The trade deadline has come and gone, and the Orioles have not traded Manny Machado or Dylan Bundy. Now we all have to live with ourselves.

Episode 11: Train Crossing

The Style: Ben and Sam share a laugh about whether the Orioles are obligated, now that it’s out there, to eventually get stupid and trade one of those players.

The Substance: Sam’s topic is the NL West, revisited. Essentially, after a couple of fairly significant deals, he wants to reevaluate and see whether their opinions from Episode 9 have changed. Ben wants to discuss reliever-to-starter transitions, in light of the news that Neftali Feliz is headed for Tommy John surgery.

Sam goes first, and notes that the Giants traded for Hunter Pence at the deadline, while the Dodgers shopped in the same market (namely, Phillies outfielders) and came up with Shane Victorino, and also bolstered their bullpen with Brandon League. With the race nearly a flat-footed tie, not only in the actual standings but in BP’s projected ones, he wants to know who Ben thinks made the higher-impact acquisition.

Ben stands by his earlier pick of the Giants to win, feeling that Pence provides a much-needed offensive upgrade. He goes so far as to say that the Giants need the offense he offers “more,” which, we’ll come back to that. In Ben’s view, nothing that happened separated or distinguished the teams, so he doesn’t have much reason to change his earlier pick. Sam gives the Dodgers the distinct advantage in the trade-deadline derby, feeling that the hole they will now fill with Victorino was more gaping than the one in which the Giants swapped out Nate Schierholtz for Pence. He’s unsure whether he still favors the Giants in the overall race, saying, “Waking up today might have been enough to change my mind.”

Neftali Feliz drives the other half of the conversation, as the Rangers closer-turned-starter tried to rehab his injured elbow but ended up needing Tommy John surgery—something the Rangers announced almost immediately after the deadline passed. Ben uses him as an entry point to a conversation about the handful of players who attempted to make the move from relief roles to the rotation in 2012. The list goes:

  • Daniel Bard
  • Aroldis Chapman
  • Aaron Crow
  • Neftali Feliz
  • Chris Sale

The short version of the story is: it hasn’t gone well. Both Chapman and Crow retreated to the bullpen in Spring Training, and Daniel Bard commenced a meltdown the moment he got his shot to start. Sale had some minor bumps and setbacks, but emerged as a star-level starter. Feliz is the lucky winner of the seemingly inevitable catastrophic injury. Sam recalls a theory that if one had three starting pitching prospects, the expectation should be that one would be good, one would be bad and one would get hurt. That seems to hold up with the young players who truly tried the move from relief to starting, as well. Ben simply posits that moving hurlers back and forth between the two roles seems to do more harm than good, and that there’s cause to question the viability of that solution going forward.

The Supplement: Hunter Pence had only a 90 OPS+ in 248 plate appearances with the Giants. In the middle of August, their best or second-best hitter, Melky Cabrera, was suspended for the remainder of the regular season (and more) for a positive test for elevated testosterone levels. Yet, this is what they did offensively, month-by-month:

Provided by View Original Table
Generated 1/11/2015.


Bizarrely, despite their big-ticket acquisition going bust and their surprise star going away, the Giants had a monstrous finishing kick at the plate. That gives the lie to Ben’s feeling that addressing the offense was critical for them, although he wasn’t wrong to posit that their offense looked very poor prior to acquiring Pence. This is really just an instruction in the level of variance baseball really tolerates, and a reminder never to assume that the league’s second- or third-worst offense can’t become its best for two months at a time. I think most people imagine that to be impossible, that a few weeks or a month might be explained by variance, but that a team shows its true skills through by the time 50 or so games are played. That’s not true, at least not as true as it appears.

As for Sam’s opinion that the Dodgers gained more than the Giants did in their deal, I think he’s right. Shane Victorino took over took over for a mixture of Juan Rivera, Jerry Hairston and Bobby Abreu in left field, and though he delivered only an 85 OPS+ through the end of the season, he added runs in the field, on the bases and in double-play avoidance, and was worth over a win in those two months. It was a good move the Dodgers made; they just couldn’t overcome the Giants’ hot streak.

I’ve used the thing about the three pitchers about 100 times since then. It’s not perfectly accurate, of course. It’s just a general heuristic. It makes great sense, though. The fact that it applied in this particular case is, of course, mostly meaningless, because this is just one data point. Sam mentioning it, though, leads me to draw a connection between the adjustment of changing roles and the adjustment of reaching the Majors as an ascending pitching prospect. It would require more digging to be any more certain, but it might be that those are adjustments of similar overall difficulty, which I think would somewhat violate our expectations. Role conversions are recommended as often as teaching struggling pitchers cutters, and maybe the people who make those recommendations (like the ones who think you can just learn a pitch by adding experience points, or something) are underselling the difficulty of that move.

Episode 12: Sam Walks to His Honda

The Style: For the first time, the introductory sound is not audio clip art. Instead, it’s Sam walking to his car, and a strange exchange wherein he drops a shovel for Ben’s benefit. Once the actual episode begins, it begins with Sam introducing Ben using Gore Vidal’s obituary. (Vidal died July 31, 2012.)

The Substance: Ben’s topic is players who turn down trades to contenders. Sam’s is Yu Darvish (and turns out to be something else, too).

Alfonso Soriano nixed a trade early in the negotiation phase prior to the deadline, telling the Cubs he didn’t want to go to San Francisco. Ryan Dempster blocked one to Atlanta, but later accepted a move to Texas. Carlos Lee not only rejected one trade while in Houston so as to land in Miami, but then vetoed one that would have sent him from Miami to the Yankees at the deadline. Ben wonders where Sam stands in the common debate over whether players who do this are committing some sort of faux pas.

Sam’s position is uncertainty, or at least reticence to judge. He doesn’t feel tremendous sympathy for any players who won’t move for a few months to chase a meaningful team accomplishment, but wants to allow for special circumstances. He lauds players for making real use of their contractual leverage, but is surprised how many players seem preoccupied with their geography. Ben, ever disdainful of media rhetoric that results in needless player needling, takes the position that there should be no blame to spread. However, he, too, finds it strange when that happens.

Yu Darvish turns out to be Sam’s way of bringing up the bright-line standard for playoff worthiness among starters. He quizzes Ben (the first time, I think, that the show takes this tack), running through pitchers and asking whether Ben would be comfortable slotting them into a playoff rotation. After naming eight or nine hurlers, they settle on a final line between 100 and 101 in ERA+—essentially, a few percent above average (ERA+ doesn’t distinguish between starters and relievers, so an average starter will have an ERA+ in the 96-97 range). It’s an interesting exercise.

Sam also mentions that Darvish, whose struggles and strikeouts are becoming a major story in his rookie year, has seen his performance tail off in each of the months he’s pitched in the Majors to date, from April through July. However, he doesn’t set much store by the apparent trend, and expresses confidence in Darvish to rebound.

The Supplement: My three-year-old son has a congenital heart defect. He’ll have the third and final open-heart surgery to resolve it (we hope) late this spring, or early in the summer. If I were ever asked to relocate, to leave behind the medical team who has followed him since before he was born, or to be more than perhaps 50 miles away from him for any significant period of time, it would be a complete non-starter. My family may one day move out of the Twin Cities metro area, where we moved when Emerson’s condition was diagnosed, but it will be on our own terms, with plenty of advance consideration. Any job that requires substantial travel or takes away that ability to make an informed decision with plenty of time to research and think, would be off the table for me.

I tell you that to tell you this: I’ll never fault a player for not wanting to be traded, and I’ll never fault one for not accepting a trade, if he has the right to stop it. I don’t think anyone does that sort of thing to be obstinate; they must do so out of some sincere desire to stay where they are. Professional ballplayers are, with rare exceptions, human, and I want for them every bit of the self-determination and stability I want for myself, even if their job is fundamentally different than mine in several ways. Sam mentions one case where Derrek Lee declined to be dealt to the Angels because his daughter has a medical condition and their family was very comfortable with the team they had working with her in Chicago. Ryan Dempster also has a daughter with a serious condition. There are always externalities for which fans can not account. Any criticism of a player for blocking a trade is asinine.

That playoff-starter line is a neat tool. Sam said the numbers he used there were three-year ERA+ figures. It’s just Ben and Sam landing on that number, but it’s a helpful litmus test. By that standard, here are the pitchers who fell closest to the line on each side over the past three seasons:

1Matt Garza104422.128-306923213.773.821.008.162.647.632.891.200
2Wei-Yin Chen104515.126-288635243.864.
3Wade Miley104598.225-279534333.743.710.879.042.687.132.661.301
4Yovani Gallardo104577.026-289636303.773.931.018.733.147.712.461.319
5Jon Niese104521.025-278430283.493.690.859.072.456.882.801.280
6Bronson Arroyo103490.035-377833263.824.
7Jason Hammel101433.229-317225253.944.071.128.572.787.622.741.261
8Rick Porcello101558.023-259138334.083.700.8410.
9Tim Hudson101499.236-388033273.693.610.678.772.135.712.691.211
10Jason Vargas101554.129-318734293.854.
11Matt Cain100494.027-297726223.503.811.047.582.517.673.051.121
12Mike Leake99585.224-269433293.864.101.089.392.146.182.891.281
13Scott Feldman98485.229-318026354.134.010.918.952.566.212.431.279
14Jeremy Guthrie97596.033-359436354.294.731.259.922.395.072.131.367
15Clay Buchholz97468.027-297331204.193.980.888.542.966.872.321.278
16CC Sabathia97457.031-336832234.213.831.189.182.348.273.531.280
17Tommy Milone97464.125-277831233.994.251.269.592.176.553.021.307
18C.J. Wilson97590.131-339843273.873.930.788.393.987.811.961.374
19Phil Hughes97546.226-289336374.203.811.239.661.717.774.541.264
20Brandon McCarthy96446.028-307223324.003.660.9710.051.576.544.151.291
21Francisco Liriano96480.028-308329303.903.610.777.634.339.472.191.329
22A.J. Burnett96607.035-379534393.833.510.738.293.348.582.571.292
23Mike Minor96529.124-268730313.943.991.178.382.487.583.051.207
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 1/12/2015.

There’s a troika near the bottom of the list—Liriano, McCarthy, Hughes—that I would take ahead of all the others, so it’s imperfect, but there’s a set of names to consider. I think the last couple postseasons have clearly demonstrated that Jason Vargas and Rick Porcello are fit for playoff work in a way Jeremy Guthrie and Clay Buchholz aren’t. That helps explain the Royals adding Vargas before the 2014 season, and the Red Sox adding Porcello this winter. Even if they’re back-end types in October, there’s a line between those who do and do not meet muster in those settings.

Or heck, draw your own lines. But that’s the group in which to find the division point.

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