How Are the Stars Being Acquired? Starting Pitching

For the majority of major league teams, this is the final week of their season. This means back to the planning board for the front offices as they decide whether to buy this off-season, sell, do both, or attempt to remain static moving forward. One thing is for sure: every team in the league – barring perhaps the Yankees – could use more star power. So how do you acquire stars?

Let’s start with the starting pitchers. Obviously “star” is a word with ambiguous meaning. For some it means a guy who will move tickets, sell jerseys, and land them a marquee spot in the highlights on nights he pitches. For others it means one of the best pitchers in the league whose performance should bring the attention and spotlight, but everyone knows that’s not always a guarantee.

For this set of exercises I’m choosing to define star as the latter. I’ve taken the top 30 starters as told by THT’s xFIP metric. Why xFIP? Because it normalizes home run rates and saves time in noting certain pitcher performances in ballparks like those Oakland and San Diego. From there I noted how each was acquired by their current team. Here’s the list:

Javier Vazquez – trade
Tim Lincecum – draft
Dan Haren – trade
Roy Halladay – draft
Zack Greinke – draft
Jon Lester – draft
Josh Johnson – draft
Justin Verlander – draft
Ricky Nolasco – trade
Adam Wainwright – draft
Chris Carpenter – free agent
Felix Hernandez – amateur free agent
Josh Beckett – trade
Joel Pineiro – trade
Ubaldo Jimenez – amateur free agent
Cole Hamels – draft
Wandy Rodriguez – amateur free agent
Yovani Gallardo – drafted
Gavin Floyd – trade
Brett Anderson – trade
Jorge de la Rosa — trade
Jason Hammel – trade
CC Sabathia – free agent
Ryan Dempster – free agent
Roy Oswalt – draft
Aaron Harang – trade
Max Scherzer – draft
Chad Billingsley – draft
Joe Blanton – trade
Clayton Kershaw – draft

That works out to 11 pitchers acquired via trade, 13 in the draft, 3 as amateur free agents (read: intentional in this case), and 3 as actual free agents. Of those three, Sabathia is the only one signed to a large deal; Carpenter was a pet project for Dave Duncan and a similar tale exists for Dempster’s signing.

The best pitchers in baseball aren’t being acquired on the free agent market. Teams looking for their ace pitcher this off-season should take note.

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31 Responses to “How Are the Stars Being Acquired? Starting Pitching”

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  1. Matt B. says:

    Any chance xFIP gets added to the player pages?

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  2. glp says:

    What is an “intentional” amateur free agent? International?

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  3. Andrew Davis says:

    Wainwright was actually acquired by the cards in the JD Drew trade w/ Ray King–not via draft. He was traded as a minor leaguer.

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    • WY says:

      You beat me to it. That was a great trade for the Cardinals, by the way. Everyone complains about the Haren-for-Mulder deal, but this one has effectively balanced that out, especially considering that Marquis put together two decent seasons (followed by one awful one) while with the Cards.

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  4. Gabriel says:

    Signing pitchers as free agents does not mean that they become bad or that it is a bad way to look for pitching. What seems more likely to me is that most pitchers are either having their most successful years while they are still under team control (whether that be with their original team or with a team they’ve been traded to), or they are signing extended deals during that time, meaning that they don’t become free agents until they are past their prime.

    In other words, the reason why most successful pitchers were not signed as free agents is not because free-agent pitchers become bad, it’s because most pitchers don’t reach free agency during their prime. This creates a small supply of top-notch free-agent pitchers, leading to very expensive deals for the few pitchers who do seem to be good investments (Zito , Sabbathia, Santana), some of whom obviously don’t pay off.

    So, it is reasonably clear that teams should be aware that it is hard to get free-agent pitching, but to me that just means they need to work hard on their farm systems, be willing to risk small amounts of money on guys who might pay off as middle-of-the-rotation starters, and if a team has the money, they may as well spend it on a star, since so few become available. Are the odds reasonable that the deal will last until long past a pitcher’s prime? Yes. However, a team with the money gains a huge competitive advantage by being able and willing to take that chance, simply because there are so few guys available. That’s what we saw with the Yankees last winter.

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    • DavidCEisen says:

      “In other words, the reason why most successful pitchers were not signed as free agents is not because free-agent pitchers become bad, it’s because most pitchers don’t reach free agency during their prime. This creates a small supply of top-notch free-agent pitchers, leading to very expensive deals for the few pitchers who do seem to be good investments (Zito , Sabbathia, Santana), some of whom obviously don’t pay off.”

      Santana was never a free agent, instead he was traded and signed to a long-term contract. This situation illustrates one of the reasons that few ‘top’ pitches are signed as free agents. Becket, Santana, Haren, and Vazquez were traded to teams that would pay them about what they would get on the free agent market. Holladay, Grienke, Nolasco, Johnson, and Gallardo will likely be traded before becoming free agents and unless there is a repeat of CC–where a small to medium market team is in a playoff race–they will likely sign long term contracts with the large market team that signs them.

      Also Cliff Lee isn’t a top 30 pitcher?

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    • Teej says:

      This creates a small supply of top-notch free-agent pitchers, leading to very expensive deals for the few pitchers who do seem to be good investments (Zito , Sabbathia, Santana), some of whom obviously don’t pay off.

      Agreed with most of your post. Just building off this paragraph . . .

      Very few of these high-profile contracts ever pay off, because even if you sign them at their peak, it’s only a year or two before they begin to decline, yet you’ve guaranteed them big money through five or six years. That can be crippling. And Zito, for instance, had already started to decline even before the Giants signed him, and while Sabathia is pretty awesome right now, I’d be worried about the back end of that contract.

      In general, trying to build a pitching staff via free agency is a bad idea. Pitchers are just too unpredictable for small- or medium-market teams to be forking over huge contracts. They’ll get burned more often than not.

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      • Gabriel says:

        Likewise, I agree with most of what you say. We must remember that not all teams are equal in their interactions. My point is that while for most teams there are only two realistic routes to getting a star pitcher — developing them or trading for them, for teams that can afford it, there are essentially 3 routes to trying to get a star pitcher, the above two AND signing a free agent.

        For teams that can afford it, this is a serious advantage. Frankly, I don’t think the Yankees worry about the last couple of years of the Sabathia contract. They can way overpay because every win they get thanks to Sabathia is worth far more to them than it would be to another team, thanks to their market. Some of their star free-agent pitching signings don’t work out (Randy Johnson among others), but enough do (Clemens, Mussina, etc) that they can keep forking out the dough and it works out over the long term as a strategy for improving their team.

        Furthermore, a number of the pitchers listed as “trade” were essentially free-agent signings due to this inequality in the market. The Santana example, which I goofed on when I called it a free-agent signing, is a pretty good example. Had Halladay been traded, it would have been another. Unlike a guy like Dan Haren, who signed a below-market extension relatively early in his career, these are guys who have been or will be resigned at market rates that only the few can afford. In essence, they are free agents.

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  5. Kevin S. says:

    Does xFIP normalize home run rates to the league average (11%), or does it adjust for ballparks?

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  6. BD says:

    “The best pitchers in baseball aren’t being acquired on the free agent market.”

    Just to point out the obvious, the best pitchers aren’t necessarily ELIGIBLE for free agency. Players don’t become FAs until their mid- to late 20s, and the best ones often sign extensions that further delay their opportunities to go on the FA market. By contrast, virtually every American-born player is initially acquired as a result of being drafted. So of course there are bound to be a great deal more good pitchers who were acquired via the draft than there are good pitchers who were acquired via free agency: there are just a lot more pitchers in the former group to begin with.

    By this logic, you could just as well point out that the best pitchers in baseball aren’t lefthanders, inasmuch as most of the players on your list are RHs. Shouldn’t the fact that there are a lot fewer LHs to begin with be factored into the equation?

    To test the validity of the point you’re trying to make, we should be comparing the performance of those pitchers were who acquired via free agency to the performance of pitchers acquired via trades and the performance of pitchers acquired via the draft. I suspect we would learn that the FA group, on average, represented a better group of pitchers than either of the other two groups.

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  7. MikeS says:

    Always interesting to see Javier “most frustrating pitcher in MLB” Vazquez on these lists. He’s having a good year, but is he just starting to learn how to pitch now that he’s at an age where his skills are going to start declining?

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  8. Skelly says:

    Am I missing something here… Your list is very different from this list?

    Where are Santana, Lee and Lowe? I just scanned the list and those are some I noticed were different…

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    • DavidCEisen says:

      Really, because Santana, Lee, and Lowe aren’t on either list. Lowe is 33 and Santana is 35, while Lee doesn’t show up (due to league change, maybe?).

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      • Teej says:

        Yeah, the league change appears to be the reason. Lee’s xFIP in the NL this year is 3.33, and it was 4.16 in the AL before the trade, so it looks like he’d probably be on the top half of this list.

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  9. Zac says:

    adam wainright was acquired in the j.d. drew trade if i remember correctly.

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  10. MichaelC says:

    Looking at the top relievers (top 35) by FIP this year, I see two who have signed decent Free Agent money, Francisco Cordero and Trevor Hoffman. I thing Rivera might count too, not quite sure what the 07/08 situation was. If I’ve missed anyone, my bad. Certainly a few other FA’s in there, but we have reclamation projects.
    You’d think that the plus of a Free Agent signing would be the guarantee of reliability, as they’ve performed somewhere before. Looks like, even with the shorter timespans, the sexy numbers aren’t going to come that way (quick flick of the FIP’s in the 4-5 region looks to be better stocked with FA’s, your Howrys and Woods of this world)

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  11. It makes sense that hardly any of these guys were signed via free agency. Pitching is the premium position and if teams think they might lose a guy they’d much rather trade him and get something back for him. Sabathia was a free agent, but even he was involved in a trade just 2 months before he became a free agent.

    It makes you wonder how Halladay will leave the Blue Jays.

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  12. Ivdown says:

    I am fairly certain that Wainwright was traded by Atlanta for JD Drew.

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  13. Scott says:

    I remember looking up the top 20 largest pitching free agent contracts, and with the exception of Greg Maddux and Derek Lowe, every single contract is now considered a bomb. Mike Hampton, Kevin Brown, Denny Neagle, Barry Zito, Chan Ho Park, Darren Dreifort, Carl Pavano, the list just goes on and on.

    Signing ace pitching in free agency is a fool’s errand, always has been, always will be.

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  14. Davor says:

    from that list, only Kevin Brown was an ace. Signing ace pitching usually ends well. Clemens, Maddux, Mussina, Randy,… It’s signing pitchers who are often injured (Dreifort, Pavano), or who are having career year, and aren’t really aces (Hampton, Pavano, Park, Neagle) or have started decline (Zito). Based on previous contracts, while CC’s contract is almost twice as large as AJ’s, it’s far more likely that Yankees get their money’s worth form CC and AJ to bomb than the other way around.
    Generally big contracts for real stars were good, or at least, didn’t overpay too much. Slightly smaller contracts for non-elite players usually bombed.

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  15. B says:

    Wow Blanton’s career FIP = 4.19, Blanton’s career ERA = 4.19

    Don’t see that often.

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  16. WY says:

    Three different comments corrected R.J. about Wainwright, but he hasn’t made the change. Come on…

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  17. NYMDaWrightCHOICE says:

    I don’t know if I’d include Billingsley in this category. Horrible pitcher.

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