Jason Heyward is Perfect for the Yankees. Here’s How He Breaks the ‘Zombie Roster’ Problem.

Typically for Brian Cashman’s front office, we have not heard much about the Yankees plans for this offseason, other than that they are trying to shop Brett Gardner. As far as I can tell, the Yankees have not been directly connected to Heyward, although some have noted how well hit fits on the team.

Let’s review the case for Jason Heyward, quickly:

Heyward has produced 6.5, 3.4 (5.3 over 150 games), 5.2 and 6.0 fWAR over the past four seasons. He has been a remarkably consistent offensive player, with wRC+s of 121, 120, 110, and 121 over that time period. He was the 7th best hitter in baseball by fWAR over that time period, just ahead of Robinson Cano and Paul Goldschmidt. Among outfielders, only Mike Trout and Andrew McCutcheon were better.

Heyward’s performance is somewhat controversial given that a great deal of his production relies on defense. He has averaged 18.3 UZR/150 over his career. In terms of defensive fWAR, Heyward is 5th in baseball over the last four years behind Lorenzo Cain, JJ Hardy Yadier Molina, and Andrelton Simmons with 58.9 runs saved.

How Heyward Breaks the ‘Zombie Team’ Problem

Heyward is the youngest elite free agent to actually hit the market in a long time. He won’t turn 27 until August of next season. A ten-year contract will take him only through his age-35 season. I tried searching for the last MLB free agent to be this good and this young, and I couldn’t find anyone in recent memory.

Here’s what an aging curve for a player like Heyward looks like, via BTBS:


Most elite free agents hit the market around the age 29-31 marks. At that point, the average elite player’s decline has already started, and is about to get very steep. We’ve seen that with players like Robinson Cano (free agent at 31) and Jacoby Ellsbury (free agent at 30), who hit the steep part of their declines almost instantly after signing the big contract.

With Heyward, on the other hand, the Yankees can buy peak years on the free agent market. Assuming they give him a 10-year deal, they’ll only have to deal with a few years of steep decline. Heyward isn’t as good as Cano or Ellsbury were at their peaks, but he’s probably going to be better over the life of his free agent contract than either of them will be.

This is exactly the type of player that the Yankees should be dumping their money into. The Yankees biggest problem in roster construction is the zombie contract problem. I’ve written before about the resource curse in professional sports.

Here’s the problem: almost all teams built on expensive free agent will settle into an equilibrium that looks a lot like the 2013-2015 Yankees. Free agents will be very good for a few years, but inevitably settle into a decline phase. Teams then go out and buy more free agents to compensate. If the second generation of free agents declines before the first generation’s contracts are up, the team can’t break out of the trap of a roster that’s good enough to compete but not good enough to win championships, forever. It’s a zombie team.

Here’s one example. Let’s create a theoretical formal model, assuming the following:

  • A team has a budget for 9 free agents
  • Free agents can either be ‘elite’ or ‘declining’
  • An elite player is worth 2 wins above average. A declining player is MLB average.
  • All free agents are elite for 3 years, and declining for 5 years
  • All free agent contracts are for 8 years
  • The remaining roster is filled with average players (81 wins per 25 players), from the farm system or lesser free agent acquisitions.

If a team signs 1 elite free agent per year, you get a curve that looks like this:


That doesn’t look good. This is a zombie team. The majority of it’s elite players are always in decline over the long term. It will occasionally be good, and may occasionally sneak into the playoffs, but will never be great.

How can we fix this problem? Let’s go with Cashman’s apparent strategy: sign elite free agents in waves of 3. Think Burnett/Teixeira/Sabathia, or Ellsbury/Tanaka/McCann. Here’s what a 3-wave curve looks like:

That’s a little bit of an improvement, but still not great. The zombie team is mediocre for 7/8 seasons, and elite for 1/8 seasons.

Now, let’s consider a Heyward-type free agent. Let’s assume that Heyward’s 8-year contract buys 5 years of elite production and 3 years of decline production. Let’s also assume that you can sign two Heyward-types for every nine elite free agents. You get this:


We still get an eight-year cycle for truly great teams, but we also get a number of division-winner type years.** The pattern settles into this: 93-87-87-87-89-87-89-93-87…

Now, this is obviously just a thought experiment. We could probably substitute in real data for the parameters we asserted, and I may do that in a future post if I have the time. But I think this makes the argument very well. Teams like the Yankees desperately need to sign younger players, even if they are very expensive. Heyward is a uniquely young player in recent free agent history. They should pay the premium to sign him, instead of paying that same premium on another Cano or Ellsbury a year or two down the line.

* A five/four-wave, curve, for reference. I’m skeptical that 5 elite free agents are regularly available, so I didn’t include it as a possibility. If it were possible, though, it would be a great strategy.

** There is random chance associated with any MLB season. That’s why projection systems tend to underestimate the win of the best teams and underestimate the wins of top teams. For example, here are PECOTA’s 2015 projections.


Yoenis Cespedes Wins Walkup Songs

Previous walkup song winner Jayson Werth has been dethroned. Yoenis Cespedes decided to buck tradition, flaunt his millions of dollars, and commission his own custom walk up song. Here it is:

We here at IIATMS have a long tradition of not saying nice things about the New York Mets. But I think this is a proper time to break that tradition. Props, Cespedes. Let’s hope he decides to sign somewhere else and awkwardly keep the same song. Or just play it against the Mets.

Ranking the World Series Matchups

flickr user egvvnd CC
flickr user egvvnd CC

The divisions series are underway. Four teams in each league are fighting it out for two spots in the World Series. The Yankees are off to the emergency room/golf course, but baseball is still going on. There are 16 different possible combinations of teams in the World Series. Today, I will rank them all. What is the best matchup?

The Bottom 4: Anyone but the Mets

16. Mets v. Blue Jays
15. Mets v. Astros
14. Mets v. Rangers
13. Mets v. Royals

These are easy. Any scenario where the Mets make the World Series is a bad scenario. They don’t have any interesting rivalries on the AL side to deal with. Their fans say stupid things like, “Take Back New York” after a decent spring training showing. The team itself was almost certainly the worst team in the NL regular season. Booo Mets.

The Next 4: Acceptable, If Boring

12. Cardinals v. Blue Jays
11. Cardinals v. Astros
10. Cardinals v. Rangers
9. Cardinals v. Royals

Who wants to see the Cardinals again? I get that they made a deal with the devil to always be an NL playoff team forever, no matter what players come and go. But we’ve been there, done that. A Cardinals World Series win would be incredibly anti-climatic in the middle of a fun playoff. Someone needs to make a new deal with a different devil and put them down once and for all.

Canadian or Californian Redemption

8. Dodgers v. Blue Jays

It’s been a long drought for Blue Jays fans, but many can remember 1993 well. The Dodgers have a longer streak without a World Series win, but no one likes a team that spends $300 million and barely manages to break 90 wins in a bad division. It would be fun to watch this series, but they can’t compete with the thrill rides below.

Getting Better

7. Dodgers v. Royals
6. Dodgers v. Astros
5. Dodgers v. Rangers

We all love an underdog. The Dodgers are the new Evil Empire. All three of the teams they are facing are underdogs in a sense. The Royals are the Royals. We all love them. No one expected the Astros and the Rangers to be here.

Enter Chicago

4. Cubs v. Blue Jays
3. Cubs v. Royals

Yeah, rooting for Theo Epstein’s team to break a multi-generational curse feels dirty. Especially when Jon Lester is their second best starting pitcher. But the Cubs are trying to break the last great curse in baseball. The Billy Goat Curse may be more contrived than the Black Sox or Bambino curses were, but that’s not a big deal. Wrigley Field underwent a kind of rebirth to begin this season, and it would be poetic to watch the Cubs have their own phoenix moment this fall. Give me a Cubs World Series.

Someone has to win, right?

2. Cubs v. Astros
1. Cubs v. Rangers

Give me a Cubs World Series, but this could make it even better. The Astros and Rangers have come close to winning their first title, but they are still winless. And these aren’t some expansion teams that are still getting their feet wet. Astros fans have been waiting for a World Series since the 1960s. Rangers fans since 1972. Nolan Ryan played for both teams. If the Cubs are going to lose a World Series, either the Astros or Rangers could generate just as much excitement. In fact, that may be the best-case scenario: the Cubs suffer some kind of epic collapse in the World Series, the curse continues, and fans in Texas finally get their trophy.

Just Two Days Left! Steiner Sports $100 Gift Card Giveaway

Steiner Sports, who generously helps keep the lights on here at IIATMS, has given us a $100 gift card to give to you. For under $100, you can get some fantastic Yankees memorabilia such as:

Jason Giambi

Yes, Giambi was/is a badass. I know Stacey would love to frame this and place it on her wall.

How do you get said gift card? You can listen to our podcast! We gave out pretty simple instructions for entering the contest on last week’s episode. There is no catch. You don’t have to give anyone your email or sell your soul to some tech overlord in order to enter. Really, it’s easy. And right now, the odds that anyone who enters will win are about as good as any contest out there.

Why are we making you listen to our podcast in order to find out? Mostly because we want more people to listen to the podcast. And really, the podcast is great. We love our devoted following, but we’d like that devoted following to get larger.

You can stream our podcast at the link above, but we’d really prefer it if you subscribe on iTunes or using your favorite podcasting app. You can do that by searching for, “It’s About The Money.” If you can rate us and leave a review, it also helps us our tremendously.

Why I Am Quitting Daily Fantasy Baseball

Creative Commons license via flickr / DraftKings Andrew Atkinson
Creative Commons license via flickr / DraftKings Andrew Atkinson

I love playing daily fantasy baseball at Fanduel.com. The game that has rapidly evolved over the past few years is thrilling. I have always loved playing Texas Hold ‘Em poker, but moved to a city far away from the nearest decent casino. Daily fantasy baseball filled the game of skill game in my heart for a short period of time, made all the better by my love of baseball.

I am quitting daily fantasy baseball.

Why? I had long suspected that a great number of players on Fanduel were professional gamblers, but their true impact on the game stunned me this week. The best part about a game of skill is that the best players can win money. The house (Fanduel in my case) takes a rake and provides the infrastructure, but you are fundamentally competing against other people on the site. If you’re smarter and better than those people, you win money. If not, you lose money. Like poker, daily fantasy baseball is beautifully meritocratic in a way that traditional casino games, including spread betting on sports.

The reality is that the vast majority of winnings on daily fantasy sites go to a very small number of players. Unlike (in person) poker, the best DFS player can enter as many lineups as his bankroll can support. You might have a shark or two at your 10-person table at the Tropicana, but those sharks are spread out. However, the sharks in DFS baseball can play in every single game, or even multiple lineups in each game. And they do, via Bloomberg:

These limits seem almost laughably nonrestrictive until you understand how top players operate. Analysis from Rotogrinders conducted for Bloomberg shows that the top 100 ranked players enter 330 winning lineups per day, and the top 10 players combine to win an average of 873 times daily. The remaining field of approximately 20,000 players tracked by Rotogrinders wins just 13 times per day, on average.

Take a second to contemplate those numbers. The sharks are absolutely trouncing the vast majority of DFS players. This is the equivalent of Johnny Chan playing at every poker table. In fact, it might be equivalent to Johnny Chan playing in 3 seats at every table. I started playing DFS assuming that I was a pretty good player. I understand baseball. I don’t make emotional bets on my favorite players. I dedicate a decent amount of time to research, including learning all of the key DFS strategies. But I’m outmatched:

Saahil Sud is a fake-sports apex predator. He enters hundreds of daily contests in baseball and football under the name “maxdalury,” and he almost always trounces the field. He claims to risk an average of $140,000 per day with a return of about 8 percent… He says he’s made more than $2 million so far this year…


He spends between eight and 15 hours working from his two-bedroom apartment in downtown Boston; the range reflects his uncertainly over whether to count the time watching games as work. During baseball season he puts about 200 entries into tournaments each night, and he can play more than 1,000 times in the weekly contests during NFL season.


The first step is scraping data from various public resources online and plugging the numbers into his custom-built predictive models, which generate hundreds of lineups based on his forecasts. There are publicly available tools that do some of this work for daily fantasy players, but Sud created bespoke software to make sure no one else can access his data. He also has a technique for identifying athletes who aren’t going to end up on a lot of other team’s rosters, which is important, because there’s a particular advantage in choosing players no one else has noticed.

When you enter a DFS game, you can look at your opponents’ profiles. It is common, maybe likely, to click on the profile and see them entering hundreds of thousands of games. This is true even in the small-dollar games. Unlike poker, where a $1/2 table in a casino isn’t worth the high-quality pro’s time, the sharks can enter these tiny games with a click of the mouse.

And now they might not even need to click a mouse. Again, via Bloomberg:

The daily fantasy industry spent the summer engaged in a debate over automation. Critics took issue with how some players, including Sud, used software to change hundreds of lineups in response to last-minute injuries and other developments. DraftKings and FanDuel issued clearer policies and now require players to get permission before running scripts.

In effect, automation makes it even easier for the Johnny Chans of the world to sit at every table. Draftkings and Fanduel are allowing high-frequency trading in fantasy sports. I’m sure some hedge funds are already chasing returns in DFS baseball, but that will inevitably increase with automation. The second I read that paragraph, I decided to quit.

A game that I would play

I want to play daily fantasy baseball, but I don’t want to play a sucker’s game. Suckers think they can beat the house at blackjack or roulette or spread betting. But unlike our own William Tasker, who wrote about DFS a few weeks ago, I have no problem with games of skill. I love them. The problem is that a meaningful game of skill requires some separation between the best and the worst. No one would want to watch a baseball league where the New York Yankees played against your local high school team. I have no problem letting the hedge fund guys play against each other. But keep them away from me.

I would play on a DFS site with something along the lines of a very small limitation on the number of games that a player can enter every day and a complete ban on any kind of automation. Make me fill out a CAPTCHA or something before I enter each contest. I’d play the hell out of that game.

Of course, the incentives aren’t there for the major sites to limit the number of games that a player can enter. The sites make their money on volume. They take about 10% off the top of all entries, so they want as much money entered as possible. In effect, they are in a silent partnership with the sharks. They spend huge amounts of money on marketing to bring in new dumb money. These new fish are thrown into the tank, and players like Sud eat them up. Rinse, repeat.

This is why we’re so overwhelmed by ads for Fanduel and Draftkings. The latter has become a top-5 a buyer in the country in 2015, which is incredibly considering that the other four are Warner Brothers, AT&T, GEICO, and Ford. Fanduel and Draftkings need to keep finding new money to bring to their ecosystem, because very little stays in the hands of the vast majority of players.

Why is Garrett Jones on this Roster? The Yankees Need a Left-Handed Bench Bat

You probably watched the game on Friday night: tied in the 9th inning with one out, Carlos Beltran hits a single off LHP Brett Cecil. Chase Headley is about to come up to bat. Chris Young, probably the best lefty-masher on any MLB bench, is available to pinch hit. I’m at the game, waiting for Joe Girardi to make the no-brainer move. And then… Chris Young pinch runs for Carlos Beltran.

What the hell happened? Why did Girardi, who plays the percentages as well as any manager, not make the switch to his best hitter? I react:

Pinch-running Young, who hardly steals bases these days, felt like a tremendous waste that took me a little bit to process. Even if you want to let Chase Headley bat, Young can hit for Didi or Stephen Drew if Headley hits a single or takes a walk. And then, I realized: if Girardi brings in Young, the Blue Jays can go to Osuna, a righty, out of the bullpen. Girardi would then be forced to either let Young turn into a pumpkin without the platoon advantage, or go to his lefty bench bat: Garrett Jones.

The game continues. Headley grounds into a double play. The Blue Jays score a run in the top of the 10th. Didi Gregorius and Stephen Drew are pretty terrible hitters. If there is any situation where Garrett Jones is a useful baseball player, it is to pinch hit against a righty for the Yankee middle infielders. And instead, Girardi went with Didi and Drew with the game on the line.

I don’t think Girardi made the wrong move. Jones has been worse than either Gregorius or Drew in 2015, and was terrible in 2014 as well. But that still begs the question: why the hell is Jones on the roster? It’s certainly not because he’s a strong defensive player. They punted on Jones after Dustin Ackley went down. They had better options than re-signing him.

The Yankees could call up the following players from Triple-A to do a better job:

  • Ben Gamel, LHB, OF: .294/.360/.444 against RHP
  • Greg Bird, LHB, 1b:  .288/.368/.502 against RHP
  • Cole Figueroa, LHB, 2b/3b/SS: .313/.366/.411 against RHP

The point isn’t that these guys are superstars. The point is they fill the role better than Garrett Jones, who is terrible. Some or all of them will likely be on the team once rosters expand in September, but there is a lot of baseball to be played between now and then.

Against David Ortiz, Hall of Famer

Ortiz 2015
Courtesy of the AP

Before Pedro Martinez‘s ceremony at Fenway Park last night, the Red Sox introduced David Ortiz as, “David Ortiz, future Hall of Famer.” By any reasonable standard, David Ortiz is not a Hall of Famer.

Here’s Ortiz’s case:

  • 48.3 career bWAR. Hit .283/.377/.543
  • Best 5 seasons by bWAR: 6.4, 5.7, 5.3, 4.4, 4.2
  • 3 World Series rings, .295/.409/.553 in the postseason, lots of big clutch hits
  • 273 career games at 1b. 1,837 at DH.

Very good player. By today’s standard, not even close to a Hall of Fame player. Let’s compare Ortiz to some contemporaries:

Edgar Martinez

  • 68.3 career bWAR. Hit .312/.418/.515
  • Best 5 seasons by bWAR: 7.0, 6.5, 6.5, 6.2, 6.1
  • 0 World Series rings. Hit .266/.365/.508 in limited postseason time, mostly late in his career
  • 564 career games at 3b. 1403 at DH. Handful at 1b
  • Comparison to Ortiz: More bWAR in fewer games. Twice as much time in the field. No postseason accomplishments.
  • HOF Case: Probably should be in, but probably won’t break 50% in the voting

Jim Thome

  • 72.9 career bWAR. Hit .276/.402/.515,
  • Best 5 seasons by bWAR: 7.5, 7.4, 5.9, 5.6, 5.4
  • 0 World Series rings. Hit .211/.312/.448
  • 1106 career games at 1b. 493 at 3b. 818 at DH.
  • Comparison to Ortiz: Much better overall player. Solidly in the HOF by bWAR. Played most of his career in the field. No postseason accomplishments
  • HOF Case: Hits the ballot in 2018. We’ll see, but I bet he gets in after several ballots.

Frank Thomas

  • 79.8 career bWAR. Hit .301/.419/.555
  • Best 5 seasons by bWAR: 7.3, 6.9, 6.9, 6.3, 6.2
  • 0 World Series rings. Hit .224/.441/.429 in just 16 games
  • 971 career games at 1b. 1,310 at DH
  • Comparison to Ortiz: Probably the most comparable as far as playing primarily as a DH. Thomas was a far superior hitter. The White Sox were terrible though, so he basically has no postseason record.
  • HOF Case: He’s in.

Jason Giambi

  • 50.4 bWAR. Hit .277/.399/.516
  • Best 5 seasons by bWAR: 9.1, 7.7, 7.1, 5.9, 4.8
  • 0 World Series rings. Hit .290/.425/.486 in 45 games, mostly with the Yankees
  • 1307 career games at 1b. 595 at DH. 112 at LF. Handful at 3b.
  • Comparison to Ortiz: Remarkably similar. Giambi was much better at his peak, but Ortiz was a little more consistent. Giambi wasn’t on any of the WS-winning Yankee teams, but was very good in October.
  • HOF Case: He’s 5 years away from the ballot, but I bet he doesn’t break 5%.

How Good Was Ortiz?

I could list some more contemporary 1b/DH types like Jeff Bagwell, Todd Helton, Carlos Delgado, etc as comparisons to Ortiz, but you get the point: David Ortiz just wasn’t that special of a baseball player. Thome, Thomas, and Martinez are all much better baseball players. Here’s where he ranks in pure offense since 1997 (the year he entered the league) among batters with more than 3,000 plate appearances:

  • 137 wRC+, good for 21st overall.
  • 353.5 offensive runs, good for 16th overall

Pretty good? Definitely. He’s comparable in pure offense to players like Brian Giles, Matt Holliday, Carlos Delgado, Todd Helton, Bobby Abreu, and Vlad Guerrero. But here’s the thing: All of those guys played the field. At times, some of them played the field quite well. And among the group, my guess is only Vlad Guerrero has any real shot at the Hall of Fame.

And that’s just on pure offense. Designated hitters don’t play defense. Defense is an important and valuable part of the game. Ortiz has played virtually all of his career as a designated hitter. The best way to think about a DH is they are the worst defensive player on the team, in the same way that a bad defensive shortstop is probably still a better defensive player than a really good defensive 1st baseman.

Ortiz, therefore, was one of the worst defensive players in baseball during his career. Fangraphs has him worth -227.2 runs on defense over his career, 3rd worst in the majors over that time frame. Now, you might want to make some bad argument about how David Ortiz maybe could have played 1st base, but that’s ridiculous. Want to know who was the 2nd worst defensive player in baseball over the same time period? Manny Ramirez. If David Ortiz can play 1st base, maybe the Red Sox don’t play the worst defensive left fielder in recent memory in the field.

Then, there’s the postseason. Ortiz was legitimately great on October, especially in the 2013 World Series. But Ortiz also played on probably the 2nd or 3rd best team in baseball during his career. He got a lot of postseason opportunities. It’s not Thome or Thomas’s fault that their teams couldn’t make the playoffs. In fact, since they were clearly better players than Ortiz, they did a lot more to get their teams there than he did. Maybe we should give some weight to Ortiz’s postseason numbers. If he were a borderline HOF case, I might say the postseason puts him in. But we’re talking about 85 games here.

Bottom Line

Ortiz just doesn’t have a case based on career numbers. He’s not even close to Hall of Fame caliber. When you take a step back and look at his numbers, you see a guy with a relatively short career, negative defensive value, no particularly noteworthy peak seasons, and some pretty awesome postseason performances on a great team. Lots of similar contemporary 1b/DH-types were either clearly much better baseball players, consensus non-HOFers, or both.

And you know something? I think baseball agrees with me. Here’s Ortiz’s contract history with the Red Sox:

  • January 2003, Age 27: Pre-All Star David Ortiz. Non-tendered by the Twins. Signed by Boston as a free agent for $1.25 million.
  • May 2004, Age 28: Coming off strong 2003 season. Signed contract extension for 2005-2006, $12.5 million, plus a 2007 club option for $7.75 million.
  • April 2006, Age 30: Coming off 3 strong seasons. Signed contract extension for $12.5 million for 2007-2010, club option for $12.5 million for 2011.
  • December 2011, Age 35: Coming off Ortiz-like .309/.398/.554 2011 season. Boston offers Ortiz arbitration. Ortiz accepts. Signed for 1 year, $14.575 million.
  • November 2012, Age 36:  Only plays 90 games, but posts the best OPS+ of his career. Ortiz hits free agency. Signs for 2013-2014 for $13 million per year.
  • March 2014, Age 38: Coming off a solid, but down, season. Signs contract extension for $16 million in 2015, plus two $10 million club options that can vest to $16 million based on playing time.

My point: Where is the big contract? In a world where declining Carlos Beltran can demand a 3-year, $45 million contract, mid-30s David Ortiz should be able to demand a much larger contract if baseball valued him all that highly. Now, he’s an old, risky player, so I understand why he never signed a $200 million contract, but come on! Unless Ortiz is giving Boston a huge hometown discount, he’s getting paid like the 3-5 win player was for most of his Red Sox career.

David Ortiz is a star. He is a charismatic player who represented baseball’s darling (and probably best) big market team from 2003-present. But he’s not a Hall of Famer.


Four Reasons Why the Yankees Should Trade for Papelbon, Make Him Closer

The trade deadline is just two weeks away. The Yankees are in a great position to the buyers. That said, I don’t think anyone wants the Yankees to completely sell the farm and mortgage the future yet again. So here’s a trade target they can pick up for little while still improving the team: Jonathan Papelbon.

You know him. The Phillies have him signed to an over-market contract at $13 million with a vesting option that is almost sure to hit for next year. They don’t want him. He doesn’t want to be there. You probably hate him too. I know I did for years. But he’s the perfect low-cost piece for the Yankees to add at the deadline. Here’s why:

He’s still very good

Papelbon has been on a terrible Phillies team for a few years now, so I know I’ve tended to forget how good he is. His headline numbers since signing:

  • 2012: 70 innings, 2.44 ERA, 2.90 FIP, 11.9 K/9, 2.3 BB/9
  • 2013: 61.2 innings, 2.92 ERA, 3.05 FIP, 8.3 K/9, 1.6 BB/9
  • 2014: 66.1 innings, 2.04 ERA, 2.53 FIP, 8.5 K/9, 2.0 BB/9
  • 2015: 33.2 innings, 2.60 ERA, 2.75 FIP, 9.4 K/9, 1.9 BB/9

He’s pretty good! Papelbon would easily be the 3rd best reliever in the Yankee bullpen behind Miller an Betances. He’s right-handed, which the Yankees are desperate for right now. His velocity is down in recent years, but consistent since the beginning of 2014. You could see an argument that Papelbon was on the decline a few years ago, but seems to have righted the ship, and has maintained a high level of play, mostly by replacing two-seam fastballs with four-seam fastballs.

He Makes the Yankee Bullpen Much More Flexible

Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller are better pitchers than Jonathan Papelbon. They’re probably two of the four best pitchers in the AL. You’ve heard this argument before: the Yankees are probably better off giving themselves the flexibility of pitching Miller and Betances all over the innings, instead of holding one back for the 9th. Throwing with the opposite arms increases the ability to leverage their innings even more.

Now, the Yankees can’t just throw any old guy in the 9th inning. The closer role is pretty arbitrary, but it’s not entirely arbitrary. The closer role naturally evolved out of the logic of inherited runners. When Justin Wilson lets a few guys on in the 7th inning, the Yankees have Dellin Betances to pitch with those guys on. In a close game with lots of relief pitchers used, your closer is the captain who goes down with the ship: no one comes in to relieve him, because the best guys have already been used.

Papelbon is good enough to take that job. He hasn’t blown a save all season. There are very few situations where bringing in Betances or Miller to relieve Papelbon will be a plus, and many more where you’d rather Betances or Miller come in to clean up other middle relief messes. And plus, Papelbon has plenty of ‘proven closer’ street cred with media, and Girardi can lean on that when dumb reporters criticize smart baseball moves.

He might save the Yankees some money

$13 million over 2 years is a lot of money for a relief pitcher. Papelbon is the highest-paid closer in the game, and probably not worth that much money in an absolute sense. It’s the reason why he is still a member of the Phillies even as he continues to pitch well. The Yankees have a financial advantage over other teams, and should leverage it regardless of the next paragraph.

All of that said, Papelbon could save the Yankees considerable money over the long term. Dellin Betances is really good. He’s probably the best or second best relief pitcher in baseball, and is heading for arbitration after next season. Baseball arbitration is medieval and stupid, and still uses saves as the most important statistic in arbitration decisions. That’s why David Robertson earned just $1.6 million, $3.1 million, and $5.2 million in his three arbitration years, while Greg Holland earned $4.7 million and $8.25 million in his first two years, and would likely have earned north of $10 million after this season had he stayed healthy.

If Betances starts earning any real number of saves–either because Miller gets injured, or because they just decide to go with a righty closer in 2016 for non-financial reasons–his arbitration awards could be huge. If the Yankees can knock ~$10 million off Betances’ arbitration award, less than the difference between Holland and Robertson, Papelbon’s contract looks a lot more affordable. And the best part is the Yankees are one of the few teams in a position to reduce future arbitration dollars by buying Papelbon, which will reduce the Phillies asking price.

Another relief pitcher could be huge in the playoffs

The Yankees will probably make the playoffs. They’ll be faced with starting some combination of (if healthy), Michael Pineda, Masahiro Tanaka, Ivan Nova, and whomever they can get at the trade deadline that is better than CC Sabathia or Nathan Eovaldi. Either way, the team should probably go for the Kansas City Royals strategy of leaning heavily on the bullpen.

Having Papelbon at the back end of the bullpen allows Girardi to pull a starting pitcher in the 5th inning and still only have to piece together 3 or 4 outs with Chasen Shreve, Justin Wilson, and company, just like Ned Yost was able to do with his bullpen last season. They can still lean more heavily on the bullpen without Papelbon, but he makes it much more likely we’ll have to see some of Bryan Mitchell or Chris Capuano in close game, or that Girardi will let Nathan Eovaldi try to pitch out of a jam the third time through the order.

Playoffs are about short benches. Your 25th man is a lot more important over 162 games than over three short series. Papelbon makes the short bench much stronger.

Sandy Koufax is Criminally Overrated

Last night, MLB announced the result of its effort to name the best four living baseball players. They came up with: Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Johnny Bench and Sandy Koufax.

Koufax may be the most overrated player in baseball history. He began his career with 5 forgettable seasons from a young player trying to find his game. Then, from 1962 to 1966, he was the best pitcher in baseball. He led the league in ERA each year, and posted the following bWAR:

  • 1962: 4.4 bWAR
  • 1963: 10.7 bWAR
  • 1964: 7.4 bWAR
  • 1965: 8.1 bWAR,
  • 1966: 10.3 bWAR

He then retired due to an arm injury at the age of 30.

Sandy Koufax is the ultimate “peak value” Hall of Fame player. Or at least, he is the most-cited example of a peak value HOFer. In reality, his peak was excellent, but not unique. Let’s look at some of the best seasons from other players with a claim to being one of the best living pitchers:

Randy Johnson:

  • 2002: 10.9 bWAR
  • 2001: 10.0 bWAR
  • 1999: 9.2 bWAR
  • 1995: 8.6 bWAR
  • 2004: 8.5 bWAR

Pedro Martinez:

  • 2000: 11.7 bWAR
  • 1999: 9.7 bWAR
  • 1997: 9.0 bWAR
  • 2003: 8.0 bWAR
  • 1998: 7.2 bWAR

Greg Maddux:

  • 1995: 9.7 bWAR
  • 1992: 9.2 bWAR
  • 1994: 8.5 bWAR
  • 1997: 7.8 bWAR
  • 1996: 7.1 bWAR

Roger Clemens:

  • 1997: 11.9 bWAR
  • 1990: 10.6 bWAR
  • 1987: 9.4 bWAR
  • 1986: 8.9 bWAR
  • 1992: 8.8 bWAR

All of these guys had comparable peaks to Sandy Koufax. You can nitpick and say that Maddux never hit 10 bWAR or something, but the difference between Koufax’s run and these guys is negligible. The reason why they are all better pitchers than Sandy Koufax is that each pitcher has a long record of excellence beyond their top-5 seasons, while Koufax was out of baseball immediately following them.

And here’s the crazy part: all of the above 5 guys were contemporaries. They were putting up these crazy good peaks roughly simultaneously. Their accomplishments are extraordinary, but by no means are they unique. It just isn’t all that uncommon for Hall of Fame-caliber pitchers to peak like Koufax did.

We can add in all sorts of long-career players with similar peaks as well: Gaylord Perry, Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver and Bob Gibson had similar peaks. All are still alive.

Koufax’s career is much more comparable to guys like Doc Gooden (peaked with an insane 12.1 WAR season in 1985, highest in modern history, but was pretty much done being very good by 29) and Juan Marichal (10.3 and 9.1 WAR in 1965-1966, some very solid years before and after) than the all-time greats.

Great player? Absolutely. I’d take him on the Yankees. But Sandy Koufax is not one of the four best living baseball players. He’s not even close.

Responses to the nitpicking arguments before anyone makes them:

Yes, bWAR is a perfectly fine statistic to measure single-season value. Baseball Reference uses ERA, rather than FIP, to calculate wins above replacement. It essentially becomes a function of innings, ERA, and a league and park factor. Unless you prefer FIP (the rankings are similar), the calculation is essentially just basic math, and very difficult to dispute. If you have a preferred way of measuring how good a season is, run the numbers and see Koufax sticks out. If you want to be Chris Russo and just yell and say, “BUT KOUFAX WAS BETTER”, be my guest.

Koufax pitched a lot of innings in his final two seasons. He led the league with 335 and 323 innings. But that wasn’t all that uncommon back in the day. It was the dead ball era with a raised mound. No one is calling Wilber Wood the best pitcher of all time. Randy Johnson pitching 271 in the 90s is arguably more impressive.

No, I am not saying Koufax was a bad pitcher. I’m just saying that his peak was in line with these other guys, but the other guys had an extra decade of awesome in their career. His ERA numbers are also shinier-looking than our reference point due to the era he pitched in and the ballpark he called home.