Tuesday, June 26, 2007

It's not just the Phillies, phuckers

Justin's long-time-coming post about the sheer lunacy of the Phils' contract situations — it's worth noting that he didn't always feel so strongly about how bad the Garcia trade was, but he also didn't know the dude had a bum shoulder (which the Phils should have known) — glanced at making a couple of conclusions about the free agent market I've been close to making for some time. I actually was going to write this post a little less than a month ago, but I got sidetracked and shelved the excel spreadsheet I had made and since had to update. It follows (click to make larger, and hopefully legible):

(Notes about the chart: I know, I know ... you think VORP is dumb. Whatever. I used it because it's a stat that applies to both pitchers and hitters, so it served as a good quick-and-dirty stat that would prevent me from having to do more protracted looks. Since it's a counting stat (like R or RBI), I excluded from the list anyone who's been injured for a significant portion of 06 or 07 (Wolf, Schmidt, Piazza, et al.) and relievers, since their VORP numbers aren't very telling because of the inherent bias toward higher IP and PA. Also, I removed Dice-K for myriad reasons. So, anyway, the chart shows what VORP figure the player is on pace for this season (based on his VORP through 46 percent of the season), the player's VORP from 2006, which is what I assume most GMs would be "paying for," as opposed to advanced projection systems like BP's PECOTA. Then, using the 10-run rule of thumb for VORP (10 VORP = roughly 1 win above average, as far as the system is concerned), I broke down what it appears the team will be paying for each addition win the FA adds, vs. what they "expected" to pay, again, based on last season's performance.

There's lots of flaws with this chart — VORP doesn't account for defense, the fact that I'm using a simple "on-pace" number that can very well be misleading, the distinct possibility that I allowed for values over 100 percent, and the massive negative values in money/win because guys like Lugo and Williams have negative VORPs, which renders the rest of it meaningless — but I meant for it to be, as I said, quick and dirty. Further, because of the internal consistency w/r/t measures, I believe the findings are valid in a general sense, if only to suggest that I'm at least on the right track with my argument. But, there's a host of better ways to do this chart, and if I had the time or ability, I'd use those instead.)

What I wanted to see was the success/failure rates of big-money free agent signings during this offseason, which anecdotally seemed even more unhinged than usual. Maybe I'll get around to doing a comparison, but it's not really central to my argument, which is that almost always, big free agent signings are horrible ideas and should be avoided.

But first, a breakdown of what the spreadsheet I painstakingly put together tells us (at least as far as I can tell, and with the understanding that it's a small sample size):

1) Pitchers, as we all probably knew already, tend to be the worst investments: Most everyone except Brian Sabean knew the Zito deal was an unmitigated disaster well before the season started, and nothing has happened this season to change anyone's mind. Same goes for the Eaton/Suppan head-scratchers. Surprisingly, two of the five most "successful" signings were geriatrics Greg Maddux (1 year, $10 million) and Andy Pettitte (1 year, $16 million), who are on pace to cost a little more than $3 million per win above average. That's a deal most teams — particularly teams like the Pads and Yanks who were making runs at the pennant — would be willing to take, and the fact that both are one-year deals makes them among the most sensible investments of the offseason. The other "successful" signings (at least so far) have been Gil Meche (who could pass his '06 VORP before the All-Star break), Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis (who already has surpassed his '06 VORP, which was negative). But those numbers are ignorant of the fact that all three got off to torrid starts and the latter two have cooled off since, and all three are signed for a number of years that could cause serious issues down the road.

2) Those long-term deals don't make much more sense today than they did in the offseason: Sure, you say, Soriano, Lee and Sarge are pretty much giving their teams what they paid for, based on 2006 vs. 07 performance. But those guys are signed for eight, six and five seasons, respectively. There is not a chance in hell — I will put hard currency on this — that any of those guys are even 50 percent as valuable as they are now in the final year of his deal. And the Astros are paying Lee $5.26 million per added win right now.

Tragically, those three and Meche are serving as the only examples of five-plus year contracts being anything but unmitigated disasters. I mean, it's a ridiculous number, but the chart is showing that Juan Pierre is costing the Odgers $220 million per win, if they were to pay him at this same scale until he finally earned them one. Also, congrats to Adam Eaton and Shea Hillenbrand for almost crashing Excel every time I entered the formula to figure out their cost per win.

3) GMs are clearly playing too much fantasy baseball: Actually, I take that back, because there's no way Hillenbrand (or the '06 editions of Marquis, Eaton, Gonzo and Huff) would even be useful in fantasy baseball. What the fuck were these guys thinking? And I really don't see this as a VORP-bias issue; I challenge anyone to find me a single statistic that justified the dollars being thrown at these guys. Sure, Gonzo and Marquis are off to great starts and could end up being valuable, but don't anyone tell me they saw that coming. And as for Hillenbrand and Huff ... really? I understand that "intangibles" and "clubhouse presence" are always trotted out as excuses for veteran signings, but isn't making $6-plus million a year to hit as well as the batboy could the very opposite of what intangiblearians are supposed to do? Wouldn't Eckstein's mystique be shattered if he was pulling down $10 milly a year and fucking crazy hot broads?

4) Past seasons are a pretty bad indicator of future success: The standard deviation for the difference between 06 VORP and 07 VORP is almost 24, which is astoundingly high even for such a small sample size (to get an idea of VORP's scale, the ML leader in VORP will generally be somewhere between 85-95 runs, so 24 is not a small number). I realize that GMs are easy to hammer because we have the benefit of hindsight, but they're also easy to hammer because the same ones seem to make stunningly stupid mistakes repeatedly. Part of the reason I chose 2006 VORP, as opposed to PECOTA projections, was because I was trying to be as kind to the decision-makers as possible, and assume that they were operating under the assumption that these players could be counted on to replicate the efforts of the season prior. But that shouldn't be expected to be the case because of my final observation:

5) One can generally expect, in fact, free agents to be worse than they were the year before: In our small sample size, the difference was -5.15 runs, on average, per player from the season before, with the aforementioned standard deviation of ~24. I believe that a larger look at the entire free agent pool, at the end of the season, will produce a slightly smaller number, but a negative one nonetheless. I'm confident that's the case, because we know one thing about free agents: They're almost always in their 30s. While saying things like this in the past have tended to draw me scowls, baseball is a young man's game and one can expect players to decline — often precipitously, especially for players who derive their value from only one or two tools — in their 30s. Of course, it's not guaranteed, as guys like Bonds, Durham, Clemens and Unit have proven. But those are extreme outliers; the vast majority of players can be expected to be much less valuable at age 34 than they were at 30. And, in the middle of that four-year gap, one can reasonably expect players to get worse on an annual basis.

One of the reasons I don't but the money = championships argument is because spending money = signing free agents. Yes, the Yankees can afford to make bad investments, but that doesn't mean they should. A-Rod, who was a special case because of his relatively young age when hitting free agency, is an exception (it also bears mentioning that the amount of A-Rod's contract the Rangers are still paying him makes him considerably less expensive than his overall price tag would suggest). The rest of the Yankees' free agent deals of note, lately, point toward the truth of the matter: Damon, Giambi and Pavano aren't so much bad luck as they are the rule playing to form (injuries count, by the way; players tend to get hurt more often as they get older, which adds to the "less value in general" conclusion). I don't care how much money you have, it's not a recipe for success when you have invested that amount of money in players who are producing well below the levels that would allow them to be considered successful.

If one looks over the baseball landscape this season, he or she will notice that the majority of the teams in contention are not big players on the free agent market. Yes, there's the Red Sox, and probably the Yankees when it's all said and done. Both the core of both those teams comes from players either grown or acquired in trades, and in most cases those players are being paid contracts that pale in comparison to the kind of money thrown at Lee and Soriano the past offseason. Ditto for the Mets, who benefit greatly from the presence of Carlos Beltran, but would not be where they are if not for a couple of guys named Reyes and Wright. From there, clubs like the Tigers, Indians, A's, Angels, Padres, Brewers, Braves and Diamondbacks prove that a combination of savvy in the market (which means great trades, and key low-cost free agent acquisitions) and the management of internal resources (scouting & development in concert with a neverending quest to re-up players early and have them under contract through arbitration-eligible years, like the Braves did with Andruw and the Padres did with Chris Young) is a franchise's best bet to contend.

Not all free agent signings are bad. Some are excellent, but most of those involve much more modest contract sizes that the ones on my chart. And, every so often, a once-in-a-generation player like A-Rod, or Vlad, or Santana (soon) comes around and can reasonably justify a hefty, long-term deal. But those are the rarities. The much stronger likelihood is that the teams who sign Torii Hunter, Dontrelle Willis, Andruw Jones and Carlos Zambrano in the next offseason will be sorely disappointed, and more so the fans of those team who believed that a championship can be purchased.

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