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It’s not an easy task to properly evaluate the impact a trade has had on a certain team, mainly because there is no “control sample” to compare against. The best thing we can do is utilize a combination of past and present performances of the players involved in the trade, and after some assumptions, paint a general picture of the value gained or lost because of the trade.
So far, the trade that shipped Dexter Fowler to the Houston Astros in exchange for Jordan Lyles and Brandon Barnes looks like a complete steal for the Rockies. In this piece I’ll try to quantify the impact it’s had on Colorado, and see if we can expect the unbalanced outcome of the trade to continue that way, or even itself out with time.
The first assumption we’ll make in order to analyze the deal is that Michael Cuddyer would’ve been the Opening Day first baseman had the Rockies not traded Fowler, and there are a two reasons why I think this is a safe assumption.
The first one is the Rockies wouldn’t have had the money to sign a first baseman, at least not if they signed other free agents like Drew Stubbs, Boone Logan, or LaTroy Hawkins. An argument could be made against signing Stubbs (and I would probably agree with that argument), but I don’t think they could’ve found a decent option at first base for $4 million a year.
The other reason depends on the first one being true. It is a well-known fact that Cuddyer is a defensive liability in right field. If the Rockies had not signed a first baseman, the logical thing to do would’ve been to move Cuddyer to first where he has performed better defensively. In terms of UZR – a stat that meassures defensive value of a player in runs above or below average – he has been worth about 7 runs more (on a per 150 defensive games basis) at 1B than at RF over the last 5 years, which would translate to about 0.7 wins. However, since it’s easier to find good hitting first basemen than good hitting right fielders, a positional adjustment is used to calculate WAR that would make him “lose” 5 runs or 0.5 wins. So the actual value added by moving him to first would be around 0.2 wins.
The point I’m trying to make here is that as much as Charlie Blackmon has blazingly filled Fowler’s shoes (so far!), his value would almost certainly have been there anyway, as he would be playing in right field with Cuddyer playing first.
Justin Morneau, however, is highly unlikely to have been wearing purple pinstripes if the trade would not have happened. So the player replacing Fowler on the lineup is actually starting at first base, not center field. Almost three weeks ago, I wrote a piece on Morneau’s phenomenal start of the season, and the Rockies’ first baseman hasn’t missed a beat since then. He still owns a slash line of .336/.359/.606, good for an impressive 152 wRC+. That means he’s been 52% better than the average player after adjusting for park and league, so it’s not a Coors Field mirage. He will probably experience some regression, although it’s not certain towards what baseline he’ll be regressing; his pre-concussion form or his post-concussion one. ZiPS, a predictive model created by Dan Szymborski, has Morneau batting to the tune of a 116 wRC+ the rest of the season, to finish with a 126 wRC+ and 2.2 WAR for the year. That is more than a full win from the original ZiPS projection of 1.0 WAR for 2014.
On the flip side, Fowler has been a huge disappointment in the early stages of the season for the Astros. His on-base skills, which were the main reason Rockies fans had such a hard time seeing him go, have seen a huge drop. His OBP sits at a poor .324, down from an average of .374 the last three years. His power is also down, posting an awful .346 slugging percentage so far. This probably has more to do with him adjusting to the new league and team, so I expect his numbers to return gradually to his averages. Even so, ZiPS has him projected for just 1.6 WAR at the end of the year, 0.7 wins less than the original projection.
It’s time for another assumption. Let’s assume Fowler’s struggles are indeed caused by the different team and league adjusting experience, and that he would’ve matched his projection of 2.3 wins above replacement, had he stayed with the Rockies.
I stated before that Morneau was the player substituting Fowler on the Rockies’ line-up. So, if he ends up with a 2.2 WAR, as opposed to the 2.3 that Fowler would’ve gotten, the Rockies would be loosing 0.1 wins. Throw in there the 0.2 wins they didn’t gain by not moving Cuddyer to first base, and you end up with a negative impact of -0.3 wins. Does that mean Colorado was better off keeping Fowler? Of course not. There are at least three reasons that, in my opinion, make the trade a good one for the guys at 20th and Blake.
For starters, the Rockies are paying Morneau $2.4M less than what they would be paying Fowler for 2014. If the cost of a win on the market stands between $5M and $7M, Colorado could buy back those 0.3 wins with the money they saved, probably even a bit more.
Additionally, signing a first baseman gives them the flexibility of having two established Major League players who can play first base. There’s no way the Rockies could have known that Cuddyer was going to be out for more than 20 days now, but it’s not exactly a surprise either. Had they decided to stick with Fowler in center field, move Cuddyer to first, and use Blackmon in right, Ryan Wheeler would probably be starting most games at first. Or even worse: Jordan Pacheco. Cuddyer’s injury still affects the team, but the replacements available for the outfield like Stubbs, Barnes or Corey Dickerson, are more MLB-ready than the options at first base.
Last but not least, is the most important reason why I think this was a good trade for the Rockies, and that is having Jordan Lyles. The young, but already experienced pitcher is the key to this trade being a true steal for the Rockies. What we’re seeing from him so far this season is unreal, and I’m not using unreal as a hyperbole, it actually is unreal, as in not sustainable. I don’t think anyone believes he’s a sub-3.00 ERA pitcher, but I do think he could be a pretty decent and reliable 4th or 5th starter (maybe he is indeed an ace and we’re all wrong; baseball is, after all, very hard to predict).
Lyles is benefiting from an abnormally low batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .253, which is not only far less than the league average of .295, but is miles away from the league leading .327 BABIP registered at Coors Field for the last three years (Fenway Park is a distant second at .315). We should definitely expect his BABIP to go up, along with his ERA, but the former will probably stay below league average. As Diane Firstman from ESPN SweetSpot suggests in this article, Lyles’ improvement could be caused in part by the new (and better) defense playing behind him. He’s taken the Rockies’ approach of inducing groundballs to heart, ranking 10th in the Majors in groundball percentage among qualifying starting pitchers with a staggering 55.4%.
Eric Garcia McKinley explained brilliantly how Colorado’s infield defense has been top-notch both last year and this one. They allowed the 7th lowest batting average on groundballs in the Majors, and the trend has continued on to 2014. So, when you’re inducing groundballs in 55% of the balls in play while playing for the Rockies, you’re not going to allow many hits. On top of that, Lyles has the 2nd lowest flyball percentage in the Majors at 20.3%. As I’ve previously written here at Rockies Zingers, suppressing flyballs is an important skill for Rockies pitchers to be successful.
Nevertheless, he’s likely due to some regression, his BABIP will go up and flyballs will probably go for home runs more often. At the moment, his home runs per flyball percentage stands at 10%, just a tad above the league’s 9.8% average, but Rockies pitchers usually have a higher percentage thanks to Denver’s thin air. So it wouldn’t be a surprise if his HR/FB ends up higher than that.
On a side note, Lyles has been handling the bat pretty well so far. He already has a home run and a double to go along with 3 RBI. Hitting is not something you expect from pitchers, but it’s definitely a plus when they do help out offensively.
Multiple injuries to Rockies starting pitchers have forced Lyles into the rotation, but given the results he’s had, he’s probably staying there for a while. Using ZiPS again, Lyles would finish the season with a respectable 1.9 WAR, meaning he would contribute almost 2 wins more than the next available option (probably a AAA call-up, which is essentially a replacement player).
The Dexter Fowler trade gave the Rockies the advantage of having Lyles taking those starts instead of a replacement level pitcher. It also allowed them to have more flexibility to address injuries to position players, especially if you add Barnes to the mix. It has to be rewarding to the team’s brass to see these kinds of moves pay off, especially one that was so criticized. It certainly feels good to Rockies fans to see this unfold in a positive way and translate into wins.