The Fundamental Flaw
You’ve heard, by now, that the Mariners traded John Jaso for Mike Morse. The spin is essentially going to go something like this:
The Mariners needed to improve their offense, specifically, hitting for power. Mike Morse is a better hitter than Jaso, and because he doesn’t have Jaso’s large platoon splits, he can affect the line-up everyday. As a platoon catcher, Jaso’s value was limited to only playing against right-handers, and with Mike Zunino on the way, he didn’t have a future behind the plate for the Mariners. Jesus Montero and Kendrys Morales were going to make it difficult to get him at-bats at DH, and the team had hole in the outfield. Thus, by trading a C/DH for an outfielder, they’re dealing from a position of strength to fill a void.
There are some true statements in there. John Jaso does have big platoon splits. The Mariners did have a bit of a glut of C/1B/DH types. John Jaso is coming off a career year, and he won’t repeat his numbers from 2012 again. The problem comes when you try to stretch all those true statements together to form a rational defense of trading a younger, cheaper, more valuable player for one who is simply worse overall.
The only way to view Morse as an improvement over Jaso is to think in a particularly narrow minded way, seeing players primarily through the lens of labels, mostly defined by their hitting abilities. Mike Morse is a “power bat”, John Jaso is a “part time player”. And who wouldn’t rather have a guy who can hit cleanup rather than a guy who needs to sit on the bench regularly?
Of course, players are far more complex beings than that, and seeing baseball through that kind of particular worldview was a hallmark of the last Mariners front office. You remember those days, back when Carlos Silva was “an innings eater”, Jarrod Washburn was a “proven workhorse”, and Richie Sexson was a “big bat”. The Mariners fired the last guy who thought in those terms, but not before he had torn the franchise down to shreds and left it in ruins. You cannot build a winning baseball team by evaluating a player’s value in terms of generic cliches.
Back in October, I wrote about the need to stop underrating John Jaso. I’m going to quote three paragraphs from that post, but just go read the whole thing.
There is simply no argument to be made that Jaso’s problems against left-handers or his throwing serve to significantly drag down his value to the point where he’s best served in some kind of part-time bench role like he was used this year. His usage this year was a mistake, and one that should absolutely be corrected in 2013.
John Jaso is a Major League quality starting catcher, and based on his MLB performance to date — again, in over two full seasons worth of playing time — he’s showed that he’s probably one of the 10 best catchers in baseball. That doesn’t mean you have to run him out there against every left-hander, but using him like the Diamondbacks used Montero or the White Sox used Pierzynski is completely rational. That’s around 120 starts per year, with a bias towards using his days off when a left-hander is on the mound.
John Jaso is pretty obviously the team’s best hitter right now. He might very well be the team’s best player, even with his moderate power, big platoon splits, and his mediocre throwing arm. While Eric Wedge failed to recognize Jaso’s strengths and simply focused on his weaknesses, that doesn’t mean that we have to do the same. Jaso isn’t a perfect player, but besides Joe Mauer, there are no perfect left-handed hitting Major League catchers. Other organizations have realized that the positives so far outweigh the negatives that they’ve simply found a capable right-handed hitting back-up to start 40 games a year and let their lefty hitting catchers be significant assets to the organization.
John Jaso, with his inability to hit left-handers and his poor throwing arm, is still an above average Major League catcher. He’s comparable in overall value to Alex Avila, who was the starting catcher for the team that just won the American League. Because there are so few catchers in baseball who can hit, even a bad defender who can hit right-handers like Jaso can puts him in rare company. Even limiting him to just 450 plate appearances, due to strict platooning, Jaso’s career average grades out to about +2.3 WAR. If you assume that any of his 2012 improvement was real, and that he’s better than a straight career average, then he’s closer to a +2.5 to +3.0 WAR player.
Now, no one has figured out how to perfectly evaluate everything a catcher does. We can make a pretty good guess at the obvious things, like controlling the running game and keeping pitches from going to the backstop. Those things are already included in WAR, since they’re not that hard to measure. There are other parts of catching that are not easy to measure, and are not included in WAR, so no one is claiming that WAR is the gospel truth here. Jaso could easily be a worse player than WAR calculations suggest. In fact, given his defensive reputation, that’s probably the truth. So, hey, let’s just knock a win off of his value, in addition to the penalty he’s already getting for allowing stolen bases and blocking balls in the dirt. Let’s call him a +1.5 to +2.0 win player, assuming that there really are big parts of catcher defense that we can’t accurately measure, and assuming that Jaso is terrible at those things.
Guess what? That’s still better than Mike Morse. Dan Szymborski released his ZIPS projections for the Nationals a few weeks ago, and he has Morse at +1.4 WAR in 2013. Because, quite simply, there’s more to baseball than hitting home runs, and Mike Morse is pretty terrible at every part of baseball that isn’t hitting home runs.
For a more detailed breakdown, you can read this post I wrote on Morse last week. We go through his offensive projections (still pretty decent!), but also through his defensive value (awful), his baserunning skills (lousy), and his durability (not good). Despite all the talk about Morse being a “full time player”, he’s dealt with a litany of health problems during his career, and has only managed to play more than 102 games once in his career. You simply can’t project Morse as a 150 game regular next year, and his deficiencies in the field and on the bases cut into his value even when he is in the line-up.
Morse has power. His power is valuable. It helps make him a decent player even though he doesn’t do anything else at a Major League level. In a lot of ways, Morse is similar to Kendrys Morales, in that his power tool is good enough to carry him despite being a pretty one dimensional player. It’s useful to have these kinds of players, but if you don’t do anything besides hit, you better be a spectacular hitter. Morse is not a spectacular hitter. He’s a decent hitter, an above average hitter, but he doesn’t walk, he strikes out a decent amount, and he doesn’t run the bases well. When you only do one thing, it significantly limits your value.
So, in reality, the Mariners are swapping an average-ish player (if you give Jaso a big penalty for catcher defense) for an average-ish player. Only, the average-ish player they’re receiving has one year left on his contract, while the average-ish player they’re giving up is under team control for three more years. Even if you ignore the roughly $6 million difference in salary, Morse would have to be a significantly better player than Jaso to justify giving up two extra years, as the Mariners have done here.
And, of course, there’s the problem of roster construction. We talked about how the pieces fit together the other day, noting that the Mariners couldn’t simply acquire another hitter without giving any consideration to defense. While Morse officially takes Jaso’s spot on the roster, they obviously have to replace Jaso with another catcher, so there are one of three players who could go away to make room for Morse on the roster: Jason Bay (the best choice), Casper Wells (the likely choice), or Justin Smoak (the easy choice).
Because the Mariners already have a glut of 1B/DH types, Morse is almost certainly going to get a decent amount of playing time in the outfield. Right now, he displaces Wells as the third starting OF — despite the fact that Wells is probably Morse’s equal in terms of value going forward — and moves Wells and Bay into a competition for the fourth OF job. If the Mariners wanted to keep both, they could theoretically option Smoak to Tacoma, then use Bay in the outfield against lefties with Morse shifting to first base, which is the role Smoak was slotted in for when we did the exercise the other day. Or, if Bay shows nothing in spring training, then the could just cut him and go with both Smoak and Wells as reserves. The problem is that there wouldn’t be much playing time for either one, and the lack of defensive flexibility would cause the team some real problems with in-game strategy.
More likely, I think, is that the Mariners trade Wells along with one of their extra bullpen arms for starting pitcher, taking him out of the picture entirely. Then, they’ll bring in a super utility type who can play both IF and OF to round out the bench, then let Bay and Smoak compete for the final bench spot depending on who has a better spring.
In the end, I’d bet that this series of moves is likely going to end up looking something like Jaso, Wells, and a reliever for Morse, a free agent catcher of some sort, and whatever pitcher Wells can bring back in return. And the Mariners are not likely going to get any more production from their new trio than they would have from just keeping Jaso and Wells and using the salary difference to sign a free agent pitcher. Only, now, they also don’t have Jaso’s future, probably won’t have Wells’ future, and might very well get a worse pitcher than they would have had they gone after a free agent starter back when there were still some good ones available.
The Mariners didn’t need offense. The Mariners needed talent. The Mariners didn’t get a talent upgrade today. They turned one piece into a less valuable piece, all because the new guy does the thing that that everyone has been wanting to see more of; hit home runs. Home runs are nice, but the 1990s Mariners should have taught everyone that home runs don’t win games. Runs, of all shapes and sizes, win games. And Mike Morse won’t help the Mariners outscore their opponents any more than John Jaso would have.
Just like with the Brandon Morrow swap, this is just the Mariners misevaluating a player they had, because they focused too much on what he wasn’t good at. Just like the Brandon League acquisition is looked back on as a silly one, so will this. The Mariners paid a premium to not get better in the present and cost them some value in the future.