Crashburn Roundtable: Former Phillies in the Playoffs
With the focus of the baseball world placed firmly on the playoffs, Philadelphia has been able to latch onto one story line this October – the large number of former Phillies on other teams’ playoff rosters. While Los Angeles features the most, with Chase Utley, Carlos Ruiz, and Joe Blanton on hand, former Phillies are also represented on the Rangers, Blue Jays, Indians, and Nationals. Here today to answer a few questions about these players are Crashburn Alley staff writers Michael Schickling, Timothy Guenther, Dave Tomar, and Ben Harris.
Jayson Werth (101 wRC+, 1.0 fWAR) and Chase Utley (97 wRC+, 2.1 fWAR) faced off in the NLDS as members of the Nationals and Dodgers, respectively. They also both enter the 2017 season as 38 year old veterans with injuries in their past. Disregarding contract status, who will be the more valuable player in 2017?
Michael Schickling: At this point in their careers, Chase Utley and Jayson Werth are no longer the All-Star caliber players they once were in their Phillies days, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been productive late into their thirties. As it stands they both project as close-to-league-average hitters with extreme injury risks. However, because “whichever one of them doesn’t get hurt” isn’t an option here, I’m going to say Chase Utley. He provides a similar offensive profile to Werth but also provides some defensive value, whereas Jayson Werth’s glove has eroded so much that he’s essentially a DH shuffling around the outfield.
Timothy Guenther: The on-field difference between the two is negligible at this point. But if you look at the upcoming free agent market, you’d have an easier time finding an outfielder to replace Werth than a second baseman to replace Utley. In that regard, Utley is the more valuable of the two, as along as you trust the superglue that holds the remnants of his knees together.
Ben Harris: I think 2017 is a continuation of Werth’s dip under average offensive production. I don’t see the same hitter that averaged a 127 wRC+ in his first four seasons in Washington. He still works the count at an elite-level, leading MLB in pitches per plate appearance this year, and that may keep him afloat longer and allow him to see more hittable pitches. But, I think Utley can be counted on more in 2017. The two have had remarkably similar production trajectories, Werth’s slightly more volatile than Utley’s rugged consistency. I think Utley’s reliability fills more of a hole in Los Angeles than Werth does in Washington where he’s the third-best outfielder.
Dave Tomar: I suppose it makes sense to start with the most tangible stat we have at our disposal. In the last four seasons (2013-2016), Jayson Werth has appeared in 507 games, amassing 2,145 plate appearances. In that same space of time, Chase Utley suited up for 531 games, making 2183 plate appearances. So obviously, we can see that….oh. Nevermind. In terms of relative health, these guys are pretty close to identical. It also bears noting that, with 535 and 545 PAs averaged across the last four years respectively, neither Jayson Werth nor Chase Utley can be rightfully dismissed as injury-prone.
A better way to consider each player’s value might be within the context of his position. During the 2016 regular season, Werth slashed .244/.335/.417, which tucks him into the bottom rung among qualifying left fielders in most categories. The one exception is his OBP, which is good for 7th best at the position in the Majors.
With a slash of .252/.319./.396 last year, OBP was also Utley’s best category, but good for only 14th among qualifying 2nd basemen. MLB places him at 19th in batting average, second worst among the 20 ranked 2nd basemen. It’s also worth noting that Utley’s power decline has been far more precipitous and unflagging than Werth’s. At one stretch in his career, Utley topped 20 homers for five consecutive seasons (2005-2009). In the last three years, Utley had 11, 8 and 14 round-trippers respectively. He won’t be returning to his former attitude. Werth, by contrast, smashed 21 in 143 games this year which—aside from a 36 dinger outburst in 2009—is a pretty fair reflection of his lifelong power potential.
If you consider both position scarcity and ability, Jayson Werth comes out with a slight edge. Add to that the lesser wear and tear of his position, and Werth might seem the better investment. Stated simply, the numbers imply that Werth is the answer to this question.
But given the factor of age, there is a slight intangible here. Consider that whatever the value, neither 38-year-old player will be part of his team’s future plans. And there is a reasonable cause to believe that either one could be vulnerable to replacement by a younger model at any time, especially in the event of injury or ineffectiveness. So this is a case where locker-room impact figures into the equation. Judging by his post-season heroics, Utley can obviously still play. but he’s also a guy who is probably worth the money even when his abilities are less apparent. As a clubhouse leader, a dugout presence, and a vessel for some of the best acumen and attitude in the game, there are few who compare to Chase Utley.
His numbers are up for debate, but if there was a Hall of Fame for guys who—to trot out the oldest Utley cliche in the book—play the game the right way, he’d be enshrined on the day of his retirement. if the value of a player, at the age of 38, has as much to do with the impression he leaves on younger players as the impact he makes on the field, Chase Utley is about as valuable as they come.
Blue Jays’ J.A. Happ and Rangers’ Cole Hamels are former Phillies that also faced off in the Division series. Each made 32 starts with a 92 FIP- in 2016, but feature very different contracts. Hamels is a year younger, and still has higher expectations moving forward, but is owed $73.5 million over the next three seasons. Happ is only owed $26 million over the next two years. In terms of value, and factoring in their contracts, how far ahead of Happ is Hamels?
Schickling: This is a question that would have seemed absolutely laughable a couple years ago, but here we find ourselves asking it. While their past two seasons have been comparable, we’re talking about a guy in Hamels who posted 5 consecutive 4+ win seasons and Happ who only posted 14.1 WAR in his career. However, Hamels just posted the worst full-season FIP of his career, while Happ is coming off the first two seasons of his illustrious career in which he posted a FIP below 4.00.
I think Hamels will age better due to his reliance on his excellent changeup (25.9% in his career) as opposed to Happ’s reliance on his fastball and slider (86.2% combined in 2016), but some or all of that is balanced by Happ’s much lower guaranteed salary. I think that if some (ill-advised) owner were to hand me the keys to their organization, I’d rather have Hamels on my roster than Happ even given the salary difference.
Guenther: By FIP and ERA, they’ve been virtually the same pitcher over the last two years. That leaves a pretty good case for Happ as more valuable when accounting for the contracts. But there were two aspects of Hamels’ season that seem very fixable. One, he posted a career high walk rate (3.5 BB/9) that greatly exceeded his career average (2.4 BB/9). And two, he cut his changeup usage down by almost six percentage points from a year ago. I’d rather take Hamels and his higher ceiling (contract and all), knowing he’s a few tweaks away from re-finding it.
Harris: Hamels, seemingly a year-in-year-out Cy Young candidate, is worth the money. That much is obvious. But Happ (28th in starting pitcher WAR since 2015, including a poor first half that year) deserves some credit for his ability to adjust, a quality often handy once the book is out on you, as it is on him. Three seasons ago, Happ dropped his release point. A quick study of Happ’s 2016 season reveals that the change, teamed with increased sinker usage, could finally be bearing fruit. He began the season throwing at least 20% sinkers for three consecutive months for the first time in his career. To that point, his career sinker usage was 13%. His historically weak off-speed arsenal—seemingly forever destined to trail the phrase, “J.A. Happ could always rely on his fastball, but…”—saw whiff percentages increase for each and every pitch from last season, with the exception of the curve which essentially stayed same. Three of those whiff rates, four-seam fastball (12.2%), changeup (12.5%) and slider (11.1%) were career highs. In this new tail-friendly arm slot, his sinker is riding more than ever before, and he looks as if he may have uncovered some new ways to play the rest of his arsenal off his new centerpiece.
Tomar: I think that really depends on how real we believe Happ’s ascendance has been. Hamels pitched to a 3.32 ERA and a 1.306 WHIP. The former number is pretty much identical to his career ERA (3.31). This year’s WHIP is actually a handful of ticks higher than usual for Cole. His career mark is 1.161, which is pretty close to what he did every year between 2012 and 2015.
Happ had easily among the best seasons of his career, with a 3.18 ERA driving his career mark down to 3.98, which sort of obscures the fact that this mark was well over 4.00 every year between 2011-2014. Happ’s 1.169 WHIP in 2016 also beats the hell out of his career mark of 1.335.
When you take past performance into account, nobody questions the reason that Hamels costs so much more than Happ. It’s also easy to see that Toronto got better bang for their buck this year, even if nobody in Texas is complaining about Cole.
What is less obvious is just how sustainable Happ’s success will be going forward. He’s taken a major stride forward as a pitcher, one that dates back to about the halfway point of 2015. Something sparked in Happ, who struggled with the Mariners in early 2015, but came alive after a July trade to Pittsburgh. He notched a 7-2 record with a 1.85 ERA across 11 starts for the Bucs. The lefty obviously carried whatever lessons he gained in Steeltown into his tour of duty with Toronto. But it bears noting that he is less than a season-and-a-half removed from the kind of middling performance that largely typifies his post-Phillies career.
If Happ is a better deal for the money at the moment, his career numbers suggest that the discount is based on uncertainty. If Happ decides to return to his career mean, he’ll be worth exactly what he’s making right now, as opposed to the Ace salary that Hamels rightfully commands.
The Cleveland Indians and Boston Red Sox faced off in the ALDS, with at least one notable thing in common. Michael Martinez spent time in the Major Leagues with both teams in 2016, and even made Cleveland’s playoff roster. My question here is: Huh?
Schickling: Mini-Mart has never been even a replacement level player for a single season in the Majors. Mini-Mart has accumulated -2.2 WAR in his career. Mini-Mart was the last vestige of the Golden Age of Phillies baseball and the harbinger of its doom. Mini-Mart has a career 35 wRC+ in a season’s worth of plate appearances. Mini-Mart is the end. Mini-Mart is the beginning. Mini-Mart will haunt the dreams of Phillies fans for generations to come.
Mini-Mart is forever.
Guenther: With all due respect to Scott Boras, whoever represents Michael Martinez is, by far, the best agent in the game. This guy knows where the bodies are buried. Consider: aside from the two playoff bound teams this year, he also had Martinez employed with the 2014 Pirates and the 2011 Phillies. A career 35 wRC+ hitter, on the payroll of four separate playoff caliber teams. If I were an agent, that would be the first line of my resume.
Harris: I feel like the teacher just cold-called on me in ninth grade French class. I’m freezing up, swallowing the anxiety of knowing that, at this precise moment, I’m as equipped to answer this question as I am to tell you how long before two trains leaving from Omaha and Bangor will cross paths. I have no words, in this language or any other, the even begin to grasp the concept that Michael Martinez is playing meaningful baseball.
Tomar: Looking back at Mini-Mart’s numbers over the last few seasons, the one thing that really jumps out at you is the fact that he’s even in majors. For a good portion of this year, and last year, this was not the case.
In fact, Martinez spent the vast majority of last year playing for Cleveland’s AAA affiliate, the Columbus Clippers, only joining the Major League roster through September expansion. He made the squad to start this year but was designated for assignment in early July. A week later, they shipped him up to Boston to find his wooden leg. It didn’t work out. He was once again designated for assignment. Cleveland grabbed him back off of waivers on August 4th, less than a month after they’d sent him packing. We’re assuming the reunion was socially awkward.
But it did give the 34-year-old utility man a bench-row seat for the playoffs. He’s a fairly solid late-game defensive replacement but a virtual non-entity at the plate. With a career .197 batting average, Martinez probably belongs in the minors. (Sidenote: That resume includes stints with the Vermont Lake Monsters, the Savannah Sand Gnats, and our own Iron Pigs, which only confirms that minor league teams have fun names).
So, to answer the initial question (“Huh?”), I would say, “wha?”