By The Numbers: The Rich Harden Trade

The Rich Harden trade had a lot of Oakland A's fans scratching their heads. Nathaniel Stoltz looks deep into the stats involving the players in the trade to see whether the A's were winners or losers in the deal.

Of course, the Rich Harden trade has become the talk of the Oakland A's community the last two days, and it seems that the reaction to the trade is overwhelmingly negative.A's fans look at the trade and see the A's giving up an ace (Harden) and a mid-rotation starter (Chad Gaudin) for a back-of-the-rotation starter (Sean Gallagher), two fringe position players (Matt Murton and Eric Patterson) and a low-level catcher (Josh Donaldson).

The A's are known to be a fairly statistically oriented front office, so I sought to find a statistical explanation to this superficially head-scratching trade. What would compel the A's to trade two very valuable pitchers for four scrubs? What is it that Billy Beane & Company see that we don't?

I looked at the major league careers of Harden and Gaudin, and the full careers (major and minor league combined) of the four Cubs in the deal, and ran a translation on each season for each player, just as I used in my article about six A's pitching prospects earlier in the week. To begin, let's look at the players the A's received, starting at the bottom with Donaldson.

Here is a snapshot of Donaldson's translated stats (adjusted for home park) for his brief career.

Year

Team (Level)

AVG

OBP

SLG

UVI

2007

AZL Cubs (Rookie)

.182

.308

.364

.354

2007

Boise (Short-season-A)

.327

.455

.580

.648

2008

Peoria (Low-A)

.221

.280

.353

.398

 

When you saw the trade reported, it probably said something along the lines of "The A's also received Josh Donaldson, a catcher hitting .217 in low Class A." It's true that he is, but his impressive 2007 at Boise (his AZL stint was 11 ABs, his Boise stint was two months) makes Donaldson more interesting (and more promising) than any other .217 Low-A hitter. Going into 2008, <I>Baseball America</I> ranked Donaldson as the Cubs 7th-best prospect, saying he "projects as a .280 hitter with 15-20 homers a season." Obviously, his poor 2008 showing has dropped his stock, but given that it's just Donaldson's first full season, it's far too early to write him off. The transition to pro ball and wood bats didn't negatively affect Donaldson (evidenced by the Boise stint), but rather, it seems like he has just struggled to play a full season, which happens to some young players.

Diving deeper into the superficially poor 2008 showing, there are some positives. First, Donaldson's secondary skills haven't atrophied completely. His walk-to-strikeout ratio is 17:41, which is decent, so his approach at the plate isn't terrible. His Isolated Power of .132 is a far cry from Boise's .253, but it's still respectable, even for a catcher. Since Donaldson isn't striking out excessively, is taking a few walks, and is getting at least a modest amount of extra-base hits (13 doubles and six homers), it could be that he just got unlucky on balls in play for half a season, which accounts for at least some of the 106-point drop in batting average.

Donaldson also improved across the board at the plate in each month in Peoria. In April, he hit a miserable .191/.242/.292; in May, .203/.298/.378; and in June, .283/.317/.439. All three triple-slash stats have a pronounced upward trend throughout the year. So Donaldson had a bad first two months in his first full season. It happens. Look at Matt Sulentic last year, for example, whose collapse was far worse than Donaldson's. He was able to rebound this year in a big way.

All told, while Donaldson has struggled this season, his 2007 was very promising, and there are several elements to his 2008 that suggest he will continue to improve. While his stock has dropped since the start of the season, the perceived drop suggested by his batting average is far more severe than Donaldson's actual decline. He is 22, so Donaldson will need to improve quickly if he is to be a serious prospect, but it's too early to write him off.

The other three players acquired in the deal all have major league experience and extensive minor league track records, so with them, we need to take a slightly more retrospective approach. We'll start with Eric Patterson, a utilityman who has bounced from Triple-A to the majors and back several times in the past two seasons. His career looks like this:

Year

Team (Level)

AVG

OBP

SLG

UVI

2005

Peoria (Low-A)

.336

.404

.537

.609

2005

West Tennessee (AA)

.200

.324

.267

.393

2006

Tennessee (AA)

.263

.325

.408

.488

2006

Iowa (AAA)

.343

.382

.478

.577

2007

Iowa (AAA)

.297

.359

.455

.510

2007

Chicago (MLB)

.250

.222

.375

.328

2008

Iowa (AAA)

.325

.363

.522

.572

2008

Chicago (MLB)

.237

.318

.342

.388

 

Patterson's 2005, spent almost completely at Peoria, jumps out as a phenomenal season. His triple-slash stats look superficially unimpressive in 2006 at Tennessee, but his excellent base-stealing (37-49) increases Patterson's UVI to a strong .488. He also performed extremely well in an August '06 call-up to Iowa.

It's clear that over the past three seasons, Patterson has shown he needs no more time at Triple-A, as he has topped the .500 UVI mark in all three seasons he has played at the level. Don't get too worked up about his MLB struggles, as he has spent only 20 games in a Cubs uniform. Patterson projects as something around a .280/.340/.430 hitter with 30 steals, which would give him a UVI around .485. He is not far from his peak, so he could put up a UVI in the .460-.470 range right now. In 2007, major league second basemen had a collective UVI of .446, so Patterson already is above-average at the position. By comparison, current A's second baseman Mark Ellis has a translated UVI of .478 this season, so offensively, the two are almost equal right now. Patterson is not as good defensively as Ellis, but he can also play the outfield and can handle the other infield positions if needed, so he has more defensive versatility.

The A's also acquired outfielder Matt Murton in the trade. Murton's career path has been interesting. Here it is:

Year

Team (Level)

AVG

OBP

SLG

UVI

2003

Lowell (Short-season-A)

.291

.379

.402

.466

2004

Sarasota (High-A)

.295

.367

.447

.475

2004

Daytona (High-A)

.241

.315

.354

.396

2005

West Tennessee (AA)

.342

.400

.498

.537

2005

Iowa (AAA)

.353

.421

.500

.479

2005

Chicago (MLB)

.314

.375

.514

.524

2006

Chicago (MLB)

.286

.354

.431

.448

2007

Iowa (AAA)

.331

.407

.570

.567

2007

Chicago (MLB)

.268

.341

.421

.452

2008

Iowa (AAA)

.304

.402

.387

.452

2008

Chicago (MLB)

.250

.286

.300

.274

 

A's fans might draw a comparison between Murton's career thus far and that of former A's outfielder and Rookie of the Year Ben Grieve, whose career basically went downhill after his rookie campaign. The comparison isn't far-fetched—both Murton and Grieve have well-rounded offensive profiles, but are limited to the outfield corners defensively—but Murton certainly has an interesting track record. His only full big league season came in 2006, when he turned in a .448 UVI as the Cubs' starting left fielder. Since Murton is limited to left or right, he needs to hit far better than that if he wants a full-time MLB gig again. It is worth noting that Murton excelled in 2005 for the Cubs in 140 ABs. He also tore up Triple-A in 2007.

Murton's power outage in Triple-A (.085 Isolated Power) is a very serious concern, even though he managed to get on base at a .402 clip. Half-season power outages can just be "one of those things," or they could be indicative of a more serious problem with Murton. It's possible that his swing is off, or that his lack of a big league opportunity (not to mention a year of trade rumors) is a distraction. Murton needs to get back to his 2005/2007 form if he is to hold down a full-time MLB job.

Right-hander Sean Gallagher will serve as the A's 5th starter. The big righty's career translations are as follows:

Year

Team (Level)

IP

H

HR

BB

K

WHIP

ARA

BA

OBP

UVI

2004

AZL Cubs (Rookie)

37.3

30

0

11

44

1.10

2.96

.211

.268

.320

2005

Peoria (Low-A)

140.3

124

10

55

139

1.28

4.09

.228

.315

.415

2005

Daytona (High-A)

5.3

5

1

0

7

0.94

3.82

.239

.239

.429

2006

Daytona (High-A)

80.7

68

5

21

80

1.10

3.43

.219

.280

.366

2006

West Tenn. (AA)

86.7

74

4

55

91

1.49

4.15

.221

.333

.410

2007

Tennessee (AA)

60.3

56

3

24

54

1.33

3.96

.236

.314

.402

2007

Iowa (AAA)

39.3

37

1

13

37

1.27

3.78

.239

.310

.386

2007

Chicago (MLB)

15

18

3

12

5

2.00

6.75

.286

.408

.592

2008

Iowa (AAA)

28

24

2

9

30

1.18

3.62

.222

.282

.385

2008

Chicago (MLB)

58.7

58

6

22

49

1.36

4.48

.248

.323

.450

 

Gallagher wasn't particularly impressive with the Cubs, but his 2008 performance in Chicago has been passable. He's only 22, so the fact that he has excelled in Triple-A and held his own in the majors already is certainly noteworthy. However, any scouting report on the righthander features a bad view of his body, stating Gallagher needs to "adopt better conditioning" and is "overbuilt" and "not projectable." Therefore, scouts say Gallagher isn't likely to get much better than he is now, stuff-wise or performance-wise.

There are two problems with that assessment. The first is that Gallagher has lost about 30 pounds since last season, so his frame is significantly slimmer than it was when many of those reports were filed. In addition, Gallagher's body actually serves as a plus, because bigger pitchers like him can handle bigger workloads. Not many pitchers are able to pitch almost 310 innings in their first two full pro seasons out of high school.

Secondly, scouts have thrown the unprojectable label on Gallagher for years. Baseball Prospects 2006 claimed that Gallagher wasn't likely to add to his then-upper-80's velocity on his fastball because of his body type. Now, he's clocked in the 90-94 range consistently and has touched 96. Gallagher backs the fastball up with a big curve and a decent changeup. Gallagher's arsenal strongly resembles that of the RockHounds' Trevor Cahill already, and if it improves any more (a decent bet at 22, given his previous velocity increases) he could wind up being Joe Blanton with more strikeouts.

The one red flag I'd throw on Gallagher is the walk totals. While they haven't been a constant problem for him, he needs to stay consistent with his command. Occasionally, he has control lapses that lead to unsightly walk rates, like his West Tennessee stint in 2006 or his brief Wrigley Field cameo last season. He seems to have improved his control this year, and his strikeout rate of nearly 8 K/9 IP at age 22 portends good things.

Gallagher keeps proving people wrong, and his ceiling seems to get higher every time he takes the mound. The popular perception is that he's likely to be a back-of-the-rotation starter his whole career, but in reality, both the stuff and the results are there for Gallagher to be a solid #3 or #4 man right now, and a #2 starter down the line. A Cahill-Anderson-Gallagher-Gonzalez-Smith rotation could be an unbelievable unit by 2010.

It's partially that last sentence that begins to justify the trade. With so much pitching talent on hand (the five just mentioned, plus Michel Inoa, Dana Eveland, James Simmons, Henry Rodriguez, Vince Mazzaro, Craig Italiano, Scott Mitchinson, Fautino De Los Santos, Mike Madsen, etc.) the rotation picture is within a year of getting extremely crowded, so trading Harden in that small window while the fragile righty is healthy is a bit more necessary task than it seems. Having Harden on the A's next year would block some of the prospects who are nearly ready (Cahill, Gonzalez, Anderson, Simmons, Mazzaro, Madsen). Furthermore, he would be in the last year of his contract, making him a "rental" and driving down his value. Given Harden's extremely extensive injury history, he could have a setback at any minute, so trading him before he blocks prospects, gets close to the end of his contract, and/or gets injured makes a lot of sense.

Now, Harden's stuff is truly top-notch. Watching him pitch, it's hard to believe anyone ever makes contact. You see batters take the worst swings of their careers. But how good is Rich Harden? I took a look at his major league stats (he's been in the bigs long enough that it's unnecessary to look at minor league performance; same with Gaudin when we get to him), and I found this:

Year

IP

H

HR

BB

K

WHIP

ARA

AVG

UVI

2003

75

71

5

40

67

1.48

4.32

.240

.427

2004

187

179

16

81

167

1.39

4.28

.242

.432

2005

122

111

7

43

121

1.26

3.82

.233

.397

2006

44.3

38

5

26

49

1.44

4.57

.222

.455

2007

24.3

22

3

11

27

1.36

4.35

.232

.443

2008

74.7

64

5

31

92

1.27

3.92

.222

.406

 

Harden has only posted ARA figures below 4.00 twice, and a UVI below .400 only once. The best season of his career came four years ago in 2005. Performance-wise, Harden simply hasn't been as good as I (or anyone else) perceived. His performance seems to be in the #2-#3 starter range.

How is this possible? Harden's strikeout rates are great, he keeps the ball in the yard, and while his walk rate isn't great, it isn't ugly either. What causes the big discrepancy?

Two numbers help put Harden into perspective. The first is his career BABIP of .287, well below the league average. The righthander arrived in Oakland just as Billy Beane was in the process of phasing out the bad defense of Oakland teams (discussed at length in Moneyball) of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, and replacing it with a stellar defensive unit. With Mark Ellis, Eric Chavez, Bobby Crosby, Mark Kotsay, Jason Kendall, etc. behind him, it's no surprise that Harden was able to consistently get better-than-average results on balls in play. He has allowed 43 fewer hits than expected over the course of his career. Chicago's defense is far less secure, featuring a stone-gloved Aramis Ramirez, a weak-armed Ryan Theriot, an inconsistent Alfonso Soriano, and a creaky Jim Edmonds. In Chicago, his actual performance will shift to the other side of his expected performance, given the defensive downgrades.

There are some elite pitchers that have shown that they can sustain low BABIP figures thanks to low line-drive rates (Jason Isringhausen and Johan Santana are two examples), so I checked Harden's numbers out to see if maybe he was one of those. He isn't. His career LD% is actually 21.3%, which is below-average, so his BABIP definitely figures to regress with the Cubs. This season may look great, but it is also helped out by Harden's stranding 84.4% of runners on base, a figure way out of line with his career that accounts for the big gap between his ARA and ERA.

The second number that counts against Harden is his HR/FB (the percentage of fly balls against him that are homers). Like BABIP, HR/FB is a stat that can't be controlled much—if a pitcher wants to limit homers, he needs to limit flies. However, Harden is a flyball-oriented pitcher (and his FB% keeps increasing every season) who doesn't allow many homers. A league-average HR/FB is about 11%. Harden's career HR/FB is 7.7%. This season, one in which his FB% has spiked to an astronomical 49.5%, his HR/FB has dipped to just 5.1%. The reason why Harden doesn't allow many homers is because of his home park. McAfee Coliseum the most pitcher-friendly park in the American League, and homers often become long flyouts or doubles.

In short, the defense and park around Harden inflate his numbers to make him look much better than he is. That's not to say Harden is a bad pitcher—he's a solid #2 guy if healthy—but shifting to Wrigley Field (in the summer, with the wind blowing out, no less) and the Cubs defense is likely to cause a severe downturn for Harden (and Gaudin). The reverse, of course, is true for Sean Gallagher. Harden is unquestionably better than Gallagher, but Gallagher in Oakland may be similar to Harden in Chicago, and that's before taking into account injuries, age, salary and contract length.

When I first heard of the trade (before I did this study), I was fine with Harden for the four Cubs, but the inclusion of Gaudin got on my nerves. I've been a fan of Gaudin since he was a 20-year-old on the Devil Rays, and I thought he was a solid mid-rotation guy after last year's strong performance. Then I ran his career MLB translations and found this:

Year

IP

H

HR

BB

K

WHIP

ARA

AVG

UVI

2003

38

43

4

16

23

1.55

4.91

.274

.477

2004

45.3

51

4

16

30

1.48

4.87

.273

.473

2005

17

19

6

6

12

1.47

6.22

.271

.610

2006

59

66

3

42

36

1.83

5.22

.272

.479

2007

202

197

21

100

154

1.47

4.60

.245

.453

2008

62

65

6

17

44

1.32

4.35

.259

.443

 

Gaudin is decisively not the #3 starter that we all thought. With the exception of this season, his walk rates have been too high for him to be more than a back-of-the-rotation option or middle reliever. He makes for a decent fourth guy when he's throwing strikes (something he has never been able to consistently do), but he's about to get expensive in arbitration, and like I said before, the A's have plenty of young pitching that makes Gaudin more than expendable. Another concern with Gaudin is that he is even smaller than Harden, and he has a very long arm action and a history of arm injuries. Given his heavy workload last year, small size and bad mechanics, Gaudin, like Harden, is a DL candidate.

So how do the A's wind up? Perhaps the best way to evaluate that is to look at Patterson, Murton, Gallagher and Dallas Braden (called up to replace Gaudin) and compare them to Mark Ellis, Emil Brown and Harden (Ellis and Brown's contracts are up at the end of the season, and Patterson and Murton would be in the running to replace them).

I already compared Patterson to Ellis earlier—the two are equal offensively, Ellis plays better defense, and Patterson is younger and cheaper. Given that Ellis is likely to decline next year slightly, the A's probably make a seamless transition at second.

Murton's track record indicates that he is probably capable of putting up a UVI in the .460-.470 range while playing decent defense in the outfield corners. Compare that to Brown, who has posted .371 and .382 marks the last two seasons, and isn't any better on defense than Murton. Brown also has much less upside and is more expensive and more likely to decline. Murton isn't a difference-maker by himself, but replacing Brown with Murton's decent bat is a massive upgrade, this season and next.

Gallagher is a .450 UVI pitcher right now, and Harden is probably about .410. However, Harden's health issues can't be ignored. To account for that, let's say Harden makes 30 starts between now and the end of his Cubs contract, while Gallagher makes 45. For the other 15 starts, Harden would be replaced by a "replacement level" pitcher. Doing some work on UVI, I've found that "replacement level" is about .480. That means that the Cubs get 30 starts of .410 pitching and 15 of .480, while the A's get 45 of .450. That means that Harden's rotation slot puts up a mid-.430s UVI through the end of his contract, while Gallagher's rotation slot puts up a .450 UVI. A .015 UVI isn't a huge difference, especially when juxtaposed with Harden's salary and shorter contract.

Braden has posted a .453 UVI in 90 career adjusted MLB innings. Gaudin is working on a career-best .443 this year, and he himself posted a .453 mark last year. Braden is younger and left-handed, and doesn't have problems with opposite-side hitters like Gaudin does, so he can be more than just a specialist out of the bullpen. Braden is also bigger and has less mileage on his arm, so he's more likely to stay off the DL, no small matter given the injury avalanche in Oakland the past two years.

It may seem strange given the names and the scouting reports involved, but it is clear that the A's won this trade. It may not be the slam-dunk win that the Dan Haren trade was, but this trade won't hurt the A's in 2008, and it will help them in 2010.



About The Author: Nathianel Stoltz is a statistics minor at James Madison University in Virginia. He is the creator of the "Ultimate Value Index" or "UVI" baseball statistic. He hopes to some day work in the front office of a major league team. You can e-mail him with questions or comments by clicking here.

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