Thursday, August 13, 2015

R.A. Dickey's fastball is just fine, thank you very much

FiveThirtyEight posted a thought-provoking article this afternoon applying game theory to FanGraphs' "Pitch Values" data. For the most part, game theory is a very useful way to interpret the Pitch Values data. If a pitcher is getting great results with his curveball and terrible results with his change, he should throw more curveballs, even if that means opposing batters will start to expect more curveballs and do a little better against them.

The 538 article does a specific analysis of R.A. Dickey's numbers, and that's where they go wrong. They assert that Dickey should be throwing a lot more knuckleballs, because his low-80s fastball, admittedly, is pretty darn pathetic. Given that Dickey is already throwing his knuckler for 87% of his pitches, it stands to reason he should reserve the fastball for throwing batting practice only.

What the article fails to grasp, though, is the role of Dickey's fastball in his arsenal. Dickey primarily uses it when he's behind in the count when he really needs a strike. It's not something he uses much on the first pitch. I'm not sure if FanGraphs' pitch values adjusts for this sort of usage; given that Dickey's throwing the fastball on a lot of 3-0, 3-1 counts, it shouldn't be a surprise that he walks a lot of batters with it and rarely gets strikeouts from it.

More importantly, though, the fastball is there to set up the knuckleball. Batters will try to rush their swings to take a cut at the fastball, only to have their timing messed up when the knuckler comes on the next pitch. In this way, Dickey uses the fastball as a waste pitch the same way other pitchers use brushbacks or fastballs at eye level to set up their breaking stuff as strikeout pitches.

So, R.A., don't pay too much attention to the latest from FiveThirtyEight. They've oversimplified the issue. It's perhaps a case of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing, and a classic error of economics that they've made some problematic assumptions in coming to the conclusion they did.

One of the key points of game theory for this sort of situation is that altering your strategy (i.e., altering the percentages of the time you choose different options) will alter your own results as well as influencing the strategy of your opponent. Dickey can't simply throw more knuckleballs without giving up the happy side effects created by the use of his fastball.

Follow Rory Johnston (@rnfjohnston) on twitter: twitter.com/rnfjohnston

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Jim Benning and the Canucks do have a plan: Steve Stamkos

It is a dark time for the Canucks. The team's recent moves have been a serious clearing of the decksoffice. Fan favourites Kevin Bieksa, Eddie Lack, and Zack Kassian have all been sent packing, as has longtime Assistant GM Laurence Gilman. One can find logical reasons for all of those to go; Bieksa's getting old, Lack was crowded out in competition with Miller and Markstrom, and Kassian wasn't turning into the player the team hoped he would. Gilman may not have been seeing eye-to-eye with the new regime; we may never know what happened there.

Say what you want about the sensibility of those moves. I am mostly in agreement with those that would say that the Canucks didn't get as much of a return in trade as one would hope. I think Gilman was a unique asset to the team in terms of his understanding of the cap and the player market in the league; obviously, Benning and Linden didn't agree. Those questions are being analyzed to death elsewhere. I'll spare you another analysis of that.

One comment that I will discuss: Does Benning have a plan? My answer is that yes, he does:

“We’re in a transition period where we’ve got some good young players now in our system,” explained Benning. “When these guys are ready to play we want the room for them to step in and play. With cap room next year we can be more active in the high-end unrestricted market.”
(thanks to Thomas Drance at Sportsnet for the quote)
Benning sure showed his cards there. He's got a vision of how to turn the Canucks into a winning team: clear as much cap space as possible to bring in a superstar to build around. The player he obviously has his sights on is Steven Stamkos, who will be a 26-year-old UFA next summer if Tampa Bay can't lock him up. The Canucks will have cap space to burn next year; Dan Hamhuis, Brandon Prust, and Radim Vrbata will be off the books, creating the option of offering an $11m+ salary to Stamkos, if they wanted to.

It's regularly rumoured that Stamkos wants to come home to the Toronto Maple Leafs (he was born in Markham), but Stamkos has remained tight-lipped about the possibility whenever asked. It certainly makes a lot of sense. It would also make sense that he'd be wary of Toronto, given the way they treated Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf.

It's another question if he would actually be willing to come to Vancouver. The team will be a shell of its former self, still employing the Sedins and Ryan Miller, and with a thin defensive corps. The young forward group offers some promise.

That's Benning's plan. This isn't some stealthy attempt to tank - he's trying to free up jobs so players like Horvat, Virtanen, McCann, Cassels et al can have a shot in the NHL and the team can figure out what it has. 2015-16 may well be an ugly year, but Benning's hope, one would think, is that there's enough talent there to surround a big star player like Stamkos and make it a winning team.

It's not the worst plan. I'm not sure I trust Jim Benning to execute it, given his checkered track record in both trades and contract negotiation, but that's what I think he's up to.

(an edit for clarification: I don't think that Steven Stamkos in a Canucks uniform is a likely result. It's just the only end-game that I can rationalize as an explanation for why Benning has been making the moves he has).

Follow Rory Johnston (@rnfjohnston) on twitter: twitter.com/rnfjohnston

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Ryan Johansen and the Economics of NHL Offer Sheets


Cam (aptly, @offersheet on twitter) raises a good question here. Why aren't offer sheets more common in the NHL?

Botchford's response - 'they always get matched, so what's the point?' is a big factor. It may be that teams don't have the stomachs to go big enough - in effect, you need to offer the player the same money he'd get as a UFA to make it happen.

Another answer that is commonly given is that the draft-pick compensation is a hindrance to offer sheets. I'll tell you right now: it's not. The inclusion of draft picks in the equation is a zero-sum game that may alter the ideal contract price, but not the incentive for a team to put out an offer sheet in the first place.

Let's use Ryan Johansen as an example. No, no one's signed him to an offer sheet yet, though for all we know, teams have called his agent and asked.

Johansen's Market Value

Blue Jackets president John Davidson revealed the team's most recent offers to Johansen, and most of the hockey media agreed that the numbers were pretty darn fair. The offers were:

- $6m over 2 years;
- $32m over 6 years; or
- $46m over 8 years.

Let's do a little reverse-engineering to guess a contract value. Reportedly, Johansen has 4 more years as an RFA; so the last 4 years of the 8-year deal are UFA years. If years 7 and 8 are worth $14m (the difference between the $46m of the 8-year deal and the $32m of the 6-year deal), the Jackets are working off a UFA valuation of $7m. For comparison, Paul Stastny, Alex Semin, Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin are all players currently on UFA contracts with $7m annual averages.

Let's put aside, for a second, whether or not those players are comparably valuable to Ryan Johansen. Maybe they're not far off. But the point is, the offer is such that if Johansen is worth $7m/year on the open market, he'd be worth $56m on an 8 year contract, or $49m on a 7-year deal (which is the longest you can go on an offer sheet).

Back to RFA-land for a second. If the UFA years are worth $7m each, based on the $46m/8 offer, that leaves $18m for the first 4 years. If years 1-2 are worth $3m each (based on the bridge contract), years 3-4 (arbitration years) are worth $6m each. If the Jackets offered Johansen a 7-year deal, they'd be offering him $39m/7 ($46/8 minus $7/1)

Adjusting for Draft Pick value

So if Johansen would get $49m/7 as a UFA (again, let's assume), we have to deduct a bit from that price for the draft pick compensation. The draft pick compensation depends on the AAV of the offer sheet; in 2013-14, a $7m AAV would call for compensation of two 1st-rounders, a second and a third. However, because we're going to deduct a little from the price to reflect the cost to the buying team, we're going to slip down one bracket to compensation of a 1st, a 2nd and a 3rd.

We don't know the dollar value of those draft picks; there are a lot of variables, including where in the round they are, who the team might get, and so on. But for sake of argument, I'm going to pull a number out of the air and say that the three picks are worth $5m total. Again, let's assume. Play along with me.

So now we're looking at a $44m/7 market price for Johansen, after the value of the picks is removed. Mind you, the total cost to the signing team is $49m when you include the lost draft picks. Note that this valuation is considerably higher than the $39m/7 valuation represented by CBJ's offers. The decision the signing team faces is:

Door #1: Give Johansen an offer sheet, and if it's accepted, he's worth $49m over 7 years. Pay $44m and lose $5m worth of draft pick assets. Net gain: zero.

Door #2: Don't make an offer. Net gain: zero.

If Johansen signs the $44m offer sheet, Columbus has a decision to make:

Door #1: Let Johansen go. Pick up draft picks worth $5m. Net gain: $5m.
Door #2: Match the offer sheet at $44m/7. Keep Johansen, who is worth $49m over the contract. Net gain: $5m.

As you can see, in both situations, Columbus would just as happily let Johansen go as they would keep him. The net value to them is the same either way.

Now let's mix it up a little. As we saw above, the signing team isn't realizing any profit by signing Johansen at $44m/7. What if they offer, say $42m/7 instead? This offer would still be above Columbus' $39/7 valuation. Let's say Johansen signs the offer sheet. Now, the signing team has a potential $2m profit.

The math now changes for Columbus, though. Here's what happens:

Door #1: Let Johansen go. Pick up draft picks worth $5m. Net gain: $5m.
Door #2: Match the offer sheet at $42m/7. Keep Johansen, who is worth $49m over the contract. Net gain: $7m.

Clearly, Columbus should match the contract because it's below open-market value. Thus, if all other factors are equal, it is impossible for a signing team to come up with an offer sheet that won't be matched unless they are willing to pay full market cost for the player (after accounting for the value of the draft picks).

Now, obviously, 'all factors' will rarely be equal. A smaller-market team like Columbus may not have the financial flexibility to pay Johansen. If he were with a larger-market team, they may have overspent their cap space and couldn't afford to allocate as much salary room for him. Teams might place different valuations on a player's abilities, may feel he's a better/worse fit for their system or their locker room, et cetera.

In short, an offer sheet can succeed where the player is worth more to the offering team than the current team. That being said, unless the valuations are far apart, the offer sheet will have to be close to the UFA market price, which will reduce the incentive for offering teams to make the offer in the first place.

I would suggest, also, that the 'factors' described above will tend to actually increase the current team's valuation of the player. The player may be integral to the team's system, its locker room, its fanbase, and the community. The team is more likely to have made roster decisions on the assumption that the player will be there, and losing the player would create a hole that would be nearly impossible to fill. It appears that most of these factors apply in the case of the Blue Jackets, and that's why I would suggest they're not vulnerable to an offer sheet in this case. I'd argue that the Shea Weber situation had a lot of similarities.

How can the league create more incentive for offer sheets (though it's not clear they want to)? as one example, I imagine that if the compensation picks came from the league rather than the signing team (the same way sandwich picks are awarded in baseball), that would reduce the cost to the signing team and improve their incentive to make an offer.

That being said, I don't think the league wants this. In CBA bargaining, it has consistently tried to protect the ability of poorer clubs to keep RFAs as long as possible. I don't think we'll see a change to offer sheets anytime soon. For now, they are merely an occasion and extraordinary remedy for teams that are clearly undervaluing their RFAs.

Follow Rory Johnston (@rnfjohnston) on twitter: twitter.com/rnfjohnston

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Marian Gaborik's contract could net Kings 5-20% cap savings

The news just came out that Marian Gaborik has signed a 7-year, $4.875m AAV contract extension with the Kings. He's 32 years old now, and will be 39 by contract's end. There's a good chance he'll be retired before it's over.

If the Kings are smart (they are), they're structure the deal as front-loaded, as follows:

Years 1-3: $6,500,000
Year 4: $4,875,000
Years 5-7: $3,250,000

This is, as far as I can tell, the most front-loaded, cap-friendly structure the CBA allows. It allows for the possibility that Gaborik may retire before the contract's up, without causing any cap recapture.

If Gaborik retires after 5 years (age 37), the Kings will have paid him a little over $27.6m for 5 years - a true AAV of $5.525 million, yet they'll only face a $4.875m cap hit. If he retires in just 4 years, that AAV is $6.09m; if he sticks out 6 years, it's a $5.146m AAV.

Regardless, the proper salary structure in this case will allow the Kings to get a cap discount of 5-20%. That's a pretty hefty advantage.

This will be something that any team can take advantage of for star players that are in their early 30s. Just as before with the long-tail contracts, you can get a cap savings by including years where they're likely to be retired. The savings isn't as large as it once was, but it's still substantial.

Follow Rory Johnston (@rnfjohnston) on twitter: twitter.com/rnfjohnston

edit: the original version of this post had some calculation errors, which have been fixed.