Yesterday, it was reported that the Mets had traded injured reliever Tommy Hunter and minor league catcher Matt Dyer to the Rays for left-handed starter Rich Hill. The Mets starting rotation has been hit hard by 7 injuries this year leaving the Mets with 3 starters, despite making the most of whatever organizational depth they could find. Filling out the starting rotation was going to be the Mets’ main priority going into the trade deadline and finding a 3.87 ERA starter with little cost seems like a steal considering the Mets predicament.
However, if you were nervous when you first heard the Mets were trading with the Rays you wouldn’t be alone. Rays pitchers are notorious for struggling after leaving Tampa as the Rays mindbogglingly turn to a seemingly endless pool of highly effective pitchers to replace them. It has become common practice in the baseball community to believe that the Rays know what they are doing and will eventually come out as the winner regardless of how bad a trade looks.
So if you were skeptical that the Mets could win a trade with the Rays you would be justified. While Hill’s 3.87 ERA is great to see there are many signs that suggest Hill might not have the same success in New York. The 41-year-old lefty is overperforming almost all of his ERA estimators and his age and recent performance both suggest he may not have many quality innings left in him.
Has Rich Hill Gotten Lucky?
The word “lucky’ gets thrown around a lot in the sabermetric community, probably too much. Pitchers and their influence on batted balls is an incredibly complex topic that we learn more about every day and it makes evaluating any pitcher a challenge. It is easy to look at ERA estimators and mistakenly conclude that a pitcher has gotten lucky or unlucky, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore ERA estimators all together.
Almost every ERA estimator thinks that Rich Hill’s success this year is the result of luck and not skill. He has a 4.55 FIP, 4.54 xFIP, 4.39 SIERRA, 4.57 xERA, and 4.90 DRA 95.1 innings this year. In his long career Hill has tended to outperform his ERA estimators but he usually outperforms them by around .20 not over .50 like we are seeing this year.
However, there are many different factors that could explain why Hill’s ERA is so much better than his ERA estimators and many of them change from year to year. One of those factors is the defense behind a pitcher. The Rays place a lot of value on defense and it is one of the reasons they have become a factory of good pitching. This year they are second in baseball with 50 defensive runs saved and second in outs above average with 24. Luckily we are able to see a team’s OAA by pitcher and unsurprisingly the Rays defense has saved Hill 2 outs above average and has prevented 2 runs from scoring. If we added 2 runs to Hill’s earned run total it would bring his ERA to 4.01.
That might not seem like a lot but we have to remember that OAA is a conservative metric and returns lesser values than similar metrics like DRS. If we want to crudely convert Hill’s OAA to DRS we can multiply it by 2.08 which is the ratio of the Rays’ DRS to OAA. If we do that we can say that the Rays defense has saved Hill 4.16 runs, or 4 for simplicity’s sake, with a less conservative way of measuring defensive impact. If we add 4 to Hill’s earned run total he has an ERA around 4.25 which is much more in line with his ERA estimators.
But Don’t The Mets Have Good Defense?
Unlike recent years, the Mets defense has actually been good this year as they rank 6th in non-pitcher DRS with 33 and 7th in OAA with 14. However, the return of J.D. Davis, while a much-needed offensive boost, and the injury to Lindor, their best position player on defense by OAA and DRS, will hurt the Mets defense. The Mets will still have an above-average defense with great positioning but it will likely regress. Hill will likely regress towards his ERA estimators after leaving Tampa Bay’s defense but the effects should be lessened the Mets defense.
What Kind of Contact Does Hill Give Up?
Another reason some pitchers can overperform their ERA estimators is if they are adept at limiting damage on contact. However, Hill has a 27th percentile barrel rate, a 66th percentile hard-hit rate, and a 46th percentile average exit velocity which doesn’t exactly scream soft contact machine. He gets a below-average amount of groundballs and pop-ups which results in a 29.5% flyball rate (22.3% is league average). His line drive is 23.6% which is slightly lower than the average line drive rate of 25.5%, but I don’t think it is enough to make up for the high flyball rate.
Fortunately, Justin Choi at Fangraphs has created a BABIP estimator based on a pitcher’s batted ball profile and the defense behind them, the metrics we were looking at. It says that Hill’s xBABIP is .280 while his real BABIP is .254. I think that after looking at all this we can tentatively conclude that Hill’s ERA is boosted by a great Rays defense and some luck, and that while his ERA estimators may slightly undervalue him, they are more accurate than his ERA.
How Many Quality Innings Does Hill Have Left?
Learning that Hill’s ERA isn’t truly representative of his skill isn’t the worst news ever and you probably still think this trade is a no-brainer for the Mets. Even a guy with an ERA in the 4.20-4.50 range is a huge help to the Mets and an upgrade over their current waiver wire roulette strategy, right? Unfortunately, the Mets might not even be getting 4.20-4.5 ERA level pitcher out of Hill. Recently Hill’s performance has declined which is especially concerning since Hill is 41 years old with an extensive injury history that has prevented him from throwing 100 innings in a season since 2018.
A decline in fastball velocity that has coincided with poorer performance only further supports the idea that Hill may not be able to pitch deep into a season. Look at this chart that shows Hill’s 5-game rolling average on a variety of pitching metrics and fastball velocity.
As you can see as Hill’s fastball velocity declines his ERA jumps to average and his FIP and xFIP become worse than average. 5 games is a very small sample size and the velocity decrease is barely more than one mph but it is still something to keep in mind as you watch Rich Hill today.
What Did The Mets Give Up?
The Mets traded away veteran reliever Tommy Hunter and low-level catching prospect Matt Dyer. Tommy Hunter had thrown eight scoreless innings and become a fan favorite because of the childlike excitement he showed after getting his first MLB hit, before going on the injured list with lower back discomfort and mysteriously being transferred to the 60 day IL, never to be heard from again. Hunter is a useful reliever if he is healthy but we don’t really know the extent of his injury and why he has missed 2 months because of it.
Dyer was the Mets’ fourth-round draft pick in 2020 and has slashed .194/.324/.452 for a 110 wRC+ in 152 plate appearances in A ball this year. Dyer doesn’t appear on many prospect lists but he can play multiple positions and he likely has some potential that the Rays hope he will realize.
I think that this trade makes sense for both teams. The Mets get a healthy pitcher without having to give up any valuable assets and the Rays are able to trade off a pitcher who they no longer need as Chris Archer returns from the IL. While this isn’t the steal it may have appeared at the beginning it is still a good trade that addresses an urgent need without giving up too much.
Featured Image- Creator: Edward M. Pio Roda | Credit: Getty Images