11 November 2008

Rockies-A's Trade Analysis: Matt Holliday for Street and Smith, and Carlos Gonzalez...Maybe

Though the deal is not yet official, ESPN's Jerry Crasnick (author of License to Deal) is reporting that the Rockies are trading outfielder Matt Holliday to the Oakland A's For starting pitcher Greg Smith and two other players, perhaps including closer Huston Street and OF Carlos Gonzalez. Unfortunately, at this point, nobody's exactly sure who will go from Oakland to Colorado, though one AP report speculated that closer Huston Street and outfielder Carlos Gonzalez could be Denver-bound as well. So let's go with that.

For the Rockies:
The Rockies, who finished 15th in the 16-team National League in ERA, are obviously in need of pitching help, as they always are. Smith, they hope, can eat up innings for them effectively and somewhat improve the dearth of pitching. Though he finished the year just 7-16, his 4.16 ERA was the best among qualified Oaklanders (all both of them), and 25th best in the American League, and his 190 innings were 22nd best. At least that's how Scott Boras would spin it.

Smith came to Oakland in the Dan Haren trade and he significantly outperformed what anybody expected of him, but he walked 87 batters and struck out only 111, and his minor league numbers do not suggest that he'll ever be much more than a LAIM. In fact, before this year, Baseball Prospectus had his closest comparables as a bunch of lefties with very, very short careers. That he's done as well as he has already defies all logic.

In any case, he's going to Coors, where the thin air and his lack of a reliable out pitch will likely cause his ERA to balloon over 5.00. Baseball-reference.com suggests a modest ERA increase of just half a run, but their algorithm doesn't compensate for how outs get made and runs get scored. A finesse lefty, without blinding speed or a sharp sinker or a big curve, naturally has to rely on his defense, and Smith, a severe fly ball pitcher, is no exception.

How severe? Out of 89 qualified MLB pitchers in 2008, Smith's Ground/Fly ratio was 82nd. And he's leaving sea-level Oakland, where a lot of those pop flies were either caught in the outfield or in the expansive foul territory. Without a true strikeout pitch, he'll be forced to throw pitch after pitch of his breaking stuff, which won't break as much as he's accustomed to. Those offerings can be repeatedly fouled off, until eventually he'll have to throw his middling fastball over the plate, at which point the National League's hitters will tee off. Smith pitched 190 innings this year with an adjusted ERA almost average (an ERA+ of 97), but I'll be surprised if he can even stay in the Colo-rotation next year.

Of course, Smith is not all the Rockies will get in exchange for their vaunted outfielder, who finished second in the NL MVP voting in 2007.

Since the Rockies will likely lose closer Brian Fuentes to free agency, Street would theoretically help to fill that need, though Street's not exactly a top-flight closer. After injuries last year and struggling with effectiveness this year (for which he eventually lost his job to rookie Brad Zeigler) Street's star may have lost a bit of shine. Still, he's reasonably effective and not eligible for free agency for two more seasons.

Gonzalez came to Oakland in the Dan Haren trade as well, just a year ago, and immediately went from being Arizona's #1 prospect to being the A's #1 prospect. He hit a modest .283/.344/.416 in 173 at-bats in Saramento, then posted a meager 634 OPS (.242 with 4 homers in 302 at bats, for you old-timers) in Oakland. Still, the whole team hit .242 this year, and in his defense, he did better against right handed pitching, hitting .263/.298/.406 in 228 plate appearances. But he sucked very much bad against the sinister ones (a 454 OPS, fortunately in only 88 plate appearances).

In any case, the man just turned 23 two weeks ago, and his hacking style of offense (81K's and only 13 walks this year in the majors, typically about 3 or 4-to-1 in the minors) should be helped significantly by playing in Coors. He won't have to walk much because pitches that fool him at sea level will be easier to hit, and fewer of the balls he doesn't hit squarely will get caught for outs.

Additionally, Gonzalez has the speed to cover a lot of ground in CF, something the Rockies need with their ballpark, as John Dewan rated him as +3 plays in CF this year. That means that Gonzalez could allow them to keep Willy Taveras (who was -5 this year, and also can't hit at all) on the bench, where he belongs.

The other possibility for inclusion in the trade was OF Ryan Sweeney, who hit quite a bit better than Gonzalez this year (.286/.350/.383) and also went 9/10 in stolen bases, though he is about eight months older than Gonzalez. He never showed the same power as Gonzalez in the minors, but he walked more and struck out less, and is therefore a safer bet to be a useful MLB player, albeit one with a lot less upside. Gonzalez could seemingly "break out" in Colorado, playing half his games in a much easier park for hitters, and all of them in a slightly easier league, without actually getting any better.

For the Oaklands:
But what does Oakland get for its trouble? The A's finished last in the American League in batting average, slugging, adjusted OPS, hits, doubles, runs scored and strikeouts. Well, technically, they finished first in K's, but it was the bad kind of first. They were tied for last in OBP with Seattle. Nobody on the team with 30 or more games played hit better than .286, and the team hit just .242, the lowest team mark in MLB since the 119-loss Tigers hit .240 in 2003. To their credit, the A's walked the 4th most in the league, so they scored about 50 more runs than those Tigers did. Yippee.

So they need help. Oddly, Matt Holliday is a left fielder, the one position in the Oakland lineup that was actually somewhat productive on offense. Jack Cust played about 90 games there, and his 132 OPS+, 77 Runs, 77 RBI, 33 homers and 111 walks all led the team, and that 111 mark led the whole American League.

Unfortunately, so did his 192 strikeouts, and his .231 batting average was, shall we say, less than stellar. Also, in those 90 or so games, according to John Dewan's Fielding Bible, Cust made about 14 plays less than an average left fielder would have. When you consider how often he was probably removed for a defensive replacement, well, here is a man born to be a DH, right?

Matt Holliday, by contrast, was +11 plays in the field, in more than twice as many innings, so they've probably just improved the outfield defense by a dozen runs or more. The real question is what will happen to Holliday's offensive numbers if he goes to Oakland? Until now, he's always played half his games in Colorado, the best hitter's park in the history of MLB. Now he'll be heading to McCavernous Coliseum in Oakland, which decreases run scoring by almost 10%.

Granted, Coors Field has been toned down a lot in recent years, mostly due to the use of a humidor to keep balls a little mushy, but it's still a park that increases run scoring by about 10%, compared to an average ballpark. Specifically, it's about 30% easier to hit a homer in Coors than it is in a neutral park, which is the biggest effect in the National League. The team hit 54% of its doubles and homers there this year, and 3/4 of its triples, and its OPS was over 100 points higher in Denver than elsewhere.

Hits of all kinds are easier to get there, to the tune of about 8-10% each, because of the thin air and the spacious, overcompensating outfield. Oakland is down about sea level, or, you know, Bay level, but most of the reason for its reputation as a pitchers' park is all the foul territory, up to 30 feet more on each baseline, compared to Coors Field. This makes balls that are routine fouls in the stands at other parks into outs in Oakland.

Holliday's been great in Colorado over the course of his career, hitting .357/.423/.645 in 359 games, with a respectable .280/.348/.455 on the road. That split was not as severe this year as it had been in the past, only about a 100-point OPS gap, instead of about 250 or more. Still, there's no question that he's benefited, and no doubt that he'll see a decline in his numbers, at least on the face of them, in Oakland.

Baseball-reference.com's park adjuster gizmo says instead of the .321/25/88 he hit this year, he would have hit .311/24/77 in Oakland, but this seems too modest a drop to me. ESPN's park adjustments show the effects on individual types of hits and runs overall, and if you apply those ratios to his 2008 home stats, and then re-tally...

            R   H   2B  3B  HR  RBI  BB   SO   AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS
Home=OAK 95 161 36 1 21 77 76 109 .299 .393 .486 .879
Home=COL 107 173 38 2 25 88 74 104 .321 .409 .538 .947

That looks more like it.

Holliday can be expected to strike out a little more, and hit for extra bases quite a bit less. He loses about a dozen runs and almost as many RBI, and the fact that his new teammates can't hit a lick means he'll probably do even worse than I've suggested in those areas. If Holliday's healthy all year in 2009, he'll play about 20 more games than he did this season, and should add to the counting stats, though those averages look about right.

And that, my friends, is not enough to make the A's a good team again next year, but that may not be in Billy Beane's plans. Holliday is eligible for free agency after the 2009 season, and Oakland is not usually the type of team to sign would be free agents approaching 30+ years of age to big, long-term deals.

It's possible, I suppose, that they see something in Holliday that will give them pause, want to make an exception. More likely though, they decided that they could do without Street, since they have Brad Zeigler, and Gonzalez, perhaps because the young, hack-tastic outfielder isn't their type, and that Greg Smith's stock will never be higher. Getting Holliday engenders some good feeling from the fans, and gives the sparse Oakland ...ahem, crowds someone to cheer, and if the team is still out of the running come next June, they can flip him to the Yankees or someone else for more prospects, before he becomes expensive.

And that scenario is pretty likely, as in order for the Oaklands to make a threat next year, they need a lot of young, untested players to all start succeeding at once. There's no lack of potential on the Oakland roster, but they need Dana Eveland and Justin Duchscherer to keep pitching well, and stay healthy, and for some combination of Sean Gallagher, Dan Meyer, Dallas Braden, Gio Gonzalez and/or Josh Outman to start pitching well, for more than a quarter of a season.

They also need continued production from Ryan Sweeney, Kurt Suzuki and Jack Cust, if not improvement, and they need at least three decent bats from the likes of Daric Barton, Aaron Cunningham, Eric Patterson, Rajai Davis, Donnie Murphy, Cliff Pennington, Travis Buck and Chris Denorfia. They're already saddled with Mark Ellis, who's at least acceptable, if unlikely to improve, for two more years, and Bobby Crosby (who's neither acceptable nor likely to improve) for one.

They're also stuck with the disabled Eric Chavez and the minimum $26 million they owe him through 2010, if they buy out his 2011 option. So there's not a lot of money to throw around at free agents or other big-name trade bait. They've tried to stack the deck in their favor by compiling lots and lots and lots of prospects and projects, and they've got to hope that the statistics hold up and at least a few of those pan out to be useful major leaguers. And if they get some nice surprises and the team Tampas the American League in 2009, they've got a star to help with a playoff push.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good analysis. But I still can't figure Oakland out. And now that they have Holliday, does that mean they don't want another slugger, namely Jason Giambi? I was pretty sure they'd be signing him to DH.