Let’s get straight to the point: while I think it’s important to analyze each and every deal with some level of statistical objectivity, I sit in firm opposition to most of the sabermetric community on the Matt Kemp trade…I don’t think the Padres made an awful trade.
My main problem with critics of the deal is that they’re all sourcing W.A.R. (wins above replacement) per dollar as if it were the gospel. Besides W.A.R.’s very real statistical shortcomings – an assumption on league average linear weights, bulk environmental adjustments, and imperfect defensive metrics – let me remind you that no team is trying to maximize its W.A.R. per dollars.
Teams are either a) trying to maximize their World Series odds or b) trying to profit. Yes, maximizing W.A.R. per dollar may help both, but that’s not the end game. With that in mind, acquiring Matt Kemp shouldn’t be analyzed in terms of W.A.R. per dollars of the players going either direction, but in terms of a) World Series odds, b) the Padres’ business interests, and c) the alternative options the Padres had to choose from.
Matt Kemp, Misused W.A.R. and World Series Odds
The main problems with the way some writers are throwing around W.A.R. per dollar figures to justify how the Dodgers got the better end of the trade are that W.A.R. is calculated on league average linear weight values, and projected W.A.R. is the 50th percentile projection for the player.
Let me re-iterate because this is a tremendously important point: projected W.A.R. is one system’s 50th percentile projection for a given player in a perfectly league average lineup. This is problematic for a few reasons.
- No team is fielding an exactly league average lineup. As I’ll detail in a future post, players can have different values depending on the lineup they’re placed in; using league average linear weights (instead of lineup specific linear weights) is not a pragmatic judgement of the player addition.
- Why are we looking at the 50th percentile projection? As I just mentioned, the goal is the win the World Series. The 50th percentile projection might me the most accurate in terms of residual error, but that figure is just as likely to be hit on-the-nose as the 90th percentile projection. We really should be integrating over the whole spectrum of projections. Who wins if the players hit their 90th percentile projections? 75th percentile? We need to examine all the permutations to have a truly thorough and precise evaluation. The standard projected W.A.R. value is emphatically not that evaluation.
That leads to my main judgement of the trade: on-the-field, Matt Kemp and Tim Federowicz (and negative $75 million dollars) are worth more than Yasmani Grandal, Joe Wieland, and Zach Eflin in terms of increased World Series odds for the San Diego Padres. I know some people are debating that point, so let me make it clear why this is so.
Matt Kemp’s Upside and the aforementioned W.A.R. spectrum
If you deny Matt Kemp’s upside, I can’t really help you.
In 2011, he posted 39 homeruns with 40 stolen bases and nearly won National League MVP (and probably should have). His 8.4 W.A.R. that season was the 11th best season by a positional player in the past decade. The only seasons ranked above him are either superhuman Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, or ARod seasons, MVP seasons by Josh Hamilton and others, or fluke defensive metric seasons by David Wright / Ben Zobrist. In terms of batting runs – the hitting component of W.A.R. – only Albert Pujols, Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, Jose Bautista, and Alex Rodriguez have had a better season in the past decade.
For a team with a lot of deficiencies making an argument that they want to compete for an NL West title in 2015, a player with an absurd upside – a wide W.A.R. spectrum – is exactly the type of player they need (among others).
His defensive metrics are bad, yes, but he does still have a good arm and perhaps the Padres will micromanage his outfield positioning better than the not-so-statistically-inclined Los Angeles Dodgers have the past half-decade.
Yes, Yasmani Grandal at his salary along with spending the Kemp money elsewhere may be a better “value” on aggregate, ie. the 50th percentile W.A.R. projection, but the lower variance associated with that likely package means higher certainty that the Padres have no way to drastically improve in 2015. At least with Kemp there’s a chance he puts an MVP caliber season, however unlikely it might be at age 30.
In other words, while the Padres’ expected W.A.R. with Kemp may be lower than it would have been with Yasmani Grandal and whoever else they spent that $75 million on, the odds the Padres win the World Series are actually higher due to the higher variance strategy associated with Matt Kemp’s upside.
I’m not saying the Padres have a good chance of winning the World Series. They don’t. But I do think it went from somewhere close to 0% for 2015 to somewhere around 1%. In the end, that’s what matters most to me as a fan
(Anything past 2015 is difficult to predict. If Matt Kemp bounces back to even a 4 W.A.R. player, I imagine the Padres’ expected World Series odds are significantly higher for 2016 having made this deal than they are with Grandal plus that $75 million player (who would probably be even older, and more susceptible to a decline, than Kemp). Part of the reason this is so difficult to predict is because the Padres had an impending decision to make with Rivera/Grandal/Hedges that may have resulted in a significantly worse haul or loss of value due to a positional logjam.)
Kemp’s Injury History
Kemp’s injury history boils down to basically three injuries: hamstring problems that cost him 51 games in 2012 and another 24 in 2013, a detached shoulder labrum in September of 2012, and ankle problems in 2013.
The shoulder injury Kemp suffered was the same injury that Adrian Gonzalez suffered in 2010. Adrian Gonzalez is quoted as saying that it took him roughly 18 months to fully recover from that injury and regain his strength/swing from pre-injury. Perhaps coincidentally, Matt Kemp’s 18 month time-frame coincides with his hot second half to the 2014 season. I think it’d be a mistake to assume that he’ll continue that hot streak into 2015, but perhaps there are actually real reasons why he started slow and came on strong to end 2014. At any rate, the shoulder injury – which required some cleanup last offseason – doesn’t appear to be hindering him anymore.
Kemp suffered an ankle sprain in July of 2013 which cost him over 50 games in that season and led to offseason surgery prior to 2014. That surgery caused him to miss the first five games of the 2014 season.
The only injury Kemp suffered in 2014 was a left foot contusion after fouling off a pitch. He didn’t miss any time.
At this point, Kemp has a clean bill of health with a reputation for getting hurt. That’s considerably different than where Carlos Quentin was when the Padres acquired him. Speaking of which…
Matt Kemp is not Carlos Quentin
Carlos had an even more checkered injury history, including a knee injury in the middle of 2011 which the White Sox were tight-lipped on:
Now a knee issue has cropped up that the Sox are being very closed-lipped about. It’s not thought to be serious, with the team expecting him back by the weekend, but is there any sort of interrelation with the foot problems? We’ll probably never know, but it bears watching if they’ve traded one problem for another. The delay is leading some to speculate that Quentin had a cortisone injection, but there’s no evidence for that. Look to see how Quentin responds once he’s back in the lineup or if he’s limited to DH duty.
That was on top an even more serious shoulder injury than the one Kemp suffered and plantar fasciatis, perhaps one of the worst injuries a professional sports player can suffer as its a lingering issue with no clear corrective method.
In fact, Carlos Quentin has 22 entries on his Baseball Prospectus injury log prior to coming to San Diego for injuries related to his right elbow, left shoulder, right hamstring, left forearm, right wrist, left hand, left foot, left hamstring, left knee, right hand, and left shoulder (again).
These aren’t similar injury histories, and it’s not even close.
Tim Federowicz is not negligible
The throw-in from the Dodgers is not a negligible asset. First off, he’ll probably be the Padres primary backup catcher in 2015, backing up Rene Rivera (who is now the starter in Grandal’s absence). Second of all, he’s actually not all that bad.
Yes, his Major League numbers have been poor. But they’ve also been few and far between, with just 271 plate appearances to-date. While his .247 OBP and .300 SLG are remarkably Amarista-esque, some of that’s attributable to his .262 BABIP. He actually has a pretty good contact rate on pitches in the strike zone – 84% – and the problem may be that he just doesn’t swing enough, as he has looked at 40% of pitches thrown to him in the strike zone. In short, there are reasons to believe his numbers aren’t as bad as the small sample suggests.
And while he’s mostly a classic example of “minor league journeyman”, he’s actually been a really productive one. Over the past four seasons, he’s played in 239 games in AAA, amassing an impressive .320/.394/.544 AVG/OBP/SLG slash line in over 1000 plate appearances. Yes, that comes in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. But that’s still a nice line regardless.
At league minimum, and still just 27, he’s actually a non-negligible piece to this trade. And it’s not like he’ll be asked to do much more than hold backup responsibilities until if/when Austin Hedges is ready. If he can replicate any of his AAA success at the Major League level, he could end up being a sneaky addition to the Padres.
Matt Kemp and the Padres’ Business Interests
The Padres had to do something, from a business perspective. Google Trends confirms they have become practically irrelevant in San Diego:
Adding Matt Kemp will definitely help the Padres from a business perspective. I’m not for rooting for the Padres to succeed as a business, but there is value Matt Kemp adds off the field.
The Padres will sell more jerseys and accessories with Matt Kemp on it, let alone other Kemp-influenced purchases, than they have since at least Adrian Gonzalez, if not longer. That’s not a negligible effect.
An attendance spike of just 200,000 is worth millions, let alone the process of getting the ball rolling towards consistent sellouts – where the Padres must get if they are ever to succeed long-term financially (and therefore have a higher payroll).
Hell, the Padres got on the front page of ESPN today by adding Matt Kemp. I’m not sure exactly how much that drives revenue, but it doesn’t hurt. And as someone who follows mentions of the term “Padres” as one of his Tweetdeck columns, I assure you that dialogue about the team has increased by at least 1000% today. At times the column whizzes by so fast you cannot even read the tweets. This, too, is good for the Padres as a business.
“Value” and limited choices
Paying Matt Kemp $75 million over 5 years is not an overpay in terms of his going market value. Some team in free agency would gladly pay him more if he was an available free agent; whether that’s an “overpay” in terms of projected output or not is debatable, but I don’t think 100% of teams pay players based on Fangraphs’ projected W.A.R. multiplied by the going rate of W.A.R. per dollar.
Realistically, the Padres could not upgrade their offense with a player of Matt Kemp’s caliber on the free agent market right now. Yes, they could have signed Pablo Sandoval or Nelson Cruz, arguably worse values anyway, but they were not available when the Padres made this trade.
In other words, the alternative uses of the $75 million dollars should only be examined in the actual ways in which the Padres could actually spend $75 million dollars in this actual free agent market. Perhaps you can scrape together a better way to spend that money while keeping Yasmani Grandal, but it’s an imperfect solution anyway given real market limitations.
In short: the Padres don’t get to line up every player who would stand to earn $75 million over 5 years and pick out the best bargain of the bunch. That’s not how it actually works.
Thursday was a good day to be a Padres fan. While it remains to be seen whether the Padres will expand payroll and live up to the full commitment that is Matt Kemp’s contract, it’s at least the largest contract the Padres have ever had on the books at some point in time. While it doesn’t mean we should go hog wild in our confidence in ownership – and certainly we shouldn’t let our guard down – it at least pushes the needle favorably.
There is still a lot of work to be done in order to elevate this team into the conversation in the NL West. Each move they make, though, will accentuate the Matt Kemp trade as they ascend further up the World Series pecking order. As a general rule, adding talented players compounds the value of valuable players that you already possess, as it becomes less likely that the talent already on the team will be wasted on a fruitless effort. With that said, it’s probably wise to wait a little bit longer before putting a true stamp of approval or letter grade on the trade.
More than anything, though, I’m glad we can finally talk about the merits of spending $75 million dollars (and roster assets) on a player, rather than endlessly harking on an ownership group, that up until this point, hadn’t made a significant investment in a legitimate talent.