Dan Haren, Tim Lincecum, and Perception Gaps

An hour ago, we released the results of our free agent crowdsourcing project, in the form of a list sorted by the highest projected contract values. On that list, Tim Lincecum was projected to sign the 10th largest free agent contract of any player this winter, coming in at $40 million over three years, even though it is pretty clear that the Giants are going to make Lincecum a qualifying offer, which will require any team signing him to give up a draft pick and the draft dollars that go along with that spot.

The crowd was not so optimistic about Dan Haren, however. He’s projected to earn $19 million over two years, and the two years is rounded up from an actual estimate of 1.76 seasons, so it might be fair to categorize that as one guaranteed year and the expectation of some kind of vesting or team option. There is basically no chance that the Nationals will make Haren a qualifying offer, so he will come free of draft pick compensation to any signing team.

That’s a pretty huge gap in expected cost, especially once you factor in the draft pick. We’re talking double the guaranteed money, plus whatever value a team places on the draft dollars it is giving up, which will almost certainly translate into a few million of extra lost value. Once you factor in the value of the draft pick, the projected cost difference between the two hurlers is around $25 million. And yet, no matter how you slice their recent performance data, they look pretty darn similar.

Here is a table of their recent performance data, broken up into three different timelines. The first line is just 2013 performance, so you can see what both pitchers did last year. Then, below that, we add in 2012 data, so it’s the last two years. And then, finally, we add in 2011, so it’s the last three years. Go ahead and see if you can figure out an area where Lincecum has been better than Haren.

Dan Haren 169.2 4% 21% 36% 13% 70% 0.302 125 109 97 1.5 0.3
Tim Lincecum 197.2 9% 23% 45% 12% 69% 0.300 124 105 94 1.6 0.2
Dan Haren 346.1 5% 20% 38% 13% 71% 0.302 118 108 97 3.2 1.3
Tim Lincecum 383.2 10% 23% 46% 13% 69% 0.304 132 109 96 2.5 -0.5
Dan Haren 584.2 4% 20% 40% 11% 71% 0.290 103 95 91 9.4 6.7
Tim Lincecum 600.2 10% 24% 46% 11% 72% 0.296 112 101 93 6.1 4.4

Last year, from a results perspective, they were nearly identical. Their BB/K/GB rates suggest above average performance, but problems with home runs and runner stranding pushed their run totals to something close to replacement level. When you add in 2012 data, the story is basically the same, except Haren takes a bit of a lead by ERA. Toss in 2011, and Haren pulls way ahead by results while maintaining a slight lead in peripherals.

Lincecum gets more strikeouts and more groundballs, but Haren walks half as many batters as Lincecum does. Their HR/FB rates, BABIPs, and LOB% are all nearly identical. The overall packages are pretty similar in terms of expected results, but Haren’s actual results over the last three years have been a little bit better than Lincecum’s. So why do people think Lincecum is worth the Shane Victorino contract — plus the loss of a draft pick — while Haren is settling for something closer to the Joe Blanton deal?

Well, for one thing, there’s age. Haren is nearly four years older than Lincecum and has 600 more big league innings on his arm, so it’s easier to believe that Haren’s recent HR problems are the result of him losing his stuff as he heads towards the end of his career. People are less likely to see long term upside in a guy headed into his age-33 season as well, so even if you bet correctly on Haren being a rebound candidate, you’re probably not getting a long term rotation workhorse, while a bounce back from Lincecum could theoretically put you in position to re-sign a guy who still has several years left as a quality starter.

But, is that potential longer term reward, which you’d have to pay for with a new fancier contract in order to extract value from, really worth the significant cost difference? I don’t think so. I think the perception is that Lincecum is just a better pitcher than Haren, and so in the short term, you’re buying low on a potential ace versus just settling for a hittable end-of-the-rotation starter. That perception could be fueled by a number of things, including the fact that Lincecum’s best years were better than Haren’s best years, and perhaps the lingering memory of back-to-back Cy Young seasons still hold some weight with the crowd.

I’d suggest that Haren’s 2008/2009 seasons in Arizona were nearly as good, however, and that there’s never really been as large of a gap between them as it might appear. Especially once you factor in Haren’s impeccable track record of health — even his DL stint this summer was more of a mental health break than an actual injury — I find it hard to believe that Lincecum is actually that much more of an attractive free agent than Haren. These are the kinds of similar players where one probably shouldn’t have a strong preference either way, and the likely presence of a qualifying offer for Lincecum might even be enough to push you to prefer Haren.

At these expected prices, I wouldn’t have much interest in Lincecum, but I do think Haren might be a nifty bargain. They probably should sign for something much more similar in price to each other than what is projected here. It will be interesting to see how MLB GMs price these two comparable pitchers this winter.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.