Saturday, October 25, 2008

How the 2008 Playoff Teams Were Built

One of the most hotly debated topics in the Natmosphere and among baseball fans everywhere is: what's the best way to build a winner? Do you focus on the draft? Free agents? Trade prospects for veterans? The Nationals' Plan is all about the draft and trades for young players and then going after free agents only when you have a contender missing one or two pieces of the puzzle. But is that the right way to go? Is there anything we can learn from the teams in the playoffs this year?

The smart answer of course is "all of the above"--you find talent any way you can, and it's foolish to eliminate any possible avenue of player acquisition. That said, I wanted to look at the 2008 playoff teams and try to get a handle on where the winning talent is coming from, to not just 'look at the Rays,' as Kasten and Bowden keep saying, but to look at all the contenders and try to determine if there are any patterns.

My methodology is to divide up each team's roster by how each player was originally acquired and then tally up the total player contributions in each category as measured by Baseball Prospectus's Value Over Replacement Player stat. This is quite a small sample size, so take all this with a bit of a grain of salt, but here's what I found:


How acquired No. players Total VORP % of total team VORP
Amateur FA 6 100.7 25.4%
Draft 19 140.3 35.4%
MLB FA 7 103.3 26.1%
MiLB FA 3 7.8 2.0%
Rule 5 0 0 0.0%
Trade 6 44.4 11.2%
Waiver 0 0 0.0%

Red Sox

How acquired No. players Total VORP % of total team VORP
Amateur FA 1 -5.1 -0.9%
Draft 13 251.3 46.1%
MLB FA 12 216 39.6%
MiLB FA 5 -2.4 -0.4%
Rule 5 0 0 0.0%
Trade 13 88.5 16.2%
Waiver 1 -2.9 -0.5%

White Sox

How acquired No. players Total VORP % of total team VORP
Amateur FA 2 14.3 3.5%
Draft 8 28.4 7.0%
MLB FA 7 69.7 17.1%
MiLB FA 3 4.2 1.0%
Rule 5 0 0 0.0%
Trade 16 269.3 66.1%
Waiver 1 21.6 5.3%


How acquired No. players Total VORP % of total team VORP
Amateur FA 3 26.5 5.0%
Draft 14 130.2 24.4%
MLB FA 14 230.8 43.3%
MiLB FA 1 -3.7 -0.7%
Rule 5 0 0 0.0%
Trade 9 149.5 28.0%
Waiver 0 0 0.0%


How acquired No. players Total VORP % of total team VORP
Amateur FA 3 26.1 5.9%
Draft 15 197.2 44.3%
MLB FA 11 141.9 31.9%
MiLB FA 7 13.3 3.0%
Rule 5 0 0 0.0%
Trade 9 66.4 14.9%
Waiver 1 0.5 0.1%


How acquired No. players Total VORP % of total team VORP
Amateur FA 3 -1.2 -0.3%
Draft 15 219.1 51.5%
MLB FA 9 35.3 8.3%
MiLB FA 4 19.5 4.6%
Rule 5 0 0 0.0%
Trade 11 155.4 36.5%
Waiver 2 -2.3 -0.5%


How acquired No. players Total VORP % of total team VORP
Amateur FA 2
Draft 12 279.1 57.2%
Rule 5 1 33.4 6.8%
Trade 9
Waiver 1 0.7 0.1%


How acquired No. players Total VORP % of total team VORP
Amateur FA 2
Draft 14 147.6 33.2%
81.7 18.4%
Rule 5 0 0 0.0%
Trade 15
Waiver 3
2.3 0.5%

Total all playoff teams
How acquired Total VORP Players
Draft 1393.2 110
Amateur FA 148.6
MiLB FA 37.1
Rule 5 33.4 1
Waiver 19.9 9

A couple notes on these numbers. First, in the case of international free agents, I divided them between the major league free agent and amateur free agent categories. For established professional Japanese players who come to the U.S. like Matsuzaka and Fukudome, I put them with the MLB FAs. For international signees who were originally acquired as prospects like Kendry Morales or Chin-lung Hu, I categorized them as amateur free agents for simplicity's sake.

So what does this all tell us? Well, first, we can see that if my playoff prediction system had been to pick winners in reverse alphabetical order of the team's city I would have been perfect in every round.

But seriously, the biggest thing to take away is that there are certainly many different ways to build a winner. On one hand you have teams like the Brewers and Phillies, who get more than half their value from players they drafted. On the other hand you have the White Sox, who are getting a whopping 66% of their player value from players acquired via trades. No team got a larger share of their player value from a single avenue than Ken Williams got from trades.

Still, there are some patterns. Four of 8 teams get the greatest share of their player value from players they drafted. This would seem to back my oft-stated hypothesis that because pro ballplayers tend to peak at ages 27-28 (more like 29-30 for pitchers), before most players accumulate enough service time to reach free agency, that the most important avenue of player acquisition is the draft.

One thing that surprises me is that so many of these teams were really built through just one or two main sources. As mentioned, the White Sox were primarily built through trades. The Brewers were almost entirely built through the draft and trades. Only the Angels and Dodgers got significant contributions almost across the board.

The draft, trades, and MLB free agency are, not surprisingly, the dominant sources of value across the board. I'm somewhat suprised though that free agency is third in that group. While almost every team gets some significant contribution via free agency (the Brewers being the closest thing to a free agent-free squad), only the Cubs get the largest share of their player value from major league free agents. Four teams get less than 20% of their total VORP from free agents.

Looking closer, it's noticeable that a notable minority of the highest-VORP major league free agents are guys who weren't signed as blockbusters but as cast-offs most any team could have had, like Carlos Pena, David Ortiz, Jayson Werth, Jim Edmonds, Ryan Dempster, Chad Durbin, Darren Oliver, and Tim Wakefield. Sure, you have Vladimir Guerrero, Manny Ramirez (a free agent for Boston, a trade acquisition for the Dodgers), Alfonso Soriano, and Daisuke Matsuzaka in the mix as big-time contributors, but there really aren't any teams here that come close to a "bought contender" like the '04 Red Sox or '97 Marlins.

Rule 5s are almost totally absent. That one 33 VORP rule 5 pick was Shane Victorino. That certainly backs the perception that rule 5 gems like Trevor Hoffman and Johan Santana have almost totally disappeared.

The waiver wire and minor league free agents, Bowden's supposed "dumpster diving" strength, are almost completely fruitless sources of value across the board.

The Angels are running circles around the competition when it comes to scouting undrafted amateur free agents, striking it rich with Francisco Rodriguez, Jose Arredondo, Erick Aybar, and Ervin Santana. The Cubs' Carlos Marmol is really the only major player of consequence in this category. The Angels are doing something right.

Bottom-line, I see two common threads among all these teams. First, these teams have all either spent enough to keep their very best homegrown players (or their homegrown players haven't yet reached the age of eligibility for free agency). And second, these teams have all gotten major contributions from unexpected sources, a credit to their scouting and player evaluation. Whether you're looking at David Oritz, Jayson Werth, Ryan Dempster, Carlos Pena or James Shields, every one of these teams have gotten not just good but truly great performances from players any team could have have had.

In other words, there are good players out there. You don't have to spend on blockbusters, and you don't have to have the number one pick in the draft. Sure, it makes it easier if you have those things, but if you scout well and pick the right players you can win, no excuses.

  • Update: someone asked me to post the Nationals' player values by "how originally acquired." Here it is:

How acquired No. players Total VORP % of total team VORP
Amateur FA 1
Draft 12 14.4 9.7%
61.7 41.6%
MiLB FA 10
Rule 5 2
Trade 16 27.4
Waiver 0 0 0.0%


ckstevenson said...

"Four of 8 teams get the greatest share of their player value from players they drafted."

Doesn't that mean that "Four of 8 teams get the greatest share of their player value without players they drafted?

JayB said...

Thanks Steven,

Here is what strikes me. The very BOTTOM 4 VORP WAYS to build a playoff team are the TOP 4 WAYS THE NATS build. Yes the Draft is in play for long term but as we are seeing that takes 10 years or so (Rays).

Amateur FA 148.6
MiLB FA 37.1
Rule 5 33.4
Waiver 19.9

The one short cut that can be used right away and gives you over 3.5 times the VROP of of all the NATS ways combined is signing Major League Free Agents.

MLB FA 952.1

From Day one I have always held that the Nats take a two pronged approach to building. They could Draft well and develop for the Long term AND sign FA well for the short term. These numbers confirm that works.

Yes just like drafting and scouting you must pick the right ML FA's to sign. That is why they have their jobs right. They have some skills and resources that fans do not have. Look at the Cubs, We had Alfonso, I recall De Rosa was cheaper than Lo Duca........Point is we could be a much better team right now and have the same level of Minor League development.....(see Angles).

Steven have spent a great deal time telling us why signing FA, is the wrong way to go but the data above tells us you can win any number of ways, you just have to be smarter than 24 other teams..........Here is something we can agree on.....NATS FO is not smarter than 24 other teams and until it is we are not going to the playoffs anytime soon with a one prong approach of Draft and the cheapest Waiver, Rule 5, MiLB FA approach..

Steven said...

I don't think this data necessarily 'proves' anything--it's an interesting set of case studies that I enjoyed examining, but I wouldn't draw too many grand conclusions.

@Jay--I've never argued that signing FAs is a bad idea or the wrong way to go. In fact in my hot stove preview series I called for signing a bopping corner OF like Dunn, a reliable back-up 1B like Hinske, and a second-tier pitcher like Lowe or Garland.

What I've said about FAs is that a) it's fallacious to argue, as Boz and his followers do constantly, that the Nationals would be a winner if only we'd opened the wallet over the last 2 years for type-A FAs, and b) that long-term contracts on FAs are a bad idea for a team that's 3-4 years away from contending because you're talking about mostly over-30 declining players who may be good for a couple years on bad teams but are highly unlikely to maintain their value into the out years of a long-term deal, thereby delaying the arrival of the first great Nationals team by saddling our future core of talented youngsters with declining dead weight has-beens. So I think we should be aggressive on short-term deals but not break the bank for long-term 7-8 year deals for over-30 declining players. And then I think you also have to factor in the draft picks you'd lose for type-As.

JayB said...

I agree you have made those distinctions....I stand corrected. I do not buy that argument that the Nats are now 2,3 or even 4 years away from their first great team. Even that track record, they will never be good. They have not drafted well to date and they have not traded well or signed short or long term FA's well OR done anything well for that matter.

I also disagree that over 30 FA's are in decline....some are and some are not.....Manny is not A, Jones is.......Job of NATs GM is to find the right ones like good teams do. Angles show that given up picks for FA is not as harmful as you say.......just have to be better at drafting than other teams.....again a big issue with the Nats.

Steve Shoup said...

Its not a matter of our front office being smarter then theirs. Most of these teams have made quite a few Free Agent blunders, Angels: Gary Matthews Jr., Dodgers, Pierre, A.Jones, Schmidt, Red Sox: Lugo, Cubs: Marquis, Fukodome ect. ect. These are all Horrible moves, and their teams win in spite of them not because of them. If not for the good drafting and in the angels case good amateur FA signings these teams would all be in serious trouble. The dodgers have, Billingsly, Loney, Dewitt, Kemp, Either and others for the cheap and its a good thing they do b/c they are spending almost $45 million on 3 players who barely give them anything.

As Steven said quite a few of the FA's that are the most valuable are the scrap heap type, Ortiz, Pena, Hinske ect. I mean the Nats could have taken a shot on Pena we had a hole at 1B do to Johnson and we got Young instead. The point is none of these guys would have been the Type-A's that you are talking about. Those guys the Manny's, Drew's, ect. are only good when they are young enough to be effective for the whole contract Manny, Vlad ect. But over the hill guys not always work, if Derek Lowe is the last piece to the puzzle sign him screw the draft pick. But if he's the first piece whats the point of having him for 3 years when you will have a draft pick for 6 (if they make it) not to mention the $12 million a year investment that could be spent on other things.