There’s a simple maxim in the entertainment business, which we here at FanGraphs subscribe to: give the people what they want. You called for it (implicitly), and now you’re getting it: more discussion of the Cole Irvin trade! And hey, if that’s not what you want, you should have somehow broadcast your thoughts to me more clearly.
Here’s the overarching concept of today’s article: the total-’em-up-and-compare method of analyzing trades doesn’t really work, and in fact it hasn’t really worked for a while. I’ve got some criticisms of WAR-to-money conversions in here, too, and a general questioning of the way people apply the nebulous concept of surplus value to baseball players. Let’s get right into it.
In the comments to the Irvin piece, someone mentioned an angle that I purposefully ignored in my analysis: adding up Irvin’s projected team-controllable WAR and comparing it to the monetary prospect values Craig Edwards produced a few years ago. Subject to a few assumptions, that accounting of the trade favors the Orioles by a huge margin. Prospects in the 40+ FV tier, like Darell Hernaiz, don’t usually work out. Irvin will almost certainly be better than replacement level. If you’re intent on slapping a universal dollar figure on all players based on that, the Orioles almost can’t lose in this trade.
That’s not really how it works in real life, though. Teams don’t have a department that inputs projections, turns everything into some calculation of value measured by dollars, and then pursues trades and acquisitions based on the cold hard reality of that math and nothing else. The Irvin trade reflects this in a few ways, so let’s talk about them.
First, it’s quite clear that teams don’t value each WAR (by whatever conception of WAR you prefer) as being equivalent. Here’s just one simple example: Justin Verlander sports a 4-WAR projection in 2023 from pretty much whichever system you want to use. He got a contract worth $43.33 million annually. Rich Hill, Wade Miley, Michael Lorenzen, and Johnny Cueto combine to project for roughly 4 WAR as well. They signed deals worth a combined $29.5 million, and Verlander got a second year on his as well.
Even that is probably too kind to the all-WAR-is-equal crowd. Luke Weaver signed a $2 million deal this offseason. Ryan Yarbrough got $3 million from the Royals. If you’re a team trying to figure out what you’d need to pay Cole Irvin in free agency, some fixed exchange between dollars and WAR is a weird starting point. Use the actual market – I assume he’d get something in the Yarbrough/Weaver/Miley range, because they’re all similar pitchers.
That’s small potatoes, though. More relevant in all of this is the reason that fringe starters and their hitting equivalents have been getting squeezed all across the league. At some point in the past decade, teams have started to think about roster construction differently. It’s too simplistic to say that they’d rather play a 23-year-old over a 29-year-old even if the 23-year-old is slightly worse, but that’s the broad strokes of the issue.
More specifically, I believe that teams are taking a logical approach to the changing tides of player development. There are, simply put, a ton of capable players today. Teams are better than ever at quickly identifying which ones have the tools to succeed at the major league level, or at the very least the best chance of doing so.
A lot of this comes down to quantification. It’s a lot easier to scout your own system and figure out who your best players are if you can combine in-person looks and coaching with hard data. It’s easier to refine your evaluations than ever before, and teams are getting better and better at doing just that.
There’s more to the equation than just data, though. If you asked me what teams could take from financial markets 10 years ago, it wouldn’t have been some concept of unified value like WAR; it would have been a better understanding of volatility. Players get better or worse all the time, and not just their results: their talent level is hardly set in stone. Treating your organization like each player’s talent level is fixed isn’t the best way to get results.
If you were building a roster 15 years ago and in search of a swingman to handle, say, 10 starts a year and some medium-leverage relief work, you’d probably canvas your farm system to see if you trusted anyone to do it, then pivot to a veteran if you couldn’t find anyone. But if you had, say, four guys who weren’t quite up to snuff, the odds are pretty good that one of them would click and seize the role for you, if only you knew which one to pick.
Now that it’s easier to measure pitcher improvement quickly, it’s much easier to harness this volatility. The cost of carrying an established veteran on your roster isn’t just their salary; it’s also having fewer spaces to allocate to the pop-up players you might find in your system. It’s not so much that players didn’t improve unpredictably and sporadically before; it’s just that teams are picking up on those changes more quickly and planning around the likelihood of them proactively.
I can’t quite prove this, at least not yet, but I think there’s even more to it than that. It’s not just that a greater appreciation of volatility helps teams fill the back half of their roster. Having space for more volatile players gives you a better chance of finding something better than that. Players develop from back-end starters into mid-rotation starters all the time, and that’s the brass ring of player development.
If you can churn out average players like, say, the Cardinals and Rays systems seem to, that gives you a huge leg up on the opposition. Giving more major league playing time to those potential future solid players has value. The earlier in a player’s team control you figure that out, the better for the team (and honestly, for the player). That’s not to say that you should play a minor leaguer who posted some great measurables and might be interesting over your star shortstop, but over your fourth outfielder or fifth starter? That gets a lot more interesting.
How does this relate to Irvin? He’s squarely in that roster filler category, someone who will provide reliable innings without being a difference-maker. That limits his market in trade somewhat; he’s competing with not just each team’s fifth starter, but also the reinforcements they might call up during the season. It’s undeniably true that you can never have enough pitching, but teams are increasingly interested in hunting for upside while they do so.
That’s not to say that Irvin has no upside. More and more, teams are targeting pitchers who they want to work with, treating them as works in progress rather than just a bag full of WAR. That always should have been the case, and to some extent it always has been; for a while, though, we internet nerds just got very excited by the existence of a unifying measuring stick (WAR) and used it to equate players with similar production.
Again, though, data has helped teams streamline their operations. Now a pitching coach can target, say, a type of slider they’ve had success improving in the past, or identify pitchers who they think would benefit from a cutter formulaically. “Boy, I’m sure glad we got a pitcher projected for 2.1 WAR,” said no pitching coach ever. “His delivery makes me think he could throw a nasty sweeper” is more like it.
I’m not exactly sure what changes the O’s are hoping to work with Irvin on, or even if they have any in mind. I still think his breaking balls would benefit from more separation, particularly given the sweep-ier slider shape he debuted in 2022. But they’re an exception to the rule I was talking about above. The Orioles really do need pitching depth. The choice isn’t between Irvin and the minor leaguer that most jumps out to them; they’ll play both, and would likely be willing to play another Cole Irvin if that were an option.
In fact, the Orioles are replicating the bet-on-volatility strategy I described for minor leaguers, but at the major league level. Between Irvin, Kyle Bradish, Kyle Gibson, and Dean Kremer, the Orioles have plenty of acceptable-but-unexciting starting pitching options. They’re also more interested in competing in 2024 than 2023, which means they can weather some uninspiring performances this year in pursuit of figuring out their best possible rotation construction in a year’s time.
Maybe Gibson doesn’t fit well into that mold, but the other three do. None of Irvin, Bradish, or Kremer is a slam-dunk competent third starter, but maybe one of them will turn into one soon. The combination of a thin pitching depth chart and a team that is near contention but not quite there yet means that 2023 is a great year to try something like this.
There aren’t a lot of teams in the same situation as the Orioles. Most playoff contenders have fairly set rotations where Irvin would fit in as no more than a swingman. There are plenty of teams where he fits into the rotation, no question – but quite frankly, those teams mostly aren’t trying very hard to win games at the major league level right now. Their front offices are looking ahead, and they’re probably more interested in the Hernaiz side of the equation than the Irvin side.
The A’s, for example, are looking for the kind of volatility that Hernaiz provides. He probably won’t be a spectacular major league hitter – but he might be. It’s too soon to say; how he develops over the next few years will determine that. A 40+ Future Value is telling you more or less the same thing. That kind of profile suits the A’s purposes well. They badly need to find some new players who are both above average and young, and it doesn’t particularly matter what position they play (as long as it’s not catcher). Adding more players just means more chances to catch the right side of talent level volatility. Hernaiz isn’t a sure thing, but if you can find 10 players of a roughly commensurate talent level, one of them will surely break through.
That brings me back to the central idea I’m advancing here: using some cookie-cutter valuation metric misses the point. Teams consider their own context when they’re shaping their roster, whether via free agency or in trade. I wrote about the free agency side of it last year, but it’s worth reiterating in this context.
That’s not to say that teams don’t have quantifiable models of player value. It’s merely to say that a given player isn’t equally useful to all 30 teams, and that the simple framework of treating wins above replacement as fungible doesn’t do a good job of explaining how teams actually behave.
Models are useful, and I’m not an enemy of quantifying things. But there’s a garbage-in, garbage-out problem here. A quantitative model of player value that gets player value wrong is no better than not having a model at all. A variable formulation of dollars-per-WAR might help, but it would still be incomplete. I’m not saying that appeal to authority is the only option here – teams make bad trades all the time – but context really is everything. I’m not surprised that the Orioles were able to land Irvin for Hernaiz, and I’m not surprised that Oakland was game to make that trade given the general trajectory they’re on.
Maybe this article is overly rambling. Probably it’s overly rambling, in fact: I sure have squeezed a lot of words out of a minor trade. I think the central point is solid, though. Teams are thinking more about making the most of their prospects’ development, and they consider the context of their roster when looking for new players rather than using some universal, context-neutral valuation model.