Here’s maybe the simplest way to put this: a season ago, by his peripherals, Tanner Roark was about a three-win pitcher. By his actual runs allowed, he was about a five-win pitcher. He actually finished with a higher RA9-WAR than Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister and a lot of other guys too. At present, the Nationals will have to pitch Roark out of the bullpen, because the rotation doesn’t have space.
We knew the Max Scherzer negotiations were going to go on for a while. We knew that, eventually, Scherzer would sign somewhere, for a whole lot of years and something vaguely in the neighborhood of $200 million. He wasn’t going to wait until after the start of spring training, so it stood to reason Scherzer was nearing a decision even several days ago. The only question, really, was where he’d end up. People talked about the Tigers. People talked about the Cardinals. The actual team is the Nationals. And from the looks of things, that Nationals team might be a super-team.
I say “might”, not only because baseball is hard to predict, but also because the Nationals are hard to predict. It’s difficult to figure out what the Nationals intend to do, and for a signing of this magnitude, it’s unlikely the front office had its usual amount of say. Scott Boras likes to go right to the top, and if Boras was able to convince the top of the Nationals that they needed Max Scherzer, it might be they don’t shed anything. All winter, there’s been chatter the Nationals might move Zimmermann or Ian Desmond. They still might do that, or they might alternatively move Stephen Strasburg, but we can’t assume anything. All we know is what the Nationals have at this moment, and what they have is maybe the strongest roster in baseball.
There’s no doubting what Max Scherzer has been, and even before the move, the Nationals ranked first in the NL in Steamer projected WAR. They ranked first in the NL in position-player WAR, and Scherzer moves them to the top of the pitching list. What the Nationals don’t have a ton of is depth, and they might still be looking for some help in the bullpen, but the top of the roster is so impressively strong that it could take several injuries to knock the Nationals off their perch. Relatively speaking, the Nationals might be a little thin on extended depth, but they have enviable star-player depth, which is just a different sort of depth. A more difficult sort of depth to accumulate.
Scherzer, obviously, isn’t coming for free. He isn’t coming for within a hundred seventy-five million dollars of free. Dave is going to have a companion post on the details of this contract, once we actually know more about the language and the net present value. But, let’s work with an estimate of roughly $180 million. Now, if you blend Steamer and ZiPS, next year Scherzer projects for about 4.5 wins. That also fits in line with his recent track record. Take away half a win each year, for aging. Begin with an estimate of $7.5 million per win on the market, and increase by 5% a year. You end up with a projected 21 WAR, and about $177 million in value. If you start at $7.0 million/win, instead of $7.5 million, you get about $165 million in value. The long and short of it being, the Nationals aren’t getting a bargain with this, but the deal isn’t absurd. For what he is, Scherzer’s about as sure as you get.
Let’s think about comps for a moment. Consider that estimated 21 wins over seven years. Scherzer just wrapped up his age-29 season, and between 27 – 29, he exceeded 600 innings, and he averaged 5.3 WAR per 200 frames. Now, between 1978 – 2007, ten starters exceeded 600 innings from 27 – 29, and averaged at least 4.5 WAR/200. The list:
- Roger Clemens
- Greg Maddux
- Kevin Appier
- Teddy Higuera
- Ron Guidry
- Jose Rijo
- David Cone
- Roy Oswalt
- Frank Viola
- Mike Mussina
As a group, they matched Scherzer’s 5.3 WAR/200. So, how did they do between 30 – 36? Obviously, there was much variation, but overall they averaged just over 22 wins. So, that’s right there with our simple Scherzer estimate. Rijo and Higuera struggled with injuries and didn’t do much of anything. Maddux and Clemens, meanwhile, cleared 40 wins. Five of the ten pitchers exceeded 23. You’ll never find a group of pitchers that safely avoids injury and under-performance from top to bottom, but Scherzer is starting from an incredibly high position.
It’s also worth noting, just while I think of it, that while we usually don’t worry about qualifying-offer compensation for deals with players like this, draft picks do have millions of dollars of value. But, the Nationals were slated to pick 27th. So while the 27th pick has its own meaningful value, it’s nothing at all like a pick in the top ten, and that can safely be considered virtually a non-factor.
Let’s get back to Scherzer. He’s a definite ace, and an ace without a worrisome injury history. You already know him for his strikeouts, but he really excels in one area in particular. If you’re chasing against Max Scherzer, you know you’re in trouble, but if you’re not chasing, you might still be in trouble. Over the last three years, here’s the top five in lowest contact rates allowed on pitches in the strike zone:
- Max Scherzer, 80.5% Z-contact%
- R.A. Dickey, 80.7%
- Matt Harvey, 83.0%
- Justin Verlander, 83.6%
- Matt Moore, 83.9%
It’s Scherzer, then a guy with a trick pitch, then a decent gap until the next regular arm. Scherzer finished second in baseball in 2012, behind Dickey. He finished first in 2013. And he finished second in 2014, behind Dickey. Scherzer doesn’t need for hitters to flail away to succeed — he’s strong enough with strikes, and he throws a lot of strikes.
And for what it’s worth, he’s done all this in the American League, and in the AL Central. In 2013, Scherzer’s average opponent had a 96 wRC+. Last year, his average opponent had a 100 wRC+. Two years ago, Jordan Zimmermann’s average opponent had an 89 wRC+. Last year, 91. Zimmermann works as a stand-in for most Nationals pitchers, here. Scherzer’s put up big numbers against higher-quality competition. Zimmermann’s been real good, and Strasburg has also been real good, but their numbers have largely come against relatively inferior competition, so that could be one more reason why the Nationals were willing to commit to Scherzer long-term. With Washington, he could reach another level. Alternatively, he could just have a more gradual decline.
As far as the immediate is concerned, the Nationals have another No. 1. It’s looked, at times, like they might try to subtract from the present to add to the future. This would be the opposite of that, an example of a team loading up to win right away. And there’s another reason why the Nationals would’ve been willing to do this — the team still has never won a playoff series since moving from Montreal. The Nationals were already in position to win the NL East rather comfortably, but this improves both their division odds and their World Series odds, as Scherzer joins a top-heavy roster one could see steamrolling through a few weeks.
Had Scherzer gone to, say, St. Louis, they would’ve ranked roughly on par with Washington and Los Angeles. The NL would’ve looked like a three-team race, at the very top. Now it more resembles a Nationals/Dodgers arms race, and though, again, the Nationals might now elect to subtract, having added an elite-level talent, they could still subtract and thrive, and little would change if they moved a piece to the other league. Zimmermann might be able to bring back a long-term piece that’s big-league ready. Strasburg would definitely do that, if they were to go that way.
The next domino would be James Shields, but James Shields is no Max Scherzer. He wouldn’t be the same for the Cardinals, and he wouldn’t be the same for the Tigers, who now know for a fact Scherzer won’t be coming back. Perhaps, they’ll try harder to negotiate with David Price. Or perhaps they’ll just try to sign one of the other free agents in a year. Scherzer provides some clarity for every team in baseball. Even the Braves and Phillies, who are now extra glad they’re not trying to do anything at the moment.
We don’t yet know what else the Nationals are going to do, if anything. Over the winter, they’ve been looking to turn some shorter-term assets into longer-term assets. They could still go that route, with Desmond or Zimmermann or Strasburg or Fister. Certainly, the current rotation has got an embarrassment of riches. But the next move isn’t clear, and there might not be a next move, if the Nationals decide to charge ahead with the current super-team they’ve constructed. The Nationals wanted more long-term assets. Max Scherzer is a new long-term asset. Max Scherzer is as good as just about any other starting pitcher in the world.
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