We’re going to have to start calling this an Arizona three-way. Arizona Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers is making too much a habit of it. He keeps wading into complex three-party transactions, and while the motivation of each of the other two is always clear before it’s over, it never seems like the Diamondbacks come away with real satisfaction. When Towers deal Adam Eaton and Tyler Skaggs for Mark Trumbo and two low-level prospects on Tuesday, that was truer than ever.
Trumbo has terrific power, and Towers felt his team needed that. It’s not hard to see why a team would want a player who has cracked 95 home runs in three seasons and owns a .219 career isolated power (ISO; slugging average minus batting average, basically extra bases per at-bat). Those are just the raw numbers, too: Trumbo has played in a pitchers’ park for his whole career thus far, and in a division made up mostly of other pitchers’ parks.
On the other hand, Trumbo also has a .299 career on-base percentage. He makes outs 70 percent of the times he comes to bat. He’s a free swinger who misses on a lot of those swings. His walk rate has crept up over his career, from atrocious to merely below-average, but his strikeout rate has soared: 20.9 percent as a rookie in 2011, 26.1 percent in 2012 and 27.1 percent this season. When you walk so little and strike out so much, it takes very well-rounded other skills to maintain a solid OBP. Trumbo doesn’t have them. Power is his only tool.
Trumbo is arbitration-eligible for the first time this winter, and while that poor OBP (and the fact that he’s a defensive project, at best, anywhere but first base) might dampen his value, the gaudy power numbers (he hit 34 homers and drove in 100 in 2013) will inflate it. Arbitration is an imperfect process, overseen by lawyers, not baseball analysts, and Trumbo is exactly the archetype of a player who gets overpaid. The Diamondbacks have the payroll space to accommodate him, though. That’s not a major issue.
What is a major issue is what Arizona has done to its current roster in order to fit in Trumbo. They traded Adam Eaton, who was slated to finally take over their starting center-field job in 2014. Eaton is the opposite of Trumbo. He hits for virtually no power, but he draws walks, runs well and defends center field more than adequately. He’s two years further from free agency than Trumbo, not that that even needs to matter that much. Eaton is as good a player as Trumbo; he just derives his value very, very differently.
As an aside, we should address one of the most commonly repeated statements of the past year in baseball, an appalling falsehood. It’s the notion that right-handed power hitters, like Trumbo, are quite rare in the game today, and thus, that they are more valuable.
That truism, proffered as rationale for moves like these from sources as disparate as Joe Sheehan and Towers himself, fails tests of both empirical truth and simple logic. Firstly, right-handed batters aren’t struggling, for power or in any other regard. The 2012 season saw the strongest right-handed batters, relative to lefties, since 1969. The 2013 campaign was less thrilling, but right-handers still had their 14th-highest OPS+ since that same year. Lefties had their 10th-lowest. Right-handed power was down slightly by ISO, lower than any season since the strike, but that doesn’t change the fact that righty batters hit as well as ever over the past two seasons, relative to their left-handed counterparts.
We’re back at the same fallacy, that power is an inherently superior source of value to others. Maybe righties do hit for less power than they once did, but that doesn’t make Mark Trumbo more valuable than Adam Eaton. It makes him more rare, but not more valuable.
Yet, because of the perceived difference in the value of their skill sets (which contradicts reality), the Diamondbacks had to pay a substantial price in order to make the non-upgrade to Trumbo. That price, specifically, was Tyler Skaggs, once one of the most heralded pitching prospects in the game. He had a rough 2013 that included a velocity drop, but as a lefty with a plus curveball and good control, he still has major upside. Skaggs might have been a strong starting rotation candidate for the Diamondbacks come spring, or he may have been merely waiting in Reno for an injury to save him, but in either case, Arizona voluntarily thinned its rotation in order to make the lateral move from Trumbo to Eaton.
The Diamondbacks traded a much, much better version of Trumbo last winter, in the person of Justin Upton, finding fault with either his personality or his contact rate—it wasn’t perfectly clear at the time. It’s perfectly clear now, though. Acquiring Trumbo signals that Towers is fine with whiff-prone right-handed power hitters. He just wasn’t fine with Justin Upton. There are no African-Americans on the Diamondbacks’ 40-man roster, and while there’s not nearly sufficient proof to accuse the team of systematic racism, circumstantial evidence is piling up. A team that won the NL West in 2011 and was solid, on paper, in 2012 is now a 76-win team, hoping to benefit from Towers’ holistic vision and aggressive maneuvering. They’re in real trouble, and the reason is moves like this one.Next post: My (Heavily Annotated) (Surprisingly Sentimental) (Fake) 2014 National Baseball Hall of Fame Ballot
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