Do MLB Teams Keep Their Elite Talent?

On an episode of the Effectively Wild podcast, an interesting question was raised.  The question was whether teams have increasingly held onto their top talent.  This was measured by whether a star player was still with the team that originally drafted him.  I decided to take a closer look at this question by examining the top 10 finishers in Wins above Replacement (WAR) with hitters and pitchers examined separately over a number of seasons.  To examine the current trend in holding on to elite talent, I explored the last three full seasons of the WAR leader boards (2015-2017).  I then examined the players that comprised the top 10 WAR finishers during the 2007 and 1997 seasons in order to compare whether top talent is more frequently held on to by teams of today than teams from 10 and 20 years ago.

* Wins Above Replacement (WAR) taken from Baseball-reference.com

 

2017 WAR Leaders: Position Players

Altuve 8.3 – Age 27 – with original team.

Judge 8.1 – Age  25 – with original team.

Stanton 7.6 – Age 27 – with original team.

Votto 7.5 – Age 33 – with original team.

Arenado 7.2 – Age 26 – with original team.

Simmons 7.1 – Age 27 – with 2nd team.  Traded from Atlanta to Los Angeles/Anaheim (November of 2015).

Ramirez 6.9 – Age 24 – with original team.

Trout 6.7 – Age 25 – with original team.

Betts 6.4 – Age 24 – with original team.

Pham 6.4 – Age 29 – with original team.

Average age = 26.7 years

9 of 10 players were with their original team. 

 

2017 WAR Leaders: Pitchers

Kluber 8.0 – Age 31 – with 2nd team.  Traded from San Diego to Cleveland (July of 2010).

Scherzer 7.3 – Age 32 – with 3rd team.  Traded from Arizona to Detroit (2009).  Signed via free agency with Washington (January of 2015).

Gonzalez 6.6 – Age 31 – with 4th team.  Traded from Chicago to Philadelphia, from Philadelphia to Chicago, from Chicago to Oakland, and from Oakland to Washington (December of 2011).

Strasburg 6.5 – Age 28 – with original team.

Verlander 6.4 – Age 34 – with 2nd team.  Traded mid-season from Detroit to Houston (2017).

Greinke 6.0 – Age 33 – with 5th team.  Drafted by Kansas City, traded to Milwaukee, traded from Milwaukee to Los Angeles/Anaheim.  Signed via free agency with Los Angeles (2012).  Signed via free agency with Arizona (2015).

Sale 6.0 – Age 28 – with 2nd team.  Traded from Chicago to Boston (December of 2016).

Stroman 5.8 – Age 26 – with original team.

Carrasco 5.4 – Age 30 – with 2nd team.  Traded from Philadelphia to Cleveland (July of 2009).

Severino 5.3 – Age 23 – with original team.

Average Age: 29.6 years

3 pitchers remained with original team. 

 

2016 WAR Leaders: Position Players

Trout 10.5 – Age 24 – with original team.

Betts 9.5 – Age 23 – with original team.

Bryant 7.7 – Age 24 – with original team.

Altuve 7.6 – Age 26 – with original team.

Donaldson 7.5 – Age 30 – 3rd team.  Drafted by Chicago, traded by Chicago to Oakland, Oakland traded to Toronto (November of 2014).

Cano 7.3 – Age 33 – with 2nd team.  Signed with Seattle via free agency (2013).

Seager 6.9 – Age 28 – with original team.

Machado 6.7 – Age 23 – with original team.

Arenado 6.6 – Age 25 – with original team.

Dozier 6.5 – Age 29 – with original team.

Average age: 26.5 years

8 of 10 players were with their original team.  1 hitter was traded and 1 hitter moved on to his second team via free agency.   

 

2016 WAR Leaders: Pitchers

Verlander 6.6 – Age 34 – with original team.

Kluber 6.4 – Age 30 – with 2nd team.  Traded from San Diego to Cleveland (July of 2010).

Scherzer 6.2 – Age 31 – with 3rd team.  Traded from Arizona to Detroit (2009).  Signed via free agency with Washington (January of 2015).

Cueto 5.6 – Age 30 – 3rd team.  Signed by Cincinnati, traded to Kansas City (July of 2015), signed with San Francisco via free agency (2015).

Kershaw 5.6 – Age 28 – with original team.

Roark 5.5 – Age 29 – with 2nd team.  Traded by Texas to Washington (July of 2010).

Tanaka 5.4 – Age 27 – with original team.

Martinez 5.4 – Age 24 – with original team.  Originally signed with Red Sox but league voided and then signed with St. Louis.

Lester 5.3 – Age 32 – with 3rd team.  Drafted by Boston, traded to Oakland (July of 2014).  Signed with Chicago via free agency (2014).

Syndergaard 5.3 – Age 23 – with 2nd team.  Drafted by Toronto and traded to New York (December of 2012).

Average age: 28.8 years

 4 of 10 pitchers were with their original team.

 

2015 WAR Leaders: Position Players

Harper 9.9 – Age 22 – with original team.

Trout 9.4 – Age 23 – with original team.

Donaldson 8.8 – Age 29 – 3rd team.  Drafted by Chicago, traded by Chicago to Oakland, Oakland traded to Toronto (November of 2014).

Goldschmidt 8.8 – Age 27 – with original team.

Votto 7.6 – Age 31 – with original team.

Pollock 7.4 – Age 27 – with original team.

Kiermaier 7.3 – Age 25 – with original team.

Cain 7.2 – Age 29 – with 2nd team.  Drafted by Milwaukee.  Traded to Kansas City (December of 2010).

Machado 7.1 – Age 22 – with original team.

Heyward 6.5 – Age 25 – with 2nd team.  Drafted by Atlanta and traded to St. Louis (November of 2014).

Average age: 26.0 years

7 of 10 players were with their original team.

 

2015 WAR Leaders: Pitchers

Greinke 9.3 – Age 31 – with 5th team.  Drafted by Kansas City, traded to Milwaukee, traded from Milwaukee to Los Angeles/Anaheim.  Signed via free agency with Los Angeles (2012).  Signed via free agency with Arizona (2015).

Arrieta 8.7 – Age 29 – with 2nd team.  Drafted by Baltimore and traded to Chicago (July of 2013).

Kershaw 7.5 – Age 27 – with original team.

Keuchel 7.2 – Age 27 – with original team.

Scherzer 7.1 – Age 30 – with 3rd team.  Traded from Arizona to Detroit (2009).  Signed via free agency with Washington (January of 2015).

Price 6.0 – Age 29 – with 3rd team.  Drafted by Tampa Bay and traded to Detroit (mid 2014) and then traded to Toronto (mid 2015 season).

Gray 5.8 – Age 25 – with original team.

Lackey 5.7 – Age 36 – 3rd team.  Drafted by Los Angeles/Anaheim.  Signed with Boston via free agency (2009).  Traded by Boston to St. Louis (July of 2014)

Bumgarner 4.8 – Age 25 – with original team.

deGrom 4.7 – Age 27 – with original team.

Average age: 28.6 years

5 of 10 pitchers were with their original team. 

 

2007 WAR Leaders: Position Players

Rodriguez 9.4 – Age 31 – with 3rd team.  Left Seattle for Texas via free agency (2001).  Traded from Texas to New York February of 2004).

Pujols 8.7 – Age 27 – with original team.

Wright 8.3 – Age 24 – with original team.

Utley 7.8 – Age 28 – with original team.

Jones 7.6 – Age 35 – with original team.

Granderson 7.6 – Age 26 – with original team.

Ordonez 7.3 – Age 33 – with 2nd team.  Left Chicago for Detroit via free agency (February of 2005).

Pena 7.2 – Age 29 – with 6th team – Drafted by Texas, traded to Oakland, traded from Oakland to Detroit (2002).  Signed as a free agent with New York (2006), signed as a free agent with Boston (2006), and signed as a free agent with Tampa Bay (January of 2007).

Tulowitzki 6.8 – Age 22 – with original team.

Cano 6.7 – Age 24 – with original team.

Average age: 27.9 years

7 of 10 hitters were still with their original team. 

 

2007 WAR Leaders: Pitchers

Oswalt 6.7 – Age 29 – with original team.

Beckett 6.5 – Age 27 – Traded from Florida to Boston after 2005 season.

Webb 6.4 – Age 28 – with original team.

Sabathia 6.3 – Age 26 – with original team.

Lackey 6.3 – Age 28 – with original team.

Vasquez 6.2 – Age 30 – with 4th team.  Traded from Montreal to New York, New York to Arizona, and Arizona to Chicago.

Hernandez 6.2 –  Age 26 – with original team.

Peavy 6.2 – Age 26 – with original team.

Buehrle 6.1 – Age 28 – with original team.

Harang 6.0 – Age 29 – with 3rd team.  Traded from Texas to Oakland (2000) and Oakland to Cincinnati (mid-2003 season).

Average age: 27.7 years.

7 of 10 pitchers were with their original team. 

 

1997 WAR Leaders: Position Players

Walker 9.8 – Age 30 – with 2nd team.  Signed by Montreal (1984).  Signed with Colorado via free agency (April of 1995).

Biggio 9.4 – Age 31 – with original team.

Griffey 9.1 – Age 27 – with original team.

Piazza 8.7 – Age 28 – with original team.

Bonds 8.2 – Age 32 – with 2nd team.  Drafted by Pittsburg (1985).  Signed with San Francisco via free agency (1992).

Bagwell 7.7 – Age 29 – with 2nd team.  Drafted by Boston (1989) and traded to Houston (August of 1990).

Thomas 7.3 – Age 29 – with original team.

Knoblauch 6.7 – Age 28 – with original team.

Garciaparra 6.6 – Age 23 – with original team.

Rodriguez 6.5 – Age 21 – with original team.

Average age: 27.8 years

7 of 10 hitters were with their original team. 

 

1997 WAR Leaders: Pitchers

Clemens 11.9 – Age 34 – with 2nd team.  Drafted by Boston.  Signed by Toronto via free agency (December of 1996).

Martinez 9.0 – Age 25 – 2nd team.  Signed by Los Angeles (1988) and traded to Montreal (November of 1993).

Pettitte 8.4 – Age 25 – with original team.

Johnson 8.0 – Age 33 – with 2nd team.  Drafted by Montreal (1985).  Traded to Seattle (1989).

Maddux 7.8 – Age 31 – with 2nd team.  Drafted by Chicago (1984).  Signed with Atlanta via free agency (1992).

Thompson 7.7 – Age 24 – with original team.

Brown 7.0 – Age 32 – with 3rd team.  Drafted by Texas (1986).  Signed with Baltimore via free agency (April of 1995).  Signed with Florida via free agency (December of 1995).

Cone 6.8 – Age 34 – with 4th team.  Drafted by Kansas City, Traded to New York Mets (1987).  New York traded to Toronto (August of 1992).  Signed with Kansas City via free agency (1992).  Traded from Kansas City to Toronto (April of 1995) and from Toronto to New York Yankees (July of 1995).

Schilling 6.3 – Age 30 – with 3rd team.  Drafted by Boston, traded to Baltimore (July of 1988).  Baltimore traded to Houston (January of 1991).  Traded from Houston to Philadelphia (April of 1992).

Hentgen 5.8 – Age 28 – with original team.

Average age: 27.1 years

3 of 10 pitchers were with original team. 

 

Summary:

Lists containing 10 hitters and 10 pitchers are small samples thus it is dangerous to conclude much.  However, there are some data trends that appear interesting.

  1. The number of top pitchers that remained with their original teams was lower than the number of hitters that remained with their original teams. This trend is more pronounced in the 2015-2017 groups. Examining the transactions that led to top pitchers no longer remaining with their original teams during the last three seasons indicated the following – trades prior to a pitcher gaining any, or extremely limited MLB experience (Cory Kluber, Noah Syndergaard, and Carlos Carrasco).  Additionally, established pitchers found on the lists were often traded as part of trade deadline deals (Lester, Greinke, and Cueto) or as part of their original team jettisoning high priced talent during tanking/rebuilding efforts (Verlander and Sale).  Compare this with the pitching WAR leaderboard for 2007 and 1997.  These two lists show a different story of pitcher movement.  In 2007, 7 of 10 pitchers were still with their original team (whereas 7 pitchers on the WAR leaderboard were with their original teams in 2016 and 2017 combined).  The 1997 group is populated by a number of pitchers age 30 or older who left their original teams via free agency.
  2.  Teams appear much less willing to part with offensive talent. In 4 of the 5 seasons examined, more hitters than pitchers remained with their original team. The only year this was not the case was in 2007 when the same number of hitters and pitchers were still with their original ball clubs (7).  The pattern of hitters remaining with their club of origin and pitchers being moved was most extreme in 2017.  Here, 9 of 10 hitters remained with their original team while only 3 pitchers remained with their team.

3a. The current hitter WAR leaders (2015-17) trend younger than their counterparts of 2007 and 1997.  In the last three seasons the average age of the hitter top 10 were 26.7, 26.5, and 26 years while the average age from 2007 and 1997 were 27.9 and 27.8 years.

3b. Conversely, modern WAR pitching leaders trend older than their 1997 and 2007 peers.  The 2017, WAR pitcher leaders had an average age of 29.6, 28.8 in 2016, and 28.6 in 2015.  In 2007, the WAR pitching leader average age was 27.7 and in 1997 it was 27.1.

3c. Same season WAR leaders: The average age of hitters and pitchers on the 2007 and 1997 leader boards are closer than the hitter and pitcher leaders from 2015-2017.

3d. The average age of hitters from the 1997 and 2007 sample is older than the pitcher lists from 97 and 07.  The reverse is true in 2015-2017.  Here, the average pitcher age is significantly older than the average age of the hitter.

Ideas:

Although the samples are small, there is still much to think about.  Some areas I wonder about include:

The impact PED use and current testing has on the leader board demographics.  Possibly related to this, why do older players appear to provide less elite production/value than they did 10 and 20 years ago?

The data indicates that teams are more willing to deal top pitching prospects than hitting prospects.  This may be related to pitching development being more variable/harder to predict than hitting ability, the increased potential for career stalling or career threatening pitcher injury, and the typical aging curve for hitting and pitching development and performance.  Based on the data from the last three years though, it appears that it takes longer for most pitchers to reach elite levels when compared to one or two decades ago.

The impact of free agency and the impact of tanking and rebuilds may be an area worth examining more closely.  The two great motivators for original teams moving elite talent appear to be (1) highly paid player on a team re-tooling and/or stripping assets or (2) players that will be paid more than the original team can afford when the player is a free agent and the team determines that it is better to move the player for future assets than to let the player walk away for nothing.  As teams appear to be more willing to tank in order to rebuild, this may become the most common way an elite talent leaves his original team.

Below is the summary of the Top 10 WAR leaders for each season (age, number of players with original team, and average WAR).

2017

Hitters:

Average age = 26.7 years

9 of 10 players were with their original team.

Average WAR: 7.22

Pitchers:

Average Age: 29.6 years

3 pitchers remained with original team.

Average WAR: 6.33

 

2016

Hitters:

Average age: 26.5 years

8 of 10 players were with their original team.  1 hitter was traded and 1 hitter moved on to his second team via free agency.

Average WAR: 7.68

Pitchers:

Average age: 28.8 years

4 of 10 pitchers were with their original team.

Average WAR: 5.73

 

2015

Hitters:

Average age: 26.0 years

7 of 10 players were with their original team.

Average WAR: 8.0

Pitchers:

Average age: 28.6 years

5 of 10 pitchers were with their original team.

Average WAR: 6.68

 

2007

Hitters:

Average age: 27.9 years

7 of 10 hitters were still with their original team.

Average WAR: 7.74

Pitchers:

Average age: 27.7 years

7 of 10 pitchers were with their original team.

Average WAR: 6.29

 

1997

Hitters:

Average age: 27.8 years

7 of 10 hitters were with their original team.

Average WAR: 8.0

Pitchers:

Average age: 27.1 years

3 of 10 pitchers were with original team.

Average WAR: 7.87

 

Follow me on Twitter: @doctordaver

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