Sorry I’ve been distant on the blog lately. The recent surge of attention to the blog has kept me busy doing other stuff (I’m not complaining), and now I’m in the midst of exams and a faculty search. I’ve spent my nights answering e-mail and reading applications.
Anyway, some exciting news happened this weekend for Braves fans. The Braves sent young fireballer Jose Cappellan to the Brewers for Danny Kolb. I’d say the mood of Bravesnation is mixed. But, as the excitement of the deal wore off, I would say the mood has soured. I like this deal, and here is why. Of course, the main reason I say this is that I enjoy being a contrarian, and I like the deal.
The main consequence (or is it the cause) of this deal is that Smoltz is heading back to the rotation. I am all for this. Smoltz is too good to be throwing only 80 innings a year. I always found it frustrating to see a well-rested Smoltz sitting on the bench after a starter had let things get out of control early. Will his arm hold up as starter? I don’t know. Im not sure it would hold up as closer either. I think that there is some evidence that Smoltz does throw differently as a reliever than as a starter. During his pre-injury strong years as a starter (1995-1999), his K/BB was 3.87. Post-injury, as a reliever (2002-2004), his K/BB has been 6.4. Either Smoltz throws differently as a reliever or he has gotten a lot better. I suspect he will pace himself differently as a starter. If he can keep his K/BB above 6 as a starter, he will win the Cy Young in a runaway. If its near 4, Ill be plenty happy. But whatever happens, I am glad that Schuerholz is willing to take the chance.
The main reason I like this deal is the economics of it all. Schuerholz really understands the market for baseball players. As the free agent market went haywire he realized he’d be better off not looking to sign a top starter. Russ Ortiz, who specializes in dispensing walks and home runs, got $8 mil/year for four years! Schuerholz just locked up a superior pitcher for $3 mil/year. How does this work? Smoltz gets $12 million next year no matter what, right? Well, that money is gone, so forget about it. As Jack Handey once said, If you ever drop your keys into a river of molten lava, let’em go, because, man, they’re gone. (If I wanted to be an uber-econ-dork I’d say it’s a sunk cost.) Like keys in lava, Smoltz’s current out-of-whack contract is irrelevant to Schuerholz. The Braves need a new ace starter, and it’s the GM’s job to find one as cheap as possible. So, for only $3 million (maybe less, depending on the restructuring of the deal) the Braves add Smoltz to the starting rotation. Chip in another $2-3 million for whatever Kolb gets in arbitration, and JS has just landed a top-of-the-rotation starter for $5-6 million. It’s true that Kolb may be a step down from Smoltz, but he’s not bad. And I’m not convinced Kolb will be the closer. I think JS is taking a pretty good gamble that Reitsma, Cruz, Colon, or Kolb will be capable of being a top closer.
So what does Kolb bring to the table? Well, let’s check out his stats at Baseball-Reference. (Hey, check out Mr. Kolb’s new sponsor!) There are two things I see that I like, and one thing I don’t like. (This is a good time to remind readers of my near dogmatic devotion to DIPS/FIP. I do not think that pitchers have any predictable effect on balls in play.) First, the bad news: he doesn’t strike a lot of guys out. His K-rate is about half the 2004 NL average. However, his BB-rate and HR-rate are also half the 2004 NL average. So, do his strengths cancel out his weakness? Let’s use Tangotiger’s parsimonious FIP calculation: (13HR + 3BB 2K)/IP. Well, the most obvious difference is in HR. Cutting the HR-rate in half is huge, but that is not surprising. However, though we often view strikeout pitchers as the ideal, walk prevention also valuable. As long as the K/BB ratio 1.5 or greater the strikeouts cancel out the damage done by walks. With 15 walks and 21 strikeouts last year (a ratio of 1.4), his low walks basically cancel out his low strikeouts. (I will add that it would be nice to have a few more strikeouts to limit risking hits on balls-in-play.) Therefore, Kolb ability to prevent HRs is what lowers his ERA below average.
Now don’t get me wrong. Kolb is not just as good as John Smoltz. Last season Smoltz’s K-rate was 3 times Kolb’s, and he had a lower BB-rate. And though he was not as good at preventing the long ball, his K/BB was enough to make him a better pitcher than Kolb. However, I think its clear that Smoltz is too good to close. Putting Smoltz in the game with empty bases, a 2-run lead, with 3 outs to go in the ninth is a waste. That’s why JS is putting him back up front. As long as Kolb is used correctly he will be fine. He is not the person to put in the game with runner on in the ninth with a one-run game. This is why I think Kolb may be doing some middle relief.
But what about what the Braves gave up? Braves fans watched Cappy rise through the minors all year until he finally landed with the big club. In our minds this guy was already in the Hall, so it’s difficult to watch him go. But the truth is that we have very little idea of how good this guy is going to be. He may be a star, he may be a dud. And while he seems closer to stardom, the variance of success of these guys is very high. One thing that is clear in my mind is that Danny Kolb is a solid Major League relief pitcher. He might stink it up and be cut by the All-Star break. But I think that the risk is much lower with a guy like Kolb than with Cappy, and the Braves have several other young arms waiting in the wings. And if the Braves do need to add a pitcher mid-season, we know that relievers are cheaper to replace than starters.
Congratulations to John Schuerholz on another good move.