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.

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8 comments

  1. Port

    January 20, 2010 11:42 AM

    Watch out, Marlins fan on the boards. Just messing just wanted to say great column, way to really break down WAR and the value of it in layman’s terms so the rest of those Philadelphians can understand it. One question though, if the correlation coefficient of strikeouts was .767 which indicates a strong corellation rate of strikeouts between those two periods, how can those strikeout numbers not be surprising? And looking over all the peripherals like you did, I came across his LOB% at 78.9 last year. What is the league average for this, and what else can we glean from that?

  2. Doc | bss.com

    January 20, 2010 12:43 PM

    Not sure I’m following your reasoning You mentioned that arbitration numbers are based on PAST performances, yet you say he’s probably worth 12 mil based on his projections. Doesn’t seem as if you are comparing things appropriately. Also, Blanton’s value shouldn’t be based upon what they Phillies would have to pay in free agency to replace him [even though that is obviously what they would have to do], but based upon what other players with a similar level of service time and past performance have gotten.

    Having said all that, I like all of the sabermetric-ness you bring to the table. There aren’t too many in the “phlogosphere” who do that these days. I’d like to if I had more time.

  3. Bill Baer

    January 20, 2010 03:38 PM

    Doc, I was pointing out that the numbers I’m using aren’t being considered much if at all in the meeting room with Joe Blanton and Ruben Amaro and the arbitrator.

    Port, the league average LOB% is around 70%. I’m not sure how persistent it is. If I get the time, I’ll run some numbers for you and answer you specifically. Essentially though, if the standard deviation for LOB% is say, 2%, then 68% of the time we would expect an average pitcher’s LOB% to be between 68-72% and 95% of the time it would be between 66-74%.

    As for the strikeout rate, the jump is likely statistically significant and thus likely due to some alteration that Joe made. If the K/9 rate only went from 5.2 to 5.7 for instance, we would easily attribute that to simple statistical variation.

  4. ShooterB

    January 20, 2010 03:57 PM

    It depends. Though you are on target with your analysis, I’d have a hard time saying that a pitcher making 30 starts a year is worth $12 million. Especially considering the likelihood of injuries that pitchers have. But that’s the business, I guess.

    For the price of one Blanton, you could have 20 or so Ross Ohlendorfs. Think about that…

  5. schmenkman

    January 21, 2010 02:53 PM

    I think the fan sentiment that Blanton isn’t worth $10.25 million really comes from comparing him to Cliff Lee. As in, “if the Phillies didn’t want to pay Lee $9m, than Blanton certainly isn’t worth $10m.”

  6. ShooterB

    January 21, 2010 05:50 PM

    OK, wiseguy…compare their 2009 stats:

    Blanton

    4.05 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 195 IP, 9-0 Record vs. all-you-can-eat buffets

    Ohlendorf

    3.92 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 176 IP, Recipient of Coolest Name Ever award.

    So explain again why Blanton is so much more expensive? Do the Phillies pay for their pitchers by the pound?

    And how pathetic is it when your team’s best pitcher is named Ohlendorf?

  7. Aaron H

    January 21, 2010 06:46 PM

    Enough fat guy jokes Shooter-I’d much rather have CC Sabathia and Prince Fielder on my squad than a skinny Adam (or Andy) LaRoche and the 6’7″, 190-lb Mike Pelfrey on my squad. Also, John Kruk would be furious with you.

    And as for their stats: this was Ohlendorf’s first year as a starter, so I’m not sure how well I can trust just one year’s numbers, and Blanton’s been putting up similar stats for 4-5 years now. I’m pretty sure that Blanton’s going to provide 2-2.5 WAR every year, whereas I don’t know what Ohlendorf would give us. Also, Ohldenorf’s stats are based on a 2009 Babip of .269, so he had a pretty luck season last year. For me, it’s all about consistency.

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