The Cubs are arguing with the Mets.

November 7, 2016
 And they just won the argument, hands-down. Bill once wrote (and who can remember where? Probably not Bill, certainly not me) that teams differing in styles, in strategy, in tactical approaches to the game are having a kind of wordless argument about the best practices in the game. I think the example he used was HRs vs. SBs, way back when, an argument so well settled by now we can’t believe it was ever a point of contention.)  Right now it seems that there are several fiery arguments raging in baseball—optimal use of relievers, bunting strategies, and on and on. The one the Cubs just won with the Mets goes something like this:

 Cubs: "The way to build a winning team is to assemble star position players through your farm system, and fill in the gaps that emerge in this process by signing a key Free Agent now and then, or occasionally by trading, but mostly through your own drafting and development process. With pitching, the opposite emphasis is needed: build your pitching staff through Free Agency and in-season purchases, and trade your young pitchers whenever you get the chance to acquire an equally good position player."

 Mets: "No, no, no. Build your pitching staff from within, mostly, and pick up position players where you can." 

 The Cubs’ logic (which I’m imputing to them, of course—I have no idea if they’ve articulated anything like this, or even if they agree with it) is that pitchers have ruinously short shelf-lives. You can’t count on a star pitcher’s arm to hold up much beyond his next start, so whatever happens, you’re always going to be on the hunt for available pitchers. Or else you’re going to come up disappointingly short much of the time. Position players, however, have longer careers, generally, and they can play at high levels at young ages, which makes their contracts affordable, without suffering injuries as often as pitchers do.  You can always move position players around the field if you have a logjam at one position (especially if you have Joe Maddon managing your team), while there’s not much you can do with an extra starting pitcher, or with one who isn’t playing well. You can ride him straight into the cellar, or you can drop him from your starting rotation, but sooner or later, probably sooner, you’re going to need to pick up another starting pitcher. And another. And another after that. So budget it into your long-range planning to sign Free Agent pitchers on a regular basis.

 The Mets’ logic, or lack thereof right now, says the opposite, that you want to develop a young pitching staff from within your organization, and sign or otherwise acquire veterans for your everyday lineup. Obviously, I’m picking on the Mets at a sore point in their club’s history, at the end of a season where their staff of brilliant young pitchers—Harvey, DeGrom, Matz, Wheeler, and to a much lesser degree Syndergaard—spent months on the DL, and I’m choosing a point in the Cubs’ history where they’ve succeeded through the early development of young regular players, Rizzo, Bryant, Soler, Baez, Contreras. (And Schwarber, of course, spent the whole season on the DL—but that’s a lot of young players developed in-house.)

 It’s not clear how I want to count players like Addison Russell (or Travis D’Arnaud) who were acquired in trades before they’d done much in the big leagues, but they could be classified as home-grown talent too. (I’m certainly classifying Syndergaard and Wheeler that way for the Mets, and Rizzo is another one who was picked up in a minor league deal when he was around 21 years old.) And there are plain exceptions built into this system, like the Mets’ best (and certainly healthiest) pitcher over the past few years being a 43-year-old who makes Mickey Lolich look like an aerobics instructor. But in the main, I’d say this dichotomy holds up in its broad outlines: young home-grown pitchers and free-agent veteran position players vs. veteran free-agent pitchers and young home-grown position players.

 So I thought maybe I’d do a quick-and-dirty study comparing the two groups to see if this is just piling on the hapless Metsies or if there’s something valid there. How about we pick an arbitrary year—1996, twenty years ago, when the entire careers of 99% of the players are now in the books—and see if there’s a significant difference between young pitchers’ and young position players’ value over the rest of their careers.

 The figure that was tossed around a lot during this past post-season was "The Cubs had 6 good young position-playing regulars 24 years old or younger," right? So let’s use 24 years old as our standard, and count up the position players and pitchers under 25 in 1996 who earned at least one WAR: 

AL Player

Age in 1996

WAR

Alex Rodriguez

20

9.4

Derek Jeter

22

3.3

Tony Batista

22

1.3

Alex Gonzalez

23

2.2

Shawn Green*

23

1.0

Rich Becker*

24

4.3

Ray Durham#

24

3.1

Carlos Delgado*

24

1.8

Manny Ramirez

24

4.2

Ivan Rodriguez

24

6.1

TOTAL

 

35.7 / 10 = 3.6 avg.

  

AL Pitcher

Age in 1996

WAR

Jose Rosado*

21

3.5

Rocky Coppinger

21

1.3

Willie Adams

23

1.8

Brad Radke

23

3.5

Frankie Rodriguez

23

1.3

James Baldwin

24

2.5

Scott Karl*

24

2.8

Felipe Lira

24

2.9

Andy Pettitte*

24

5.6

TOTAL

 

25.2 /9 =  2.8  avg.

 

NL position player

Age in 1996

WAR

Edgar Renteria

19

 3.2

Luis Castillo#

19

 1.2

Edgardo Alfonzo

22

 1.0

Jason Kendall

22

 1.6

Todd Hollandsworth*

23

1.1

Shane Andrews

 

24

 1.4

Charles Johnson

24

 1.1

Chipper Jones#

24

 6.2

Alex Ochoa

24

 2.4

Rondell White

24

 1.6

TOTAL

 

20.8  /10 = 2.1 avg.

  

NL Pitcher

Age in 1996

WAR

Ugueth Urbina

22

1.8

Ismael Valdez

22

4.6

Terry Adams

23

1.8

Shawn Estes*

23

1.0

Mike Hampton*

23

1.2

Antonio Osuna

23

1.5

Chan Ho Park

23

1.4

Terrell Wade*

23

1.4

Francisco Cordova

24

1.3

Omar Daal*

24

1.2

Billy Wagner*

24

1.1

Pedro Martinez

24

4.0

TOTAL

 

22.5  /12 =  1.9 avg.

 

I get 41 players under the age of 25 in 1996 who earned at least one WAR (10 AL position players, 9 AL pitchers. 10 NL position players, and 12 NL pitchers), giving us a pretty even split between leagues and pitchers/position players.  The position players in 1996 averaged 2.8 WAR, and the pitchers averaged 2.3 WAR.

 Going by the eyeball method alone, I’d say that the position players had substantially greater career values than the pitchers. Five to seven AL position players (A-Rod, Jeter, Ramirez, Delgado, I-Rod and arguably Green or Durham) went on to have substantial star careers, while only 2 pitchers (Radke and Pettitte) could be said to have done the same. In the NL, same thing: 6 or 7 position players with long stellar careers, and only 3 or 4 pitchers. But let’s run the career  WAR numbers and quantify my eyeball method:                     

 

AL position player

Career WAR

Alex Rodriguez

117.7

Derek Jeter

71.8

Tony Batista

13.7

Alex Gonzalez

11.1

Shawn Green*

34.5

Rich Becker*

  8.3

Ray Durham#

33.6

Carlos Delgado*

44.3

Manny Ramirez

69.2

Ivan Rodriguez

68.4

CAREER TOTAL

472.6/ 10 = 47.3

  

AL pitcher under 25 in 1996

Career WAR

Jose Rosado*

10.4

Rocky Coppinger

  1.3

Willie Adams

  0.9

Brad Radke

45.6

Frankie Rodriguez

  1.1

James Baldwin

  9.3

Scott Karl*

  8.4

Felipe Lira

  4.8

Andy Pettitte*

 60.9

CAREER TOTAL

142.7 /9 =  15.9

 

NL position player under 25 in 1996

Career WAR

Edgar Renteria

32.1

Luis Castillo#

28.9

Edgardo Alfonzo

28.7

Jason Kendall

41.5

Todd Hollandsworth*

  6.5

Shane Andrews

 

  2.0

Charles Johnson

22.6

Chipper Jones#

85.0

Alex Ochoa

  6.5

Rondell White

28.1

CAREER TOTAL

281.9 /10 = 28.2

  

NL pitcher under 25 in 1996

Career WAR

Ugueth Urbina

 13.2

Ismael Valdez

 24.6

Terry Adams

   4.5

Shawn Estes*

   9.3

Mike Hampton*

 20.8

Antonio Osuna

   6.2

Chan Ho Park

 18.2

Terrell Wade*

   0.8

Francisco Cordova

 14.1

Omar Daal*

   7.5

Billy Wagner*

 27.7

Pedro Martinez

 86.0

CAREER TOTAL

232.9  /12  = 19.4

 

So, to sum up these figures, the 20 position players averaged 37.69 WAR, and the 21 pitchers averaged 17.89 WAR over the courses of their careers.

 Now there may be something anomalous about 1996, a freaky number of position-playing Hall of Fame types under the age of 25 getting substantial playing time (Chipper and Jeter and A-Rod and I-Rod and Manny, all at the same time? Wow), or there may be something wrong with my quick and dirty methods here.  I used only those young players who had at least 1 WAR, to focus on players who were given substantial responsibilities at a young age, and to avoid having to calculate large numbers of young players who got very little playing time, some of whom had a negative WAR, which might have skewed my calculations. And I may have gotten lucky in finding a cut-off that yielded approximately the same number of pitchers and position players.   Certainly I could have been far more systematic, and included 1986, 1976 and several other years ending in -6, comparing the pitchers’ and position players’ WARs in a wider sampling. I might do that, providing no one wants to blow a shotgun-sized hole through my methods here. Or maybe you want to do that? Someone should.

 Because this little study seems to indicate that, so far, it’s a no-brainer, maybe as much as Bill’s original argument about the HRs vs. the SBs: young position players are a far better bet than young pitchers to put in substantial star careers. Though their values in 1996 differed by a relatively small amount (batters: 2.8 WAR, pitchers: 2.3 WAR) the difference over their careers is more than double, suggesting as a matter of policy, most teams should be swapping out their young pitching any time they get a tempting offer.

 So did the Mets err in judgment? After all, if you have a young Matt Harvey, or a young Jacob DeGrom, or a young Noah Syndergaard, or a young Steven Matz, or a young Zack Wheeler, much less all five of them, what are you supposed to do? Sniff your nose at ‘em and send ‘em to the bullpen, or swap them out, while you sign veteran free-agent pitchers to zillionaire contracts?

 Well, yes. From this cursory examination, these pitchers have, at their brief peaks, had a lot of value on the trade market. When they’re healthy, and pitching brilliantly, maybe instead of pitching them until their arms fell off, the Mets should have considered how valuable their young pitching would seem to other teams.

 I can’t begin to describe how strongly Mets fans oppose swapping out young pitching, at least to judge from the phone calls I endure on WFAN as I drive to and from work: "heresy" doesn’t begin to describe the denunciations I hear when it’s suggested that Harvey, when he’s hot and healthy, could be traded for a young position player, or three young position-playing prospects, or anything of the kind. "He’s a jewel, a gem, a stah!" Yes, but his career is hanging on a tendon, and if you can get a position player of roughly comparable value in exchange for him, it seems to me you’ve got to do it.

 But maybe this isn’t much of an exploitable market?.  After all, if I can come to this conclusion noodling around in BBREF for a few hours, isn’t every team in baseball already aware of this market inequity?

 Sure. But there are periods during the season, at the trading deadline or whenever a good team’s rotation has been decimated, that contenders (or contender-wannabes) will gladly make deals they know to be dumb in the long run but necessary to get them through the next few months. Is there a contending team having pitching problems in June that’s going to hang onto their best AAA prospects if they’re offered a healthy Matt Harvey or Jacob DeGrom in exchange? How about Harvey AND DeGrom? Wouldn’t two (or three!) hot young arms tempt a pitching-weak contender to surrender their entire farm systems? Of course, no team has enough value in their farm system to compensate the Mets for three young pitching stars in one deal, but my point is that if a team such as I’m describing does have great position-playing prospects, a team like the Mets can offer them enough pitching value to pry it away from them at the right moment, and that’s probably the right move, hard as it is for a pitching-loving fan to tolerate.

 Since the greatest Mets’ teams have been built on home-grown pitching in the past (Seaver/Koosman/ Ryan/McGraw/Matlack, and Gooden/Darling/Fernandez/Orosco/McDowell) , Mets fans have deep in their bone marrow the sentimental notion that this is the only way to go, so it’s an especially tough sell around these parts. (And yes, I know that Darling and Fernandez and Orosco were acquired in trades, early on.) But if there’s any validity at all to this method, pitching-rich organizations like the Mets aren’t taking adequate advantage of their greatest commodity, the trade value of young (and attractively cheap) pitching in putting together a championship roster.

 Of course, I could be all wet here—if anyone would care to hand me a towel (or to turn the shower up full-blast) by duplicating this study for 1986 or any other years and see if this pattern holds up, that would be great. I often think we don’t do enough crowd-sourcing studies around here, and this one’s fairly easy, if fairly time-consuming. (The method is reasonably obvious, but I’ll be glad to explain it further to anyone who wants to try. And if you need formatting help, just email your raw data to stevengoldleaf@gmail.com, and I’ll try to put it into tables for you, now that I’ve sort of figured out how to do that.)  Besides which, apart from the tedium, this was a fun study to do. I hadn’t realized how much of 1996 I had forgotten, or never knew, until I reviewed the names of all the young players.

 The most surprising part was discovering how little I knew or remembered about the great young pitchers: some, like Terry Adams or Terrell Wade or Scott Karl, I just drew a total blank on. No memories at all, nothing. Others I remember getting all excited about their great potential, which just fizzled out: Ismael Valdez, for one. And because so many of these guys ended up playing for the Mets (Castillo, Delgado, Pedro, Wagner, Hampton, Estes, Green and several others), I got to look at their early careers and reminisce about their development in a way I don’t often do. I hadn’t quite realized how great a staff the Dodgers seemed to have going for them in 1996 and how none of their parachutes opened. (One of Bill’s more colorful phrases that has stuck with me over the decades: "Parachute didn’t open" as a devastating summation of a failed career.)  I’m sure you’ll have memories of some players of your own if you want to try your hand at such a study. I’ll certainly be interested in what you can turn up.

 
 

COMMENTS (16 Comments, most recent shown first)

OldBackstop
Matt. I was starting at that time because 1: if you keep going backward with two young teams, at what point do they have little to do with current reality? 2. It was my post, and you are not the boss of me.
12:04 PM Nov 8th
 
OldBackstop
Steve, you are tilting at a windmill. There are too many factors in trading:

1 Finances. Was Jon Niese traded for Neil Walker for value? Or because of Walker's upcoming free agency?
2. Jerkdom. Or was it because he was a jerk, ala Papelbon?
3. Lefty-righty. or was it that?
4. Or was it a pennant race plunge, ala Yo-C for the incredible Micheal Fulmer, a spare chip only because of the Mets young SPs ahead of him, Thor, DeGrom, Matz, Wheeler, Harvey?
5. Injuries Is there some protective force field over position players? Did Schwarber miss a dose at the pharmacy?
6. Budget. is a small market team going to build a fielding/slugging team and get a competitive rotation in the free agent market? How many above average young starting pitchers with years of control have been traded the last five years? Not a maybe avbwrage Niese or a not yet blooded Fulmer? Use the back of the paper if you need for your list.
7. Trading acumen. Self explanatory.

There are factors I'm missing. But you can't do a forensic on trades and say young pitching has a value ox X and young bats have a value of X+3. Or you can, of course, but your opinion is just that.

Lastly --- Good pitching beats good hitting The Cubs had an amazing year. How did they do against winning teams?

There were five NL teams with winning records: Dodgers, Nationals, Giants, Cardinals, Mets.

The fabulous Cubs lost the season series with each of the first four, and were 0-4 against the Mets until the injury wipeout. If the Cubs hadn't gone 29-8 against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, they look pretty ho-hum.
12:00 PM Nov 8th
 
MattD1
a2 things oldbackstop. I'm a lifelong Cub fan , I was going all out rooting for the Mets to be our opponent in the NLDS, much rather faced them than the Cardinals or the Giants. And yes it's true the Mets are 9-2 against the Cubs since the beginning of the NLCS last year but why are you stopping it there? The Cubs were 7-0 against the Mets during the season in '15, making them 9-9 the last two years.​
6:17 AM Nov 8th
 
Steven Goldleaf
I'm in the middle of doing this for 1986, if anyone was considering my offer to try other years at 10-year intervals. I suppose if you're going to take me up on the offer, it would be best to post your intentions here before you get started so we don't duplicate.

This is far more about whether this notion is quantifiable (or if the methods I'm using are the best methods) than it is about the Cubs or the Mets. If there is an advantage to developing young position players, and swapping out young pitching talent when the opportunity presents itself, then it seems to me that teams adhering to that principle are going to have the advantage of teams behaving as if it's all a crapshoot. That's what I'm trying to find out, not whether the Cubs are better, smarter, leaner, cooler, luckier than the Mets. The fact they won the 2016 pennant, and the Mets didn't, is my obvious illustration of this principle, if principle it is. it may well not hold up, which is what I'm trying to find out.
4:22 AM Nov 8th
 
OldBackstop
I believe there was a discussion in HeyBill about the heavy pitching track the Braves are taking in their rebuilding. This was allegedly because when they needed pitching a few years back, they were stunned that a 4-5 guy would cost them $20 mil. So know they decided that young pitching is the coin of the realm in terms of trading.

If, like the Mets, you develop seven starting pitchers, you can keep them playing with spot starts and long relief and plugging injuries. They are money in your pocket. If you develop five middle infielders or four corner OFers, somebody's value is going to rot on the bench. They are burning a hole in your pocket.

Since the beginning of the World Series last year the Mets are 9-2 against the Cubs, outscoring them 59-31. The Cubs only had more than 3 runs twice in 11 games.

I am sure the Cubs weren't pulling for the Mets in the wildcard game.


12:20 AM Nov 8th
 
MattD1
Well the Mets have a very had a very good team no doubt about that, and they could conceivably be better than the Cubs in the near future, but where the Cubs are winning "the argument" is the Mets stud pitchers have been hurt, while for the most part the Cubs young players haven't been except for Soler. I would bet money the Cubs young players in general have better careers. Again that doesn't mean the Mets can't make up for that in other ways.
11:53 PM Nov 7th
 
evanecurb
Well done. I like the 1996 comparison. But the Mets have been very successful the past two years, while the Cubs compare favorably with just about any team. But I like the article.

You left out the homegrown Mets' late 90s rotation of Isringhausen / Pulsipher / Wilson...what's that? Oh. Never mind.



7:48 PM Nov 7th
 
MichaelPat
"And they just won the argument, hands-down."

No way. The jury is still out on this. The Mets were in the World Series a year ago, and were back in the hunt this year, despite all their hard luck in the pitching department. The fortunes of these two teams to this point is pretty even in my book.

Give it three more years.

Good article... lots to cogitate here.


7:12 PM Nov 7th
 
MattD1
I've always been more comfortable with teams using their high draft picks on position players and lower picks on pitchers for the reasons you talked about.
6:59 PM Nov 7th
 
OldBackstop
retract Didi trade screwed that one up.
6:45 PM Nov 7th
 
OldBackstop
retract Didi trade screwed that one up.
6:45 PM Nov 7th
 
OldBackstop
retract Didi trade screwed that one up.
6:44 PM Nov 7th
 
OldBackstop
...despite terrible luck with the rotation. If they had the guns they might have cleaned up the Cubs again. Maybe next year.
6:41 PM Nov 7th
 
OldBackstop
I don't think there was much of an argument when the Mets swept the Cubs last year.

The point of building through young pitching isn't selling off your aces. It's trading Jon Niese for Neil Walker or Micheal Fulmer for Yoenis Cespedes.

And it is having a cheap rotation so you can have the payroll to get a Cabrera or a Yo-C even though you were a total rube with the family nestegg.

The point is, whether you go position players or pitchers, is to have a strength you can deal from, whether it is Gregorious for Chapman or Fulmer for Yo-C.

And you can't say ah-ha! Injuries! The Mets came a 2 run homer from the NLDS
6:39 PM Nov 7th
 
Steven Goldleaf
That's really what I'm asking here, Marc, isn't it? You're describing a market inequity: If one team believes it's just a crapshoot, and another team knows that it's not, then the second team can take terrible advantage of the first by dealing off its young pitchers to them for comparable position players, and clean up in the long run (assuming that my thesis is valid, and that it's not all just blind luck.) Of course, every once in a while you'll swap out a young, developing Nolan Ryan for a washed-up position player, but if I'm onto a sound principle here, that will be a rarity and the opposite will hold enough to make swapping out young pitchers a winning strategy. Am I onto a sound principle here?
5:57 PM Nov 7th
 
Marc Schneider
It seems to me there is no generic right way. A lot simply depends on luck. It is probably easier to predict a position player's performance than a pitcher-even aside from the risk of injury-so in that sense there is less risk. But the Cubs were exceptional in that, so far, not only have their position players lived up to expectations, but they have done so very quickly. There was no guarantee that Chris Bryant, for example, was going to be this good in his second year. But, as I said, pitchers are much more difficult to predict. With the Nationals, for example, Trea Turner came up and was sensational right off the bat, while Lucas Giolito, who was projected to move into the rotation at some point in the season, struggled terribly. But if you look at Cleveland, they seem to be built more around pitching and if some of the pitchers hadn't gotten hurt late in the season, they might well have beaten the Cubs.
4:17 PM Nov 7th
 
 
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