An Intra-Divisional Trade; Debates on Wells and WAR Continue
It’s early February, and the M’s equipment truck has headed south towards Peoria. Pitchers and catchers report in about a week, and there’s plenty to discuss now that football’s finished.
Lowrie gives the A’s a legitimate bat at any infield position, and since he’s a switch-hitter, he provides a great deal of flexibility for Oakland. While he’s been much better from the right side in his career, he credits Astros hitting coach Mike Barnett with a mechanical tweak that helped him post an .820 OPS from the left side in 2012. His career’s been hampered more by injury than platoon splits, however; he’s yet to crack 100 games played in his five year career. Still, regular rest could potentially keep his bat in the line-up, either as a partner with A’s starting SS Hiroyuki Nakajima or at 3B with Josh Donaldson. The pick-up gives the A’s another bat to pair with their pitching depth, and another solid pick-up for a team that won the division despite its SS and 3Bs combining to post a .275 OBP in 2012 (Brendan Ryan’s 2012 OBP was .277).
For their part, the Astros strengthened their 1B/DH position. The Astros haven’t had a DH of course, so picking up a slow slugger makes some more sense for them than most other clubs. Their depth chart currently lists Carlos Pena and Brett Wallace as the incumbent DH/1B, both of whom are lefties, and both of whom come with quite a few question marks. Pena posted a sub-.700 OPS last year, and Brett Wallace has bounced between AAA and MLB for three seasons. Houston gets a cost-controlled player who may have had a breakout season in 2012, and who hasn’t shown much in the way of platoon splits in either MLB or MiLB. Brad Peacock gives some much-needed depth to Houston’s rotation, and could allow the club to keep top pitching prospect Jarred Cosart in the minors. To be fair, Peacock was awful last year in the Pacific Coast League, but he had a cup of coffee with Washington in 2011 and could eat some innings in 2013 free from the pressures of a pennant race. Max Stassi’s a great catch-and-throw catcher who’s had his own problems with injuries. Shoulder tendinitis has plagued him since high school, and kept him out for over a year between 2011-12.
The A’s are strengthening a team that made an improbable run last season, and the Astros are smartly stashing prospects and depth for two or three years down the line. From an M’s point of view, the trade highlights two things, neither of which is terribly comforting. First, the M’s can’t simply assume the A’s are a fluke who lucked their way into the postseason. The team used platoons and cast-offs to mitigate some black holes in their line-up, but they’ve taken steps to improve in the offseason, first by picking up Japanese SS Nakajima and now with Lowrie. Their pitching can regress (and it probably will), but their offense could offset the loss a bit. Second, the Astros are lovably terrible right now, but they won’t be for long. This doesn’t appear to be a Royals/Pirates situation. Like the M’s, they’ve quietly restocked the farm (though they’re far behind the M’s in that department), and they’ve made enough minor moves that suggest they won’t be perennial 100-loss threats for long.
2: Dave’s great article on WAR over at Fangraphs is a great read, and it’s helped clarify my own thinking on the topic. Then, a great twitter conversation between Dave Studenmund and Colin Wyers helped me understand where so much of the heat in this (ultimately silly) argument comes from. Dave (er, Cameron) is clearly right that WAR is transparent about its intentions – it’s attempting to measure a player’s value, as comprehensively as possible. It’s answering a question that’s among the most-asked in baseball (“how good is this guy?”), and essentially no other statistic does a really good job of this. We can talk about offensive stats which shed considerable light on how good a hitter is. But we all understand, maybe subconsciously, that this isn’t the complete picture.
But there’s a problem: reducing value to a single number obscures *how* a player produced that value. We’re so focused on offensive statistics for position players that Brendan Ryan being an above-average player often feels wrong. Sure, sure, you know he can pick it, and that there’s tangible value in that, but…he put up SLG and OBP numbers under .300. WAR is counting that, of course, but I think people aren’t used to seeing defense portrayed on the same scale as batting, and many who ARE dispute the value of the defensive inputs to WAR. For what it’s worth, I’m somewhat sympathetic to the argument, as so many baseball discussions growing up revolved around specific skills – Edgar’s eye, Jim Rice’s power, Nolan Ryan’s strikeouts, Jack Morris’ dependability, etc. – and we wound up conflating those skills with value. People didn’t engage in a discussion about Rice’s overall value because they felt that WAR short-changed how terrifying that power was in the offensive environment of the 80s. It’s harder to talk about a transcendent skill when you’re lumping everything together. To be clear, I think the view that skills trump value is incorrect, but I understand it, and I’m guessing it’s part of what underlies this ongoing battle over WAR.
Further, there’s no doubt that some people use WAR without really understanding what they’re using or why one measure differs from another. To those used to focusing solely on unambiguous measures like counting stats (“player Y hit 500 home runs”) or batting average, the fact that there can be such dramatically different interpretations/frameworks looks like evidence of serious flaws. It’s not, and the fact that you can use a different defensive stat or replacement level is great, but I think sometimes people argue that WAR is an argument-ender without being able to explain how and what it’s doing. To some, that may make it look like stat-savvy fans aren’t thinking critically. I tend to think this is overblown a bit, and that WAR was used pretty effectively in the huge Trout vs. Cabrera MVP debate, but I definitely concede that there’s often a lot of heat and not enough light from both sides of the traditional/sabermetric fight.
3: Matthew Carruth had a great piece on Casper Wells at Lookout Landing that’s generated a lot of debate. Wells (and to a lesser extent Eric Thames) seems to represent a case where the M’s front office really has changed its approach – something else that M’s fans have been debating since Dave’s post on the front office changes.
I’d certainly quibble with the probative value of Wells’ 34-game stint as an everyday player* but let’s assume he’s not. The M’s acquired several skilled players with large observed platoon splits in the past few years – Jaso, Wells, Thames, etc. Following the trade of Jaso and the acquisition of Ibanez, Bay and Mike Morse, it’s pretty clear that Wells and Thames don’t really have a spot. The M’s acquired Jaso/Wells because they were focused on what they COULD do, and they’ve moved on because of an almost obsessive focus on what they CAN’T do. It’s no surprise given the Jaso trade that Oakland is perhaps the best example of a team that doesn’t worry excessively about the label of “full-time” or “part-time” player. The A’s use of platoons in LF, 1B and DH allowed them to get above-average production from a group of cheap/flawed players.
Let’s be clear: the M’s are allowed to change course. After finishing last three times in a row, they *should* re-examine some of their strategies. If they no longer want to target players like these, that’s fine (though picking up Paulino/Shoppach/Ibanez suggests they don’t mind it occasionally), but there’s clearly a cost to the team: it makes the moves they’ve made in recent years highly inefficient. They could still get value for someone like Wells (maybe from the A’s), and given the injury history of many of the new M’s, he could end up starting for them at some point in 2013. Still, the offensively-challenged M’s have dumped/frozen out players who could help the offense, *even if you assume* they could only do so in limited duty.