In the last five years, I have changed jobs numerous times, but I've only changed companies once. Of course you will only know me by my superhero alter-ego of Justin Hunter: Baseball Writer, but in the real world I have a day job like the rest of you. When I changed job types within the same organization, the transition was generally a smooth one. Sure, I'd meet some new people, but these people were already colleagues. We were all on the same team working toward a common goal, so my shift in functions was simply another means to that common goal. However, when I moved from one company to the next - while performing a similar job to that of my previous company - that's where things got tricky. I was able to complete the requirements of my job, but the learning curve may have been a little more steep. This is likely because of the change in culture, attitude, and the simple fact that I was learning my place within a new team.
Enter the superstars who change teams mid-career. Our own Jeff Wiser wrote about the disappointing season Robinson Cano is having thus far. Cano is a seemingly perfect example of a player who absolutely dominated with his previous team only to move on and struggle. These struggles may be short-lived, but as Jeff pointed out, Cano has enough at-bats this season to start to draw some conclusions. Or does he?
While season projections going forward can be updated for Cano, it's difficult to suggest that this is the new Cano without knowing what's causing his issues in 2014. I'm not proposing a diagnosis here, but I am willing to explore an alternate theory that Josh Hamilton recently mentioned after returning from the disabled list.
Hamilton admits the transition to a new team was difficult. He had spent six seasons with the Texas Rangers and thought he would be a fixture in Arlington for the remainder of his career. He played in the All-Star Game in each of his first five seasons, led the franchise to its first two World Series appearances in 2010 and 2011 and was the American League MVP in 2010. Even though Hamilton hit a career-high 43 homers in 2012, the Rangers' interest in retaining him was tepid and he wound up singing with their AL West rival.
This isn't the first time a player has suggested that transitioning from one team to another was difficult. In fact, Hamilton's Angels teammate Albert Pujols made a similar statement just last week. Pujols has been up and down with the Angels, he's battled injuries, but he has also had more time to adjust to a new team than Hamilton. Yet, he equates, at very least, his early struggles to the same things Hamilton has mentioned.
"Having a year under my belt here helps," Hamilton said. "Not having to come to spring training being the new guy and trying to get to know all the players and coaches and get a feel for the organization --- having that all of that way has made things better. I'm a lot more comfortable now. Just having to worry about doing my work rather than all the other stuff that surrounded it last year."
Cano has made no such statements to my knowledge, but there's a good chance he's thinking it. He's playing in the cavernous Safeco Field after spending his career in the relatively hitter-friendly confines of Yankee Stadium. He's spending half his summer life in the Pacific Northwest, which is about as far a culture shift as you can get from the bright lights of New York City. He's also playing for a team whose culture is not built on success. It's built on potential.
With all this as the backdrop, let's take a look at the changing teams trend for superstars and see if there is some correlating time period between the transition and when they start performing how these new teams expected - assuming these players did actually start performing. For reference, I defined superstars (that term will be used loosely) as players who has accumulated at least 35 fWAR since 2004. From there, I eliminated players who were not traded or did not leave for another team via free agency. The list of superstars who have changed uniforms is as follows:
As you'll quickly realize, some of these players have changed teams multiple times since 2004. For these players, I only factored the trend after the first major trade. That is to say if a player was traded or signed elsewhere before he became well-known, that would not be the "major trade or signing." The big trade or signing is usually pretty easy to spot. The second obvious thing you'll notice is that most of these players have suffered injuries that hindered their career in some way. Finally, two points - 1) Josh Hamilton is not even on this list because he got a late start and hasn't accumulated the WAR totals, and 2) I'm not going to analyze Ichiro Suzuki since he changed teams at the end of his career with the Yankees not truly expecting big results from him. I'll also leave Cano out of the analysis since he's in the midst of his first year with his new club, so in the grand scheme of this overall study, the sample size is too small.
Since I used fWAR to identify the elite players on this list, I will use it to track their performance before and after their trades. Let's start with the pitchers. I calculated each players' fWAR totals for their career, then tracked the their trend line after they moved to a new team. So, to be clear, the first figure used to set the baseline for the trend is the fWAR total for the last season in which the player was with his former team. If a player was traded mid-season, I used that particular season as the baseline for the fWAR trend.
The graph below is representative of these players' fWAR totals at the point of free agency or trade and thereafter. You'll see both the players' production from the point of their change in team forward as well as the trend from that point going forward.
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The main thing that stands out to me is Jake Peavy's trend. After leaving San Diego, after all the injuries, it's hard to picture him as having the only upward trending results after his "major trade." Beyond Peavy, though, the results are pretty much in line with what one might expect. Every other pitcher on this list saw their fWAR totals trend down after their major move. There may have been upticks, but I wanted to track the overall player production after the trade. That's where the trend line comes in handy.
What's that you say? Trends are good for predicting, but not necessarily for telling a tale after it has happened. Well, first I'd say we are predicting - we're predicting what Robinson Cano and Josh Hamilton can expect, as well as any others for whom teams trade for or sign late in their careers. But second, no problem. Let's just look at yearly average fWAR for the time periods before the trade or signing and after.
This actually helps tell the story a little better. As I would have expected, Cliff Lee actually plays out better in this form of data display. He and Dan Haren are the only two with a higher average yearly fWAR after their big trade or signing than before. You'll notice that Peavy, who was the only pitcher with an upward trend when looking at things strictly from a trend line perspective, falls back to earth when looking at his average yearly production.
Now let's move on to the hitters.
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For hitters, there were actually a couple who moved teams and saw an overall upward trend or relatively flat line. Flat and up are good in this sense. Miguel Cabrera has been fantastic since moving from the Marlins to the Tigers. Adrian Beltre and Carlos Beltran have also been strong after their moves.
But again, trend lines aren't everyone's favorite, so let's average the player's production (fWAR) from before the trade and compare it to their production (fWAR) to after the trade.
Only two players saw their average production increase after their move - Miguel Cabrera and Matt Holliday. Keep in mind, though, I am only looking at production from 2004 and forward. That's the constraint I used from my search for elite players, so I wanted to keep that consistent. In addition, both Adrian Beltre and Carlos Beltran only have the 2004 season as their "before" total to go off of because of the constraints I put on this research. That makes their average production prior to their trades look higher than it really was.
Regardless of whether we look at each player's trend or their yearly average production, the story the data tells is one to which owners and GMs should pay attention. Josh Hamilton's suggestion that it's taken him a while to adjust to his new clubhouse is probably true, but that doesn't necessarily mean he will start hitting. The common with most of these player moves is that they are coming when the player has already had quite a few years in the league. Age causes deterioration in production. It's a natural thing. So, the results shouldn't be all that surprising. They should make you think, though.
If the average production and the trend lines all generally point the wrong way after these big deals, Robinson Cano, Josh Hamilton, and others are not likely to bounce back going forward. There may be a blip of true success here and there, but the players they once were are most likely gone.
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All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.