Earlier this week, Steve Phillips went on Mike Francesca’s radio show and said that the Washington Nationals should consider trading Stephen Strasburg for Roy Oswalt. Predictably, every person who heard him say this did an instant face palm, and Phillips was roundly mocked for his comments.
I passed on writing about the comments for one main reason – I’ve done a decent amount of radio interviews over the last few years, and I know that sometimes, when asked a question on the air, you say stuff that you regret later. You don’t have time for measured responses or any kind of research, so if you haven’t put a lot of thought into a subject, you can say something that you soon discover is kind of foolish. It’s part of the medium, and so I’m generally willing to give people a pass for things they say in live broadcasts.
Given a few days to reflect on the comments and think the situation over, Phillips did what any reasonable human being would do and realized that his statement was utterly, entirely insane. Wait, what? He didn’t? Instead, he recorded a video where he actually stood his ground and reasserted the same point?
Seriously. You can watch it here.
The crux of the argument – prospects are risky, proven aces are rare, and when you have a chance to win, you have to go for it. On their own, all three points have some merit. Strasburg comes with a lot of risk. Oswalt is one of the better pitchers in baseball. There is a big financial payoff for doing well in October. (For the purposes of this post, we’ll ignore the massive difference in costs that both players would incur, as Phillips does, and simply evaluate this from a talent perspective – once you include contracts, the entire thing becomes laughable, and no one needs it laid out how the differences in salary and team control make this one of the dumbest ideas ever.)
However, this line of thought shows the flaw of analysis by cliche, rather than by measuring the value of individual assets. If you follow Phillips path to its logical extent, you could justify trading nearly any prospect for almost any major league player, as long as your team was in contention. Any marginal upgrade for a winning team could justify a complete pillaging of a team’s farm system, because, after all, “prospects get a GM fired.”
In reality, Phillips is simply displaying an extreme reliance on one of the great myths of baseball – the reliability of the proven veteran. His assertion that you know what you’re going to get from Oswalt, while Strasburg is just a big riddle wrapped inside a mystery, is the kind of thinking that has been chased out of baseball over the last 10 years.
It’s not that prospects aren’t risky. They are. However, major league players, especially pitchers, are almost equally risky. Just take a look at how last year’s aces are performing so far this year. Zack Greinke, Felix Hernandez, Dan Haren, and Javier Vazquez were among the best pitchers in the game in 2009, and have all struggled (to different degrees) so far this year. Jake Peavy, proven veteran ace, has been a disaster for the White Sox. Ask the Red Sox how their investments in Josh Beckett and John Lackey have gone this year, or query the Braves about Derek Lowe. And we’re not even talking about the guys who have gone down to injuries and aren’t even pitching right now.
Yes, it’s just two months, and we should expect each of those pitchers to perform better going forward than they have so far in 2010. However, we cannot ignore the significant variance in pitcher performance, especially in just a few month’s worth of starts, no matter how long and impressive the resume of a pitcher may be. Roy Oswalt may pitch well for his new team, but it’s nothing close to a sure thing, and he’s not even that much more of a sure thing than the kid who has never pitched in the majors.
This is the mistake that bad general managers have been making for years – significantly overestimating the reliability of veteran players. It’s the kind of misunderstanding of projected player performance that Phillips mastered as a GM. Steve thinks prospects gets GMs fired, but in reality, its misinformed opinions about how to build a baseball team, much like the one he’s espousing right now.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.