Crashburn Alley Podcast Ep. 7: Requiem for a Team

Paul couldn’t make it this week, but Bill, Mike, myself, and Ryan Petzar from ESPN 97.3 (@Petzrawr) talk Cole Hamels, what makes a successful 2nd half, the usual Twitter questions, and York, PA. The delay on this one is entirely my fault, because I’m terrible at editing. I swear we’re trying to get on a regular schedule with these. For now, enjoy!

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Music was again provided by Local Wizards (Bandcamp page). If you dig it, please let him know. If you enjoy the podcast, make sure you’re following all of us on Twitter, and you rate us/leave comments on our iTunes page.

The next time we’re ready to do a podcast, we’ll let you know on Twitter so you can use the hashtag #crashpod to send in questions.

Jimmy Rollins and Revisionist History

Providing an update on the market as the trading deadline nears, Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports had a funny quip from an unnamed baseball executive, talking about the three-year, $33 million contract Jimmy Rollins signed in the off-season:

Rollins, 33, theoretically would make sense for any number of teams that would benefit from an upgrade at shortstop — the Dodgers, Giants, Pirates, Athletics and Diamondbacks all come to mind.

But as one rival executive says, “That contract, boy oh boy . . .”

Rollins’ contract then became a subject of debate, with many believing that the Phillies’ inability to clear his salary from the books will act as a deterrent to signing Cole Hamels to a contract extension. When the deal with Rollins was reached back in December, it was done unceremoniously with a shrug of the shoulders. No dissent, no debate. But as I pointed out last week, losing colors everything. Now that the Phillies are losing, now that Rollins is perceived to have been mediocre offensively, and now that the Phillies have struggled to get Hamels locked up, it seems most now view Rollins’ contract unfavorably.

David Murphy of the Philadelphia Daily News compared Rollins’ contract to that of other shortstops, concluding:

The question isn’t even which one of those hitters you would rather have, because Furcal and Reyes were the only ones available this offseason. The question is who is going to take the place of Rollins if you trade him away. And we haven’t even mentioned the elite level defense he continues to provide.

But even Murphy goes a step further than I would have, stating that “you sometimes have to overpay at premium positions”. I would be willing to argue that, when the end of the 2014 season comes around, Rollins will have been paid fairly, more or less. There are several reasons why.

Offense Is Down

It seems like Rollins is still measured against his 2006-07 seasons, when he posted an .811 and .875 OPS, respectively. Rollins, of course, won the NL MVP award in ’07 and was still very productive in ’08 as he helped lead the Phillies to a championship. He had a down year in ’09 before succumbing to injury in the next two seasons. What many don’t realize occurred in that span of time was a precipitous decline in offense. The NL average OPS in 2006 was .761, but it is now .718. In terms of wOBA, it was .328 in ’06 and is now .313. And in terms of overall runs, 12,337 runs were scored in the NL in ’06 while the league is on pace for 10,860 this season.

Let’s use a comparison with Rollins himself. He currently has a .739 OPS, good for a 99 OPS+, meaning that his OPS is about one percent under the league average. In 2006, he had an .811 OPS, good for a 101 OPS+, meaning his OPS was about one percent above the league average. Despite being more than 80 points of OPS behind his 2006 self, he is really only about two percent back. This simply means is that we need to be cognizant of the decline in offense across baseball before we can analyze their production, past and present.

Positional Scarcity

Rollins currently has a .322 wOBA, a mark surpassed by only two other shortstops in the National League (min. 250 PA): Ian Desmond (.356) and Jed Lowrie (.348). Shortstop is not a very deep position, and as a result, it is also the worst-performing. NL shortstops have the lowest OPS of any other position at .694 (next-lowest: second basemen at .714). Comparatively, 14 qualified right fielders have an equal or better wOBA as Rollins, but he of course does not play right field.

When Rollins was testing the market last year, asking for as many as five years in his next contract, he had the leverage to do so because he was still a top-performing player at a very weak position. If he were a right fielder, he would have been out of his mind to even hint at a five-year deal.

Defense and Base Running

Offensive stats are, for the most part, figured out at the moment, with newer stats like wOBA simply evolving older methodologies. We have yet to figure out defensive stats and to a lesser degree, base running stats. Many issues abound such as the quality of play-by-play data, human subjectivity, and sample size, all of which make the popular stats like UZR come with a high degree of uncertainty. Adding to the muddied waters, the “traditional” defensive stats like fielding percentage are incredibly misleading.

Rollins currently has a .980 fielding percentage, the lowest it has been since 2003. He is on pace for 12 errors in 600 chances, which would be the most he’s had since 2005. We also know that Rollins is older (33) and has suffered injuries to his lower-half, so many simply assume that Rollins’ defense is on a precipitous decline. However, in the 2010-12 seasons (over 2,700 defensive innings), which include both of the injury-plagued years, Rollins ranks second in UZR (13.1) and first in RZR (.849). While those stats don’t prove anything even close to definitively, it is a stretch to say that Rollins’ defensive is anything but above-average still.

As for base running, Rollins probably won’t ever steal 40-plus bases again, but he is no slouch, even after suffering so many injuries lately. In 2010, he produced 0.3 base running runs per Baseball Prospectus. That was followed up by -0.1 in 2011 and 1.2 so far this year, totaling 1.4. FanGraphs, which has a different methodology, agrees that Rollins has been above-average, though more so than BP, putting him at 4.5 runs over three seasons.

Freddy Galvis

If you didn’t like watching Galvis in his short time with the Phillies this year, you were simply not a fan of fun. Unfortunately, he left a lot to be desired at the plate. He went on the disabled list with a .267 wOBA. In my experience, most fans know Galvis was bad offensively, but not that bad. We can drill down their production to runs and find the difference in runs over 600 plate appearances with the following formula:

( ( Player’s wOBA – League average wOBA ) / 1.15 ) * Player’s PA

  • Rollins: ( ( .322 – .298 ) / 1.15 ) * 600 = 12.5 runs
  • Galvis: ( ( .267 – .298 ) / 1.15 ) * 600 = -16.2 runs

In a world where the Phillies didn’t re-sign Rollins and both players performed exactly as they have so far this year, the difference between the two would amount to about 30 runs in 600 plate appearances. Since 10 runs roughly equates to one win, there’s a staggering three-win difference between the two players offensively. Galvis may now be better than Rollins defensively (still debatable, though), but no amount of defense would have been able to make up for his awful offensive capabilities. The Phillies would have been severely behind if they had gone with Galvis at shortstop instead of Rollins.

The Value of a Win

Putting together all of the above, we are able to not only compare Rollins’ production to other players at his position, but against a theoretical replacement-level player. That allows us to price everything that Rollins brings to the table. There are two additional steps:

  • Positional Adjustment: WAR doesn’t inherently adjust for positional difficulty, so that is done by crediting or debiting a player with runs depending on his position. A first baseman will lose 12.5 runs because he does not play at a premium defensive position. A shortstop will be credited with 7.5 runs.
  • Replacement Level Adjustment: We know how productive a replacement level position player would be (20 runs below average per 600 PA), so this makes for a very easy and normal baseline. This adjustment also accounts for playing time, so if Rollins was injured and the Phillies had to use a replacement-level shortstop (think Freddy Galvis), that substitute would likely be 20 runs below average on a scale of his PA total (i.e. 4 runs in 150 PA).

FanGraphs has Rollins at 2.6 wins above replacement (fWAR) already in 89 games. Across baseball, teams have paid slightly more than $4.5 million per one fWAR. If you buy FanGraphs’ valuation of Rollins, he has been worth about $12 million already, surpassing his $11 million salary. If he keeps it up, he will likely finish in the neighborhood of 4 fWAR.

Personally, I’m not completely on board with FG’s WAR since it includes single-season UZR, which is inherently unstable. They credit him with 3.3 fielding runs. Zeroing that out (i.e. assuming the league average) simply takes Rollins from 2.6 to 2.2-2.3 WAR. They also credit him with 2.7 base running runs. Just for fun, we can zero that out, too, taking him down to 2.0 WAR. In other words, Rollins’ offense, league-average defense, league-average base running, positional adjustment, and replacement level adjustment makes him worth two wins above a replacement-level player so far, on pace for about 3.0.

The debate isn’t just about 2012, however. There are two more years on Rollins’ contract in which he will be paid $22 million. In other words, Rollins has to be worth about five wins above replacement in the next two years in order to have lived up to his contract. Baseball Prospectus, which uses their own WAR stat called WARP, projects Rollins at 4.2 WARP in 2013-14. Considering the dearth of quality shortstops in both the last free agent crop and the upcoming harvest, the Phillies will have paid for and received market value production at the shortstop position, something not many teams can accurately claim. Consider that the Miami Marlins got the premier free agent shortstop Jose Reyes with a six-year, $106 million contract, but have 1.4 WAR from him so far. The Phillies could have also gone with someone like Nick Punto (0.0 fWAR), who ended up signing a two-year, $3 million deal with the Boston Red Sox in the off-season.

Considering what options they had, the Phillies will likely end up breaking even when all is said and done when Rollins’ contract is up, assuming his 2015 option does not automatically vest. The biggest variable is Rollins’ health as he played in only 71 percent of his team’s games in 2010-11 (but has been in all but three so far this year). If Phillies fans are looking for a contract to scapegoat, there are several that are better targets, such as this or this.