Pirates Go Super-Nova

The weather outside is frightful, but the hot stove fire is so delightful. I am delighting even more after my Pirates re-signed free agent starter Ivan Nova to a three year, $26 million dollar contract. Putting aside the fact that $26 million is more than I will ever earn in my lifetime (and probably you too, dear reader), $26 million over three years is steal for a pitcher of Nova’s caliber. Simply put, Nova should have made much more on the open market than he got from the Pirates in his freshly-inked three year deal.

To understand how valuable Nova is, you have to understand how players are valued. Typically, a ballplayer’s value is expressed in terms of wins. There are different formulae that attempt to model the value of a player in terms of wins, but several of them fall under the heading of “wins above replacement (WAR),” meaning the number of wins–above that of a replacement level player–that a given player brings to his team over the course of a season. The different formulae to calculate WAR mean that there are different flavors of WAR depending on who you talk to, but I will be focusing on Fangraphs data and the Fangraphs WAR calculation (fWAR). If you look at Fangraph’s Free Agent Tracker, you can see that most of the 2016 free agents with the highest 2016 fWAR values are projected to regress toward the mean/come back to earth/not do as well in 2017. But if you look for Ivan Nova on that list, you will notice that he is among the select group of free agents projected to have a better 2017 than 2016 by fWAR. The caveat here is that we are talking about a projection, and baseball projections have been shown season after season to not hold up in retrospect. But this should make for a fun exercise nonetheless. If we restrict our analysis to 2017 free agents with a positive fWAR, Nova ends up in the top 25% of free agents by projected increase in 2017 fWAR. But the real kicker for me? Nova is the only 2016 free agent with a 2016 fWAR greater than 2 (denoting a “solid starter“) who is projected to have a better 2017 fWAR. In short, among the best players who would become free agents in 2016, he is expected to be the one to continue to get better in 2017.

Another key point I want to make is that the Pirates may have turned the free agent market on its head with this signing. The free agent market tends to be all about big paydays for past achievements. A lot of players do not live up to the numbers they put up before their first free agent paycheck, but that is how the business side of the sport works. By signing Nova, and from my investigation into his previous and projected fWAR marks, I propose that the Pirates might actually be paying him for future value. If Nova lives up to his 2.5 win Fangraphs projection before giving another couple of years as a one to two win player, the Pirates come out on top. Based on analysis by Neil Paine at FiveThirtyEight, those 5.5 or so wins over the three years of Nova’s contract would cost about $42 million on the open market. This sounds more like the Pirates club that we all know and love, with a front office that seeks value above all other things.

I cannot help but wonder what made Nova offer the deep discount to Pittsburgh. Plenty of ink has been spilled on the topic of the contracts that starters are commanding this off-season, but Nova seems to have given the Pirates a hometown discount. Not being the type to look a gift horse in the mouth, I am just excited to see him pitch at PNC Park in 2017. Maybe I can even catch him at a doubleheader with Jose Quintana.

*Note added after publication: a blog post by Travis Sawchik at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review hit on some of the same points.

Ruminating on the Loss of Neil Walker

Neil Walker returns to Pittsburgh this week for the first time since being traded to the New York Mets last December for Jonathan Niese. I was born and bred a Pittsburgher, so I love to weigh in on the Pirates front office decisions. It is probably too early to reflect on that trade, but I’m going to do so anyway.

Walker played with the Pirates from 2009 to 2015, and throughout that time he was a pretty dismal defensive second baseman. During that seven year window, Walker racked up -11 defensive runs saved (DRS) and -31.6 ultimate zone rating (UZR). Compare that to the MLB average DRS of 10.9 and UZR of 8.3 over that same period for qualified second basemen. So let’s face it: Walker was never a defensive second baseman. In fact, I might go so far as to compare him to Chase Utley (“He’s a power hitting second baseman. You know how rare that is in the national league?”). Walker had always been there to hit. But if you really compare Walker during his heyday in Pittsburgh to his second base contemporaries, his run production was right around that of other decent second basemen: he was right in the middle of qualifying second basemen between 2012 and 2015 when taking into account DRS and weighted runs created plus (wRC+) (somehow I knew Chase Utley would pop up as a fellow In-Betweener).


With Pirate infield depth waiting in the wings, it wasn’t hard to believe that the Pirates chose to cash out the Neil Walker chip. Josh Harrison has been a more than capable replacement: FanGraphs has Harrison at 0.9 wins above replacement so far this season, with a 0.350 on base percentage and a 4 DRS that puts him comfortably in the top half of second basemen this year. But I will admit that I feel a twinge of nostalgia when I remember the days when the Pittsburgh Kid actually played in Pittsburgh. We had seven beautiful years, Pittsburgh. Nothing lasts forever. And Neil: glad to hear that you finally joined the ranks of those of us who wised up and left Pittsburgh for the greener pastures of New York. Looking for a roommate?

Life Graph

biographI got bored in a genetics lecture a couple of days ago and started to doodle a graph of my perceived biology knowledge and reasoning over the course of my life. “Perceived biology knowledge” is in arbitrary units, and parts of my life are binned into “childhood,” “high school,” “college,” and “grad school” along the x-axis. One caveat is that I am perhaps too biased to reliably perceive my own knowledge and reasoning at any point in my life. Memory is also imperfect, so the early life data-points are probably hard to believe.

In spite of the problems with trying to turn this type of subjective introspection into something data-driven, the general trajectory of the plot and the relative magnitudes within the x-axis bins are likely reliable: the biphasic linear growth through childhood and high school seems reasonable, and the large gains going into college and grad school should be unsurprising to anyone who has had the pleasure of going through those experiences. In fact, one of the major conclusions that I draw from this thought experiment is the effect of disruptive events on my scientific reasoning and knowledge. I was learning a bit and growing throughout childhood and high school, but the real gains came from first going to college–and getting thrown into the deep end with rigorous science classes first semester–and the similarly disruptive first year of grad school. This seems to argue in favor of the conventional wisdom that getting out of one’s comfort zone is the only way to truly grow and improve. To extrapolate a little advice out of this: Don’t be afraid to be in over your head, I guess.