Now that I’ve allowed myself one horrifying pun in the title of this piece, it should be explained what could justify something so egregiously disgusting. As someone with a familiarity to the Phillies as an organization, it has been interesting to see them to finally begin to rebuild this off-season.
In trading veterans like Jimmy Rollins, Marlon Byrd, and Antonio Bastardo, the team has infused some additional depth in the minor league system – with a noticeable pattern. Rollins was traded for pitching prospects Zach Eflin and Tom Windle, Byrd was moved for Reds’ pitching prospect Ben Lively, and Bastardo was moved to the Pirates for lefty Joely Rodriguez.
The double-A rotation in Reading is currently overflowing with starting pitchers, and that’s not an accident. The team has had scarce minor league pitching depth in recent seasons, but have a glut of near MLB-ready starting pitchers heading into 2015.
Additionally, most rumors concerning a Cole Hamels trade involve a team with a major catching prospect. Obviously, with this opportunity to receive impact prospects, the Phillies would take the best players possible. However, catching is a position of notable weakness in the minors, and I’d argue that between two comparable prospects of different positions, the Phillies should focus on the catcher. This is not specifically because of that weakness, but instead as a sustainably strategy. I’d similarly argue that, while the focus on pitching may be a coincidence due to what was available, it should be a concerted effort by the team.
With 25 roster spots to fill on a major league team, and nine different positions on the diamond, why would a team focus on two? Five reasons.
Value is value is value
The first point that should be addressed is that prospects are, in a sense, assets. They have a certain level of talent and can have a dollar value attached to them. As such, having a young pitcher worth $20 million and a shortstop worth $20 million should make the two relatively transferable in a trade. There are extenuating circumstances of supply and demand (AKA, desperation), but overall, equally valued players should be seen as such.
This is relevant here because below the major league level, there’s no requirement that every position of every minor league affiliate is filled with a certain threshold of quality. The Cubs are likely the best farm system in baseball, and they still have a lopsided amount of position players to pitchers. If a team developed eight MLB-ready starting pitchers, their surplus talent could be traded for MLB-ready pieces from other teams that could fill holes. There’s no reason to demand a team acquire a wide variety of prospects in trade; it’s about total depth, not positional breadth.
Pitchers are risky
In an article claiming that teams should acquire lots of pitchers and catchers, a bullet-point titled “Pitchers Are Risky” is a bit counter-intuitive. Here’s the reasoning: pitchers are often the most expensive players on the free agent market. In some crazy instances, they are getting seven year deals when as a group they have a demonstrated risk above position players.
Using the disabled list database from BaseballHeatMaps.com, pitchers have accounted for 61.09% of the total days spent on the DL in the last five years, although they only fill 48% of the roster spots. Tens of millions of dollars are wasted each season with pitchers on the DL – here’s an interesting interactive report from the New York Times at the end of the 2013 season. A disproportionately large amount of the players on that list are, you guessed it, pitchers.
In this Jeff Sullivan piece from 2011, he calculates that in a given year, 39.1% of all the prior year’s qualifying starters will end up on the disabled list, with trips averaging about 66.3 days per pitcher. This means that if you are a pitcher who qualifies for the ERA title, you have a 39.1% chance of being hurt the next year.
I would argue that, given all else is equal, there is a higher return on investment on a position player than on a pitcher of the same projected value. If a team can help it, drafting and acquiring young, cheap pitching leaves less of their money in the trainer’s room, making a more efficient team. That’s not to say that a team shouldn’t spend money – just spend it on free agent position players.
To speak about catching, as prospects they have the longest developmental path to reach the majors, and therefore typically debut at an older age. They then also hit free agency for the first time older than most, and typically have a steeper defensive aging curve than others (due to the wear and tear of the job).
More than likely, a team is paying for older years of a catcher than other first-time free agents. Teams are also beginning to commit to more years for the privilege – Russell Martin and Brian McCann each received 5-year deals at over $80 million a piece in the last two off-seasons, for players that are assumed to miss at least 30-40 games a year.
Luke Hochevar Syndrome
“Luke Hochevar Syndrome,” as I’m calling it, is named after the Kansas City Royal and 2006 first-overall draft pick. To summarize the idea, it is that pitchers have an inherently higher floor than other positions. There are twelve spots for pitchers on the typical major league roster, and short of the occasional LOOGY, any one pitcher could hypothetically pitch in any of those twelve spots.
I reference Hochevar in this case, because for him, falling short of his lofty draft position has still resulted in seven major league seasons. He didn’t have a ton of value as a starter, but transitioned to a different role as a reliever, and suddenly was a lights out relief ace, and just re-signed to a $10 million deal. And he’s what is technically considered a “disappointment,” because he didn’t become an ace.
Because there are twelve pitchers a team with different roles that can be filled by (roughly) the same player, the bar for value created is a little lower. If an expected all-star first baseman can’t hit, he won’t make it out of double-A. A projected ace starter who falters is still fairly likely to make it to the majors in some capacity.
This flexibility also exists to a smaller extent with catchers. Below is a chart detailing batting lines by position from 1969-2013, using Retrosheet data.
Aside from shortstops, catchers have had the lowest offensive bar to entry of the eight positions. Fielding and arm strength are (relatively speaking) easier to predict than hitting, from a scouting perspective. Even though most catchers fail to hit in the end, much of their value is generated from fielding the position, so again there is a higher “floor”, if the defensive scouting is done well.
Depth has heightened value
Depth has higher value for pitchers and catchers than any other positions, so having a lot of cheap, young depth is important. With the amount of time the average pitcher spends on the DL (mentioned above), most teams do not feel comfortable unless they have six or seven strong starting pitching options between triple-A and the majors.
Often, due to lack of depth, the options in triple-A are past-their-prime veterans waiting for another opportunity, a waiver wire acquisition, or similarly unappealing options. A valuable free agent could never be convinced to sign and then wait for months at a time in the minors. The way to have quality minor league depth is through prospects. Having a future 3/4 starter in triple-A to begin a season is a best-case option for a team in the event of injury. Having as many of those guys as possible would be a good thing.
Additionally, relief pitchers are sent back and forth to triple-A more frequently than any other position. They are the most inconsistent kind of ballplayer, and having extra arms to better a team’s options can help combat that inherent unpredictability.
Catchers, on the other hand, have the built-in expectation of missing games. In the last 10 years, there have only been 29 times that a catcher has started 130 game or more. Out of the 300 starting catcher roster spots that have existed during that time, that’s a pretty amount (9.67%). In fact, no catcher has caught 150 games since Gary Carter in 1982.
Due to the number of games they’ll start, having a good backup catcher is more important than other bench positions. Developing a surplus of young catching is a good way to capture value, because while a team might not keep a star on the bench, having multiple league average players could be utilized throughout the year.
Perennially wide trade market
All of the same reasoning listed above dictates that teams without this pitching and catching depth will need to trade for it. Outside of the Nationals and the Dodgers, there isn’t a team in baseball who is wholly content with their five starting pitchers. There isn’t a single team in baseball who has seven relief pitchers that they couldn’t replace. Even if the outfield has three starting positions of depth (although centerfield is a different kind of player than the corners), the Pirates, Dodgers, Padres, Nationals, Red Sox, and Brewers each have three. An almost universal trade market exists for a good pitcher, and if that pitcher has five or six seasons of team control remaining at below market costs? That player would certainly have a most teams interested.
A young, team controlled shortstop also has large value, but there’s only a need for one starting shortstop on a team. The Braves are not looking to upgrade over Andrelton Simmons, The Rockies would rather improve over almost any player but Troy Tulowitzki. On almost any given day, more GMs would call back about a young starting pitcher than a comparably young and talented position player.
This is before factoring in the July trade deadline boost to pitching. It has been postulated that teams are willing to spend more than double the off-season $/Win rate in July, and pitching is more in-demand than offense at the time, possibly because (this is my speculation) of the heightened impact relievers and starters have in individual postseason games. Without a free agent market for teams to turn to instead, contenders must spend that additional money per win on the trade market. Being the team with that pitching to trade is smart, if you are rebuilding.
Also, there’s been a recent trend towards valuing catching more and more. As mentioned above, top free agent catchers have begun to receive longer, more expensive deals. Additionally, sixteen catchers have changed teams through trade this off-season alone, including Derek Norris, Yasmani Grandal, Evan Gattis, John Jaso, Miguel Montero, and Hank Conger. These are not teams cashing out and rebuilding – teams like the A’s, Padres, Astros, and White Sox have taken from their surplus to add pieces and are building towards contention.
For a rebuilding team like the Phillies, a prospect acquisition strategy focusing on pitching and catching is a smart way to lower risk and create value. While the opportunity to get a clearly better player shouldn’t be foregone, if given the choice between equal quality, take the pitching and catching.
Pitchers and catchers of any given quality can be traded for other positions of need once a surplus has been developed. These positions have inherently high floors due to the necessity for redundancy, so there is less risk in picking a starting pitcher or defensive-minded catcher over another player. That league-wide need for redundancy also allows for wider trade markets for these players, and allowing a team to take advantage of July pitching needs, both increasing their value. Once a team is competitive, having these positions filled cheaply with youth leaves less money potentially exposed to wasted production, and any risk that exists can be off-set by greater depth.
The Phillies may insist that a pitching-heavy strategy is “just the way the cards fell,” but they should be happy they have fallen that way.