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Deadline spending and performance: Did the Pirates do enough?

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

One interesting phenomenon of a disappointing finish like the one the Pirates had is the search for a scapegoat among many fans.  Like people who seek cosmic or religious explanations for the bad things that happen in life, many fans have a need to find one single, seemingly profound reason for a failure like the Pirates' wild card loss to the Cubs.  That reason, however, can't be Jake Arietta because, when you're angry, it's not satisfying to put it on an opposing player who, by some measures, was on the hottest streak of any starting pitcher ever.  No, it has to be somebody's moral failing; the team didn't try, wasn't willing to spend, didn't get a Big Name, or whatever.

Much of the attention has focused on the trade deadline, partly in recognition of the Jays' and Mets' highly successful pickups of players like David Price and Yoenis Cespedes.  The deadline was undoubtedly critical to the Pirates, who failed in their self-imposed task of winning the division so as to avoid the possibility of another sudden-death game against another red hot starter.  So how did the Pirates' deadline performance shape up in comparison to the other contenders, both in spending and in baseball value added?


FanGraphs made the first part of this equation easy.  FG helpfully calculated the net change in each team's payroll at the trade deadline.  Their rankings (listing only contenders) went as follows:

Blue Jays

Caveat:  FG included $2.5M for Mike Morse in 2015 on the assumption that the reported $7.5M the Pirates received from the Dodgers went toward his 2016 salary.  Neal Huntington, however, recently indicated that the money paid all of Morse's 2015 salary, with the balance going toward 2016.  FG noted that the Pirates still would have had one of the biggest 2015 increases without Morse.  (FG's graph doesn't give exact dollar figures, so I can't figure out exactly where the Pirates would have ranked.)


I calculated the performance gained (or lost) by each contender in deadline moves based on fWAR.  I'm not a big fan of making minute comparisons based on WAR -- it's only an estimated, partially objective measure (like where you set replacement value) -- but it's good enough for a rough estimation, as long as you don't mistake a 3.8 WAR player as being "clearly" better than a 3.7 WAR player.  Anyway, here are the numbers, in descending order of fWAR gained:

Toronto: 4.8 WAR

Troy Tulowitzki: 1.4
David Price: 2.7
LaTroy Hawkins: 0.3
Mark Lowe: 0.1
Ben Revere: 0.3

The Jays won the sweepstakes, thanks to Price and to Tulowitziki's glove.  Tulo actually didn't hit much with the Jays.  Fun Fact:  Price drags a career post-season record of two wins and six losses, and a 5.04 ERA, into this year's ALCS.  How exactly acquiring David Price constitutes structuring a team for the post-season is hard to explain.

Pittsburgh: 3.7

Aramis Ramirez: -0.2
J.A. Happ: 2.1
Mike Morse: 0.3
Joe Blanton: 0.7
Joakim Soria: 0.8

Ironically, the Pirates' most prominent acquisition hurt the team.  Clint Hurdle's insistence on batting Ramirez cleanup didn't help, and may explain the sudden spike in Andrew McCutchen's walk rate late in the year.  Ramirez' still-low K rate actually hurt, as he hit into GIDPs at a terrifying clip.  Meanwhile, the 1.5 win total for two middle-inning relievers is believable if you were paying attention to the amazing performance of the Pirates' bullpen down the stretch.

Mets: 3.3

Yoenis Cespedes: 2.7
Kelly Johnson: 0.0
Juan Uribe: 0.7
Tyler Clippard: -0.1

Cespedes tied Price for top individual deadline pickup honors, with J.A. Happ third.  No other player reached one and a half wins.

Texas: 2.6

Sam Dyson: 1.0
Cole Hamels: 1.4
Jake Diekman: 0.2

Kansas City: 2.3

Johnny Cueto: 1.1
Ben Zobrist: 1.2

I'm a little surprised that fWAR liked Cueto this much.  He pitched pretty badly after the trade.

Houston: 1.6

Scott Kazmir: 0.1
Mike Fiers: 0.6
Carlos Gomez: 0.9

Minnesota: 0.7

Kevin Jepsen: 0.7

Dodgers: 0.6

Luis Avilan: 0.1
Jim Johnson: -0.3
Mat Latos: 0.2
Alex Wood: 0.6

There's a reason the team with MLB's highest payroll by far limped to the finish.

St. Louis: 0.4

Steve Cishek: -0.1
Brandon Moss: 0.4
Jonathan Broxton: 0.1

Sadly for the Pirates, the Cardinals probably won't bring Broxton back.

Cubs: 0.1

Dan Haren: 0.3
Tommy Hunter: -0.2

Yankees: 0.1

Dustin Ackley: 0.1

San Francisco: -0.1

Mike Leake: -0.1

Washington: -0.2

Jonathan Papelbon: -0.2

The Nationals were in a very similar position to the Pirates' going into the deadline period.  Both teams were plagued by key injuries and facing a lack of adequate depth.  The difference in outcomes is easy to explain.  The Pirates, who faced heated criticism here for not spending every conceivable penny on their opening day payroll, had plenty of financial room to address issues, as shown by the spending graph at FG.  The Nationals' owners, who are the wealthiest in MLB, told GM Mike Rizzo he couldn't add any payroll at the deadline.  He ended up with Papelbon when the Phillies agreed to pay all the closer's remaining 2015 salary.  Not only did Papelbon pitch poorly himself, the incumbent closer, Drew Storen, in the midst of an outstanding season, fell apart as the setup guy.  In another contrast, the Pirates picked up two much lower-profile relievers and got excellent results.

Angels: -1.2

Conor Gillaspie: -0.1
Shane Victorino: -0.4
David DeJesus: -0.7
David Murphy: 0.1
Wesley Wright:  -0.1

There were some remarkably bad performances by big-market teams at deadline time.  In fact, the big markets almost all fared badly.  Even the big exception, the Mets, haven't behaved like a big market team since their Madoff troubles.

Baltimore: -1.3

Junior Lake: -0.5
Gerardo Parra: -0.8

The Orioles would have been better off if they'd used up all their cell phone minutes by mid-July.