Matt Kemp, making the Padres relevant, and how critics misuse W.A.R.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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:

padrestrends

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.

Closing Thoughts

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.

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7 responses to “Matt Kemp, making the Padres relevant, and how critics misuse W.A.R.

  1. This is a good response to the anti-Kemp crowd, certainly one of the better pro-Kemp takes on the trade I’ve read. I’ll give you that.

    But it doesn’t change my opinion on the deal *that* much, and there are a few points I’ll quibble with.

    1. If Federowicz is not negligible, what does that make Wieland and Eflin? On Federowicz — as you mention, his minor league performance came as a 23-26 year old in Triple-A in one of the most hitter-friendly environments in the league. He has a 30 percent K rate in (limited) major league PAs. Steamer projects him for an 81 wRC+. The arm looks solid, but other aspects of his defense look only okay. Look, he’s fine as a backup, but I don’t see how you can mention him without mentioning that a couple of young not totally negligible pitchers are heading to LA.

    2. You would sacrifice a jump from zero percent to one percent in World Series odds even if it meant that — on average — you weren’t improving the team as efficiently as you could and that that WS odds jump would probably be on the decline every year after 2015? Why not build the team into a legit contender with cheaper/undervalued players like Grandal, so you can count on 84 or 87 or 89 wins in a year, then make a win-now move for a high variance player like Kemp? Just doesn’t seem like the timing is right to me for this kind of move., especially because it only marginally (at best) improves the team. I would have been fine with spending $75 million on a talented player or, heck, even $100 million on Kemp if it meant keeping Grandal.

    3. The easiest way to get to consistent sellouts is to put a consistent winner on the field. I wouldn’t worry about Kemp adding to attendance, especially if he doesn’t help the team win significantly more games. While there might be an early box office spike, it’ll wear off quickly if the wins don’t come. Kemp isn’t Babe Ruth. Again, build a winning supporting cast first, then make the big move for the marquee player.

    4. I think there’s an argument that you’re simply overrating Kemp. His huge year (2011) was three years ago and came when he was a near league average defensive center fielder (by the advanced metrics). Since then, his offense hasn’t reached 2011 heights again, he’s battled multiple injuries as he’s entered his thirties, and his defense has cratered. The chances of him putting up a 7-8 WAR year again seem close to zero, even if he hits like he did in 2011 again. For instance, PECOTA’s *90th percentile* projection pegged him at 5.4 WAR last year and it likes his defense better than other systems. Admittedly, that was last year’s projection, so it doesn’t account for Kemp’s 2014 season, but I doubt the needle would move that much considering he’s a year older now.)

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    • Ordering the reply in the same order:
      1. Other articles beat Wieland, Erlin, Grandal, and Kemp to death. Almost nothing touched on Federowicz. The article was premised, perhaps not as clearly as it should be, as a collection of thoughts that went against the sabr argument at the time, not as an all-inclusive article about every angle of the trade. The point was simply to highlight something that hadn’t been mentioned much yet.
      2. It’s fun to speculate that the Padres could have simply absorbed Kemp’s entire salary in order to keep Grandal, but it’s not a pragmatic exercise, since we don’t know if that was even agreeable from the Dodgers’ perspective. I’m in favor of the Padres increasing their collective World Series odds and I believe the Kemp trade has increased their overall implied World Series odds not just for 2015, but in general. Are there better ways to spend Grandal and $75M? Of course. Were any of them actually doable this offseason? Maybe not. For another team, I might object to not maximizing their offseason moves. For the Padres, I’m not going to criticize a move that’s in the 75th percentile of what they could have done because it’s not the 99th percentile; it’s still a good move.
      3. I don’t think Grandal, Wieland, Erlin help the Padres get to sustained winning any quicker than adding Kemp. Grandal was an undervalued piece, but one that likely wasn’t going to be around when the Padres approach sustained winning (which either has to come through significant free agent spending – unlikely – or by waiting for the farm to develop).
      4. In the 2nd half last year, no one in baseball had a higher slugging percentage than Matt Kemp. Yes, that has to be regressed. But I don’t think it’s far-fetched to believe that an elite offensive talent can have elite seasons at age 30-34. The course of baseball history is littered with them. I also would gladly accept 9:1 odds on Matt Kemp exceeding his PECOTA 90th percentile projection.

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      • Fair enough, all around. Appreciate the back-and-forth.

        I’d still rather have Grandal’s age 26-29 seasons for (relatively) cheap over Kemp’s age 30-34 seasons for $75 million, but I understand that’s a somewhat unpopular opinion and that I’m higher on Grandal than almost anybody. Just think that a guy that can catch and hit like Grandal, with further room to grow both offensively and defensively (and further recover from the ACL surgery), is too rare a commodity to give up for a post-prime, defensively challenged, sort of expensive (though potentially really good) wildcard like Kemp.

        If Grandal had to be dealt, I would have preferred a deal that centered around a Starlin Castro type, though I’m not sure how feasible that would have been. If that type of deal wasn’t in the cards, I would have just held onto Grandal and let the catcher situation play out for another season.

        I’ll admit, though, Kemp makes things a bit more exciting next year. And if you pair him with Upton, maybe another solid starting pitcher, and some shuffling here and there, maybe the Padres can turn into a borderline wildcard contender in 2015. That would make Grandal’s departure easier to take, but there’s still work to do.

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  2. Am I the only one that isn’t terribly down on his defense? I mean, he has 2 gold gloves and 64 OF Assists (~7/season), he can’t be that terrible? Maybe he’s not Kenny Lofton in his prime, but I can’t imagine him being worse than about average just on pure athleticism. Doc Roberts will get out there a work with him, and I think he’ll be just fine in RF.

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  3. This was fantastic. A lot of great original thinking that is also well explained. I’m hopeful Preller isn’t done yet increasing the club’s odds of winning the WS.

    Like

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