Outfielder Cam Perkins was claimed off waivers by the Seattle Mariners about a month ago now. As deals go, it wasn’t particularly notable for anyone but the parties immediately involved. Originally selected by Philadelphia in the sixth round of the 2012 draft, Perkins has exhibited signs of promise during his ascent through the minors, demonstrating a capacity for contact that’s uncommon for players who also possess his game power. Perkins has also complemented that offensive profile with sufficient athleticism to play if not necessarily to thrive in center field. He’s an interesting player. Flawed, but interesting.
That said, the Phillies’ 40-man roster was full en route to the Winter Meetings. If the club had any designs on selecting a player in the Rule 5 draft — or creating flexibility for any other reason — it was necessary to part ways with at least one player. Whatever Perkins’ virtues, Philadelphia also possesses a number of interesting other outfielders. Interesting and, presumably, less flawed.
So now the Mariners have him — and could very well have some use for him in 2018. As for how useful Perkins could be to Seattle, there are a few ways to estimate that. The prorated Steamer projections, for example, call for him to produce 0.3 WAR for every 600 plate appearances currently. Chris Mitchell’s KATOH system, meanwhile, forecasts 2.2 WAR over Perkins’ six team-controlled years — or, roughly 0.4 wins per annum. Lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen, reached by way of talking across the room, gives Perkins a 40 Future Value grade, or roughly equivalent to one win per season at his peak.
Those are all valid methods for estimating possible value. What I propose to do here is provide another one. Perhaps less useful but not entirely without worth.
Major-league clubs have pretty sophisticated means by which to estimate talent. As such, they’re unlikely ever to waive a player who could serve some real use to their club. At the same time, because of those sophisticated evaluation methods, prospective “claiming” teams are unlikely to allocate a spot on their 40-man roster to a player incapable of serving some minimal use to their club. A player, then, who’s been both placed on and then claimed off waivers hypothetically occupies a somewhat narrow band of value. The very fact that a player has been waived and claimed ought, theoretically, to reveal how the league is evaluating him.
Assuming that line of reason has some merit, let’s attempt to calculate (roughly) what that value is. A reasonably careful examination of the data reveals that 107 different players have changed hands by way of waivers over the last three offseasons (where “offseason” is defined as November 1 to March 30th). What sort of value did those players provide in the season following their waiver claim?
There are a few ways to answer the question. First, let’s just look at the best players by this criteria. Here are the top-10 seasons produced by a player waived and claimed during the last three offseason.
Selected off waivers by Cincinnati just before the start of the 2017 campaign, Scooter Gennett proceeded to produce a career season for the Reds, hitting 27 home runs (including four in a single game) and recording more than two wins for his new club. He enters the 2018 season as Cincinnati’s starting second baseman.
That’s a pretty good outcome for all parties involved. It also represents something like the best-case scenario. As you can see, only one of the 107 players in this sample crossed the two-win threshold the season after being claimed. Only seven players (or, roughly 7%) crossed the one-win threshold. Gennett’s success is complemented — overwhelmed, really — by a collection of much, much more modest seasons.
So let’s take a look at the entire sample. Below is a large table including both (a) all 107 players acquired via waivers over the last three offseasons and also (b) some very basic data about their performances in the season following their waiver claim, data including plate appearances (for hitters), batters faced (for pitchers), and WAR. Owing to its aforementioned length, I’ve hidden the table in something called an “accordion widget,” which one can expand by clicking below.
What one one notices immediately is the number of waiver-wire additions who never appeared on the field for the acquiring club in the proceeding season. This can happen for a number of reasons. Players are frequently passed back through waivers so that the claiming organization can assign them to a minor-league club. Other players, like Cam Perkins himself, have options remaining when they’re claimed. Still others are placed on the disabled list or leave baseball altogether.
In any case, it appears as though 49 of the 107 players (46%) claimed over the last three offseason have failed to record a single plate appearance or batter faced in the subsequent campaign. Here’s the observed playing time for the players from our sample.
Again, it’s important to note: the data here concerns only the player’s performance in the season just following the offseason in which he was claimed. Obviously, the fact that the Reds have control over Scooter Gennett for both 2018 and -19 is of considerable benefit to them. In a different way, the options remaining on Cam Perkins’ contract mean that his best season with the Mariners’ major-league club might not occur for several years. In most cases, however, the performance of a player in the season after which he’s been claimed is indicative of his utility to the acquiring club. And what the numbers here suggest is that expecting a large contribution from such a player isn’t advisable.
So Cam Perkins — contrary to this author’s unflinchingly optimistic assessment — likely won’t make much of an impact in 2018. Same for left-hander Sam Moll (also claimed by the Mariners) or other left-hander Henry Owens (Dodgers) or infielder Engelb Vielma (Pirates). About half the players selected this offseason will play some role with their new clubs in 2018, though, and probably two or three of them will contribute something even more than that.
Carson Cistulli has published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.