The Detroit Tigers’ acquisition of ace starting pitcher David Price is laudable on entertainment value alone – that was on heckuva fun day yesterday, wasn’t it? – but does the obvious win-now move make the team better for this year?
Mike Ilitch, Dave Dombrowski, and the rest of the organization are obviously discounting future wins at a tremendous rate, and they’re 100% right to do that. Mr. I, who turned one billion years old last month, makes it no secret that he lusts after a championship ring for his baseball club, and they (i.e. that same baseball club) are built to deliver it now.
Miguel Cabrera – who’s still very, very good – does not have his best years in front of him. Reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer is set to become a free agent at the conclusion of this season, as is All-Star designated hitter Victor Martinez. Justin Verlander’s career arc might be slipping faster than anyone anticipated. If the Tigers are going to win the World Series this decade, it’s likely to be now.
The Tigers were less happy to discount Drew Smyly’s status as a steady, cost-controlled starting pitcher for the next four seasons, but Smyly’s future surplus value was not going to prevent this obvious like-for-like rotation upgrade. He was providing real value to the club this season, but most of his value is in his future production (at below market rate).
Giving up Austin Jackson is the bitter pill to swallow. Fans have long been frustrated by his ever-elevated strikeout rate and his “down” year at the plate, but even in 2014 he has hit at an MLB-average rate (a 101 wRC+ as of his exit on Thursday) while providing steady defense. His quality as a baseball player remains at an above-average level. Jackson remains under team control for only one additional season (beyond 2014), so his trade wasn’t so much about future wins. Like Price, all of Jackson’s value exists in these two years.
This brings my point. Or maybe my question, more than my point, as I’m not sure the answer. In acquiring David Price – a move ostensibly to bolster their chances for a 2014 World Series – did the Tigers give up too much in the way of current-season value? Let’s go to the projections.
Here’s what Steamer and ZiPS project the three Major League players involved in this trade to be worth for the rest of the season (Steamer/ZiPS):
David Price: 1.2 WAR / 1.5 WAR
Drew Smyly: 1.0 WAR / 0.7 WAR
Austin Jackson: 0.9 WAR / 0.9 WAR
In terms of getting to the postseason, neither projection system thinks the Tigers are better off with Price than without, at least in the abstract. According to Steamer the Tigers are giving up nearly a win (-0.7 wins) by adding Price and according to ZiPS it’s nearly a push (-0.1 wins). Or put another way, The percentage of rest-of-season value Price will produce compared to Jackson and Smyly (Steamer/ZiPS):
63% / 94%
But this analysis assumes that Jackson is being replaced by replacement-quality players. That may be the case – I wouldn’t be particularly enthralled by Rajai Davis being an everyday center fielder – but it also may not be the case. If the Tigers can properly platoon the outfield combination of Davis, J.D. Martinez, Ezequiel Carrera, and (a hopefully soon healthy) Andy Dirks, they might be able to replace Jackson’s minutes at an above-replacement level rate, thereby making the above numbers look better.
But then again this move was never about the regular season, was it? Detroit needs to finish this out and win the division, but the move was made to ensure the starting rotation, nay the team, was a dominant force in the postseason.
In the postseason, Jackson’s impact would remain the same. He’d still start every game in center field and take all his turns at the plate. Smyly’s role was likely set to diminish. Instead of starting every fifth game, he’d be relegated to bullpen duty as something like a lefty specialist (then again he’d be more effective as a reliever, so maybe he’d still deliver 80% of his value). Price’s role, however, would be magnified. Instead of pitching once every five games, a top-three type starter could take the ball something like once every 3.5 or 4 games due to the extra days built into a playoff schedule.
If this is indeed the case, Price’s value ratio – for want of a better term – would be something like 25-40% greater in October than it would be in August and September. Averaging the two projection systems together and applying these postseason adjustments (picking a 33% midpoint for Price) yields the following Price-to-Jackson/Smyly ratio:
So, assuming my assumptions are correct, the Tigers’ chances of making the playoffs may be slightly hurt by this trade, but their chances of winning it all once there may be slightly improved. The Tigers are currently sitting at 93% to make the Division Series (highest odds in baseball), so they’re probably more concerned about the latter probability.
It should be noted that the actual magnitude (in either direction) is quite small. We’re talking about a fraction of a win.
UPDATE: Baseball Prospectus has an article up today detailing every team’s adjusted playoff and world series odds after the trade deadline. Go read it. The summary for the Tigers is that their chances of reaching the ALDS fell by 0.9%, but their chances of winning the World Series (i.e. what they’re shooting for) increased by 0.5%. This jives with what I’ve proposed above.