Joe Blanton Is Worth It

From the Phillies official website:

Based on figures released in anticipation for a potential arbitration hearing next month, Blanton seeks $10.25 million for the 2010 season, but the Phillies are proposing $7.5 million, which is a bump of more than $2 million from his ’09 salary.

The most likely scenario is that the Phillies will win the case and pay Blanton $7.5 million in 2010, a result that fans will be pleased with. Since the odds of Joe being a Phillie in ’10 are at about 99.99%, the fan in me very much prefers the Phillies winning all of their arbitration cases as it allows the team more flexibility.

However, from what I’ve heard from Phillies fans since Blanton’s salary suggestion was reported, most fans don’t think he’s worth $10.25 million. I wonder if that holds true.

Blanton was inserted into the Oakland Athletics starting rotation in 2005 and has been starting regularly ever since. Since that time, he has compiled nearly 16 Wins Above Replacement (WAR), an average of over 3 WAR per season. His last two seasons (2.2 WAR each) have been the least productive of his short Major League career, but he still provides value out of the middle of the Phillies’ rotation.

The venerable Dave Cameron calculated the dollar value of each WAR at FanGraphs last year:

2005 – $3.4m / win
2006 – $3.7m / win
2007 – $4.1m / win
2008 – $4.5m / win

The value was about the same in 2009 — about $4.5 million per win. Given the state of the nation’s economy and a slight change in the baseball value zeitgeist among front office executives (see: Zduriencik, Jack), we can reasonably expect the 2010 value to be slightly lower, somewhere in the $4-4.25 million range according to most Sabermetric estimates. Jack Moore estimated the value to be even lower, from $3.5-4 million. Let’s just say $4 million.

The arbitration hearings focus on what a player has already done, not what he will likely do in the future. Even if the projections saw Blanton falling off of the face of the Earth and the Phillies offered a salary of the league minimum, he would still be awarded a pay raise if his performance in the recent past justified it.

However, what we as fans are focused on is what Blanton is likely to produce for the Phillies in 2010 and if his salary will be money wisely spent by the organization. So first we need to figure out what we can expect of Joe.

Blanton went into ’09 with a career K/9 rate of about 5.2. Yet he wasn’t a different pitcher last year. He threw the same variety of pitches at the same rates save for a 3% drop in curveball usage. He had an average BABIP and his batted ball splits did not alter drastically, just a 4% increase in fly balls and a similar decrease in ground balls.  Additionally, Joe’s walk rate stayed around his career average and his home run per fly ball rate bumped up a bit.

Overall, nothing too alarming and not much that can’t be explained by randomness. Except that strikeout rate. Joe averaged about 5.2 punch-outs per nine innings over his career, but it rocketed to 7.5 last season. Cyril Morong noted that strikeout rates are generally persistent:

[…] I found all the pitchers that had 1000+ batters faced in both the 2003-05 period and the 2006-08 period. The correlations for walk rates and strikeout rates from period 1 to period 2 were 0.736 and 0.767, respectively.

If you’re unfamiliar with correlation coefficients, the number can range from -1 to +1. The closer it is to positive one, the more strongly correlated one number is to the other. As for year-to-year persistence, Matt Swartz found a similar number in an entry for Baseball Prospectus.

Hopefully I haven’t lost you. All this means is that we can look at the huge jump in Blanton’s strikeout rate without immediately discarding it as aberrant. We found nothing alarming in his peripherals to cause reason for pessimism. The projections agree: Bill James, CHONE, and Marcel put him on a 4.06, 4.10, and 4.22 ERA next season, very close to his 4.05 ERA from last season.

All told, a reasonable expectation for Blanton in 2010 is a WAR at about 3.0. Multiplying that by our dollar value per WAR figure, $4 million, we estimate Joe to be worth about $12 million in free agent dollars. How do we interpret that figure? Dave Cameron explains:

[…] the best description of the question that the valuation is answering is “how much would you expect to have to pay to replace this performance in free agency if you knew that you were going to get this level of value exactly?”

In other words, if the Phillies went into 2010 without Blanton and wanted to recoup the 3 WAR lost, they should expect to pay about $12 million to free agents. That $10.25 million request submitted by Blanton looks a bit more reasonable now, doesn’t it? I sense a L’Oréal commercial in the works.