The Velocity of Ballplayers

How much can a one-dollar bill buy? Well, one dollar’s worth, right? But, what happens to that dollar after you spend it? It goes to someone else and then they spend it and it goes to someone else and they spend it and on and on down the line. In 2014, the average one-dollar bill had bought $638 worth of goods and services by the time it was removed from circulation. There’s even a term for this phenomenon — one with which, as a baseball fan, you’re likely familiar, although in a different context. It’s called the “velocity of money,” and you can see how this might tell us something useful about the economy.

Of course, it tells us nothing useful about baseball players. But what about baseball players themselves? Do ballplayers have a velocity? Some do, it would seem.

Unlike dollar bills, ballplayers are all a little bit different from each other in ways that alter their value. But like dollar bills, baseball players are used as currency to make trades for other baseball players. To figure out a player’s “velocity,” we could add up the total value of all the players teams acquired in exchange for him since the time they were traded for each other. We’re not concerned for which team that value was generated or how much the player was paid at the time. The only issue here is how much value an individual player has generated in terms of total career value in return.

Take, for example, the case of Mark Teixeira. Despite having now spent over half his career with the New York Yankees, Teixeira was integral not merely to one, but two, relatively high-profile deals — first for Casey Kotchman and then, in a second deal, Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz, Matt Harrison, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Kotchman has been worth a total of -0.1 WAR since he was dealt for Teixeira, while Andrus, Feliz, Harrison, and Saltalamacchia have been worth 18.7, 4.7, 7.5, and 8.9, respectively. Thus, Teixeira has bought 39.7 WAR over the life of his career. That figure, just under 40 wins, represents his “velocity.”

When I first came up with this idea, I thought the thing to do was to explain the concept and then apply it to a comprehensive list of all transactions and develop a list of players who’ve produced the highest velocity in their careers. Sounds vaguely interesting, right? Okay, let’s do this!

Except no, we can’t. First off, there’s no such transaction database through which to sort. Or, there’s no such database with which I’m familiar and also capable of navigating. And even if there were one, it certainly would not be sortable by the WAR of the players received in return from the moment of the trade. Or it probably wouldn’t. And again, I’d have no idea how to do that, anyway.

Still, The concept remains an interesting one, I think — even if developing any kind of comprehensive list without herculean levels of effort seems dead on arrival.

So what I thought I’d do instead is to think of some of the most interesting trades and players over the course of the last decade or so and determine the velocity of the pertinent players involved. Then I thought I’d throw it open to you, the FanGraphs reader (and hopefully member!), to pick up the healthy amount of slack I’m leaving and give us all your picks for players who generated the highest velocity in their careers.

Okay. Let’s do this (again)!

Perhaps the most obvious, if not the best, place to start is with the active player who has been traded the most: Edwin Jackson. Jackson has been dealt six times. For the most part, however, the players for whom he’s been dealt have been players like Danys Baez, Jason Frasor, Zach Stewart, Lance Carter, David Holmberg, Daniel Hudson. Well, not players like those guys; rather, those actual guys themselves. The one massive and thus notable exception is the three team, six player trade of which he was a part in 2006 — but good luck sorting out which player gets credit for the value of the others. Perhaps we should note that, although Jackson has never quite amounted to what it was hoped he’d be, neither have many of the players for whom he was traded. Perhaps we should also move on to something a bit more straight forward.

A player whose trade history is slightly easier to document is Adrian Gonzalez. Gonzalez has been traded four times in increasingly complicated deals. In 2003, he was traded by the Marlins with some other players to the Rangers for Ugueth Urbina. (“Hey Rangers? Yeah, this is Marlins. We’ve got a future MVP candidate we’re looking to move. Do you happen to have any murderous psychopaths available? You DO? Great!”) In 2006, the Rangers dealt him to San Diego for Adam Eaton (the pitcher) and Akinori Otsuka. In 2010, he was traded by the Padres to the Red Sox for a package of minor leaguers, one of whom was accidentally Anthony Rizzo. Then, two years later, the Red Sox traded him to the Dodgers (with seemingly half their roster) for two minor leaguers.

Rubby de la Rosa and Allen Webster (the two aforementioned minor leaguers) have combined for a total of -0.5 WAR over the past two seasons. Ugueth Urbina was worth 1.9 WAR following his deal for Gonzalez in 2003. Rizzo, the only player who went to San Diego for Gonzalez who’s also recorded any significant time in the majors, has produced 14.4 wins since that trade. Eaton and Otsuka totaled 3.5 WAR together. That said, Gonzalez doesn’t deserve all the credit for those wins: Chris Young (the pitcher) accompanied Gonzalez from Texas to San Diego in the deal — and is still pitching and still rack’n up the WAR. So, at least for now, we’ll give distribute Eaton and Osuka’s wins evenly to Gonzalez and Young, crediting Gonzalez with another 1.8 WAR. Add it all up and that puts Gonzalez’s “velocity” at 16.7 WAR. Rizzo is only 26, though, so this number is going to go up. Congratulations, Adrian!

One last player of note is Zack Greinke. He was traded from the Royals to the Brewers in 2010, then from the Brewers to the Angels in 2012. The Brewers’ return from the Angels was Jean Segura (4.8 WAR), Ariel Pena (diddly WAR), and Johnny Hellweg (squat WAR). The Royals’ haul from the Brewers, though — that was something! Kansas City got Lorenzo Cain (15.9 WAR), Alcides Escobar (9.8), Jeremy Jeffress (1.2), and (yes there’s an “and”) Jake Odorizzi (5.2). That’s a velocity of 32.1 WAR! And that’ll continue to rise, too, as the majority of these players are young. Greinke’s days as a trade chip are likely over considering the massive $200+ million deal he signed with Arizona over the offseason, but still, his velocity has a heck of a tail on it.

In the end, perhaps this is a silly way of looking at deals. Players’ value fluctuates over their careers and is dependent on more than just their name, but it is interesting to think about which players returned the most value over their careers. So what do you think, FanGraphs? I got Greinke’s 32.1 velocity. Think you can beat it? I’m sure you can. Who you got?

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6 years ago

So, would Bartolo for pretty much all of Brandon Phillips, Grady Sizemore and Cliff Lee’s WAR count? That’s 104 WAR.

Shirtless Bartolo Colon
6 years ago
Reply to  Highway61

You mean I’d the leader in VELOCITY? Little old me??

I’m speechless.

6 years ago

for reals – you must be starving.

6 years ago

Even if you don’t quite have the highest velocity, you’d surely be the leader in momentum.

Jeff Sullivan Salmon Feast
6 years ago
Reply to  JakeT

29,640 WAR-pounds is gonna be real tough to beat.

6 years ago
Reply to  Highway61

Poor Bartolo doesn’t even lead the “3-for-1 Expos trade for a stud starter” category.

That would be Mark Langston, who got the Mariners Brian Holman, Gene Harris, and Randy Johnson. Those three combined for 117 WAR.

formerly matt w
6 years ago
Reply to  tz

The highest velocity might actually be the velocity of money–the $100,000 used to purchase George Herrmann Ruth.