In sports, the term ‘anchoring’ refers to when fans develop an opinion based off of a specific series of events and hold steadfastly to that opinion regardless of what subsequently transpires. Most of the time anchoring occurs at the start of a season, when a hot or cold stretch can mislead fans into under- or overvaluing certain players. When preformed opinions join anchoring at the bar, lazy narratives are often born. Jimmy Rollins is another perfect example of why anchoring to early season struggles, especially when it supposedly helps confirm a preconceived notion, is folly in the world of analysis.
Yes, Rollins started off slowly. He posted a terrible .259 wOBA in April, with a poor .283 on-base percentage that was actually higher than his even worse .271 slugging percentage. His defense remained solid, but he looked mostly lost throughout his first 85 trips to the dish. Since he hasn’t exactly been an offensive juggernaut recently, and because he is past his prime, it became very easy to assume that Rollins was done; that he was washed up; that his new contract was a joke, because the Phillies were paying $11 million per season to the shortstop formerly known as Jimmy Rollins.
Though many would readily admit that, under most circumstances, 85 plate appearances is far too small a sample off of which to base definitive conclusions, the mixture of anchoring to his early struggles and the preexisting belief — or fear — that he is rapidly declining, led to unnecessary widespread panic.
But then something funny happened — Rollins started hitting again. He posted a .289 wOBA in May, which, while still very poor, was an improvement. And he followed that up with a .396 wOBA in June. It may have taken him a while to get going, but Rollins has been tearing the cover off of the ball recently, and his seasonal line is right where we would expect it, even after a very poor two months to start the season.
Even before he started proving that he still has offensive talent in the tank, it would have been foolish to consider trading Rollins. Now that he has once again proven himself capable of hitting at a relatively high level, while flashing all-sport defense at the most important infield position, the Phillies shouldn’t even think twice about trading him.
First, it’s important to remember that offense is down across the league, and that the appropriate context is tantamount to properly evaluating a player. Rollins’ seasonal .258/.314/.417 line looks low relative to the league from, say, 2002-06, but we’re in a different offensive environment right now. Back in 2006, the National League hit .265/.334/.427. In that context, Rollins’ current numbers are below average. But the offensive environment has dropped off precipitously over the last few years. Overall, the National League has a .253/.318/.400 line this year, and a .312 wOBA. Rollins has a .319 wOBA. He is an above average hitter right now, even after hitting so poorly in April and May.
And that evaluation is made relative to the league as a whole, whereas Rollins plays a premium defensive position that isn’t exactly known for offense. The average senior circuit shortstop has a .254/.307/.374 line this season and a .298 wOBA. At .258/.314/.417, and a .319 wOBA, Rollins is well above average relative to his position. He has the third-highest wOBA for a qualified National League shortstop — trailing Ian Desmond and Jed Lowrie — so not only is he an above average hitter, he is one of the best-hitting shortstops in the league.
Add to that his fine glovework, which ranks fourth among the qualifying hitters, and his baserunning, which far and away leads other NL shortstops — Rollins has a +2.7 baserunning mark per Fangraphs, and second place is Rafael Furcal at +1.8 — and Rollins has already tallied 2.6 WAR this season. It might not seem like he is having a very good season, but he is once again on pace to finish with around 4 WAR. The ZIPS projection system sees him finishing the season with a .321 wOBA, 15 home runs and 25 stolen bases, to go along with +5 fielding and top-notch baserunning.
Getting around 4 WAR for $11 million is a veritable bargain, so while it makes sense to overpay for a premium position like shortstop if it means retaining an all-star caliber player, my money is on the Phillies getting surplus value out of this deal when all is said and done. All of which is a roundabout way of saying that Rollins is too important a piece to trade.
Not only would trading him require the Phillies to find his replacement, but it would mean that a franchise-type player would be dealt in the first year of what is ostensibly a four-year, $44 million contract — it’s a three-year deal, but that fourth-year option is vesting. If this were the last year of the deal, or if Rollins had 1.5 years left, I could understand the thought process behind moving him.
But now? Even if they could get fair value in a prospect package, his current level of productivity would greatly hinder the Phillies chances of contending next season. And while it’s strange to discuss a last place team contending next year, if everyone is healthy is there really any reason to think the Phillies couldn’t vie for a playoff berth in 2013? They certainly couldn’t without Rollins, though, unless an equally productive player is brought in. At that point, the Phils would have to trade a prospect package, which would render the return on Rollins moot.
There is also the major issue that the most interested team — the Dodgers — doesn’t have what the Phillies truly need. When discussing potential Cole Hamels deals with Mike Petriello of Mike Scioscia’s Tragic Illness, the point was raised that the areas the Phillies farm system most desperately needs are areas of weakness for the Dodgers. While it’s common to toss around ‘prospects’ as a blanket generalization of how a trade could work, this is an example where the Phillies wouldn’t really get what they needed out of a deal. They aren’t getting a third baseman from the Dodgers, and they really don’t need more minor league pitching prospects, at least not through a trade of one of their top players.
A lot goes into properly evaluating a player, and Rollins is a perfect example of those analytic facets. Not letting preformed opinions fuel a current evaluation is key, as is incorporating the appropriate context. It might not seem like Rollins is having a very good season, but he is in every sense of the description. Offense is down, but his is up relative to the league, and way up relative to the position. He plays fantastic defense at the toughest position and runs the bases extremely well.
That’s worth far more than $11 million per season, and there is absolutely no reason to trade him. Unlike some other Phillies mentioned in recent rumors, Rollins is not replaceable because his production literally cannot be replaced without coughing up more value than the Phils would get in a trade sending him elsewhere. The Phillies figure to be very active over the next week or two, but trading Rollins shouldn’t even cross their minds.