Wednesday Rockpile: Irrational Exuberance and Kevin Slowey

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As I'm sure you are all aware, the Winter GM Meetings are now in full swing in Dallas...and the Rockies made a deal yesterday, acquiring Kevin Slowey from the Minnesota Twins for a Player to Be Named Later. This move fits the Dan O'Dowd mold (trade to acquire ML talent, look for undervalued back of the rotation pitchers) pretty well, so it isn't a surprising move. But was it a good one?

Before I give my take on that question, I hope you'll indulge a little digression into fan psychology (and economic theory) for a moment. Almost exactly 15 years ago to the day, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, spoke of the "irrational exuberance" of investors in the middle of a tech optimism-fueled boom economy. This irrational exuberance had "unduly escalated asset values" beyond where their true value stood...and the result was a recession shortly thereafter that wiped out most of the gains established during the boom years.

While the potential for a player salary bubble bursting in the near future isn't entirely inconceivable, the reason I bring up irrational exuberance at a time like the GM meetings is because I feel that, with the possible exception of Spring Training, there is no other time in which a baseball fan is more irrationally exuberant. They are irrationally exuberant about the value of their club's prospects/trade pieces, irrationally exuberant about trade scenarios or big name free agents, and even irrationally exuberant about the back end pitcher their team just acquired -- building up the value of that asset (no matter how toxic it might be) in their minds. That's true even if fans are statistically literate -- they choose to see only the stats that make their asset the most attractive and conveniently leave out the rest...or they find warts in the opposing team's assets.

To be clear, there are plenty of times when a baseball fan is more excited about their team, such as on Opening Day or during a pennant race. It's just that during those times the excitement is a little more grounded in actual value being provided than it is during the GM meetings. These Winter Meetings are times when the inner GM in all of us baseball fans emerges, where heated debates about players that almost certainly won't be coming our way rise and fall at a furious pace.

In any case, the acquisition of Slowey, who apparently was really not like by the Minnesota press, is a very interesting (though not the best because he isn't that good -- Grady Sizemore was probably the perfect example because of his youth, high peak, and considerable risk) example of IE...simply in the way that, warts and all, one can envision Slowey being a very good pitcher for the Rockies. Here is the Kevin Slowey through the eyes of an irrationally exuberant fan (I'm including myself in this category) sees:

  • Slowey has an elite K/BB ratio. And when I say elite, I mean that his career 4.70 K/BB ratio ranks him 2nd for any pitcher in the last 20 years with at least 500 IP. K/BB is one of my favorite metrics to look at when examining starting pitchers, not the least of which because in Coors Field, a walk is more damaging than in other parks. This is because that any walk is much more likely to score due to the high hits/runs park factor that Coors possesses. Slowey's career 1.42 BB/9 rate makes me believe that a lot of the home runs he gives up will be of the solo variety. His excellent control is reminiscent of another fly ball pitcher with excellent control who has had success in Colorado, Rafael Betancourt. Even Jason Hammel, who was seen as a flyball pitcher when acquired from the Rays, has shown the ability to succeed at Coors.

  • He is only 27 and has at least 2 seasons of team control remaining. Slowey is just now entering his physical prime as a pitcher. The acquisition cost was fairly low -- the PTBNL that Colorado gave up was almost a certainly Rule 5 eligible fringe prospect like Cory Riordan, Brad Emaus, Dan Houston, or maybe Parker Frazier -- and Slowey is a guy who has been a competent midrotation starter in the AL as recently as 2010 (see below). And if not everything goes right, Slowey can be optioned to the minors in 2012, meaning that at the very least he's a great rotation depth piece. This could be construed as a great example of Dan O'Dowd buying low on an undervalued asset, which is exactly what he should be doing.
  • Slowey has already been above league average in production twice in his 4+ seasons in the league -- and only 3 of those seasons could really be considered as full. Even in his injury plagued disaster year in 2011, his poor results were underlined with strong peripheral stats and bad luck (.330 BAA, career .310).

So to conclude, the irrationally exuberant Rockies fan sees Kevin Slowey as a potential mid-rotation starting version of Rafael Betancourt with two years of team control coming at a cheap price. At least, that's how they'd rationalize the trade for Colorado. All of those points are true and some make rational sense, but there's not a complete picture being painted here.

Of course, not all Rockies fans are irrationally exuberant (and again, in the context of baseball being IE is hardly a bad thing, it brings balance to the Force). Some really don't like this move, and I don't blame them either. Well, that's not true -- I do blame Woody Paige, who can't let go of the cheap owners mantra. Here are a few warts on Kevin Slowey that fill out the picture of the acquistion and that would make me nervous as a Rockies fan:

  1. 2011 was really bad for Kevin Slowey. Much like the 2011 season was a terrible experience for Rockies fans, so too will Slowey really be looking forward to 2012. Despite being one of the Twins' best 5 starting options going into the season, Minnesota insisted on moving him to the bullpen, which he resisted. Then he got hurt (twice) and missed the majority of the season...and when he got back, he was not good at all, going 0-8 with a 6.67 ERA in 59.1 IP. Given that 2011 is in fact the most recent year, Slowey's ability to bounce back and be successful is a little worrisome to me.
  2. The combination of all those fly balls and Coors Field. Slowey does have elite control, but his career 47.9% flyball rate will doubtless lead to more home runs at Coors than you or I would like to see. I mean, it's not like Slowey's career K/9 rate (6.67) is that special, and he's a finesse righty with a 89 MPH fastball. If his control isn't there, he's a disaster.
  3. Slowey hasn't been that successful. A lot of Slowey's value (much like Hammel) is tied to his relatively lower FIP and xFIP numbers -- which might be good at showing a pitcher's true value in a neutral park, but they aren't as helpful when a pitcher is hurling in an extreme hitter's park. Baseball Reference's rWAR shows that Slowey's 2008 season was his only league average season.
  4. His arbitration salary is higher than you'd like if he turns out to be only depth. In his second year of arbitration eligibility Slowey is likely to make around $2.7 - 3 million, which is much higher than he will be worth if he is fulfilling a 6th starter/low leverage reliever role. Even if he is relatively successful, the team will probably owe Slowey more money than that in 2013.

Despite these warts, I do see acquiring Slowey as a positive move for Colorado's rotation. I think that his presence pushes Tyler Chatwood into the minors or the bullpen in 2012, especially if Juan Nicasio continues his rapid recovery and can pitch in the Opening Day rotation. I think that Colorado will acquire one more pitcher to slot into the rotation and roll with a Chacin/Hammel/Nicasio/Slowey/New Pitcher rotation, giving Drew Pomeranz, Alex White, and Chatwood some more minor league time. Am I being irrationally exuberant? Only time will tell.

Trade Rumors

Troy Renck writes that trading Huston Street could be the key to filling multiple holes. The most interesting tidbit within to me is that Colorado is willing to eat salary to get superior prospects in return. While I believe that the primary reason to trade Street is to free up money to sign an upper tier pitcher or infielder, a good prospect haul would also be welcome.

Renck's article about the Marlins' offer for Albert Pujols has some more interesting nuggets of information -- namely that the Rockies have discussed sending Eric Young Jr. to the Seattle Mariners in return for former Rockies farmhand Chone Figgins (provided that Seattle eats most of his salary). Figgins has been excellent in the past but has been terrible in the more recent past, so he's another IE candidate for me. Also in the article is that Ramon Hernandez will likely hit 6th in the lineup next year.

Thomas Harding wrote a little more at length about Seth Smith's trade market on Monday evening. I believe that Smith is the trade asset that Colorado is most likely to get a good MLB player in return for, so I hope that if Dan O'Dowd decides to use that bullet, he's firing at the right target.

Here is Fangraphs' take on the Slowey deal, and here is Baseball Prospectus' breakdown (requires subscription).

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