Monday, July 29, 2013

Who's Your Starting Pitcher?

As I was going position by position through the Major Leagues to determine the best and the, uh, not so good, I kept changing my methods and measures until I stumbled upon contrasting a player's 2013 salary with their FanGraphs $Value to see if they were delivering value. It was very eye-opening, but I dreaded getting to the pitchers because I knew the charts were going to be a total mess. With 30 teams and 5 starting pitchers, there were going to be data points galore, and once labeled I envisioned a chart that was such a disaster as to be meaningless. However, once I decided to separate the pitches by salary, it became much more manageable. I checked all pitchers with 100 IP as of Thursday, July 26th.

My first surprise was a shock--there weren't 150 pitchers, there weren't 120, there were 89 pitchers that met this modest threshold. It's not a harsh standard--Adam Wainwright leads the majors 154.2 IP, so 100 is reasonable. Around three pitchers per team met this threshold, suggesting the next time you hear anyone state "Our team needs a good #4 and #5 starter," RUN--you're in the presence of an idiot. Of these 89 pitchers, exactly ONE team has five in the list (Tigers) and two have four (Reds and Yankees). Injuries play a role, but still, teams are having a difficult enough time finding good front of the rotation starters--at the back end, a person that gives them a 50/50 chance of winning is all that can be expected. You know what they call a #5 starter who goes 15-9? A #3 starter.

I broke the pitchers into groups by 2013 salary:
Group 1--salary $10 million or more (23)
Group 2--salary between $1-$9.9 million (40)
Group 3--salary less than $1 million (26)

Here's the graph for the first group, pitchers making more than $10 million:

The horizontal axis is the 2013 salary and the vertical the FanGraphs $Value, a calculation of how much value a player has delivered. Pitchers above the line are delivering more value than their contract and those below are underperforming their contracts. It should be very obvious that there are exactly FIVE of these high-salary pitchers that are delivering the value--Adam Wainwright, Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, Jorge De La Rosa and C.J. Wilson. Pitchers like Ricky Nolasco and Hiroki Kuroda are close--it's the folks like Mark Buehrle, Ryan Dempster and unfortunately for the Giants, the triumvirate of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Barry Zito that are the problems. 

Adam Wainwright is the likely NL Cy Young winner unless Clayton Kershaw get hot. There are eight pitchers making close to $20 million--exactly one of them, Felix Hernandez, is delivering contract value. Barry Zito has been a train wreck for years, Tim Lincecum started having his issues last year and Matt Cain joined the group this year. What is the future for the highly-paid starter? Do not for one moment think that 30 baseball general managers aren't aware of this gap between salary and performance (and have been for years) making their 2014 plans. 2014 pitching free agents include players like Bronson Arroyo, John Lackey, de la Rosa and Jon Lester. I'll discuss some of the less-costly options (in 2013) after the next chart, but not a single one of these players is going to get $20 million a year, and some of them might be lucky to get contracts. It's taking time, but the era of silly money for starting pitching might be coming to an end--there's just too much downside for awful contracts like Zito's that are in no way counterbalanced by any facet of success. It's simply impossible to deliver that kind of value.

I write the previous knowing full well two very important things:
1. There will times when a pitcher that CAN deliver value will be overlooked--I take great solace in the fact that my chart for this year suggests it won't be very often.
2. GMs are infinitely much smarter than I am--just because something fails 70% of the time doesn't mean it has no value--30% of the time it works 100% of the time. GMs are paid to be right on those 30%, and become EX-GMs if they're wrong too often.

The chart changes a bit with the mid-value pitchers, those making between $1-$9.9 million a year:

A completely different story here. GMs LOVE these pitchers because they provide value and don't bust budgets. Max Scherzer won't end the season 15-1, but if he did he'd be only the second pitcher to do so, with Johnny Allen posting a 15-1 for the 1937 Indians. Anibal Sanchez has an 8-7 record--and a 2.68 ERA. There are few outright busts on this list, headed by Jason Marquis, the polar opposite of Sanchez--a 9-5 record with a 4.05 ERA pitching half his games in a very pitcher-friendly park. As long as the Royals are in the same division as the White Sox, Jeremy Guthrie will deliver value for them. Of these players, Paul Maholm and Scott Feldman, among others will be free agents after this season--and neither will get a contract significantly different from what they're making now. Stephen Strasburg (2017) and Jordan Zimmermann (2016) are payroll time bombs looming for the Nationals, but three years is an eternity in baseball. 

Consider the Tigers as a whole--they're lucky enough to have five starting pitchers who have been healthy enough to keep Jim Leyland's smoking habit down to three packs a day, the best hitter in quite some time in Miguel Cabrera and very good pieces throughout, and they're leading the Indians by only three games as I write this. I doubt they're sweating bullets--Baseball Prospectus has them with a 92.2% chance of making the playoffs, but solid pitching and decent hitting and they're not miles ahead of every other team. It shows there are no simple solutions in baseball. Then again, they have 12 guaranteed wins games left against the White Sox.

I strongly suspect the number of pitchers in this group grows larger for no other reason than the monster contracts of CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee very well could be relics of the past. Matt Garza isn't on this chart since he started 2013 late with injury issues, but he'll be a good test for what the market for solid #2-#3 pitchers are--I keep hearing numbers like $15 million a year for 5 years (or more), and I'm not so sure. That would put him right around the top 10 in pitcher salaries, implying that not only should be be considered a #1 starter, but one of the BETTER ONES IN BASEBALL. I don't know of a soul that thinks that today, but a good finish with Texas could go a long way toward creating a market for him--it only takes one team.

The pitchers making less than $1 million are the most difficult to show graphically:
There's no line on this chart, and not all data points are labeled. For the most part, these are pitchers on their first contracts but include some that show the way of the future in locking in pitching talent. The best example is Chris Sale, who signed a contract extension earlier this year. Before I continue, I'll post this picture of Sale's delivery:

I'm sure all would agree this is a perfect pitching motion right along the classic style of Tom Seaver. Sale is 6'6" and 180 lbs., a physical freak who already has had arm issues. So what do you do if you're the Sox--trust he won't fall apart and pay him big money? What do you do if you're Sale, fully aware that every pitch could be your  last?

Sale had an outstanding 2012, making it the ideal time for him to get new paper, and the Sox obliged him with an extension that could pay him $56+ million through 2019, when he'd be 30. I wrote "could," because the Sox have $1 million buyout options for the last two years, meaning the guaranteed money for Sale is closer to $32 million. If Sale stays in one piece and he continues to perform (he's 6-9 this year with a 2.81 ERA--it's not HIS fault the Sox are bad), he'll be a bargain, and if one day he throws a pitch and both the ball and his left arm arrive at the plate, the Sox won't be stuck with a bad contract.

The Rays went in a similar direction with Matt Moore except that he has THREE years of team buyout options at the end of a contract that runs through 2019 and could pay him anywhere from $13.25 million to $35 million--that's money even the Rays can afford. Madison Bumgarner is also signed through 2019 for anywhere from $33.25 million to $55.75 million. I'd be shocked if Matt Harvey and Patrick Corbin and other pitchers either not labeled or not on this list (i.e., Shelby Miller and Travis Wood) don't reach similar deals, because it makes all the sense in the world to pay for FUTURE performance instead of the past. These are contracts that give players all the financial security they'll ever need and leaves them free to sign ANOTHER generous contract in their late 20s or early 30s. It's a win-win for all involved and the way smart teams will treat their pitching talent going forward.

Other pitchers grouped around Mike Minor and Felix Doubront that are delivering exceptional value on first contracts include Wood, Miller, Lance Lynn, Eric Stults, Jose Quintana and Jose Fernandez. As a Cubs fan I'm probably prejudiced toward Wood (quick quiz--what's the difference between Wood, Gordon Beckham and Alexei Ramirez? Wood more home runs (3) than they do (2 and 1, respectively)), but other than Miller none seem appear worthy of the early big contract, but I could be wrong. If these pitchers continue to develop, they could easily get the Sale treatment, but they haven't put up the production yet to warrant it.

Take a moment and review these 89 pitchers again and ask yourself one very simple question:
"Is this guy worth $20 million a year for five years?"
$20 million for a year is one thing, but placing a five-year bet on a position that is becoming increasingly fragile is another. Pitching just might be trending the same as running backs in the NFL, commodities teams stockpile, use up, reload and start again with low-cost talent. There might be five pitchers, maybe fewer that deserve big-money long-term contracts in any given baseball generation, and the smart GMs know who they are and will be very creative in how they sign them. These special pitchers will be locked up until around age 32, right around when most pitchers begin their decline. The smart GMs will identify the Greg Maddux of the day that do defy the trends and continue to have success, but they'll realize that these players are few and far between. 

This list shows pitchers since 1950 with 100 or more wins after turning 33 (I know, #killthewin, but it's not dead yet):


It's a list populated with Hall of Famers, soon-to-be Hall of Famers and Roger Clemens. Successful pitchers at this age are the exception, not the rule, so when I ask "Who's your starting pitcher?" I humbly suggest it will be a man in his 20s on a first or very team-friendly contract, and if the pitcher is in his 30s, except in VERY RARE circumstances, will ALSO be affordable. Here's why:

Similar to the very first chart I used but filtering out the younger pitchers. Other than Cliff Lee and Hiroki Kuroda, who do you want? These facts have been known for some time, but GMs are beginning to act on them and it will only become more prevalent as time passes. The old adage "What have you done for me lately" has been around forever, but it's making the transition from words into action, and once every pitcher reaches 32-33 (with stunningly few exceptions), they would be well-advised to ask not for whom the bell tolls.

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