World Famous StatSpeak Roundtable: December 3

How did it get to be December and no one told me?  I need to get Mrs. Cutter a present.  Anyway, the roundtable is still alive and well, although the gears broke down with our guest this week.  (We were hoping to have Dejan Kovacevic of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, but some wires got crossed and he’s not here… it’s probably my fault)  So, this week, enjoy the Four Stooges talking about Carlos Gonzalez, Jason Varitek, arbitration abnormailities, and whether we’ve become part of the establishment.

Question #1: There has been a shocking number of teams declining arbitration on Type A free agents, and not the ones that are an embarrassment to the ranking system, either. Adam Dunn? Kerry Wood? Braden Looper? Is this a one-year fluke, or a portent of things to come?

Brian Cartwright: Maybe things to come, at least for the short term. The upside is the teams aren’t risking arbitration. If the player decides to take arb instead of free agency, the team is stuck with a cost most likely higher than they’d want to pay, and there’s uncertainty, which most businesses try to avoid. The down side is giving up draft choices as compensation if the player does leave. It can be a tricky thing to balance this risk and reward, and maybe the teams are shying away from the risk.

Colin Wyers: I know the economy is a factor here, but I think we had a perfect storm – most of the big-names declined arbitration were corner outfielders, where the market is currently glutted this offseason.

Still, I think we can blame this on the MVP voters – and hear me out! Ryan Howard is breaking the arbitration system – $10 million for his first arbitration hearing? And you can be sure that his next arb hearing will feature his strong second-place finish in MVP balloting. As Howard keeps pushing up the price of arbitration, he’ll continue to distort the market.

(And I’m only partly serious here.)

Eric Seidman: The reason the Phillies did not offer arbitration to Pat Burrell primarily has to do with the plethora of corner outfielders on the market, driving the price down.  Burrell would likely make more than the 14 mil in 2008 via arbitration, which is less than he would receive on the open market.  I have to imagine this is a similar scenario for many other players in similar situations; the draft picks that would be earned through declined arbitration is not worth the potential situation where the players accept and are owed a ton of cash.

Pizza Cutter: Well, my guess of how many years this effect will last depends on your views of the economy’s direction.  Suppose that you’re the D’Backs and don’t really want Adam Dunn back, just the draft pick that he’s worth.  The problem is that by offering him arbitration, Dunn may look at his options and go “hmmmm, maybe I’m better off with an arbitration system that’s tied to other player’s contracts which were signed during the crazy spending days vs. the free market which is going to take a nose-dive.”  So, the D’Backs say, forget the draft pick.  We don’t want to be on the hook for that sort of money.

Question #2:  Ever increasing webpage hits, quoted on ESPN and WSJ, and guys who write words on real paper answering questions on StatSpeak – have sabermetric bloggers become mainstream?

Brian Cartwright: I do see a growing acceptance of us by the mainstream press. These guys get hired because of their skills at writing. I have never claimed to be a gifted writer, thinking of myself more as a thinker. (Before anybody throws out the N-word, let me state for the record, my mother lived in my basement). So we’re out here on these websites trying to get someone to read what we have to say about baseball. That we are now getting some attention and respect from the professional writers tells me that what we’re saying must be making some sense. It’s a slow process to change how people, the public and journalists see things. When I was a kid, before these other three were even born, batting was all about BA/HR/RBI. That’s what was on the scoreboard at the stadium, and how every announcer introduced a batter. Now I think in terms of BA/OB/SA, and I think enough other people do too.

Colin Wyers: I think we’re seeing a sort of convergence going on here – a lot of mainstream analysts and writers are becoming more and more SABR-friendly, and a lot of SABR-outlets are becoming more mainstream. Guys like Jonah Keri and Keith Law of ESPN and Dayn Perry of Fox Sports got their start at Baseball Prospectus; at the same time, Baseball Prospectus has guys like Kevin Goldstein and John Perrotto on staff. So I think it’s a very fluid situation, with a give-and-take from both sides.

Eric Seidman: It’s an odd situation.  Our work here and over at Fangraphs gets linked quite heavily, and a larger than expected percentage is by mainstream outlets.  I remember I got linked by Fox Sports for my report card on JP Ricciardi, and had an article written about me in the Philadelphia Daily News discussing Pat Burrell’s candidacy for the All-Star team.  It is definitely a good feeling to know that our work is being noticed, but it seems like the tone of the posts in the mainstream linking to us treats us as the dorky friend with a questionable method as opposed to a legitimate tip of the hat.  I see that Pizza mentions the Ghandi quote below, and while I agree we’re in Stage 3, there’s still some strong Stage 1 present.

Pizza Cutter: Leave it to me to inappropriately insert a quote from Ghandi.  “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.” I think we’ve moved to stage 3 now.  (Yes, I really did just do that.)

Question #3: Carlos Gonzalez has now been traded twice in the last two years.  Is it time to give up on him as a prospect? 

Brian Cartwright: In a neutral park, such as Oakland, I have him projected 258/298/421, which is really not very good for an outfielder these days. A few years ago, in his teams, Gonzalez showed fairly good power, but his HR% has slipped three years in a row down to now league average. Even with the humidor, Coors still inflates batting averages. Gonzalez can probably hit .280-.290 with up to HRs for the Rockies, which will lead some people to think he’s good. If he plays a good defensive, league average centerfielder yes, potential star, no.

Colin Wyers: He’s still young and there’s reason to think he’s a great defensive asset in center field. I don’t see why you’d give up on him – at worst he’s a cheap fourth outfielder who plays good defense and can probably pinch-run for you in some key spots.

It’s worth noting that the timeline for fans to “give up” on a guy is probably a lot shorter than the timeline for an MLB team – or at least SOME MLB team – to give up on a guy. It’s one of those things where the reality is, you have a lot of roster fodder floating around in AAA years after anyone at Baseball America cares about them. Some of them “break out” late or at least find teams willing to give them a chance in the bigs. Some turn into useful bench players.

Eric Seidman: I can’t see him being an all-star or dynamite major league player, but he does still have value.  Perhaps Brian can chime in here with an MLE or projection for CarGo, but he is approaching the point where his oft-trading makes you wonder what teams that get him learn about his skillset.

Pizza Cutter: Well, for what it’s worth, the haul on those trades going the other way was Dan Haren and Matt Holliday. Yeah, top prospects shouldn’t be shuttled around that much, but then again, he strikes out an inordinate amount and hits a HR every 10 flyballs, which is nice, but hardly elite.  Plus, he hits a lot of ground balls.  He’s one of those guys who’s probably a fantastic athlete, and he’s shown some power potential and some speed, and he’s only 22, so he might learn.  But baseball history is littered with the carcases of guys like that, and right now, he’s got that Gabe Kapler look about him.  Outstanding athlete.  Decent player.

Question #4: Are the Red Sox being sentimental or stupid by talking about bringing ‘Tek back in 2009?

Brian Cartwright: Varitek may certainly be in the offensive decline of his career, and at age 38 it’s to be expected, but he still hits better than the average major league catcher. He is regarded very well defensively, and as long as those skills are intact he’s going to be better than just about anyone the Red Sox can find to replace him. I would offer him a year plus an option, at a reasonable rate, maybe $8m per year.

Colin Wyers: Let’s take a look at what some popular projection systems say about Jason Varitek:

Oliver – .246/.330/.404

Marcels – .233/.325/.385

Bill James – .238/.334/.392

CAIRO: .235/.334/.393

So let’s just say that our projection systems have a good amount of consensus on this issue. Without breaking out the run estimators and the replacement-level calculations… let’s just say that the average AL catcher hit .258/.322/.393 last season. So I don’t think it would be unreasonable to have Tek as your starting catcher next season, especially when the alternative looks something like Kevin Cash.

I don’t know that I’d go to too many years and I don’t think I’d go to much more than $8-$10 mil a season on him, but I don’t think he’s a reclamation project or anything.

Eric Seidman: This is tough because we do not have reliable defensive metrics for catchers.  Via wOBA, Varitek is projected at about -6 runs offensively next season.  Add in +12.5 for the positional adjustment and +20 to value him above replacement level, and before defense is even taken into account, we’re talking about a +26.5 run player.  Even if we assume his defensive value and ability to handle a pitching staff and captainship is worth nothing more than a half of a win, we are looking at a +31 run player, or a +3-win player.  With the going rate of $5 mil/win, his fair market value would actually be 1-yr/$15-mil.  It might be smart to get a younger, more offensively prone player in there, but bringing him back, especially for a deal in the $7-10 mil range would not be stupid.

Pizza Cutter: Yes, I know, I like the “captain” thing too.  Here’s the thing.  Varitek would probably make someone a good backup catcher.  He’s slipping and will be 37 years old next year a few days after Opening Day.  The K numbers are up, the LD numbers are down, and the power has started to go out, suggesting that the bat speed is gone.  Maybe with a little more rest, he’d be able to be more effective in short bursts.  Given what he has meant psychologically to the town of Boston, I’m sure it would be just awful seeing him playing second fiddle behind the plate in a Marlins uniform or something like that.  This is one of those times where Sabermetricians get in trouble.  He’s certainly not worth “Posada money” (nor is Posada), but he’s worth a cheap, short-term contract.  He’s not the Varitek of five years ago, although in the hearts of Boston fans, he’ll always be that guy.  It’s no fun having to be the objective guy.

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