I may or may not have been wrong to put the front office on the hot seat last month, but as time goes by it’s becoming harder for me to argue that I wasn’t wrong about Jason Vargas. Despite not calling one of the best pitchers’ parks in baseball home for the first time since 2007, Vargas is doing what he always does: give up about a hit an inning and a home run every nine innings, and make up for striking out a below-average number of hitters with very good command. His FIP this year, which calculates his expected ERA based on his walks, strikeouts, and homers allowed, is 4.10. Last year, it was 4.09. In 2011, it was 4.08.
But his ERA this year is the best of his career at 3.31, and it’s not close – his previous career high was 3.78. Some of that is luck – batters are hitting .232 with men on base compared to .277 with no one on – but most of that is defense. Nine pitchers have thrown 35 or more innings for the Royals this year, and all nine have a lower ERA than FIP. As a team, the Royals are a lowly 10th in the AL in strikeouts, 7th in homers, and 5th in walks – but rank 3rd in fewest runs allowed. It can’t be emphasized enough – so much of the credit given to the Royals’ pitching staff is actually owed to their defense.
Specifically, their outfield defense. With the standard caveat that defensive numbers are unreliable and half a season is a small sample size, here are the players who have saved the most runs defensively in the AL this season according to Baseball Info Solutions’ Defensive Runs Saved metric:
1. Josh Donaldson 17
2. Alex Gordon 17
3. Lorenzo Cain 15
4. Jackie Bradley 12
5. Jarrod Dyson 12
6. Leonys Martin 12
Keep in mind, Dyson has played less than 400 innings in the field, not even 50% of the games the Royals have played this year. You can make a compelling case that the Royals have the three best defensive outfielders in the league.
This raises a number of issues – like why the hell, exactly, are the Royals screwing around with Raul Ibanez – but for purposes of this column, it’s a reminder that the Royals’ rotation isn’t nearly as good as it looks. And that’s okay, because while the rotation isn’t great, it is perfectly designed to play to the Royals’ strengths. The Royals play in a ballpark that takes away home runs, and they have an outfield that takes away doubles and triples. That’s a setup perfect for a flyball pitcher, and Vargas is just such a beast – his career groundball rate of 37.5% is significantly lower than the league average of around 43-44%.
So while Vargas isn’t as good as he looks, 1) he’s still roughly a league-average pitcher and 2) his pitching style is perfectly catered to the Royals’ strengths. Which is pretty much exactly what the Royals claimed when they signed him. We’re only half a season into a four-year contract, and there’s still plenty of time for things to go wrong. But for now, this looks like a shrewd move by the Royals, and my criticisms of the signing look to be in error.
(Having said that…how good would Phil Hughes look in the Royals’ rotation right now? Hughes has a higher ERA (3.92) than Vargas, because he’s pitching in front of a defense that’s nearly as bad as the Royals’ defense is good. But his FIP is 2.62, thanks to a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 10-to-1 (!). He is quietly one of the breakthrough players in the major leagues this year; if he was pitching in front of the Royals’ defense, he’d probably be an All-Star. If I was wrong to think that signing Vargas was a bad idea, I wasn’t wrong to think that signing Hughes was a better idea.)
Thanks to Vargas, and thanks to the Royals finally developing two quality starters in Ventura and Duffy after not developing even one in the previous eight years, the rotation is in good shape overall. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t use an upgrade, because after getting pounded for 14 runs in 8 innings in his last two starts, Jeremy Guthrie has a 4.56 ERA. With this defense, that’s unacceptable. I expect him to do better in the second half – Guthrie is actually pitching better than he did last year, with a higher strikeout rate and the same rate of walks and homers. But last year he was gifted with an incredible and unsustainable split between runners on base and the bases empty. As much I want to #EmbraceTheLuck, the thing about luck is that it usually ends. Guthrie’s not a bad pitcher, and he’s easy to root for, but if the Royals want to contend, they need better from their fifth starter.
And then there’s James Shields. I know some people don’t want to face the uncomfortable fact that if he were pitching as well as he was expected to pitch, the Royals might well be leading the Wild Card race right now. But he’s not. His 3.65 ERA isn’t terrible, albeit not nearly an ERA worthy of an ace. But Shields’ ERA is deceiving, because he’s allowed nearly as many unearned runs (12) as the rest of the pitching staff combined (15). There’s plenty of evidence that the distinction between earned and unearned runs in modern baseball is pointless and silly; Michael Wolverton’s article originally published 10 years ago remains relevant today.
Factor in those unearned runs, and Shields has allowed 4.48 runs per nine innings – in front of the best defense in the league. (And if it doesn’t make sense why we give Shields credit for a good defense here but don’t cut him slack when the defense makes errors behind him – it’s because there’s no difference between, say, Alcides Escobar booting a groundball for an error and Escobar being unable to reach that ball before it goes into left field. When the Royals aren’t making errors, they’re getting to more balls than any other team in the league. For whatever reason, Shields is allowing more runs to score after an error than anyone else on the team.)
This is why Baseball Reference credits Shields with the grand total of 0.6 WAR this season. (By comparison, Kelvin Herrera has 1.0 WAR despite pitching just 39 innings.) Meanwhile, in Tampa Bay…you know I had to go there…Jake Odorizzi has a higher ERA (4.01) than Shields, but has allowed just one unearned run all year. And the Rays’ defense isn’t nearly as strong as it used to be. Baseball Reference credits Odorizzi with 1.0 WAR.
Yeah, Baseball Reference thinks Odorizzi has had a better season – despite pitching 30 fewer innings – than James Shields. You might recall I wrote this in my Grantland column immediately after The Trade, in one of my rare lucid moments that wasn’t blinded by rage: “And if the Royals traded six-plus years of Wil Myers for seven combined years of control of Shields and Davis, this would almost be a fair deal…Ah, but the Royals also threw in three other prospects!”
And that’s the rub. Sure, Myers hit poorly for two months this year and then hurt his wrist. If the Royals had traded Myers for Shields and Davis straight up, you could make a strong case that the trade made the Royals a significantly better team in 2014, and that’s enough to justify it.
But they didn’t. They gave up Jake Odorizzi, who – by at least one measure – is outpitching James Shields. And is making the major league minimum. And is under contract for the next five years.
Here, let’s draw up a chart comparing what the Royals acquired and what they traded away. Start with 2013.
Acquired: James Shields (4.1 bWAR), Wade Davis (-2.1 bWAR), Elliot Johnson (0.7 bWAR)
Total value acquired: 2.7 bWAR
Traded Away: Wil Myers (1.9 bWAR), Jake Odorizzi (0.3 bWAR), Mike Montgomery (DNP), Patrick Leonard (DNP)
Total value lost: 2.2 bWAR
By this measurement, the Royals gained a grand total of a half-win in 2013…and spent roughly $12 million in extra salaries to do so.
Acquired: James Shields (0.6 bWAR), Wade Davis (2.0 bWAR)
Traded Away: Wil Myers (-0.7 bWAR), Jake Odorizzi (1.0 bWAR)
(By the way, how bad was Wade Davis last year? So bad that even accounting for his performance this year, he is still below replacement value overall with the Royals.)
Seems like a big gap – the Royals picked up 2.6 bWAR and traded away 0.3 bWAR. But wait! We have to account for the fact that in order to fill the void in right field caused by Myers’ departure, the Royals traded Will Smith for Norichika Aoki.
Acquired: James Shields (0.6 bWAR), Wade Davis (2.0 bWAR), Norichika Aoki (-0.7 bWAR) = 1.9 bWAR
Traded Away: Wil Myers (-0.7 bWAR), Jake Odorizzi (1.0 bWAR), Will Smith (0.5 bWAR) = 0.8 bWAR
So far this season, the Royals have picked up about one extra win because of the trade – and spent roughly $19 million in extra salaries to do so. Even if you factor the Aoki/Smith deal separately, the Royals have spent an extra $17-18 million to pick up 2.3 additional bWAR. That’s higher than the market rate for wins if the Royals had just signed a free agent instead.
And next year, while the Royals will have Wade Davis on a $7 million option, and a draft pick for Shields, they will have lost Myers, Odorizzi, and Smith, all of whom will be making around the major league minimum again in 2015. And again in 2016. Oh, and Mike Montgomery, who’s having his best season in the minors since 2010, and Leonard, who’s hitting .288/.375/.489 as a 21-year-old in high-A ball.
And keep in mind that while I like to use Baseball Reference’s WAR stat because it’s convenient to use, if I had switched to Fangraphs’ WAR metric – which takes into account not just runs allowed but a pitcher’s peripherals – the results wouldn’t have changed much. Shields looks much better by fWAR…but so does Odorizzi, who has struck out 116 batters in 101 innings this year. That would be the highest strikeout rate in Royals history for anyone with 90 or more innings.
The Royals claim that Shields adds incalculable value in the clubhouse, and I agree. I agree that he adds value, and I agree that we can’t calculate it. Shields may indeed deserve tremendous credit for Danny Duffy’s turnaround, if his example has helped Duffy realize the value of harnessing his emotions on the mound and not losing his cool. It’s also possible that Shields deserves only a small amount of credit, and the true credit goes to that outfield defense, as Duffy is even more of a flyball pitcher than Vargas (career groundball rate of 35.7%). Maybe Duffy has realized that if he pitches to contact, Gordon and Cain and Dyson will run it down, and that’s why his walk rate is more than a third lower than it was prior to this season.
But to justify The Trade, you pretty much have to hang your hat on the notion that Shields is single-handedly the reason why Duffy and Ventura are two of the best young starters in the league this year, because you can’t justify it with his performance on the mound. Now if Shields goes into Anaheim on the final Monday of September and shoves it for seven innings against Mike Trout and Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, and Wade Davis then comes in and overpowers the Angels in the eighth, and the Royals win the winner-take-all Wild Card game…well, that victory alone may justify anything and everything. But right now, I remain about as convinced that it was a bad trade as I was 19 months ago. If the Royals do make the playoffs this year, they probably would have made the playoffs had they not made the trade. And if they don’t make the playoffs next year – or in 2016, or 2017, or 2018, or 2019 – they might well have made the playoffs had they not made the trade.
Getting back to 2014, the question is whether the Royals would be best served by making a trade for a starting pitcher. I’m of the opinion that any trade which makes the Royals a better team this season has to be explored, but as we saw on Sunday, the Royals don’t have to be desperate here. Bruce Chen stepped in for Jason Vargas and was solid if not spectacular, and the Royals won. This shouldn’t have been a surprise despite Chen’s lofty ERA; he is the one exception to the ERA-is-better-than-FIP rule this year. He actually has a lower FIP (3.14) than Vargas, but has a 6.46 ERA thanks to a ridiculous .402 BABIP. That’s a fluke; he’s pitched all of 31 innings this year, and I remain confident in his ability to be the perfect swingman, capable of filling whatever role the Royals need him for competently.
The Royals have what every contender needs: six viable options for their starting rotation. As we saw when Aaron Brooks was called up, they sure as hell don’t have seven. And only four of those starters are guys you really want to see on the marquee in September. But with Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel off the market, and a dozen teams looking at David Price and Cole Hamels and every other halfway-decent starting pitcher on the market, I fear that the cost of upgrading the rotation is simply too steep for the Royals to pay. But I wouldn’t particularly upset if, in the next two weeks, they find a way to prove me wrong.