A Rational Response to Curt Schilling

Curt Schilling has graced the baseball world with his opinion of the Cliff Lee trade. Via Ashley Fox of the Inquirer:

“I think trading Cliff Lee was the stupidest thing they’ve ever done, and they didn’t have to,” Schilling said. “They didn’t have to do it. It was a stupid, stupid move. They could’ve had a World Series berth locked up right now with those two guys at the top of their rotation.”

Among Philadelphia fans, there are two — and only two — reactions to this:

  • “Curt’s wrong. Screw Curt Schilling!”
  • “Curt’s right. Screw Ruben Amaro!”

Let’s see if I can find the rationality somewhere in the muck.

Curt’s criticism, sans the hyperbole, is legitimate even if you don’t agree with it. You have to give him the benefit of the doubt. I was against the Lee trade at the time as many people were. Schilling was a player, so he will obviously be coming from the viewpoint of a player. A player wants his GM to do everything in his power to win now, not later. Jamie Moyer, for example, doesn’t care about Anthony Gose or Trevor May; he cares about Raul Ibanez and Roy Halladay.

The saying goes that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, meaning that it’s easier to get people on your side if you act politely than if you are brash. Curt’s delivery of his opinions was brash, so regardless of what he says or how logical his points may be, people are going to react emotionally to it, especially given his reputation as a loudmouth. If you cut through your preconceived notions about Schilling and ignore his hyperbole, he actually does make the same logical objection that most Philadelphians have made since the trade: the Phillies would have a nearly-unbeatable playoff rotation with Halladay and Lee.

Now that I have defended Schilling, it is appropriate to state that I disagree with him. Neither side can definitively prove their case to any concrete conclusion; it’s just a difference of opinion, like chocolate or strawberry ice cream. I am going to quote some of Schill’s words and rebut them best as I can.

They could’ve had a World Series berth locked up right now with those two guys at the top of their rotation.

I’ve said it a lot here, but I’ll say it again: the playoffs are a crapshoot. That’s why the St. Louis Cardinals, who won the NL Wild Card with 83 wins, beat the 95-win Detroit Tigers in the 2006 World Series. Nothing is ever guaranteed in sports, but especially not in baseball. Those ’06 Cardinals, by the way? One ace: Chris Carpenter. Their second-best starter was Jeff Suppan with a 4.12 ERA. The ’08 Phillies had Cole Hamels… and Jamie Moyer. Last year’s Yankees had C.C. Sabathia… and A.J. Burnett who can hardly be considered an ace pitcher.

If a World Series goes all seven games and we assume they all ended in regulation, then there would be 63 total innings. Assuming that Roy Halladay would get games 1, 4, and 7, Cliff Lee would only pitch twice in the Series. If we assume, for the sake of argument, he pitched complete games both times (he came close last year), his 18 innings would only represent 28.6% of the total innings pitched. And he could pitch poorly — there’s no guarantee that Lee is the second coming of Walter Johnson.

Those guys would’ve finished legitimately 1-2 [as] Cy Young candidates on the same staff

Possible, but unlikely. Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter came close last year, but it is uncommon for teammates to finish highly in the voting for the same award. You would have to go back to the early 2001-02 when Schilling himself and Randy Johnson were 1-2 in the National League in back-to-back years.

Additionally, it would have been great to have Halladay and Lee (or Lee and Halladay) finishing #1-2 in the Cy Young balloting, but it isn’t of any real importance as long as the Phillies reach the post-season. Pitching is only part of the equation in creating a playoff contender.

They would’ve been a 110-win team.

There have been six teams in Major League Baseball history — just three since 1954 — that have won 110 or more games. The Phillies, as presently constructed, are barely a 90-win team according to most projections.

Overall, there’s no way to know for sure how good or bad the Phillies would have been with Lee, but it is safe to say that the roster would have been constructed differently. Maybe Amaro doesn’t have the financial flexibility to sign Placido Polanco to that below-market contract. Maybe Amaro isn’t so willing to sign Ross Gload or Brian Schneider, both upgrades to what was an unproductive bench last year.

The Roy Halladay deal, I think, gave them the perception that they depleted their minor-league system

[...]

If they hadn’t made that [Lee] deal, I think they felt like their minor-league system would’ve been trashed, even though it wasn’t. They still had a lot of talent. But it was to restock.

Here is Baseball America’s top-10 prospect list for the Phillies prior to the start of last season. Note: Carlos Carrasco (2), Lou Marson (3), Jason Donald (4), and Jason Knapp (10) were included in the Cliff Lee trade with Cleveland. Then the Phillies sent Kyle Drabek (5), Michael Taylor (6), and Travis D’Arnaud (7) to Toronto for Roy Halladay. That’s seven of the Phillies’ 10 top prospects traded for two players. Then note that J.A. Happ no longer qualifies as a prospect.

The only prospects from the top-ten list left are Domonic Brown and Zach Collier. Following the Halladay and Lee trades, Minor League analyst John Sickels did not give a single Phillies prospect an A. Phillippe Aumont and J.C. Ramirez, acquired from Seattle, were two of four Phillies who received a B- or better. I think it’s safe to say that the Halladay trade depleted the Phillies’ Minor League system, and the Lee trade helped replenish it.

If you draft right, you can literally restock your system in a year or two now.

Key words: If you draft right. Drafts are a gamble.  As Matt Swartz found out at Baseball Prospectus, “51% of first and second rounds picks make the majors.”

If the Phillies had kept Lee and let him walk as a free agent after the season, they would have received a first round pick and a sandwich pick (since Lee would undoubtedly receive Class A free agent status) from whoever signed him. Lee is expected to receive a lot of money in free agency, which means that he will likely sign with one of the better, more wealthy teams in baseball, such as the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox. Both teams are expected to finish with at least 90 if not 95 wins apiece, which means the Phillies would have received a very late first round pick, between #25-30.

Looking at the statistics in the Swartz article, picks #25-30 have traditionally been the least productive. Of the first round picks from #1-30, the #25-30 set produced the least amount of Major Leaguers and the least amount of Major Leaguers who compiled 10 or more WARP3.

It is extremely difficult to build up a good farm system.

There’s no other reason why they made that deal, none whatsoever. That’s why they didn’t push trying to re-sign Cliff, because I think they felt like he would’ve been real receptive to it, so then they would’ve looked even worse, because ‘We traded a guy who wants to be here.

It was very clear that Lee enjoyed his time in Philadelphia and would have been receptive to signing an extension. However, Lee was not going to give the Phillies any breaks. Jon Heyman reported this back in December:

[...] word is, the star who dominated the 2009 postseason (4-0, 1.56) will be taking “no discount.”

[...] Lee is expected to seek about $23 million a year, which is the annual pay of Johan Santana and CC Sabathia [...]

The Phillies signed Roy Halladay to a three-year, $60 million extension. That, of course, is an annual average value of $20 million, $3 million less per year than Lee. Furthermore, the Phillies likely would have had to commit at least five years to Lee; they committed only three with an option for a fourth to Halladay. The difference between the two is $60 million guaranteed versus $115 million guaranteed. Which would you choose if you were Ruben Amaro?

Schilling said that Halladay is “a fantastic guy” and “a hard worker,” but he pointed to Lee’s postseason performance last year and shook his head.

“He’s coming off a phenomenal run when he came over,” Schilling said of Lee. “He showed them [in] October he was going to be better than everybody else. You don’t know what you’re getting there. Doc’s never pitched in October. I think he’ll be great and be awesome and all that stuff, but he could get to October and not be the guy. Cliff proved that he can pitch in October. That’s a big loss.”

This is just a nonsensical argument. Cliff Lee had no post-season experience prior to joining the Phillies! He pitched just fine, didn’t he? Curt himself had no post-season experience prior to 1993, but that didn’t stop him from tossing a 2.59 ERA in the ’93 post-season, including that incredible complete game shut-out in Game 5 of the World Series against the Toronto Blue Jays.

I think it is evident that the facts don’t support Curt’s claims. Still, it doesn’t make him necessarily wrong to prefer a playoff-tested pitcher over a playoff newbie, nor does it make him wrong for valuing the here and now over the future. The responses I have seen so far have not given Curt the benefit of the doubt most human beings deserve when entering into a debate about the merits of a particular set of beliefs or a thought process.

Leave a Reply

*

25 comments

  1. Dukes

    April 01, 2010 09:14 AM

    Teriffic commentary on this, Bill. Thanks for breaking down the facts. We need people like you in our politics, too!

  2. ScrappleSports

    April 01, 2010 09:50 AM

    More people need to think rationally (and not emotionally). Yes, it would have been nice to have two aces in the World Series last year. However, the Phillies could have won the series if their offense played better – especially the meat of the order.

  3. John M

    April 01, 2010 09:53 AM

    “If a World Series goes all seven games and we assume they all ended in regulation, then there would be 49 total innings.”

    Are they playing only 7 innings in the playoffs this year? 9 innings x 7 games = 63 innings. So, Lee’s percentage of innings (with 2 complete games) would be 18 / 63 = 28.57%, so even less than you wrote.

    That being said, Schilling only said the Phils would be guaranteed a “World Series berth” not a World Series victory.

    Personally, I agree with Schilling in principle that they should have held on to Lee. I know there are arguments on both sides, but my opinion is only one fans opinion, so it’s only worth the same as Schilling’s (in order words, no value!).

  4. Bill Baer

    April 01, 2010 09:59 AM

    John, thanks for catching my brain freeze there.

    Yeah, there’s no conclusive way to prove on either side that the Phillies should or shouldn’t have kept Lee. There are valid arguments abound.

    The only true fact is that Lee is in Seattle, not Philadelphia, so we should probably stop dwelling on it.

  5. John M

    April 01, 2010 10:03 AM

    Bill, totally agree. Fine to root for Cliff Lee, but wishing he was here is a waste of time. Instead, let’s spend our group karma on Blanton healing quickly, and Moyer and Ibanez replenishing his Fountain of Youth.

    What’s done is done. Either way, let’s see how this season goes, then I can either roast Amaro for trading Lee and costing us the Series, or pretend I agreed with Amaro as I watch the parade!!

  6. David

    April 01, 2010 10:11 AM

    Bill,

    Well said. Cliff isn’t here. Doc is. Enjoy the ride, and be thankful that Andy Ashby isn’t our opening day starter.

    A quick question for you, Bill.

    How does Blanton’s injury affect our projected win total? A few weeks prior, I had the Phils penciled in for 91 wins or so. Do you think we may be slotted for 88-89 now?

    Thanks for your time.

  7. Bill Baer

    April 01, 2010 10:18 AM

    David,

    The CHONE projection system pegged Blanton as a 2.6 WAR player. Kendrick is projected to be about a 1 WAR player. That’s about a 1.5 WAR difference.

    CHONE also has the Phillies winning 87 games, so that drops them to an 85-86 win team.

    I’m sure those projections won’t sit well with most Phillies fans. Similar analyses can be done with the other projection systems like PECOTA, ZiPS, Marcel, etc.

  8. phatti

    April 01, 2010 10:51 AM

    Hey, Bill–I don’t fully understand CHONE, but aren’t those WAR projections for the whole season? i.e. if blanton was out for the whole season, there would be a 1.5 win drop. Since Blanton is out for only 3-6 weeks (which is at most 1/4 of the season), doesn’t that mean the difference is really closer to .3 or .4 of a win?

  9. Dan

    April 01, 2010 12:10 PM

    One way of looking at the Lee trade is WAR and the cost of winning games. Lee was a 6.6 WAR pitcher last year, which is worth in today’s FA market about $30MM. Suppose he duplicates that this year, with his $7MM salary, that gives him a surplus value of $23MM!!! Wow! What a bargain!

    Now, looking at who we got for him, we’re paying those guys next to nothing for the next 4 or 5 years. At about $5MM per year per WAR, they will only have to contribute a total of $23MM/$5MM per WAR = 4.6 WAR combined to make the transaction a financial wash. That is, 4.6 WAR over the lives of the control the Phils have over them.

    You can adjust for arbitration all you want, it still makes the chances that the Phils will have won this one overwhelmingly good. If even one of the 3 players becomes even a mediocre regular player or a reliever, the Phils win. If any of them become an average player, the Phils win big. If any one of them become a star, the Phils can be said to have cleaned up.

  10. John M

    April 01, 2010 12:31 PM

    Dan, I like your reasoning, from an overall financial valuation of the deal, but don’t you think it might be nice to have the extra wins all in one year, rather than spread out over, say, 15 years of play? I mean, if Gilles adds a total WAR of 6.0 over his whole career, but it is divided into .5 a year for 12 years, how worthwhile is that? Is it better than Lee’s one year of 4.6 plus whatever WAR the two draft picks would net over time?

    In my mind, I’d rather have the wins this year, while the nucleus is in place to give us a chance to win it all, rather than spread out over some longer time period. But again, I am a fan, not the guy whose money is being spent.

  11. Danny

    April 01, 2010 12:33 PM

    I can’t take so much logic in one place. It all makes too much sense!

  12. Mark

    April 01, 2010 12:38 PM

    Bill great analysis of the trade in regards to Schilling’s statements.

    And it was clever trying to downplay Lee’s role in the hypothetical world series by saying that he is only responsible for 28% of the total innings pitched, but he then would be responsible for half of the wins need for a world championship haha.

    Also, anytime you want to round off .03% it’s fine with me.

  13. Dan

    April 01, 2010 12:56 PM

    John M., you are correct if your goal is to win the WS this year, then Lee gives a better chance than if we traded him. But not much. You must reason this way:

    There is a law of diminishing returns for extra wins. The real name of the game for a GM is getting to the playoffs. After that, your ability to win a WS is severly limited. So every year you need to approach the goal of getting to the playoffs in a way which will not criple your future teams.

    In the NL, and espicially the NL East, it’s easier to get to the playoffs than in the AL, despite having the same number of teams. This is because the talent in the AL is better than the NL as a whole. You don’t have to worry about beating out the loser of the AL East to make a WC spot. You can expect in the NL East that if you win 90 games, you will be almost a lock to make the playoffs even if the Braves go crazy. And considering that you play the Nationals 20(?) times, your chances of winning 90 are pretty good.

    Going back to the original question, you ask yourself, will we win more games with Lee than without him? The answer is yes. But then ask how does having Lee affect our chances to make the playoffs this year? The answer is not a lot. Probably not enough to walk away from the certainty of saving ooodles of $$$ through the WAR discussion above, it’s an easy choice.

    Look at it this way, would you rather have a 33% chance of winning the WS this year (Assume that’s with Lee) and then less than a 5% chance of winning one each year from 2012 through 2016, or would you rather have a 31% chance of winning the WS this year (without Lee) and a projected 10% chance of winning one each year during the same time frame? How much would those %s have to change for you to change your answer? What is 1% improvement in winning the WS worth to your expectations of winning future any WS?

  14. John M

    April 01, 2010 01:18 PM

    Dan, again, I like your analysis. A few small things, which are mostly just my thoughts and are backed up by little in the way of numbers or facts. First, I think it’s safe to assume that the Phillies have an excellent chance of making the playoffs this year, so my concern is increasing our chances of WINNING each round of the playoffs. I agree that Lee adds a few marginal wins over the course of a 162 game season. But in the playoffs, when you need to win 3-4-4 to win a championship, I like the Phillies chance much more with Halladay-Lee-Hamels-whoever then with Halladay-Hamels-Blanton-whoever (and whoever is likely Happ in both scenarios).

    I agree that after losing Lee, the Phils of 2011 are weaker than they would be in 2010, but unless Aumont, Gillies or Ramirez jump in and help out, I’m not sure they would not be in the same position either way.

    Personally, after so many years of NOT winning a championship, I’d take the greater percentage of winning now, with a smaller percentage after that. But I can understand anyone going the other way.

    I guess my main point of contention with your logic is that by trading Lee, they doubled their chances of winning titles in the years after 2010 (10% vs. 5%). I’m not sure any of the prospects they got are worth 5%, while the rest of the team in total is worth 5% in your example.

  15. Bill Baer

    April 01, 2010 01:30 PM

    John, good points — the only thing I would quibble with is the confidence that the Phillies essentially have a playoff spot locked up.

    I cited the CHONE projections, which you may or may not buy into. They have the Phillies as an 87-win team and the standard deviation on that is roughly about six games. [Via BP]

    With a SD of 6 games, that means that 68% of the time, we would expect the current amalgamation of the Phillies — projected to win 87 games — to win between 81 and 93 games. There’s a lot of uncertainty in the game of baseball, enough that an 87-win team like the Phillies could play like a .500 team or a 93-win team.

    You can certainly argue the claim that the Phillies are an 87-win team. However, given the Phillies bullpen and #4/5 rotation issues, I think it’s reasonable.

  16. John M

    April 01, 2010 01:47 PM

    Bill, very reasonable points. I’m not entirely sold on CHONE, personally. I think there are a small number of things the statistics can’t quite quantify yet. I am thinking the Angels, but of course can’t quickly find the historical predictions.

    I probably overstated my confidence in the Phillies making the playoffs. Fair enough to raise several questions about the team this year (Ibanez, #4 and 5 starters, bullpen, etc.).

    That being said, I think the Phillies are still better than the Braves (assuming good health by both teams, as injuries can derail any team). We’ll see how it plays out, and it could be my Phillies fan-dom shining through in believing in the team, despite the many statistical prediction of number of wins being in the mid-80s. And bearing in mind that the farm system has, in fact, taken a hit in the last two years, and the budget is at the limit, so the mid-season trade possibilities may be less than usual. I doubt we’re getting any Cliff Lees this year.

    Thanks for all the good work and well thought out opinions, Bill.

  17. Max

    April 01, 2010 01:56 PM

    John M.,
    I see your point, but you can’t just look at this trade as the team would with Lee and the team without him. Since they imposed a salary cap on themselves, trading Lee gave them financial flexibility to make other important moves in the off-season to bolster other parts of the team. As Bill mentioned in the article, we might not sign Polanco, Gload, or Schneider, OR extend Victorino, Blanton, and Ruiz through 2011.
    Say you were to go back in time, become Ruben Amaro, Jr., and make the trade, while keeping Lee. For the sake of this argument, let’s assume Blanton is not part of the deal, as Amaro couldn’t find a trade partner at the winter meetings – the trade is simply D’Arnaud, Taylor, and Drabek for Halladay. As going back in time always does, doing that would have a domino effect of sorts on the rest of the off-season, for the reasons mentioned above. You would also have just 20% of what was considered to be an above-average farm system. You are unable to sign Polanco, settling for bottom-of-the-barrel, replacement-level third baseman. You are also unable to sign Schneider and Gload, and we are forced to take on two more Bruntletts (in addition to El Beardo, Juan Castro, making my life a nightmare.) You also fail to extend either of Ruiz, Victorino, or Blanton, leaving you with god-knows-who in the line-up in the future.
    Now I ask, is one year of Cliff Lee worth 3 years of Polanco + Gload + Schneider + (Victorino + Ruiz + Blanton) thru 2011?

  18. Danny

    April 01, 2010 01:58 PM

    I think it’s just a good thing this team won it all in 2008. If not, the fans might have burned down CBP after the Lee trade.

  19. John M

    April 01, 2010 02:07 PM

    Max, I think Ruben’s doption when trading Lee was to non-tender Blanton. Lee was set to make $9M, while Blanton makes $7M this year. So they’d have to find $2M. Not saying they would have as strong a bench, but I think Lee would have been worth it. Not sure there is a better bargain in baseball than Lee.

    Had they not won in 2008, I’m not sure people would care as much. How many years in the last 20 have you EXPECTED the Phillies to be good? While I am a die hard fan, most years prior to this stretch, I was happy with .500!!

  20. Dan

    April 01, 2010 03:13 PM

    John M, to address some points:

    The odds of getting to the playoffs with Lee is not much different than getting there without Lee, which you agree with. Your argument is Lee greatly increases the Phils chances of WINNING in the playoffs. I do not argue this point, I merely say that Lee does not make the odds of winning the WS 100%. Due to the tournament nature of the playoffs, the most that any one player will affect the outcome of even one series is less than 5%. The odds that any one player will affect 3 series is less than 1 or maybe 2%. Without going into the extremely complicated math, trust me on this.

    Anyway, the Phils know how much Lee would have affected their odds of making and then winning the playoffs. They then weighted that against the odds the prospects would contribute enough to improve the Phils odds in subsequent years. Once you look at it like that, it’s easy to see why you would value 3 near-ready prospects higher than 2 crap shoot draft picks 1 year from now.

  21. Dan

    April 01, 2010 03:17 PM

    And to repeat, the Lee trade was about the $$$, but not about the $$$ in 2010! It was about the money in 2012 through 2016. If any of those prospects contributes in those years, it will save the Phils millions, and millions, and possible tens of millions a year in salary vs. having to go out and sign a player who can contribute a similar value.

    With an outfield in 2013 consisting of Brown and either Gillies or Gose, you’re going to be able to sign a big pitcher, or SS, or catcher with the money you are saving on those guys. You must be able to do this to compete year in and year out in the ML. You cannot be the Yankees and sign all players you want for all the money in the world.

    So, in this case, you sacrifics a slighly improved chance to win the WS this year against a much greater chance of winning the WS in the future. It was a very wise move.

  22. Rob

    April 01, 2010 06:37 PM

    Great post.
    On the point of 110+ win teams since 1954, only one won the WS (98 Yanks), one lost it (54 Indians), and one didn’t even make it. (01 Mariners).
    Looking forward to Monday in DC!

  23. BobR

    April 01, 2010 09:21 PM

    I think why many people don’t give Curt the benefit of the doubt is because has a amazing record of making idiotic statements.
    Just look at the things Curt has said-and not said (before congress) about the steroid issue over the years. Curt seems to always play to his audience of the moment. Funny that when he had a nationwide audience in front of congress that he failed to open what is usually such a big mouth.

  24. hk

    April 04, 2010 07:42 AM

    I have 2 problems with Schilling’s analysis. One is that Schilling seems to assume that the 2010 Phillies with Lee would be a lock to get to the World Series while the 2010 Phillies without him have no chance. The other is that he ignores the Phillies savings in the Lee deal, $2M (Blanton’s 2010 contract vs. Lee’s 2010 contract) and another $2M to $3M to sign the compensatory picks received when Lee leaves as a free agent.

    As a Phillies fan, I would have preferred that they keep Lee and take their chances. However, I recognize that they have a shot at a win-win situation here…win the 2010 Series without Lee and still have the prospects from Seattle. I also recognize that the Phillies have increased their payroll from $89M in ’07 to $138M this year, so far be it from me to complain if they chose to save $4M or $5M.

Next ArticleBDD: Phillies 2010 Preview