Playoff Payoff

Our beleaguered Brewers, owners of a six game losing streak entering the break, have flipped the script thus far in the unofficial second half. Milwaukee has a 5-3 record (34 Runs Scored / 37 Runs Allowed), and GM David Stearns appears ready to will this club deeper into serious playoff contention after trading for Kansas City Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas very early Saturday morning. Stearns flipped outfielder Brett Phillips and right-handed pitcher Jorge Lopez to Kansas City, simultaneously relieving the stressed 40-man roster of some of its excess role depth while showing a willingness to overpay for a short-term asset. Yet, even if Stearns did overpay for Moustakas, in the overall context of the week’s transactions, including the return of healthy Wade Miley and Matt Albers and a trade for Chicago White Sox closer Joakim Soria, the move simply looks like an effort to improve a club without trading from the top of the minor league system (currently Keston Hiura, Corbin Burnes, and Corey Ray). In this regard, Milwaukee strikes a happy middle ground with their recent series of moves.

Surplus Grade
At Baseball Prospectus Milwaukee, I have worked on a transactional Benefit-Cost Analysis system for assessing prospect-and-MLB trades. I use the term “Surplus” to denote the value of a player through trade, which includes the player’s on-field production plus their “scarcity” (which, in terms of MLB labor, translates into their contractual dollars plus control time). In the following table, I demonstrate one way of assessing surplus for these trades, which includes both options for Soria and Moustakas picked up for the 2019 season.

Recommended Background: Refining Surplus Pricing || Organizational Logic and Playoff Trades

It should be stressed that this is not viewed as a complete analysis of a transaction, but rather an analysis that paces current MLB player production and prospect roles against the history of MLB in order to assess their value; the hypothesis is that since MLB teams can (and do) trade prospects for MLB roles, a value metric can be found that places prospects and MLB players on the same scale.

Depreciated Surplus Roles Received Surplus Roles Traded Surplus
Soria / Medeiros + Perez Soria (full contract) ~$4.0M Medeiros (45 / 45) + Perez (Unknown / 40) ~$1.5M
Moustakas / Phillips + Lopez Moustakas (full contract) ~$15.0M Phillips (60 / 45) + Lopez (high 45) ~$27.0M

Here’s how the trades look without options:

Depreciated Surplus Roles Received Surplus Roles Traded Surplus
Soria / Medeiros + Perez Soria (no option) ~$0.0M Medeiros (45 / 45) + Perez (Unknown / 40) ~$1.5M
Moustakas / Phillips + Lopez Moustakas (no option) ~$6.0M Phillips (60 / 45) + Lopez (high 45) ~$27.0M

Any way one slices it, David Stearns is “going for it,” in terms of delivering trades that provide clear cut short-term MLB roster gains while surrendering long-term roster assets. On the face of it, Stearns has paid more than he is receiving; at worst, he paid a dollar to return one quarter. In the case of the Soria trade, the time horizons are acceptable, as it is unclear how quickly lefty Kodi Medeiros will reach the MLB (even from Double-A in 2018), let alone a relief role that sees the young southpaw form his tools into high leverage function (which would arguably be his highest realistic role); the same can be said for Perez, who has never played stateside ball and thus has a truly indeterminate role horizon.

In the case of the Moustakas trade, it’s tougher to make a case about role horizons, for both Phillips and Lopez have useful (if not flashy) roles for a 2018 contending ballclub and potentially better roles for the future. Phillips could morph into a multi-tool center fielder if his bat develops at the MLB level, but his defense, speed, and power remain strong enough that Phillips could also serve as a rare “impact Fourth Outfielder;” it’s impossible not to dream on Lopez’s fastball and curveball combo playing up as a reliever, and the MLB dream for the righty would be that if the command comes along he can scale relief roles from low- to high-leverage.

Related: What does the future hold for Jorge Lopez? || Medeiros & Perez 

It must be added that if it appears perplexing that the potential transactional surplus prices involved in the Moustakas do not equal one another, they need not. One can argue that from an organizational standpoint, reaching the playoffs is a push for additional revenue, as well as an operation that concerns on-field baseball production. At some point, Wins, Runs Scored, Runs Allowed, Overall Future Potential, etc., are turned into cash for an organization. In the case of the 2018 Brewers, these recent deals, especially the Moustakas trade, bolster the club’s Wild Card lead (currently up 2.5 games) and (dare I say it) give the club a better chance at competing with the division leading Lakeview Nine (the Cubs currently lead Milwaukee by 1.5 games for the National League Central crown). Once these playoff odds are bolstered, the organization can also price out their odds of playing deeper into the playoffs, and frankly, if the Brewers believe these types of deals can help their club reach the League Championship Series, it does not necessarily matter that their deadline deals were “too expensive.”

MLB Roster Profile
Thus far, it is clear that the Moustakas move accomplishes two key objectives for the MLB roster:

  • First, the move improves an offense in need of consistent production by making it deeper through the addition of a solid prime-age veteran bat.
  • Second, the move will test an efficient defense and organizational shifting philosophy by moving incumbent third baseman Travis Shaw to second base.

Moving Toward Contact
To the first point, Mike Moustakas developed into a solid, consistently better than average batter after his 2015 breakout. The left-handed bat is also a clear addition to the discipline-contact department for the Brewers offense, as Moustakas consistently strikes out at a better than average clip. Ostensibly, Moustakas adds power and contact to the batting order, and as many have noted, will test these traits in a ballpark that is much friendlier to left-handed batters than Kansas City’s park.

The following table includes Moustakas’s home run, walk, and strike out percentages, as well as his True Average (TAv) and Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA), which are advanced metrics that assess underlying offensive and defensive elements to express production (.260 is average for TAv, and 0 is average for FRAA).

Moustakas Age HR% BB% K% TAV FRAA
2015 26 3.6% 7.0% 12.4% 0.291 6.8
2016 27 6.2% 8.0% 11.5% 0.281 -0.4
2017 28 6.4% 5.7% 15.7% 0.276 -7.4
2018 29 4.8% 7.2% 15.1% 0.277 10.2

While Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA) demonstrate some fluctuations in recent seasons for Moustakas, the third baseman performs at a consistently better than average rate with the glove as well as the bat, which should reduce some of the potential impact of the Brewers’ infield shuffle. Additionally, since Orlando Arcia is working to the left of Moustakas, theoretically some of the defensive pressure should be taken off of the third baseman.

Misusing Phillips?
One of the remaining questions for the MLB roster is whether Brett Phillips actually had a solid role for the club moving forward. Perhaps because of the left-handed batting bent of much of the Brewers positional group (Eric Thames, Christian Yelich, Shaw, and more recently Brad Miller, too), Phillips has remained out of favor for the club’s official “fourth outfield” spot, a spot that has recently belonged to the hot-and-cold Keon Broxton. Despite a .180 batting average, Broxton has walked and hit for power frequently enough to keep his glove on the roster, which is playing at around 2.4 FRAA (after a -8.2 FRAA campaign in 2017). From the right side of the plate, Broxton ostensibly offers more flexibility when manager Craig Counsell needs to spell Yelich or Thames in the outfield.

Related: Understanding Phillips

The trouble with the Broxton-Phillips wager is that Phillips arguably already surpasses this level of production even with his MLB floor, which he demonstrated in spectacular fashion toward the end of the 2017 season. In that brief performance, Phillips flashed his elite defensive tools (4.3 FRAA), while also presenting a strong batting average (.276), walk rate (nearly 10 percent), and power (seven extra base hits in 98 appearances). This type of production is what makes pricing out an MLB role for Phillips so difficult, because the left-handed batting defensive asset has enough questions about his offensive game to raise the possibility that pitchers will expose his shortcomings with more exposure. But the glove and arm are so good as to keep Phillips in a serious regular rotation if he falls out of a starting spot, and he could easily serve as an MLB outfielder with 300-to-400 valuable plate appearances, the type of ephemeral roster asset that most playoff teams dream of. The trouble with the Brewers trading Phillips is that his floor is arguably already reaching this role, which raises questions about why the club did not employ Phillips for more than 15 games in 2018.

Along with keeping right handed pitcher Brandon Woodruff in the shuttle crew between Milwaukee and Triple-A Colorado Springs, and shifting Corbin Burnes to relief for his MLB debut (when his top role, floor, and the club’s admitted 2019 plans have him slated as a starting pitcher), the club’s usage of Phillips should serve as a serious area for strategic questioning and analysis. Did the Brewers use Phillips to the best of his current ability, even given that they’re working with his MLB floor? The flip side of this argument would hold that since the Brewers do not have outfield space to test Phillips’s top role as a starting center fielder, trading him simply means that a “blocked” prospect will get his chance elsewhere; similarly, if you believe that Phillips will settle into the impact back-up role as well, that’s not a role that you mourn trading away to bolster an MLB roster weakness elsewhere.

Does Fielding Matter?
As for moving Shaw to second base, this is the type of value-seeking move that one would love to see from a loudly-announced, so-called “analytic” front office. The Brewers have one of the most efficient defensive units in the National League, even with the recent demotion of star defensive short stop Orlando Arcia and a display of less-than-stellar middle infield play of late; the club’s bread-and-butter has been stopping hits from falling in the outfield, either on flyballs or line drives, and coupled with the somewhat bizarre distribution of batted balls between pitching units (i.e., the key relievers are typically more groundball oriented, on the whole, than the starting pitchers), the Brewers defensive unit can withstand unexpected arrangements so long as the personnel shift for key game moments.

Additionally, moving Shaw to second base answers an interesting question about the extent to which fielding matters for an MLB club. This question was prominently raised when Arcia was demoted, as even a top tier glove in all of baseball could not hold that batting performance, and now the inverse equation can be applied to Shaw. By True Average, Shaw is one of the very best bats on the Brewers, and the club essentially has a .298 TAv second baseman at the deadline (that’s good enough for sixth best in the MLB among 2B with 100 PA); neither Brian Dozier nor Jonathan Schoop, the remaining rumored second base targets for the Brewers, can be counted on to match Shaw’s impact batting production. Furthermore, keeping Shaw at second base arguably gives the club the chance to continue their long play gamble on Jonathan Villar, who can slide into a meaningful depth role once he returns from the disabled list. The equation here is quite clever, as if the Brewers are going to gamble on Dozier or Schoop putting it together, they can also gamble on Villar, who has shown flashes of brilliance in 2018 and was batting .261 / .346 / .348 over the 20 games preceding his disabled list stint.

If Counsell can start a fielding unit that includes Moustakas and Shaw, and then use a fielding substitution when a key groundball reliever enters a close game (looking at Jeremy Jeffress here), ostensibly the manager has more options to get the offense going without sacrificing key late game defense. One can dream that if the Brewers succeed in the playoffs, this unorthodox defensive gamble lead the way. At worst, Travis Shaw has simply begun a potential shift over to the right side of the infield, where he might serve as a viable first base option for 2019 should the Brewers and Moustakas exercise his mutual option for 2019.

This is #TeamDepth exhibiting team flexibility across the offense, fielding, and contractual horizons, and even if the acquisition cost seems steep, the playoffs payoff is clear and (hopefully) immediate.


Photo Credit: Benny Sieu, USA Today Sports Images


This post was updated at 10:30 AM to include additional BPMilwaukee and Baseball Prospectus links and add Corey Ray as a top prospect.

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