First Pitch: Disregarding Name Value and Guarantees From Major League Players

Today was the day for pitchers and catchers to report to Spring Training. Tomorrow is the first workout day. This officially ends the worst part of the off-season by bringing us actual baseball, and a sign of the season to come.

I say that this ends the worst part of the off-season, because once you’ve reached the last month of the off-season, you just can’t wait for baseball to return. In most years, there are very few moves, and the roster is pretty much set. This wasn’t exactly the case with the Pirates, as we saw with the Travis Snider trade, and a lot of depth moves more recently. But those moves didn’t stop the other common occurrence from taking place: repeating the same conversations that have been discussed over and over for the last four months. Spring Training is here now, and that means we have new stuff to talk about.

There’s another thing that happens each year leading up to camp. The roster gets set, and fans start creating a wish list, hoping to add one more player that would be key to a championship. Maybe it’s the lack of anything else to talk about during this time. I usually stick to discussing players who have been linked to the Pirates in actual rumors, so I stay away from the wish list commentary. That said, I found this great article by Dave Cameron very interesting.

In the article, Cameron talks about how veteran players aren’t a guarantee, and can be just as risky as prospects. He went back to look at the top 100 players heading into 2012, based on their success in the majors leading up to that season. He then found that 25 percent of those players reached “bust” status the following three years. Adding to that, only 41 percent continued playing at an above-average rate over the next three years.

I loved the article because it goes against one of the most frustrating and incorrect narratives that come up every year. Whether it’s the off-season, the trade deadline, or any other moment during the year, it’s inevitable that someone will argue that prospects are too risky, and you should trade them for a guaranteed upgrade. That doesn’t consider that the “proven” players in the majors aren’t a guarantee at all.

I feel like I experience this more, since I run a prospect site. But anyone who writes about prospects will be the first to acknowledge that prospects aren’t a guarantee, and shouldn’t be treated like a guarantee. The best approach is to plan for a prospect to work out, but don’t commit to that prospect working out.

You don’t see that admission on the other side of the debate. For example, James Shields just signed a four-year deal that will pay him $75 M in his age 33-36 seasons. The deal is seen as a good one for the Padres, for the simple fact that they’re adding a talented MLB pitcher. But there is a very strong chance that this deal will look like a disaster in three or four years. As an example, it was only three years ago that C.J. Wilson signed a huge deal for his age 31-35 seasons. That started looking bad last season (at age 33), and yet he’s owed $38 M over the next two seasons. Maybe he bounces back and maybe he doesn’t. The Angels are in a position where they don’t have to care about his massive amount of wasted payroll if he continues to struggle.

Going back to Shields, there was a topic that Cameron didn’t cover in his article that is related to adding a “proven” player. It’s adding a name. Earlier this off-season, I was looking at the numbers from Shields. They’ve been solid throughout his career. In the last three years, he has a 3.29 ERA and a 3.51 xFIP. Those both rank 29th overall out of 131 qualified starters during that time.

But then I removed the names, and looked at another pitcher. This pitcher had a 2.85 ERA and a 3.54 xFIP last year. The xFIP, which is the more important number here, is the same as what Shields has put up in recent years. This pitcher is also six years younger than Shields.

That pitcher is Vance Worley.

The numbers I cited from 2014 were a small sample size. But consider Worley’s 2010-11 numbers: a 2.86 ERA and a 3.63 xFIP. Very similar to the 2014 numbers. You probably know the back story here. Worley got injured in 2012, which messed up his mechanics in 2013 after returning from the injury. The Pirates worked with him last year to get him back to his mechanics from before the 2012 season. And with those mechanics, he put up almost identical numbers to the 2010-11 campaigns.

I’m not saying that Vance Worley is the same as James Shields. And I don’t know if Worley is going to repeat the xFIP numbers above. But this highlights what I feel is one of the biggest flaws in evaluating big league players: focusing on their names.

If you’re presented with a choice of James Shields or Vance Worley, then anyone is going to take Shields. You don’t even look up the numbers before making the decision. And it’s not just name value. It’s why Shields has the name value. He’s a good pitcher, and has been for some time. But if you ignore the names and look at the numbers and the other important details, it becomes a much tougher decision.

On one side, you have a guy who is guaranteed $75 M for his age 33-36 seasons, which are typically prime years for a decline. He’s got a good xFIP over the last few years, and that lines up well with what he’s done in his career.

The other side features a pitcher who is making $2.45 M in his age 27 season, which is in the middle of a player’s prime years, and is an age range that is no stranger to a player settling in at the Major League level. His xFIP, when healthy, is the same as the first pitcher, and the “when healthy” disclaimer totally makes sense when you consider the back story.

If I’m faced with those two decisions, I roll the dice with the younger, cheaper option who had similar stats, and hope the stats hold up. The alternative is taking a much bigger financial risk on a player who is entering an age range that provides a bigger risk for a decline.

Cameron’s article is the first time I’ve really seen someone make the argument against “proven” players on a big platform. I’m hoping it will be the start of a new trend in baseball. And maybe that trend is already starting inside the game, considering how so many teams are reluctant to trade top prospects for Cole Hamels right now. I hope that there is also a trend to move away from evaluating players based on name value, and looking at their numbers, their specific situation, and letting that determine the value.

The current system allows for teams to sign ridiculously horrible deals where they pay a potentially declining James Shields almost $19 M per year on average, or pay Max Scherzer for the rest of his life, and we’re supposed to act like these are good moves simply because the team added a familiar name, and might be better in the upcoming season. If the “guaranteed” tags go away, and the players aren’t evaluated on name value, then maybe we can one day get to a place where we can call these types of moves what they are: bad signings.

**The first workouts for pitchers and catchers will take place tomorrow. You can prepare for the season by purchasing the 2015 Prospect Guide, which gives scouting reports on 200+ prospects in the system, along with the top 50 prospects.

**This week we’re going to start a new Q&A feature. I’ve placed a form on the right side of each page where you can submit your questions for each week. I’m aiming to have the first one done by Friday, so submit your questions. I will say that with Spring Training starting up, I’m not going to have much time to check the comments, which is where a lot of questions get asked. So if you’ve got a question for me specifically (or for John Dreker, although he will probably answer in the comments), then use the form on the right side of every page.

**Where Will Austin Meadows And Reese McGuire Start The Year?

**Does Andrew Lambo Have The Final Bench Spot Locked Down?

**MLB Network To Show Ten Pittsburgh Pirates Spring Training Games

**West Virginia Black Bears Release Their Logo

  • Todd Hollandsworth, Mike Ferrin, Jim Duquette ( and others ) can now be reached in the ER being treated for shock.

  • I agree with the general premise, but think the argument is far too simplified for my taste.

    “The numbers” most certainly tell you James Shields is a much better pitcher than Vance Worley. One has been worth two wins just once in his career, one has been worth *less* than two wins just twice. And Shields is projected to be the better pitcher by “the numbers” for the foreseeable future. With that established, the player you prefer on your team has to come down to how much money you have to spend. If the Pirates had a $90m/yr TV contract, they’d be absolute fools to choose Vance Worley over James Shields. That’s the inherent inequality in the MLB system. Teams can use their financial advantage to sign a Shields, and *still* have the ability to get a Worley if that doesn’t work out. Nobody gives out awards for most wins per dollar.

    Also, Cameron and FanGraphs in general, have written extensively about how while the *final* years of contracts to guys like James Shield almost always look bad, the *initial* years typically give far more value than cost. Cameron himself believes giving $82m to a 32 yo catcher was one of the ten best moves this winter. Sure, some contracts are just plain bad from the start, but that’s another argument all together.

  • I would love to see the Cameron’s data analyzed by age as well. It will be skewed anyway because 3 years of results were used which either eliminated or handicapped the top first and second year players. The question to answer is whether or not the broader age-related declines apply to the “top” players?

  • Nice article, Tim. The problem really becomes that some people lose sight of the fact that baseball is an entertainment business and not as much a results-based operation (directly) – though obviously people prefer to see winners.

    The issue for all sports is that if you only satisfy the “die-hards” and the super knowledgeable fans and do nothing to attract the “casual followers”, (I hate the term casual “fan”, I don’t believe you can be that!!) you can’t really survive. Casual “fans” know the more recognizable names, certainly much more than the prospects, and those recognizable names are part of the advertising that draws fans in. You can guarantee that James Shields picture will be all over San Diego in newspapers, ads, promotions and giveaways, commercials, media guides, everywhere. Anything Padres related will have him on it in some way

    Take the Pirates, for example. There is a good chance that Nick Kingham can give you as much, if not more, than A.J. Burnett in 2015. But, I’m willing to bet that A.J. will appear on almost as much Pirates promotional material this year as McCutchen. His face will be everywhere. His value to the Pittsburgh Pirates and interest in the team (to fans and casual followers, alike) goes far beyond the value that he brings to the field.

    We can dislike it all we want, but names draw fans (or at least attention and interest). Obviously, that’s only a short-term gain, you’ve got to get wins to keep fans coming out.

    And, I don’t want to overstate it, it’s not like Burnett’s games are going to all be sell-outs because he’s pitching (I assume many people look more at the promotional calendar than pitching match-ups when buying individual game tickets), but when Burnett was signed, all of the local media were talking about it. That’s very valuable to an organization during ticket-selling season. Anytime the Pirates can get positive mentions in the off-season, it helps to reinforce the brand and, hopefully, sell more tickets.

    • I’m pretty sure everyone who has looked at it, the biggest driver of attendance and revenue is success.

      • I think the Cubs would disagree with you!

      • The Rangers had the 9th highest average attendance last year and they were a team that finished 31 games out. You don’t have to be good to draw people.

        The key to the success of all entertainment entities starts with marquee and marketable talent. From there, success sustains the interest.

  • Plus, signing and trading for those types of players always “Win” the offseason.

    I like how NH is doing it. Best return on investment, and let another team pay for those declining years.

  • Pitching in the NL vs pitching in the AL is a big deal. Having a David Oritiz in the lineup instead of facing Edison Volquez can mean a lot in this game where margins are so slim.

  • Tim: Excellent subject matter, and a nod to Dave Cameron. Vance Worley has been a very productive pitcher with a 27-22 Career record in only 73 Starts. Jeff Locke gets out there and sometimes looks like a train wreck, but he has also been a productive pitcher, 18-19 in 61 Starts. Another productive and valuable asset is Brandon Cumpton who is 5-5 in only 15 Starts/100 IP over 2013/2014. Add these to the group that includes Kingham, Taillon, Sadler, Sampson, and Glasnow. The Pirates are loaded with SP’s and I would not be surprised to see some moves involving some pitching for a young LH hitting or switchhitting 3B.

    Shields got the money for the almost guaranteed 33 Starts and 14 Wins per year. He knows how to pitch, and he knows how to win.

    • Seriously Emj, stop with the wins stuff. You are better than that.

      • Winning does matter! there are a million other stats that matter also, but never winning and having great stats means your out of baseball. 20 game winners get paid a lot of money even if they don’t have the stats that some 7 game winners might have.

        • This just isn’t true anymore. Front offices are much smarter than that nowadays. Everyone knows wins are a team stat, see the discussion from yesterday for many strong arguments.

  • Well tim, this one really makes a fella stop and think. Looks to me that the key here is that 30 and above threshold when the majority of players start to decline yet those are the same group of players who are getting mega contracts. Seems to me that in order to fix this dillema baseball needs to change it’s mindset away from what most of us experience in our lives in that we work,gain experience and get increases in salary as we get older. Baseball on the other hand is a time sensitive product as far as the players carrers are concerned, one possible solution would be what teams like the pirates do and sign players long term early. The problem is there are always going to be teams that do this while other teams sign older players long term big money. So what’s the solution. Like I said, it’s a very interesting problem with no clear cut answer.

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