March 10, 2015
All the Reasons for Andre Ethier
The Dodgers want to trade Andre Ethier. Even if Ethier weren’t agitating for a deal (failing the promise of a full-time job in Los Angeles), and even if he weren’t due $56 million by the end of the 2017 season, we could all be pretty sure the Dodgers would like to trade him. He’s a poor fit for the roster, and the guys building said roster weren’t the ones who gave him the promise of all that money.
Just in case we were unsure of the team’s commitment to moving Ethier, a Jon Heyman report late last week confirmed it: Andrew Friedman and Farhan Zaidi would take a $30 million bath (or thereabouts) in the right deal for Ethier. Daniel Rathman broke down the corner into which the team has painted itself in Friday’s rumor roundup.
How dark is that corner, though? What is Andre Ethier worth? Daniel noted, as many others have, that Ethier’s defensive limitations and fading offense make him a deeply unsexy trade target, even for teams in dire need of help at the corner outfield spots. A year ago, though, a half-priced Ethier would have been a widely sought-after asset. The fact that he plunged to league average at the plate, and that Don Mattingly used him so little, has a lot of people confidently declaring that he’s in permanent, possibly accelerating decline. So let’s start with this: Is that true?
I want to explore whether Ethier’s rough 2014 is coloring perceptions of him too forcefully—that is, whether his eight previous seasons of good-to-great production should weigh more heavily on our minds than the stinker of a season that is his most recent one, even given that that season came at age 32 and popped up red flags in more than just the surface-level numbers.
From ages 24 to 31, Ethier had a .300 True Average in 4,534 plate appearances. His PECOTA comps through that age are so flattering as to feel downright untrustworthy: Carlos Beltran, Bernie Williams and Al Kaline were his top three prior to 2014. A more realistic set of comparable players might be this one, culled from a list of those who had at least 4,000 PA and an OPS+ between 115 and 125 (Ethier’s was 123) and dug up using the Baseball-Reference Play Index:
Selected Andre Ethier Comparables
As you can see, there’s another variable for which these players were selected. Like Ethier, they, too, had poor age-32 showings, years that took them (or appeared to take them) off their previous career tracks, in a bad way. It turns out that’s not really a rare occurrence. Thirty-two is an age at which a lot of bat-first second-tier corner guys seem to hit a career speed bump. Some survive, and even get back to thriving. Others fizzle fast. Here’s another list, this time found by searching for players (regardless of their prior performance) who had an OPS+ around league-average (I set 90 and 105 as the bounds) at age 32, and were worth well under one WAR.
Selected Andre Ethier Comparables, Part Two
For the record, even after Ethier’s .262 TAv in 2014—which took Kaline off his list of comparable players and led PECOTA to get very down on his long-term outlook (get out your biggest grains of salt, but PECOTA forecasts Ethier to be worth between -0.4 and -1.1 WARP in every season from 2016 onward)—we still project a .282 TAv for him this year. In the 325 plate appearances we have him pegged for right now, that’s not a strong enough number to make him worth even half his salary. But if he played more often—and remember, he wasn’t hurt at all in 2014, but sat only because the Dodgers could afford to sit him; our playing time projections are based on the same expectations for him in Los Angeles this year—and maintained that rate, he would clear that bar easily. We say it all the time, but it bears repeating here: PECOTA has a longer memory than any human you know. That can be for the better, or for the worse, but that’s the way it is. Of the 11 players above, seven recovered enough from their apparent career derailment to count as valuable in the short term. The three years left on Ethier’s deal can’t possibly end well, but a team in the right position has the chance to capture his value for 2015 by buying low and accepting the likelihood of a sunk cost beyond that.
Ethier has always maintained a high BABIP and cranked out a lot of doubles, largely by having on the of game’s best line-drive swings. Last year, his line-drive rate dropped to its lowest rate since 2010. He hit over half of all his batted balls on the ground, easily the highest share of his career. He always maintained exceptional strike-zone control, usually walking at least half as often as he struck out. Last year, he struck out more than three times as often as he walked, the worst ratio of his career. He’s always been susceptible to lefties (his .235 TAv against them in 2014 was actually an improvement), but he mysteriously stopped mashing righties last year, with a .266 TAv, down from a norm of .300 or so. But even smart stats can lie to you, especially over the course of 380 plate appearances. Seven of 11 guys who fit Ethier’s profile managed to bounce back, and the smart money says their stat sheets mostly showed this same level of degradation.
Still, it doesn’t feel like there’s a seven-in-11 chance of Ethier recovering his lost glory. It doesn’t feel like even the Dodgers think so. This rumor, this discount, it feels like a trap. This is exactly the amount you would offer to pay if you wanted to clear a guy, but didn’t want anyone to know how badly.
That raises an interesting question, though. The Dodgers aren’t shy about eating money. In fact, it’s been their go-to move this winter. They shelled out $32 million to move Matt Kemp, over half of that this season. To get the haul they got for Dee Gordon and Dan Haren, they not only paid Gordon’s 2015 salary ($4 million, although funnily, that hadn’t even been determined at the time of the deal), but guaranteed the Marlins $10 million to cover Haren—and the right to keep that subsidy, even if Haren elected to retire instead of moving to Florida. They’ll pay $7 million for the services of Erisbel Arruebarrena and Alexander Guerrero this season, and if they have their druthers, those two will be Oklahoma City Dodgers' double-play tandem.
So why won’t they eat more than half to get rid of Ethier? Hell, why don’t they pay his entire 2015 salary, just like they’ve paid Kemp’s, Gordon’s and Haren’s, and then chip in lightly for 2016 and 2017? That kind of structure would not only get Ethier out of the way, but bring back an actual asset—even if it’s a mid- or low-level prospect. Something is better than nothing, and for a team with Yasiel Puig, Carl Crawford, Joc Pederson, Scott Van Slyke and Chris Heisey in place, Andre Ethier is a very expensive nothing.
Except, that doesn’t seem to be the way the Dodgers see it. Rather, they seem content—driven, even—to load up their bench, even if it ends up filled with players either overpaid, or wanted as starters elsewhere. They’ll pay A.J. Ellis, Darwin Barney, Justin Turner, Chris Heisey and Scott Van Slyke more than $12 million this season. Turner would have been a nice trade chip over the winter. Barney was a candidate to be non-tendered, until they tendered him. Heisey was signed just this winter, into the glut we're trying to fix here. Ellis was demoted from starting catcher, but will still earn $4.25 million after an arbitration offer. There’s an easy narrative here: The Dodgers are rich, and everything that costs costs them less than most. (That’s true, apparently, even though every marginal dollar they spend runs them $1.40 right now, with the luxury tax baked in.)
That doesn’t explain everything, though. This level of accumulation means a chock-full 40-man roster, a whole lot of grumbling from a few of the more marginalized troops, and inevitably, some flattening of the top of the roster. The Dodgers have enviable depth and plenty of talent in their everyday lineup, but this offense isn’t going to be the dynamo it was for parts of 2013 and 2014. Jimmy Rollins is no Hanley Ramirez, at least the plate. None of the outfield options, whatever their virtues, have the kind of upside Kemp displayed even during the stretch run last season.
Maybe the goal here is to raise the floor of the offense by giving Mattingly options when players fall into slumps. The 2014 Dodgers scored fewer than four runs per game in August, and over six per game in September. That kind of volatility leads to hot and cold streaks, and a streaky team won’t always end the season with more hot streaks than cold. Depth lends consistency.
I’m not wholly satisfied with that theory, so let me offer another. Perhaps the Dodgers are trying to get a better, broader blend of skills onto the roster. Rollins and Kendrick are a better defensive middle infield than Ramirez and Gordon were, but Barney remains the best glove man on the roster. Heisey is a rare creature, a right-handed hitter with a reverse platoon split. Ethier kills righties. Turner and Van Slyke kill lefties. Friedman and Zaidi spent the winter getting more well-rounded in the regular lineup, trading the offensive fireworks of Kemp and Ramirez for a better balance between bat and glove, and swapping Gordon’s specialized skill set for Kendrick’s broad, unexciting one. Maybe that made them more willing to pay to keep the guys who do one or two things really well.
It’s all of that, or they’re just a rich team with rich-team problems: a bunch of sunk costs they can’t justify throwing off for nothing, a few relatively expensive fringe guys for whom there just wasn’t a good alternative. We’ll see which, if and when Ethier is traded.