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Recapping the Twins' offseason with Baseball Trade Values

An interview with BTV founder John Bitzer

Seattle Mariners v Minnesota Twins
Minnesota got creative in balancing risk and reward in contracts with the top two picks of the 2012 MLB draft
Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

If you are like me, you probably incessantly visited the trade simulator on the popular (BTV) during the Twins’ frenetic post-lockout transaction spree. For those unfamiliar, BTV calculates the expected trade value for more than 2,700 active major and minor league players, offers a trade simulator engine that lets users propose all manner of trade scenarios involving up to three teams, and publishes unique articles and podcasts discussing actual baseball transactions.

BTV offers a high-level explanation of how it develops trade value estimates of major league and minor league players. Fundamental to those three-point estimates (high, median, low) is the concept of “surplus value,” which is simply the estimated on-field value of a player relative to the cost of that player to a team.

To estimate that value, BTV utilizes all manner of publicly available data, including actual performance data and concepts like Wins Above Replacement (WAR), combined with future projections and public-facing prospect scouting reports from places like FanGraphs and Baseball America. All of that is then adjusted to factor in estimates of injury, age-related risks, and other factors involving the baseball economic environment like cost inflation, years of contract control, positional scarcity, and arbitration salaries.

Their results are quite impressive in the aggregate. The site’s models have a 94.2% acceptance rate across the more than 300 real-life trades that have occurred since August 2019. For those interested in gaming out realistic trade scenarios that factor in real constraints that general managers consider, there is no better publicly available resource today than BTV.

I recently spent about an hour talking with John Bitzer, founder, and editor of BTV about a wide variety of topics regarding player valuation. Our macro-level conversation about the baseball economic environment was published at Pitcher List and John also spent some time sharing his perspective on the Twins’ recent transactions for Twinkie Town.

Our discussion is below and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Twinkie Town: John, thanks for taking the time to talk with me about the Twins’ offseason. Let’s start with a couple of higher-level questions before we dive into the specific moves.

How does BTV think the Twins’ current front office has done in its deals over the past five years?

Bitzer: Thanks for having me. We give the Twins a lot of credit because their trades have usually been really good. They are clearly disciplined in their approach and have taken advantage when things have kind of fallen to them both in selling and adding.

When they have been making trades or free agent signings they have usually been coming out quite favorably, at least on paper anyway. I think they are opportunistic. Maybe not being value-conscious in the sense that is their primary objective, although they do factor that in. They recognize a good deal. Last summer’s trade deadline is an example, we felt the Blue Jays overpaid for José Berríos.

Twinkie Town: Our fan community often talks about the free agent market and the trade deadline operating more like auctions. The team that wins the bidding might have to be willing to go above their objective valuations to “win”. We sometimes think the Twins are too disciplined (or risk-averse) and unwilling to go that extra step.

Bitzer: To the general point, yes, free agency is an auction model and whoever wins the bidding is paying the top of the fair market or a little bit over. If you think about it logically, in terms of trade value later, it means 29 other teams did not want to pay that much. So that’s going to have a little negative value because they overpaid a little bit to win the bid. That’s a typical auction model.

So, saying the Twins are so disciplined that they never want to overpay. Well… yeah. You might have seen my article a couple of weeks ago about overpays and underpays in the market. With Carlos Correa, I thought that was a really smart deal, a win-win for both sides, in the way it’s structured. Because Correa is worth more than what they paid him. So there is surplus value in that. And the risk was low because they structured it with a max of three years. They can afford that because they don’t have much on their books in future years.

Even in the worst-case scenario of injury or he does not perform to expectations and he sticks with them, they still only have a three-year commitment. But most likely they are going to get surplus value on that signing. And that’s a really good, disciplined thing that fell to them late in the offseason. That’s very smart.

Twinkie Town: What did you think of the Byron Buxton extension? That was a very tricky risk and reward balance to try to find.

Bitzer: That one followed pretty closely with our models. We had discounted him very heavily because of injury risk. He hasn’t played close to a full season since 2017 or whatever it is. Some of those were fluky, one-off things and some were more distinctive where he’s clearly injury prone.

We got a lot of flak from users for being too low on Buxton, but it’s because you can’t price him at a full year, you have to price him at basically half a year, which is what the Twins did. And give a lot of credit to Buxton’s side, they realized they did not have much of a case for getting overpaid because he’s never healthy. So they agreed this was a fair deal. I think that’s pretty remarkable. When he’s on, he’s fantastic. A superstar. But you can’t count him for a full year.

Twinkie Town: What do you most often see as the biggest gaps between what fans of teams value and what teams are actually valuing?

Bitzer: The fan perception is a lot different than the GM perspective. Fans don’t really crunch the numbers the way we do, they don’t look at the salary component, the years of control, or all the other things the way we do. They tend to look at it more with a focus on trading a good player for a good player and make quick assumptions about who wins or loses a deal. I don’t think GMs consider the fan perspective in deals.

One of the reasons we created the site was to fill what we thought was a gap in the marketplace to do this more objectively. There have always been the radio call-in shows that throw around trade this guy for that guy. But there was no barometer for whether that was fair or not.

We are trying to follow more of a front office approach with BTV and fill that gap so you can see what is probably fair. We get feedback where fans disagree with our valuations, and we say OK, you might not agree with us but we’re sticking with it.

One other thing is that fans often assume you’ll get more at the trade deadline than you do in the offseason, but our research shows that is generally not the case because you are missing four months of performance. Things are more volatile at the deadline and sometimes you see an overpay when teams have needs and that’s the only option to acquire that kind of player, but for the most part, you don’t.

Twinkie Town: That brings me to a dynamic that I think is probably somewhat common among fans, and that’s quantity vs. quality. The trade simulator makes it easy to pile up lesser valued players to make the math work out in a prospective trade for a star.

Bitzer: Yeah, that’s a dynamic we can’t really win. We originally coded the site to max out at six players for one. But you can’t really prevent the ten dimes for a dollar approach. It’s not great, but then sometimes those trades actually happen, like when the Padres got Mike Clevinger. That was a quantity trade that would not have gone through the simulator if we had put too many restrictions on it. We did put a restriction on it that at least one player has to be worth 40-50% of the highest-value player.

The Athletics working to deal away Frankie Montas now is another example of this. They have not really found a good deal for him yet. There are rumors about them targeting Andrew Vaughn from the White Sox, which Chicago does not seem to want to do. After that, the White Sox have one of the worst farm systems in baseball, so it would probably take five or six prospects to make it work, but then would Oakland even want those prospects? I don’t know if that one would work in the simulator.

So, we just kind of shrugged and allowed users to make those kinds of trades on the simulators. And we have an intelligent user base, so people will comment and let people know those probably are not going to happen.

Twinkie Town: I can’t begin to tell you the number of simulated quantity-style offers I’ve made with a bundle of the Twins’ lower-tier prospects for Montas in the last month.

But let’s move on to moves that have actually been made. The Twins’ deals this offseason tended to be on the creative side, so I’m excited to talk with you about them.

Let’s start with the Mitch Garver deal. I think a lot of Twins fans thought the return (Infielder Isiah Kiner-Falefa and RHP Ronny Henriquez) was on the lighter side. You guys had that as a fair deal. Please help us understand that valuation.

Bitzer: A lot of Kiner-Falefa’s value is based on the fact that he’s a pretty decent defensive shortstop, and a pretty decent defensive third baseman if you want to move him there. As a shortstop, you get a little extra credit in value because it’s the most valuable defensive position on the field. So, if you can play it even decently you’ve got some value. Even though he’s been a slightly below-average bat, the positional value alone covers it.

And the shortstop market itself was actually thin. There were a lot more teams that needed them than were available, at least in the affordable cost tier in terms of salary or trade value.

Garver has been hurt, but he’s a good offensive catcher. Our models had it fair.

Twinkie Town: We heard a lot about Josh Donaldson having negative trade value. Can you explain what that means and why that is? Despite some personality and clubhouse impact concerns, he still seemed like a productive player when he was healthy.

Bitzer: Donaldson is an older guy, in his late-30s now. Standard aging curve expectations show that he’ll decline in performance more and more and he’s had injury issues. So you have to factor that in. We estimate that injury risk. There is a typical aging curve for performance that most fans are familiar with and that kind of thing applies to injuries as well. The older you are, the more likely you are to get injured. And previous injuries will have a tendency not to go away. Nagging injuries never really go away as you get older. He might be sort of good now but you have to think about what he will be in the future, too and he might not be so good then.

So because of where he was on the aging curve, his recent performance, starting his decline phase, but was still being paid top dollar, that means he was a negative value. He can still defy that, but it’s not the median projected outcome. It’s maybe the 80th percentile outcome. So it’s betting against the odds with a lot of ifs they have to hope turn out for the best.

Twinkie Town: Do your models account for “change of scenery” benefits? Gary Sanchez is thought to be a candidate to improve by getting out of New York. Is that a tangible and valuable thing?

Bitzer: Sanchez was at zero value in our model because he’s in his third year of arbitration, getting paid a lot, and he’s had a lot of issues with performance, whether it was swing and miss, or bad defense. He’s got some pop, obviously. We can’t really know about the change of scenery stuff because we cannot anticipate where a player might go in a trade. So that’s not in the models. But if it turns out to have some benefit, it will start to show up in the models as a result of the data changing. At a certain point, though, guys are who they are. Sanchez in Minnesota is still probably Sanchez from New York. That change of scenery bump, if anything, is probably a little overblown in the aggregate.

Twinkie Town: In the trade for Sonny Gray, the Twins gave up their most recent first-round pick Chase Petty. How do teams think about a trade like this, where the prospect given up is probably several years away from MLB?

Bitzer: Prospects are at higher variance. Major League veterans have longer track records and are more clear-cut in terms of what to expect going forward. We talked in the earlier conversation that the starting pitching market has changed a little bit. This winter we were a little high on Sean Manaea, Gray, and a couple of others. Now we’re realizing there is a bit of a sliding scale with starters. Aces will always go for a premium because demand for them is high and supply is low. But your #2 and #3 starting pitchers tend to align with the average dollars/WAR that we expect.

Gray for Petty is an example of a trade type where we sometimes see disagreement with our models. We had that one rejected. But, the Reds really liked Chase Petty and ignored the history of high school pitchers having that very high bust risk. They wanted that upside and valued it more than the risk.

So, I thought that trade was a clear win on paper for the Twins. Gray is likely a 2.5 to a 3 win player each of the next two years on a very affordable contract. Lots of surplus value there.

Twinkie Town: Let’s finish with the most recent trade. I think many Twins fans were surprised to see Taylor Rogers be traded for Chris Paddack and Emilio Pagán, and even more taken aback to see the Twins kick in cash to the Padres. Can you help us understand why Paddack and Pagán’s combined value was seemingly so much greater?

Bitzer: Paddack is actually better than his ERA suggests. A lot of people look at ERA. But I would not recommend that, because front offices do not. There is too much noise in that, too much defensive luck in that. If you look at fielding independent pitching (FIP) and expected weighted on-base average (xWOBA), he’s actually pretty good. His profile has not changed all that much, so he’s been kind of unlucky. And he comes with three years of control, and he’s only making $2.1-million this year, very affordable. So that’s an attractive asset.

Taylor Rogers, as good as he is, he’s a reliever making $7.3-million with only one year of control. In terms of fair market value, the top relievers getting $16-million per year — look at Jansen and Kimbrel — Rogers is probably worth $14 or $15-million on the market. So, for surplus-value, compare that to the cost.

So you have to say, okay, three years of a starter who is probably better than he looks for one year of an “expensive” reliever and then the other pieces and cash just fill in the gaps that remain. That’s really all that was.

Many thanks to John Bitzer for taking the time to discuss these questions and for creating the Baseball Trade Values resource.