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Royals Celebrate Mediocrity, Sign Jeremy Guthrie

I’m sure it doesn’t feel this way, but I’d really like to see the Royals become a good baseball team. I’d like to see Dayton Moore make some good moves, build around the young core that he has helped develop, and turn the Royals back into a legitimate contender. I’d like to write about how Moore has learned from his past mistakes, and is applying those lessons to make better decisions about what kinds of players he should spend money on. Mostly, I’d just like to be able to say something nice about a Dayton Moore transaction so that we can debunk the idea that FanGraphs has something personal against him or the Royals organization.

But, as much as I’d like to be able to write a post talking about a good Dayton Moore transaction, he has to make one first. And, with news of the Royals agreeing to give Jeremy Guthrie a three year contract, today is not the day that I get to write something positive about a Dayton Moore transaction.

Let’s just start with Guthrie. He turns 34 in April and is one of the more durable pitchers in the league, having thrown 175 innings in six consecutive years. He has a well established skillset as a strike-throwing pitch-to-contact innings eater. There’s nothing too mysterious here. Guthrie is one of the easier pitchers in baseball to break down.

2007 175 7% 17% 43% 0.270 11% 75%
2008 190 7% 15% 44% 0.259 11% 77%
2009 200 7% 13% 35% 0.286 11% 71%
2010 209 6% 14% 42% 0.254 9% 74%
2011 208 7% 15% 40% 0.284 10% 70%
2012 181 6% 13% 41% 0.294 14% 70%
Total 1,202 7% 14% 41% 0.276 11% 72%

His core stats — the left side of that chart — have been remarkably consistent. He strikes out two guys for every one he walks, and he posts a ground ball rate just slightly below average, which leads to him being somewhat homer prone. Besides that weird year as an extreme fly ball guy in 2009, those rates basically never change. Guthrie is that same pitcher every year.

On the right side, things are a little more variable. In three of his six years as a full time starter, he’s posted a BABIP below .270, and in three others, he’s posted a BABIP above .284. In 2007, 2008, and 2010, he prevented enough hits to strand the runners he did put on base, and that led to pretty decent results. In 2009, 2011, and 2012, his BABIP was closer to league average, and his results weren’t quite as good. It’s not a huge surprise that a pitcher’s BABIP is less consistent than his BB/K/GB rates, but since Guthrie allows so much contact, his BABIP is essentially the deciding factor on whether he’s a league average innings eater or a #5 starter. He’s been both. He’ll likely be both again.

Unfortunately for the Royals, Guthrie is getting older and his hit prevention prime seems to be getting further and further into the past. While we shouldn’t ignore the fact that he out-pitched his peripherals in 2007 and 2008, we should put less weight on those seasons than we should on the more recent ones, and more recently, Guthrie’s BABIPs haven’t been far enough below the league averages to compensate for his lack of strikeouts or his home run problem.

From 2007 to 2009, Guthrie posted an ERA-/FIP-/xFIP- of 92/107/105. His BB/K/GB rates pegged him as a below average starter, but his BABIPs were low enough to make him a solid middle-of-the-rotation guy. Over the last three years, though, he’s at 100/109/113. The gap between his ERA and xFIP remains, but since overall offensive levels are declining — with a drastic uptick in strikeouts as a primary reason why — his results are actually getting worse, even as the raw numbers stay the same.

It’s unrealistic to expect Guthrie to even maintain his same performance at 34-36 as he did at 31-33, much less 28-30. As Bill Petti and Jeff Zimmerman showed back in April, pretty much everything gets worse for a pitcher in his mid-30s. BB/HR/BABIP all go up, strikeouts go down. This isn’t shocking news, of course. Everyone realizes that players generally get worse as they get older, and while some pitchers learn a new trick or reinvent themselves, in general, the declining trend of aging is still present.

If you go solely by results and give him full credit for his BABIP, then Guthrie has been basically an average pitcher over the last three years, and you’d expect him to be a bit worse than that going forward, especially given his performances in 2011 and 2012. Factor in that Guthrie’s biggest strength is also the least consistent on a year to year basis, and it’s not hard to see Guthrie giving the Royals a real stinker of a season at some point in this contract, maybe even next year.

Essentially, the Royals just signed up for The Bronson Arroyo Experience. The Reds gave Arroyo a three year, $36 million extension after the 2010 season — where he posted an ERA almost entirely built on a low-BABIP — and Arroyo went on to immediately implode, making the deal look foolish right out of the gates. Of course, he had a nice bounce-back season in 2012, and he’s still the same durable pitch-to-contact guy he’s always been. But, that’s the problem with these kinds of pitchers. They live on the margins, succeeding when the ball bounces their way often enough, and they fall apart when it doesn’t. They don’t do enough by themselves to ensure their success. They need outside variables to go their way, and those variables are tougher to depend on.

Maybe the Royals will get 200 average-ish innings out of Guthrie next year. That’s the upside, and if he hits that, he’s worth $8 million per year. But, of course, there’s a downside too, and that downside has been on display more often the last few years than the upside has. Guthrie is a little bit of age-related decline away from being a replacement level scrub. Odds are pretty good that he’s going to be that pitcher by the time this contract ends, and it’s not obvious that he’s going to provide all that much value at the front end of the contract.

Durable innings eaters have value, especially to big revenue teams that are close to contention and need to minimize their downside at the back-end of their roster. The Royals aren’t that team, though. They don’t have a huge payroll — which is why they backloaded this contract to begin with — and they don’t have the kind of talent in place where they can justify spending a significant chunk of their available cash on one small piece to put them over the top.

In the first few weeks of the off-season, the Royals have committed $17 million of their 2013 payroll to Ervin Santana and Jeremy Guthrie, who both project as possible league average starters if everything breaks right, but more likely something less than that. They bought three wins, maybe four. To be a contender, they needed to add something like 10 to 15 wins this winter. They’ve already spent most of their war chest and they’re not even halfway there.

Guthrie makes the Royals a little bit better, but they didn’t need to get a little bit better this winter. They needed to get a lot better, and now they’re running low on ways to make real significant improvements. For $17 million, plus the $20 million in future commitments to Guthrie, they should have been able to do better. Just like with the Santana acquisition, the Royals have taken money they could have allocated to a difference maker and spent it on a bit part. Between them, Santana, Guthrie, Jeff Francouer, and Bruce Chen are going to make nearly $30 million in 2013.

Smaller payroll teams can’t afford to spend $30 million on five wins. You can either spend a lot of money or spend a little bit of money wisely. Unfortunately for the Royals, they continue to do neither.