Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Value of Trevor May as a 4th Starter

I frequently read Baseball Prospectus's prospect chats.  The Twins' farm system is loaded and there are always a handful of questions about their players.  Here are some semi-recent quotes about future Twins' starter Trevor May:

”(May) wasn't in the mix for the 50; backend profile for me/innings chewer without frontline upside." - Jason Parks

"(May's) best control yet gives him a chance to stick as a back end guy. The production has never quite added up to the stuff. He could still stick or would still make a good pen piece." - Jeff Moore

"I've never been that enamored with May's long term outlook, and never saw the high-end arm that some did. To me, he's more of a #4 starter; still valuable but not nearly as impressive as some would lead you to believe." - Mark Anderson

The consensus, at least among this group of experts, is that Trevor May is a future back-end, #4-type starter with limited upside.  His stuff has always been better than that, but his production has rarely matched.  He's not a top prospect.  Even so, I don't see these as disparaging quotes.  In fact, if Trevor May rounds into just a #4 starter, I'll be elated. 

Aim high, right?  Well, a good #4 starter is pretty valuable.  A good, durable #4 starter is very valuable.  A good, durable, cheap #4 starter might just be a huge indicator of team success.

May has been very durable.  In fact, when he missed a few starts just this past month, they were his first missed starts in nearly four years.  You cannot discount the value of a durable starter, even if he isn't the "Ace" of the staff.  In fact, a reliable back-end of the rotation might be harder to predict and more costly to produce.  Cost is important here too, as May will make the league-minimum for a few years, and reasonable salaries in arbitration if he simply performs as a 4th starter in his first few seasons. 

Of course, projecting May as a 4th starter is still just a projection.  He'll have to perform at that level when he makes it to Minnesota.  Right now, May owns a healthy strikeout rate, just about one strikeout per inning pitched.  He has also improved his walk rate, doing so while pitching at the highest level he has reached.  If he can continue to refine his command, there should be no reason to believe that he cannot perform at a 4th starter level. 

We all know that pitchers do not bring their AAA strikeout rates with them to the Majors.  Most often, that rate dips as much as 2-2.5 K/9, meaning May would sit more in the 6.5 to 7 K/9 range in the Majors.  While this isn't pure science, it gives us a unit for analysis.  I decided to see how many pitchers in the last ten seasons performed as a "4th starter" or better in their first three seasons in the Majors. 

I used a 100 ERA+ (exactly league-average) as the cutoff, and I only used pitchers who threw 170 or more innings.  May has thrown right around 150 innings in each of his last three seasons, so he seems like a reasonable bet for an additional 20 innings or more with an additional month. 

What good is a 4th starter who can't throw a lot of innings?  The whole concept of replacement value has proved that replacing members of the rotation with 6th and 7th starters creates a dramatic effect.  If May is going to have great value, his durability will be one of the biggest reasons why. 

I only looked at the pitchers who were in their first three seasons in the Majors because I wanted to see pitchers who either provided value at the league-minimum or who were so valuable that their team signed them to a larger contract to keep them around through and/or beyond arbitration. 

Using these parameters, I found just 110 pitchers.  Of those pitchers, just 19 appeared on this list twice and only one (Ricky Romero) appeared three times.  If the Twins are confident that May can provide a league-average ERA over 170 or more innings (obviously not in 2014), then they have a pretty rare young pitcher on their staff.  Roughly 11 pitchers per season mean this criteria, which I think makes May a pretty valuable potential player. 

Not all pitchers are alike.  Some get by for a season but fall apart because they don't have the stuff.  Some mature later.  Some remain stable.  I mentioned strikeout rate a little while back, so I wanted to see how these 90 different pitchers performed in year six, generally the last or second-last year before free agency. 

I divided the players into two categories - K/9 greater than 7 and K/9 less than 7.  If we assume May's AAA strikeout rate will be right around 7, we can see if he is perhaps more likely to be successful down the line, not just when he's making the league-minimum salary.

Not everyone on the original list has reached their sixth season, so the numbers aren't completely final at this point.  However, enough have made it to that season to look for a possible effect.  I used a 100 inning threshold in year six because it could account for a random injury within that selected year and it also eliminated some outliers. 

Of the 32 pitchers on the original list with a K/9 rate greater than 7 in their third season, 22 had an ERA+ greater than 100 in their sixth season.  The average pitcher on this list had an ERA+ of 123 or 23% better than league-average. 

Of the 31 pitchers on the original list with a K/9 rate lower than 7 in their third season, 18 had an ERA+ greater than 100 in their sixth season.  The average pitcher on this list had an ERA+ of 112 or 12% better than league-average. 

It seems reasonable to conclude that good pitchers remain relatively good pitchers as long as they avoid injuries.  However, that difference in ERA+ shows that strikeout rate is very important.  If Trevor May comes out firing and can post a K/9 better than 7, Twins fans should be able to be confident that he can perform at a pretty high level while still making reasonable money. 

I keep bringing up salaries and values.  It seems logical that a team that spends less money on back-end starters is also able to spend that money on other parts of the team.  If that is the case, teams that spend less money on 4th starters should perform better than those teams that spend more money on 4th starters. 

I looked at every MLB team's projected 4th starter going into the season.  I looked at their salary and how many starts they had made going into the All-Star break.  I then divided the salary by their number of starts to arrive at a salary/start figure.  Looking at the numbers roughly, it appeared that teams either spent well over $100,000 per start on their 4th starter, or well under.  I separated the teams into those two categories and then I looked at the winning percentage of each team.  Here are the results:

18 teams paid over $100,000 per start to their projected 4th starter and those teams had a collective winning percentage of .482 heading into the break.  12 teams paid under $100,000 to their projected 4th starter and those teams had a collective winning percentage of .528 heading into the break.  That's the difference between a 78-win team and an 85-win team over the course of a full season.  It's not a massive difference, but I think any team would take seven wins.

Arbitrary start and end points?  Check.  Arbitrary cutoffs?  Check.  No way to isolate the variable?  Check.  One year of data?  Not even, but check.  Obviously, this is not the most scientific of measures, but at least in 2014, a cheap 4th starter has been a measure of success.  Which team spent the most per start on their projected 4th starter?  The Twins, as they have paid Mike Pelfrey over one million dollars per start.  Trevor May looks very attractive now, doesn't he?

Wait, why are we using Mike Pelfrey anyway?  He got hurt right away, shouldn't we look at who actually held the 4th starter role? 

I'm not sure that makes sense.  Plans and budgets are formed in the off-season.  The team you go into the year with is much different than the team you leave the year with, but that doesn't mean you plan it that way.  If a team can logically conclude that they have their 4th starter figured out at the beginning of the season, and at a low rate, they can plan to spend their available money elsewhere.  At least, that makes logical sense to me.

Maybe Trevor May is just an innings-chewing 4th starter with little upside.  Maybe we'll always think that the Twins lost the Ben Revere trade because May never put together a great season.  Maybe we need to expand our concept of value to include traits like durability and cost-effectiveness.  If Trevor May forges a career of 180-inning, 100 ERA+ seasons, I'll be ecstatic.  And it's not just because I have low standards.  

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