According to excellent journalist Andy McCullough at the New Jersey Star-Ledger, the Mets are going to keep working on an extension with their newfound elder statesman ace, R.A. Dickey. The team elected to wait and see what the season would bring before putting pen to paper, which was a smart move considering that the organization owns an affordable $5 million option for the 2013 season. But now that he’s put up a Cy-worthy season, the discussion has changed. Making the conversation difficult is the lack of comparable players.
It’s not so surprising that a player that can deftly handle questions about baseball research, popular science fiction, and the craft of writing is unique, but those are not the dimensions that are relevant here. Instead, it’s Dickey’s particular combination of production, age, and skills that make him so difficult to place.
Let’s say we focus on his production. He has 9.4 WAR in the bank since 2010. Let’s set the bar 10% above and below nine wins, or just be easier about it and find the pitchers that have between eight and ten wins since the beginning of 2010. That search provides us with 23 names, from Justin Masterson to Matt Garza. For the purposes of finding contract comparisons, though, we’ll need just the names that signed free agent contracts since 2009 (or have at least six years of experience, suggesting that they are no longer in the arbitration structure). Now we have eight comparable players that are on free agent contracts:
For the purposes of this table, the 2012 salary is actually the average annual value of the pitcher’s current deal. The average of these eight average annual values is $12.1 million, but there are a few mitigating circumstances. Wainwright’s deal, for example, is part of a deal he signed while still under team control. Ryan Dempster signed his deal in 2009, which is either a long time ago or just a short while, depending on who you ask. Still, the list is decent — it’s full of players that are relative bargains, but have question marks, whether due to injury, age, or peripherals.
Speaking of age, it’s time to limit those comps to fit a 39-year-old free agent. Lest we eliminate everyone on the list, let’s set the age limit at 35. That leaves us with four players as old and as excellent as Dickey that are on free agent contracts: Hiroki Kuroda (36), Ryan Dempster (35), Chris Carpenter (37) and Tim Hudson (37). Their contracts average out to about $10.7 million a season.
Last but not least, our comps should be limited by skillset. So let’s limit our list down to the excellent knuckleballers over 35 that are currently on free agent contracts. Right.
And there you have what makes the extension negotiations between Dickey and the Mets a difficult affair. Perception of the knuckleball as a unique pitch must affect the discussion. Interestingly, though, three of the four elder comps above throw a fairly rare pitch themselves: the split-finger. Kuroda, Dempster, and Hudson all have good split-fingers, and as the pitch is known for both whiffs and ground balls, it’s probably helped extend their careers. Much like the knuckleball has done for Dickey. If you focus on that trio, a $10 million average annual salary begins to make a lot of sense.
R.A. Dickey has been excellent this year, and above-average for three years. But before the Mets can reward him for his work, they have to agree how much to weight his results, age, and specific skillset in the negotiations. If a three-year deal makes sense for both sides, they may end up using the three-year, $28 million deal Tim Hudson signed in 2010 as a beginning point. The two pitchers may not look the same on the mound, but they are similar enough in age and skillsets that it could make sense.