So I’ve cast my decision. If I’m wrong, I fully expect and welcome those of you who disagree with me now to rub it in my face. (After all, I’m sure I’ll do the same in reverse if I’m right.) Just know that if I’m wrong, no one will be happier to bear those criticisms and eat some crow as I will be.
I’ll even write these words right now, in the hopes that I can cut-and-paste them in ten months and say them with conviction:
“Dear Dayton Moore: I was wrong. You were right. You made the biggest gamble of your career last December, and I savaged you at the time, and it turns out your decision was brilliant. I was a fool. Please forgive me.
- Rany Jazayerli.”
I was at Kauffman Stadium this June when the Royals hosted the Mariners. They were the first-place Royals when that series started; this was before they fell eight games out of first, before they surged back into first – becoming just the second team in history to take over first place after being seven games behind twice in the same season – before they fell out of first place a second time and chased the Tigers the rest of the season. On my way out of the stadium, I bumped into Jin Wong, the Royals’ Director of Baseball Administration.
To Jin’s immense credit, he did not punch me square in the face. He didn’t even give me a wedgie, although he would have been completely within his rights to do so. He did ask me how I was doing.
“Well,” I told him, “I’m preparing myself for the possibility that I might have been very, very wrong about this team, and about The Trade.”
Jin just gave me a knowing smile and said, “Well, if you are, I hope you intend to write a long missive about it.” (Yes, he used the word “missive.”)
Here is that long missive. The short version of my apology ran in the Kansas City Star the morning before the Wild Card game. This is the unabridged version.
The opening quote comes from this article, the one I wrote in the aftermath of the Wil Myers-James Shields trade two Decembers ago. I had already written my emotional, angry piece for Grantland two weeks earlier; the follow-up article was my sober, rational response to the trade. I explained my opposition to the trade point by point. I made the case for why I believed that the trade was a huge mistake for the Royals, and that the odds they would regret the trade were substantially higher than the odds that they would be vindicated for making it. While acknowledging that the future was unknowable, I was willing to stake a pretty big chunk of my professional reputation that the Royals would live to rue the deal. I added the caveat I quoted above without any expectation that I would ever have to use it.
I am using it now. I was as wrong about The Trade as I have been about any piece of baseball analysis I have ever written. I am not alone in this regard; on the contrary, the overwhelming majority of the analytics world shared my opinion that The Trade was a terrible move for the Royals, even if they didn’t share my emotional investment in it. Other analysts, such as Dave Cameron here, have also acknowledged their mistake. I say this not to excuse or even defend myself, but simply to point out that my error in judging The Trade was not the result of a personal bias or a gut feeling or an overattachment to prospects, but the result of an adherence to principles which the analytical community widely shares, and which has served us extremely well over the years. We got this one wrong, but one mistake doesn’t invalidate our approach any more than Clayton Kershaw’s NLDS performance means he’s a bum. (Also, the non-analytic community didn’t like the trade much better. Most other front offices thought the Royals had gotten fleeced.)
But while it doesn’t invalidate our approach, it does mandate that we go back and figure out what we got wrong, in the same way the Dodgers are probably poring over video to see if they can figure out why the Cardinals beat Kershaw like a drum.
Before we figure out what we got wrong, we have to consider the possibility that maybe we did nothing wrong; maybe the analysis was sound and the Royals just got lucky. I know I heard from a lot of people who thought my apology the day of the Wild Card game was premature, and even after the World Series I heard from people who thought that, given how close the Royals were to losing the Wild Card game, the Royals don’t deserve all the credit they’re getting for making The Trade. If Jarrod Dyson gets thrown out trying to steal third in the ninth, the narrative is how the Royals made The Trade for a single playoff game, a game in which James Shields pitched poorly and was the losing pitcher, and they got eliminated before the LDS round even started.
I acknowledge that if that indeed had happened, the legacy of the trade would look far, far more ambiguous today. I acknowledge that the fact that I am writing this apology today owes itself to a sample size so small as to essentially be random – not just the Wild Card game, but the whole postseason is such a crapshoot that it’s not really fair to give any team additional credit for advancing to the World Series. All playoff teams have roughly an equal shot at a championship, and the Royals only had half a playoff spot to begin with. To credit The Trade for the AL pennant, and not just a 1-in-8 chance of winning the pennant, is to endow The Trade with powers it did not have. Powers that don’t exist.
But tempting as it might be to absolve myself of any responsibility by chalking it up to dumb luck, I ultimately have to reject this line of thinking. I have to reject this line of thinking because let’s say the opposite had occurred – that the Royals had won 86 games again, they finished a game behind the Mariners for the second Wild Card spot, and let’s say the Mariners had been the team that shocked everyone by winning the pennant. If the opposite had occurred, and the Royals themselves had tried to argue that they just got unlucky, that if they had just won another game or two they would have had the opportunity to go to the World Series just like the Mariners had: we would have savaged them. We would have mocked them, and accused them of refusing to accept the reality of what actually happened.
And we would have been fully in our rights to do so, because ultimately results matter. The Royals won the AL pennant. That flag flies forever. Were the Royals lucky to make it as far as they did? Sure they were. In a three-round format, every team that makes it to the World Series is lucky to some degree. And the Royals were lucky to make the playoffs even as a wild card team (particularly as a host of the Wild Card game), given that they won only 89 games – just last season, 89 wins would have been good for only the seventh-best record in the league.
But the point is that the Royals were good enough to put themselves in a position where a little luck could propel them to a special season. That’s what made the 28-year playoff drought so astounding: even a bad team should make the playoffs at least a few times in a 28-year stretch by sheer accident. (Ladies and gentlemen, I once again present to you: the 2007 Colorado Rockies.) The Royals were never good enough to benefit from a happy accident in previous years; if they had been, they would have won the AL Central twelve years ago. The 2003 Royals got every break it could have, but the team simply wasn’t good enough to take advantage of them. They were good enough in 2014. The happy accident got them by Oakland, and they took advantage by winning the pennant. History is written by the victors.
So as you read on, feel free to keep in mind that the Royals were a hair’s breadth away from not having any of this written; my short apology in the pages of the Star would have sufficed. But just as the Royals’ close shave in the Wild Card game doesn’t change the fact that they won it, the fact that these words were almost never written doesn’t change the fact that I’m writing them right now.
I opposed the trade for a number of reasons that overlayed each other to make what I thought was a formidable, and nearly impregnable, case against it. So it only stands to reason that I should find a number of reasons why I was wrong. Here’s my best shot.
1) Wil Myers might not be as good as I had thought. I originally didn’t intend for this item to be on the list, because it wasn’t definitively clear that Myers was a disappointment. Yes, he was terrible (.222/.294/.320) in 2014, but 1) that was in only 87 games; 2) 34 of those 87 games came after he returned from a broken wrist, and he was particularly awful (.213/.263/.268) in those games; and 3) he did, you know, win the AL Rookie of the Year in 2013. His stock has declined overall from where it was two years ago, but it actually increased in the first year of the trade. It’s not clear whether 2014’s sophomore slump is the sign of things to come, or whether like the last Royals outfielder to win Rookie of the Year honors – Carlos Beltran – it was just a dip in the road.
But as you probably know, Myers was traded last month to the San Diego Padres in a three-team trade, allowing everyone to proclaim that the Royals have officially won the trade. It’s a fair sentiment – Myers spent exactly as much time in a Rays uniform as James Shields spent in a Royals uniform – but an incomplete one. Obviously, the Padres still think very highly of Myers, or they wouldn’t have surrendered four prospects – including Trea Turner, the 13th pick in last year’s draft, or Joe Ross, the 25th pick in the 2011 draft, both very highly regarded – to get Myers and a couple of lesser prospects. It’s possible that the Rays, like the A’s did with Josh Donaldson a few weeks ago, simply saw an opportunity for arbitrage – that they could get more value for Wil Myers than they thought he was worth – and pulled the trigger.
It’s also possible that having seen Myers up close and personal for two years, they no longer want anything to do with him. His work ethic has come under fire since arriving in Tampa Bay, his defense is indifferent, and as they did with Delmon Young many years ago, they may have recognized that Myers isn’t going to live up to the hype and decided to cash out while they can.
I don’t know the answer to this. No one does. We’re going to have to see how this plays out. And frankly, of all the reasons on this list, this is the least important one, because as the Royals themselves said at the time of the trade, they didn’t make the trade to get rid of Wil Myers: they made the trade to get Shields and Davis, and they made the trade to go to the playoffs in 2013 or 2014. If Myers had stayed healthy in 2014 and hit as well for a full season as he had in 2013, it might make the trade look more balanced at the moment, but it wouldn’t undo the Royals’ justification for making the trade.
But I do think it’s worth acknowledging the possibility that, on top of everything else, the Royals traded Myers in part because despite all his talent and his minor league performance, they had legitimate concerns about whether he would live up to his status as a can’t-miss prospect. Maybe it was a hole in his swing that they picked up on; maybe he was uncoachable and lazy and they came to the conclusion that he would never make the adjustments necessary to succeed in the major leagues in the long term. If that was the case, and if going forward Myers fails to establish himself as an above-average everyday player, then the Royals will deserve even more credit for trading Myers close to the absolute peak of his value.
That’s not to say that, even if the Royals had legitimate concerns about Myers’ future, that his future is set in stone. Holes in a batter’s swing can be closed; players who aren’t committed to their careers can have a fire lit under their ass one day and re-dedicate themselves to success. And let’s not forget: while Myers has seen his stock drop in the last two years, Jake Odorizzi’s has seen his value rise, from potential #3 starter to actual #3 starter who struck out 174 batters in 168 innings this year. But if it turns out Myers doesn’t become a star, when at the time of the trade everyone thought he would become a star, then the team that hedged against his stardom deserves a substantial amount of credit.
The first rule of trading is to know the value of what you’re trading away before you figure out what you’re trading for. The Braves, from whence most of the Royals’ front office came, were legendary in their salad days for trading away dozens of well-regarded prospects who, with only a few exceptions (Adam Wainwright stands out), never lived up to their press clippings. If the Royals borrowed a page from the Braves’ playbook with Myers, this trade will look even better for them in a few years than it does now.
And if Myers wins an MVP award in the near future? I’ll forgive the Royals for trading him. Rays fans may not forgive their front office for doing the same.
2) James Shields was exactly what the Royals thought he would be. One of my biggest objections to the trade was that while many people were talking about the unpredictability of prospects, even one who was as major-league ready as Myers was, few people appreciated the unpredictability of pitchers, even one with as consistent a track record as Shields had. Pitchers get hurt, and pitchers who have thrown a ton of pitches in the past get hurt even more. To my mind, it was nearly as likely that Shields would either spend a lot of time on the DL or lose some velocity on his fastball – with a concomitant loss in effectiveness – in his two seasons with the Royals, as it was that Myers would be a bust in Tampa Bay.
And again, in the abstract I still think this was a very reasonable position to take. I’ve written this before, but if the Royals had made the exact same trade two winters ago, but for Justin Verlander instead of Shields, we would have thrown a party: Verlander led the AL in innings (238.1) and strikeouts (239) and ERA+ (161) in 2012. He had 5.5 bWAR, more than double Shields’ 2.7. He finished second in the AL Cy Young vote, a year after he won the Cy Young and the AL MVP. He was also a year younger than Shields.
And yet over the past two years Shields has outpitched Verlander. Verlander had a respectable 3.46 ERA in 2013, but this past season he had a 4.54 ERA and actually led the league in earned runs allowed. His strikeout rate dropped precipitously. The 5-year, $140 million extension he’s about to start already looks like a massive overpay. Verlander, at least, has stayed healthy, which is something you can’t say about fellow 2012 aces Cliff Lee (13 starts this year), or Matt Cain (4.00 ERA in 2013, 4.18 ERA in 15 starts in 2014), or C.C. Sabathia, who after a third-straight All-Star season in 2012 was lousy in 2013 and mostly absent in 2014. Even top-of-the-rotation starters from 2012 who have continued to pitch well, like Yu Darvish and Mat Latos, have missed significant time with injuries.
Shields didn’t miss significant time with injuries during his two years with the Royals. He didn’t miss any time. He didn’t miss a start. He led the majors in starts (34) in both 2013 and 2014. He led the AL in innings in 2013, and finished fourth in 2014 – second if you count the postseason. While the Royals talked up Shields’ effectiveness when they traded for him, they talked up his durability even more. For a 31-year-old pitcher with a ton of miles already on his arm, there was no guarantee that he would continue to be durable. But he was. He was exactly what the Royals said he would be: not a true #1 pitcher, perhaps, but a very good #2 starter who added value by the sheer number of innings he threw.
In the two years before the trade, Shields was worth 7.9 bWAR, which ranked him 17th in the majors. In the two years after the trade, Shields was worth 7.4 bWAR, which ranked him tied for 20th in the majors. But here’s the thing: of the 16 pitchers who were more valuable than him in the two years before the trade, just seven were also more valuable in the two years after the trade. Four of those seven are among the best pitchers in the world (Clayton Kershaw, Cole Hamels, Felix Hernandez, and Chris Sale), two are brilliant-when-healthy starters who narrowly exceeded Shields’ value but missed substantial time in one of those two years (Cliff Lee and Johnny Cueto), and the last is perhaps the game’s most underrated pitcher, Doug Fister. (David Price was essentially tied with Shields in bWAR the last two years.)
Besides Shields, five pitchers were worth between 7 and 8 bWAR between 2011 and 2012 combined: Matt Cain, Jordan Zimmermann, Mark Buehrle, Ian Kennedy, and Jeremy Hellickson. All but Buehrle were younger than Shields. Had the Royals traded for any of the five aside from Zimmermann – who would have been far more expensive than even Shields was – they would have been disappointed. It may seem obvious now that Shields was going to stay healthy and effective, but two years ago it certainly wasn’t obvious that he’d be a better bet than Cain (six straight years of 200+ innings; four straight years of ERAs below 3.20) or Kennedy (average of 208 innings with 3.55 ERA in Arizona from 2010-2012) or even Hellickson (3.06 career ERA; Rookie of the Year in 2011; Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year in 2010).
As soon as it was clear that the Royals wanted to trade for an elite starting pitcher in the winter of 2012-2013, they appeared to be homing in on James Shields. (It’s telling that the other guy they were most rumored to be interested in, Jon Lester, also didn’t miss a start these last two years, and was even more effective, with 7.6 bWAR the last two years.) The Royals came to the internal conclusion that, despite the inherent risk with starting pitchers, and despite there being younger, more effective starting pitchers available elsewhere, James Shields was their guy.
For two years, he was their guy. He was, for the most part, The Guy. He didn’t always live up to his moniker of Big Game James, and he hit a rough patch in October, 2014, but he was an innings eater at his worst, and a #1 starter at his best. He always took the ball. Given who the Royals had to turn to this season when they needed an emergency starter, the value of Shields always taking the ball can’t be overstated as a reason why the Royals made the playoffs this year.
I thought Shields was a risk. He was a risk; all players are. But the Royals evaluated that risk, and managed that risk, to perfection.
3) With few exceptions, the alternatives to James Shields on the market over the 2012-13 off-season were disappointing. This was certainly part of the crux of my frustration with the trade: that the Royals didn’t just give up talent to acquire Shields, but they gave up a lot of money as well – Shields made about $24 million over the last two years. If they had spent that money on a free agent pitcher, they could have gotten a decent starting pitcher, and still had Wil Myers. If they had spent the money that they gave Shields and Davis and the money they had to spend on replacements for Myers (Nori Aoki) and Odorizzi (Jason Vargas?) – they could have gotten someone just as good as Shields.
The free agent at the top of my list that off-season – since I assumed Zack Greinke was out of the question, for reasons both financial and personal – was Anibal Sanchez. And I’m comfortable saying that I was correct in that assessment. Sanchez led the AL in both ERA (2.57) and FIP (2.39) in 2013. Last year, his ERA rose to 3.43 and he only threw 126 innings, but he still had a good season. (Remember, the Tigers’ defense is almost as bad as the Royals’ defense is good.) Over the last two years he’s had more bWAR (8.7) than Shields (7.4). He ended up re-signing with the Tigers for 5 years, $80 million; he made $3.3 million more than Shields did in 2014, but of course if they had signed Sanchez they wouldn’t have had to spend money at the spots where Myers and Odorizzi were playing for the minimum.
It’s a fascinating what-if to ponder what would have happened if the Royals had signed Sanchez instead of trading for Shields. On the one hand, Sanchez has been better; on the other hand, Sanchez was much better in 2013, but Shields was a little better in 2014, when the Royals needed every win. Sanchez was better on a per-inning basis, but Shields threw 140 more innings. The Royals needed Shields’ durability more than Sanchez’s brilliance because they lacked any other rotation options, except they would have had Odorizzi to fill in. But then they wouldn’t have had Davis. Also, Aoki was better than Myers in 2014.
An honest assessment is that if the Royals had signed Sanchez instead of trading for Shields, they wouldn’t have made the playoffs in 2014 – but they might well have squeaked into the playoffs in 2013. With Sanchez out-pitching Shields, Myers winning Rookie of the Year honors, and anyone other than Wade Davis in the rotation, they might have made up the five games that separated them from the Rangers and Rays, the six games that separated them from the Indians, or even the seven games that separated them from the Sanchez-less Tigers.
It’s an interesting thought experiment, anyway. But even if I can legitimately claim that the Royals might have broken even had they signed Sanchez, pretty much every other option on the market turned out to be a disappointment.
There was Edwin Jackson, of course, and if I wasn’t nearly as high on him after the 2012 season as I was after the 2011 season, I still can’t deny that I thought he’d be a nice addition to the Royals’ rotation. My only defense is that the Cubs – who were so close to signing Sanchez that it was briefly reported in the news that they had – thought Jackson would be a nice addition to their rotation. If their goal was to get top-ten draft picks in 2014 and 2015, then mission accomplished. Jackson has been almost incomprehensibly bad the last two years, worth -3.6 bWAR. (Although after what Luke Hochevar did in 2013 and Wade Davis did in 2014, I’m not about to rule out that a move to the bullpen couldn’t work wonders for Jackson in 2015.)
But yeah, Jackson was a terrible idea. So was Shaun Marcum, although it turns out his arm was toast, something which MLB teams knew with a lot more certainty than you or I. (Marcum got just 1 year, $4 million from the Mets after averaging 173 innings with a 3.62 ERA the three previous years; he threw 78 innings with a 5.29 ERA for the Mets and hasn’t pitched in the majors since.) Brandon McCarthy was also somebody I really liked, and he signed a very reasonable two-year deal with Arizona. He was pretty terrible for three-quarters of that contract, until he was traded to the Yankees last July and was brilliant for two months (90 innings in just 14 starts; 2.89 ERA), and we learned that the Diamondbacks had basically prohibited him from using his cutter while he pitched for them. His failures in Arizona probably had more to do with Arizona than with him; the market certainly agreed, as the Dodgers signed him for 4 years and $48 million. Pitching in front of the Royals’ defense he could have been a sensation in 2014. But still: he wasn’t James Shields. Neither was Ryan Dempster, who after signing a two-year deal with the Red Sox had a disappointing 4.57 ERA in 2013 – he was shuttled off to a mop-up role for the postseason – and then pulled a Gil Meche and retired with a year left on his contract. No one the Royals could have signed that off-season pitched as well as Shields did in 2014.
The Royals were convinced that Shields was a better option than anyone on the free agent market. I thought they were wrong. I’m not 100% convinced today that they were right – Anibal Sanchez is a hell of a pitcher – but looking at their options from their perspective, where they needed someone they could rely on for 220 innings above all, they certainly weren’t wrong.
4) While I thought Wade Davis had considerable value, I thought he would have to stick in the rotation to really make a difference.
Davis made a difference in the rotation in 2013, but not in the way he wanted – his 5.32 ERA (in front of the game’s best defense) was good for -2.1 bWAR. When the Royals moved him to the bullpen last March, I thought it was not just the right move but the only move – but I also thought the move meant that Davis, like Shields, would leave Kansas City after the 2014 season. Sure, the Royals had a $7 million option on Davis for 2015, but what were the odds he’d be worth $7 million as a reliever?
How good was Davis in 2014? He was worth more bWAR (3.7) than Shields (3.3). He was worth more bWAR than anyone else on the pitching staff, in fact. Think about that – the most valuable pitcher on a team that went to Game 7 of the World Series was their eighth-inning set-up man. You don’t see that very often. But then you don’t see someone pitch as well as Davis did in 2014 very often.
Or possibly ever. Davis allowed exactly one run per nine innings in 2014, the lowest runs-per-nine figure (basically ERA with unearned runs counted) in baseball history for someone with 60 or more innings. The Royals lost just one game all season that they led after seven innings. (They won seven games that they trailed after seven.) I’d say his performance was kind of crucial.
Not only was Davis more brilliant as a reliever than anyone could have thought possible, his three club options for $7 million, $8 million, and $10 million – which looked useless a year ago – suddenly have considerable value. The Royals have chosen to keep him for now; I assume he’s the heir apparent to Greg Holland next year when Holland finally gets too expensive for the Royals to keep. But certainly they could trade Davis and recoup at least part of what they gave up to get him and Shields in the first place.
In my Grantland article two years ago, I wrote that “It’s unlikely that this trade will work out for the Royals, but if it does, Davis — not Shields — will be the key to the trade.” That wasn’t completely true, but it’s at least partially true – in 2014, at least, Shields and Davis were both keys to the team’s success. I assumed that Davis’ value would come from being a relatively cheap mid-rotation starter for several years. It turns out that he provided more value in 70 innings than I expected him to provide in 170.
The Royals got a little lucky here; after all, if Davis had just been mediocre in 2013 instead of awful, he would never have been moved to the bullpen in the first place. (And if Hochevar hadn’t blown out his elbow last spring, they still might have given Davis another shot to redeem himself.) But the fact remains that, at least in 2014, the Royals got at least as much value from Davis as they did from Shields. And when we look back years from now, we might well refer to this as the Wade Davis trade.
5) I thought that the Royals were too far away from contending in 2013 to make the additions of Shields and Davis worthwhile, wasting half of the Shields window.
The 2012 Royals went 72-90. Their three most-used starting pitchers were Bruce Chen, Luke Hochevar, and Luis Mendoza. Yuniesky Betancourt played in 57 games. Yes, the core of the lineup was here – eight of the 2014 Royals’ starting ten (the regular lineup + Jarrod Dyson) were on the team. But then so was Jeff Francoeur – who, thanks to the trade, was going to open 2013 as the Royals’ starting right fielder again.
I thought the Royals would be better in 2013 than they were in 2012. I also thought that they would need to improve by 20 games in one off-season in order to make the playoffs. That turned out to be correct, and they didn’t improve by 20 games. They did improve by 14 games, however, and three more games the year after that.
That wasn’t all that surprising; the Royals had a historic collection of young hitters who figured to get dramatically better. The shocking thing is that those hitters didn’t get better – at least not until October 2014 – but the Royals improved anyway.
They didn’t improve by as much as you would think simply by looking at their win-loss records. The Royals outscored their opponents by 47 runs in 2013, but by just 27 runs in 2014. They had the run differential of an 84-78 team last year. At least on paper, the Royals were a better team in 2013 than they were in 2014.
But the one thing run differential doesn’t appropriately account for is a kick-ass bullpen in high-leverage situations. In 2013, the Royals’ bullpen had a 2.55 ERA, the lowest in the AL in over two decades. But it was actually too good a bullpen – the Royals won one fewer game in 2013 than their run differential suggested. It’s great to have four or five really good relievers – but when nine different pitchers relieve 15 or more times and every one of them has an ERA under 4, it’s kind of overkill. It’s nice to have your mop-up man throw goose eggs when you’re down 10-3, but it doesn’t actually help you win games.
The Royals were properly imbalanced in 2014; their overall bullpen ERA rose to 3.27, but that’s because their mop-up men sucked, while their top three guys formed arguably the most effective bullpen trio in major league history. That, in a nutshell, is how a team that outscores its opponents by one run per week can win 89 games: the Royals were 4-10 in games decided by seven runs or more, but 43-36 in games decided by one or two runs.
I was right that the Royals wouldn’t be good enough in 2013 for the trade to payoff. But the trade didn’t have to pay off twice to make it worthwhile; it only had to pay off once. And it did, thanks to the other moves that Dayton Moore made both before and after The Trade. Consider that I wrote this immediately after the 2012 World Series, after the Royals had claimed Chris Volstad on waivers: “Six years after Dayton Moore was hired, this is the rotation that the Royals would open the season with if the season began today: Luke Hochevar, Bruce Chen, Luis Mendoza, Chris Volstad, and either Jake Odorizzi or Will Smith.” With a rotation like that, was it any wonder I was pessimistic that trading for Shields and Davis would be enough?
As savvy as the Shields/Davis acquisitions might have been, they would have been for naught were it not for the other new guys in the rotation. The Royals re-signed Jeremy Guthrie, and while I’m sure they were as astounded as everyone else that two years later he would start Game 7 of the World Series, he solidified a huge hole in the rotation. They traded for Ervin Santana that winter, and when Santana left as a free agent they signed Jason Vargas, and both pitchers have been worth every penny so far. And after failing to develop even one internal prospect in their first six years, the Royals came through with both Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura in 2014. They also used their pitching depth to find a one-year solution in right field, trading Will Smith to Milwaukee for Nori Aoki, and then spent money on Omar Infante to fill their gaping hole at second base.
Not winning in 2013 gave the Royals a very narrow margin for error: win in 2014, or else. To their credit, they did exactly that.
6) I did not give James Shields proper credit for his ability to influence the other members of his pitching staff.
This one is merely speculative, but given how much emphasis the Royals placed on Shields’ abilities as a leader in the clubhouse, and as a role model for his fellow pitchers, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out what I wrote two paragraphs ago: after failing to develop even one internal prospect in their first six years, the Royals came through with both Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura in 2014.
I don’t think Shields had anything substantial to do with Ventura; when you throw 99 mph as a starting pitcher, you’re probably going to succeed no matter who the staff ace is. But Duffy came into 2014 as a huge wild card, in my opinion the biggest wild card on the entire roster. He had terrific stuff, but also had huge command issues, and had a reputation for being overly amped on the mound and having difficulty keeping his emotions in check.
And on more than one occasion in 2014 Duffy credited Shields with helping him with this very issue, as Shields also learned to channel his emotions and competitiveness on the mound in a constructive manner.
“(Shields) taught me a lot about how to use my emotions,” Duffy said. “He said that you can try to be more stone-faced and stoic, but don’t lose your edge. He’s the one who told me not to lose those emotions, but just channel them better to help you.
“He just said, ‘Be you. If you’re mad or whatever, don’t change. Be you. But don’t let it affect you in a bad way.’”
Maybe Duffy would have broken out anyway. But as recently as nine months ago Duffy’s future was so cloudy that, nearly three years after he made his major-league debut, he started the 2014 season in the minors. By season’s end, he had thrown 149 innings in the majors with a 2.53 ERA; that would have ranked fifth in the AL had he thrown the additional 13 innings he needed to qualify. Duffy, in fact, was second on the staff in bWAR (3.5), behind only Davis…and ahead of Shields.
Does he have that breakout season without Shields as a teammate? Quite possibly, sure. The biggest difference between Duffy in 2014 and Duffy the three previous seasons was that his walk rate dropped significantly; he’d hardly be the first hard-throwing left-hander to tame his stuff at age 25. Maybe he would have done that on his own. This is one of those areas where, as an outsider, I can’t offer you any particular insight. I am unqualified to assess Shields’ impact on Duffy’s brilliance last season. But if Shields’ abilities as a staff leader and mentor to younger pitchers was a significant part of his allure to the Royals, it would be awfully coincidental if he had no impact at all and Duffy just happened to have a best-case-scenario season.
Maybe 2014 was a flash in the pan for Duffy, who had tremendous BABIP luck, and maybe he never has success on this level ever again. But that doesn’t change the fact that in 2014, with Shields as his teammate, Duffy had a fantastic season. One without which the Royals never would have sniffed the playoffs, let alone the pennant. And if it turns out that 2014 was not a fluke, and Duffy continues to be an above-average starting pitcher going forward, Shields may continue to pay dividends for the Royals for years after he has moved on.
7) I thought that by 2014, the difference between Shields/Davis and Myers/Odorizzi would be very small, and even if the Royals made the playoffs, the odds that they would make the playoffs by a margin small enough to make the trade decisive were even smaller.
If I were to distill the essence of my argument against the trade into a single sentence, it would have been this: “While the trade will make the Royals a little better in 2013, they’re still too far away from contention for it to matter, and with another year of development for Myers and Odorizzi, by 2014 they’ll be about as good as Shields and Davis for a lot less money.”
That argument turned out to be correct all the way up until the second comma. Thanks to Davis’ horrible season as a starting pitcher, in 2013 Myers and Odorizzi actually combined for more bWAR (2.2) than Shields and Davis (2.0). (Although Elliot Johnson contributed 0.7 bWAR, entirely on defense, which is enough to tip the scales just ever so slightly in favor of the new guys.)
But in 2014 it was Myers who cratered, and Davis who turned things around as a reliever – Davis was nearly six wins more valuable in 2014 than in 2013. Combined, Davis and Shields were worth 7.0 bWAR in 2014. Myers (who was below replacement level) and Odorizzi combined for 0.3 bWAR. True, the Royals paid Shields and Davis $18.3 million, while Myers and Odorizzi got $1 million combined. But you’re not going to find 6.7 Wins Above Replacement on the open market for $17.3 million. At the going rate, 6.7 bWAR is worth more than $40 million.
Young players go through development pangs; the player who arrives in the majors as a fully-formed star without any adjustments needing to be made, like Albert Pujols or Evan Longoria or Ryan Braun, is a very rare thing. Maybe I overestimated the odds that Myers would not only succeed in the majors, but continue succeeding in the majors after he had established himself. Or maybe not; maybe he just got hurt. In any case, the reason why the trade seems so lopsided in 2014 is less because Myers and Odorizzi performed so badly than because Shields and Davis performed so well.
A lesser but still significant reason on my list of arguments against the trade was that even if the Royals made the playoffs before Shields became a free agent, it’s possible that they would have made the playoffs anyway. Just because a team has been bad for a long time doesn’t mean that their improvement will be gradual – sometimes a young team gels all at once, and they go from 71-91 to 95-67, like the 2006 Tigers did, or they go from 66-96 to 97-65, like the 2008 Rays did, or they go from 65-97 to 94-68, like the 1991 Braves did.
It would have felt a little tacky to basically penalize the Royals for playing so well that they didn’t need to make the trade, but that was still a possibility. It’s not exactly a worst-case scenario, but if a team mortgages its future to win three extra games, and they wind up winning their division by six games, did they really need to mortgage their future?
For the trade to really pay dividends, the Royals had to thread a needle: they needed to make the playoffs, but they needed to not make the playoffs by too large a margin. Forgive me that I can’t find the quote, but I know Moore has said more than once something to the effect of, “when we do make the playoffs, it will be by three games or less,” making the point that the team needed to focus on the little things because their margin for error would be very small.
Well call him Prophet Dayton, because damned if he wasn’t right about 2014. And damned if the difference between Shields/Davis and Myers/Odorizzi in 2014 wasn’t the difference between finishing around .500 and having a season we’ll all remember for a lifetime.
8) I put too much weight on Dayton Moore’s track record in judging the trade.
Let’s be frank: if Billy Beane had made the exact same trade that Dayton Moore had made, we – by “we” I mean not just the analytic community, but even more old-school baseball media – wouldn’t have been nearly so quick to condemn him for it. We know this to be the case because Billy Beane did make the exact same trade, more or less, last July. And at least at first, the reaction wasn’t nearly as negative as the reaction to the Shields/Davis trade. At the very beginning, it wasn’t negative at all. It wasn’t until the following morning that I remember someone on Twitter – Matt Meyers, now of MLB.com – asking the question, “Is it me, or did Billy Beane just make basically the same trade that Dayton Moore got eviscerated for 15 months ago?”
It wasn’t basically the same trade. It was worse.
In case you’ve forgotten, on the 4th of July the A’s traded Addison Russell, Billy McKinney, and Dan Straily to the Chicago Cubs for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel.
Addison Russell, like Wil Myers, was one of the top five prospects in the game at the time he was traded. When people throw Barry Larkin comparisons on a prospect, you take notice. McKinney is probably not quite at the level Odorizzi was as a prospect – I don’t think he’ll be a Top-100 prospect this winter, as Odorizzi was – but he was the A’s first-round pick in 2013, and was hitting .241/.330/.400 in high-A ball as 19-year-old at the time of the trade (and hit .301/.390/.432 after the trade). Dan Straily was banished to the minors for most of 2014 but threw 152 innings with a 3.96 ERA for the A’s in 2013. The overall package is probably less than the Myers/Odorizzi/Montgomery/Leonard package the Royals gave up, but it’s, like, 95% of the talent.
And the A’s didn’t get 95% of the return. Whereas the Royals got two years of Shields and up to five years of Davis, the A’s got 1.5 years of Jeff Samardzija and 0.5 years of Jason Hammel. I think Samardzija and Shields are roughly comparable pitchers in terms of quality at the moment they were traded – Samardzija didn’t have Shields’ track record, but he was younger and was in the midst of his best season. Hammel, though, had signed a one-year deal with the Cubs after finishing 2013 with a 4.97 ERA for the Orioles. He was a shrewd buy-low candidate – his peripheral numbers suggested he was a better pitcher than that – and indeed he had a 2.98 ERA in 17 starts for the Cubs at the time of the trade. But still: they were getting his services for three months.
The A’s gave up 95% as much talent as the Royals surrendered, and in return got back two pitchers with roughly as much present value but who were under contract for just half as long. I’d say the A’s got 70% as much talent in return – Samardzija was the real prize, and he was the one under contract for 2015 – but still, there’s no way to make the case that the A’s got a better return on their prospects than the Royals did.
The defense of the trade from the A’s perspective was that the A’s were a playoff-caliber team, and so the trade was guaranteed to impact their postseason chances, both in terms of making the playoffs and going deep into the playoffs. And Samardzija and Hammel performed about as well as expected – Hammel was a disappointment with a 4.26 ERA after the trade, but Shark threw 112 innings in 16 starts with a 3.14 ERA. But the A’s as a team went into the tank, even after trading Yoenis Cespedes for Jon Lester, who pitched brilliantly after the trade.
As if the Wild Card Game didn’t have enough impact on both franchises already, it had a massive impact on the legacy of both trades. If the A’s had won, and they had gone to the ALDS with a rotation fronted by Lester, Samardzija, and Sonny Gray, then Addison Russell might be seen as a reasonable price to pay for Beane’s first pennant. If the Royals had lost, I wouldn’t be 7400 words deep into an apology. But the Royals won and the A’s lost, and it was Hammel who was walking off the mound when Salvador Perez got mobbed.
The point isn’t that Beane made a terrible trade while Moore made a brilliant one. The point is that both GMs made huge, but calculated gambles. I would argue, though, that Moore got a better return on his haul of prospects than Beane got on his. And no one would argue that Moore didn’t get better results. My reaction to the trade, and the reaction of many other people, was influenced by the fact that it was Dayton Moore making it.
And that’s okay. Everyone has a history; everyone has a reputation. Billy Beane had a track record that Dayton Moore didn’t. Beane had taken seven teams to the postseason; Moore hadn’t taken any. Beane had made trades in the past that seemed lopsided against him – who can forget Jeremy Giambi for John Mabry? – that worked out brilliantly. I was so irked by him trading Trevor Cahill for Jarrod Parker that I built a Grantland column around that trade – and even with Parker losing 2014 to Tommy John surgery, that trade is a big win for him.
So I think it’s only fair to say that Beane had earned himself the benefit of the doubt when he made his all-in trade. Moore had not. But the ghosts of previous moves may have clouded our judgment of the Shields/Davis trade. It was easy to assume the same man who had once traded for Yuniesky Betancourt, and before him Mike Jacobs, could not possibly get the better of the GM who had once traded impending free agent Aubrey Huff for a prospect named Ben Zobrist, who had sold high on Delmon Young after his rookie year for Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett, who had later traded Garza for a package of prospects that included Chris Archer and top prospect Hak-Ju Lee.
It’s very easy for us to write off a general manager after he makes a few bad moves, particularly if they come at the very beginning of his administration. The danger is if you then close your mind to the possibility that the GM might learn from his mistakes, or that he starts listening to other people in his front office, or even that he had very good reasons for making the moves that he did but that they just didn’t work out. I remember one of Kenny Williams’ first big moves as the White Sox GM was to trade Kip Wells and Josh Fogg to the Pirates for Todd Ritchie, a move which turned out to be as terrible as it looked. The problem was that many people in the analytic community wrote Williams off as being in over his head – right up until the moment the White Sox won the World Series four years later. All GM’s make dumb moves; no GM is dumb. Not even Ruben Amaro.
I acknowledge that I wear my emotions as a Royals fan on my sleeve. I admit that I find myself too close to the situation when the Royals make a move, and take it personally when they make a move I disagree with. I concede that, as a result, I have at times blurred the lines between “I disagree with this move” and “this is a dumb move”, between “this is a dumb move” and “our front office is dumb”.
Dayton Moore and the Royals’ front office are not dumb. They are not perfect; no team’s front office is. They continue to make decisions I don’t agree with – we’ll talk about Kendrys Morales some other time. But they are not dumb. They are not clueless. They are, in fact, quite capable of making a trade with the small-market darlings of baseball, a trade that was savaged by the analytics community and lampooned by most other front offices as well – and making out like bandits.
I did not sufficiently account for this possibility two years ago. I thought that by now Wil Myers might be a superstar. I thought that by now James Shields might be hurt, or a shell of the pitcher he once was. I thought that the Royals weren’t going to be good enough to make the playoffs in 2013 or 2014. I thought that the money they spent on Shields and Wade Davis could have been spent on other pitchers with similar results. I thought that the talk of Shields elevating the game of his teammates was hooey. I thought that Dayton Moore had made a trade out of desperation rather than a savvy attempt to sell high.
On every one of these points, I was at least partly wrong. On some of them, I was dead wrong.
I crossed paths with Jin Wong again on the upper concourse at Kauffman Stadium before Game 1 of the World Series. We were walking in opposite directions, but as soon as he saw me, he peeled off from the group he was walking with to greet me. He didn’t gloat. He didn’t have to. I told him, “I owe you guys a MASSIVE apology.”
This is my apology, and it is massive. (I believe it’s the longest column I’ve ever written, which is saying something.) I didn’t get a chance to apologize to Moore directly, though. I was tempted to when I saw him on the field before Game 7, but I decided that Moore had better things to do with his time before Game 7 of the World Series then listen to some no-name blogger say he was sorry.
But it’s the dead of winter now, so maybe he’ll have time to read this.
Dear Dayton Moore: I was wrong. You were right. You made the biggest gamble of your career two years ago, and I savaged you at the time, and it turns out your decision was brilliant. I was a fool. Please forgive me.
And please accept my thanks. 2014 was the most fun I’ve ever had as a sports fan.