by Eno Sarris //
By all accounts, Roy Oswalt is dealing. He’s got an ERA under three, a good WHIP, and is pitching for a contender that should get him wins. If you drafted him to be your number two, you’re probably happy with his performance. Why should you consider selling high on the second-best Roy in Philadelphia?
In a word, swinging strikes. The average swinging strike rate across baseball is usually around 8.5% in any given year. Oswalt has been average or better in the statistic for eight of his last nine years, and that’s how he’s built a strikeout rate that’s usually average or better. This year, Oswalt has a 6.9% swinging strike rate, the lowest of his career, and far below average. That’s behind his 5.8 K/9, again the lowest of his career and far below the 7 K/9 that is average across baseball right now.
There are other facets to pitching well. Oswalt still has his patented control, as his two walks per nine inning show (3.25 BB/9 is average this year). That should continue, and it will help him keep his WHIP and ERA manageable even if he regresses. He just won’t have a ton of baserunners even if he isn’t racking up the strikeouts.
Oswalt also gets about half of his contact on the ground, which is ahead of the 44% league average. But that’s not an elite ground-ball rate, and it’s not enough for him to ‘deserve’ his current home run rate. He is giving up the fewest home runs of his career in Philadelphia (0.4 HR/9 this year, 0.76 HR/9 career). This is because only 4.5% of his fly balls are leaving the park. That number trends towards 10% yearly across baseball, and Oswalt himself has an 8.9% number in the category. More home runs are coming.
At 33 years old, there’s a little less gas in Oswalt’s tank. He’s lost a tick off his fastball (down to 91+ MPH from 92+ MPH) and he’s foresaken the slider so far this year. He’s using the slider 5% of the time after using it around 15% of the time the last three years. Sliders are known to cause stress on arms – but we haven’t heard from Oswalt that his arm is hurting. His back was the issue earlier in the year, but that’s just the sort of thing he’ll deal with as he gets older.
The point is, he doesn’t look like a true-talent mid-twos ERA guy at this point in his career. He’s not getting the swinging strikes, and some luck is covering up his lack of strikeouts. He’ll be good going forward – don’t sell him too low. But consider an ERA in the high threes much more likely from this point on. That means that if someone is willing to pay ace prices, you should listen.
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- Do research and understand the injury: What’s the timeframe for return? What’s the risk of injury setbacks or injury re-occurrences? How long until a player can really rehabilitate and perform up to the usual standard?
- Watch out for misleading news: It’s almost a cliché these days that a player is making “significant progress” in his road to recovery. Reporters have a duty to check up with team management about a player’s status. Rarely do they get an honest response. The spin is usually positive. For buyers, this means tread carefully. For sellers, the moment that news story hits about a player being ahead of schedule on his road to return, this might represent the best opportunity to explore the trade market.
- Correctly factor an injured player’s expected contribution to your team: If your player is going to miss 20% of the season, you might think that means the standard for return in trade is 80%. But keep in mind that even without a trade, you’ll be plugging someone off of reserves or the waiver wire who will produce some. So maybe you’d want a player in return who will give you at least 90% of your injured player’s original value. For buyers, if your potential trading partner doesn’t realize this math, it’s a good investment.
- Measure your team’s need for downgrading risk or upgrading upside: If your team is in the middle of the pack and can’t afford a big hit like a player injury, getting some value in return for an injured player makes sense. If your team is struggling or ahead of the pack with depth to spare, taking on an injured superstar’s upside is also a sound idea. Also keep in mind that a player who is injured can usually be put on the DL, which frees up a roster spot for another player too.
- Be aggressive but cautious: Always assume the worst when it comes to a player’s injury. Professional ballclubs have a lot of money at stake with their players, so organizations are usually conservative in getting a player back into the lineup. If a player is said to be out two-to-four weeks, assume four-to-five.
Finally, I recently expressed some skepticism about whether so-called sell-high candidates like Scott Podsednik are really candidates for trade. Convincing people to move off of long-held perceptions about a player’s ability is usually easier said than done.