Monday, November 5, 2012

Should the Jays Pursue Greinke? A Word of Caution About Pitcher WAR


It's certainly no secret that the Jays need starting pitching (2 of them, in fact, as per my earlier post), and it is also no secret that the only "bona fide ace" out there on the open market this winter will be Zack Greinke. Putting two and two together, there are many fans out there who would love to see the Jays make a hard push after Greinke. While I certainly agree that Greinke is the best pitcher available, I can't help but think that pursuing him would actually be detrimental to the Jays in 2013 and beyond.

Landing someone like Greinke would probably take a deal in the range of $25M per year for at least 6 years, if not more. Now, in the scenario that the Jays' 2013 payroll sits around $100M and they have about $25-$30M to play with this winter, signing Greinke would basically eat up all of their money. That would mean that 2B, LF, 1B/DH and another SP would all have to be filled either internally, or with extremely cheap options. Given that our internal options for those other holes are all pretty close to replacement level players (Gose, Rajai, Hech, Alvarez, Lind), I just can't imagine that this scenario of getting Greinke would be tenable.

Even in the more optimistic scenario where payroll sits around $120M and the Jays would still have about $20M left to play with after getting Greinke, filling all of those other holes on $20M is not such an easy task either. It means waving goodbye to anything but cheap options at 2B, LF and DH or another SP that's any better than a back-of-the-rotation innings eater. Even if Greinke could provide an extra 2 or 3 WAR per year more than the next guy (which, as I'll discuss soon, is not so clear at all), would that really be worth locking yourself out from so many other players? There seems to be a big price hike that comes with signing an ace.

Saving $10M per year on a pitcher by going after someone like Anibal Sanchez instead of Greinke might only mean a reduction of 1 or 2 WAR per season, but that same $10M saved invested into a position player could be the difference, say Shin Soo Choo and Anthony Gose, for example. And that difference is likely more than 1 or 2 WAR. Just in terms of getting bang for your buck alone, I think the much cheaper but still highly effective non-ace-but-front-of-the-rotation guys are the much better value buys, especially when you don't have the Yankees' payroll. And there are plenty of these guys available this winter, like Sanchez, Marcum, Dempster, Kuroda, McCarthy to name a few.

But stepping back for a second, even if "aces" were really worth the extra money, is Greinke himself really deserving of that title? He certainly has as much talent as any pitcher out there, that's for sure. But I want to take a closer look at what kind of value he has actually provided over the last three seasons, since his out-of-this-world 2009 season. A quick glance at his fWAR shows that he's accumulated 14.2 WAR from 2010-2012, averaging over 4.5 fWAR per season. His average xFIP and SIERA from 2010-2012 are both in the low 3's, which is certainly excellent. However, there's an issue that I have with relying too heavily on pitcher fWAR, and that is that it uses the fielding independent pitching stats (FIP), as opposed to ERA, in order to calculate the value of a pitcher. In effect, what this really means is that a pitcher's fWAR is not at all a measure of what kind of value that pitcher provided over the season, but rather what kind of value the pitcher could be EXPECTED to provide if luck was neutralized. Stats like FIP and SIERA are supposed to be more predictive of a pitcher's future performance than ERA, which can be heavily influenced by luck.

Sometimes, though, trends develop that make you consider whether certain pitchers are exceptions to these advanced stats. It is widely known, for example, that Matt Cain consistently pitches better than what one would expect based on his FIP or SIERA, since a lot of his success comes from inducing weak contact of fly balls, something which FIP does not recognize as a skill. FIP relies heavily on K/BB ratios, and assumes balls put into play are largely subject to luck rather than skill of the pitcher. Thus, it heavily favours pitchers with good control and high strikeout ability.

Just like there are known exceptions of people who outperform their peripherals, there can be exceptions the other way too. Zack Greinke might just be one of those exceptions. His average ERA from 2010-2012 sits in the high 3's. Here I like to look at a different WAR calculation called rWAR, from Baseball Reference, which uses ERA rather than FIP. Here, we see Greinke only accumulated a 7.9 rWAR from 2010-2012. Even if I give him a generous extra 1.1 WAR for his time lost to injury in 2011, that's still only an average of 3.0 rWAR over the last three seasons. Let's compare those numbers to those of some other established "aces" who have either signed deals worth $20M or more per year or would be worth that much on the open market (from 2010-2012):
CC Sabathia-    14.7 rWAR, 17.1 fWAR
Cliff Lee-          17.3 rWAR, 18.8 fWAR
Cole Hamels-   15.7 rWAR, 13.1 fWAR
David Price-     13.2 rWAR,  13.9 fWAR
Matt Cain-       10.6 rWAR, 12.3 fWAR
Roy Halladay-  17.5 rWAR, 17.1 fWAR
Zack Greinke-  7.9 rWAR,   14.2 fWAR

So well Zack's fWAR is in the middle of the pack, his rWAR is well below the group. And perhaps more importantly, he has easily the greatest discrepancy between his fWAR and his rWAR. This could suggest a real trend that he consistently pitches below his peripherals. In fact, there might even be a reason this is the case. Greinke has said in public that he purposely attempts to keep his FIP low. This means he works on increasing his K/9 and lowering his BB/9. While this is normally a good idea, it could lead to harm as one FanGraphs writer (can't find link now) proposed in 2011 that Greinke may let too many pitches catch too much of the plate when he's behind in the count, because he wants to avoid walks like the plague. An approach like this could lead to a high BABIP, and mean that Greinke's high BABIP and relatively high ERA compared to his FIP is not a product of pure bad luck.

While we're on the topic of comparing WAR values, let's compare Greinke to these two mystery players (from 2010-2012):

Player X-           9.0 rWAR, 12.0 fWAR
Zack Greinke-  7.9 rWAR,  14.2 fWAR

Player X is strikingly similar to Greinke. Player X is Anibal Sanchez. He will be available this offseason for significantly less than Greinke. In fact, you could probably get him and Marcum or Edwin Jackson for the price of Greinke. I think it's pretty clear which is the better value buy.

-Martin

1 comment:

mathesond said...
This comment has been removed by the author.