In 2014, former player and manager Tony La Russa was hired to be chief baseball officer for the Arizona Diamondbacks, and former pitcher Dave Stewart was hired to be their GM. Stewart said the following when asked about analytics: “We’re not going to be an organization that’s going to [run on] 70 percent metrics. That’s not going to happen.” Oh boy. You just knew we were in for one heckuva ride. And Stewart did not disappoint. Last offseason, before the 2016 season, he made one of the worst trades in recent memory. He let go of Dansby Swanson, the first pick of the draft in 2015. Swanson has already reached the majors for his new team, the Braves: a shortstop with solid defensive marks, he put up 107 wRC+ in 145 plate appearances this past season as a 22-year-old. What made the D-Backs give up Swanson so readily? Well, they wanted Shelby Miller really badly. Yes, he was coming off of a season in which he pitched to a 3.02 ERA in 205 innings as a 25-year-old, but there were some obvious signs of trouble. His control had always been subpar (he walked 3.2 per nine in 2015), and he only struck out 7.5 guys per nine innings, below league average. Worse, his swinging strike rate was only 9.2%. SIERA and xFIP both believed his true talent from that year should have yielded an ERA above 4. And so, Miller was a total bust for the D-Backs in 2016. In 101 innings, he pitched to a 6.15 ERA. He was demoted to the minors for a time, where he performed better, but still… a 6.15 ERA?!?!
You might be thinking: Swanson for Miller? I guess that’s not SO bad. But wait: the D-Backs wanted Miller so badly that they threw in pitching prospect Aaron Blair and stellar outfielder Ender Inciarte. In his first two seasons in the league, when he was only 24 and 25, Inciarte garnered 6 WAR, behind some awesome defense. He would continue to flash the leather in his first season with the Braves, putting up a career-high 3.6 WAR. Blair struggled in his MLB debut, but he was just icing on the cake, and he did show flashes of potential, striking out 8.92 per nine in 71.2 innings of Triple-A ball as a starter in 2016.
So that’s how La Russa’s front office would be run. And the Diamondbacks struggled mightily last year behind him, despite an offseason spending spree. Changes were made after last season: they fired manager Chip Hale and GM Dave Stewart. However, La Russa remains. On the other side of this deal, the Mariners have been using analytics more extensively. They fired their GM Jack Zduriencik in the summer of 2015. Zduriencik was never savvy with analytics. According to former Mariners’ analyst Tony Blengino: “Jack never has understood one iota about statistical analysis. To this day, he evaluates hitters by homers, RBI and batting average and pitchers by wins and ERA. Statistical analysis was foreign to him.” However, the M’s hired former Angels’ GM Jerry Dipoto to succeed Zduriencik, and Dipoto had openly vied for more statistical analysis in the Halos’ front office. So, when I saw the headline “Diamondbacks aquire Taijuan Walker, Ketel Marte”, I assumed the worst, that the savvy Mariners had just ripped off the D-Backs. Did they? Let’s take a look at the Diamondbacks’ haul first.
Still only 24, Walker has flashed tremendous upside. His fastball sits 94, and he has a wide array of secondary offerings to back it up. He appeared to be poised for a breakout through his first nine starts last season, putting up a 2.70 ERA and a strong 8.46 K/9 with only 1.62 BB/9 (all of these marks would have been career bests). However, the rest of his season was derailed by foot and ankle injuries. He spent some time on the DL, but didn’t look quite the same upon returning, putting up a 5.12 ERA behind diminished skills in his last 16 starts. He underwent surgery last month to correct the problem, so there’s hope that he can regain his pre-injury poise. Plus, he still has at least 3 years of team control remaining.
After putting up 1.7 WAR in 57 games as a rookie in 2015, Marte seemed ready to be the Mariners’ shortstop of the future. However, he took a big step back last year, putting up a meager 66 wRC+ in 466 PAs while accruing negative defensive value. He walked in only 3.9% of his PAs, less than half league average, while still striking out at an 18% clip. He showed no power, with a 0.064 ISO. Despite running a .313 BABIP, his soft-contact rate was the 8th highest out of the 175 hitters with at least 450 PAs last year. His hard-contact rate was 5th lowest in that group. His average exit velocity tied for 439th worst out of the 513 hitters with at least 30 balls in play last season. On the bright side, he played markedly better in his first 167 PAs of the season, which came before he went on the DL with a thumb injury. Maybe that thumb injury sapped his power–he had been running a .333 BABIP, .103 ISO, and a 87 wRC+ before the injury, all solid numbers for a shortstop. Plus, he’s still only 23 and has at least 4 years of team control remaining.
So who did the Mariners get in return?
Their package is headlined by shortstop/second basemen Jean Segura, fresh off of a career year. Other than a solid first full season in 2013, Segura had failed to post a wRC+ above 70 before last year. But 2016 was different: always a capable defender, Segura also showcased some pop, running a .353 BABIP, .181 ISO, and a 126 wRC+, leading to a 5 WAR season. When the D-Backs acquired him after the 2015 season, it seemed like another questionable move, but the buy-low paid off in a big way. The 26-year-old has two more years of team control remaining.
The next player the Mariners acquired was Haniger, who made his MLB debut as a 25-year-old last year, putting up an 81 wRC+ with solid defense in 123 PAs. Before being called up, Haniger was enjoying a breakout in the high minors. In 236 Double-A PAs, Haniger ran a 156 wRC+. He looked even better at Triple-A: in 312 PAs, he ran a 185 wRC+. Although that was buoyed by 20 homers and a .370 BABIP, a .330 ISO at Triple-A is impressive regardless. It wasn’t like Haniger was a dud before this year, either: he was drafted 38th overall in 2012, and he went on to post a wRC+ above 100 at every stop in which he recorded at least 30 PAs. That includes an awesome 2015 showing at High-A ball, where he posted a 163 wRC+ in 226 PAs. He has at least 5 years of team control remaining.
Curtis was kind of a throw-in. He’s a 24-year-old left-handed reliever. He looked terrible in his MLB debut last year, tossing 13.1 innings of 6.75 ERA ball, with a staggering 10/13 K/BB ratio. However, he looked much better in Double-A and High-A last year, where he recorded a combined 52 strikeouts in only 20 innings. As a fastball-slider guy, he could be a solid lefty-specialist down the road.
One year ago, the Diamondbacks bought Shelby Miller high. Now, they’re the ones who are selling high. Although, Jean Segura did make some clear strides last year: he had a career high Hard%, career low Soft%, and a career low O-Swing%. His average exit velocity rose from 87.3 MPH in 2015 (average that year was 88.1 for hitters with at least 30 batted ball events) to 89.9 in 2016 (average was 88.7). Despite these developments, his Hard% of 29.7% was still lower than the league average of 31.4%. Even those who hit the hardest don’t consistently run .353 BABIPs (which is what Segura did last year). Plus, his BABIP was aided by the fact that he is an extreme ground-ball hitter–ground-balls go for hits more often than fly-balls do. Of the 146 qualified hitters last year, Segura had the 11th highest ground-ball percentage. Let’s compare Segura with another hard-ground-ball-hitter: Eric Hosmer. Hosmer ran only a .301 BABIP last year behind a 93.4 average exit velo (better than Segura’s) and he had the second highest ground-ball percentage (Segura had the 11th). It’s worth noting that Segura pulls the ball infrequently–his pull rate was the 8th lowest out of the 146 qualified hitters. This makes it harder for teams to shift on Segura, so it’s easier for him to get grounders through the infield. But at the same time, Hosmer had the 30th lowest pull rate, and he hits the ball harder and on the ground more often.
In addition, Segura’s power boost and high BABIP were probably aided by the arid environment of Arizona. According to park factors on FanGraphs, Chase Field (home of the D-Backs) was the third best hitters park in 2014 and 2015. This, coupled with his extreme ground-ball tendencies, makes Segura’s improvements in the power department look fluky. His power numbers should certainly come back down to earth in the pitcher-friendly Safeco Field–the sixth worst park for hitters in 2014 and 2015. Couple that with expected regression to the mean, and Segura’s ISO should be much closer to his career (.117) than what he managed last year (.181). When Segura’s power and BABIP regress, he won’t have much to fall back on offensively. His career walk rate of 4.6% is far below the league average of 8.2%, so it’s easy to see him struggle to reach base.
Curtis struck out 52 guys in 20 innings in the minors. Haniger had a breakout performance in his first taste of the high minors, and put up an average exit velocity of 93.1 in his MLB debut. In other words, they both showed promise, but they have yet to put it all together. On the surface, it looked like Segura put it all together last year, but there are some troubling signs if we look deeper. Walker and Marte, on the other hand, are coming off of unimpressive seasons, but have been successful in the past, and they are both recovering from injuries that have probably hindered their performance. Overall, I’m surprised: I think this is quietly a nice move for the D-Backs, selling high on Jean Segura and buying low on Walker and Marte. Even though the D-Backs have to give up a couple of exciting prospects in the process, they are both far from a sure-thing.
Data from FanGraphs and Baseball Savant. Picture: Hannah Foslien/Getty Images, via Seattle Times. Quotes are from ESPN: http://www.espn.com/espn/feature/story/_/id/12331388/the-great-analytics-rankings
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