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The Hampton Signing

Yesterday, the Houston Astros announced they have signed Mike Hampton to a contract. This time around, Hampton isn’t setting a record for the largest contract ever signed by a pitcher, but instead settling for a guaranteed $2 million for 2009 with the ability to make another $2 million if he hits certain incentive markers.

Considering Hampton didn’t pitch at all in 2006 or 2007 and only managed 78 innings last year, there’s some understandable skepticism about just how long he’ll last before succumbing to another injury. Reaction in some corners to giving Hampton guaranteed money likens it to setting money ablaze.

Honestly, I had the exact opposite reaction – I think this is a classic no risk move that could pay solid dividends for the Astros.

Hampton has one obvious major league skill – the ability to get ground balls. His sinker has good movement, and he’s always been a groundball pitcher. That didn’t go away while he was rehabbing, either – his 2008 GB% of 52.7% was higher than any mark he posted while healthy from 2002 to 2005. Because Hampton keeps the ball on the ground, his primary way of keeping runs off the board has always been to limit the long ball – his career 0.78 HR/9 rate is one of the best in the league for active pitchers.

Because he’s able to prevent home runs, he’s been able to succeed with below average walk and strikeout rates – his career 1.53 K/BB rate is nothing to write home about, but because he hasn’t given up many home runs, he’s posted a career 4.25 FIP.

Hampton showed the same skillset last year – mediocre command, doesn’t miss many bats, but still gets a bunch of groundballs. However, 15.2% of his flyballs went over the wall, leading to a 4.94 FIP. As we’ve talked about, HR/FB rate fluctuates quite a bit from year to year due to factors outside of a pitcher’s control, so we can’t just assume that this was some flaw in Hampton’s pitching that caused the surge in longballs. If Hampton had allowed HRs on just 10% of his fly balls, he’d have allowed four fewer home home runs, and his FIP would have been 4.34, pretty much right in line with his career norms.

Even factoring in some regression due to age, it’s hard to get much lower than a true talent level 4.60 FIP for Hampton. If we assume that a replacement level starter in the NL would post a 5.50 FIP, and that Hampton’s injury problems limit him to 100 innings, then we still get a 10 run difference between Hampton and a replacement level starter.

Signing a +1 win pitcher for $2-$4 million (it’s impossible to know which incentives he’d hit in our scenario) is a pretty big bargain, even in this depressed free agent economy. Good move for the Astros.