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On Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, and “selling low”

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays-Workouts Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Ten years ago, the Blue Jays appeared to have one of the premier young players and thus assets in Major League Baseball. Starting his age-20 season in Dunedin, Travis Snider mashed his way through the top three levels of the minors to reach the big leagues in late August where he posted a .301/.338/.466 line in 80 plate appearances. Before he could legally drink where he was born, he appeared poised for a long career as an impact regular.

Of course, that didn’t come to pass. Though he flashed promise while turning in an overall solid MLB performance in between mashing when sent down to the minors and various injuries, Snider could not establish himself as a regular in 2009-10. Nonetheless, he was still rightly considered an integral part of the future. That started to be called into question after a rough 2011. But whenever a discussion of his future in Toronto came up, it would inevitably be asserted that moving him at that point would be “selling low”.

We’ll come back to Snider, but fast forward to this winter and the future of Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez with the Jays is up in the air as their team control shrinks amid a rebuild. There has been a lot of noise over the first half of December about the front office shopping, or at least being willing to move them. There’s important differences in their situations, but with both coming off disappointing 2018 seasons, it is commonly held that trading either now would be “selling low” (and thus implicitly likely a bad idea).

It is this notion of “selling low” that I want to examine, because it seems to me a fundamental problem is the term gets used in different ways which results in more confusion than any amount of clear thinking about a course of action. It’s inherently comparative, but the critical question is between what are we making the comparison. And it is here that I think various things get conflated when we talk about selling low.

The first way it tends to be used is to compare a player’s current value to his value at some point in the past. This necessarily implicates team contractual control remaining since that’s a key determinant of value, but it’s mostly about a decreased level of on-field performance relative to a past standard.

It is in this first sense that one could say in 2011 that moving Snider amounted to selling low. If we consider that the bulk of any young player’s value comes from his chance of being an everyday regular or better, after that 2008 debut, one might have estimated a perhaps 25% chance of Snider being an above average or better player in his control years and a 25% chance of being more of an everyday player (to greatly simplify things). In 2009-10 that might have slipped a little but not significantly. By 2011, those odds might have shifted to say 10% and 20% respectively. Thus, his expected value was significantly down.

The second is to compare a player’s expected future value compared to what can be realized now from another team. This is basically a comparison of a player’s future expected production (and its value to the team) relative to the expectations of other teams, its value to them, and thus what they’re willing to exchange.

In this sense, moving Snider in 2011 would not have been selling low in that he ultimately ended up a role player and was out of affiliated for baseball by age 30. At that point, there was still a realistic chance that 23-year-old hitter who had mostly largely held his own at the major level league level would develop into a regular and some value could have been realized for that potential. Indeed, a year later the Jays sold at rock bottom, as a 24-year-old Snider was little more than a change of scenery candidate and was moved for Brad Lincoln.

The problem with that first view of “selling low” is that comparing to some past level is irrelevant in terms of what to do going forward. It is analogous to someone who buys stock in a biotech company at $10/share, the company later reports a failed trial causing the share price to collapse to $5, but the investor holds on merely because it would be “selling low”.

The initial buying price is irrelevant in the face of subsequent developments — the market doesn’t care what anyone paid in the past. The critical question is, given the available information, is the company good value now at $5? And selling after a big decline doesn’t even imply a bad decision — it’s possible that the company was both good value at $10 and bad value at $5. One must recognize sunk costs for what they are.

Likewise, it is obvious that trading Sanchez or Stroman (setting aside reduced control) would be “selling low” compared to their performance levels of a year or two ago. But we can’t un-ring that bell. We can only ask what is the best way to maximize value moving forward.

With Stroman, it’s not as complicated a proposition since he has a more established baseline of performance. Though he’s fluctuated more than most pitchers around his mean (at least in terms of actual runs allowed, his peripherals are quite consistent), Stroman has performed as an above average frontline starting pitcher. When healthy, he’s suppressed runs at about 15% better than league average, with the underlying peripherals fully backing it.

So the only question if you’re going to move Stroman is whether the return figured to be better trading him now when an acquiring team can get two full years, or if a better return could be had at next summer’s deadline when a contending acquirer would still get two stretch runs and playoffs with him.

At first glance, the latter might be the obvious play given Stroman only pitched 102 innings to a 5.54 ERA and had the shoulder and blister issues. But there’s good reason to look past that. After coming back from the DL, he was his normal self from late-June to mid-August (3.34 ERA / 3.26 FIP). That should provide reassurance the shoulder issues were not serious. The blister did recur and resulted in an early shutdown, but is not a major injury nor a problem in the past. Certainly, an acquiring team would have to take something of a leap of faith that Stroman will be back to the 2016-17 guy. But not a major one.

If the offers aren’t there, then I see little reason for the front office to force a trade now and take the best offer regardless. That would be selling low. There is downside risk — further shoulder or blister problems or something else entirely, or the chance of a poor first half where his ERA ends up on the high end even if the peripherals are better — but there’s also plenty of upside. If he came back healthy and performed in line with his career numbers, he’ll be highly sought after, to say nothing if he takes a step forward or dominates the first half with a low ERA.

Sanchez, on the other hand, is a very different story. My first instinct when thinking about was that it made no sense to move him this offseason, that it would be the very definition of selling low. That Sanchez is the exact type of player a rebuilding team should be targeting — high upside, low(er) probability wild cards where any on-field downside is no big deal but finding a potential future core player would be huge. An argument could be made that the Jays should be looking for a dozen Aaron Sanchezes this winter and hope a couple of them end up valuable starters.

But this is where I think we have to think probabilistically, and the tale of and analogy to Snider is instructive. It’s common to think of baseball players as having a certain level of value of their teams. For example, a prospect might be rated as having “45 future value” and 45 FV prospects are on average worth about $5-million. But that represents an average of various outcomes. A few of those players become above average regulars, a handful will become regulars, yet more likely a have a decent season or two but be backups or utility types or relievers. And probably more than 50% will be replacement level or never make it (“busts”).

The same is true with Sanchez. This is a little simplistic, but substantially all of his value comes from three potential outcomes: A) where he returns to a frontline starting pitcher; B) where he falls short of that but is a solid starter on the whole; and C) where he’s instead a strong reliever. And the first is obviously substantially more valuable than the other last two, but they still have significant value.

Thus Sanchez’s value is a function of the odds one places on those outcomes. Two years ago, we might have said something like 35% frontline pitcher, 35% solid starter (or better offset by injuries), and 15% shutdown reliever, with a 15% chance of other/bust (TINSTAAPP basically). Today, obviously, those odds have shifted significantly — maybe to something like 10%/25%/40%/25%). Hence the notion of selling low, at least in the first sense discussed above.

But here’s the thing — whatever they are exactly, those odds today still bake in a realistic possibility of Sanchez being some sort of effective starting pitcher. There are certainly other teams who would value the odds highly enough to give up real value for the chance. But another year like the last two, even setting aside the diminished team control, and those odds will shift further in a negative manner, and his value will be significantly lower.

To once again greatly simplify, what tends to happen is that young players hit MLB with a range of possible outcomes, and over time the odds of particular outcomes to converge towards what the player becomes. For most players, that’s one of little impact. That’s basically what happened with Travis Snider — the distribution looked great in 2008, but over four years converged to the lower end outcome. Trading him at any point would have looked like “selling low” relative to the 6 or 12 months earlier. But it would have been high relative to what he ultimately was, and what the Jays ultimately got.

I don’t have simple answer when it comes Sanchez. I don’t know how bullish any other teams are on him — how high the level of interest is and thus what the Jays are being offered is a significant part of this. What I do know is the Jays have a huge informational advantage here. If objectively, they are among the teams that sees him more highly, they should certainly keep him this winter and bet on a higher end outcome. But if they don’t, it would make sense to move him, notwithstanding that the return wouldn’t be what it would have been in the past.

If that happens, there will undoubtedly be sharp criticism that the front office sold low on Sanchez. Reflexively, it’ll be easy to agree especially if the return seems uninspiring (see: J.A. Happ, trade of). But in reality, only when we see what Sanchez does will we be able to say one way or another.