Thursday, December 5, 2013

Trade Thoughts: Hanigan and Holmberg

The writing has been on the wall for a couple of weeks. When the Reds signed Brayan Pena to a major league deal, it was clear that change was coming behind the dish. It arrived on Tuesday when the Reds dealt Ryan Hanigan to the Rays in a three team deal.

The long and short of the deal is Hanigan, Heath Bell, and cash to the Rays; lhp David Holmberg to the Reds; rhp Justin Choate and a player to be named later to the Diamondbacks.

In essence, the D-Backs get salary relief, the Rays get a defensive minded catcher to pair with Jose Molina, and the Reds get starting pitching depth at the upper levels of the system. On the surface and in a vacuum, the deal seems like a good one all the way around. However, digging a little deeper and adding a touch of context makes me wonder if the Reds did as well as they might think; whether they really know the value of what they gave up.

If you know anything about Moneyball, then you know that (1) Billy Beane didn't actually write it; (2) it's not actually about on-base percentage, but rather market inefficiencies; and (3) statistical analysis is just a tool, a means of collecting better information than the competition so that you can better identify those market inefficiencies.

Obviously, this all started with the Oakland A's, but it's quickly spread around the league and the Tampa Bay Rays are now one of the torchbearers of this movement. The combination of small payroll and large success is a clear indication that the Rays are exceptionally well run.

In light of that, it's more than a little disconcerting when an exceptionally well run organization is not only interested in the asset you are trying to dump, but immediately hands out a 3-year commitment to that player.

Do the Rays know something we don't? If so, what?

The question that Reds nation slapped on Ryan Hanigan last year was whether his bat would bounce back or whether diminished offensive performance was his new reality. There was a lot of concern and hand-wringing over that very question.

What's curious is that the Rays don't seem to care one single whit about his offense. If you were concerned about a player bouncing back after a down year, then you wouldn't immediately hand him a multi-year deal. Instead, you'd wait until the next data point established a trend line.

If the Rays are confident enough in Hanigan to give him that guaranteed money, then it seems reasonable to infer that they find a substantial amount of value in Hanigan's defense. So much so that it makes his offensive contributions largely irrelevant.

So, why do the Rays value Hanigan's defense so much more than the Reds? I suspect the Rays have developed a proprietary metric for valuing pitch-framing and that Ryan Hanigan grades out very highly. That would be the type of information edge that enables the Rays to exploit a market inefficiency that the Reds don't see.

Pitch framing is still an a developing area, one where the proprietary information of MLB organizations outpaces the information available in the public domain. However, early studies indicate that pitch framing can have massive impact on run prevention. You can read about pitch framing here, here, here, and here.

Here's a summary blurb from one of those articles about the impact of pitch framing:

Despite using different methods, we all came to the conclusion that catchers who can (and cannot) frame pitches have a huge impact on the game: Dan estimated that the top catchers can contribute as much as .7 runs per 150 pitches (roughly a game), Bill calculated approximately six wins per 120 games, and both Mike and I quantified the effect at around 20 runs per 120 games.

These early studies are finding that pitch framing can add/subtract several wins to a team's record over the course of a season. That's a stunning finding with jaw dropping results, but one that makes intuitive sense. Impact is frequently a function of opportunity. Opportunity was a large part of my write-up on the RBI issue in a previous post. It's the same for pitch framing. A catcher handles somewhere in the neighborhood of 120-150 pitches per game. Every single pitch is an opportunity for the catcher to steal, or give back, a strike. Stealing a strike can flip the "count probability" in a pitcher's favor or even directly result in an out. If impact is a function of opportunity, then catchers have more opportunity to impact the game than any position on the field due to pitch framing.

If you look at those studies, then two of the names you consistently see at the top of the list are "Jose Molina" and "Ryan Hanigan". More accurately, Jose seems to be otherworldly, while Hanigan is merely very good. The Rays clearly appreciate Jose Molina and it's certainly not for his bat. It's not underasonable to infer that they value Hanigan for the same reasons as Molina. This seems like an under-the-radar move that may have substantial impact on the Rays in 2014. Even if Hanigan's offense doesn't rebound to previous levels, the Rays may have just added 2+ wins to their 2014 record in defensive value alone.

I must admit, I've never really understood why the Reds felt such a pressing need to deal Ryan Hanigan unless they really felt they needed to save a couple of million. I suppose I would feel better about dealing Hanigan, and giving away his defensive contributions, if Devin Mesoraco had shown more with the bat in 2013. As it stands, Hanigan's defensive contribution may be more valuable than Mesoraco's offensive contribution. It'll be very interesting to see if the Reds pitching staff as a whole takes a step backwards in 2014 without Ryan Hanigan. The Rays may have added 2+ wins in defensive value, but will the Reds lose 2+ wins in defensive value?

There is certainly still hope that Mesoraco can be the type of hitter we thought he might be, but I just can't buy into the idea that he has failed because of a lack of consistent playing time. He has 589 MLB plate appearances under his belt, which is more than enough for him to have shown what he can do. At some point, a player creates his own playing time. Mesoraco failed to do so. 

I still have hope that Mesoraco is just a tick behind where we would expect him to be because of a cold weather amateur career and pre-pro ball Tommy John surgery, both of which cost him needed development time. Also, he was slow to figure things out in the minors, so it's possible that he just takes longer to make needed adjustments. Mesoraco will get his chance in 2014 without the Ryan Hanigan safety net. The Reds need him to step forward offensively because right out of the gate it's a clear defensive downgrade.   

As for David Holmberg, I like him. He was actually a player I picked in my 2009 shadow draft. His calling card is his plus change-up, which I always like to see in a young pitcher. He's a good pickup for the Reds and a much needed one in light of the lack of upper level starting pitching depth in the system. The Reds just can't expect good health in the rotation and Holmberg is a better option for MLB starts than Greg Reynolds. So, Holmberg should be an upgrade on the spot starts the team received in 2013.

Whether this trade works out for the Reds depends largely on the progress of Devin Mesoraco. I like David Holmberg, but I wonder if the Reds undervalued what Ryan Hanigan brings to the table. I suspect the Rays have developed a more accurate valuation on Hanigan than the Reds, which probably makes this trade a winner for the Rays and one that will show up in the standings in non-obvious ways. When sitting around next season trying to figure out why the Rays are always so strong, think back to this deal and how the organization extracts value from unexpected places.

As for the Reds, they addressed a need (SP depth), saved some pocket change, and cleared the way for a homegrown talent to emerge. It's a deal that makes sense on a number of levels, but I can't help but think that they didn't fully appreciate the value that Ryan Hanigan created.


  1. fascinating like always. good to see you posting again. I envy the Rays so much. I marvel at the trades they pull off. But more then the trades they pull off, there ability to consistently produce pitchers, and that always gives them options for trades. Have you ever thought about writing for RedReporter? They have a great network and everyone would love your stuff.

  2. Dylan,

    Yeah, the Rays are the model of efficiency in a lot of ways. However, they have clearly elected to overlook player character concerns in their operations, which makes them less least in my book. Still, they are doing a very nice job. Just imagine where they'd be if they had drafted Buster Posey instead of Tim Beckham?

    I have a buddy who is a big fan of RedReporter, so he convinced me a couple years ago to check it out and register on the site. I think I wrote a fan comment/article or two over there once upon a time, but it didn't stick. Lots of sharp people over there, but I was spread too thin between this blog and message board to really write much of consequence anywhere else.

    Anyway, thanks for the comment!