In a discussion some folks were having about trying to put together an acceptable trade package for Joey Votto, Ricky Romero's trade value was brought up. The logic was that Ricky's value is not as high as we might perceive it to be because, even though he was an all-star this season, his fWAR value (2.9) was not all that high this season. Of course, the first problem is that FIP, and thus fWAR, likely underrates Ricky.
His peripherals (K%, BB%, GB%) were all very much in line with what he did last season (perhaps even a very slight tick better). Now, some folks will look at his xFIP last season (3.64) and his xFIP this season (3.80) and say I'm wrong but, remember, xFIP is not only influenced by peripherals. Balls in play can have a very large effect in either direction (because they skew the number of innings pitched and, thus, skew K-rate, BB-rate, and GB-rate). In any event, the point is that his peripherals are very much the same as last year, when he was a 4-win pitcher without anything to suggest that it was an outlier. This season, Ricky pitched 15 more innings. Now, assuming that his BABIP rate returns to where we'd "expect" it to (via statcorner) he'd lose 20 outs and still have pitched slightly more innings than last year, statcorner does this and, using tRA, calculates Romero at 3.4 wins for the year. However, I think statcorner WAR also slightly underrates Romero, since it uses real HR/fly-rate instead of normalizing it somewhat. All told, offence was down this year from last but I'd think Romero was still about a 4 fWAR pitcher (a 4fWAR pitcher is roughly equivalent to a 3.5 rWAR pitcher).
Since it is generally assumed that 5 rWAR is roughly equivalent to an all-star season and fWAR should scale linearly to rWAR (the difference between fWAR and rWAR is in the y-intercept (replacement-level), not the slope (number of wins above it)), 5.5 fWAR should be all-star, right? Wrong. If 5.5 fWAR were all-star level, there would have been -- MLB-wide -- only 11 pitchers who put up all-star seasons. Assuming there are 20 all-star slots filled by starting pitchers (10 for each team, there were 17 pitchers on the AL roster in 2010, so 10 starters is not that many), we should be looking at all-star level as 4.7 fWAR. With the recalculated and (in my opinion) more accurate 4 fWAR, Ricky still doesn't quite make the cut, but he's quite close, so Ricky was actually very close to an all-star quality pitcher this year. So what about Votto?
Votto was a 7-win player. Way more value in a 7-win player than a 4-win pitcher, of course. We've already talked about the contract thing to death. Ricky's contract is immensely valuable, Votto's is good but less surplus value and less time. It's also been discussed that the value of each WAR increases as WAR increases because the same raw value produced in fewer plate appearances (or fewer positions) is actually worth more. It is easier to upgrade from a 6 WAR first baseman and a 2 WAR second basemen than it is to upgrade from 4 WAR players at each position. Makes sense. Except when it doesn't. There is, of course, the issue of switching positions, if guys can switch positions is makes things easier to upgrade. Unfortunately, although WAR assumes that players can seamlessly switch positions, we intuitively know that this is not true. An excellent (say, +12.5 runs above average) fielding lefthanded firstbaseman would not be an average fielding secondbaseman. I'm not saying guys have "natural positions" I'm just saying that assuming that guys can move around the diamond based on positional adjustments is not a safe assumption. Look at Brett Lawrie, who was, by all accounts, an atrocious second baseman but who looks acceptable, heck, even good at third. Positional adjustments are helpful, but are, by no means, perfect. You can't always necessarily get a new guy and just have him (or another player) change positions and expect everything to work out perfectly.
Though sometimes you can. In fact, there is one position where you always can, starting pitchers. Teams may be somewhat locked into 3 or 4 WAR position players, making it difficult to upgrade if they'd have trouble switching positions. But teams are almost never locked into 3 or 4 WAR starters because they need five of them. Ricky Romero would improve pretty much every team in baseball. Joey Votto would improve pretty much every team in baseball, too. But not necessarily by as much more than Romero as you'd expect. There were four first baseman (none of whom I'd feel terribly comfortable moving to another position unless it was DH, which would slightly depress theirs, or Joey's value) who were within 2 fWAR of Joey Votto this year. There were 71 pitchers worth at least 2 fWAR. However, since each team has to start five pitchers, these pitchers tended to be spread around quite a bit. The Phillies, the White Sox, and the Rangers were the only teams with five 2+ WAR starters. Many teams were starting 3-win first basemen, Votto would be a four win improvement. However, many teams were also starting 0-win starters. Romero would be a four win improvement there, too.
In closing, Fangraphs listed Romero as 37th and Votto as 8th on their trade value series. However, remember, that value is constantly changing as time elapses. Since Votto is team- (and cost!-) controlled for a shorter period of time, his value drops faster than Romero's does, particularly as he wouldn't be available for the remainder of the 2011 season (and the 2011 playoffs, of course). Romero should retain more of that value because less of it was tied up in expected 2011 performance. Would I do Romero for Votto straight-up? I don't like to think about it, mainly because I love Ricky (and this is coming from someone with a Joey Votto t-shirt). But my point is that their values are a lot closer than we may realize.
Thanks to all the folks involved in the discussion yesterday for the idea and "Arthur" by the Kinks for the title.