23 August 2011
The Diamondbacks made a surprising trade on Tuesday, sending 2B Kelly Johnson to the Blue Jays for 2B Aaron Hill and SS John McDonald. The team was clearly losing faith in Johnson, as his average had slipped to .209 and he led the team in strikeouts with 132 in 481 PA (27.4%). Replacing him at 2B will be Aaron Hill, who has had an even worse offensive year than Johnson so far. GM Kevin Towers said that Hill and Johnson are similar players. "If you looked at Kelly, it was kind of a peaks-and-valley-type guy, you just didn't know year to year what you were going to get. [Hill] is a guy that makes probably more contact, a guy that will probably give you a better [at-bat], and knowing that the power has been there before and at his age, the power can come back. You go into a ballpark like ours, most guys' numbers do improve once they go to the National League -- especially leaving the AL East. I think there's a chance his numbers can spike a little bit. We're not looking for this guy to carry this ballclub on his shoulders right now."
Coming over with Hill will be John McDonald, who is an outstanding defensive shortstop, but has also struggled with the bat. McDonald is a key part of the trade, according to GM Kevin Towers and Manager Kirk Gibson. "One of the things we didn't like was to put that much activity on Willie Bloomquist at shortstop," said D-backs manager Kirk Gibson. "We were already playing him too much. [McDonald is a] very good defender at shortstop, he's a very spirited, fiery guy." Gibson knows McDonald well, since Gibson was a coach in Detroit while McDonald played there. Let's take a closer look at the three players involved in the trade.
Offensively, Johnson has been very erratic from year-to-year. His best season in Atlanta was 2008, but he slumped badly in 2009 and was let go. He rebounded in Arizona in 2010, but in 2011 is having his worst year in terms of batting average and getting on base. Manager Kirk Gibson has tried to get Johnson back on track over the last few weeks, by giving him multiple days off in mid-August, and by resting him against most left-handed pitchers, but nothing has worked. His numbers against LHP in 2011 have been weak - .171/.207/.297 - and over the month of August, his overall offensive numbers have been even worse - .140/.197/.263.
Despite Johnson's offensive struggles, has he still been a valuable player for the Diamondbacks in 2011? It depends on whose stats you believe, or more specifically, which defensive stats you believe. There are three major sites that calculate WAR, or Wins Over Replacement, Baseball Reference.com, Fangraphs.com, and Baseball Prospectus. Let's see how these three rate Johnson's value over the years.
WAR - Kelly Johnson
There is quite a bit of disagreement, particularly with Johnson's value over the past two years. What's the reason behind this? WAR is just a framework, and each site uses their own methods to measure offensive and defensive value. While all three offensive calculations produce very similar results, the defensive values are all over the map. BR.com uses Total Zone Rating, developed by Sean Smith of BaseballProjection.com. FanGraphs evaluates the defensive part of WAR from Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), while Baseball Prospectus uses Fielding Runs Above Average. How have these systems rated KJ over the years? Here are the defensive numbers for each system, as well as Defensive Runs Saved from John Dewan's Fielding Bible.
Defensive Value - Kelly Johnson
|Year||BR.com (TZR)||FanGraphs (UZR)||BP (FRAA)||DRS|
Here we can see that the differences in WAR are due to the differences in defensive evaluation. FanGraphs in particular loves Johnson's defense over the last two years in Arizona, and is the main reason that FanGraphs' WAR rates Johnson so highly. In 2011, the other three systems rate Johnson as a below average defender, which would obviously reduce his true value.
What is Johnson true defensive value, and therefore his true overall value? The Fan's Scouting Report gave Johnson a grade of 51 in 2010, which puts him right around average. I think that is about right - Johnson is about an average defender at 2B, which means that his best seasons are worth about 3 Wins, and his current season is just slightly above replacement value. I don't trust how UZR rated Johnson as a below average defender in Atlanta, and then immediately as an above average one in Arizona. Could there be some type of the bias in the data that is making players look like better defenders in Arizona?
Hill has never been very good at getting on base, but still had a solid offensive year in 2009. In 2010, his AVG and OBP dropped significantly, but he still managed to hit 26 HR. In 2011, Hill has lost his power along with his on-base skills, making him one of the worst offensive players in the Majors. Can he return to his pre-2010 offensive levels?
The Diamondbacks are hoping that a change of scenery will help Hill. His BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) has been ridiculously low over the last two seasons, .196 in 2010 and .242 in 2011. This is after an average BABIP of around .300 from 2005-2009. His 2010 BABIP could be partially explained by his low 10.6% Line Drive rate, but he has increased his LD% to 18.7% in 2011, and his BABIP is still below average. One problem could be that he has been swinging at over 31% of pitches out of the strike zone in 2010-2011, which could lead to fewer hard hit balls and lots of infield pop-ups (13% over the last two years). And Hill's home run rate has practically disappeared - his HR/FB% is only 4% in 2011, after being as high as 14.9% in 2009 and at 8% for his career.
Hill's offensive problems over the last two years coincided with the promotion of Dwayne Murphy as the Jays' hitting coach. Murphy's style has worked fantastically for players like Jose Bautista, but maybe it's been a problem for Hill.
Defensively, Hill's value has been valued a little more consistently across the four systems, although FanGraphs seems to like his defense the least. They all seem to agree that Hill was very good in 2006-2007, but has slipped over the last few years. The Fan's Scouting Report still rates Hill fairly highly, with a score of 59, giving him above average scores for reactions and throwing accuracy.
Aaron Hill - Defense
|Year||BR.com (TZR)||FanGraphs (UZR)||BP (FRAA)||DRS|
Putting Hill's offense and defense together for an overall WAR, we get:
Aaron Hill - WAR
All of the systems agree that Hill has been below replacement value this year, and just slightly above it in 2010.
No matter how you spin the offensive stats, McDonald has never been a good offensive player. He doesn't hit for average, hit for power, get on base well, or steal bases.
What McDonald does do well is play defense, especially at shortstop. But even with McDonald, the defensive metrics are not very consistent:
John McDonald - Defense
|Year||BR.com (TZR)||FanGraphs (UZR)||BP (FRAA)||DRS|
Keep in mind that McDonald has never been a full time player, which means that his yearly sample sizes are small. But the scouts and fans seem to universally love McDonald's defense. On the various Blue Jay blogs, McDonald is known as PMoD, for "Prime Minister of Defense". The Fan's Scouting Report gave him a score of 73, with excellent ratings for raections, hands, release, footwork, and throwing accuracy. Again, I trust this rating more than any of the individual defensive metrics, and agree that McDonald is an outstanding defensive player, even at the age of 36.
One other thing to consider is the contract status of the players involved. Hill has club options for $8M for the next two years, but there is almost no chance those will be exercised unless he really turns his offense around over the final month. Otherwise, he will be a Type B free agent, and eligible for salary arbitration. If Hill plays well, the Diamondbacks could offer Hill arbitration, which would probably come in around the same $5M he is earning now. If he doesn't accept (or there has already been a gentleman's agreement made where Hill won't accept), then the team would get a compensation pick in next year's draft. It is quite likely that Hill and McDonald are just two-month rentals.
As for Johnson, he is currently rated as a Type B free agent, but could move up to Type A with a strong finish to the 2011 season. Much has been made this difference in free agent compensation between the two players, since as a Type A, Johnson could be worth two picks rather than one (The same compensation pick as a Type B, plus the signing team's 1st or 2nd round pick) See an explanation of free agent compensation here. But I think it will never come to that. If Johnson does become a Type A free agent, he will almost surely accept arbitration (for around $8M ?) because it will be hard for him to sign as a free agent since the signing team will have to give up a high draft pick to do so. The Diamondbacks had already decided that Johnson would not be offered arbitration, so they had no chance to get a compensation pick for him.
This is probably not a highly relevant factor to consider, but both Hill and McDonald are very popular with the fans and in the clubhouse. Blue Jays fans seem genuinely upset that McDonald is leaving, and almost all are hoping he returns to the team next year, either as a player or coach. Even though Hill has struggled for the last two years offensively, the fans don't seem to hate him. Instead, they are all rooting for him to turn things around. I have seen many posts from Jays fans saying that they will now be rooting for the Diamondbacks just because Hill and McDonald are one the team. Interestingly, Hill and McDonald will be joining Ryan Roberts and Lyle Overbay, who were their teammates on the Blue Jays back in 2007.
No matter how you look at it, this trade is a significant gamble for the Diamondbacks. They were in 1st Place before the trade, and sent away their regular 2B, who did have 18 HR already this year. In return, they picked up two players who are significantly worse on offense. But I think both Hill and McDonald will help the team's defense. McDonald gives the team its only above-average defender at SS since Stephen Drew is out. Over the last month, as Kirk Gibson lost faith in Johnson, the Diamondbacks have been forced to use Ryan Roberts more at 2B, giving the team a poor double-play defensive combo. With McDonald and Hill, the team's up-the-middle defense should be very good. By returning Bloomquist to a part-time role, maybe his offense will pick up from the .194/.289/.254 line he has compiled in August as a full-time player.
Most people use FanGraphs' WAR for a quick way to evaluate trades, and that makes the trade look bad for the Diamondbacks. FanGraphs rates Johnson's defense very highly at 2B, and Hill as below average, giving Johnson a significant WAR advantage. But the other defensive systems don't rate Johnson that highly, which makes the trade much more even. I tend to agree with these ratings - Johnson is about average defensively, while Hill is slightly above average and McDonald is very good. I think the Diamondbacks easily win the trade from the defensive point of view.
But for the trade to work, Aaron Hill must hit better than the .583 OPS he had with the Blue Jays. His contact rate (86.9%) and his line drive rate (18.7%) are still solid, but the hits haven't been falling. Is it just bad luck? Will working with a new hitting coach bring Hill closer to the offensive player he was from 2006-2009? That is the big unknown that the Diamondbacks are gambling on.