Is Villanueva an Option for Jays’ Rotation?

By: Aaron Percival

4 December 2012

Photo: sportsnet.com

This is the third post in a series where I examine possible free agent candidates for the Jays’ rotation. I’m working under the assumption that the Jays won’t be in on the big names, but would be willing to add a modest amount of salary to bolster the last spot in the rotation (currently held by J.A. Happ). I’m using a personal smell test to select the pitchers. In the first post, I examined Brandon McCarthy and also laid out my thoughts on why the Jays needed to add another arm to the rotation. In the second post, I examined Shaun Marcum. I’ll continue this series until the Jays make a move, or I get tired of writing it.

It was requested that I do one of these on J.A. Happ. I agree that it’s a good idea to examine Happ as the current holder of the 5th spot in the rotation, but I feel the most value will be gained from doing so at the end of the series, in a comparative nature. So, it shall be done.

For this post, I’d I’m going to examine Carlos Villanueva, aka. “Los Del V” (ed. note: no idea why he has that nickname). This was inspired by comments Anthopoulos made yesterday at the Winter Meetings. Gregor Chisholm posted an excellent rundown of what AA had to say to the media after day one. The entire post deserves a read, but I’m going to steal a few nuggets specifially about Villanueva. Here’s how AA responded when asked if Villanueva was an option:

“Yeah, he could. After we made the trades, I called him just to check in with him and just to see where he’s at. He still wants to start but I think, at the same time, with the changes that we made to the team and to the roster, he’s a little more open to coming in and competing for a spot. Carlos wants to win, he has always been adamant about that. Clearly he wants an opportunity to start as well but because he feels better about the team he was a little more open-minded.

“I probably don’t have anything more to report on that front. I just wanted to check in on him and see if he was adamant that he needed a guaranteed spot or if he was a little more open to competing. From my conversation with him, was a little more open but it didn’t go any further than that at that point. I told him this during the summer, that the reason I couldn’t lock into a spot is one, if I did, I would keep my word to him, but I didn’t want to be prevented if a trade presented itself, all of a sudden we made a commitment and I had to turn down a trade.”

It’s also worth noting how AA responded when asked about adding depth to the rotation:

“We’re happy with the five starters we have, it’s the reality of you’re probably going to need more than five, someone’s not going to perform, someone is going to get hurt, so it’s more starters 6, 7, 8, at least and no team is motivated to trade those types of players. They don’t make any money, they have options left, so you’re looking to trade young player for young player or conversely you’re talking about signing a minor-league free agent. It’s important but it’s hard to do. Sure if somebody came up that would push someone out of the rotation, great, I just don’t necessarily see that occurring, and we’re happy with the talent of the starting five.”

So, it seems that Villanueva could be an excellent fit, but as AA has already said, he won’t guarentee him a spot in the rotation, which is ultimately what Villanueva is looking for in a new contract—or at least to be paid as a starter.

Villanueva is coming off back-to-back one year deals with the Jays avoiding arbitration in both cases. In 2011 he made $1.415MM and in 2012 he made $2.2775MM.

Cost

The FanGraphs Crowdsourcing numbers expect Villanueva to sign a 2 year deal with a AAV of $5.9MM (a total commitment of $11.8MM). Matthew Pouliot of NBC Sports predicts a two-year deal in the $10MM-$12MM range. Dave Cameron’s take on $12MM/2 years is,

“Villanueva is this year’s Chris Capuano; a guy who misses more bats than his stuff would suggest and can be a good performer if you think the home run problem might fix itself after a change of scenery. His reputation for wearing down in the second half will likely keep his price down, but any team that wants a lower cost strikeout pitcher with some upside, Villanueva’s a nice fit. “

Stats

Using the same logic as before, I’ve assembled stats for all qualified SPs over the last three seasons (2010, 2011, 2012). The following tables compare Villanueva’s numbers to the other 127 starting pitchers:

GS/3 IP/3 WHIP ERA FIP xFIP ERA- FIP- xFIP- K/9 K%
Villanueva 10 55 1.29 4.79 4.39 4.20 116 106 102 6.97 18.3%
Average 26 161 1.30 4.00 3.98 3.96 100 100 100 6.96 18.3%
Rank (128) 58 117 99 89 110 81 75 67 67
BB/9 BB% K%-BB% HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% HR/FB WAR Dollars
Villanueva 2.23 5.9% 12.4% 1.42 0.292 71.0% 33.4% 11.7% 1.8 $8.0
Average 2.82 7.4% 11.0% 0.99 0.292 72.3% 44.9% 10.2% 7.1 $30.6
Rank (128) 25 20 48 123 58 45 126 108

I should note that it’s not fair to compare any counting stats in the above, which is why I left a couple of the ranks blank, because Villanueva was primarily used out of the pen.

The nice things: he had an impressive 11.4 K/9 in 2010, but only pitched 52 2/3 innings that year. There are a couple not so nice things, but we’ll get into that in the next section.

Villanueva numbers as a starter last year were,

IP ERA WHIP K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9 K% BB% FIP xFIP GB/FB HR/FB
92 4.50 1.22 8.41 2.45 3.44 1.76 22.90% 6.70% 4.62 3.97 0.71 15.10%

He was able to maintain good K and BB rates. The ERA wasn’t impressive at 4.50, but his xFIP told a better story. However, I’d caution putting too much weight on xFIP in this particular case. xFIP normalizes HR/FB at 10.5% and uses this rate to determine the number of HR in the FIP formula. Although Villanueva did see his HR/FB rate spike to 15.2% last season, his career number is 12.1%. If he does return to Toronto, one could expect this number to regress downward, but the xFIP might paint too rosy a picture given his fly ball tendencies and the park factor of Rogers Centre.

Let’s take a look at the Bill James projection, and see if we can glean more information:

GS IP WHIP ERA FIP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP
Bill James 24 146 1.30 4.01 4.31 7.83 3.14 1.29 0.293

James give a conservative projection of 146 IP over 24 starts. As a fifth man in the rotation, this might be about right, as Gibbons tended to skip the this spot to keep the top of the rotation on consistent days of rest.

In order to get an idea of what kind of value one might expect from Villanueva, I’m going to extrapolate his performance from the last three seasons to 150 IP. As performance metrics, I’ll use fWAR, bWAR (FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference versions of Wins Above Replacement), and VORP (Baseball Prospectus’s Value Over Replacement Player). The results are in the following table, where the “p” prefix indicates the projected values.

fWAR bWAR VORP pfWAR pbWAR pVORP
2010 0.4 -0.2 0.6 1.14 -0.57 1.71
2011 1.2 1.8 0.6 1.68 2.52 0.84
2012 0.6 1.2 1.0 0.72 1.44 1.20

Full disclosure before I continue: the -0.2 bWAR in 2010 presents a problem, because a simple linear extrapolation is not correct since—and this is just my guess—pitching more innings is probably not likely to make his value more negative. But, we’ll have to live with that fact and move on.

The next task is to attempt to project Villanueva’s value for 2013 (and possibly 2014). I’m going to follow the same logic Bill Petti used at FanGraphs for evaluating the David Wright contract. The first goal is to estimate Villanueva’s “true” value for 2013. For this, I’ll use a basic 5/3/2 approach, where you weight last year’s value .5, the year prior .3, and the year prior to that .2. I’ll then borrow from Tom Tango (like Petti did in his piece) and assume that a player loses roughly 0.5 WAR from ages 28-32. In order to calculate a dollar value, I’ll make the common assumption that one WAR (or VORP) is worth about $5MM on the free agent market and use a 5% inflation for 2014 (of course the new TV revenue could drastically change the value of 1 WAR). Here are the results:

pfWAR pbWAR pVORP
2013 1.09 1.36 1.19
2014 0.60 1.12 0.62
Total 1.69 2.48 1.82
Value $8.60 $12.67 $ 9.24

The above gives an estimate of the production that Villanueva could produce. As you can see, it’s quite an extensive range: from $8.60MM on the low end, to $12.67MM on the high end. The free agency predictions fall in the high end of this range.

Risks

Villanueva has been extremely durable in his career. His only DL stint was back in 2011 when he missed 25 games due to a right forearm strain. However, he hasn’t pitched more than 125 innings in a single season, so there’s always the question of whether or not he has the stamina to make it to 150 innings per year over the course of the next contract he signs.

Certainly, the number of fly ball and home runs Villanueva gives up is a major concern. Even if last season was an aberration, his career rate of 1.31 HR/9 is still high.

Conclusions

There’s inherent value in a team resigning a player (someone actually did a study about this, but I can’t seem to find it on Google). The reason for this is that teams have a certain degree of extra knowledge about players in their systems. Villanueva has been effective at his role while he was a Jay: being a swing man in the pen and spot starting when necessary. Certainly there’s value in this type of player.

Based on the simple projections I made, it seems like $10MM-12MM over 2-years is at the high end of Villanueva’s potential. Inking him to $8MM-$10MM over 2-years seems like a safer bet for a guy that doesn’t have the same type of high ceiling (albeit high risk too) as a guy like McCarthy, and would also represent a significant raise to his previous salary. In the end, signing Villanueva isn’t sexy , but they Jays would be getting a guy they already know a good deal about. Of course, guaranteeing him a sport in the rotation would be a deal-breaker.

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