Buying Low: Nate Robertson

As we head into free agency, one of the things we can be pretty sure of that pitching is going to be expensive. Even when you’d think teams would learn from examples such as what the Cardinals were able to do with Kyle Lohse (signed for $4.25 million just before the season started, turned in a solid season), that same team turns around and gives Lohse $41 million to be the exact same guy they got for 1/10th of that the year before.

Free agent pitching is the bubble that just won’t burst. Mike Hampton couldn’t bust it. Barry Zito couldn’t bust it. Carlos Silva couldn’t bust it. Teams are going to spend a lot of money on mediocre pitching, leaving the smart teams to mostly look elsewhere.

So, smart teams, I’ve got a suggestion. Call the Tigers about Nate Robertson.

Yes, the same Nate Robertson who just posted a 6.35 ERA for the Tigers last year, and is owed $17 million over the remaining two seasons on his contract. I know, $7 million this year and $10 million next year for a guy coming off the worst year of his career doesn’t sound like a wise investment, but there might not be a better buy-low candidate this winter.

Here are Robertson’s FIPs since 2004, when he became a full-time starter:

2004: 4.52
2005: 4.73
2006: 4.72
2007: 4.65
2008: 4.99

Yes, 2008 was his worst year, but by a pretty small margin. A .3 FIP difference over his career norms would translate out to about seven extra runs per season. A seven run dropoff is far more marginal than what the perception of Robertson’s collapse is, considering how bad his results were in 2008.

Robertson pitched mostly the same as he’s always pitched, but due to a remarkably worse defense (importing Miguel Cabrera and moving Brandon Inge off third will do that to you), his results made it look like his skills fell apart. In reality, he’s still the same league average starter he’s always been, and in this market, $17 million over two years is a bargain for a league average starter.



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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


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Jim
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Jim
7 years 11 months ago

Nate Robertson isn’t the type of pitcher who will take a team from something’s missing to a competitor. Is he really worth that much money? Then again, lots of pitchers raking in the bucks these days aren’t worth the money. There are quite a few guys making 10 mil a year who should frankly be in the minor leagues, or out of baseball.

Isaac
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Isaac
7 years 11 months ago

There’s a reason he is a good buy low candidate, he stinks. Like Jim said, I don’t see how he helps any team that is trying to win now. He hasn’t even been a big innings eater the last two years, and thats on top of being awful.

Marcus
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Marcus
7 years 11 months ago

Dave isn’t claiming that Robertson will elevate someone into contention; his point was that Robertson is a league average pitcher, and can be acquired for less than a league average pitcher currently demands. As far as “awful” and “he stinks” is concerned, you may want to make an argument instead of an unsupported statement. Dave used FIP and the Detroit’s defensive downgrade to explain why his poor results may not be good predictors of future performance. If you wish to disagree, you’ll need to use something beyond IP to back your stance (and Robertson has delivered around 170 IP, which is also – you guessed it – about average for an average starter).

Isaac
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Isaac
7 years 11 months ago

I don’t know about you, but from where I stand a pitcher with a career 4.75 FIP stinks.

JH
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JH
7 years 11 months ago

You need to take another look at what most teams get from their 4-5 starters. A 4.75 FIP at the back end of a rotation is a very valuable piece to a solid team.

philosofool
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philosofool
7 years 11 months ago

League average FIP in 2006 was 4.52, a mark that Robertson is only slightly off. His career xFIP, which is park adjusted, is better than league average by hair. He doesn’t stink. He’s a perfectly acceptable back of the rotation pitcher available for a lot less money than that similar products that will be on the FA market this winter. Simply put: he’s a deal. The cost of a free agent starter is about 10% of the salary budget of a typical major league team, which is an absurd amount to pay. In terms of peripherals, he’s only a little worse than Lohse, who’s FIP and ERA are clearly helped by Bush Stadium, and he’s available at a much better price (2 years, $17M vs. 4 years, $41M.)

Roberston is a much better deal than, for example, Jarrod Washburn, Miguel Batita or Carlos Silva.

Steve
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7 years 11 months ago

while quite honestly, he is a bargain as far as back of the rotation guys go, you can have him, I’d like some payroll flexibility please.

Anthony
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Anthony
7 years 11 months ago

he’s not all that much of a bargain. for the top 5-10 teams that can afford to spend that type of money on mediocre pitchers, i guess he’s a bargain. but for the majority of the league, he’s far from that

Marcus
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Marcus
7 years 11 months ago

Nobody is arguing that Robertson is a blue light special at Walmart, or that an organization wouldn’t be better off drafting well and developing their own in-house starting rotation candidates on the cheap. But for those who don’t have an in-house option, he’s a good fit.

Here’s a suggestion: if your team needs a league average SP and you don’t like Robertson, name a cheaper candidate with a comparable skillset, or an equally priced candidate with a superior skillset that is available. Otherwise, why disagree?

RollingWave
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RollingWave
7 years 11 months ago

it does make some serious sense for a potential contender to fill their back rotation… like you know, the Tigers

Yakker
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Yakker
7 years 11 months ago

Good article, and I agree with the conclusion. However, as a dumpster-diving GM, Robertson’s consistently-high HR rates would concern me, coming as they do in Comerica Park. Perhaps he’s due for the mother of all regressions in 2009, but I think that’s unlikely, especially if he switches home parks.

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