Evaluating the Gorzelanny Trade

Posted by Dave Nichols | Tuesday, January 18, 2011 | , , , | 8 comments »

Yesterday, the Washington Nationals traded three minor league players to the Chicago Cubs for Tom Gorzelanny, a 28-year old left-handed pitcher.  For the last two seasons, Gorzelanny has been shuttled between the starting rotation and the bullpen by the Cubs.  The pitching-starved Pittsburgh Pirates, where he was a former second round draft pick and had his best season in 2007 going 14-10 with a 3.88 ERA in 32 starts, sent him to the minors before trading him to the Cubs.

He hasn't come close to matching the performance of his breakout year over a full season since.

Last year, Gorzy made 29 appearances, 23 as a starter.  He was relegated to the pen in June after nine starts, going 2-5 while racking up a 3.66 ERA over 51.2 IP.  He walked 20 and struck out 53 in those nine starts.  He regained a starting job at the end of June and fared much worse than his earlier stint, going 5-4, but with an ERA of 4.60, with 42 BBs and 59 Ks in 78.1 IPs.

It's amazing how much some Major League player evaluators still look at won-loss record.  Gorzy lost his job with a 2-5 record early on despite pitching pretty well, but stayed in the rotation later in the season because his team was winning games behind him despite his crummy pitching.

This is the enigma that Tom Gorzelanny is.

In his six-year career, he has walked 4.1 per nine innings.  That's lousy.  His inability to throw strikes has kept him from becoming the "dependable" starter he's going to be billed as coming to the Nationals.  He's anything but.

Here's the weird thing:  his strikeout rate has widely fluctuated throughout his career.  Here are his K rates since 2006: 5.8, 6.0, 5.7, 9.0, 7.9.  It works out to a career average of 6.6.  Not great, but not Lannan-esque.

So which pitcher is he?  The nine per nine, or the six per nine?  It makes a big difference, since he walks so many.

In 2009 and 2010 -- the two years he posted his best K rates -- he spent a lot of time in the bullpen.  But I was surprised about his K rate breakdown though.  In 2009, his K rate was higher as as starter (10.2) than as a reliever (6.5).  In 2010, it wasn't that pronounced (7.8 as starter, 9.9 as reliever).

So if his K rate is actually getting better as it seems to be, why is he still posting such atrocious ERAs?  Since his breakout year of 2007, his ERAs have been 6.66, 5.55 and 4.09.  Those numbers are trending down as his K rate has increased, but the bottom line is he walks too many and gives up too many hits.  It's not a difficult formula.

Dave Cameron of Fangraphs.com published on this very subject yesterday, in his article "What Is Tom Gorzelanny?".  He's as confused as anyone else. 

In total, we have a guy who has had good ERAs with bad peripherals and bad ERAs with good peripherals, and in the only year that his process and results lined up, he was one of the worst pitchers in baseball. Despite good minor league results, his stuff is just alright, and he’s not the kind of pitcher who looks to have significant untapped upside. With his repertoire, throwing strikes should be a key, except he got his career back on track in a season where his walk rate was 113th out of 115 major league pitchers who threw at least 130 innings.
Great.

If you look at his ratios, they are all in line with MLB averages, except for the walks.  This seems to be the case of Nats GM Mike Rizzo thinking he can fix this player, reducing his walks and turning him into a solid, middle of the rotation pitcher.  Two teams have failed at it so far.

The prospects that the Nats sent away aren't really the big problem with this trade.  My point, which I took a bit of debate on yesterday when discussing the deal on twitter and other message boards, was that this player isn't really the type of player to be trading any assets away for. 

The Cubs traded for Matt Garza, another object of Rizzo's affection, making Gorzy expendable.  It's evident Cubs GM Jim Hendry didn't even want Gorzy in his bullpen, doing the player a "solid" by trading him to a team that will keep him as a starter, the players preferred role.

It's entirely possible Gorzelanny might even have been waived during spring training.

Trading young players for old is a strategy that contending teams can employ to shore up holes where necessary in order to compete.  The only thing the Nationals will compete for this season is avoiding last place and 100 losses again, and while Tom Gorzelanny MIGHT help them accomplish that, it's hard to envision any other benefit.

Tom Gorzelanny is not a key part of a rotation of a contending team, he's a modern day swingman.  But he'll be billed as a veteran, dependable starter in his press conference.

The good thing is he's not expensive.  He's still arbitration-eligible, but with last year's base salary of $800,000, he'll only be due a modest raise even if it goes to a hearing.

The biggest loser in all this:  Ross Detwiler.  Trading for a veteran left-handed starter, to go along with incumbant John Lannan, will make his job of cracking the rotation next to impossible.

The other thing that NatsTown should take away from this: Stop Overvaluing Nats Prospects. The critics of this trade are dwelling on the wrong things.  Burgess, Morris and Hicks are all flawed prospects.  Burgess has too big of a swing, Morris' fastball is too flat, and Hicks hasn't grown into his frame (yet, he's only 20).

None are can't miss prospects.  Burgess and Morris were just barely in the Nats' Top 20 prospects by Baseball America, and Hicks didn't even make the list.

But Burgess has been billed by the organization as a "building block" since he was drafted (even mentioned by name in the infamous "Letter to the Fans of the Washington Nationals" after the firing of former manager Manny Acta in July of 2009).  And Morris and Hicks were both touted Rizzo draft picks.

I suppose when all the news about these players is coming from Nationals management, fans can't help but get excited about the younger players.  But you have to look past the press releases and read some independent analysis before making judgments about player value.

Michael Burgess lunges at an outside pitch last July as a member of the Potomac Nationals. (C.Nichols/Nats News Network)

8 comments

  1. jcj5y // January 18, 2011 at 12:50 PM  

    So it sounds like you have two complaints about the trade.

    First, on the merits, you wouldn't trade anyone for a pitcher like Gorzelanny. I understand where you're coming from (why not just see if the Cubs cut him, or maybe take a flyer on Bonderman?). But I guess that doesn't fully persuade me. As you point out, Burgess and Morris aren't sure things. I'd say there's a good chance that neither one of them will ever set foot on a major league field. So even if the most Gorzelanny ever does is help the Nats avoid 100 losses by contributing more than Detwiler would have, that's a net gain in my book.

    Second, you complain that the Nats are likely to spin this trade as the aquisition of a veteran, stablizing presence, etc. And I agree that will be annoying. The fact is that this is a minor move likely to have small benefits with a small risk. The people who follow the team know that. I can't blame the PR department too much for trying to sell the move. The fact that Burgess didn't develop into what was projected when he was drafted is a lot more annoying to me.

  2. Dave Nichols // January 18, 2011 at 12:58 PM  

    thanks for the comment. yup, I'm not high on Gorzelanny. he's just not that good, and while he might (emphasis on might) be a better option that what the Nats have on staff right now, it's no where near a sure thing. and that's how it's already being portrayed.

  3. Anonymous // January 18, 2011 at 3:57 PM  

    I have watched Burgess since his arrival at spring training and I think he has a lot of potential but who am I to judge?

  4. Chris G // January 18, 2011 at 8:36 PM  

    When I read your piece the first name that popped into my head was Jaime Moyer. So, I stumbled over to baseball-reference and lo and behold he's the #2 comp for Gorz through age 27. I know one member of the Nats Network family who would be excited!

    That said, I tend to agree. The Nats don't need to trade old for young or upside for no upside. It does seem they could have found a similar pitcher in AAA or still in free agency.

    Oddly enough, Burgess is rated in the top 10 in a number of publications (though not in Baseball America). He's #14 in the Carolina League rankings from BA, #20 by MiLB for Carolina League for whatever that's worth.

    He's the classic innings eater - maybe Rizzo wanted to protect that younger guys and *had* to have Gorzy to do that. He is left handed you know!

  5. Dave Nichols // January 19, 2011 at 12:15 AM  

    Chris, thanks for the comment. Yes, I've seen the Moyer comps. I'm trying to hide them from a certain somebody!

    Burgess just isn't a Rizzo guy: he's stocky, not a great defender despite a good arm, and doesn't run all that well. Not surprising he found a ticket out of here.

  6. Will Hatheway // January 19, 2011 at 3:59 PM  

    I responded to the article on the website (federal baseball) where I found the link to it by quickly writing:

    "The Gorzelanny trade won’t make much of a difference in the standings in 2011 and that might be all that matters in judging the trade. —Dave Nichols at natsnewsnetwork.com
    This is the sort of idea I’ve been taking a stand on here, but this is one case where I can see a positive spin in that Gorz is under control through 2013, when I think it’s reasonable to imagine the Nat’s can be competitive. He acts as though he is a one-and-done, which isn’t the case at all."

    David correctly pointed out that any such discussion should be done on his site, so I will copy it all into this post:

    Dave wrote: "Those sentiments attributed to me above don't accurately reflect what I said in my article. What I said was: Gorzelanny MIGHT help the Nats out in 2011, but I don’t think he’s the type of player teams should trade assets for. Also: he’s neither “proven” nor "dependable’, contrary to some other evaluations.

    I never said anything about his contribution to the team (positive or negative) past 2011. I am very hopeful the Nats have better options at starting pitcher to consider after this season, but I never even said as much as that that in my article.

    Please, read my article and don’t rely on a one-sentence synopsis that may or may not reflect what I actually said.

    I give Mr. Huzzard credit for compiling all these links on a daily basis, and truly appreciate the effort and my inclusion, so this isn’t a slight to him. And I’m sure reading all these links sometimes he might gloss over something. His lead-in above in this particular instance might be his interpretation of what I said, but if you actually read the article I think you’ll see my larger point better illustrated.

    Thanks."

    (to be continued)

  7. Will Hatheway // January 19, 2011 at 4:01 PM  

    I responded: "I DID read your entire post It is unfortunate that you assume someone was misled by a compiler’s summation, as opposed to having a difference of opinion regarding the whole. This is not because David screwed up, but because I believe your piece as a totality is misguided. If you take things so personally, perhaps you shouldn’t post them.

    But since you want me to work from the totality of your work, I’m afraid I’m going to have to really question a completely shaky argument you make about Gorz. being so poor a SP. You write:

    this player isn’t really the type of player to be trading any assets away for.
    I warn my students not to use absolutes, and I think you’d do well to do the same, at least in this case: he was good in ‘07, his overuse that year in respect to his previous workloads and the injury the resulted from which can help explain ’08, in ’09 he had a 3.91 FIP (you shouldn’t bash people for using wins if you use ERA), and so this year’s 4.09 ERA, with an attendent FIP of 3.92, is hardly a surprise.

    What is more, this suggests that he is now the Nat’s number three, and that he will have a good chance of ably being so in ’012 and ’13 … that you

    never said anything about his contribution to the team (positive or negative) past 2011
    is another failing of your piece, seeing as how you suggest he has absolutely no value whatsoever … which you very clearly stated. Neglecting the two additional years of team control while claiming that he is worth no single player, no matter how pathetic, is a rather sad way to go about an analysis.

    And there is reason to believe that he can improve. As a starter this past year, he did benefit from the 20th best HR/FB% (of 119 w/ 120+ IP), but more importantly had the 103rd worst BABIP, 78th worst LOB%, and 97th worst LD%. While I hold that pitchers do bear some responsibility for those metrics, this is extreme.

    Another thing:

    The biggest loser in all this: Ross Detwiler. Trading for a veteran left-handed starter, to go along with incumbant John Lannan, will make his job of cracking the rotation next to impossible.
    Why in the world does this random item matter? Or, I hope it is just random, becuase otherwise you’d be suggesting that Detwiler is a better bet to be the better pitcher, which is, em, curious. He is an injury risk, he has a career 4.74 ERA, and to think that he’ll get 4.25 again when throwing 5.16 K/9 and 4.25 BB/9 (the latter of which you blasted Gorz. for) is beyond me.

    Oh, and you repeated that “he has no value for the Nat’s” as though this is the only year that counts in terms of what they got in the trade, so saying

    that it’s hard to envision any other benefit.
    makes me worried that you mean yourself when you suggest that fans hav
    e to look past the press releases and read some independent analysis before making judgments about player value.

    Cheers."

    (to be continued...)

  8. The Herndon Kid // January 19, 2011 at 9:58 PM  

    I think adding depth to the starting pitching is always a good thing, especially when it costs marginal prospects. While they aren't competing for the division in 2011, they are competing to keep people interested, and showing overall improvement is key for that. Burgess wasn't going to help the Nats win 75.