Welcome to the Cleveland Indians Trading Post, a weekly segment meant to help my fellow Tribe fans sort out which of the few familiar faces left on the team won’t be around much longer.
This week’s potential trade bait is Mitch Talbot.
A second-round pick in the 2002 amateur draft, Talbot was acquired from the Tampa Bay Rays last winter in exchange for Kelly Shoppach.
With less than 10 big-league innings under his belt before this season, Talbot, 26, qualifies as a rookie and will be under team control through at least 2015.
Why he has value
To a casual fan glossing over the sports page, Talbot looks like an ace.
He’s 6-3 for a losing team, posting a nifty 3.73 ERA over 60.1 innings of work. There isn’t a team in the game that wouldn’t eagerly make room in its rotation for a starter with those numbers.
He’s a bit of a late bloomer (he’ll turn 27 before the end of the World Series), but even if he doesn’t improve over the next couple years, a 3.73 ERA is a fantastic addition to the middle of any rotation.
He’ll make the minimum wage until he’s 29, and he’ll be under contract at a team-friendly price until he’s 32. So even a low-budget team could afford him, and even a franchise with no hope of contention this year could be interested.
Why he’s expendable
He isn’t nearly as good as he looks.
His walk rate is ugly—3.6 BB/9—but his strikeout rate—also 3.6 K/9—is even worse.
You read that right. Talbot is just as likely to walk an opposing hitter as he is to strike him out. It shouldn’t take a Bill James or Voros McCracken to see why this is troublesome.
So how does someone with a 5.23 FIP post an ERA a run-and-a-half lower? The answer lies in his Batting Average on Balls in Play.
If you’ve never heard of BABIP (also known as “hit rate,”) it’s exactly what it sounds like: the measure of how often opposing batters reach base when the ball is hit somewhere within the confines of the baseball diamond. It’s calculated the same way as a pitcher’s batting average-against, but doesn’t include at-bats ending in strikeouts, walks, or home runs.
The league average hit rate is right around .300. Individuals’ results can vary from season to season (based mostly on luck), but over the course of pitchers’ careers, their BABIP usually ends up right around the mean.
Talbot’s current BABIP is .235. In other words, opposing hitters have been roughly 21 percent less likely to have their batted balls land for hits against Talbot than against other pitchers.
Now, I think there’s merit to the argument that some pitchers have low hit rates because they are good at inducing weak contact. But no one is this good.
This kind of luck isn’t unprecedented, but it’s been eight years since any pitcher was able to sustain this kind of luck over a full season. In 2002, Braves southpaw Damian Moss overcame his poor peripherals (5.6 K/9, 4.5 BB/9) and found success (12-6, 3.42 ERA) thanks to a .234 BABIP.
Moss isn’t someone you’d be proud to be compared to. In 2003, when his hit rate increased to a still-lucky .292 (so much for having the skill to induce weak contact), his ERA ballooned to a nauseating 5.16.
By May 2004—just 19 months after his superficial statistics made him look like an ace—he was out of the majors for good.
Where he’d go
If he’s got my fellow Tribe fans—who watch him play on a regular basis—fooled, there’s a decent chance another franchise might be similarly gullible. Really, any team that doesn’t look too closely at the numbers would love to have him (of course, if a high school student can figure this out, I would hope the average GM would, too).
The first team that comes to mind at the words “statistically challenged” is the New York Mets. After all, these are the people whose scouts said they think Jason Bay is a better fielder than Matt Holliday.
As mentioned last week , the Mets’ pitching staff is a mess beyond a slowly declining Johan Santana and Mike Pelfrey. They’d love a solid arm to help the back of their rotation, and the spacious confines of Citi Field would help cushion Talbot’s inevitable fall.
You can’t have a discussion of poor front office management without mentioning the Kansas City Royals. What else can you say about a terrible small-market team that’s spending $25 million on Jose Guillen and Gil Meche?
Talbot’s success so far would be the kind of thing Royals fans could get excited about. And it would take a special kind of stupid if the front office can’t put together a single contending club by the time Talbot’s contract expires in 2015.
The Reds are oozing with young talent, but so far their promising pitchers haven’t realized their potentials. In order for the team to remain in the playoff hunt, they’ll have to shore up their staff; even when he comes down to earth, Talbot could be an improvement, and his groundball tendencies (49 percent GB rate) would be extra valuable in the bandbox that is Great American Ballpark.
What do you think? Should we trade Talbot? Where would he go, and who would we get in return?
More Trading Posts
May 13: Austin Kearns
May 20: Jake Westbrook