Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Help me, help you

The Phillies made a great trade today, acquiring Ugueth Urbina and Ramon Martinez for Placido Polanco. Urbina, according to the stat Expected Wins Added, has been the 9th best relief pitcher in the majors this year, and he's been striking out batters at a 10.21 K/9 clip. This trade will likely result in the following positive things for Philadelphia:

+They can get Rheal Cormier (who has stunk it up this year) out of high leverage situations. Cormier has been pitching in as many meaningful situations as Wagner this year, even though Cormier has been about 9 times less effective. As for Urbina, only a handful of pitchers have pitched in higher leverage situations--Francisco Rodriguez, Bob Wickman, Joe Nathan, and Akinori Otsuka--and Urbina has pitched equal to Rodriguez and better than everyone else. Essentially, the Phillies are going from one of the worst high-pressure pitchers this season to one of the best.

+They don't have to rely on as many innings from their starting rotation. A quick glance at the standings and at pitcher VORPs shows that most of the top teams have 3 or 4 of their starters into double digit VORP already. Philadelphia only has one, Brett Myers. Granted, his 28.8 is good for 6th in the majors, but even his success hasn't been enough to make up for the lack of production from Jon Lieber and Cory Lidle, or the atrociousness of Vicente Padilla. Myers is the only starter who isn't allowing close to or above 10 hits per 9 innings; his strikeout rate of 9.2 per 9 also towers above the rest of the staff--only Randy Wolf has a respectable K/9 rate, at 7.1. These numbers tell us that other than Myers, the Philly staff allows a bunch of baserunners. Obviously, that's bad in terms of run prevention, but it also leads to higher pitch counts per inning, which will wear down a staff. That's not good news, especially for such a thin rotation as it is. Placing Urbina in the setup role will allow Philly to shift Madson into the 7th inning, which will, to use an overused baseball cliche, extend the bridge between the starter and the closer. It won't quite be the Nasty Boys of the 1990 Reds (who absolutely obliterated their opponents), but it will mean the Phillies don't have to pitch their starters any longer than necessary, like this one team on the North Side of Chicago.

+Moving Polanco allows them to play Chase Utley every day. All Utley has done in his platoon role so far is to beat the crap out of the ball: .309/.382/.553/9 HR, which adds up to a 19.4 VORP, good for 2nd best in the NL among second basemen. If he had been playing every day, he would undoubtedly lead the category. Throw in his good fielding and 5 for 7 base stealing ability, and you've got the best all-around second baseman in the National League. His effectiveness had reduced Polanco from equal platoon player to a nomad infielder. As effective as Polanco has been--he chalked up a 11.0 VORP in his limited playing time--he was being paid $4.6 million to be a utility player, which is not wise allocation of resources. Better to spend that money on a proven big-situation relief pitcher, especially with the thin market for starting pitchers.

This trade will definitely make the Phillies better. But what about the Tigers?

I'd argue that this was a deal they absolutely had to make, given their situation. In giving a 12 million dollar deal to Percival over the winter, the Tigers practically set themselves up to trade Urbina. Perhaps if Detroit had a realistic shot at the division they would have held onto him, but paying 10 million dollars a year to two relief pitchers just doesn't make sense when a team is out of the race--one of them had to go. Percival's age, injury history, and salary make him virtually untradeable. What really forced Detroit's hand was the awful production from Omar Infante at second base. Infante has been puttering along to the tune of .215/.262(!)/.349, with below average fielding, as the everyday second baseman. That adds up (or rather subtracts down) to a VORP of -4.0. Only the much-maligned Luis Rivas has been worse at that position in the American League. Filling in Polanco where Infante has been will instantly boost the Detroit offense, if only because of Polanco's excellent on base ability. I would guess that Polanco over Infante could mean about 2 wins improvement in the standings. The question is whether they will lose those 2 wins by taking away Urbina.

The Tigers bullpen has been so-so; Kyle Farnsworth is having a nice season in some pretty high-leverage situations, and Chris Spurling has been adequate. Basically, it's all on Percival to make up for the loss. Percival hasn't really had the time to add or subtract any value, so now is the time for him to get started. Will Percival be able to make up that win deficit created by Urbina's absence? Not quite, but I think he'll make up at least half of it, which means the Tigers should improve by about one win. That may not seem like much, but the Tigers actually were able to pare about half a million dollars off their payroll and could potentially increase their win total. If you look at it from that perspective, it's easy to see why both teams made this trade.

We'll see if Urbina and Utley can help carry the Phillies in a drive for the division title and make me look smart. Perhaps the best thing about this trade from an analysis perspective is that we won't have to wait long to judge its worth. A quick look at the standings in September is all we'll need.

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