For much of the offseason, Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander, and Clayton Kershaw were non-literally linked. All three have been among the most consistently outstanding starting pitchers in the world entire. All three were to enter 2013 two years away from free agency. So all three were to entertain thoughts of signing long-term contract extensions. Felix signed first, re-upping with the Mariners for the rest of days. Now, Friday, with the season just about upon us, Verlander has signed second, re-upping with the Tigers for several days himself.
Depending on how you think about things, Verlander has signed either a seven-year contract or a five-year contract. Verlander was already under contract for $20 million in each of the next two seasons, but upon the new agreement some of the language concerning those two seasons has changed. In any case, after Verlander makes $20 million a year for two years, he’ll make $28 million a year for five. The breakdown:
2013: $20 million
2014: $20 million
2015: $28 million
2016: $28 million
2017: $28 million
2018: $28 million
2019: $28 million
2020: $22 million vesting option (Cy Young voting)
There’s also some no-trade stuff, and some minor incentives stuff. At present, it reads as a seven-year, $180-million contract, with the potential to become an eight-year, $202-million contract. Felix signed a seven-year, $175-million contract, with the potential to become an eight-year, $176-million contract. At the time, Felix became the highest-paid pitcher in the history of baseball. Now Verlander gets to wear that hat, at least until the Dodgers decide to pay Kershaw. Verlander hasn’t really become baseball’s first $200-million pitcher, but he’s gotten closer than anyone ever has.
This contract is very similar to Felix’s, so the discussion is very similar to the Felix discussion. Most discussions about these sorts of things are similar. We acknowledge the ability of the pitcher in question. We acknowledge the risk inherent in signing any pitcher for a long time, and so we acknowledge that there’s upside and downside. Here’s everything you really need to know: the Tigers signed Verlander through 2019 for a lot of money, and Verlander is probably the best starting pitcher in the world, but pitchers can break down at a moment’s notice so the only thing guaranteed is Verlander’s future income.
One thing Felix’s contract has that Verlander’s contract doesn’t is that cheap option at the end in the event that Felix misses 130 days with elbow surgery. The John Lackey clause, as it were. But then that clause came to be for Felix because the team spotted something in his medical examinations. Verlander might’ve checked out completely clean, so there’s only so much to say about this.
Recently, Verlander has been the most valuable pitcher in baseball, due to his durability and talent. Thus, we project Verlander to be the most valuable pitcher in baseball in 2013. He deserved to make the most money, and just as Felix has expressed a desire to be a Mariner for life, Verlander has expressed a desire to stick with the Tigers. It is worth noting that the team contexts are different — the Mariners spend less, and are building for the future, while the Tigers spend more and are a championship contender today. So the Tigers might be more able to afford Verlander’s contract, but it’s clear they weren’t given that much of a discount for presently being good. Team setting is generally a factor, but it’s a much smaller factor than salary maximization.
Now, a thing to remember about the three guys: Kershaw is 25, Felix is nearly 27, and Verlander is 30. As a rule of thumb, young players are considered more reliable for the future than older players, so all else being equal you might think Kershaw would get more than Felix, and Felix would get more than Verlander. But while Verlander has three years on Felix, they’ve thrown the same number of major-league innings. It’s not like there’s that many more miles on Verlander’s arm. Granted, it isn’t only major-league innings that matter — guys throw innings at all levels — but major-league innings are, presumably, the most stressful innings. Verlander has never before been on the disabled list. He’s been the very definition of a dependable workhorse. He’s shown zero signs of wear and tear. His fastball certainly hasn’t slowed in the way that Felix’s has.
So while age is an issue, it seems like a relatively minor one. Now, because this is FanGraphs, I had to put together a pool of player comparables. I looked at the window between 1969-2012, and searched for the best pitchers between the ages of 27-29, by WAR. Not counting Verlander, I found 23 pitchers worth at least 15 WAR over those three seasons. I then looked at how those pitchers did over the subsequent seven years, between the ages of 30-36. I had to eliminate three active pitchers, because they haven’t had a chance to age. A table of the 20 remaining:
Who aged well? Greg Maddux aged well. Roger Clemens aged well. Half of the pitchers were worth at least 22 WAR over the seven years, while six were worth at least 30. Of the pitchers, 11 threw more than 1,000 innings. On overall average, between 27-29, the pitchers threw 246 innings a season, and were worth 6.4 WAR. Between 30-36, they threw 150 innings a season, and were worth 3.0 WAR. The cautionary tales loom at the bottom, in the persons of Brandon Webb and Jose Rijo and J.R. Richard. Remember that Webb was one of the world’s most reliable, durable pitchers until he stopped on a dime.
But then, there had long been concerns about Webb’s future health. It’s one of the reasons contract negotiations with the Diamondbacks broke down. No one’s real concerned about Verlander, not yet. Possibly working in his favor is that he’s demonstrated the ability to pace himself, perhaps better than anybody else. People are well aware that Verlander doesn’t throw every fastball at 100%, generally building as a game goes on. It’s easy to see how this could work for his preservation.
Ultimately it is all educated guesswork. If you have to give a seven-year, $180-million contract to a pitcher, you won’t find a better pitcher to give it to than Verlander. He’s got everything going for him, but he’s still a pitcher, and pitchers are flakes. Pitchers are friends you love but can’t count on. This comes up in every post about this topic, and it needs to, but it’s not like you need to be told. There’s no evidence that Verlander is going to break down, except for much of the entire history of pitchers before him. It’s hard to imagine being more confident in a guy than Verlander, but, yeah. You know the deal. Amazing pitcher, big risk, short-term win with long-term questions.
I feel like I’ve no choice but to conclude this post with some Verlander porn. Behold Verlander vs. Asdrubal Cabrera this past May in one of the season’s most dominant showdowns:
I don’t know what’s going to happen to Justin Verlander later on. Neither do the Tigers, and neither does Justin Verlander. The only thing we know for sure is that Verlander is going to get paid, by the Tigers, for a while. But there’s a reason the Tigers agreed to do that. Verlander provides them with things that other pitchers don’t provide. And can’t provide.
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