the season.

When he does, that ERA is going to go up in a hurry, because Norris’ strikeout rate has taken a dramatic turn for the worse with the move to the American League, going from 22% down to 17%. For reference, a 22% strikeout rate would put him in the same range as Justin Verlander, Cole Hamels, and Derek Holland, while a 17% strikeout rate actually makes him the equal of guys like Miguel Gonzalez and Jarrod Parker. Strikeouts aren’t an absolute requirement to be a quality starting pitcher, but Norris hasn’t off-set the reduction in strikeout rate by limiting his walks or his fly balls, so he’s basically just pitching worse, not differently.

Beyond just the strikeout decline, though, is another significant problem, especially for a team considering handing him the ball in October: his platoon splits.

Because Norris relies heavily on his slider, he’s able to dominate right-handed batters but is much less effective against left-handed hitters. This season, RHBs are hitting .240/.305/.315 against him, while LHBs are at .300/.365/.494. Of the 117 qualified starting pitchers this season, Norris’ .372 wOBA allowed versus left-handers ranks 104th, putting him squarely between Jon Garland and Jason Hammel. Allowing a .372 wOBA is essentially the equivalent of turning every left-handed batter he faces into Andrew McCutchen.

And no, it’s not just bad luck. Norris’ strikeout rate against left-handers is a paltry 12.5%, and 10 of the 11 home runs he’s allowed this season have been hit by a left-hander. His slider is a knockout pitch against right-handed batters, but just tilts right into a lefties wheelhouse. There are a lot of pitchers in Major League Baseball just like Norris, but most of them are pitching in relief, where they can be selectively used against right-handers in order to maximize their effectiveness.

As a starter, Norris simply has to face whatever group of hitters the opposing manager decides to put in the line-up that day. If that line-up happens to be stacked with good left-handers, he’s in trouble, and every potential playoff team in both leagues has good left-handed hitters to throw at pitchers just like Norris. Unless someone is planning on playing the Angels in October, handing Norris the ball probably isn’t a great idea.

Anaheim is exactly the kind of club that Norris’ skillset works the best against. They’re very right-handed, with their only four hitters posting an OPS over .700 — Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Mark Trumbo, and Howie Kendrick — all hitting from the right side. Norris has made four starts against the Angels this year, thanks to his new home in the AL West, and he’s allowed exactly one earned run in 28 innings over those four starts, a sparkling 0.32 ERA.

His ERA against every other team he’s faced? 4.95.

Here’s how he’s performed against a few teams he might actually have to face in the playoffs, if he’s traded to a contender.

BOS: 6 IP, 5 R, .346/.393/.538
OAK: 12.2 IP, 14 R, .278/.371/.519
DET: 12 IP, 9 R, .292/.346/.500
STL: 5 IP, 7 R, .478/.500/.739

These teams all have good left-handed hitters, and Norris has been terrible against all of them. That isn’t likely to change in October, and any team facing him is going to stack the line-up with as many lefties as they can manage. Starting Norris against a bunch of left-handers with the season on the line is not a great bet.

Norris is good enough against right-handers to be a useful #5 starter, and he could probably be an effective weapon out of the bullpen in the playoffs if a team was willing to use him in that role. But that’s what he should be viewed as; a right-handed specialist who could be used situationally in October. If a contender put him in their playoff rotation, don’t be too surprised when a lefty heavy line-up makes it end poorly.


Puig & Ramirez Need Help in Los Angeles

If it seems like everything is finally going right for the Los Angeles Dodgers these days, that’s only because it more or less is in comparison to how miserable the first three months of the season had gone. After a seemingly endless stretch of injuries and ineptitude, they’ve finally managed to get healthy — or something close to it — and play like the talent-laden team most had expected them to be.

Since a loss on June 20 to San Diego that sunk the Dodgers to a season-worst 12 games under .500 and 9 1/2 games out in the division, they’ve won 19 of 24, and put themselves right on the heels of the first-place Arizona Diamondbacks.

It’s not difficult to see how. Rookie sensation Yasiel Puig has made an enormous splash, hitting .391/.422/.616 through the All-Star break while wowing fans both on defense and on the basepaths. Shortstop Hanley Ramirez was somehow even better, hitting .386/.444/.693 after finally returning from injuries to both his thumb and hamstring. But the fact is Puig and Ramirez can’t keep this up all season, and if the Dodgers are going to make the playoffs, they’re going to need to get their two key performers some help.

In Puig’s case, the downturn has already begun, and while many like to point to the shocking amount of press coverage he’s received — not all of it friendly — there’s no shortage of real-world reasons. Puig isn’t going to contribute all season the way he did in his first few weeks in the big leagues simply because more than 100 years of established baseball history dictates that he can’t.

Over the first month (28 games) of his career, the 22-year-old Cuban was hitting .440 with a .506 batting average on balls in play. It’s just not realistic to expect that pace to last all season long, and the rational laws of nature mean that his next few months are not going to be as great as his first. It’s not a drag on Puig to say that; it’s just the way this sport works.

Of course, Puig has more working against him than merely the inevitable regression back to reality. On July 3, he slammed into the right-field wall at Coors Field, eventually needing to leave the game due to a sore left hip.

That injury bothered him so much that he was pulled out of back-to-back games early on July 11 and 12, and then wasn’t in the starting lineup for either of the final two games of the first half on July 13 and 14. It’s difficult to think that the pain hasn’t had an impact, since he was hitting .440/.466/.743 with eight homers before that game, and just .256/.310/.282 without a home run since.

The final issue for Puig is that pitchers are beginning to realize that his hyper-aggressiveness knows no bounds, and are taking advantage of his propensity to give away plate appearances by feeding him increasing amounts of low-and-away breaking pitches.

For example, in June, only 19.1 percent of the pitches he saw were sliders. In July, that’s up to 27.2 percent. In June, 40.6 percent of all pitches to him were within the strike zone; that figure has dropped in July and is among the lowest in all of baseball. The combination of all these factors has led to Puig’s swinging strike percentage in July coming in at 23.8 percent, the third-worst in the game this month.

Puig is young and undeniably talented, so as his hip heals and he learns to make adjustments, he’ll be fine. But he won’t perform like he did for most of June, so as he and Ramirez (.387 BABIP) inevitably come back to earth, the rest of the lineup is going to need to step up. First baseman Adrian Gonzalez has been steady all season and third basemanJuan Uribe has miraculously not been a black hole for once, so the burden falls squarely on second base and the remainder of the outfield.

Nowhere is that need more acute than in center field, where Matt Kemp has struggled all season to regain his form after offseason left shoulder surgery. After missing most of June with a hamstring injury, Kemp played just 10 games before re-injuring the shoulder on July 5. When he’s been able to play, he’s offered little, contributing a minus-1.1 WAR that ranks among the worst in the game. Kemp is expected to return shortly after the break, and whileAndre Ethier has been surprisingly decent covering in center field, regaining the healthy and fearsome Kemp the Dodgers enjoyed prior to 2012 is crucial.

In fact, despite the apparent problem of having four outfielders for three spots, the limited availability of the fragile Carl Crawford and the absence of Kemp has meant that too often, manager Don Mattingly has had to start backups Jerry Hairston Jr.Skip Schumaker or Scott Van Slyke in the corners. While Crawford has been effective when he can play, it’s now been since late May that he has been both fully healthy and productive.

The other trouble spot is at the keystone, where veteran Mark Ellis, along with the iron-gloved Schumaker and utility man Nick Punto, have struggled on both sides of the ball. Combined, Dodgers second basemen have been below replacement level, making this the most likely spot in the lineup for general manager Ned Colletti to upgrade. It’s difficult to think that this isn’t an ideal landing spot for Los Angeles native Chase Utley should Philadelphia decide to sell.

The fabulously wealthy Dodgers still boast an embarrassment of riches, along with a rotation now reinforced by a healthy Zack Greinke and a newly-added Ricky Nolasco. But they can’t simply depend on Puig and Ramirez all season long, and without increased support from the rest of their lineup, their march back to first place might very well fall short.


Five AL Trades That Should Happen

With the trade deadline now just a couple of weeks away, the obvious buyers are still waiting for several of the sellers to decide to actually sell. Maybe they just need the right kind of motivation, so we’ll provide it for them here. Here are five deals that AL teams should make in order to bolster their rosters for the stretch run.

#1: Philadelphia Phillies second baseman Chase Utley and catcher Carlos Ruiz to the Oakland Athletics for outfielder Michael Choice, second baseman Jemile Weeks, and starting pitcher Michael Ynoa.

Utley is an absolutely perfect fit for the A’s; he does all the things that Oakland values, and despite his health issues over the last few years, he remains an elite player when he’s on the field. His 126 wRC+ this year equals what Dustin Pedroia is doing for the Red Sox, and no one thinks he’s over the hill. If he stays healthy, Utley could easily add two wins to the A’s total over their rotation of second baseman, and would provide another left-handed bat to a line-up that could use some thump from that side.

Ruiz, meanwhile, would provide the team with another catching option, and a guy who could form a formidable platoon with John Jaso. While Derek Norris hasn’t been bad and Ruiz has been pretty lousy since coming off the disabled list, he has continued to pound left-handed pitching, which is Jaso’s primary flaw. He’s also good at gunning down would be base stealers, and could serve as a defensive upgrade when the A’s want to put their best run prevention line-up on the field.

To get the Phillies to sell, the A’s have to give them enough of a return to forfeit the right to make Utley a qualifying offer; Michael Choice may be the bait that would make Ruben Amaro bite. Choice ranked as the A’s third best prospect on Keith Law’s pre-season Top 10, and while he hasn’t yet taken big leap forward, he’s held his own in Triple-A and isn’t that far from the big leagues. Given the Phillies reliance on Delmon Young this season, they could certainly use some talent in the outfield, and Choice could be able to contribute as soon as next season.

Weeks and Ynoa are lottery tickets whose early promise has mostly fizzled, but both could still develop into big leaguers at some point. Weeks is showing good on base skills in Triple-A, though he might end up as a utility infielder. Ynoa, fresh from giving up a home run in the Futures Game, still throws hard but might profile best as a reliever. These guys provide some upside, but Choice is the guy who makes this deal work for Philadelphia. The A’s would likely prefer to keep him in their organization, but facing an opportunity to make a substantial upgrade in a dogfight of a division race, they should take the plunge. You can replace a prospect like Michael Choice, but flags fly forever.

#2: Seattle Mariners reliever Tom Wilhelmsen, reliever Oliver Perez, “outfielder” Michael Morse, starting pitcher Joe Saunders, and shortstop Brendan Ryan to the Detroit Tigers for starting pitcher Rick Porcello and outfielder Avasail Garcia.

It’s no secret that the Tigers need to upgrade their bullpen, and this move could give them a potent relief corps in October. While Wilhelmsen has struggled with his fastball command this year, he was a dominating closer a year ago, and he may very well just be a mechanical tweak away from blowing hitters away again. The Tigers have been looking for a long term solution to their 9th inning problems for a while, and Wilhelmsen could very well be the guy to take that role for the next several years.

By acquiring Perez at the same time, they won’t have to rush Wilhelmsen into a high leverage role right away, giving him time to find his command in lower pressure situations. Perez has been a revelation as a reliever, showing that he can get hitters out from both sides of the plate, and would give the Tigers another left-handed reliever besides Drew Smyly who isn’t a pure specialist.

In Morse, the Tigers would get a power hitter to split time between the outfield — they’re already punting defense, so might as well go all the way — and 1B/DH, giving Victor Martinez some rest or Prince Fielder an off day against a tough lefty. Saunders gives them a steady #5 starter to replace Porcello who could potentially be yet another bullpen weapon in October, as his career numbers against left-handers are lethal, and he could more easily move into a playoff relief role given his splits. Ryan serves as a defensive upgrade and shortstop depth, capable of entering games late to provide a boost to the team’s run prevention.

Giving up Porcello just as he’s learned how to strike hitters out is a real cost, but he’s once again posting results that don’t line up with his talent level, and using him as bait opens the door for Smyly to move back into the rotation next year, plus keeps the team from having to surrender top prospect Nick Castellanos. The Mariners have the opportunity to give Porcello a better situation — they put their DHs in the outfield instead of the infield, and he’s a ground ball pitcher — and could use him as a mid-rotation starter for 2014, while Garcia gives them another outfield body in their search for anyone better than Jason Bay.

#3: Chicago White Sox reliever Jesse Crain to the Boston Red Sox for shortstop Deven Merrero.

The two Sox already swapped prospect-for-reliever in the Matt Thornton trade, but they should go another round by shipping Crain to Boston for a shortstop who is as blocked as any prospect in the game. Before landing on the disabled list, Crain was among the best relievers in baseball, and he’s overcome minor arm problems with no long term effects before. While he might not have the proven closer label, he’s a serious weapon, and the Red Sox need talent more than a guy with a label and an inflated ego.

Merrero, the Red Sox first round pick in 2012, might seem to be a high price to pay for an injured reliever rental, but he has no future in Boston. Defensive wizard Jose Iglesias has already reached Boston, and elite prospect Xander Bogaerts isn’t far behind. A move to third base is both impractical because of his limited offensive abilities and the presence of Garin Cecchini. There’s just no future with the Red Sox for Marrero, and the White Sox could begin grooming him as Alexei Ramirez’s replacement.

#4: Seattle Mariners designated hitter Raul Ibanez to the New York Yankees for starting pitcher Phil Hughes.

The Yankees have been dangling Hughes around for weeks, looking to exchange some of their pitching depth — especially a guy who is basically guaranteed to head elsewhere when he becomes a free agent at the end of the year — for an injection of offense. Ibanez is miraculously having the year of his life at age-41, launching 24 home runs in the first half of the season despite beginning the year as a bench player. The Yankees are clearly familiar with Ibanez, and his swing is still tailor made for their home ballpark. If he keeps defying age as he has this year, he could provide some much needed power to their line-up.

The rebuilding Mariners wouldn’t seem to have much use for a free-agent-to-be, but as an extreme fly ball pitcher with a home run problem, Hughes should be intensely interested in pitching on the west coast next year, hoping the marine layer can knock down some of his meatballs and turning them into outs. With a two month trial run in Seattle, the Mariners could see how Hughes approach would play in reconfigured Safeco Field. Just 27, Hughes could potentially be an interesting free agent for a team that lacks pitching depth behind Felix Hernandez and should have money to spend this winter, and swapping Ibanez for him would give them a few months to see him up close and personal before deciding whether or not to be a bidder.

#5: Miami Marlins reliever Chad Qualls to the Tampa Bay Rays for reliever Josh Lueke.

After a couple of awful seasons the last few years, Qualls is throwing harder than ever and has seen his strikeout and ground ball rate both spike, allowing him to resume his previous position as a quality right-handed setup guy. With Kyle Farnsworth struggling, the Rays could use a righty who can come in and induce a double play grounder when needed, and Qualls fits the bill perfectly.

In Lueke, the Marlins would be getting a guy with the upside of a late inning reliever but a past that he won’t ever escape from. It would be best for MLB to have Lueke work in the most anonymous setting possible, and it doesn’t get any more anonymous than pitching for the Marlins right now.


The Trade That Keeps on Giving for Pittsburgh

Neal Huntington had been general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates for little more than a season in early 2009 when he made a trade that was intensely unpopular among Pirates fans. Center fielder Nate McLouth was just 27 years old and coming off an All-Star campaign in 2008 that was worth 3.5 wins above replacement, when he was suddenly shipped off to the Atlanta Braves for three prospects.

What made the trade especially sting for the Pittsburgh faithful was the fact Huntington had signed McLouth to a three-year contract extension less than four months earlier, positioning McLouth as one of the faces of the next good Pirates team; this wasn’t the usual “trade them before they can leave” cycle that had been happening in Pittsburgh for years and fans felt betrayed.

Worse, the trade was made on the unusually early date of June 3, leaving Huntington vulnerable to accusations that he’d already given up on yet another Pirates season by trading the club’s best player — McLouth was off to a good start, hitting .256/.349/.470 at the time — when the team was just four games under .500.

After having traded Jason Bay the year before and then proceeding to also move veteran infielders Adam LaRoche, Freddy Sanchez and Jack Wilson, among others, at the July trading deadline, Huntington infamously added that “it wasn’t like we were breaking up the ’27 Yankees.” That only further stoked fan discontent as they stared at yet another rebuilding process, and the Pirates eventually bottomed out at 105 losses in 2010.

Four years after the trade, McLouth has been a disappointment, bouncing from Atlanta, back to Pittsburgh and now on to Baltimore. The Pirates have the third most wins in baseball in 2013 and are virtually assured of their first winning season since 1992. And the McLouth trade, the one that was so reviled at the time? It’s the trade that keeps on giving, having brought Pittsburgh 40 percent of its current starting rotation and, by extension, half of its regular first-base platoon.

In exchange for McLouth, the Braves sent pitching prospects Jeff Locke and Charlie Morton and outfielder Gorkys Hernandez to Pittsburgh. The now 25-year-old Locke has developed into a valuable and important starter in his first full season for the Pirates, pitching more innings than anyone else on the staff while being named as a National League All-Star — just the third time the Pirates have had a starting pitcher gain that honor since 1995. As the rotation has weathered injuries to A.J. Burnett, James McDonald andWandy Rodriguez, while seeing 11 different pitchers make a start, Locke is the only Pirates starter to remain in the rotation all season long.

The advanced stats don’t really support the assertion that he’s suddenly a superstar. Locke walks too many (3.88 BB/9) and strikes out too few (6.03 K/9) to be thought of in the same class as the truly elite pitchers in baseball. That’s why his FIP of 3.82 is so much higher than his ERA of 2.15. That said, any pitcher with a FIP below 4.00 is absolutely providing value, and Locke has held opponents to three runs or fewer in 16 of his 18 starts, including the past 15 in a row.

Morton’s path since coming to Pittsburgh has been a bit more up-and-down. He was decent for the Pirates for the rest of 2009 after the trade, but was then one of the worst pitchers in baseball in 2010 as he gave up home run after home run — 15 in just 79 2/3 innings. He came back in 2011 as an extreme ground ball pitcher who had mimicked Roy Halladay’s delivery and gave the Pirates a solid 29 starts. He then blew out his elbow last June, requiring Tommy John surgery. Once again healthy, Morton has returned to join Locke, Burnett, reclamation project Francisco Liriano and top prospect Gerrit Cole in the rotation, showing a surprising increase in velocity and an extreme ground ball rate of 62.7 percent, as well as a 3.38 ERA.

As for Hernandez — once a top prospect with Atlanta — his bat never really progressed. The sum of his on-field contributions to the Pirates consists of 26 punchless plate appearances last summer. But even he has brought value to Pittsburgh, since Huntington swapped him — along with a compensatory draft pick — to the Miami Marlins for first baseman Gaby Sanchez and a minor league pitcher last July. Sanchez rebounded with the Pirates after having been sent to the minors with the Marlins, and while a .234/.336/.403 line in parts of two seasons with Pittsburgh may not look like much, he’s still been worth one win over replacement in that time.

All told, the quartet of Hernandez, Locke, Morton and Sanchez has been worth 4.7 wins above replacement for the Pirates, as well as still retaining nine additional years of combined team control for Pittsburgh beyond 2013. Conversely, McLouth was worth just 0.3 WAR with the Braves, even being demoted to the minors for a time, leaving Atlanta after the Braves declined to exercise his option following 2011.

The benefits from the McLouth trade even went beyond the return in players from Atlanta. At the time of the trade, the Pirates had a 22-year-old center field prospect waiting for his chance while hitting .303/.361/.493 in Triple-A. Andrew McCutchen made his major league debut the next day and scored three runs. He hasn’t stopped producing since, contributing 3.4 WAR over the remainder of the season and 23.0 over his career to date as one of the brightest young stars in baseball.

Not every veteran-for-prospects trade works out, as Huntington himself could tell you. For example, of the four players the Pirates received for Bay, only middle reliever Bryan Morris remains in the organization. Even the trades that do work out usually defer the benefits for years down the road, just as this one has, and that can be tough for fans to swallow. But for a trade that was so despised by hometown fans at the time, Huntington managed to both improve at the position that the trade was made from by promoting from within and collect valuable young talent that’s paying off for a Pirates team that’s finally in position to contend. It’s a lesson worth remembering as other teams gauge whether to buy or sell at this year’s deadline.


The Tigers Are Poised For A Big Second Half

The Detroit Tigers are supposed to be one of the best teams in baseball. With Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder anchoring the offense and a starting rotation that is the envy of everyone else in the game, this is a team that was built to crush the American League Central and play deep into October. However, they enter play on Friday at 50-41, just 2 1/2 games ahead of the Indians, and have been beaten in far too many games they should have won.

Part of that is their defense, as they’ve exchanged range at first and third base to maximize offense, and their pitchers pay the price for that trade-off. However, even accounting for the runs that their fielders give away, the Tigers have played better than a 50-41 team would indicate. At 5.1 runs scored per game and 4.2 runs allowed per game, the Tigers run differential suggests that they “should be” 54-37, which would give them the second best record in the AL and a comfortable lead in their division.

So, why are the Tigers winning fewer games than their runs scored and allowed would suggest? Put simply, they’ve been absolutely terrible in clutch situations.

On FanGraphs, we have a Clutch score for every team (and player), which is calculated by measuring the difference in a player’s performance based on the score, inning, and base/out situation for each play. Essentially, this statistic tells us who has performed better or worse with the game on the line than they have in less critical situations.

By this metric, the Tigers have been the worst team in the league, coming in at -4.8 wins; only the Cubs (at -4.4 wins) are also below -4.0, and likewise, they have also dramatically underperformed their expected record based on runs scored and runs allowed. You might think this is just the natural result of not acquiring a better closer over the off-season, but in reality, it’s their starting pitchers that have been the big culprit here; Anibal Sanchez (-1.35 clutch wins), Doug Fister (-1.11 clutch wins), and Rick Porcello (-0.81 clutch wins) account for a vast majority of the team’s rating.

Now, because this metric isn’t separating out credit for pitching from defense, the problem could very well be the poor defenders behind those pitchers, but the point is that the Tigers poor clutch performances have happened with their starters, not their relievers, on the mound. For all the talk about the Tigers bullpen problems, Joaquin Benoit has actually been excellent in relief, and has the highest clutch score of any Tigers pitcher, so he’s been even better than his overall numbers would indicate when the game is on the line.

I’m sure the Tigers would much rather not be singled out as the least clutch team in baseball so far, but I have good news that should give them confidence in their abilities down the stretch: clutch performance in the first half has no predictive value whatsoever.

Every year, there are teams that perform just as poorly in important situations in the first half as the Tigers have this year, and often more than one. Over the last three years, here are the teams that have posted clutch scores of -4.5 or worse in the first half of the season, and then for reference, their clutch performance in the second half of the season.

Year, Team, 1st Half Clutch, 2nd Half Clutch

2011, Astros, -5.5, -0.7
2011, Dodgers, -5.3, +1.2
2012, Phillies, -5.2, +4.3
2010, D’Backs, -4.7, -0.1
2012, Red Sox, -4.5, -1.9

From 2010 to 2012, these five teams combined for a clutch score of -29.2 in the first half, but then went on to post a collective +2.8 clutch score in the second half. Their first half performance in high leverage situations did nothing to tell us what they would do in similar situations in the second half.

And it’s not just the underperforming teams where clutch rating shows wide variance. I took the first half and second half clutch ratings for all 30 teams from each of the last three years, and in each season, there was no correlation to be found. A 1.0 correlation is found when we look at two items with an absolutely perfect relationship to each other, while a correlation of 0.0 would occur when we looked at the relationship between two items that have nothing to do with each other.

From 2010 to 2012, the correlation between a team’s first and second half clutch scores were, in order, -0.01, -0.04, and +0.04. In other words, first half team clutch score had about as much relationship with second half team clutch score as we would find from looking at the rate of ice cream consumption in Wisconsin and the length of an average commute in Istanbul. There’s just no evidence that a team who performs poorly in high leverage situations in the first half will continue to do so in the second half.

The numbers that are predictive, and correlate well from first half to second half, are the core numbers that the Tigers are excelling in, and the ones that rate them among the very best teams in baseball. Those performances are far more likely to carry over, and with a more even distribution of their play across critical situations, the Tigers should be expected to post a better record second half record even if they don’t make any huge upgrades at the trade deadline.

And if they do end up landing a couple more quality players for the stretch drive? Well, then Cleveland and Kansas City better pray for a miracle, but despite the Tigers mediocre record so far, Detroit is going to be very difficult to catch.


The Best Losing Team in Baseball

On the first day of July, the Los Angeles Dodgers woke up to find themselves in exactly the same place they’d been for most of the previous two months: buried in last place in the National League West. They were barely more than a week past a loss that had put them a season-high 9½ games out and 12 games under .500; as late as June 22, they had more losses than all but four other teams.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way for a club that had famously gone from the penniless depths of the Frank McCourt era to the dizzying heights of the Guggenheim group and their seemingly bottomless pockets. The nouveau riche Dodgers were supposed to storm through the National League, stomping over anyone foolish enough to stand in their way. Instead, the most popular discussion topic among fans has been when — not if — manager Don Mattingly would be fired.

But thanks to some fortunate circumstances, the Dodgers have managed to stay within spitting distance of first place. Here are three reasons they are the most dangerous losing team in baseball.

1. DL-free!
While many like to point to a lack of chemistry or some karmic retribution for the spending spree for the failures of this team, there’s one very clear reason to point to: a total inability to stay healthy. The Dodgers have used the disabled list 20 times on 15 players, with maladies ranging from the expected (Chad Billingsley’s elbow giving out) to the unfortunate (Hanley Ramirez injuring his thumb in the final innings of the World Baseball Classic) to the downright absurd (Zack Greinke breaking his collarbone during an April brawl).

The injury bug was so severe that the mocking of “$200 million dollars bought this?” — while understandable — was somewhat off the mark, since so much of that dollar amount was sidelined at any given time. Put it this way — the Dodgers played their 83rd game of the season in Colorado on Wednesday night, and it marked the first time that Mattingly was able to have Greinke pitching in front of both Ramirez and Matt Kemp.

2. Bad division
In most divisions, these kinds of injuries would have sealed their fate. The Dodgers would have been 13 games out on July 1 if they played in the NL Central, and at least nine out in every other division except the AL Central. Since even the third-best team in the NL Central had eight more wins, the wild cards would seem to be out of the question, making a path to the playoffs a difficult one.

Fortunately for the Dodgers, they play in the NL West, a division that has no truly terrible clubs but also no clearly good ones. The Arizona Diamondbacks currently sit in first place but are just one game over .500 themselves after a 7-14 slide over the last three weeks. It’s been so bad in the NL West that since June 1, Colorado, San Diego and San Francisco represent three of the four worst teams in the league.

Still, the good luck of playing in such a lightweight division wouldn’t have really mattered if the Dodgers had continued playing like they had been all season, watching Luis Cruz pop out endlessly while Kemp struggled to regain his form after offseason shoulder surgery. While the earlier losses still count in the standings just as much as any other, the roster that put the team in that hole is markedly different from the one Mattingly is rolling out today.

3. Puig and the gang
The Dodgers’ ascent up the standings all starts with Cuban sensation Yasiel Puig, who arrived on June 3 after Kemp, Carl Crawford and catcher A.J. Ellis all went on the disabled list. Despite some apprehension over whether the raw Cuban was ready to handle the bigs, Puig has taken the sport by storm. In his debut, he showed off a rocket arm by ending the game with a 9-3 double play from right field; in his second, he hit two home runs. He hasn’t stopped yet, putting up a ludicrous .443/.473/.745 line in his first month and finishing second only to Joe DiMaggio as far as hits in the first month of a career.

Yet even the smashing play of Puig wasn’t really enough, as the team lost 10 of his first 17 games. But on June 14, Ellis returned from the disabled list, taking playing time away from Tim Federowicz (.244 wOBA) and the since-released Ramon Hernandez (.315 wOBA). That same day, Ramirez returned to the lineup full-time after a stop-and-start comeback from an injured hamstring, adding a red-hot .472 wOBA to a team that had suffered through months of lousy play from Dee Gordon (.235 wOBA) and Justin Sellers (.236 wOBA). In the bullpen, strikeout machine Kenley Jansen took Brandon League’s job, while free-agent bust Matt Guerrier was moved in favor of younger talent.

It goes on. Plate appearances that had previously gone to ineffective bench players like Jerry Hairston Jr. (.287 wOBA) and Skip Schumaker (.274 wOBA) were now going to Puig. Rather than the atrocious Cruz (.155 wOBA), the shockingly rejuvenated Juan Uribe (.321 wOBA) took over at third. As Crawford (.358 wOBA) returns this week to give the team the leadoff hitter they were missing, Mattingly will finally have his full team, and we’ve seen what that collection is capable of as they’ve won nine of their last 10 — and picked up seven games in nine days.

Mattingly hasn’t suddenly become a better manager, but he is running a different team. Thanks to a division that didn’t put this club away when they had the chance, the ongoing brilliance of Clayton Kershaw and the massive impact of Puig, the Dodgers are poised to make a lot of noise down the stretch — even if, for now, they’re still under .500.


Don’t Ignore The Old Guys At The Deadline

Last summer, Zack Greinke was the big fish at the trade deadline. A legitimate ace who could make a difference in the playoffs, Greinke was the guy everyone wanted, and the Angels eventually coughed up three players — including 2013’s breakthrough shortstop Jean Segura — in order to rent his services for the final two months of the year. Other high profile acquisitions included Hanley Ramirez, Hunter Pence, and Ryan Dempster, as teams loaded up with big names for the stretch run. However, in looking back at how the remainder of the season played out, none of those names turned out to be the most important acquisition of the deadline: that title goes to Marco Scutaro, and he should be a lesson for buyers this month.

When the Rockies traded Scutaro to the Giants on July 27th, he was hitting just .271/.324/.361, mediocre numbers for a hitter playing anywhere, much less one who got to spend half of his time playing at altitude in the most hitter friendly ballpark in the Major Leagues. At 36-years-old, Scutaro looked like he was just done as a big leaguer. His defense limited him to second base, he’d never hit for any power, and as a .270 hitter who didn’t walk much, Scutaro looked like a utility guy off the bench at best.

After all, he didn’t make the big leagues until he was 26, and he didn’t lock down a starting job until he was 28. Scutaro has been defying the odds his entire career, and it was inevitable that he was going to run out of juju at some point. So, when we saw him put up half a season of replacement level performance, it didn’t look like a slump; it looked like the end for a guy who peaked as a solid role player to begin with.

When the Dodgers acquired Hanley Ramirez despite his mediocre performance in Miami, it was considered “buying low” in hopes that a “change of scenery” would restart his career. These are the kinds of phrases that get tossed around when a team trades for a slumping player in his 20s. If he’s on the wrong side of 30, though, the consideration that it might just be a cold streak is hardly considered. We assume that any older player going through a rough stretch is struggling because his skills are eroding. As Scutaro showed, however, old players can slump too, and we should be wary of writing off players in their mid-30s with strong track records just because they had a bad couple of months.

For teams who want to try and repeat what the Giants did with Scutaro last year, here are a few players worth going after, even though they aren’t that young and their first half performance doesn’t inspire a great deal of confidence.

Alfonso Soriano, OF, Chicago Cubs

Soriano is 37-years-old and posting an 89 wRC+, his worst offensive performance since 2009. At 2.8%, his walk rate is actually the lowest he’s posted since becoming a regular in 2001, and it’s not like he’s been a particularly patient hitter throughout his career. In addition to the lack of walks, his .174 Isolated Slugging percentage would be his worst mark since his rookie year. The power seems to be eroding, and that’s really the only tool that has been able to keep him a productive player through the second half of his career.

However, we shouldn’t just assume that Soriano’s power is gone for good. He had 67 extra base hits a year ago, and half of those went over the fence. His .237 ISO in 2012 was actually higher than his career average of .229, so this is not the continuation of any kind of recent trend. Soriano’s hitting for less power this year, but there’s no reason to think that his ability to launch home runs has completely disappeared.

Because that’s really all Soriano does well at this point, he’s not any kind of offensive savior, and should probably only be expected to produce at about the rate of a league average hitter. However, for teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates, getting league average offense from a corner outfield spot would be a tremendous upgrade, and Soriano is unlikely to cost much of anything in trade. With about $27 million left on his contract — he’s scheduled to make $18 million at age-38 next year — the Cubs will have to pick up almost all of his remaining money in order to move him, but a contender could do worse than taking a shot on Soriano rebounding in the second half.

Scott Hairston, OF, Chicago Cubs

Hey, look, another Cubs outfielder. Hairston doesn’t have Soriano’s name value, but his skillset is very similar. At 33-years-old, Hairston has a nice track record as a guy who mashes left-handed pitching, but his aggressive approach at the plate limits his value to a part time role. Signed by the Cubs over the winter to serve as a platoon outfielder, Hairston has hit just .160/.224/.372, and has basically fallen out of the Cubs line-up at this point.

However, his offensive downturn is almost entirely based on hitting balls right at people. His walk rate, strikeout rate, and isolated power are almost identical to his marks from last year with the Cubs, when he posted a 118 wRC+ and was a high quality role player. His batting average on balls in play, however, is a staggeringly low .132, 155 points below his 2012 mark and easily the lowest of any hitter with at least 100 plate appearances this year. BABIP is much less predictive than other measures, especially over 100 plate appearances, and Hairston could easily go back to mashing left-handed pitching in the second half. For a team looking for a platoon outfielder, Hairston would be a nice low cost option.

Shaun Marcum, SP, New York Mets

Marcum, once an excellent pitcher in Toronto, has seen his career derailed by shoulder problems, and he’s currently dealing with both neck and shoulder tightness that could land him back on the disabled list. At 31-years-old and with a fastball that now averages just 85.3 mph, along with his current 5.03 ERA, it’s easy to see Marcum as a washed-up has been that doesn’t have the stuff to get big league hitters out anymore.

However, Marcums’ xFIP is 4.26, almost a dead on match for the 4.21 mark he put up a year ago when his ERA was 3.70. Even with his stuff degrading, his rate of home runs on fly balls (6.5%) is at a career low, and his strikeout rate is hanging around league average thanks to his excellent change-up.

Marcum is not an innings eater by any stretch of the imagination, but for a contender who is hoping to catch lightning in a bottle, Marcum could throw 50 to 75 decent innings and will likely not cost much in terms of prospects to acquire. He’s not going to fix your entire rotation, but if a team is looking for an adequate stop gap to help get them through the stretch run, Marcum could be a useful piece, even if he hasn’t looked great in the first half.