Why did I trade Verlander?

November 4, 2017

 

 

After the regular season concluded, I traded Justin Verlander from my keeper team for Edwin Encarnacion. I know this sounds like a ďmy teamĒ story about fantasy baseball, but itís really an examination of all the factors and considerations that I go through for every baseball player I write about. So when you read something Iíve written either recommending or panning a player, this is what happened to arrive at the point where youíre reading.

 

So, why did I trade Verlander? He was as good as any pitcher in baseball over the final two months of the season and will be spending all of next year on one of the best teams. Whatís not to like? Why on Earth would I trade such a commodity away, especially given the crazy pitching environment weíre seeing develop?

Well, there were a number of reasons. First of all, let me say that I donít think Verlander is going to tank next year. I think heíll be quite good. It would not surprise me at all if he throws 200+ innings, strikes out 225 batters and finishes among the leaders in ERA and WHIP. Heís a fantastic pitcher to have in a keeper league like the XFL, especially for as little as $21 (his XFL salary in 2018). I would say heís an insanely good deal. Let me preface this by saying I traded for him in mid-season so itís not as if I didnít know something good was coming. I just didnít know it was going to be ridiculously good.

 

So how did I know? Well, three things:

1) the Tigers were going to trade him. They really had no incentive to keep him in their rebuild because he was expensive and likely not going to be as valuable down the road as he enters his age 35+ seasons, making him harder to move. So I was 90% sure they were going to trade him. It was 50/50 whether he would go to the NL or AL. If he went to the NL he would get to face pitchers in the line-up, so naturally that means his numbers were going to improve. If he stayed in the AL he would likely go West. Why? Because the Red Sox already had Sale and Price and werenít likely to add another $20+ million arm, and the Yankees are trying to stay under the tax threshold, meaning they werenít likely going to add him either. So that left the AL West. Regardless of which team that landed him he would get to pitch in pitchers parks and against teams he has done well against over the course of his career. There was also the caveat that he wouldnít have to face Cleveland Ė a team that has inexplicably owned him (20-24, with a 4.71 ERA) Ė the three or four times Detroit would face them down the stretch.

2) He had changed the grip on his slider in late May/early June and was beginning to show signs of turning his season around. The new grip slowed the velocity, which gave it more break and more separation from his fastball. A better second pitch to go with the return of his peak years velocity. In 2015-2016 he was down to 93 mph with his fastball but was averaging over 95 mph this year, a rare velocity boost for a pitcher his age. Nevertheless, the return of elite velocity combined with a better secondary pitch meant good times were ahead.

3) The Tigers were the worst team in baseball turning balls in play into outs. Wherever he went, the defense behind was going to improve. Fewer baserunners meant fewer runs and a better WHIP.

 

So back to the topic. Why deal him then? Itís the oldest reason in baseball: he canít sustain this level. Heís more of a flyball pitcher which was not a bad thing in Detroit with the colder weather, but might not be that great if they play with the stadium open in Houston when he pitches. In addition, as good as he was in Houston, a large part of his amazing run there was due to an unsustainably low .194 BABIP. His career rate is about .280 so even if his regression is simply back to normal, his overall numbers will be merely really good, not phenomenal. The other factor is the postseason. For many pitchers, especially starting pitchers, thereís a let-down the year following a deep run into the playoffs, whether thatís due to the fatigue from the extra 30+ innings pitched or due to the emotional rollercoaster or both.

 

So thereís no doubt heís a keeper and he wonít be as mediocre as he was with Detroit but I have a hard time believing that 2018 will simply be six months of what he did for two months under better than ideal conditions down the stretch.

 

OK, let me add some additional context. I already had Stephen Strasburg for $25, Yu Darvish for $19, Carlos Martinez for $16, Robbie Ray for $7 and Shohei Otani for $1 for 2018. All of them were on contracts that make it very likely they will remain on my roster for at least another year, maybe two or three. I know you can never have too much pitching, but with a maximum of 15 keepers, Iím not sure itís wise to keep six starting pitchers, regardless of how good they might be. So as good as Verlander is, I canít imagine that this wasnít his peak value. And since one of the pitchers had to go, he would likely bring the greatest return with the least amount of loss.

 

OK, so now the return: Edwin Encarnacion for $28.

 

I had Paul Goldschmidt but he was going to cost $50 to keep. I had intended on keeping him even at that absurdly high price (actually itís not that absurd given a keeper environment but if you talk about a $50 player to people who only play in redraft leagues they think youíre insane) but I noticed a downward trend in his stolen bases in the second half, as well as a three-year decline in walk rate. Especially concerning was a drop from 84.4% to 80.2% in zone contact rate combined with an increase from 7.9% to 10.1% in swinging strike rate. Other than the partial season his rookie year, that zone contact rate is easily the lowest of his career, and the swinging strike rate the highest. Thatís not good. Thereís also been some bouncing around in his groundball/flyball rate, isolated power, hard hit ball percentage and home run-to-flyball rate. Thatís not necessarily bad, but for a player I thought would eventually develop into the next Jeff Bagwell with 40-home run power and stealing 20 bags every season, that kind of production/value doesnít seem to be in the cards. This is about as good as itís going to get with Goldschmidt, which is tremendously good, but for $50 I would need some kind of hope for more. So as a player, heís still one of the ten best but there are some cracks, especially if he only steals 10 bases (which seems more likely than not) next year instead of 20.

 

Thereís also some concern with his power. Thereís been a good amount of evidence that this yearís home run output league-wide was in part aided by a harder, more tightly wound ďjuiced ballĒ. So I expect what weíll see next year is a slight regression in the home run numbers and a lot of players who finished with 20 homers will finish with only 12-15 next year. Likewise a number of the surprising 30-home run guys will maybe only hit 20 next year. So is Goldschmidt a legitimate 35-home run guy? At first glance, his Statcast info seems to think so. But is he really, especially if this yearís production was aided by a juiced ball?

 

Year†††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Exit Velocity††††††††††††††† Barrels per PA†††††††††††† Average distance BaB

2017††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 91.4†††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 8.3†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 177 ft

2016††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 91.0†††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 5.0†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 177 ft

2015††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 92.1†††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 7.8†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 202 ft

 

Judging by the first two categories, one might be inclined to believe that heís unchanged from 2015 and smooth sailing is ahead. But that third number - the average distance of batted balls Ė leads me to believe that a drop in home runs seems quite possible.He might be hitting them just as hard but for whatever reason they arenít going as far. In three of the past six years heís hit under 25 homers in a season. And then thereís the prospect that Arizona might begin using a humidor to offset the impact of the thin air due to the high elevation in Phoenix. This could dampen his home run totals as well. All this to say that thereís very little to indicate that heís going to get better in 2018, some data to indicate he might drop off and that seemed like too much risk for $50. I would still pay $40 for him. Maybe.

 

This past season in the XFL I was also lucky enough to roster Ryan Zimmerman in the first monthly free agent draft. However, by then he had already posted 11 homers and was batting over .400. Maybe you can see where I am going with this already. Because he had opened the season as a free agent, I could keep him in 2018 for only $10. Whatís not to like? Ė a middle of the order hitter in a very good line-up who hit 36 homers, drove in 108 and posted an on base of .358.It seems like a no brainer to keep him. However, as I noted, most of his production came in the first month. The rest of the year he hit 23 homers, drove in 74 and posted an on-base of .328, which honestly isnít too far off what heís done in previous years. Itís still pretty good, but not nearly as exciting as his final numbers indicate. So why did he hit so well in April? Part of the reason is that his ability to turn on fastballs had diminished the previous two years due to injuries, and pitchers were still going with the old scouting report: beat him with fastballs. Well, the healthy Ryan Zimmerman kills fastballs and has his entire career. So after the word got around that he was back to mashing fastballs again he saw a lower percentage of them the rest of the year. So the numbers that occurred after April are likely the ones to expect going forward. But then thereís the injury thing. This wouldnít be a big concern except for the types of injuries he suffered: shoulder, plantar fasciitis, back, oblique, hamstringÖ other than the foot injury, these were all muscle pulls, the types of injuries that occur more frequently as a player ages. Zimmerman will be 33 next season. Thatís not too old, but in Zimmermanís 12 big league seasons heís already missed at least 50 games due to injury in five of them, three in the last four years. So combine the risk of injury with the likely decline in performance and you have a first baseman for whom it would not be surprising to finish 2018 with 20-25 homers, a .330 on base and 75-80 RBI. This year there were 20 first baseman who finished with 70 or more RBI, 18 of whom hit 20 or more homers (Yulieski Gurriel just missed with 18). So sure, if Ryan Zimmerman repeats what he did in 2017 he would be an exceptional bargain in 2018, but the likelihood is that heís just a solid option in a pretty large pool of solid options. Yes, heís Ryan Zimmerman and heís going to be hitting in the middle of a fantastic line-up, but thatís only on the days heís not on the DL. As a fan of the Nats I hope those are few, but as a fantasy baseball player I have to go with the percentages. As a side note, both Logan Morrison and Yonder Alonso were also available in that first month free agent draft so itís not as if RZ was the only big bat to be overlooked in March.

 

So if I didnít protect Goldschmidt or Zimmerman, who was I going to keep at the first base position? It was imperative I kept someone at first because there would not be many high end players available. Encarnacion, Votto, Freeman, Rizzo, Myers, Abreu, Bell, Gallo, Hosmer, Bour, Thames, Duda, Smoak and Bellinger were at very acceptable keeper salaries so likely unavailable. Of the premier first baseman, only Goldschmidt and Miguel Cabrera were likely to be returned to free agency for the November auction. This is where the trade came in. With Edwin Encarnacion, I acquired a player who is eligible at first base, consistently posts an on base around .370 and has averaged 38 homers a season for the last six seasons. Pro-rate his injured 2014 campaign to what he normally plays and he averages 40 homers per 162 games. He is a power hitter who definitely was not the product of the juiced ball. In addition, his walk rate improved significantly with only a small concession to strikeout rate. However, Iím not so sure that his strikeout rate didnít actually improve. The bulk of his whiffitude came in April when he got out of the gate very slowly. Iím not sure what the reasons were for the rough start - perhaps he was trying to impress his new team mates or maybe trying to justify his shiny new contract Ė but either way, once he got settled he was back to being Edwin Encarnacion. In fact, after the All-Star break his strikeout rate was lower than his walk rate. So while his overall season numbers indicate that he had some deterioration in his zone contact rate and swinging strikeout rate, thereís not a granular enough breakdown of the data available to discount the notion that it could have been due to one really bad month. Everything else seems to indicate that he was actually a better hitter by the end of the regular season.Now consider that next yearís Cleveland team will likely have a healthy Michael Brantley and Bradley Zimmer batting around him, with possibly a full season with Jay Bruce, so the RBI and run scoring opportunities should be even more plentiful. And his XFL salary was a manageable $28.

 

Just for fairness sake I applied the same Statcast test to Encarnacion and found that even though he didnít hit the ball quite as hard in 2017, it travelled farther, which is surprising information considering he switched venues from a temperature-controlled launching pad in Toronto to the cold pitchers haven in Cleveland.

 

Year†††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Exit Velocity††††††††††††††† Barrels per PA†††††††††††† Average distance BaB

2017††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 89.2†††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 6.6†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 195 ft

2016††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 90.9†††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 8.3†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 189 ft

2015††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 90.2†††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 7.7†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 186 ft

 

This also happened despite a trend toward going the other way with pitches, which is unusual for a power hitter. Usually as power-hitters grow older they become more pull-conscious. Regardless, given that E3ís walk rate improved, and after an abysmal April his strikeout rate significantly improved Iím more confident in his ability to produce at the same level than I am for Goldschmidt.

 

Just for grins, these are Giancarlo Stantonís numbers:

 

Year†††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Exit Velocity††††††††††††††† Barrels per PA†††††††††††† Average distance BaB

2017††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 91.9†††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 11.0†††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 183 ft

2016††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 93.9†††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 9.4†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 189 ft

2015††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 95.9†††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 14.2†††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 222 ft

 

His 2015 and 2016 seasons were abbreviated by injuries. I guess this only further confirms the suspicion that those injuries cost the fans a chance to see a couple 60-home run seasons.

 

But I digressÖ so the trade came down to trading a pitcher I couldnít use for a hitter I really needed. Both Encarnacion and Verlander are 34 years old. Neither is showing much wear and both are in good situations to continue their success. In the end analysis, it was a really good deal for both clubs.

 

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