Friday, January 19, 2018

Late Thoughts and Hidden Benefits on the Gerrit Cole Trade

When news of the Gerrit Cole trade broke, I had no internet or cellphone access because of our summer holidays.  On one of the trips back to civilisation, my cellphone started buzzing with notifications of various types, including the fact the the Astros had finally made a Gerrit Cole trade.  Cue breath holding while I checked what the Astros gave up... ok, not too bad - at least Tucker (the younger) and Forrest Whitley are still Astros.  Good.  Whitley seems to be a rare combination of stuff married to a classical starters frame, like a younger Verlander, whereas Kyle Tucker is a high-ceiling lefty bat in a lineup of high-ceiling righty bats.  Relief!!

I remember reading some post-hoc trade analysis on one of the Astros' fan-blogs a few years ago.  I think it was for the Roy Oswalt trade, when an analyst looked at the WAR that Oswalt provided the Phillies, and compared that with the WAR the Astros received in return.  Of course, Roy O was nails for the Phillies over 80-plus innings after the trade in 2010, and provided a further 130-odd innings the following year, totalling 4.6 WAR over that time.  The article was written on the premise that the return that the Astros received (Anthony Gose, who was immediately flipped for Brett Wallace, JA Happ and Jonathan Villar) had delivered more WAR over their Astros' careers that Roy O had done for the Phillies.  Basic analysis for sure, but I guess the writer had a point, especially at a time when the Astros' rebuilding effort seemed inevitable, and the Phillies needed to acquire high-end talent to try and win.

If the Gerrit Cole trade is analysed via this method, then the Astros will almost inevitably come out the worse of the two teams.  However, the Astros are all about trying to concentrate as much production into one spot in the lineup at the moment, rather than spreading it over multiple positions and seasons, and trying to grow players into stars.  I like Colin Moran a lot - he looked dangerous in his 12 PA's for the Astros last year, and some analysts have noticed a swing change and increases in fly-ball percentage that has recently resulted in vast improvements in production for other corner infield types.  Joe Musgrove seemed to be having some teething problems, but he is also a guy who issued 8 walks in 100 innings between high-A and AAA in 2015, has a 5 pitch mix with the ability to throw strikes with any of them, who also experienced a velocity bump (albeit out of the 'pen) late last year.  Moving to the NL may help if he wants to make it as a starter, so this trade may be a great thing for Joe Musgrove.  Michael Feliz's K/9 rate of just over 13 can't be faked, and when he was able to throw strikes with his breaking ball, he made some veteran batters look silly.  Jason Martin looks useful to the Pirates, who themselves just created an outfield gap, although Martin nearly certainly won't directly replace Andrew McCutchen this year.

That said, Gerrit Cole has a seriously good arm, and potential improvement just via pitch-mix has been considered by some authors.  Of course, this article would not have been written if there was not a plethora of preceding articles wondering why Gerrit Cole was not a perennial Cy Young winner.  Cole, at this point, should be considered more potential than performance to some extent, which becomes obvious when his career performance compared to league-average is considered.*
* - ERA+ per year, in chronological order: 111, 99, 149, 107, 101

Gerrit Cole may benefit from time with Brett Strom, just as Justin Verlander possibly did.  (This article casts some doubt on exactly how much Strommy helped, noting that Verlander improved prior to the trade as well.  That said the Astros pitching system, which reportedly includes high-speed, high-definition cameras married to a TrackMan system, certainly assisted.)  The counter-argument would be that the Pirates have a pretty good pitching coach of their own - one who is renowned for taking struggling pitchers and resuscitating their careers.

Older articles almost certainly suggest that Cole won't benefit from the move from the National League to the American League.  There appears to be no recent updated analysis post circa 2014, which tells me that this idea is either accepted as a truism, or that the trend has been less strong recently.  This idea that pitching in the American League is harder is primarily based on two main factors - the AL has consistently dominated interleague play in recent years, and the presence of the DH in the AL means that the opposing pitchers don't have an "easy out" when then throw to their opposite number.

I am less certain that this will be the case for Cole for two reasons.  Firstly, the move to the Astros' home park may well benefit him, based on overall park factors (although PNC Park suppressed home runs better than Minute Maid Park, and Cole's difficulties in 2017 related primarily to home runs.*  But more importantly, the intra-division matchups will favour Cole in his move from the NL Central to the AL West.  The Cubs, Cardinals, Reds and Brewers ranked 5th, 8th, 10th and 17th respectively (averaging 10th) in offensive WAR in 2017, whereas the Mariners, Angels, Rangers and Athletics ranked 12th, 17th, 19th and 20th (averaging 17th) in 2017 offensive WAR.  So potentially, Cole's intra-division matchups may be to his benefit in 2018.
* - Cole's home run totals throughout his career, in chronological order: 7, 11, 11, 7, 31

So whether Cole manages to fulfil or move closer his potential as a dominating front-of-the-rotation starter in 2018 remains to be seen.  He seems like a good bet to improve from his 2017 numbers, just due to regression in his home-run total.  Despite his difficulties with the home run in 2017, he still managed to exceed 200 innings*, and still pitched to a league-average ERA.  I think that is a big reason why the Astros made this trade - Gerrit Cole has managed to exceed 200 IP per year in two of his four non-debut major-league seasons.
* - Number of Astros Starters throwing 200 innings last year: 1 - and that was Justin Verlander, who threw 172 of those for the Tigers

So the Astros acquired themselves another potential 200-innings-per-year starter, to add to the two they already have - Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander.  The bullpen looked gassed in the playoffs, and it is possible that fatigue due to a lack of innings from the starters was a big issue.*  We all remember the ugly time in June-July-August when the Astros had a huge division lead, and struggled to get a starter to throw 7 innings, turning 2+ innings over to the bullpen every night.  That clearly wasn't sustainable, as many of the pivotal single-inning relievers ran up excessive numbers of appearances**, and the multi-inning guys seemed to struggle more as were drafted into single-inning appearances.
* - Astros' pitchers with more than 120 innings pitched in 2017: Mike Fiers, 153.1; Charlie Morton, 146.2; Dallas Keuchel, 145.2; Brad Peacock, 132.0.
** - Astros' relievers games played >50 IP: Luke Gregerson, 65; Ken Giles, 63; Chris Devenski, 62.  This is also pretty much the laundry list of high-leverage Astros relievers who struggled in the playoffs.

The other hidden benefit that I can see relates to the 40-man roster.  The Astros traded away 3 players currently on the 40-man roster, and one Rule 5 eligible player who could have needed to be added to the 40-man.  As it stands now, the Astros have 38 on the 40-man, leaving room for further pre-season or mid-season additions.  The 38 on the 40-man roster includes Gerrit Cole, RHP Dean Deetz, LHP/PR Anthony Gose, LHP Cionel Perez, RHP Joe Smith and RHP Hector Rondon.  This also includes presumed backup catcher Max Stassi, a struggling Tony Sipp, and DH candidates Tyler White, A.J. Reed and J.D. Davis.

So the Astros seemed to make a trade that has a number of obvious benefits.  They added a guy with serious upside due to his incredible arm, who seems relatively durable and still fairly cheap.*  They also didn't rob the Pirates blind, especially considering where the Pirates are in their apparent rebuild at the moment.  There are some less obvious benefits as well - to the relief pitchers and to the 40-man roster, which will provide flexibility moving into a critical season.  Overall, this is a good trade, as Garrit Cole has a history of solid performance, with potential for being great, which is what the Astros need right now.
* - I haven't mentioned payroll at all, but Cole makes 6.75MM this year, and will be subject to arbitration next year, before hitting Free Agency.