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The tortoise and the hare: Anthopoulos, Atkins, and value on the waiver wire

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Does the maxim of slow but steady winning the race apply to waiver claims?

Nedbank Golf Challenge - Day One Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

It’s one of more famous of Aesop’s fables: the dashing hare is vanquished by the deliberate tortoise. The parable contains a lesson about arrogance certainly, but the other message is that that a measured but sustained effort often carries the day over a frantic but inconsistent approach.

We’ve detailed the waiver wire exploits of former general manager Alex Anthopoulos before. In just 73 months, he claimed 65 players (we even have a Sporcle quiz on them if one is so inclined). And once he got the hang of the job a year or so in, the pace was well over one a month — including a two week span of six players claimed in October 2012.

But for all that activity, a lot of it was for naught. A lot of seemed directed at adding depth, but the bottom line purpose is finding major league value. In fact, a slim majority (33/65) of those waivers pickups didn’t even last three months in the organization (and many mere days or weeks). 60% never played a single game with the Jays, and the 24 that did combined for just 957 plate appearances, 322 innings pitched, and a whopping -1.1 WAR (Baseball-Reference version).

Of course, to some extent that’s the nature of the game. The current regime has been much more reserved in playing the wavier wire, with just 16 claims in 40 months. Even then, just two of 15 (Mark Leiter Jr. remains in the organization) have lasted a full year, a similar proportion to under Anthopoulos.

But they have had some notable successes. Dominic Leone turned in an excellent 2017, and then his remaining four control years were flipped as an integral piece to acquire Randal Grichuk. Luke Maile got off to a slow start, but has emerged as a solid backup and a rock behind the plate. The “slow but steady” approach of less frantic and more selective waiver claims has yielded s results.

For more of a direct comparisons, I went back and picked out the best waiver claims from the Anthopoulos era. For this purpose, only production directly attributable to the waiver claim is counted. So for example, there’s no credit for Justin Smoak (who was non-tendered shortly after and re-signed as a free agent when any team could have had him), or Liam Hendriks as a good reliever, since he was traded and re-acquired in between.

AA waiver claims

Chris Colabello would have to lead the list for me. The WAR is unremarkable, a combination of playing out of position at first in 2015 and the bottom falling out with the pending suspension in 2016. But the guy added almost 20 batting runs in basically half of 2015 with a 143 wRC+. That’s a win.

The pickings are slimmer after that. Todd Redmond had many ups and downs, but was a serviceable reliever/swingman for a couple seasons. Mike McCoy totalled 374 PA and about 374,000 kilometres in the air over four years with the Jays (three MLB) with a decent 0.7 WAR. The next most significant major league contribution is getting almost 60 innings from Bo Schultz (and seeing one fifth deck home run).

There’s one other transaction to single out. Casper Wells never got into a game with the Jays, but in 2013 the Jays claimed him for $20,000 on April 10, activated him for a couple days before a DFA on April 15th, and then sold him to Oakland for $100,000. Including about $35,000 in salary paid, the front office achieved a return of over 80% in 12 days. That’s over four-billion percent annualized; not bad!

Moving onto the regime of Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins:

Shapiro/Atkins waiver claims

There’s really only three transactions to mention, unless you were a fan of Jimmy Parades 17 PA or the 9.2 innings thrown by Taylor Guerrieri (to say nothing of the combined efforts of Cesar Valdez and Mark Leiter, who managed -1 WAR in just 27 innings!). For my money, the value from the Leone waiver more than covers Collabello and Redmond. Maile and McCoy are basically offsetting so far.

So why’s the (second) Drake claim there? The AP reported that the Rays paid the Jays $70,000 after he was DFA’d to make room for Clayton Richard. At the time, I worked out that with a 250% gain over 39-day holding period, they had realized an annual return of about 12,357,000%! Alas, I forgot that in the most recent collective agreement, the cost of waiver claims was increased to $50,000, and so it’s merely a 40% gain and 2,130% annualized. Not quite Casparian, not a bad return on investment.

As with the fable, I think this round goes to the tortoise over the hare.