Marlon Byrd, Ben Lively, and deception
The Phillies just traded Marlon Byrd to the Reds for a pitcher who couldn’t crack Cincinnati’s top 10 prospect lists. Could the Phillies have done better than Ben Lively for their asset? The answer to that question depends on deception.
Even though Byrd is old, he’s been an above-average player the past two years, and he’s signed to a nice contract. Ever since he started swinging harder, missing more, and hitting the ball in the air more, he’s showed enough power to make up for declining defense and patience. Given his publicly-admitted adjustments, and the now two-year sample of evidence, maybe the deceptive thing about Byrd is that he’s not the same player that Steamer is projecting for a half win.
If you base Byrd’s trade value on recent outfield signings instead of straight dollars per win, he has more trade value. In terms of on-field production over the past two years, he compares favorably to another older corner outfielder who got two years and $21 million from the Mets at least. He’d even represent some surplus value when compared to Michael Cuddyer, probably.
So you can see that there’s probably not a lot of consensus when it comes to Byrd’s trade value. There’s even less consensus about the value of the prospect going back to the Phillies.
FanGraphs just did the Reds’ system, and Kiley McDaniel ranked Lively at No. 13. You might wonder why the Phillies didn’t ask for more, or wonder how they centered on Lively as their return, but there are a few things that are deceptive about 22-year-old Lively’s arm that might mean good things for his future.
For one, labelling Lively 13th-best in the system is itself deceptive. Not that the Reds’ system is a top system — John Sickels at MinorLeagueBall had it 14th — but there is some depth when it comes to right-handed pitching. Five of the top 10 prospects are right-handed starters, and it’s no shame to be looking up at Robert Stephenson, the Reds’ best prospect by most rankings.
But then there’s the deception that Lively himself brings to the table. Read McDaniel’s write-up of the pitcher, and it mentions Lively’s different delivery:
13. Ben Lively, RHP: Lively was a 4th round pick out of UCF in 2013 and has beat expectations so far, with 79 stellar innings in the hitter-friendly Cal League this year before 72 more solid innings in Double-A. Lively’s performance may overstate his raw ability a bit; he’s a back-end starter that sits 90-93 and hits 95 mph with four average-ish pitches, led by a slider that’s a 55 at times. There’s deception and about average command; Lively’s delivery isn’t great but he manages to make it work for him and he throws strikes.
You could see how scouts may not love Lively’s package. If you think the changeup is less than average, he’s suddenly a fastball/slider guy with average velocity who’s got just enough command and deception to run all through the minor leagues and yet possibly struggle in the major leagues. So even though he’s struck out more than one guy per inning, maybe his stuff won’t play.
Can we take a look at this deception? Here’s Lively’s delivery in action. Do you see it?
Watch the ball as it comes from behind him. Let’s pick out three frames that are almost consecutive. Watch the ball disappear.
That’s the "invisiball." We’ve seen it in an undervalued major leaguer before, actually. Yusmeiro Petit has one that works the same way.
We’re still left with questions even if we’ve identified the source of Lively’s deception. For one, is it sustainable, health-wise? If it is mechanically fine, why haven’t more pitchers tried it?
And then, does it work for an extended period of time? We don’t even know yet if Petit’s magic will wear out. You’d think that a few looks at his delivery might be enough to figure out the timing. Instead of looking for the ball early, you look a few inches out further into space and try to track it out of his elbow.
If we look at Petit, there’s some evidence that comfort breeds confidence for the hitters. All pitchers are worse the second and third time through the order, but Petit has been more extreme than the league in that manner. The league sees their total OPS+ go up from 92 to 101 and then to 118 the first, second, and third times they see a starter. Petit has gone from 63 to 125 to 145 in those same situations. Looks like batters do better with more practice seeing that release point.
But! Ben Lively is not Yusmeiro Petit even if they share an invisiball. Petit broke into the majors with an 89-mph fastball. Lively sits 90-93 according to McDaniel’s report, and if he can average 92 in the big leagues, he’ll have average velocity for a right-handed starting pitcher. Velocity helps all things, including deception.
Seattle’s Chris Young once told us that deception was one of the last frontiers when he said the organization that "figures out how to measure" deception is "going to be able to identify at an earlier stage players that are going to play at the big-league level and those who aren’t."
Perhaps Philadelphia has learned to value this deception more than others. Perhaps Lively was the arm the Phillies wanted in this deal all along. Perhaps most teams only saw Byrd as a half-win asset without much value, and this was the best the Phillies could get. In any case, the young pitcher they got might be more than first meets the eye. Lively is 22, has an invisiball release, and features four pitches he’s using to produce great results in the minor leagues. That’s enough to be interesting, at least.