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A deep dive into Daulton Varsho’s value to the Blue Jays moving forward

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Photo credit:© Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
Bob Ritchie
2 months ago
On December 23, 2022, the Toronto Blue Jays traded Gabriel Moreno and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. to the Arizona Diamondbacks for Daulton Varsho. After the 2023 MLB season, the consensus is that Toronto lost the trade. Some MLB observers even declared that the Blue Jays lost the trade badly. I do not share the consensus view.
My view is that many of the criticisms of the Varsho-Moreno-Gurrioel Jr. trade fail to consider the following:
  • Centerfield is a premium position
  • How Varsho’s 2023 fWAR was limited by his deployment in left field
  • Moreno and Varsho had similar seasons
  • Devon White
  • Catcher defence
  • 2024 projections

Centerfield is a Premium Position

Concerning the Moreno transaction, one of the common refrains I read is that it is one thing to trade a top prospect but another to trade a player who plays a premium position. Yes, catcher is a premium position. However, so is centerfield, a position at which Varsho excels.
In 2023, Baseball Savant introduced a new defensive metric, Fielding Run Value (“FRV”). FRV captures “a player’s measurable defensive performance by converting all of Statcast’s individual defensive metrics from different scales onto the same run-based scale, which can then be read as a player being worth X runs above or Y runs below average.”
By converting all the metrics onto the same scale, one can compare two players who play different positions. Accordingly, Table 1 shows that center field is a premium position. If the reader is interested in the gory details of Table 1’s construction, please refer to Appendix I.
The highlights from Table 1 are as follows:
  • In the first four groups, centerfielders generated the highest FRV/1000.
  • Catchers were second in three of these groupings.
  • Overall, centerfielders produced the highest FRV/1000 total and catchers the second-most.
From a defensive perspective, the catcher and centerfield positions are premium roles. Varsho has demonstrated the ability to play centerfield and excel at it defensively. Some MLB observers have overlooked this aspect of the trade.

The Impact of Varsho’s Deployment in Left Field

In their fWAR calculation, FanGraphs makes a positional adjustment to Fielding Runs. The reader can click the link, scroll down and see the noted adjustments.
In 2023, Toronto had the luxury of simultaneously playing two elite centerfield defenders—Varsho in left and Kevin Kiermaier in center. However, Toronto’s deployment of Varsho in left field negatively affected his 2023 fWAR. Table 2 has the details.
The relevant scenarios for this section are A, B and C.
  • Scenario A shows the numbers that produced Varsho’s 2.1 fWAR.
  • Suppose Varsho generated the same 2023 Fielding Runs (12.6), but all occurred in centerfield (1,280 innings). The resultant 2.7 fWAR is depicted in Scenario B.
  • Therefore, the leftfield-fWAR penalty for Varsho was 0.6 (2.7 fWAR less 2.1).
  • Suppose Kiermaier played all of his 981 innings in left field. His fWAR would be 0.6 lower (from 2.2 to 1.6), the same penalty incurred by Varsho.
  • In 2023, Varsho produced better DRS, UZR/150 and OAA marks in centerfield than left field.
  • Accordingly, Scenario C shows Varsho’s fWAR if he produced the same centerfield Fielding Runs in his 1,280 innings as in 462 innings.
  • Under this scenario, Varsho’s fWAR would be 4.3, which would have ranked T-35 among MLB position players.
There are two critical takeaways from this section. First, there was an fWAR penalty for Varsho because Toronto deployed him in left field for 64% of his innings. Second, Varsho excelled in centerfield. Of the 36 players who played at least 400 innings in centerfield, Varsho’s 18 DRS was tied for second-highest with Kiermaier, and his UZR/150 was the highest. Hence, it is reasonable to conclude that if Varsho had been deployed as a full-time centerfielder in 2023, his fWAR would have been much higher than 2.1.

The Similar Seasons of Varsho and Moreno

During and after the 2023 campaign, it was often expressed that the Varsho-Moreno-Gurriel Jr. trade was a disaster for Toronto. The critical 2023 metrics do not support that opinion. Specifically, Varsho had a 2.1 fWAR, and Moreno posted a 1.7.
However, the combined fWAR of Moreno and Gurriel Jr. was 3.8, higher than Varsho’s. On this basis, the transaction has worked out better for the Diamondbacks thus far. However, I would not call a 1.7 fWAR delta a disaster, mainly because Toronto has Varsho under team control for another three seasons. In other words, plenty of time remains to determine if the trade worked out better for one team or the other.
I should note that I did not use bWAR for the comparison above. The reason is that bWAR does not reflect catcher framing, a valuable component of a catcher’s repertoire. In his article, Sabermetrics 101: Understanding the Calculation of WAR, Jack McLeod discussed the shortfall of bWAR for catchers.

Devon White

Yes, Varsho’s 2023 season did not meet expectations. I have noted that his fWAR was negatively affected by Toronto’s decision to deploy him primarily in left field. However, Varsho struggled at the plate last season. His 85 wRC+ was 15 percentage points below the average MLB hitter.
Yet, observers need to realize that an average MLB hitter who is an elite defender in centerfield and runs the bases well is very valuable. Consider Devon White. He patrolled centerfield for the Blue Jays from 1991 to 1995. During that period, White generated a 20.9 fWAR and a 103 wRC+. In 1992, Toronto’s first World Series Championship season, White produced a 5.9 fWAR despite a 93 wRC+. Varsho does not need to hit like Mike Trout to be a top-tier centerfielder.

Catcher Defence

Let’s look at the defensive performances of Danny Jansen, Alejandro Kirk and Moreno. The metrics to consider are Catcher Blocking Runs, Catcher Framing Runs and Catcher Throwing Runs. Those metrics and Fielding Run Value can be found in Table 3.
The highlights are as follows:
  • At the team level, Toronto and Arizona catchers were excellent in 2023, as evidenced by their #6 and #5 rankings in FRV, respectively.
  • Kirk performed well last season. His +8 FRV was tied for the fifth-highest.
  • Given his +6 FRV, a tie for seventh-best, Moreno did not disappoint behind the plate.
  • Concerning Catcher Blocking Runs, both Moreno and Kirk were top-notch.
  • Kirk was superior to Moreno concerning Catcher Framing.
  • Regarding Catcher Throwing Runs, Moreno was MLB’s best, and Kirk was marginally below average.
Overall, the defensive metric scores of Kirk and Moreno were similar but with a slight edge for Kirk. Some people underestimate how good Kirk is defensively.

2024 Projections

Steamer projects a 3.0 fWAR for Varsho and Kirk and a 3.1 for Moreno. All three players are expected to have better campaigns at the plate. Steamer estimates wRC+ marks of 106, 110 and 122 for Varsho, Moreno and Kirk, respectively.
In my opinion, Steamer underestimates Varsho’s 2024 fWAR. Why? Let’s revisit Table 2.
Scenarios D, E and F are my focus. Scenario D shows the details of Steamer’s 2024 fWAR projection for Varsho. Steamer assumed that Varsho would split his time between left field and centerfield as he did in 2023. Furthermore, Varsho will generate the same Fielding Runs in 2024.
However, Scenario E illustrates Varsho’s fWAR if he is Toronto’s starting centerfielder and generates the same centerfield excellence he did in 2023. On this basis, which I do not think unreasonable, his fWAR would be 5.3, which would rank tied for 14th among MLB position players last season.
Suppose Varsho produces the same batting metrics he did in 2023. Accordingly, his 2024 fWAR under Scenario E would be 4.1, which would have been tied for 40th in 2023.
Concerning Steamer’s projected 106 wRC+ for Varsho, the Batting Runs figure is low. For example, Gurriel Jr. posted a 4.2 Batting Runs last season, corresponding to a 106 wRC+. Yet, Steamer used a 1.7 Batting Runs figure in its Varsho projection.
Suppose Varsho posts 3.9 Batting Runs in 2024, which aligns better with a 106 wRC+ than Steamer’s 1.7 figure. Also, I replaced Steamer’s 1.0 Baserunning runs estimate with Varsho’s 2023 2.8 figure. Accordingly, I present Scenario F. Under this scenario, Varsho will record a 5.7 fWAR! Not bad.
The critical takeaway from Scenarios D to F is that if Varsho is Toronto’s starting 2024 centerfielder and produces the same level of defence as he did in 2023, his fWAR will be much better than Steamer’s forecast 3.0.

Summary

The critical matters to note are as follows:
  • Because Varsho has three years of team control remaining, it is premature to declare that the Varsho-Moreno-Gurriel Jr. trade has worked out disastrously for Toronto.
  • Varsho plays centerfield, a premium position, and excels in that role.
  • Toronto’s decision to mainly use Varsho as a left fielder in 2023 hurt his fWAR.
  • By fWAR, Varsho and Moreno had similar results last season.
  • Moreno demonstrated defensive excellence in 2023, as did Kirk.
  • Varsho’s projected 2024 campaign looks much better if he maintains his centerfield excellence and is deployed there full-time.

The Last Word

Key metrics do not support the rush to declare the Varsho-Moreno-Gurriel Jr. transaction a debacle for Toronto. Furthermore, for people to render a final judgement on the trade after one season is premature.
I believe Varsho will meet Toronto’s expectations they had when they acquired him. Also, Moreno will continue to excel defensively as a catcher. Furthermore, Arizona and Toronto will be pleased with the trade if these two expectations are met. Hence, I would make the Varsho-Moreno-Gurriel Jr. trade again.

ARTICLE PRESENTED BY BETANO

 
 

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