Relative Expected Utility & The 2011 Trade Deadline

Example II: New York Yankees & Cleveland Indians

Indians In: Ubaldo Jimenez

Indians Out: Drew Pomeranz, Alex White, Matt McBride, Joseph Gardner

In Texas or Tampa Bay, Manuel Banuelos and Dellin Betances might not stand out from the crowd, but their value to New York goes beyond mere hype.  There’s little reason to believe Banuelos, Betances, and Ivan Nova have significantly more upside than Pomeranz, White, and Gardner, but Brian Cashman was more reluctant to part ways with them because he doesn’t already have a major-league staff filled with inexpensive twenty-somethings who will remain under team control well after Jimenez reaches free agency.

The Yankees have developed just one starting pitcher during the Cashman era who reached 3 WAR in a season (that is, unless you count Ian Kennedy, who got his while pitching for Arizona).  The Indians have graduated at least half a dozen over the same span, several of whom well exceeded that mark, and on many occasions (notably C. C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee).

Nova is the only starting pitcher on the Yankees active roster under contract beyond 2013 (although we’d like to assume Sabathia will re-up this offseason for well after that).  Nova and Phil Hughes are the only pitchers under the age of 30 to start games for the Yankees in 2011.  Meanwhile, no player over the age of 27 has started a game for the Indians in 2011 and only one 30+ pitcher has logged a single inning on their behalf (Chad Durbin).  The only Indian who could reach free agency before Jimenez is Fausto Carmona, and that’s only if the Indians decline his options.

Organizational depth and cost certainty are, of course, relative.  Cashman can rebuild his team quicker and through more creative means than can Chris Antonetti thanks to…well…check the masthead.  But, even with near unlimited funds, he cannot control the market for starting pitching during the next two offseasons.  If at least a couple of the pitching prospects develop, he won’t have to…which is not to say we won’t have plenty of time to regret passing on Ubaldo.

Example III: Atlanta Braves & Philadelphia Phillies

Braves In: Michael Bourn (CF)

Braves Out: Jordan Schafer (CF), Paul Clemens (SP), Brett Oberholtzer (SP), Juan Abreu (RP)

Phillies In: Hunter Pence (RF)

Phillies Out: Jonathan Singleton (1B), Jarred Cosart (SP), Josh Zeid (RP), PTBNL

Jonah Keri is declaring the Braves the single biggest winners of the 2011 deadline.  The Braves need a win, badly.  They recently lost their best player, Brian McCann, and have been losing ground, not only to the division-leading Phillies, but to Wild Card hopefuls like Arizona and St. Louis.  Yet, how can we declare the Braves winners when a.) they didn’t shore up their dramatically overworked bullpen and b.) they didn’t fill the void left by McCann in the middle of the lineup.

First of all, similar to the situation in Texas, though Clemens and Oberholtzer are decent looking AA pitchers, the Braves system is so rich they aren’t even amongst Atlanta’s top five pitching prospects, while Cosart is the Phillies #1.  But, as Keri and others have pointed out, this trade is all about properly appreciating what Bourn does well: get on base, run the bases, and track down fly balls.  They have pointed out that, in terms of overal production, Bourn is actually more valuable than Pence, for whom the Astros got a greater return from Philadelphia.  But even that doesn’t quite tell the story.

Even without McCann, the Braves can hit homeruns.  They rank second in the NL, behind only Arizona, despite the fact that they play in what is generally considered a pitchers park (in terms of homers, Turner Field has actually played more or less neutral over the last few years).  However, the Braves are 13th in the National League in OBP, behind pitiful offenses like the Astros and Dodgers.  To a large extent, this explains why the Braves, despite hitting nearly 21% more homers than Philadelphia, have scored 7% fewer runs.  Clearly, Bourn’s .362 OBP is a massive upgrade over what Atlanta has been getting from the position (.323).  And his ability to steal bases – he has stolen nearly as many (38) as the entire Atlanta roster (42) – gives them a slightly more versatile offense.

However, Bourn’s value to the Braves is even more apparent on defense.  The Braves have three starting pitchers – Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens, and Brandon Beachy – as well as several key relievers who are severe flyball pitchers.  Unfortunately, to this point, Braves centerfielders are 29th in baseball in Ultimate Zone Rating and 24th in Range Factor.  Over the last three seasons, Michael Bourn‘s UZR has been 22.9, 2nd best among qualified centerfielders, while the man he will be replacing, Nate McLouth, has been third worst (-20.8).

Keri and Eric Karabell have theorized that Philadelphia’s front office did not realize that Bourn was actually a more valuable player than Pence, but I’ll give Ruben Amaro Jr. a little bit more credit.  Much of what makes Bourn a superior player comes from his defense and his baserunning.  If you rate them by purely hitting measure (for instance, wOBA or wRC+), Pence comes out ahead, both in 2011 and over the course of their careers.  The Phillies already have a pair of pretty good leadoff-hitting types in Shane Victorino and Jimmy Rollins (before anybody recycles the annual declaration of Rollins demise, I’ll point out that over the last six weeks he’s been more than sufficient [.287/.351/.483]).  What Pence offers is desperately-needed lineup protection for Utley and Howard.  The Phillies have gotten only a .691 OPS from the five-hole in 2011.  The league average is .730.

On defense, though the range of Bourn and Victorino would’ve been nice alongside Raul Ibanez, neither has much experience playing right field.  Pence is a proven commodity there, one of the five or six best since ’09 (9.0 UZR).

Too often we attempt to judge value in a vacuum, as though every team has equal access to every player.  That’s like arguing that gas prices should be the same in land-locked Ohio as they are in gulf coast Louisiana, or that New York avocados are the same as California avocados.  Of course, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t teams that misjudge players, even according to their own shortages and surpluses, but it does mean, when evaluating trade proposals, especially ones that possess both short and long-term implications, GMs are trying to account not only for the forrest and the trees, but also the water supply, the air quality, the precipitation, the soil, and the access to light of each individual specimen.  Not infrequently, a variable is left unaccounted for, or is overcompensated for, and Colby Rasmus ends up getting traded for Marc Rzepczynski.

Matt teaches at The University of Alabama. Roll Tide. He specializes in American Literature and Rhetorical Economics. Fate chose for him the peculiar perdition of rooting for the Chicago Cubs and the Los Angeles Clippers.

3 thoughts on “Relative Expected Utility & The 2011 Trade Deadline

  1. Michael L.

    I didn't read the post, but I do have a question. I was working during the game tonight and I saw that Hughes had a great night (even though the game is in delay). He had 6 innings of 3 hit ball and no earned runs. How was his fastball and other pitches (if you got the chance to catch the game)? Was his velocity up?

    Thanks and I'm sure I'll read the post but I just wanted to know (I know this is a poorly constructed sentence).

    • rick.

      His fastball hit 95mph about 3-4 times, 94 about 3-4 times as well, and it seems like right now he's sitting at 93mph comfortably for his 4 seamer, 91 for his 2 seamer. His secondary pitches looked pretty good.

      A welcoming start for sure and I would have been interested to know how far Hughes would have went if not for the rain. Seems like if he was able to go 1-2 more innings or even get a complete game shutout this would have boosted his confidence tremendously. Although I'm sure the results from tonight has already done that.

  2. DustyYF

    Very interesting stuff. You said what I've been thinking about the Yankees decision to not get Ubaldo, only more eloquently and more informatively. The team's recent track record for in-house starters is bad, but its still too risky to give up young talent for a guy like Ubaldo who, while very talented himself, has enough red flags to worry you. I also think Cashman works his best and most unexpected deals in the offseason?

    I had no clue Michael Bourn was having such a great season. He and Brett Gardner are very much the same kind of player. It will be interesting to see how the Braves fare from now on. They do need a win, and not just because of their recent loss of Brian McCann. Their fans are really losing interest. Living in an area (Charleston, SC) where Braves fans used to be absolutely everywhere, I rarely meet any nowadays. And their attendance is pretty poor for such a good team full of young and exciting players.

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