Thursday, April 5, 2012

Casey McGehee: Should 12 Months Make That Big A Difference?

If the news had broke during the offseason between the 2010 and 2011 campaign that the Pirates had traded for Brewers third baseman Casey McGehee, most fans would have at least been intrigued.  Had more information been gathered and the facts shown that the only player given up by the Pirates was a reliever, the general feeling would have turned to something closer to happiness and excitement.  If even more details were revealed and it was made clear that Evan Meek and Joel Hanarhan - both of whom seemed poised to become two of the best relievers in baseball; Hanrahan would make good on that potential, becoming one of the best shutdown closers in baseball while Meek unfortunately was bitten by the injury bug - were to remain in Pirates uniforms, that feeling may have evolved into euphoria.

Relievers as a general "class" of players have little value compared to the other major "classes," starting positional players and starting pitchers.  The average reliever pitches a small fraction of the innings an average starter pitches.  Without doing extensive research, I'll guesstimate that fraction ranges from one-third to one-fifth.  Since starting pitchers generally don't even have the impact a starting positional player has, relievers automatically are able to affect a baseball season at a significantly lesser degree than other players.  That hurts their value immediately.  Furthermore, apart from the very elite, relievers are fickle and volatile, so they are generally easier to replace year to year than any other class of player.  Thus, as a general concept, trading a reliever, no matter how good, for a positional player, is usually a good idea.

McGehee wasn't just any positional player either.  At the time, he had just turned 28 years old in the offseason and was coming off two excellent years.  Contractually, those two years were his first two years of service time, so any team that had McGegee had team control over him for four more years.  In 2009, McGehee had played 116 games - only about two-thirds of a year - and posted a 2.0 fWAR.  The Brewers rookie played poor defense - he posted a 22.0 UZR/150 at 3B - but hit a partially BABIP inflated .301 and slugged 16 homeruns.  He also posted solid plate discipline ratios, walking 8.6% of the time for a .360 OBP and he only struck out 17.0%.  The next year McGehee posted a 3.3 fWAR, making him the sixth most valuable player according to fWAR on a good Brewers team.  His power dropped off a bit and he walked a small amount less, but McGehee played the entire season, improved his defense, and cut down his strikeouts.

But McGehee is no longer a Brewer.  Instead he's now a Pittsburgh Pirate and the price for that transition was only reliever Jose Veras.  However, there hasn't been any euphoria.  That's because 2011 happened.  Big things were expected of the now-entrenched McGehee, but the Brewers third baseman followed up his 3.3 fWAR campaign with a dismal 0.3 fWAR effort.  Scratching the surface, McGehee saw his tripleslash fall to a .223/.280/.346 mark.  However, the surface isn't always the best indicator of future performance.  McGehee .62 point drop in average is easily explained by his unlucky .57 point drop in BABIP.  In the OBP department, McGehee kept his walk rate literally identical from 2010 to 2011 at 7.5% and only saw his strikeout rate rise 1.9%, a small amount.  Granted, McGehee's ISO dropped .56 points, but his batted balls percentages stayed nearly identical, with a small increase in his groundball rate and the expense of his flyball rate.  McGehee's linedrive rates in 2010 and 2011 were virtually identical, with a .7% difference.  What did change was his HR/FB luck, as his 12.5% number in 2010 dropped to 8.6%.  Putting that into league-wide context, McGehee went from having an above-average rate (which he had maintained in 2009 and 2010, indicative of having that kind of power) to below-average.  Looking under the surface, it seems that most - granted not all - of McGehee's struggles in 2011 came from bad luck.  Plus, with the small sample size alert caveat in place, McGehee posted what were easily his best defensive numbers in his career with a 7.3 UZR/150 at third base in 1233.1 innings. 

In conclusion, it seems to me at least that with a bit of luck normalization and the continued defense improvement that McGehee seems to be showing, that the new Pirates acquisition could be a team controlled 2-4 WAR third or first baseman through 2014.  For the price of Jose Veras, that seems like news to me that should at the very least put a smile on Pirates fans faces, but oh what a difference 12 months seems to make.


  1. Agreed. Looking at the whole portfolio of his work, it seems that McGehee is a great pick-up, especially for Veras.

    An article on fangraphs mentions the league adjusting to McGehee, and throwing him less fastballs the longer he's been in the league. Interesting perspective. Here's hoping he can adjust.

  2. Sometimes it's about the numbers, but other times it is not.
    I was very excited about McGehee right from the announcement of the trade because he was a great "buy low" candidate due to two things: his thumb injury hampered him all of 2011, plus his son's battle with cerebal palsy.

    His son had a tough time in 2011 with it, but broke through for a bounceback at the end of 2011.

    BABIP, LD%, WAR are all important things to weigh, but sometimes you have to remember that players are people not robots. They have the same "life issues" (divorce, family illness, bad work environment) that the general public has too.

    I expect McGehee to have a very good year here. It was a very underrated pickup.