James Shields and the Value of Relevance

Matt Kemp, Wil Myers, Justin Upton, and now James Shields. No team has had a splashier off-season than the San Diego Padres, as new GM A.J. Preller overhauled the team’s roster to ensure that the 2015 Padres would actually be able to score some runs. This team now has an unmistakable identity — they might as well call themselves the San Diego Right-Handed Sluggers — and nearly as much star power as any team in the league. The organization is now a far cry from one whose best players were Rene Rivera and Seth Smith.

The Padres are now undoubtedly interesting. Are they going to be good, though? I remain a bit skeptical. As Mike noted this morning, their infield is still kind of dreadful, and while their outfield will hit a lot of home runs, they’re primarily one dimensional players who aren’t as valuable as their reputations. The pitching staff is deep — especially if Brandon Morrow and Josh Johnson figure out how to stay healthy — but not as strong up front as the other contenders in the NL.

Mostly, I see a lot of solid contributors, but very few players who are likely to be among the best players in the league. The Padres have imported three big names (and a former big time prospect) but I’m not sure any of them are going to perform like All-Stars in 2015. Given what Petco Park is likely to do to the raw numbers of Upton and Kemp, Joaquin Benoit might actually still be the team’s most likely All-Star representative.

From a strictly on-field perspective, I’m not sure how good the Padres are going to be next year. Our current projections have them as a .500 team, essentially. Baseball Prospectus has them slightly better, at 83 wins before signing Shields, so maybe push that to 85 wins now. On the other end of the spectrum, Clay Davenport has them at 75 wins pre-Shields, and while we don’t have ZIPS’ standings yet, the individual player forecasts weren’t very optimistic.

Regardless of which methodology you prefer, the numbers come to a pretty consistent conclusion; the Padres are probably going to be decent, but they’re likely the third best team in their own division and a long way from catching the Dodgers. They’ve improved a good amount in one winter, but they were starting from a base roster that BaseRuns had as a 72 win team last year, and it’s tough to move the needle from that position to strong contender in one winter.

So, against that backdrop, I think many of the Padres moves this winter could be viewed as mistakes. They’ve traded a lot of future value — both in terms of prospect depth and financial commitments — in exchange for short-term upgrades, only it’s not entirely clear that those upgrades are going to result in a legitimate contender next year. If the Padres end up as a .500ish team, and then have to pay the piper in future years when Upton leaves as a free agent while Shields and Kemp absorb one-third of the team’s payroll, this experiment could easily be viewed as an expensive failure.

But while I believe that those statements are all true, I also made basically that exact same argument the last time James Shields changed teams.

But that might be enough to make them an 80 win team instead of a 70 win team. Without Myers, they’re now stuck with a replacement level right fielder. They don’t really have a second baseman. Eric Hosmer has to take a huge step forward to just not be horrible. And even at positions like center field, shortstop, and third base, the in-house options are more interesting future pieces than impact present options. The Royals offense is basically Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, and a lot of hopes and prayers. This is just not a team that was a couple of pitchers away from the postseason. This was a team that was a couple of pitchers away from not picking in the top 10 in next year’s draft.

If you squint hard enough, you can see the possibility of the Royals winning 90 games next year. If Hosmer takes a huge step forward, and Santana rebounds to 2011 form, and everyone stays healthy, and they win all 19 games they play against the Twins, but you can do that with 20 to 25 of the teams in Major League Baseball in any given year. It’s not impossible for the Royals to challenge the Tigers for the AL Central title in 2013, but it’s not likely either. There’s a difference between not agreeing to lose on purpose and giving up a huge chunk of your farm system in an ill-fated attempt to push up your timeline to win. The Royals have just done the latter.

The Royals, of course, just went to the World Series, and the Rays just decided that Wil Myers maybe isn’t as good as they thought he would be. And the response to Kansas City’s playoff run forced me to re-evaluate some things.

But while I think I can defend my analysis of the Royals talent level, that doesn’t make the overall argument correct. Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen essentially unparalleled parity in MLB, and this year, we have a World Series match-up between two teams who made the playoffs via the Wild Card. In 2012, the Tigers got to the World Series with 88 regular season wins; in 2011, the Cardinals won it all after winning just 90 games. While better teams are still more likely to win out in the postseason, the structure of the playoffs gives a real chance to every team who simply qualifies, even if they sneak in via the Wild Card. So maybe I underestimated the potentially positive returns from being on the good side of mediocre.

I think it’s possible or even likely that I’ve been underestimating the potential rewards for being decent enough to have things break your way, especially for teams who haven’t been good for a long time. This playoff run is going to pay dividends for the Royals for years to come. It likely created fans for life out of kids in Kansas City who didn’t care at all about the Royals before a few months ago. The long-term benefits of this kind of run are substantial, and the Royals are likely going to generate more in future revenue from this playoff run than they would have saved by underpaying Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi for the next half decade.

In other sports, where the value of a top draft pick is so much higher than it is in MLB, the correct decision is often to either be great or terrible, with mediocrity as the awful middle ground. Perhaps too much of that sentiment crept into my own thinking about the upside of building an 85 win team, because in today’s baseball world, 85 wins and a little bit of luck can turn a franchise around. I’ve argued against losing on purpose, but perhaps I’ve argued too strongly for wins in the 88-95 range and not strongly enough for wins in the 80-88 range. The win curve is a real thing, and some wins are more valuable than others, but that doesn’t mean that I’ve correctly evaluated the marginal benefit of pushing yourself from 82 to 86 wins.

Like with the Royals acquisition of Shields, I think there was probably a better path forward for the Padres than taking Kemp’s contract, trading for a rent-an-Upton, and hoping that outfield defense doesn’t matter before signing an aging pitcher whose strikeout rate is quickly going the wrong way. But the 2014 Padres were completely irrelevant in a way that the 2015 Padres have little chance to be, and we can’t ignore that side of the equation either. I think this experiment is likely to fail, but we have to capture the magnitude of the value of success to fully evaluate the decision to go for it.

Even if it’s 80-85 percent likely that the Padres don’t make the playoffs this year, the rewards from simply being relevant are perhaps high enough to justify the risks. This is baseball’s equivalent of throwing a 50 yard bomb in football; you don’t expect it to work that often, but you still run high risk/high reward plays, since the value of one or two catches outweighs the cost of seven or eight incompletions.

The Padres have put themselves in a position to potentially be the 2014 Royals or 2013 Pirates. They’ll need some things to break their way, but if a few things click, they could be playing meaningful baseball in September and maybe even October. That matters, especially to an organization that just gave their fans an offense that averaged 3.3 runs per game. The Padres don’t have to win the World Series for these moves to justify the long-term cost; they mostly just have to win their fans back. And they certainly have a better shot at doing that sooner with this roster than they would have by staying the course of hoping their prospects develop.

There’s an obvious downside, and I spent the first half of this post laying out the reasons why I think failure is probably still more likely than success. But the Padres have put themselves in a position where the upside of everything going right is now exponentially higher than it was a few months ago, and that’s not a thing to be simply tossed aside because it’s not the most likely outcome. On the roughly one-in-six chance this works, the reward of going for it will make the cost of surrendering some prospects and accepting a chunk of dead-money in future contracts pale in comparison.

Even with Shields, I still think the Padres are something like the seventh best team in the National League. But the seventh best team in the American League just went to the World Series. Baseball isn’t about building behemoths anymore. The Padres aren’t going to be great, but they might be good enough.





Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

126 Comments
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Johnny
7 years ago

Baseball is the only sport where a mediocre team has just as good a chance to win a championship as the best team in the sport. The crap shoot nature of the playoffs has been proven to have no real correlation to regular seasons wins. Nobody actually believes the 2014 Giants were the best team in baseball. Or the 2006 Cardinals. And so on…

DatDudeJD
7 years ago
Reply to  Johnny

Well, this a one hell of a ridiculous overstatement. A mediocre team certainly does not have as good of a chance as the Dodgers, Nationals, or Cardinals to win the series this year.

The Giants have won 3 series while not having great teams, yes. But if you really have to cherry pick 2006 to make your argument, that should give you a clue as to how flawed your argument is.

Good teams make and win playoff series all the time. Hell, 2013 featurde the two teams with the best records in baseball in the series. 2011 had one of the best teams one strike away twice from winning.

While like plays a part, so does being good.

KDL
7 years ago
Reply to  DatDudeJD

And 2013 was quite rare in WC era. You’re cherry-picking just as much as the guy you’re accusing of cherry-picking.

AC
7 years ago
Reply to  DatDudeJD

Since 1995, the team with the best record in the AL went to the WS 8 times, and missed 12. The NL went 5 and 15.
A WS match up between the “best” teams has happened three times in the last 20 years: 1995, 1999, 2013.
Accumulating the best record in your own league gets you, on average in the Wild Card era, about a 1 in 3 chance of even going to the World Series.
Even before the 5th team was added, having a 1-in-3 chance is better than the 1-in-4 that you’d expect if the playing field were completely level once October started, but not by much. Johnny’s statement may have been slightly hyperbolic, but only slightly.
The play-in game may turn out to swing the odds back in favor of the better teams in the long run, but it’s too soon to say for sure.

Paul G.
7 years ago
Reply to  AC

Best record can be misleading. If the best team won 100 games and the second best won 99, that’s essentially no difference in quality. If they are in different divisions or the 100 win team has a major injury, the 99 win team may be objectively better. Sometimes the Wild Card team is essentially just as good or better than a division winner.

Antonio Bananas
7 years ago
Reply to  AC

Not only all that, but there is also the trade deadline. If team A has 55 wins at the deadline and team B has 62. Then at the end of the year, team A has 95 and team B has 98, team A likely (small sample aside) got better.

Plus the hot/cold nature of baseball. Even if you have a 90 win team vs a 100 win team, their respective win % aren’t much different and thus, how many games out of 5 or 7 they should win isn’t much either.

Marsupial Jones
7 years ago
Reply to  Johnny

I dont think its as exclusive to baseball as you think. The Giants were 10-6 when they won the super bowl in 2007 and were even worse in 2011 (9-7). The Ravens were 10-6 in 2013 when they won as well. I’m sure there are others.

And almost every year in the NHL a lower seeded team makes a run in the playoffs. The kings were the 8th seed in the West when they won the first time in 2012. The Flyers made the finals as a 7 seed as well in 2010 (after beating the 8th seed in the Conferance finals). It happens alot in hockey.

semperty
7 years ago

10-6 is the equivalent of winning 101 games over the course of 162. I know it’s slightly different, but let’s not pretend like 10-6 isn’t still really good.

fothead
7 years ago
Reply to  semperty

Even though the math may agree, a 10-6 team in the NFL is typically nowhere near as good as a 101 win team in MLB would be. A 101 win team would typically be good enough for best record in baseball, 10-6 never could be in the NFL, it’s usually not enough to win your division.

Even though baseball has huge parity, I still believe the NFL to give the best chance to a mediocre team to win the championship. Look at Carolina and the fact that they even made the playoffs. How many sub-.500 teams have ever made the playoffs in MLB? Its still one and done. WHat baseball has done is kinda even up those chances after years of knowing a half dozen teams had a realistic shot.

cs3
7 years ago
Reply to  semperty

No, its not really good when the best football teams consistently go 12-4, 13-3, and sometimes even better.
The best team in baseball is usually around 100 wins and often in the high 90’s.
Your analogy only works if the best baseball was always in the 130 win range.

So a 10-6 football is not even close to comparable to a 101 win baseball team.

cs3
7 years ago
Reply to  semperty

my reply was to semperty’s comment by the way.

Marsupial Jones
7 years ago
Reply to  semperty

The Eagles were 10-6 this year and didnt make the playoffs. The Cardinals were 10-6 last year and didnt make the playoffs. A team that makes the playoffs with 10 wins will almost always have the fewest wins of any playoff team. So no, it isnt “really good”.

10 wins in the NFL is about the equivalent of 86-88 wins in MLB.

bryce
7 years ago
Reply to  semperty

Yeah, saying a 10 win NLF team is equivalent to a 100 win baseball team makes you lose all credibility when you try to talk sports.

N8*K
7 years ago

MLB Playoffs are a bit of a crapshoot, but let’s not forget that MLB allows the fewest number (and %) of teams into the playoffs compared to the other major sports.
MLB-10 (was 8)
NFL-12
NHL-16
NBA-16

Sparkleface & Butterbean
7 years ago
Reply to  N8*K

I am OK with this.

Mark
7 years ago
Reply to  Johnny

This happens all the time in other sports too. Didn’t the LA Kings win a few years ago as an 8th seed? Baseball isn’t the only sport where a WC or bottom seed team has a good chance of winning.

channelclemente
7 years ago
Reply to  Johnny

If you stop and think, like a race, it only makes a difference who’s good at the tape. The jockeying back and forth in a marathon suggests that leading at any moment of the race before the tape is sort of irrelevant.

Anon21
7 years ago

Not…really? It’s like a marathon immediately followed by a 5k, where the results of the marathon influence seeding, but are otherwise ignored.

Paul Sorrento
7 years ago
Reply to  Anon21

Yes, but the division winners are allowed to cool down and have a Gatorade before getting to the 5k. The wildcards are forced to go on a sprint to the starting line of the 5k.

Jon L.
7 years ago

No. Just no. And how many marathons have “jockeying back and forth” at the end anyway? What about when it’s just one guy running alone in front for the last few miles? Is it just a bad example of a guy who won a race by outpacing the other runners over the course of the race? Did he forget that he’s supposed to jockey? What about the 99.8% of competitors who miss the jockeying even when it does happen? Did they just forget that the whole race doesn’t matter, or are they maybe just not as fast as the runners in front?

I am just completely nonplussed by this argument.

Baltar
7 years ago
Reply to  Jon L.

I, on the other hand, am plussed.

Orsulakfan
7 years ago
Reply to  Johnny

Certainly more true in baseball than pre-wild card. But the NHL and NFL are still worse. Basketball allows lots of teams into the playoffs, but my sense is that the cream rises to the top in that sport more often than a Cinderella situation.

Peter
7 years ago
Reply to  Orsulakfan

The best team tends to win in basketball more because the best players play almost the entire game in the postseason, and have an impact on just about every play. Lebron James impacts every play of an NBA Finals game, whereas Mike Trout only impacts his at bats and balls hit to center field, and Calvin Johnson only impacts plays when his team has the ball…

Orsulakfan
7 years ago
Reply to  Peter

No argument there, that confirms my impression if true. I wonder if this is borne out by the stats as well.

snack man
7 years ago
Reply to  Peter

Orsulakfan, yes, yes it is.

Looking at 2013-14 in the NBA (the most recent complete season) the worst team had a winn % of 0.183. That win % would be the same as a baseball team winning 30 games.

At the same time, the top team won the equivalent of 122 games. That has, at least, happened once.

Bipmember
7 years ago
Reply to  Peter

The fewer games in a season, the larger a spread in winning % you expect to see, even if the same spread in team quality. Even if basketball had the same level of league parity as baseball, you’d expect the best and worst teams to have more extreme winning percentages.

FuriousToaster
7 years ago
Reply to  Johnny

Of all major US sports, Baseball teams have the least likely chance to make the playoffs.

Baseball: 10 playoffs spots for 30 teams (33%)
Football: 12 playoff spots for 32 teams (37.5%)
Hockey: 16 playoff spots for 30 teams (53%)
Basketball: 16 playoff spots for 30 teams (53%)

A “mediocre team” has a worse chance of winning a championship in baseball than other sports because it is less likely they will make the playoffs in the first place.

Bipmember
7 years ago
Reply to  FuriousToaster

And, since the season is longer, they also have a smaller chance of lucking into a good record and making the playoffs by winning more games than they should.

FuriousToaster
7 years ago
Reply to  Bip

Yes, this is definitely the case. In football if you get 1 lucky win… that’s 6% of your season. That’s the equivalent of 10 lucky wins in baseball.

Carson's Johnny
7 years ago
Reply to  Johnny

Says someone who follows few (no?) other sports. The only major sport you can plausibly say doesn’t have mediocre teams win is Basketball.

Baltar
7 years ago

I don’t know about the NBA, but college basketball has had some mediocre teams win the championship. North Carolina State and Marquette come to mind.

Aaron B.
7 years ago
Reply to  Johnny

Kiss the rings J