Monday, March 7, 2011

Giants trade Catfish Hunter for A.J. Pierzynski

Don’t let the title throw you. Stick around until the end and you’ll see why.


My better half is a psychologist, so it shouldn’t be any surprise that I subscribe to the philosophy that one must confront that which he wishes to let go. So here goes:

In December 2003, the Giants acquired arbitration eligible catcher A.J. Pierzynski in exchange for right-handed pitcher Joe Nathan and two minor leaguers. At the time, Giants GM Brian Sabean said: “It’s not often you can send a right-handed reliever and two unproven prospects for a front-line, All-Star catcher.”

Pierzynski, the genial and non-abrasive type he is, said: “It’s outside, so that’ll be nice… Playing in the Metrodome all these years gets kind of old and kind of stale.”

Pierzynski would manage to get old and stale in San Francisco in just one season.

The Get

The Giants were in a win-now mode and, when Benito Santiago filed for free agency after the 2003 season, they needed to fill their catching vacancy.

At the time of the trade, Pierzynski was coming off of one of his best seasons as a professional. According to FanGraphs, he had a .350 weight on-base average (wOBA) and finished with 3.6 wins above replacement (WAR). The year prior, he also played well with a .334 wOBA and was worth 2.6 wins.

What they were getting was a catcher who should hit around .300 if he maintained his batting average on balls in play (BABiP), and he needed to. He’d had more than 400 plate appearances in the three seasons prior with BABiPs of .322, .335 and .331, the last resulting in a career-high average of .312. Pierzynski almost never walked and rarely struck out. He also didn’t have much power.

It also may be worth mentioning that, despite what the Twins said at the time, they were very much motivated to move Pierzynski to make room for a catcher with some promise named Joe Mauer.

The Package

The key for the Twins when the trade was made was always Nathan. He was a couple years removed from arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder and broke out in 78 appearances (79 innings) for the Giants in 2003. He struck out an excellent number of batters (9.46 per nine) and walked 3.76 per nine. He gave up seven home runs (0.80 per nine). This was all good for 1.1 WAR and a 2.96 ERA with a 3.45 FIP (fielding-independent pitching). He had the look of a future closer with a 93 mile-per-hour fastball and excellent slider.

As it turned out, those minor leaguers weren’t throw-ins either.

One was Boof Bonser, a first-round pick (21 overall) for the Giants in the 2000 draft. He’d been striking out a ton of batters in the lower minors at a young age, but his strikeout numbers were eroding while going up the ladder, which isn’t all that unusual. Baseball is hard. What’s more, he walked way too many batters. In the winter of 2003, he was coming off of 158 pretty unremarkable innings in Double- and Triple-A with 7.5 strikeouts per nine to go with 4.3 walks per nine. His season ERA had been 3.87.

The other was a Class-A starter by the name of Francisco Liriano. Ring a bell? It should. An international free agent signing in 2000 for the Giants, he had lots of promise. In 2002, he’d thrown 80 innings with a 3.49 ERA and struck out 9.6 batters per nine with 3.5 walks per nine. But he’d only thrown nine total innings in 2003 due to shoulder injuries. Before the season began, he was rated the 83rd best prospect in baseball by Baseball America.

The Steal

Boof would eventually make his way to Minnesota and eat up some innings, giving the Twins 4.1 WAR from 2006-2008 at league minimum salaries.

Liriano would put his prospect status back on the map in 2004 in the Twins’ organization with 156 innings, a 3.79 ERA and 10.0 strikeouts per nine with 3.4 walks per nine (2.90 ratio) between Single- and Double-A at the age of 20. In 2005, he’d pitch even more brilliantly and whiff more batters (204) than any pitcher in the minors. That would earn him a September promotion. By the time the 2006 season was approaching, he was the 6th best prospect in baseball according to Baseball America.

His 2005 promotion to the majors was a little rough in terms of ERA – four home runs in 23.2 innings will do that to you – but he immediately exhibited the promise that got him there by missing bats to the tune of 12.55 per nine with just 2.66 walks per nine (4.71 ratio). It was worth 0.6 wins according to FanGraphs.

In 2006, he was ridiculous. He pitched 121 innings and racked up 4.1 WAR with a 2.16 ERA and 2.55 FIP. He was the second coming of another talented lefty from Minnesota, Johan Santana.

Unfortunately, he would experience pain in his elbow late that year which would eventually culminate in Tommy John surgery, wiping out his entire 2007 season. But he’d come back in 2008 and pitch pretty well wit ha 3.91 ERA in 76 innings, worth 1.5 WAR. In 2009, he struggled mightily while posting a 5.80 ERA. That said, FanGraphs had the performance worth 1.1 WAR over 136.2 innings.

And in 2010 his return to greatness finally arrived. He threw 191.2 innings and was a down-ballot Cy Young candidate. He was worth 6.0 WAR with a 3.62 ERA and 2.66 FIP. And, perhaps most encouraging, he was again striking out more than a batter per inning with a rate of 9.44 per nine to go with just 2.72 walks per nine (ratio 3.47). It was that killer strikeout to walk ratio to go with buckets of missed bats, after all, that was his calling card in the minors.

To date, he’s given the Twins 13.3 WAR with a very strong possibility that his best is yet to come.

Given just the value of Liriano and Bonser, so far, it’s already clear the Twins cleaned up on this deal. But the key to the deal all along was Joe Nathan.

Nathan would show up in Minnesota, earn the closers job, and never relinquish it. He would ultimately save 246 games for the Twins over the next six seasons (2004-2009) before requiring TJ surgery after the 2009 season.

His WARs over that span, in order, are as follows: 3.1, 2.7, 3.1, 2.2, 2.1 and 1.9. In the non-Mariano Rivera category, he was unequivocally the best reliever in baseball.

His ERA over that span was 1.87 with an adjusted ERA (ERA+) of 237 – compliments of Baseball-reference -- a WHIP of .934, 0.6 home runs per nine, 11.1 strikeouts per nine and 2.6 walks per nine for a ratio of 4.32. That ERA+ of 237*, by the way, is a league-adjusted, park-adjusted, era-adjusted metric that quantifies Nathan’s performances as being 137% better than his peers over the span of six seasons. Remarakable.

*Rivera’s ERA+ over the same period was 236, casting doubt on whether Rivera was actually any better than Nathan from 2004-2009. I’ll still give the edge to Rivera who threw about 22 more innings, but if anything, she should give you an idea of how good Nathan was, comparatively.

His consistent and excellent value over that period was worth a whopping 15.1 WAR in total, a truly astounding figure for a relief pitcher. Also, he’s back in 2011 for more. Read Jeff Passan’s piece for details. My favorite portion suggests he might be terrorizing AL hitters again soon:
...there wasn’t any shrapnel. The tear of his ulnar collateral ligament was so clean that surgeon David Altcheck was able to reattach it before adding a new ligament, from his left wrist, to fortify the elbow even more.

He's one hell of a closer. For Giants fans, though, the one that got away, I guess.

The Bust

I mentioned that Pierzynski needed to produce a high average on balls in play to keep his value. He didn’t. Instead, he had a pretty bizarre year.

Perhaps most strange was his 5.7% strikeout rate. It’s almost as if he refused to strike out and opted instead to put soft balls in play, resulting in far more easy outs. At least that’s a theory.

If not, his good luck turned to bad luck. He’d averaged about a .330 BABiP his previous three seasons but the move to San Francisco ended with a .268 BABiP. The end result was a really poor line of .272/.319/.410 for a .314 wOBA. He was worth 1.6 wins.

He also grounded into a league leading 28 double plays. IF you want to get an idea of how many that is, Pablo Sandoval hit into 26 in his rough 2010 in 616 plate appearances. Pierzynski bested him by two in just 510. To put that into context further, Billy Butler hit into an unbelievable 32 double plays in 2010. But Pierzynski was far more prone at one per 18 plate appearances versus Pablo’s 24 and Butler’s 21.

And I’ve said nothing of the general dislike the clubhouse, fans and city had for the man.

After the season, the Giants did not offer him arbitration and let him walk. He signed with the White Sox and won the World Series two seasons later. Ain’t life grand.

If you add it all up, the Twins received 4.1 WAR from Bonser, 13.3 from Liriano, 15.1 from Nathan… and counting. That’s 32.5 wins above replacement. Or, according to the Baseball-reference, HoF-pitcher Catfish Hunter’s entire career.

You win some, you lose some. Some of those losers, well, you just have to let them go. This is one of those.


  1. I for one will never get over
    that trade. I was disturbed
    by it at the time, so much
    because I seriously saw
    Nathan as the next Nen, and
    Sabes just did not want to negotiate
    with Santiago, so he surely just
    showed him, just like he showed Jeff
    Kent by Signing Alfonso. That trade
    snowballed and caused the giants to make many
    bad moves as a latent condequence of that
    one idiotic deal. One of the worst deals
    ever in baseball.

  2. I think it helps some when you have not one, but two aces and thus aren't hurting for one. It also helps to have the dominat closer in Wilson that Nathan is... Though Nathan was even better.

    Maybe this one of those deals, where it helps but you'll never forget. Like 2002 --- even 2010s title won't erase it. Cant.

  3. Nathan's better, but Wilson's more fun!

    Yeah, I mark this up to Sabean's complete hubris.

    Nen ruins his arm in 2002, Giants slot Worrell as closer for 2003, and he does a very good job. Worrell FA's to the Phillies after 2003.

    Now Sabean thinks he can make ANYONE a closer. So even though Nathan's 2003 numbers are superior to Matt Herges, the Giants see Nathan as expendable. (Sabean, first rule: You can NEVER have enough pitching.)

    The Twins must have been elated, because Nathan had closer numbers in 2003. It wasn't hard to project him as their closer in 2004.

    Among other excuses for the trade, Sabean has cited the chance of injury for all three of the pitchers that went to Minnesota. To be fair, they all have had injury problems.

    Pierzynski obviously had a bad year in SF. Can't really predict that. But, man, what really kills me about the trade, is that A.J. was not going to fit into the club with his personality. Honestly, he's kind of a dick. For comparison, see how well Matheny fit in in 2005.

    So on tangible levels, bad trade. But, more than that, Sabean's inability to see the potential chemistry issue is a really weak.

  4. If he had kept Liriano, and of course depending on the injury issue, it potentially could have voided the necessity of a Zito signing. Liriano lately is very similar in stats to Jonathan Sanchez. Liriano may have had better stuff at one time, but injuries have altered his forward path. He has been better and much cheaper than Zito. Of course Zito pitches every time his turn comes, but if only he could miss half his starts, you know the half of his starts that he flat out sux.

  5. Liriano is much better than Sanchez. Go re-check his stats, I think you'll be surprised. The biggest difference is probably the walks. Plus, he's playing in the tougher AL.