Reflecting on the Blue Jays’ deadline trades: Sanchez-Fisher edition

 

JFtC reflects on the Toronto Blue Jays trade that sent Aaron Sanchez to the Houston Astros for Derek Fisher

 

 

 

 

The Blue Jays were, as expected, one of the busier clubs during the 2019 trade deadline period. What was a bit unexpected was the list of players who ended up moving. Marcus Stroman and Eric Sogard, both covered in my pre-deadline post, always looked likely to go. Daniel Hudson also seemed like a good bet to move. David Phelps seemed to be acquired precisely so he could be moved in July, but his limited track record this season after coming back from Tommy John surgery created some uncertainty.

 

However, it was the Jays’ final trade before the deadline that was easily the most unexpected—with Aaron Sanchez, Joe Biagini and prospect Cal Stevenson sent to the Astros in exchange for outfielder Derek Fisher—so let’s jump into that one first. I think it’s fair to say that every Jays fan’s first impression of this move was negative. Any time three players are traded for one, fans of the team receiving the lone player will have high expectations of that player’s quality. Unfortunately, a quick glance of Derek Fisher’s track record did not satisfy many of those fans.

 

Speaking as a fan, I get it. When it was initially Sanchez and Biagini for Fisher, I was basically okay with it. When Stevenson was added, I became less okay with it, as I’ve grown quite fond of him as a prospect. The initial suggestion that the Jays would get another piece in return made me more okay with it. Finding out that wouldn’t be the case returned me to my previous level of being like a 3/10 on the okayness scale.

 

But, then, it’s always really important not to let one’s first impression determine one’s opinion on something. The best way to avoid this mistake is using logic and data to evaluate the accuracy of that first impression. Indeed, when you compare the statistical value of what the Jays and Astros get from this deal, you find that it was actually pretty fair.

 

The Astros got Sanchez, Biagini and Stevenson. Sanchez is under team control through 2020, Biagini through 2022 and Stevenson for six full seasons once his service time clock starts. ZiPS projects Sanchez to be worth 0.6 WAR through the end of 2019 and 1.5 WAR in 2020, for a total value of 2.1 WAR (for simplicity’s sake, I’m not going to bother accounting for the present value of future production). ZiPS projects Biagini to be worth 0.2 WAR over the rest of this season and then 0.5 WAR each subsequent season, for a total of 1.7 WAR. At this point, Stevenson’s expected value is 0 WAR, based on FanGraphs’ valuation of prospects with a future value of 35+. So, overall, the three players the Astros received are projected to provide 3.8 WAR over their years of team control.

 

The Blue Jays got Fisher, who is under team control through 2023. ZiPS projects Fisher to be worth 0.2 WAR over the last two months of the 2019 season, 1 WAR in 2020 and 0.9 WAR in 2021. If we assume another two seasons of 0.9 WAR production for Fisher, his overall value to the Jays would be 3.9 WAR.

 

So, what is at first glance a three-for-one trade might be better described as a 3.8-for-3.9 trade. Looking at trades as robotically as this helps make one’s analysis more objective, which can help make one’s subjective opinion a little less hotter.

 

There are, however, other interesting questions to ask beyond whether or not the trade was fair.

 

Should the Jays have moved Sanchez at another time, when his value was higher?

Probably, but I think that time was in the past, not in the future. I don’t think I expressed this take publicly, so feel free to take it with a grain of salt, but I was hoping the Jays would move Sanchez this past off-season. While his value seemed low, I felt strongly that it would only get lower. While it’s tough to say whether his value has fallen from the off-season to now—his 2019 numbers are pretty bad and he’s continued to deal with finger issues, but he has had a few strong starts in July—I certainly don’t think his value has *increased* this season and I doubt it would have increased if the Jays waited to move him this winter or at the 2020 deadline.

 

Moreover, while I think that Sanchez has a future in the bullpen, that wasn’t going to happen in Toronto. In Houston, it’s a different story. One, he might not even be one of the top five starters on the team. Two, if the 2019 Houston Astros (currently given a 26% chance of winning the World Series by FanGraphs) tell a player to jump, 99 times out of 100, that player will ask “how high?”

 

Will the Astros turn Sanchez into a Cy Young-quality pitcher?

Obviously, they are the Astros after all. But even if they do, that wasn’t happening in Toronto. He seems like a good kid, so I hope he becomes the best pitcher he possibly can be.

 

Will the Astros turn Biagini into a Cy Young-quality pitcher?

Now, *that* would be something. Joe does have more vertical movement on his curveball than any other qualified reliever this season.

 

I got to interview him at WinterFest this year and my first question was how he felt about the different roles he’s served as a Blue Jay (one-inning reliever, multi-inning reliever and starter) and if he had a preferred role going forward. He half-jokingly told me he was struggling to answer my question because it was boring. I’m gonna miss him.

 

Did they really need to add Stevenson to seal the deal?

That part hurts the most for me. Stevenson caught my eye last summer on his way to posting the single-best on-base percentage (.511) across affiliated baseball, among the 3,332 batters with 60+ total plate appearances. He also displayed solid speed, corner outfield defence and makeup. This season, he was promoted all the way from Advanced Rookie to High-A. After struggling in April, Stevenson turned things around and has posted a .416 OBP since May 1st.

 

He’s a guy who, based on his scouting grades, has little value, so I’m not sure how adding him really tipped the scales for the Astros. Which, of course, makes me wonder if they see as much potential in him as I do. As such, seeing him in the majors with the Astros down the road would be bittersweet.

 

Are there reasons to think Fisher might outperform current expectations?

Yes.

 

There’s his prospect pedigree—he was ranked 83rd on the MLB Pipeline top prospect list in 2017—which counts for something, especially given his limited MLB track record (312 PA). For context, young Blue Jays like Vlad Guerrero Jr. (326), Danny Jansen (385) and Rowdy Tellez (359) each have more MLB plate appearances under their belt than Fisher.

 

Defensively, he’s improved as a centre fielder in recent seasons—while he produced -7 FRAA at the position over his first two AAA seasons (73 games), he’s produced 4 FRAA over his last two (57 games)—and has been above-average when used in the corners during his limited time as a major leaguer—he produced 5 DRS in LF and 3 DRS in RF over a total of 622 innings, the equivalent of a little less than half a major league season.

 

He’s generally backed up the 70-grade FanGraphs placed on his speed back in 2017. Over his major league career, he’s posted an average sprint speed of 29.4 ft/s, the 21st-highest mark in the Statcast era (min. 100 sprints opportunities). While he had a rough start as a major league base runner, getting caught each of the three times he tried to steal a base in 2017, he has been better over the last two seasons—with 1.9 BsR over 146 PA, his 7.8 BsR per 600 PA ranks in the 97th percentile since 2018. Obviously, this is over a small sample size, but it’s corroborated by his strong base running at Triple-A, where his career stolen base percentage (74.1%, 40 out of 54) is above the level-average (70% from 2016 to 2019).

 

The biggest uncertainty with Fisher lies in the most important aspect of the game: hitting. At Triple-A, he’s posted four consecutive half-seasons of above-average production at the plate, with a 130 wRC+ overall. For context, that is an 88th percentile mark among Pacific Coast League batters since 2016 (min. 500 PA). However, his production at the majors hasn’t been as strong (likely the reason he was available in the first place) which has led to concerns that he is a Quad-A player or, at best, a fourth outfielder.

 

Let’s break things down into walks, batted balls and strikeouts. At both the Triple-A (11.7%) and MLB levels (9.3%), Fisher has walked more often than most batters, so this is one area that requires no positive spin.

 

In terms of batted balls, it seems Fisher has been quite unlucky as a big leaguer. His career .428 xwOBA on batted balls is very good, ranking in the 85th percentile among batters with 150+ batted balls since 2017. However, his wOBA on batted balls has been a much more modest .388, putting him in the 63rd percentile. As a result, his xwOBA-wOBA is 0.040, which puts him in the 95th percentile. Given his speed and the limited use of the shift against him, a xwOBA-wOBA gap that high almost certainly is down to bad batted ball luck.

 

This bad batted ball luck appears to have particularly affected Fisher’s production of singles—while he produced a .364 xBABIP, his actual BABIP was only .288, the single-largest gap among major league batters since 2017. Along with his strong walk rate, a BABIP of .364 would have driven his OBP up to .321, around the league average.

 

Finally, his high career MLB strikeout rate, the most damning evidence in support of the Quad-A label. At the MLB level, Fisher has posted a 35.3% strikeout rate over 312 plate appearances.

 

First off, ZiPS views this as Fisher’s true talent level (the aforementioned projections assume he will strike out around 35% of the time going forward). Positively, this means that even modest improvements as Fisher gains MLB experience (say, maintaining a 30% strikeout rate) will increase his value beyond the 3.9 WAR mentioned earlier.

 

That said, his performance in the majors this season suggests a sub-30% strikeout rate is possible. Through his first 252 MLB plate appearances, Fisher seemed to struggle more and more with the K. During his first five-game cameo in June 2017, he struck out only 23.8% of the time (21 PA). He was called back up after the 2017 All-Star break and finished out the season in Houston, striking out in 33.8% of his 145 plate appearances. He started the 2018 season back in the bigs, but kept on struggling (45.7% K rate) until he was demoted in May. Recalled in August, he managed to strike out in each of the five plate appearances he made. It’s been a different story in 2019. Overall, he’s posted a 23.3% strikeout rate at the major league level, which is essentially league average these days (22.8%).

 

Moreover, the up and down he’s experienced in the majors syncs up well with his last three Triple-A seasons: he kept a very tidy strikeout rate (19.3%) back in 2017; things got worse in 2018 between his MLB stints (27.6% strikeout rate); he struck out 42.9% of the time over the last two weeks of 2018; but he’s managed to post a 24.8% strikeout rate this season.

 

A Derek Fisher who is an above-average base runner, an average centre fielder, above-average at collecting walks, above-average at generating good contact and strikes out only a quarter or so of the time is a good Derek Fisher that could help the Blue Jays for years to come.

 

Concluding Thoughts

Ultimately, I get why Jays fans had an overall negative reaction to news of this trade. Mine wasn’t that positive either. I think part of that is a result of comparing the most positive view of the players one’s team is losing to the most negative view of the players one’s team is gaining, which is a recipe for misery. We have such positive memories of Sanchez and Biagini (as well as positive hopes for Stevenson), while all we know about Fisher is that he might be a busted prospect.

 

However, when you compare what the Jays truly gave up against what they truly received, I really don’t think this trade can be seen as a definite stinker. I honestly don’t *think* I’m trying to gaslight myself (and my readers) into believing that this wasn’t a bad trade, but I understand if those who are particularly down on this move feel that way.

 

That said, I don’t want to end off by saying “this wasn’t the worst deal” because that’s a low bar by which to evaluate trades. When you use current projections, this looks like a pretty fair trade. And, if Fisher can keep his strikeout rate in the mid-20s (like he did over his 60 major league plate appearances in 2019) and keep making good contact, this could be a very positive addition for the Blue Jays.

 

 

 

 

 

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Jeff Quattrociocchi

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.