Jays From the Couch explores the idea of the Toronto Blue Jays adding Dan Straily to their rotation
Back on December 30th, Aiden Elash (an avid Jays from the Couch reader/commenter) asked us what we thought about the Jays trading for Dan Straily, starting pitcher for the Miami Marlins. Straily had been discussed as a possibility and does seem like a potential fit for the Jays, who’d welcome an affordable back of the rotation option.
Obviously, when discussing a trade, the key variable is also the most unknown: the cost. That said, for a modest price (perhaps a 45 FV prospect and a lottery ticket) the Jays could pick up a guy who’s a proven #5 MLB starter with the potential to be more of a #3 guy.
Straily’s contract status
Dan Straily is hitting his first arb year and is projected to earn $4.6 million in 2018. It is difficult to project his 2019 and 2020 arbitration salaries at this point, but we can come up with a rough idea. For example, Chris Tillman earned $4.3 million in his first arb year, followed by $6.2 million and $10 million.
Now, each player’s arbitration expectations are driven by player-specific factors like playing time and performance. But Tillman went into each year’s negotiations having pitched a full season at a roughly average level, just like Straily will this offseason. If things work out, he will do so prior to his 2019 and 2020 negotiations as well.
According to research by Fangraphs, a player’s wins, innings pitched, strikeouts, RA9-WAR (runs allowed per nine innings-based wins above replacement) and games started are the stats most strongly correlated to a player’s arbitration salary. It’s intuitive to understand why these stats might be connected to arb awards. They are all counting stats, which highlights the importance arbitrators place on playing time.
Arbitrators like strikeouts and winners. Arbitrators value a pitcher’s ERA, sort of—ERA itself is not that correlated to arb salaries, because a starting pitcher with 10 IP and a 0.00 ERA is not going to get awarded as much as a starter with 600 IP and a 4.00 ERA. Instead, ERA works through RA9-WAR, a version of WAR that uses RA9 instead of FIP. RA9 is just like ERA, but you include unearned runs too. The two stats are highly correlated (R2 of 0.98).
Straily and Tillman have had similar starts to their careers, with Tillman pitching a few more innings and pitching a bit more effectively (4.00 ERA vs. 4.25 ERA). So, with that in mind, let’s use Tillman’s $20 million total arbitration cost as a rough (and conservative) estimate of Straily’s three year contract cost.
Straily’s production value is tricky to pinpoint
In terms of the FIP-calculated fWAR, Straily generated a total of 3.1 wins above replacement over the 2016 and 2017 seasons, good for 84th among all starting pitchers. However, in terms of the RA9-calculated version of WAR, Straily generated a total of 6.0 wins above replacement over the last two seasons, ranking 34th among all starting pitchers. The gap between his RA9-WAR and his fWAR was seventh largest in the majors.
Unsurprisingly, he has one of the most negative ERA – FIP gaps in the majors over the last two seasons (-0.7, 12th lowest). A very negative ERA-FIP is highly correlated with a low BABIP, which is the case for Straily—his .266 BABIP is tied with Marco Estrada for 23rd lowest in the majors.
There are two general explanations for Straily’s very different ERA and FIP:
1) He has gotten lucky and/or bailed out by good defence. In this case, his FIP is the accurate measure, while his ERA was artificially suppressed by his good fortune.
2) While he gives up plenty of homers, he generates weak contact when the ball doesn’t leave the park. In this case, it’s his ERA that is more accurate than his FIP, as FIP doesn’t give him any credit for his low BABIP. All credit goes to good luck and good defence, even though he deserves a share of it. Given his career .264 BABIP, this explanation seems quite plausible.
Statcast seems positive about Straily’s value
Expected stats like xBA and xwOBA help us think about these weird situations. They give us an idea of the kind of contact quality a pitcher is giving up, which can tell us whether they’re getting lots of defensive support or not. The Statcast numbers like Straily reasonably well—his xBA (.235) ranks 42nd among 189 starting pitchers who faced 400+ batters over the last two seasons, while his xwOBA (.312) ranks 73rd.
These are strong numbers for a guy who collects strikeouts (21.3%) and walks (8.5%) at almost exactly league average rates, while giving up homers at a worse than average rate (1.5 HR/9). The X-factor here is the very low quality of contact he gives up on balls in play (non-home run batted balls). Among 154 starting pitchers who surrendered 400+ balls in play over the 2016-17 seasons, Straily owns the 15th lowest xwOBA on balls in play (.299).
In that vein, I see some similarities between Straily and Estrada (though there are obviously plenty of differences between the two as well). As mentioned earlier, they both maintain low BABIPs. They both have a very negative ERA-FIP (Marco’s is -0.51 as a Jay). They both possess league average strikeout (22.3% for Marco) and walk rates (8.9% for Marco). They both give up more homers than most (1.34 HR/9 for Marco). And they both give up exceptionally low contact quality on balls in play (.292 xwOBA on balls in play for Marco).
Ultimately, if Straily is truly only as valuable as his fWAR and FIP imply, he is still an innings eater (23rd most IP over 2016-17) who projects to be a #5 starter, quality-wise—out of 192 starters with 100+ IP over the last two seasons, his 4.73 FIP ranked 138th (in theory, true talent #5 starters would rank around 121st to 150th). Not terrible, especially since the Jays are in the market for a #5 starter. However, if his value is more closely linked to his RA9-WAR and ERA, Straily projects to be a pretty good #3 starter—his 4.02 ERA ranked 63rd.
What will the Jays need to give up to get him?
An important, but difficult question. Last off-season, Straily was traded by the Reds to the Marlins for two right-handed pitching prospects (one with a 45 FV, the other with a 40 FV according to Eric Longenhagen) and one lottery ticket outfielder. What remains to be seen is what the Marlins will demand in return. Importantly, out of the four years of Straily that they “bought” last year, they’ve already used up the most valuable one, his final (very inexpensive) pre-arb season.
Let’s say that this lowers the asking price to one solid, but imperfect 45 FV prospect and a lottery ticket. Given the high cost of starters in free agency, this could be an acceptable price to pay—essentially giving up six future years of a potential mid-to-back end starter for three present years of a fairly proven mid-to-back end starter. Again, only 33 starters amassed more RA9-WAR than he has over the last two seasons and there are good reasons to think that reflects the true value he’s generated.
It’s always tough to send away youngsters that you’ve grown attached to, especially in exchange for guys without much name recognition or pedigree. My preference this off-season has been to use cash to patch up holes, more so than prospect capital. That said, the Jays have a number of solid if imperfect pitching prospects to deal from.
Thinking about Straily’s surplus value might provide more guidance as to his trade cost. Steamer projects him to be a 1.6 fWAR player this year, so let’s say he does that three times and produces 4.8 fwAR while under team control. That would give him about $43 million in production value over three years and $23 million in surplus value ($43 million – $20 million in estimated arb salaries). That’s a solid amount of surplus value. If the price is, in fact, a 45 FV prospect and a lottery ticket, this is a trade the Jays should seriously consider.
Of course, if his value is better captured by RA9-WAR and he maintains his recent form (3 RA9-WAR per season), that prospect package would represent a proper steal. In this case, his three-year production value would be around 9 WAR and his surplus value would be around $61 million. That’s quite a bit of surplus value.
Should the Jays pull the trigger on Straily?
In my opinion, Straily would be a good get, if not one that must be had at any price. He would likely help the Blue Jays for the foreseeable future, but he’d probably require the team to sacrifice a prospect who could eventually become a better starting pitcher with twice as many years of team control.
That said, the Jays need one more pitcher for their 2018 rotation. The SP free agent market is shallow and expensive this off-season. Joe Biagini would probably benefit from a few months in AAA (or a permanent move to the bullpen). The other internal options are likely a year or so away—even the closest guys, like Ryan Borucki, need to prove themselves for a few months at AAA before they can be counted on at the MLB level.
Within this context, that prospect cost for Straily becomes more and more palatable. Add the under-the-radar value that he appears to possess and we’re suddenly looking at a potentially great move for the Blue Jays.
One last thing worth mentioning is the presence of the Miami Marlins esteemed CEO, Derek “Jeets” Jeter, simultaneous user of two iPads. I would really like the Blue Jays to be one of the teams to help him get rid of a useful asset. For all we know, Jeets would be fine getting back a couple of lottery ticket prospects and a third iPad for Straily.
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I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.