Where does production come from?

There are a lot of ways to build a winning ballclub. The method behind the Angels’ success doesn’t get the same attention as some other techniques, but perhaps it should. They’ve won 89 or more games six consecutive seasons, including 97 and 100 the last two.

What strikes me on first glance at the Angels roster is how many key contributors are homegrown. Mike Napoli, Jeff Mathis, Kendry Morales, Howie Kendrick, Erick Aybar and Robb Quinlan were drafted or originally signed by the Angels. Same goes for on-the-cusp contributors Brandon Wood and the recently traded Sean Rodriguez.

Starting pitching is even more dramatic. Jered Weaver, Joe Saunders, John Lackey and Ervin Santana all started their pro careers as Angels. If it hadn’t been for Nick Adenhart‘s tragic death, L.A. could have gotten the vast majority of its starts from homegrown talent.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the Angels have plenty of money to spend. They could afford Brian Fuentes, Vladimir Guerrero and Torii Hunter, and the disastrous Gary Matthews Jr. signing isn’t going to consign them to the second division.

But $100 million only buys so much these days. In order to spend the money necessary to absorb a bad contract, fill necessary holes and still field a winning team, you need to have a whole lot of roster spots filled by homegrown (read: pre-arbitration and pre-free-agency) products.

Usually when we talk about this sort of roster construction, the team in question is the Twins, and there’s no doubt they belong in the conversation. This naturally raises the question: Which teams have been best at developing players to contribute at the big-league level?

Player development in context

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, I’d like to step back and consider the various ways of acquiring players, and how these methods can contribute to a winning team.

1. The amateur draft

This is probably the best way to acquire lots of players on the cheap. Drafted players command very little salary their first three years in the bigs, and are cheaper than free agents for the three years after that. The flip side is the high risk: For every Jered Weaver, there are several early-round picks that blow out their arms or top out in the high minors.

2. International free agency

Similar to the draft, international free agents usually aren’t very expensive. The risk still is high, probably even higher: Instead of signing players at ages 18 through 22, you can ink them as early as 16. While some of the best players in baseball were acquired through this route, a whole lot can go wrong between age 16 and the big leagues.

3. Trades

Success in the draft and in international free agency depends on talent evaluation; success in the trade market does too, though the type of player evaluation is somewhat different. Even if you target a minor league middle infielder (like Chone Figgins, when the Angels acquired him), you have more data to work with than you did when the same player was in high school or college.

Often, then, you are pitting your own talent evaluation against someone else’s, betting that the player is more valuable than your trade partner thinks he is. Alternatively, both teams may be filling holes. The trade partners may agree on the skill level of a player, but one team may have a greater need at a given position.

4. The waiver wire, Rule 5, and minor league free agency

Statheads like me tend to geek out over these “free” ways to acquire players. It’s exciting to find a diamond in the rough, even if it isn’t much of a diamond. The upside of the waiver wire is the price; the downside is that it’s rare to find a major contributor there. If you’re relying too heavily on bargain-bin pickups, you’re probably not building a contending team.

5. Free agency

You can always buy players at retail. That’s how the Angels got Fuentes, Guerrero and Hunter. Good teams all have to fill holes this way, and the best general managers find ways to do so inexpensively, as Tony Reagins did in picking up Bobby Abreu on a one-year deal for $5 million. Unless you’re the Yankees, you can only fill so many holes with free agents.

Stockpiling value

If you had to pick one of these five areas for your front office to master, which would it be? To me, it’s a no-brainer: I want my front office to be the best drafting crew in the business.

There’s simply no better way to get lots of value on your roster without spending too much money. Sure, everything here is important, but you can get by with mediocrity in the other categories if you knock the ball out of the park with the amateur draft every June.

Now we get to the part of the article where I try to quantify stuff. In general, measuring the overall impact of a front office is a fool’s errand: There are just too many variables spread out over too many years. Guys making an impact now may have been drafted eight or nine years ago; a recent trade package can’t be evaluated until five years from now.

Recognizing the limitations of any such effort, here’s what I settled on: I want to know where each team’s 2009 contributors came from, and how much value (over and above their salaries) they provided.

Who got what

Here’s the methodology. Using Wins Above Replacement and corresponding dollar values from FanGraphs, I found the dollar value for every player who was worth 1.0 WAR or more in 2009. This introduces a bias by excluding many free agents who didn’t earn their keep, but it has two benefits: It keeps us focused on players who really contributed, and it reduces the size of the project to something more manageable.

Next, I coupled that information with the actual salary of each player and the manner in which the player was acquired. I sorted acquisition methods into the five categories listed above.

Some players are a bit ambiguous, such as those who sign long-term deals with the clubs that drafted them. In those cases, I called them free agents if they had more than six years of service time, draftees if they had less. This underestimates the benefit of those long-term deals, but it seemed more logical for this purpose.

And then I added everything up. In the following table, I’ve summed the dollar values for each team in each category. For example, the four draftees who provided 1.0+ WAR for the Diamondbacks this year (Justin Upton, Mark Reynolds, Stephen Drew and Max Scherzer) were worth a total of $58.2MM more than they were paid.

Team    Draft  Int'l FA  Trade  Waivers     FA  
ARI      58.2      14.4   28.8     15.4    9.1  
ATL      44.6      29.7   47.1      6.2    4.9  
BAL      27.9         -   18.4      4.4   16.2  
BOS      89.9         -   19.6        -   22.9  
CHC      29.8         -    7.9        -   17.5  
CIN      54.2       6.6   15.6      3.8   -4.4  
CLE      27.1      10.9   59.8        -    4.6  
COL      56.9      24.8   40.2     14.5   -0.6  
CWS      14.7       9.3   40.4     23.8    7.8  
DET      65.8         -   23.3        -    5.7  
FLA      54.7         -   52.2     23.4      -  
HOU      14.8      15.6   17.1        -   -9.0  
KC       66.3         -   23.2     12.8    3.0  
LAA      48.8      36.4   34.1        -   30.3  
LAD      77.1         -   12.8        -   25.6  
MIL      62.1         -   10.2      9.1   22.2  
MIN     103.1       4.8    6.1        -    4.6  
NYM      12.9         -   11.8      9.3  -12.1  
NYY      25.1      19.1   11.2      5.0   15.5  
OAK      35.3         -   61.7     21.8    0.4  
PHI      54.8       9.5   13.1     12.1   39.8  
PIT      53.0         -   25.9     11.2    1.2  
SD       19.6         -   80.1     15.2    7.4  
SEA       5.4      44.0   34.8        -   17.1  
SF       73.6      22.7      -     20.2   -6.1  
STL      40.9         -   31.5      3.9   52.0  
TB       85.9         -   77.0      4.3   22.6  
TEX      51.5         -   57.6     13.5   -0.9  
TOR      41.6      11.9   35.3      4.9   23.2  
WAS      52.7         -   25.1      7.1   -0.6

There’s a lot of data here. Let’s bullet-point some highlights:

  • The Angels are among the better teams when taking all amateur signings together. What is most striking is how solid the Angels are in every category. Even if we consider the ugly Gary Matthews signing (not included here because GMJ didn’t meet the WAR threshold), they still look pretty good in the free agent category.

  • Usually when we talk about amateur scouting and player development, we talk about the Twins. And that’s sure how it played out this year! Of their 15 players worth at least 1 WAR, 11 are Twins draftees who haven’t yet reached free agency.
     
  • The Red Sox and Rays aren’t too far behind. Again, these aren’t exactly surprises. The Sox front office is often noted for its savvy. The Rays get some of the same accolades, and they have had the additional benefit of many early picks.
     
  • The teams who received the most benefit from trades are often those who have recently held fire sales. No surprise there, with the Indians, A’s, and Padres near the top of the list. The team with the most marked trading savvy may be the Rays, who acquired Ben Zobrist, Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza this way.
     
  • The Cardinals top the list in getting value from free agency. Locking up Albert Pujols didn’t hurt.
     
  • The Yankees aren’t particularly impressive in any of these categories. Then again, if you spend $200 million with anything close to efficiency, there’s no need to find extra value everywhere. Further, the picture could be different in a year or two: Bigger contributions from Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy, Chien-Ming Wang and others could rocket them up the list.
     
  • The Marlins were the only team with no 1+ WAR free agents. I can’t say I’m shocked.

What does it mean?

All this data is descriptive, not prescriptive. It’s great to get huge contributions from draftees making $415,000. It’s much harder to pick the college and high school players who will come through five years later. (That’s an understatement of epic proportions.)

What I think it does tell us is that, unless you’ve got a huge payroll or a crystal ball, free agency will only get you so far. It’s telling that the free agents I’ve considered here were worth a total of $320MM above their contracts. That’s not much—only a couple of wins per team. And I’m only counting the free agents who contributed. It’s also inflated because it counts “hometown discount” contracts like the one Pujols is playing under.

Evaluating players is hard, but evaluating very young players is harder. As with most anything difficult, the rewards can be commensurately large. Since most of us aren’t strategizing within a front office, we can take a simpler route. You want the rewards? Try being a Twins fan.

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Comments

  1. Patrick said...

    Brian,

    I’m guessing you mean variance on a team by team basis, right?

    - Patrick

    PS: On another note, when we calculate the dollar value of production in free agency, my understanding is that we are doing it without reference to anything other than… drum roll please…  the money paid to free agents for production. 

    IE, we’ve already made an assumption that means that the sum of the good and bad free agent contracts for all teams will equate to zero value won or lost.

  2. Dylan said...

    Looking at the Jays numbers, I can’t figure out where their international free agency total is coming from. Only players from Latin America are Scutaro, Bautista and Encarnacion, and all were aquired by trade. Unless Scott Richmond couts as he is from Canada(figured he would be a minor league FA though)

  3. Jeff Sackmann said...

    Dylan, you’re right.  For some reason I listed Ricky Romero as an Intl FA … as bizarre as this sounds, I was thinking of Davis Romero.

    Since I looked up so many of these by hand, this is a good time to include the disclaimer that I meant to put in the article: I almost undoubtedly miscategorized a few guys.

  4. RMR said...

    Jeff, I can understand why you’d eliminate sub 1.0 win guys from a conversation about production.  But clearly the article takes a turn towards value.  Given that, the dollars wasted on poor performers are a huge part of the story.

    I can understand that this was a time consuming process—but I think it would be very informative to see all active players included…

    In fact, you could make the argument that those players should be included just in the production conversation.  If Gary Matthews was just a guy who came up through the sytsem, it’s very unlikely he’d be getting the playing time he received.  It’s because he was signed in FA that the Angels seemed compelled to give him 300+ PA and allowed him to produce a negative win’s worth of “production.”

  5. Jeff Sackmann said...

    RMR -

    I agree with everything you say.  What I wanted to investigate was where the really valuable players were coming from—and trying to assign a dollar value to FA signees is (for the present project, anyway) just a distraction.

  6. t agee said...

    Excellent article.  Because the post season can be derailed so many different ways all you can really try to do is compete for a WS Championship every year and hope to get a few of them.  It doesn’t surprise me to see the high correlation between playoff and near playoff teams and high production from the farm system. To completley evaluate traded players production should be subtracted and perhaps own players fa resigned in a different category as well as lost compensation production subtracted from regular free agent signings.  I know way too much work but thanks for the study.  Very enlightning

  7. Geoff Young said...

    Interesting stuff, Jeff. One minor quibble with your assessment of the Padres: The two most valuable players acquired by Kevin Towers on the current roster are Adrian Gonzalez and Heath Bell, both of whom arrived in ‘06, when the team was still winning.

  8. Michael said...

    Jeff,

    Great stuff here. To tell you the truth, I had this idea in mind for an article myself for a while. I find this sort of value analysis fascinating.

  9. Jason B said...

    Did you see the Mets numbers across-the-board? I know that’s heavily influenced by injuries to Reyes, Beltran, Delgado, et al.  But still…yuck.

    Interesting, too, how bare the cupboard is in Houston these days. Appear to be some long seasons ahead for that franchise.

  10. RMR said...

    Thanks for the clarification, Jeff.  As an indicator of where the big contributors are coming from, that list is useful.  I wonder if showing a simple count of 1 WAR players might help provide some additional context for showing where that production is coming from—unless there’s reason to believe that players from certain sources are more likely to put up bigger WAR values.

  11. Peg said...

    Why is Tampa Bay’s so high when they traded Edwin Jackson?  Conversely why is Detroit’s so poor when they traded for Jackson and Cabrera?  And what about Oakland trading Eithier?

  12. Adam W. said...

    @Peg: I thought that Jeff explained his methodology quite clearly. Trading away good player doesn’t negatively impact that team in this study; it would only positively impact the team that acquired the player.

    Detroit’s trade value is low because they also acquired Dontrelle Willis in the Cabrera trade, and they paid him something like $10 million to pitch in the minor leagues.

  13. Conor said...

    Trying to figure out how the Mets got to -12.1 in FA.  The only Mets who were over 1 WAR were Wright, Beltran, Pelfrey, Castillo, Pagan, Santos, and Tatis.  Doing the math, those guys didn’t get paid $12.1 million more than they were worth, using the fangraphs numbers.

    Probably I am missing something obvious; I apologize ahead of time.

  14. Todd said...

    Why is Pujols counted as a free agent? He was drafted by the Cardinals and extended, he never became a free agent.

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