If you haven’t heard the news yet today, Chris Carpenter is not expected to pitch this season and may retire. The now 37 year old ace starting pitcher, who was only able to pitch in three regular season games last year, has posted a 15 year career with a 3.76 ERA and 1697 strikeouts across 350 games for St. Louis and Toronto. There are some realities to this situation that you will need to realize for understanding how decisions (should be) are made at the MLB level. Some of these are immediate realities, while others of these are expected outcomes. Hopefully you find this logical process interesting even if you don’t follow all my equations.
Reality 1: The Cardinals Are Likely a Worse Organization Because of This
If you don’t know the Cardinals very well, they have a number of options to replace Chris Carpenter’s innings. Firstly, they have their minor leagues, which were recently shown as the number one minor league system in the Majors according to sources. They have some young starting pitchers in Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal, and Joe Kelly. We’ll get to outside options in a moment.
The reality of this is that, no matter how you look at it, this probably makes the organization as a whole, worse. Even if, in an amazing world, the Cardinals were to slot Trevor Rosenthal into Carpenter’s rotation slot and he was to pitch to an astounding ERA with more Wins or whatever stats you want to use, all in all beating Carpenter, they will suffer in another area. Rosenthal has the potential to be an amazing reliever as shown at the end of last season – if Carpenter was around he could slot in as a potential set-up man and impact games that way. Thus, this isn’t simply a “1 for 1” equation that we have here, as there is opportunity costs associated with Rosenthal pitching in Carpenter’s rotation spot. Instead you have to look at the cumulative effect. Written out, Carpenter pitching = Carpenter’s skill in the rotation + Rosenthal’s potential use in the bullpen. Thus, the only way that this can turn out somehow positively for the team is if Carpenter’s skill in the rotation + Rosenthal’s potential use in the bullpen < Rosenthal’s skill in the rotation. Considering he’s replacing an ace-type pitcher, I’d put the odds of this at a relatively low amount, but who knows.
But that’s not even the entirety of the situation. If say, Rosenthal was to take the place in the rotation and is removed from his potential set-up role, now someone else has to take that set-up role, perhaps Shelby Miller, Joe Kelly, or some outside hire. This can have a number of effects and we are all aware of how pitchers get picked to pitch in major league games: there are high pressure roles (read: closer, runners on 1st and 3rd with nobody out situations, etc), mid pressure roles (read: 8th inning up by a run), and low pressure situations (6th inning with the team down 11-1 and the “B Squad” already in). I’m sure we can all imagine the benefits of pitching in these types of situations. Just imagine how you were in say, your first day of work. Remember how nervous you were trying to not screw anything up and simply get acquainted with your surroundings? Remember how you started feeling more at ease the more days you worked, simply because you got into a routine? There’s value in those low-pressure situations as they allow a pitcher to screw up without suffering significant set-back for the team as a whole. Perhaps instead some of these pitchers will be pushed into situations that were not previously envisioned for them.
Finally, there are organizational realities that we have to take into account. For every pitcher that they have to replace on their roster with one from their farm system, they lose precious days of team control as well as options. Additionally, there are benefits to spending extra time in the minor leagues that some of these guys may lose. For a real life example, consider if you had gone straight from 5th grade to 8th grade. Sure, you may have been fine in some classes, such as reading, but consider how much you might have suffered in say, gym. Time is a valuable asset and is not just about learning how to “throw” pitches – it’s about learning the team’s culture, about learning humility, about gaining self-confidence, etc. So in culmination:
Cost of having to use a young arm over Carpenter = Change in pitching skill + Loss of potential relief pitcher’s effectiveness + Loss of organization’s team control time + Loss of minor league learning + Loss of specifically created situations for specific pitchers. But that’s not it…
Reality 2: There’s an Economic Consideration
First let’s realize that contracts in baseball are guaranteed. Therefore, assuming that everything plays out in a logical way, the Cardinals will be paying at least some of Carpenter’s salary for no production. That in itself is unfortunate for them, but it is a sunk cost and we shall not consider it. But now they also have to potentially slot one of their young arms into the starting rotation. Let’s take a moment and realize what this means economically.
Firstly, Carpenter was a brand-name and him pitching on a specific day probably brought some fans to the stadium (I know I refused to go to Brewers’ games back in the day when Suppan was pitching and bought tickets specifically to see Sabathia in 2008). This may hurt sales. Additionally, I’m sure that Carpenter was a relatively common choice for merchandising and I doubt “Rosenthal’s” jersey will pick up that slack. Finally, I’m sure Carpenter’s appearance at events (charity, fan fest, etc) was an incentive for some to buy tickets. These could add up to be significant losses. However, these are again sunk costs and should not be considered as they cannot be identically realized in the point that I am ultimately trying to come to – I just wish to point them out for their own sake.
Secondly, we have to realize that there are two types of pitchers that get paid the most: closers and effective starters. If say, staying with my pick of Rosenthal, he ends up being in the rotation and does, at the very least, acceptably, he is inherently guaranteed more money in arbitration years (given that he gets there) than if he had been a 6th or 7th inning kind of guy. And if we are to assume that the Cardinals will pick one of their better young arms to pitch in that starting spot (as it is naturally assumed that a good starter is better than a good 7th inning arm), then this means that the 6th inning guy likely becomes the 7th inning guy, or the 7th inning guy becomes the 8th inning guy, and we know that the set-up guy gets paid more than the 6th inning guy when it comes to arbitration as well.
Reality 3: The Cardinals now have a Need for Outside Help
Taking into consideration all the things I just talked about, there is an alternative possibility: the signing of a free agent pitcher. Specifically, we are all imagining the possibility of Kyle Lohse returning to this team. As discussed in my previous article, Trading In Fantasy: What Most Do Wrong, an important step in realizing a fit is to understand what your competitor needs. The Cardinals now need someone to pitch once every fifth day. They can do that by slotting in one of their younger players, yes, but there are cumulative results of this that I listed above. So let’s view this from a purely rational standpoint. When and at what cost should the Cardinals sign someone outside the team?
It’s actually relatively easy to visualize. Let’s return to the above equation:
Loss of using a young arm in place of Carpenter = Change in pitching skill + Loss of potential relief pitcher’s effectiveness + Loss of organization’s team control time + Loss of minor league learning + Loss of specifically created situations for specific pitchers + higher arbitration costs
Now we just need to figure out the potential cost of adding someone new. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, it is Kyle Lohse. What does Kyle Lohse mean? He would mean that we would eliminate the potential relief pitcher’s effectiveness, the loss of the organization’s team control time, the loss of minor league learning, the loss of specifically created situations for specific pitchers and the potentially higher arbitration costs. We can also fathom that, although Lohse is by no means equivalent in the minds of Cardinals fans in terms of “name quality” with Chris Carpenter, he would at least provide some net benefit for getting fans out to the game / participating in fan fests, etc. We also cannot assume that Kyle Lohse provides the exact same amount of skill that Chris Carpenter provided. We can of course look at their historical numbers and run metrics, but there is no certainty to be gained here, only guesses. Finally, we must also take into consideration the risks associated with any player. Say the Cardinals do decide to sign Lohse and he immediately hurts himself – now the Cardinals are out the signing cost plus they are back in their original position. Additionally, perhaps Lohse decides to use performance enhancing drugs (I’m not saying he would of course) or do something that hurts the “brand” of the Cardinals. There is risk associated with any outside addition; of course there would be risk with one of the minor leaguers making the team in his place as well, but we don’t know if those are equal (though because of Lohse’s age and the average age of suitable minor leaguers, the injury risk to Lohse is probably greater).
Finally, although I mentioned it briefly earlier, we aren’t for sure on whether Lohse’s numbers would actually be better or worse than our young arm. As a result it will be factored into the front of the equation and can be either positive or negative.
Therefore we can divine Lohse’s value as = Value of change in Lohse’s skill from young arm (can be positive or negative) – Potential risk costs (injury, reputation) – value of the money spent to sign him + avoidance of losses from using a young arm over a veteran (which is reiterated below in long form) + gains of Lohse’s reputation (merchandise, ticket sales, etc)
Losses from Using a Young Arm Over Outside Hire = Loss of potential relief pitcher’s effectiveness + Loss of organization’s team control time + Loss of minor league learning + Loss of specifically created situations for specific pitchers + Potentially higher arbitration costs
With all of this, we can come to a very obvious conclusion. If Lohse’s value > 0, they should sign Lohse; conversely, if Lohse’s value < 0, they should not sign Lohse.
Now of course this is simplified; can we quantify the gains of Lohse’s reputation? Probably not, or at the very least it would be a vague guess. The same can be said of many factors there. But at least having the equation helps get the brain in motion in thinking about all the variables to be considered (though note there are definitely possibilities for more refining).
A last point I want to make is that my final conclusion is oversimplified in one respect. The team wouldn’t necessarily sign him if his value was greater than zero if there was an alternative option that provided a greater value within their inherent constraints. That is, if say, the Rays offer to trade the Cardinals one of their starters for $5, the Cardinals should take that deal even if Lohse’s value was greater than zero because it would be a better use of their resources (they’d gain a larger surplus). However, I do mention that it has to be “within their inherent constraints” – if there was somehow a player whose playing skill value was infinity, there is an inherent limit to the amount of money that he can make for the franchise (and thus the amount they can spend). If he would refuse to play for anything less than $500M, then it doesn’t really matter that his value would be superior to Lohse’s.
Hopefully this is some food for thought, even if it didn’t come to an ultimate conclusion on how the Cardinals will proceed. Leave your comments below if interested.