Pirates Get Fair Value in Correia

It’s been a quiet off-season so far for the Pirates, but the Buccos made perhaps their biggest move of the young winter yesterday, reportedly agreeing to terms with Kevin Correia on a deal that will pay the right-hander $8 million over two years. Most observers seem to think the Pirates overpaid. $8 million looks like a lot of guaranteed money for a guy who has spent much of his career bouncing between the bullpen and the rotation, and it’s rare that pitchers coming off a season in which they posted a 5.40 ERA get two year deals. Pitchers of this ilk typically have to settle for one year, incentive-laden contracts. Despite the skepticism, the singing appears to be a fair one for Pittsburgh.

2009 was a breakout year for Correia. A full-time member of the rotation for the first time in his career, Correia showed improvement in all three areas under a pitcher’s control. His K/9 increased from 5.4 to 6.5, his walk rate decreased almost a full walk per nine, and his groundball rate increased from 38 to 44 percent. Fueled by those improvements, Correia logged 198 innings and posted an impressive 3.81 FIP, good for 2.5 WAR.

The improvements Correia saw in his strikeout and groundball rates after moving to the rotation are highly unusual. In a study on players who have moved between the rotation and the pen, BP’s Eric Seidman found that players in the sample had K/PA of 13% in the rotation and 15.4% in the bullpen. Correia has not been as adversely affected by the move as most. Removing 2008 from the equation, his K/9 as a starter is 6.67, higher than his career rate of 6.63. While it’s hard to pinpoint the reason Correia has translated so well to the rotation, some of Correia’s ability to maintain his strikeout rate could be due to his increased use of a cutter. According to Pitch Fx Correia only threw his cutter 1.6% of the time in 2009, but it appears likely that some cutters were being falsely classified as sliders, as his slider velocity shot up 2 mph from the year before. Last year, Correia threw the pitch over 15% of the time, and his K rate jumped from 6.45 to over 7.

Even after this improvement, many weren’t buying Correia after his solid 2009 season. It’s not often that a twenty nine year old suddenly shows such marked improvement, much less a twenty nine year old who spent much of his major league career bouncing between the bullpen and the rotation. At best, Correia’s 2009 was considered to be severely Petco-aided. At worst, downright flukey.

After a disappointing 2010 in which he posted a 5.40 ERA and was temporarily removed from the rotation, it appeared as though the skeptics were right. But there is no indication that Correia’s skills deteriorated in 2010. While his walk rate increased from 2.9 to almost 4 last year, the increased wildness corresponded to jumps in his strikeout and groundball rates. In fact, Correia’s 2009 xFIP of 4.20 was slightly higher than his 2010 mark of 4.19. Correia’s 2010 xFIP was in the same range as solid mid-rotation arms like Anibal Sanchez, Mike Pelfrey, and Johnny Cueto.

The primary difference between 2009 and 2010 was the amount of home runs Correia surrendered. Despite generating more groundballs, his HR/9 shot from .77 in 2009 to 1.24 in 2010, well above his career mark of 1.06. Even taking the move out of Petco into account, it is extremely unlikely that Correia will be so homer-prone in 2011. Especially considering his career HR/FB ratio of 10.1% is actually below the league average mark.

Considering Correia’s HR/FB ratio will likely regresses to close to 11% in 2010, I expect Correia to be worth around 1.5 WAR the next two seasons. A win has been worth approximately $5 million this off-season, so the Pirates do not appeared to have overpaid.

Another way to value the Pirates’ acquisition of Correia is to compare it to the man he has effectively been signed to replace, Zach Duke. After being designated for assignment and then traded to the Diamondbacks, Duke signed for $4.25 million in Arizona. Ironically, Duke’s last two seasons have been very similar to Correia’s. After a solid 2009, a BABIP of .347 and HR/FB almost 14% ballooned Duke’s ERA to 5.72. Bill James projects both pitchers to rebound similarly in 2010, forecasting a 4.37 FIP for Duke and a 4.36 mark for Correia.

You can make an argument that the Pirates would have been better off signing Duke, as there is less risk in a one year deal. However, considering the information we have suggests that both pitchers are likely to bounce-back in 2011. The extra year may prove to be a slight advantage. Entering free agency on the heels of a solid 2011, Correia would likely command more than the $4 million the Pirates have him signed for in 2012.

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Good analysis. I think Correia is a perfectly cromulent #4 starter, which runs about $4-6 million in this day. And if he totally sucks, I think you can still put him back in the pen and get a decent long or short reliever out of him. Good move by the Buccos.