This article focuses on the veteran players acquired by the Padres— Blake Snell, Yu Darvish, and Zach Davies. For insight and analysis on the other players being moved in the deals, check out the article by Natan Cristol-Deman that will be posted soon.
The baseball world was rocked when it was reported that the up-and-coming San Diego Padres had a deal in place to send four of their prospects, including top prospect Luis Patiño and young catcher Francisco Mejía, to acquire former Cy Young winner Blake Snell from the Tampa Bay Rays. It was rocked again when the very next evening, it was reported that the Padres would also acquire former Cy Young winner Yu Darvish along with veteran backstop Victor Caratini from the Chicago Cubs in exchange for starting pitcher Zach Davies and a slew of prospects.
When we think about the fantasy outlook of pitchers being traded, the immediate reaction for most fantasy managers revolves around the new home ballpark, the new teammates, the new division, and finally, a few player-specific concerns. We’ll dive into each of those areas and try to see if we can find any impactful takeaways.
A Brief Word on Victor Caratini
Before we go any further, let me take a moment to discuss the impact on Victor Caratini. Caratini’s home may have changed, but his role is basically the same in that he’ll occasionally give Austin Nola a break behind the dish and keep that role until Luis Campusano is ready to regularly wear the mask and gear in the big leagues—probably at some point in 2022. Caratini is a replacement-level back-up catcher that has an important (if unglamorous) role to play for a major league club, but not for a fantasy squad. This also has no real impact on Austin Nola, who will likely be the starting catcher more often than he isn’t, especially with Mejía now in Tampa Bay.
Now that we’ve gotten through that little appetizer, let’s get on to the main course.
Let’s get the easy bit out of the way: the difference between Petco Park and Tropicana, at least concerning park factors for batted balls, is negligible. Generally speaking, both Petco and the Trop are quite pitcher-friendly. While Petco Park has held a long-standing reputation for being a pitcher’s paradise, changes to the dimensions and fences in 2013 and 2015 gave hitters (and in particular, left-handed hitters) a bit of a boost. Don’t get me wrong—Petco still suppresses hitting. Exactly how park factors are calculated actually varies a bit from place to place, but no matter where you look, you’ll generally find that both Tropicana and Petco are pitcher-friendly venues.
My personal go-to park factors resource is over at Swish Analytics, which provides park factors from 2014-present and also provides details about the platoon park factors (which are MUCH more valuable than overall park factors for a variety of reasons that we won’t get into today). Here are the images for Petco and Tropicana, respectively, and as you can see, both have plenty of yellow and red for both left and right-handed hitters (which is good):
So yeah, I’m more-or-less using some colorful charts to show you that Snell is really just moving from one good place to pitch to another. It’s also worth noting that while Snell does have a 55 point split between his home and road FIP over the course of his career favoring his home park, both numbers are still comfortably below 4.00 and aren’t extreme enough to suggest anything unusual. For reference, FIP across the league was 44 points better at home than it was on the road. The change from a dome to an outdoor park won’t impact much either, as the weather didn’t play a role in Tropicana and there are no unique weather conditions that are especially noteworthy for fantasy purposes in San Diego.
To summarize, Snell’s new home ballpark doesn’t really move any needles as far as I’m concerned.
This analysis won’t take too long, because the friendly confines of Wrigley Field were anything but friendly to Yu Darvish. As a member of the Cubs, Darvish struggled to find consistent success at home, posting a home ERA and FIP of 4.14 and 3.90 (respectively). That’s considerably worse than his home results when he was with the Rangers (though not as bad as the 22.1 regular season home innings he tossed as a Dodger, but we’re going to ignore that due to the minuscule sample). Wrigley itself and the notoriously high winds that blow out in Chicago are a big part of the problem. Here are the park factors for Wrigley, which are much greener (as in friendlier to hitters) than what you can see from Petco above:
When we dive into why those numbers were so rough in Wrigley, a very obvious and simple thing jumps right out—home runs. Darvish’s 23.1% home run to fly ball rate as a Cub in Wrigley is nearly ten points higher than what he posted away from Wrigley (14.0%). It’s also much worse than his overall rate a Ranger and Dodger (12.0%). This leads us to one of the few practical applications of xFIP. Darvish’s home xFIP as a Cub is a sparkling 3.07, a stark contrast to his 4.14 ERA.
We don’t have a lot to go on in terms of actual results from Darvish in Petco, but what little we have is very encouraging. In 17 innings, he has a 2.15 FIP and just one home run allowed. I think it’s safe to say that Darvish gets a very real boost from his new home park, especially when you see how poorly Wrigley treated him in his time there.
While leaving Wrigley is a boon for Darvish, it actually doesn’t impact Davies that much. Home runs have never been a concern for Davies, as he has just a 1.04 HR/9 in 683 career innings, with many of those innings coming in Miller Park—one of the league’s more home run-friendly venues. While Davies did post the best numbers of his career in the shortened 2020 as a Padre, Petco itself had little to do with his success. In fact, he was much better away from Petco (2.39 road ERA, 3.13 home ERA).
While the dimensions and conditions in his new home park won’t be changing, the eight other guys who help get outs will be. The mixing and matching in the lineup and on the mound get a lot of attention in Tampa, but what maybe doesn’t get enough attention is the spectacular job the Rays have done defensively. Kevin Kiermaier and Manny Margot both have the chops to be above-average defenders in center, but tend to play all over the outfield. Up-and-comer Randy Arozarena is also a capable corner outfielder, as are Austin Meadows and Brandon Lowe. Put all of that together, and you have 69 Defensive Runs Saved in the outfield since 2018—the second-best total in the league. Snell’s new teammates in San Diego are certainly no slouches, ranking 11th in that same stretch with 23, though their outfield defense hasn’t been quite as elite by that particular metric.
On the other hand, if you look at the Outs Above Average (OOA) numbers available at Baseball Savant for the entire defense, the Padres actually compared quite favorably to the Rays in 2020. By “compared quite favorably,” I actually mean they led all of baseball with 16 OOA—six more than any other team. While their outfield was above-average, it is the defensive infield of the Padres that really shined. Fernando Tatis Jr. tied with Nolan Arenado for the league lead in OOA among all infielders. Trent Grisham was impressive in his own right with six, while Manny Machado and newcomer Jake Cronenworth each had a respectable 3 OOA. When it comes to defense, both the Rays and Padres can be safely relied upon to make plays for their pitcher.
The other factor in judging whether a new team will be a boon for fantasy for a starting pitcher is their bullpen. Since the start of 2018, the Rays’ bullpen has a 3.70 ERA and a 3.88 FIP, both of which are the fourth-best in the league over that span. That would generally lead you to believe that Snell’s fortunes may be worse off with a move to San Diego and that he might see a few wins blown by his new teammates. That’s not really the case, though, and there are two reasons why:
- The Rays go to their pen earlier than other teams in the league, often at the expense of their starting pitcher’s chance at a win; and
- The Padres’ relievers have been just as good or better. In fact, since the start of 2018, the Padres’ pen has a 3.72 FIP—that’s the best in all of baseball and 12 points better than the second-place Astros.
While individual bullpen arms for the Padres were quite volatile in 2020, projected closer Drew Pomeranz has a fantastic 1.45 ERA and 2.39 FIP in 2020. Former Rays closer Emilio Pagán struggled to find consistency last season but is just one year removed from a 2.31 ERA over 70 innings in his season with the Rays. Other arms like Matt Strahm, Craig Stammen, and Pierce Johnson all boast enough talent to be step-up men on other teams, but will likely compete with each other in middle relief roles. For all of the credit the Rays have been given for their strong bullpens of the last few years, the Padres deserve similar, if not equal praise.
In closing, much like the change in home parks, Snell is simply moving from one great situation to another.
I won’t rehash all of the great things that the Padres can offer to pitchers in terms of their strong bullpen and slick defensive glovework. What I will say is that the Cubs are much more average defensively than the Rays and Padres. They ranked 18th in Statcast’s Outs Above Average in 2020, and are 15th in defensive runs saved since the start of 2019. While it’s difficult to predict how the improved defense will boost Darvish, it’s safe to say that it certainly won’t hurt.
The Zach Davies of 2015-2018 forced a ton of ground balls and would likely be impacted much more by a change in defense than the Davies we’ve seen in 2019 and 2020. The Cubs have been above-average defensively in the infield for the last two seasons, but mostly average to below-average in the outfield. Davies doesn’t get a ton of strikeouts or walks and does rely on balls being put in play more than most pitchers, but the change in defense overall between the Padres and Cubs may not be extreme enough to produce a lot of changes in the box scores, especially if Davies adds even more strikeouts to his game. Unless we see a significant shift back towards his batted ball profiles from before 2019, it’s unlikely that the change in defensive prowess will play a huge role.
So far, we’ve seen that the new pad and the new pals are just as friendly and welcoming to Snell as his former home in Tampa Bay—but what about his new neighbors? As it turns out, this might be the first time we actually see a difference between his new and old home.
Leaving the AL East isn’t as exciting as it used to be. With the universal DH coming sooner rather than later, the change from AL to NL is much more negligible than in years past. In the shortened 2020 season, the AL posted a combined triple slash of .243/.319/.414, while the NL and its new collection of designated hitters slashed .246/.325/.421. That’s right—the NL out-slugged the AL. While those numbers tend to be closer than you might think considering the NL usually had pitchers hitting for 2-3 PA per game, the universal DH has very quickly and predictably leveled the playing field between the two leagues.
Even if we see a universal DH, though, the move to the NL West should be a very favorable one for Snell. Why? Well, because of the actual teams he’ll face within his division. With or without a DH, the offenses of the NL West are considerably softer than those in the AL East. Using the Projected WAR page over at Fangraphs, we can total up the projected batting WAR from the current Depth Charts projections for the two divisions (minus the Padres and Rays) to get an approximate strength of division schedule of sorts:
|AL East||Batting WAR||NL West||Batting WAR|
As you can see, the NL West is looking like it will be a whole lot easier to pitch against next season. The Rockies, Diamondbacks, and Giants have a ton of holes on offense that are unlikely to be resolved in any significant way via free agency, meaning that these teams should still be rather tempting opponents for your fantasy ace to be facing—much more so than the opponents he would have faced had he remained in the AL East.
Darvish isn’t leaving the NL, so the only real potential change for him will be his divisional opponents. While Snell saw a boost by going to a weaker division, Darvish faces the opposite issue—the NL Central is one of the weakest hitting divisions in the league. You can see the breakdown below.
|NL Central||Batting WAR||NL West||Batting WAR|
As I mentioned earlier, Darvish is going to get a big boost by leaving Wrigley Field for Petco, and that should more than offset the difference in the difficulty of opponents he will see in the NL West, especially because the NL West—while better than the NL Central—is far from a powerhouse.
This is basically the inverse of the analysis for Yu Darvish, except Davies may not have the issues with Wrigley that Darvish had. Weaker opponents is a big plus for a guy like Davies who lacks elite stuff and who often needs to rely on weak contact and his own command and control. That said, these opponents won’t be new to Davies, as he was a member of the Brewers rotation from 2015 through 2019. The only real difference in the analysis when diving into Davies is that he does have a meaningful track record against the NL Central. In 195 combined innings against the Reds, Cardinals, and Pirates, he has a worrisome 4.52 ERA and 4.24 FIP. That being said, Davies developed a new weapon in 2020 that those teams haven’t really seen yet, so he may be able to correct his course against those teams going forward. It also helps that all three of those teams are in transition from a hitting perspective, as the former stalwarts of their lineups (Joey Votto, Matt Carpenter, Starling Marte) are either in the last stages of their careers or are no longer with the team.
The Snell-ephant in the Room
So we finally made it to the elephant in the room: Will the Padres let Snell pitch deeper into games?
Well, for starters, let’s openly admit that we don’t really know how much the shortened 2020 season will change how teams approach the use of starting pitchers. Some will likely take a Rays-style approach and go to their pens more, while others won’t either because they don’t want to or because they don’t have the bullpen depth to make it work. Virtually every team had shorter leashes for their rotation as a whole, and it’s hard to say exactly how many teams will continue to use that strategy or to what extent they’ll use it.
Now let’s talk about something you already probably knew—since the start of 2018, no one has used their starters for fewer innings than the Rays. Across the last three seasons, their starters have pitched just 1,584.1 innings. That sounds like a lot, but not when you realize that the average non-Rays team over that same time period had starters pitch an average of just over 2007.2 innings. Those 432.1 missing innings all went to the bullpen.
As we discussed earlier, the Padres have had a very strong bullpen over the last few years, and when you combine that with the below-average rotations the Padres have thrown on the mound in that time, it’s probably not a huge surprise that the Padres rank just 25th in innings pitched by starters over the last three seasons. While that doesn’t seem like a big improvement over the last-place Rays, it actually is. The Padres have allowed starters to throw 1921 innings, 336.2 more than the Rays. In a full season, that would amount to an average of 126 more innings for starters, which would ultimately lead to roughly 15-20 more theoretical innings for Snell in a season.
Of course, this math is made a bit fuzzier by the way the Rays use openers, but even if you’re being conservative, it’s pretty clear that Snell should have a better chance to get to six innings in a start. Even in a wild 2020, the Padres allowed their starters to stay out there for an average of 4.8 innings per game, and in a “normal” 2019, it was up to a solid five innings per game, which isn’t too shabby considering the utter lack of durable starters in San Diego. Can you even name the three rotation pieces who were healthy enough to log 120 innings for them in 2019 (if you’re curious, I’ve put the answer at the end of the article)? With Snell looking like a key cog for a team with playoff and World Series aspirations, the Padres will likely have little choice but to let Snell face the opponent’s order for a third time at least every once in a while. The next question is whether or not that’s a good thing.
A lot is made of Snell’s drop in performance the third time through the order and many use it as the primary reason why the Rays limit Snell’s inning. That’s certainly part of the story, but it misses the big picture. The Rays have realized that generally, the vast majority of pitchers across the league struggle to get a batter out for a third time on a single day. Here’s a quick chart that shows the fundamental logic behind pulling a starter before they face the opposing lineup a third time:
|MLB Starters (3rd & 4th TTO)||5.68||4.79|
|Blake Snell (3rd & 4th TTO)||4.58||4.79|
|MLB Relievers (all appearances)||4.30||4.31|
|Rays Relievers (all appearances)||3.70||3.88|
Now if you had these numbers in front of you and you worked for a baseball team that makes it their mission to save money, how would you approach team construction and the management of your rotation? I guess that you’d look at one of two approaches:
- Pull your starters after two trips through the order, since even average relievers are likely to produce better results (and are not expensive to roster); or
- Try to acquire the pitchers who are better than average when facing a lineup a third and fourth time.
When you look at the leaderboard of pitchers based on their FIP the third time through a lineup, you quickly realize it’s actually just a who’s who of the best pitchers in baseball. Since the start of 2018, among the 102 pitchers with at least 50 innings pitched in the third time through a batting order, the top four are:
Whenever you see a top-five that is dominated by elite veteran pitchers with top-of-the-line arsenals, you realize that the stat you’ve identified is probably one that requires exceptional talent. Further, if you’re the Rays and you see that leaderboard, you practically feel your purse strings tightening. The second strategy from above isn’t all that feasible for teams since those types of players are rarely made available and are usually signing record-breaking contracts when they hit the market. In this light, it’s probably easier to understand why the Rays have chosen the roster construction strategies we’ve seen in recent years.
To his credit, Snell ranks 61st on that list (and a much more promising 24th in strikeout rate), so he’s neither great nor terrible. Experience is the greatest teacher, and perhaps a bit more exposure to hitters will give Snell the approach and confidence he needs to be more successful when he faces lineups multiple times. All things considered, even a mildly longer leash could help bring Snell closer to his 2018 dominance, and his “issue” with facing batters a third or fourth time is more of a league-wide trend than a player-specific problem. With more experience, a longer leash, and continued honing of his craft, we may get more than just the flashes of brilliance from Snell going forward.
Will Davies’ New Strikeout Totals Go to Chicago With Him?
Before 2019, Davies relied mostly on his sinker, which led to decent overall stats but low strikeout totals. He also relied on a curveball, which began as his primary strikeout pitch but over time became less and less effective. By 2019, Davies had all but abandoned it, moving instead to his changeup. The details of why can be found in this piece by Jake Mailhot over at Fangraphs, but the key takeaway is that now Davies features the change as a primary pitch, throwing roughly as many changeups as he does sinkers.
Ignoring the deeply philosophical question of whether it can still be called a “changeup” if it’s your most frequent pitch, Davies found considerable success with the pitch, drawing a 35.9% whiff rate. It generated a 10.7 pVal and allowed just a .225 wOBA in 2020, which was worlds better than anything else he featured (the sinker, for what it’s worth, had a -0.9 pVal and allowed a .325 wOBA). Apart from a career-best strikeout rate, Davies also saw improved results against lefties by feeding them more changeups. While it’s generally inadvisable to draw any conclusions from a sample of just 127 southpaws, it’s… something.
There are reasons to believe that these changes may not hold forever, though. First, there’s an excellent piece by the legendary Eno Sarris that explains some of the issues with featuring both a sinker and a changeup heavily due to the similarities between the two pitches and their movement. Second, Davies may have been blessed with unusually good luck (according to Statcast). Davies’ ERA of 2.73 was significantly better than his expected ERA, which came in at a whopping 5.01. Of the six other pitchers with an identical xERA, the next best actual ERA belonged to Davies’ new teammate Alec Mills (4.48).
Changing how a pitcher utilizes their arsenal can be just as effective, if not more effective, than developing new pitches, and it’s easy to get excited about the changes Davies made in 2020 along with the stellar results. That said, a repeat of 2020 seems unlikely—not because of his new team, but because the results from 2020 were probably going to fade away regardless. Unless Chicago makes further changes to Davies, it’s hard to see a path to top-75 fantasy starting pitcher production.
To wrap this up, I’m not trying to argue that Snell is now a 200 inning workhorse. What I will say is that he probably has a much better chance of repeating the 180 innings he tossed in 2018 as a member of the Padres than he did as a Ray, and he could do it as early as 2021. In other words, wishing for Blake Snell to throw 180 innings (or better) and 200+ strikes went from “pipe dream” to “outside chance”.
In short, with this trade to San Diego, Snell gets to keep all of the good things he had in Tampa and St. Pete (pitcher-friendly park, excellent defenders behind him, no weather/nature concerns) and picks up a couple more (more traditional philosophy regarding starting pitchers, weaker projected opponents). What’s not to like?
Snell is currently being drafted as the 17th pitcher off the board in NFBC leagues, and this change in teams will probably do more to solidify his place in the top-20 than it will to move him up a tier in drafts. His 52.88 NFBC ADP may creep up a bit to make him closer to guys like Brandon Woodruff (38.12) and Kenta Maeda (47.23) and get him into the top-50, but it’s hard to see him moving up much higher than that for 2021. If anything, it will just feel a little safer picking him there than it did a few days ago.
This is going to feel like a letdown, but this probably doesn’t change much in terms of how we evaluate Yu Darvish for fantasy. He was already a top-five starting pitcher in most rankings and ADP. Our own Nick Pollack was slightly bullish on Darvish, ranking him fourth, and if you had Bauer or Buehler ahead of Darvish on your draft board, you might now consider swapping them. Darvish’s NFBC ADP of 18.59 may move up a pick or two as people haggle over the top of the second tier of pitchers behind Cole, DeGrom, and Bieber, but he’s still a top-20 to top-25 overall pick in redraft leagues. I could see him getting up to picks 15 and 16 in terms of ADP as more and more players target Darvish over Bauer or Buehler on the 15/16 turn, but that’s about it.
Davies probably wasn’t on the radar for most 12-team managers, and this move doesn’t really change that. NL-only players also don’t have to change much about how they evaluate Davies based on the move. Really, the only thing to say about Davies is that this move reminds people that:
- Davies had a good 2020; and
- Davies probably won’t repeat his good 2020 in 2021.
That’s not really trade analysis as much as it is regular analysis, but that’s what it all boils down to for him. He was being drafted as the 80th pitcher off the board at pick 224.68, though I wouldn’t be shocked if he is below pick 250 as we get closer to the regular season.
Photo by Mary Holt/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter) and Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)