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Expectations for Free Agent Starting Pitchers

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We've all been woefully disappointed by Ricky Nolasco so far. We've all been pleasantly pleased by Phil Hughes so far. We've had the unfortunate pleasure of watching Mike Pelfrey. We've been satisfied with Kevin Correia after some initial hatred.

Bringing in four free agents to fill the rotation over two years is a departure from the norm for our Twins. Signing two of them to multi-year deals that were both worth more than the previous team-high free agent contract (Willingham, $21M) was euphoria for many and a stunner for others.

Here, we're going to take a look at the free agent starting pitcher contracts that have been signed since the offseason prior to the 2009 season (contract data from mlbtraderumors.com, WAR data from fangraphs.com as of 7/7). Relevant to the Twins' signings, our data pool is going to be contracts with a term of at least 2 years and a value of at least $6 million. We can find 38 such contracts with details in the table below and some context on each. Hopefully, we'll find an answer to a question that we, as Twins fans, have had little reason to contemplate over the years:

"What should we reasonably expect from free agent starting pitchers?"

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"Rick, smell this. Seriously."
Player Years Value (MM) Acq. Team Seasons Total WAR $/WAR Contract Remaining
CC Sabathia 7 $161.00 NYY 2009-15 25.0 5.1 1.5
Started out great with 4 strong seasons of at least 4.6 WAR on the biggest free agent SP contract ever. Signed an extension to this deal after 3 seasons that tacked on another season and an additional $30M (not factored here). Ineffectiveness and injuries have derailed the last 2 seasons with 1.5 years left on the original deal and the prospect of potentially career-ending microfracture surgery on his knee. $/WAR will increase to $6.4M including his extension if he doesn't pitch again.
Zack Greinke 6 $147.00 LAD 2013-18 4.9 7.5 4.5
Second biggest contract ever for a free agent starting pitcher. He has put up ace numbers in LA despite some ups and downs earlier in his career. We'll see how the next 4.5 years go as his FB velocity has declined each year since 2009 going from 93.7 to 91.3 in 2014.
John Lackey 5 $82.50 BOS 2010-14 11.2 6.6 0.5
Terrible first half after signing deal, rebounded with a second half in line with career norms. Terrible second year followed by TJ had many thinking he would be dumped. Rebounded the last two years and has a unique team option similar to Garza's deal that gives the Sox an option on '15 at league minimum.
A.J. Burnett 5 $82.50 NYY 2009-13 12.5 6.6 0.0
Widely considered to be a terrible deal by year 2. Salary dumped to the Pirates before 2012 season but then rebounded with 7 WAR over the next two seasons.
Anibal Sanchez 5 $80.00 DET 2013-17 8.3 2.9 3.5
Acquired in 2012 and decided to stay put as a free agent. Proceeded to have a career year in 2013 to help the Tigers reach the ALCS. Not many pitchers put up better numbers by making a jump to the AL from the NL, but he's done it so far.
C.J. Wilson 5 $77.50 LAA 2012-16 6.1 6.4 2.5
Hasn't matched the numbers he put up in his walk year, but he's certainly been solid and healthy. Less mileage on this arm than most 33 year olds due to spending his first 5 MLB seasons in the bullpen.
Derek Lowe 4 $60.00 ATL 2009-12 7.3 8.2 0.0
Never put up an ERA below 4 nor a season of WAR above 2.3. Salary dumped to the Indians before 2012 season and designated for assignment that August.
Mark Buehrle 4 $58.00 MIA 2012-15 6.4 5.7 1.5
Famously salary dumped to Toronto after 1 season, but continues to be a model of mid-rotation consistency with an xFIP between 3.77 and 4.79 to go with at least 200 IP in every season of his career.
Edwin Jackson 4 $52.00 CHC 2013-16 3.2 6.1 2.5
His ERA has hovered at 5 across the first 1.5 seasons despite some peripherals that look a little better. This matches his reputation of being inconsistent, but the Cubs should have room and time for him.
Ryan Dempster 4 $52.00 CHC 2009-12 12.2 4.3 0.0
ERA was 86th of 94 qualified SP in 2011. Still, at least 2.6 WAR every season and durability makes this a decent contract in hindsight.
Ubaldo Jimenez 4 $50.00 BAL 2014-17 0.5 12.5 3.5
Leads the league in BB/9 and not in the good way. Seen as high risk/high reward going into the offseason and he's fulfilled the high risk so far.
Matt Garza 4 $50.00 MIL 2014-17 1.9 3.3 3.5
Reports circulated with concerns about his elbow and the deal is structured with additional incentives to protect the Brewers including a $1M option for 2018 if he has any significant DL time. He's been solid so far with numbers in line with what he's put up the last 7 seasons.
Ricky Nolasco 4 $49.00 MIN 2014-17 0.5 12.3 3.5
ERA of almost 6 and recently revealed some elbow soreness. Have to hope this one gets better going forward, but one could worry he got paid off his 2013 career year.
Kyle Lohse 3 $33.00 MIL 2013-15 3.5 4.7 1.5
First guy to get weighed down by the qualifying offer. Has continued to post solid numbers and innings pitched with great control despite a sub-90 MPH FB.
Jason Vargas 4 $32.00 KAN 2014-17 1.4 2.9 3.5
Peripherals are mostly consistent with career numbers, but a career high strand rate is making his ERA look nice. Term seemed long for a mid-to-back rotation guy and makes his contract an outlier, but he's continued to be dependable and might be underappreciated.
Jorge de la Rosa 3 $32.00 COL 2011-13 4.1 7.8 0.0
Made 10 starts in 2011 with new contract before TJ surgery. Missed remainder of 2011 and all of 2012 minus a few terrible tune-up starts in September. Solid 2013 and team picked up option for 2014.
Scott Feldman 3 $30.00 HOU 2014-16 0.5 10.0 2.5
Not exactly exciting, but Houston was looking to add a real major leaguer in free agency as they hope to build from their complete tear down. Has struggled with injuries and consistency, but the 'Stros are hoping for mid-rotation here.
Randy Wolf 3 $29.75 MIL 2010-12 3.0 9.9 0.0
Got paid coming off a 3.23 ERA in 2009, but was released before the contract expired.
Ryan Dempster 2 $26.50 BOS 2013-14 1.3 15.3 0.5
His last free agent deal was a solid value. This one? Yeah, no. Found his way to the bullpen in 2013 and decided to kind-of retire in 2014 by announcing that he won't pitch this season when it didn't look like he'd make the rotation. If he doesn't get paid for 2014, his $/WAR drops to around $10M.
Jeremy Guthrie 3 $25.00 KAN 2013-15 1.6 7.8 1.5
Has continued to be a solid, mid-rotation guy. Acquired by the Royals after an uncharacteristically terrible first half in 2012 and later re-signed to this deal.
Phil Hughes 3 $24.00 MIN 2014-16 3.0 1.3 2.5
Leads the league in BB/9 in the good way and has sustained his K rate. HR/FB rate has decreased thus far as many were hoping for with the move to Target Field (1.1 HR/9 at home) from Yankee Stadium (HR/9 hovered closer to 2).
Bronson Arroyo 2 $23.50 ARZ 2014-15 0.6 9.8 1.5
The crafty veteran had gone the entire 10 seasons that he's been established as a starter with no major injury. This was a big selling point, but he's done for 2014 and likely a good part of 2015 due to TJ surgery.
Tim Hudson 2 $23.00 SFO 2014-15 1.7 3.4 1.5
Missed most of second half in 2013 with a nasty ankle injury, but landed a two-year deal and putting up a career best BB/9 rate while about to turn 39.
Scott Kazmir 2 $22.00 OAK 2014-15 2.0 2.8 1.5
Has followed up an unlikely rebound season in 2013 with more of the same in 2014. Has completely abandonded his four-seamer in favor of more offspeed stuff to go with the two-seamer.
Bartolo Colon 2 $20.00 NYM 2014-15 0.9 5.6 1.5
2013 was an incredible year for him, but he's 41 and still throwing FBs over 80% of the time with excellent control and decent results.
Carl Pavano 2 $16.50 MIN 2011-12 3.3 5.0 0.0
Continued to be steady in 2011, but the wheels fell off in 2012 with what turned out to be a shoulder injury.
Jake Westbrook 2 $16.50 STL 2011-12 2.7 6.1 0.0
Ate innings and was unspectacular… pretty close to what was expected.
Brandon McCarthy 2 $15.50 ARZ 2013-14 3.0 3.9 0.5
Dealt with a shoulder injury in 2013. Solid peripherals led by excellent control despite lackluster ERA above 5 so far in 2014. Recently acquired by the Yankees in exchange for a former Indy league pitcher with Arizona covering part of McCarthy's remaining salary costs. Great Twitter feed in case you didn't know.
Joe Blanton 2 $15.00 LAA 2013-14 -0.4 -28.1 0.5
Ouch. So bad that he broke my $ per WAR calculator. ERA above 6 in 2013 and released by LAA after the season. Signed a minor league deal with the A's, but retired in April.
Jason Marquis 2 $15.00 WAS 2010-11 0.7 21.4 0.0
Brutal in 2010 with negative WAR and dealt to ARI after a decent first half in 2011.
Jamie Moyer 2 $14.50 PHI 2009-10 0.7 20.7 0.0
Major flop with ERAs close to 5 and less than 1 total WAR. Missed second half of 2010 with elbow injury and proceeded to have TJ surgery.
Aaron Harang 2 $12.00 LAD 2012-13 2.0 6.0 0.0
Solid in 2012 before bouncing around in 2013 to the Rockies and Mariners with a finish in AAA for the Mets while being DFA'd twice and released once throughout the season.
Mike Pelfrey 2 $11.00 MIN 2014-15 -0.6 -4.6 1.5
Velocity and control abandonded him in early 2014. Rehabbing his elbow and could end up in the bullpen.
Carlos Villanueva 2 $10.00 CHC 2013-14 1.4 5.4 0.5
Has been used as a bullpen swing guy. Could head back to the rotation with CHC's recent blockbuster sending two starters to the A's, but his ERA above 6 looks scary.
Kevin Correia 2 $10.00 MIN 2013-14 2.0 3.8 0.5
Has provided decent value and plenty of innings for the money, but nothing special. Not sure what else to say about him.
Chris Capuano 2 $10.00 LAD 2012-13 3.2 3.1 0.0
Strong first half to 2012, marginal second half. Bumped to bullpen to start 2013, but ended up making 20 starts.
Bruce Chen 2 $9.00 KAN 2012-13 3.4 2.6 0.0
Started 2013 in the bullpen after a 5+ ERA in 2012, but came back as a starter for the second half and had a solid season.
Kevin Correia 2 $8.00 PIT 2011-12 0.4 20.0 0.0
We know this guy. Provided an arm that can throw a baseball, but not a ton of value. Ended 2012 in the bullpen.

It is interesting to note that almost every single one of these deals with just a few exceptions has experienced either an extended period of ineffectiveness or a serious injury.

******

Maybe it's useful to look at them in tiers and get a generalized idea of what to expect? It was surprisingly easy to separate them into groups.

Tier 1: 2 years, $8-12M
Kevin Correia, Bruce Chen, Carlos Villanueva, Kevin Correia, Chris Capuano, Mike Pelfrey, Aaron Harang
Generally ends up being swing guys that move between the rotation and bullpen.
Tier totals through mid-2014: 11.5 years, $56.8M, 11.8 WAR, $4.8M/WAR

Tier 2: 2 years, $14.5-16.5M
Jamie Moyer, Joe Blanton, Jason Marquis, Brandon McCarthy, Carl Pavano, Jake Westbrook
Mostly vets signed to be a stabilizing force, but results have been poor and only one guy made it through both seasons – Jake Westbrook.
11 years, $85.4M, 10.0 WAR, $8.5M/WAR


Tier 3: 2 years, $20-$26.5M

Bartolo Colon, Scott Kazmir, Tim Hudson, Bronson Arroyo, Ryan Dempster
Guys that have gotten results, but have question marks due to age or previous injuries.
3.5 years, $42M, 6.5 WAR, $6.5M/WAR


Tier 4: 3 years (except Vargas), $24-33M

Phil Hughes, Jeremy Guthrie, Randy Wolf, Scott Feldman, Jorge de la Rosa, Kyle Lohse
Mostly younger with mid-rotation potential.
10.5 years, $103.8M, 17.1 WAR, $6.1M/WAR


Tier 5: 4 years, $49-60M

Ricky Nolasco, Ubaldo Jimenez, Matt Garza, Edwin Jackson, Ryan Dempster, Mark Buehrle, Derek Lowe
Probably the hardest tier to classify, but typically either high potential guys with some question marks or vets that have been reliable.
13.5 years, $186.4M, 32.0 WAR, $5.8M/WAR


Tier 6: 5 years, $77.5-82.5M

C.J. Wilson, Anibal Sanchez, John Lackey, A.J. Burnett
Some up and down seasons mixed in, but generally guys who can put up elite seasons.
13.5 years, $203M, 38.1 WAR, $5.3M/WAR


Tier 7: 6-7 years, $147-161M

Zack Greinke, CC Sabathia
The rare ace that makes it to free agency. Counting on getting one of these, or even hoping for one, is probably not smart.
7 years, $163.3M, 29.9 WAR, $5.5M/WAR


Tier 2 has been terrible. Tier 3 is too small to judge. It is somewhat reassuring to see that the $/WAR is stable across the rest and ranges from $4.8-6.1M/WAR. This is in line with thinking from the sabermetric community that the cost to buy one WAR in free agency is roughly $6M as of this last offseason. Place whatever value you will in WAR, but I see it as a good measure to summarize performance across players in this type of analysis.

******

Maybe certain General Managers are really good at finding value in this market? Hard to believe, but Terry Ryan leads all GMs in MLB with 4 contracts in this pool. All GMs with more than one contract:

Terry Ryan (4), $4.2M/WAR
Ned Colletti (3), $5.8M/WAR
Doug Melvin (3), $6.3M/WAR
Dayton Moore (3), $4.0M/WAR
Jed Hoyer (2), $5.9M/WAR
Jerry DiPoto (2), $8.8M/WAR
Kevin Towers (2),$4.9M/WAR
Brian Cashman (2), $5.6M/WAR …although this doesn’t really count since most of Burnett’s value came with the Pirates.

Looks like a pretty normal distribution with an average of $5.6M/WAR ($5.8M/WAR for all GMs) and a range of $4.0-6.3M/WAR with the outlier of DiPoto who got burned by the Blanton deal. All eight are still employed as the GM by the same team. Nolasco and Pelfrey are struggling and there's time for Terry Ryan's cost per WAR number to go up, but this seems to make it hard to point too many fingers right now.

******

Well, I'm not sure if we've been able to answer the original question.

It seems that we can find some general expectations around WAR based on the size of the contract. While WAR is an excellent indicator of an individual's contribution (and of a team's performance in aggregate), it doesn't translate directly to runs allowed or wins and losses as we see variation and many other variables introduced. The data here also shows how much variation takes place within the tiers. The context tells us there's generally a lot of variation even within each contract.

The closest we can come to a conclusion might be to expect a lot of variation during the contract and even in comparison to other similar pitchers. I need a beer.

Updated 07-08-2014 at 09:28 PM by jay

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Comments

  1. Seth Stohs's Avatar
    Tremendous study. I'll likely have to spend some more time on it.

    But to answer the blog's question... I honestly don't expect a lot out of free agents. My belief, and I've stated this before, is that the biggest free agents rarely are worth the money, especially pitchers. The reality is players' primes are generally through age 31, maybe 32... and that's generally when they become free agents. So, in theory, most are beyond their best years.
  2. jorgenswest's Avatar
    Thanks for the good work.

    I hoping the a Twins stay away from decline phase pitchers until they have a foundation. There aren't many guys like a Hughes that hit free agency so young, but having the upside of age is critical to a team that needs to tear down and rebuild.
  3. jay's Avatar
    Thanks. I'd have to agree with every bit of both your comments. If anything, the data here shows how rarely you can rely on these guys over the length of the contract. To see such a wide range in current results from our four free agents really shouldn't be all that surprising.

    I've made a few edits: changed the table to show seasons of the contract instead of date signed, corrected Lackey's contract info and updated the conclusion. I'm happy to upload the data to a public Google doc if anyone wants it.
    Updated 07-08-2014 at 09:29 PM by jay
  4. Sconnie's Avatar
    Fantastic work. Great indicator of value in risk/reward, especially the tiered data sets.
  5. mike wants wins's Avatar
    some teams accept that the last 2-3 years are the price you pay for the first few years, and are probably not counting on value in those last few years. You can decide to be fine with that or not.

    $/WAR is a great measure, if you are willing to live with low WAR, you can have a low budget, but then, you'll lose more, right? If it costs $6MM for 1 WAR, and you only spend $12MM, you get 2 wins.....or, if you pay more, you get more wins. If you pay for bad pitchers, you will generally get bad pitchers. Me? I'd rather pay for good to great pitchers, and not waste money on 1-2 WAR pitchers.
  6. jay's Avatar
    mike, which tier begins to qualify as "good to great"? Tier 5? 6?
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