This is a guest post from John W., who won our Super Bowl Sunday Trivia contest.
One of the best baseball books I have recently been reading is Rob Neyer’s The Big Book of Baseball Blunders. It discusses the stories behind some of baseball’s most famous blunders, real (Washington leaving Walter Johnson in to lose the 1925 World Series) and imagined (Pete Gray costing St. Louis the 1945 pennant, which did not happen). In the book, a blunder is not simply a decision that turned out badly; it also has to have been very questionable from the moment it happened.
The Yankees losing Game 4 of the 2003 World Series on an Alex Gonzalez walkoff home run was not a blunder by itself. The blunder was Joe Torre refusing to use Mariano because it wasn’t a save situation, instead pitching Jeff Weaver. The Nolan Ryan and Jay Buhner trades were not blunders, while the Amos Otis and Fred McGriff deals were.
The aforementioned 2003 blunder is the last one covered in the book, which was published in 2006. The major omission at the time was Scott Kazmir for Victor Zambrano, which was noted in a few chats. I can’t find the exact quote Neyer used in response, which kills me, but he noted that the trade would only be a major blunder if the Mets lost a division title by a game or two. How eerily prescient.
Let’s flash back to July 30, 2004. The Mets are currently 49-53, 7 games behind Atlanta in the NL East, and 7.5 games back of San Diego in the wild card standings. This is not a buying team by any means. While the team’s ERA+ is a respectable 105, their OPS+ is 87. Yet interim GM Jim Duquette makes two trades for Kris Benson and Zambrano.
(On an historical note, the Mets gave up Jose Bautista in the Benson deal. But Bautista was on his 5th team that season, and had just been acquired that day from Kansas City for Justin Huber. And Pittsburgh had actually lost him to Baltimore in the Rule 5 deal. It took 5 more seasons for him to break out. Not a blunder.
The Benson deal was essentially a wash for both teams; while Benson and Jeff Keppinger only posted a 0.1 WAR combined for the Mets, Bautista and Ty Wigginton managed -1.7 WAR combined for Pittsburgh. The third player the Mets traded, Matt Peterson, is still active in the Florida organization, but has yet to make the majors.
Two other pitchers were also involved in the Zambrano deal. But the other pitcher the Mets received, Bartolome Fortunato, would only pitch 21.2 innings for the team, and Jose Diaz, the other Met pitcher traded, would surface in the ML with Kansas City in 2006. Both are now pitching in the Mexican leagues.)
There was no reason for the Mets to make the Zambrano deal. Yes, to the traditionalists Zambrano wasn’t a bad pitcher; it was thought that he was the ace of a bad team that would thrive with a contender. (Pitching coach Rick Peterson claimed that he could fix everything wrong with Zambrano in 10 minutes, and that Kazmir was at least 3 years away from being major league ready.) His ERA of 4.47, while not great, could be explained as pitching in the toughest division in the AL, and his SO/9 of 7.0 was above average.
But using better stats would disprove this. His walk rate per 9 was 5.4, over 2 higher than league average. Only Nolan Ryan could get away with walking so many batters, and he’s laughably overrated anyway. Zambrano didn’t strike out nearly enough guys to compensate, as exhibited by his 1.29 SO/BB rate. His WHIP was 1.49, also below average. And even using traditional stats, in 2004 he led the AL in walks, hit batsmen, and wild pitches. And remember that he only played 4 out of 6 months in the AL.
Bottom line – not a pitcher worth a highly-touted prospect. Even given TINSTAPP. Another question asked of Neyer was why he did not include Detroit’s 1987 trade of John Smoltz for Doyle Alexander. By every conceivable stat, the Tigers lost that deal. But without Alexander, the team would not have made the playoffs in 1987. Fans forget how good Alexander was, even at age 36; in the five prior seasons he posted a 118 ERA+ and a 1.22 WHIP. And Smoltz, while only 20 and in AA, had a 1.63 WHIP and walked close to 6 batters a game. It was only the next year in AAA that he broke out.
A good GM, at the time, would make that deal in a heartbeat. But Zambrano wasn’t nearly as good as Alexander, and Kazmir wasn’t nearly as bad as Smoltz in the minors. Kazmir was also 20 and in AA, and in 4 starts had a sub-1 WHIP. Even discounting the small sample size, in A+ he had a 1.42 WHIP. While not great, he was striking out over 9 batters per 9, and his SO/BB was above 2 the whole season.
The trade would immediately backfire in a matter of weeks, as Kazmir would debut for Tampa Bay on August 23. (He pitched 5 scoreless innings and picked up the W.) Zambrano would only start 3 games for the Mets that season as the team quickly folded to finish 71-91, 25 games behind Atlanta. Duquette was fired at season’s end, to be replaced by Omar Minaya.
In 2005 the Mets finished 6 games out of the wild card. Kazmir posted a 3.7 WAR to Zambrano’s 0.6. 3 games alone wouldn’t have made up the difference between them and Houston. But having Jose Reyes lead off nearly every game with a .300 OBP, playing Miguel Cairo (-0.3 WAR) more than Kaz Matsui (0.5), and giving Kaz Ishii 16 starts to the tune of a -0.9 WAR (Jae Seo had a 2.4 in fewer innings pitched) didn’t help either.
Where this gets serious is in 2006. Kazmir made the All-Star team and, in the AL East, had a 4.4 WAR. Zambrano tore a tendon in his elbow, but in 21.1 innings had a -0.4 WAR. The Mets made the NLCS, but lost to St. Louis in 7. A playoff series is a crapshoot, but if Kazmir were a Met they would have had a much better shot of winning.
Every Met fan will remember 2007’s Collapse and 2008’s Collapse II. Neither would have happened with Kazmir. (Zambrano would pitch for Toronto and Baltimore in 2007, and has not appeared in an ML game since.)
2007: Mike Pelfrey and Jorge Sosa make 28 starts and combine for a -0.3 WAR. Kazmir has his best season ever to the tune of a 5.8. Six extra wins, and the Mets clinch early in September instead of blowing a 7 game lead.
2008: Pedro Martinez only produces a 0.5 WAR in 20 starts, and spot starter Nelson Figueroa subtracts 0.1. Kazmir has a weaker season than the previous 3, but still gets a 3.5. Three more wins avert the second collapse.
Yes, right now Kazmir sucks hard. Over the last 2 seasons he has posted a combined -0.1 WAR for Tampa Bay and Anaheim. And he’s no longer cheap. Last year he made around $8 million, and he was worth $-3 million.
But for the four years he was both cheap and a (Devil) Ray, he was worth $59.5 million. And the Mets would have made a hell of a lot more real money in the playoffs with him. Their window of opportunity was only open for a few seasons, and with the current situation it’s unlikely the Mets will be contenders in the near future. When Rob Neyer updates his book, the first addition should be Kazmir-for-Zambrano.