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Cole Hamels Is an Ace and Got Paid Like One

The Phillies had a decision to make — give Cole Hamels a really big contract or trade him for prospects and watch him sign with someone else over the winter. They chose Door #1, giving Hamels a six year, $144 million contract that is the second largest deal for a pitcher in Major League history, coming in only behind the seven year, $161 million deal for CC Sabathia. As with any big contract (especially for a pitcher), this is a pretty big risk, but answering the question of whether it was worth it requires a look at the specifics of both Hamels and the Phillies situation.

There’s no question this is close to the going rate for premium pitchers. At $24 million a year for six years, this puts him in the same AAV tier as Sabathia and Cliff Lee and just a notch above the deal that SF gave Matt Cain a few months ago. Hamels wouldn’t have gotten less than this in free agency, so it’s not an overpay in terms of what the market would have yielded. The price for premium pitching has been firmly established at $22 to $24 million per year for five to seven years.

So, for this to be an overpay, you have to believe that Hamels is not actually a premium pitcher. And, really, the only way to come to that conclusion is if you still judge pitchers by wins and losses.

Since 2006, 76 Major League pitchers have thrown 800 or more innings. Hamels has thrown 1,295, but I set the bar a lot lower so that we could include some of the better young arms who have come up in the last few years. Among those 76 guys, here’s where Hamels ranks relative to league average:

Innings: 1,295 (12th)
ERA-: 80 (11th)
FIP-: 86 (18th)
xFIP-: 81 (6th)

This isn’t one of those cases where the results and the underlying skills don’t match up. Hamels has prevented runs at 20 percent better than the league average, and he’s pitched in a way that we would have expected him to prevent runs at 19 percent better than average. The other pitchers in baseball with an ERA- between 78 and 82 over that span: Justin Verlander (78), Felix Hernandez (78), Matt Cain (80), Tim Lincecum (80), Cliff Lee (81), Roy Oswalt (81), and Zack Greinke (81).

These are the best pitchers in baseball. Hamels has established himself as a guy who can give you 200 elite innings every year, and there aren’t more than a half dozen or so pitchers in the sport that you can say that about. If you’re making a list of the very best pitchers in the sport, Hamels is on it. The only way to argue that this is an overpayment is to argue that every market value contract for premium pitchers is an overpayment. Maybe that argument has merit, but that’a a totally different thing than saying that this specific contract is for too much money. Cole Hamels got paid commensurate with the level of performance he’s had and with what the market has been paying for players at this level.

Now, the other question is whether this was a good deal for the Phillies to sign. Not every market value contract makes sense for every franchise, and different organizations have different prices at which a player no longer makes sense for their situation. As my colleague Bill Petti has pointed out, the Phillies are entering some scary territory in terms of percentage of payroll allocated to a small number of players. With Roy Halladay, Ryan Howard, and Cliff Lee, the Phillies already had $65 million committed to three players in 2013, and even assuming that Hamels’ deal is somewhat backloaded, he’ll probably make something close to $20 million next year, pushing the total for those four players to around $85 million. As Bill notes, teams with that kind of roster construction usually don’t win, as the rest of the roster has to be sacrificed in order to afford to pay the “Core Four” half the payroll.

However, the Phillies are already all-in on the stars-and-scrubs philosophy. While the Ryan Howard contract was a colossal mistake, it’s in the books and can’t be undone. For the last several years, the Phillies have made consistent choices to prioritize the present, and the result has been a team that has the makings of a perennial contender. It didn’t work this year, as there were just too many injuries to overcome, but the Phillies still have the roster of a contending team in the short term, while their longer term future already looks pretty rough.

In that situation, backtracking on the commitment to win with this group isn’t really an option. You can’t make that many win-now moves at the expense of your future, and then decide that you went too far and it’s time to pinch pennies. In the Phillies situation, only two decisions make sense – keep trying to win as many championships as possible until these guys can’t play anymore, or tear the whole thing down and start over. Letting Hamels go in the interest of fiscal prudence is trying to cross a bridge you already burned to the ground.

The Phillies have given regular playing time to exactly four guys under the age of 30 this year – Freddy Galvis (injured and suspended), Hunter Pence (29 and on the trade block), Vance Worley, and Hamels. Beyond their two under-30 starters, the whole roster is headed towards the downside of their careers. Letting Hamels walk because now they can’t stretch the budget is just cutting the legs out from everything they’ve done the last few years. I might not think that their original plan was the best way to go about building out a roster, but now that they’ve built this roster, they have to stick to it. They have to keep guys like Hamels in the fold until the whole thing falls apart and they just have to start from scratch.

The Phillies aren’t there yet. Their 2012 struggles show that this kind of plan is fraught with risk, but the last five years shows it can pay off too. If they keep the band together, everyone stays reasonably healthy, and they can fill a few holes on the cheap this winter, the Phillies can be contenders again in 2013 and maybe even 2014.

The Phillies probably will have to trade Cole Hamels eventually. They just didn’t have to trade him this week. For now, keeping him and trying to hang another banner was the right choice.