Snellinger and the Jungle of Doom

Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports; Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

On the one hand, free agency is an important right that grants players the power to choose their employer and negotiate a fair salary. On the other hand, job hunting is super, mega stressful. I don’t say this to imply anyone should try to avoid free agency, but rather to acknowledge that some things are objectively good and still leave you so nervous about making the wrong choice that you impulse purchase one of those patron saint figurines from a display near the register at a convenience store, then bury it in your front yard for good luck while sipping on a cherry coke slushy, even though you’re not particularly religious, and looking back with the clarity of hindsight, you’re pretty sure that figurine was an angelic depiction of Dale Earnhardt Sr.

Anyway, players don’t need to rely on Nascar voodoo to make career choices. A more logical system is possible. Specifically, a system to help players evaluate which teams tend to facilitate a player’s best on-field performance. In a previous piece, I compared the performance of players acquired by the Angels to that of players acquired by the Dodgers in the name of comparing how Shohei Ohtani’s stint with the Angels might have gone if the Angels were secretly run by the Dodgers. But why stop there, when we can compare all 30 teams and give free agents a feel for which clubs are most likely to offer a boost to their performance and which ones are baseball purgatory?

But first, let’s run through the methodology. In back-to-back seasons, it’s reasonable to expect a player’s performance to be roughly the same aside from the usual variation within a player’s true talent range and a mild adjustment for aging (insert caveats on injuries and other extenuating circumstances here). So if a player changes teams and goes on to post notably different numbers, it’s reasonable to credit a decent chunk of the change in output to the new work environment. Therefore, comparing player performance in adjacent seasons with different teams and aggregating at the team level provides a metric for evaluating how well a team maximizes the ability of its major league acquisitions.

To capture as many components of player output as possible, WAR will be the metric used for comparison, and to ease that comparison, it will be converted to a rate stat, so we’ll be looking at the players’ change in WAR per 600 plate appearances or batters faced (WAR600). The data spans 2018 to 2023, to get a decent number of player-seasons, while minimizing how much credit and/or blame gets attributed to front office regimes that no longer run the show. After finding the difference in WAR600 for each player with one season on the team of interest and an adjacent season on some other team, the average difference (weighted by playing time) was calculated for each team. Difference in this case is defined as the percentage increase or decrease in WAR600 coming from another team to the team of interest. To ease calculation and comparison, WAR600 values were scaled to fall between 0 and 1, since wide ranging values that include negatives make working with percent changes difficult. Partial seasons (due to midseason trades or 2020) were combined with an adjacent season when possible to provide a more representative sample, with a minimum of 100 PA/BF required, even for segmented seasons.

To demonstrate the mechanics of this process, consider Kris Bryant’s 2021-2023 career arc, which contributes to the average impact rating of three teams. Bryant began 2021 by logging 374 plate appearances with the Cubs, then got traded to the Giants on July 30, and with San Francisco, he added 212 PA to his season total. That offseason he signed a long term deal with the Rockies. Due to a smattering of injuries he amassed just 516 PA across the 2022 and 2023 seasons. To measure the Cubs’ impact on Bryant’s performance, his production from 2020 and the first half of 2021 (all with Chicago) would be compared to the second half of 2021 and 2022 to get a larger sample (and since this side of the comparison is not measuring his production while a member of the team of interest, we’re OK to combine output from two teams, since they’re both part of the control group). To measure the Giants’ impact on Bryant’s performance, his second half 2021 production would first be compared to his last season and a half in Chicago, and then separately compared to his first couple of seasons in Colorado. To measure the Rockies’ impact on his performance, Bryant’s combined 2021 output would be compared to his combined output from ’22 and ’23 in Denver.

The theory behind this approach is that the teams that consistently demonstrate a positive year-over-year bump to their acquisitions’ WAR600 are doing something to help players hit the top end of their true talent potential. What might those teams be doing? Those are trade secrets, so we can’t know specifics, but we have a general idea. They invest in a top rate training and medical staff for injury prevention, treatment, and rehab, as well as strength training and conditioning. They employ a coaching staff of skilled communicators with an aptitude for diagnosing and addressing issues with mechanics or approach. They use the latest technology to assist players and coaches as they work to get better. They use data and advanced scouting to put players in optimal situations and arm them with a strategy tailored to their skills and their opponents’ weaknesses. Their front offices construct the type of roster that allows for workload management and for players to be used optimally rather than playing out of position or facing disadvantageous platoons.

These tactics interact with each other in complex ways and, as outsiders, we can’t directly measure their individual impact. What we can do is indirectly estimate their overall effect. Since the method discussed here is based on averages, an individual player’s mileage may vary. Grouping players based on skill profiles might provide more specialized insight, but team-level averages get a little shaky due to the small samples. However, splitting the player population based on WAR600 in the season immediately adjacent to the player’s arrival or departure from the team in question shows how results may vary depending on the quality of player.

The tables below rank teams according to the magnitude of their estimated impact on overall player performance expressed as a percentage increase or decrease; they also include a breakdown of their impact for three tiers of players divided up by WAR600. As one might expect, players coming off strong seasons are likely due some negative regression, which is why the column for top tier players is mostly negative values; likewise for the lower tier players, who are due some positive regression, the changes move in a more positive direction. For this exercise we’re more concerned with teams’ relative position to one another, so controlling for this effect isn’t of great concern.

Team Rankings, Pitchers
Team Overall WAR600 < 1.0 WAR600 1.0-2.0 WAR600 > 2.0
TBR 10% 23% 1% 0%
SFG 7% 14% -3% -4%
SEA 6% 12% 2% -5%
BAL 5% 13% -3% -11%
CLE 5% 12% 1% -4%
CHW 4% 12% -8% -1%
LAD 3% 13% 4% -3%
MIL 3% 9% 1% -10%
DET 3% 14% -1% -10%
OAK 3% 11% -2% -6%
HOU 3% 12% 0% 0%
PHI 2% 14% -1% -6%
MIA 2% 10% -8% -10%
TOR 2% 9% 0% -4%
KCR 1% 9% -5% -12%
LAA 1% 15% -6% -13%
CIN 1% 9% 1% -8%
SDP 1% 18% -4% -8%
MIN 0% 10% -3% -8%
PIT 0% 6% -2% -10%
CHC -1% 8% -7% -5%
TEX -1% 7% -5% -6%
STL -1% 6% -1% -8%
COL -1% 7% -11% -11%
ATL -1% 7% -3% -11%
BOS -2% 5% 0% -10%
NYY -3% 12% -2% -9%
WSN -3% 6% -8% -9%
ARI -3% 0% -5% -6%
NYM -4% 7% -4% -8%

Team Rankings, Hitters
Team Overall WAR600 < 1.0 WAR600 Between 1.0-2.0 WAR600 > 2.0
TBR 1% 11% 0% -12%
BAL 1% 6% -5% -16%
MIL 0% 8% -10% -8%
NYY -2% 8% 0% -12%
WSN -2% 5% -6% -13%
ARI -3% 8% -8% -12%
LAD -3% 12% -9% -9%
PIT -3% 3% -6% -12%
BOS -4% 5% -10% -10%
SEA -4% 3% -1% -15%
HOU -4% 3% -3% -10%
CIN -4% 5% -5% -15%
CHW -5% 6% -4% -15%
MIN -5% 3% -4% -10%
OAK -5% 4% -7% -10%
PHI -5% 14% -7% -13%
NYM -5% 6% -7% -14%
CLE -5% 5% -9% -14%
TOR -6% -1% -8% -10%
ATL -7% 0% -9% -10%
CHC -7% 3% -3% -15%
STL -8% 14% -8% -11%
SFG -9% 9% -11% -21%
SDP -9% 4% -9% -17%
TEX -10% 0% -11% -18%
COL -10% -2% -13% -20%
MIA -10% -5% -12% -15%
DET -11% -1% -13% -18%
KCR -12% 0% -16% -20%
LAA -12% -9% -7% -16%

The Rays, Orioles, Dodgers, and Brewers make the top 10 in both lists, which passes the smell test for smart teams with respectable track records for player evaluation and development. (Since this is measuring performance of big league acquisitions, Baltimore’s recent lack of homegrown pitchers doesn’t count against it.)

The Cubs, Rangers, Cardinals, Rockies, and Braves all rank in the bottom 10 of both lists, which is less intuitive (Colorado aside) than the top end of the rankings. But Atlanta tends to rely heavily on players developed from within its system and rarely makes splashy moves in free agency. To a lesser degree, the Cubs fit in this category as well. The Rangers’ recent acquisitions have taken a year or so to settle in with their new club. (For example, by this methodology, the organization’s estimated impact on Corey Seager and Marcus Semien was negative because in 2022, their first season with the team, their production dipped considerably from ’21. These calculations do not include the duo’s top-three MVP finishes last year.) Also, prior to rounding into championship form, Texas lost a few players who went on to be productive elsewhere. As for the Cardinals, they seem to have lost the recipe for their Devil Magic potion; now it’s just soup.

Beyond the overall rankings, some teams show a stronger affinity for maximizing one level of player more than others. The Yankees, Padres, and Angels have outperformed their overall position in the standings with pitchers hovering around replacement level, while the Diamondbacks, Rangers, Cubs, Blue Jays, and Astros have excelled at optimizing the upper tier pitchers. On the hitting side, the Dodgers, Phillies, and Cardinals have a better-than-expected track record with fringy big league talent, while the Brewers, Dodgers, Blue Jays, and Braves have overperformed their ranking with upper tier players.

With an average estimate of each team’s influence on the performance of their big league acquisitions, let’s apply what we know and step into the shoes of a big leaguer on an expiring contract. Pretend you’re Blake Snell or Cody Bellinger, and you come into the most recent offseason with a big decision in front of you. You begin running through the different scenarios, trying to visualize how events might unfold as a result of your choices. You own a vivid imagination and the exercise quickly takes on a life of its own. (Since they’re both coming off seasons where they posted more than 2.0 WAR, their performances will be imagined using the projected change for upper tier players.)

Author’s note: All italicized text below contains a condensed plotline and abridged quotes adapted from the Goosebumps novel, Deep in the Jungle of Doom by R.L. Stine. Why? Because making big decisions about the future with limited information feels quite a bit like a “You Choose the Scare” scenario to me.

While exploring the jungle, you encounter a gargoyle. It springs to life and sits poised to attack.

Down the path to the left, you see a small pool and a waterfall. Maybe you could swim away from the stone beast! To the right, you see a clearing with heavy sticks and rocks.

Lest you thought we were about to explore the journey of a pending free agent in any conventional manner, we’re going to kick things off with a little time travel. Given the common practice of trading impending free agents at the deadline, our adventure begins in July of 2023, with the Padres set to trade Snell and the Cubs cooking up a Bellinger swap. In this version of events, both players have a full no-trade clause, permitting them some choice in the matter.

Our journey will follow our two adventurers down four potential paths as they choose their own fates, first at the trade deadline, then in free agency. A skeleton of the paths we’ll trace is shown in the flowchart below.

A flowchart outlining the decision tree facing the two heroes of this story.

If you’d like to skip ahead and see the bird’s eye view of all four narrative arcs presented below, click here.

If not, it’s time to make your first decision:

• To fight the beast with sticks and stones, and reveal potential Trade Destination #1, read on.

• To try your luck with the water, and reveal potential Trade Destination #2, click here.

Fight the Beast With Sticks and Stones (Trade Destination #1)

You pick up a rock to throw at the gargoyle, but before you get the chance, it inexplicably runs away scared.

After choosing this path, Snell accepts a trade to the Dodgers while Bellinger agrees to finish out the year with the Yankees. Both teams excel at getting the most from their players. Some examples of Los Angeles’ strong performance on this front include Ross Stripling, Tyler Anderson, and Mitch White. New York can brag about buoying Matt Carpenter, Luke Voit, and Gio Urshela. With their new teams, Snell posts 1.1 WAR over the remainder of the season and Bellinger puts up 1.5 WAR – two strong showings, especially while adapting to an unfamiliar environment. Both players overpower the beast that is signing on with a new employer during a pressure-packed playoff push.

As you catch your breath, a table on the edge of the clearing catches your eye. You quickly realize the table is decorated with shrunken heads. You turn to leave, but not before catching a whiff of some intoxicating fruit sitting in a basket on the table. You simply have to taste this fruit.

With the season complete, it’s time for Snellinger to taste the forbidden fruit of free agency.

But only moments after the fruit crosses your lips, you start to feel dizzy.

The ground begins to twist under your feet. When the rumbling stops you realize the fruit has transformed you into a grayish cross between a human and a stegosaurus.

“You’re not you when you’re hungry,” as they say in the Snickers commercials, and you’re even less you when stressed to the max by the prospect of seeking new employment. Fortunately, a group of seemingly kind Warrior Women are here to offer help, or rather, a group of GMs, looking to guide you out of free agency and onto one of their rosters.

“My name is Unger,” the head Warrior Woman announces to you. “The Muglani are our enemies. You are under their spell. We always try to help the unfortunate people the Muglani turn into monsters. Will you accept our help?”

Unger extends her hand for you to shake. You see a shrunken head peeping out of her bag.

That brings us to your next choice: Sign with Unger’s team or explore other options.

• To accept Unger’s help, and reveal Free Agent Destination #1, read on.

• To turn down the offer and go on your way, and reveal Free Agent Destination #2, click here.

Accept Unger’s Help (Free Agent Destination #1)

You reach out and shake Unger’s hand. She tells you that Fireheart fruit is an antidote to the Muglani magic. “You see, my sister was a victim of their magic. They shrank her head! I have it right in my bag to remind me to be on the lookout for them!”

For our purposes, we can consider the Fireheart fruit the antidote to whatever might ail a player at any given time – the yips, a nagging injury, a mechanical hitch, a flawed approach, you name it. Ideally, players find their way to a cave (or team) with the magically engineered cure they seek, such as a team psychologist, a cutting edge medical staff, a biomechanics lab, or an incisive analytics staff.

Unger leads you to the cave where the Fireheart tree grows, but warns you it’s guarded by a dragon.

There’s always a guard dragon. If being a professional baseball player were easy, everyone would do it.

As you enter the cave and approach the tree you hear a violent HISS! The dragon lunges at you from behind the tree and pins you to the ground. You get a crazy idea. You snap right back at the dragon. After all, you’re a monster, too! You growl and gnash your own sharp teeth.

That team psychologist is working already.

The dragon takes one look at you now and stops hissing, then slinks back to the tree with its head down. You’re able to escape with the Fireheart fruit and regain your human form.

As Snell and Bellinger enter the cave to battle the dragon, they do so adorned in the threads of their new teams. After signing a free agent contract with the Rays, Snell revives some forgotten magic with his former club and slays the dragon with a 4.1 WAR season in 2024. (One might argue the Rays already exerted their positive impact on Snell, but not all the factors we’re attempting to capture travel with the player to his next team, such as access to a superlative medical staff or a special relationship with a coach.) Bellinger tames the beast as a Brewer, finishing the first season of his new deal with 4.9 WAR. Their impressive numbers are juiced by the positive team environments in Tampa Bay and Milkwaukee. The Rays’ track record for pumping up pitchers includes Tyler Glasnow, Emilio Pagán, and Collin McHugh. The Brewers’ history of helping hitters includes Mike Moustakas, Luis Urías, and Kolten Wong.

To exit the adventure and finish reading the article, click here.

To return to your first choice, click here.

To turn down the offer and go on your way, and reveal Free Agent Destination #2, read on.

Turn Down the Offer and Go On Your Way (Free Agent Destination #2)

It’s very nice of you to offer us help,” you say, backing away from the Warrior Women.

The Warrior Woman’s face turns red as you edge toward the trees. “Okay, I admit it. We’re the ones who put that magic fruit there and turned you into a monster.”

Hard, weathered hands clamp down on your arms. The Warrior Women have captured you. Soon your shrunken head will hang on the magic table in the clearing.

This is one of the dark timelines. Some teams turn players into an uglier, shrunken version of themselves. Granted, they’re not poisoning players on purpose, but they do bear some responsibility when players consistently underperform. Snell is snared by the Tigers, where he begins his tenure with a 3.1 WAR season. Bellinger falls prey to the Giants where his first season yields a 3.4 WAR season. The Tigers’ lackluster résumé is populated with pitchers, such as Aníbal Sánchez, José Ureña, and Shane Greene. For the Giants, their rating is hurt by down performances from the likes of Andrew McCutchen, Curt Casali, and Tommy La Stella.

To exit the adventure and finish reading the article, click here.

To go back to your first choice, click here.

To reveal potential Trade Destination #2, read on.

Try Your Luck With the Water (Trade Destination #2)

You race toward the waterfall. Just as the gargoyle pounces at you, you do a clumsy backward dive off the bank into the water. When you come up out of the water, you are behind the waterfall in the mouth of a cave.

Dark forms step out of the cave’s shadows. Their heads look like hideous puff balls. They’re perfectly round and covered in a slimy white fuzz, like moss. Their bodies are covered with heavy, gray rocklike scales instead of skin.

Snellinger escapes the grasp of the gargoyle, but falls straight into the hands of a strange swamp people. Or in this case, teams unable to help them maximize their abilities. For Snell, this means joining the Orioles where he logs 0.8 WAR over the remainder of the season. Baltimore’s backlog of disappointing seasons after acquiring pitchers coming off upper tier years is underscored by Evan Phillips, Alex Cobb, and Tanner Scott. Meanwhile, Bellinger splashes down with the Rangers where he accrues 1.2 WAR over the final two months. Texas is bogged down in the rankings by swampy seasons from Kole Calhoun, Brad Miller, and Robinson Chirinos.

Now Snellinger must confront their next challenge: free agency.

A huge figure appears on a throne that sits atop a giant pyramid. The king’s face is covered in strange slimy moss, like the others, but it is gold-colored and huge horns stick out of each side of his big spongy head.

Think of the king as a GM wanting to negotiate a deal for you to sign with his club, but you’re not sure his overall vibe is what you’re looking for from an employer. You scan the cavern for an escape route. If you run for it and get away, perhaps a mystery team will emerge as a suitor.

To hear the king out, and reveal Free Agent Destination #3, read on.

To make a run for it, and reveal Free Agent Destination #4, click here.

Hear the King Out (Free Agent Destination #3)

The king bellows, “If you want us to show you the way out – YOU’RE GOING TO HAVE TO EARN IT! You must bring me three pieces of gold from inside this mountain or become my servant forever.”

You take off down the tunnel and almost immediately encounter a troll. It’s wearing lederhosen with striped white-and-green stockings. A white beard covers his wrinkled face. His mouth is set in a hard line and his eyes are RED.

You explain to the troll that you made a deal with the king and now you owe him something of value. The troll agrees to supply the gold, if you can correctly answer a trivia question.

“Have you ever heard of Scott Boras?” the troll asks.

“Yes…” you reply, wary of a trap.

“What’s his favorite rhetorical device to use during press conferences?”

The answer is so obvious; you’re sure it must be a trick. “Metaphors,” you reply.

“NO! NO! NO!” he screams. “I made the question too easy!” With tears in his eyes, the troll hands over the gold.

You sprint for the mouth of the tunnel and reach the grand chamber just in time. The king himself shows you out into the jungle and you make it safely home.

Though you almost run out of time, Scott Boras and his antics do prove useful. In this free agency scenario, Snellinger outwits the troll trying to keep the gold for himself. As a result, both players sign with teams who set them up for successful seasons. Snell signs with Toronto where he extracts 3.7 WAR from his first season. Bellinger journeys to Minnesota where he unearths a 4.7 WAR season to start his contract. The Blue Jays’ strong showing in this analysis comes from boosting the likes of Sam Gaviglio, Steven Matz, and Robbie Ray. And the Twins have seen success maximizing hitters like Nelson Cruz, Josh Donaldson, and Brian Dozier.

To exit the adventure and finish reading the article, click here.

To return to your previous choice, click here.

To make a run for it, and reveal Free Agent Destination #4, read on.

Run For It (Free Agent Destination #4)

You spin around and duck to the left, speeding past the cave people. A small blue door is cut right into the side of the tunnel. You twist the handle and slip inside. You turn and find yourself inches from a giant burrowing tarantula!

The door bursts open and the cave creatures rush in. “Be careful!” they cry.

With one sweep of its long, hairy forearms, the spider gathers you up. It wraps you in thick strands of silk.

“We tried to warn you!” the cave creatures say sadly.

You want to say “thanks anyway” but you’re kind of busy. In fact, you’re really tied up.

Snellinger is lured into a tantalizing web. Their mystery teams are enormous spiders. Snell gets caught up in Kansas City where he serves up a 2.9 WAR season in his first year as a Royal. Bellinger entangles himself with San Diego, where he supplies 3.9 WAR in his inaugural season with the Padres. The Royals’ recent struggles with making the most of their pitching acquisitions include Jordan Lyles, Joakim Soria, and Jorge López, while the Padres have experienced similar woes on the hitting side with players like Manuel Margot, Eric Hosmer, and Tommy Pham.

To return to your previous choice, click here.

For those who grew weary in the wilderness, the flow charts below depict the full array of employment pathways traversed by Snellinger through the Jungle of Doom.

Flow chart showing performance outcomes for Blake Snell based on which team he's pitching for

Flow chart showing performance outcomes for Cody Bellinger based on which team he plays for

Outside the world of a Choose Your Own Adventure novel for children, we can’t skip ahead to see where one path leads, then backtrack and try a different one if we don’t like how things turn out. Heading into the two months before the trade deadline and subsequently, free agency, players with the contractual freedom to choose their own destiny will consider a variety of factors when deciding whether to accept a trade or choosing to sign a deal with a new team. Many probably feel confident betting on themselves to maximize their own potential, but looking at a team’s track record on maximizing big league talent and formulating an educated guess before signing on the dotted line makes good sense if you don’t want to get duped by a troll.





Kiri lives in the PNW while contributing part-time to FanGraphs and working full-time as a data scientist. She spent 5 years working as an analyst for multiple MLB organizations. You can find her on Twitter @technical_K0.

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fourthplanet
14 days ago

Firstly, very fun article!

Secondly, it struck me that 20 teams were positive or neutral for pitchers, but only 3 were positive or neutral for hitters… I can speculate wildly as to why that might be the case, but none of my ideas are particularly convincing to me.