I warned you this rant was coming… And the first part will focus on the bullpen, which as Michael Emmerich pointed out a week or so ago has never been Dave Dombrowski’s strong suit.
In order to excel as a general manager, you have to be a good executive, you have to have the people skills and you also – of course – have to be better than anyone else at player evaluation. You get your hands on the underappreciated guys and you get great production for below market value (in terms of draft slots, signing bonuses, free agent contracts or trade chips). If you can’t? Then you pay too much for too little. The worst case is that you’re one of the few guys enthusiastically paying through the nose for somebody most GMs seem to know isn’t worth anything like that much.
In this particular context, it isn’t enough to know who’s good. You have to see something (real) that other GMs don’t, otherwise they’ll bid up the price and there is no bargain to be had. The way auction-type markets typically work (and most bits of baseball personnel acquisition work that way) when everyone values the same guy highly whoever ultimately gets him will overpay. We – in general – consider Dombrowski to be a pretty darn good GM, one with one foot in advanced statistical player evaluation and one foot in tools/scouting based player evaluation (and zero feet in Jim Leyland-style obsolete counting stat player evaluation). This does not seem to apply to Dombrowski’s evaluation of bullpen HR at all (and, more worryingly, looks to be something that he has moved away from this offseason).
To put this in player context, Dombrowski is the kind of GM who would value prospects that throw hard and get terrible results much more highly than he would value Adam Wilk – whose numbers always looked a lot better than his scouting report. In essence, relying on the scouting report more than results is moving a step beyond predicting results based on peripherals – he’s predicting peripherals based on stuff, frame, etc… The problem is, especially when it comes to the bullpen, that doesn’t give a GM any kind of a competitive edge at all. Dombrowski wants big guys that throw hard? So does everyone else. You’re going to have a very difficult time finding a bargain among hard-throwing relievers with subpar results to date. Whereas when it comes to batters, Dombrowski has not been one of those dinosaurs who chase RBIs or wins when it comes to starting pitchers, in the bullpen he has prioritized established closers and paid a premium for saves. Jose Valverde did a find job for the Tigers for a couple of years, but he cost a lot of money and a first round pick. GMs on the cutting edge as far as bullpen management have been finding ways to avoid paying through the nose for saves – Dombrowski has not.
Joe Nathan was either the best or very close to the best reliever on the free agent market this offseason, not just nearly the best closer. He’s as likely to put up good results as the Tigers closer in 2014 as anyone else – but he did not come cheap. He’s frankly unlikely to match what Joaquin Benoit did last year (though so is Benoit) and not really much of an upgrade, if any at all. If a GM has a blank check to sign whatever free agents are necessary to build a better bullpen, the Nathan contract makes sense but it’s not so easy to justify for a GM who apparently needs to cut $1 million from the budget somewhere in order to spend $1 million.
The Tigers bullpen was better on October 1st than it is right now. The Tigers top 2 relievers from 2013 – who were both very very good – are out, replaced by Joe Nathan and Ian Krol. The Tigers key midseason addition, Jose Veras, is out and replaced by Joba Chamberlain. To put this bluntly: I would rather have Joaquin Benoit, Jose Veras and Drew Smyly as the top 3 in the 2014 bullpen than Joe Nathan, Joba Chamberlain and Ian Krol. I would also prefer Joaquin Benoit, Jose Veras and Ian Krol to what we see now – if you believe the overall prospect haul from dealing Doug Fister justifies the Smyly-Krol switch. Rumor has it Benoit is likely to get something like $7 or $7.5 million per year – add the $4 million for Veras and you get about a $1.5 million savings relative to Nathan + Chamberlain. $1.5 million sounds like a trivial amount for an Ilitch team – but this year it is apparently not when they’re forced to move payroll to get more “flexibility”. That $1.5 million per season plus an extra $2 million from making the obvious decision to decline to offer combustible hard-thrower Phil Coke a contract and I’m pretty sure you have enough payroll flexibility to outbid the Cincinnati Reds for Manny Parra (who ultimately signed for 2 years and $5.5 million) – a dramatic improvement over Phil Coke and a fair replacement for Drew Smyly in the ‘pen.
Every armchair GM (and we’re all armchair GMs) has their own set of arms that they would have signed or traded for or what have you these past few months. Dave Dombrowski has his. What seems to be the defining feature of all the bullpen-related moves (and rotation related moves too, frankly) is valuing velocity above all else (and a dash of “saves” to go along with it). Joba Chamberlain throws harder than Jose Veras and harder than Joaquin Benoit – hence, it would appear, Chamberlain is a Tiger while Veras and Benoit are not. Bruce Rondon throws harder than Joba Chamberlain, hence it is Bruce Rondon who is the presumptive setup man rather than Chamberlain. Phil Coke throws harder than almost any free agent lefty – hence Phil Coke is still a Tiger. Ian Krol throws harder than Phil Coke, etc… They both throw harder than Smyly, so Smyly is being moved to the rotation to replace even-softer-tossing starter Doug Fister. Hard-throwing prospect Robbie Ray has been acquired to someday replace (hopefully) Rick Porcello or (probably) Max Scherzer. Joe Nathan would be the exception – Dombrowski easily could have found a harder-throwing 9th inning option (like Fernando Rodney). If only I could believe that he was valuing secondary stuff over raw heat as opposed to chasing saves and a long track record.
It’s understandable to base player evaluations – especially for relievers with their high variance and small sample sizes – on velocity rather than a variety of other statistics. Velocity is strongly correlated with success (particularly strikeouts) and it’s something real, measurable and impossible to fake. That said, velocity is far from the only thing that counts. Matt Anderson was not a good pitcher. It isn’t the speed of Al Alburquerque‘s slider that makes it unhittable, it’s the break. Joaquin Benoit’s best pitch is his changeup. David Robertson and Mariano Rivera featured fastballs averaging 91.7 and 91.9 and somehow managed to be far more effective than Joba Chamberlain. And… it should be plain for anyone to see that the pitcher most likely to get a lefty out is Darin Downs and not Phil Coke. Basically, the way I’d put it is that any individual pitcher is probably going to be more effective if his velocity is up and less effective if his velocity is down BUT that shouldn’t be confused with expecting that the guy who throws harder is always going to be better than the other guy. Still – velocity does mean something, a lot really. The gist of all of this is that velocity is not going to be a very good guide to find undervalued players because it’s so obvious. If you want to find bargains to build a good bullpen on a budget – your bargains are almost certainly going to be guys that don’t overpower anybody but have filthy, filthy breaking stuff. The Tigers postseason hopes were ruined by soft-tossing Koji Uehara, with his average fastball velocity of 89.2 not by Joel Hanrahan. The Tigers had the harder-throwing bullpen this October, but not the more effective bullpen. On the season, the Tigers had the 6th highest bullpen fastball velocity (dragged down by Darin Downs and the extraordinarily effective Drew Smyly) and the 20th “most effective fastballs”. The moves that Dave Dombrowski has made thus far seem geared toward ensuring that this exact dynamic repeats itself next year.