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The Perils of Very Long Contract Extensions for Pitchers

On the morning after the opening game of the season, the first Australia game between the Dodgers and Diamondbacks, I had a phone conversation with a scouting friend. The first thing out of both our mouths was basically the same – “Did you see Kershaw? 88 MPH! Didn’t look comfortable on the mound. Seemed to be laboring, etc., etc., etc..” Clayton Kershaw most certainly did not look like himself that day, and now will not likely pitch until May due to an upper back injury. While this may – hopefully – turn out to be nothing more than a minor blip in his overall career body of work, the fact that he only recently signed a record (for a pitcher) seven-year, $215M contract extension is the elephant in the room.

What if Kershaw’s days as a force of nature are over, or numbered? Why has the industry’s perfectly understandable previous aversion to extremely long contract extensions for pitchers seemingly been cast aside? What does the future hold for the recent beneficiaries – like Kershaw, Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander – of the clubs’ recent change in approach? Let’s take a look at some names from the game’s past to get a feel for these pitchers’ respective futures.

First, let’s take a look at a snapshot of how Kershaw, Hernandez and Verlander get it done. Below are grids of their percentile ranks indicating the respective frequency of each of the six key plate appearance outcomes – K’s, BB’s, popups, fly balls, line drives and ground balls – against them over the past six years. Batted ball authority is not taken into account at all here, though we will briefly discuss it later. These numbers alone – from 1, indicating lowest in the majors, to 99, indicating the highest – paint an accurate portrait of a pitcher or hitter qualitatively. As explained in last week’s Cabrera/Trout articles, they’re baseball’s equivalent of “technical merit” scores.

2008 78 86 30 8 76 82
2009 98 99 90 52 54 23
2010 94 81 95 53 15 29
2011 97 19 73 71 8 48
2012 97 50 59 57 8 61
2013 93 16 69 16 84 60
—– —– —– —– —– —– —–
2008 82 77 17 33 29 82
2009 87 35 11 18 12 91
2010 89 31 14 13 22 92
2011 88 42 25 30 35 79
2012 91 32 55 15 66 68
2013 95 18 24 26 52 82
—– —– —– —– —– —– —–
2008 66 81 95 76 40 14
2009 97 18 76 81 92 10
2010 91 43 83 37 68 37
2011 95 21 89 83 21 21
2012 94 33 91 31 84 29
2013 87 67 91 56 73 15

In a nutshell, this information shows why these three are truly elite. Kershaw’s K percentile ranks are consistently near the top of the scale, and his control, once a distinct liability, has also grown to become a clear strength. Over the last few years his ground ball rate has increased while his fly ball rate has declined, another positive. His line drive rate spiked upward in 2013 after three seasons near the bottom of the scale. His popup rate has been above average for five consecutive seasons.

Hernandez’ K rate has been very high over the entire period being measured, while his BB rate has steadily moved in a positive direction, also becoming a true strength. He has always been a ground ball pitcher, though not as extreme in that regard over the most recent three years as compared to the previous three. His line drive rates have crept up over time, and have been above MLB average the last two seasons.

Verlander’s K rates have also been consistently strong, though his control in 2013 was the worst it has been in years. His popup rates have always been near the top of the scale. He has always been a fly ball pitcher, with low ground ball percentile ranks. He has allowed high line drive rates in four of the last five seasons, with his percentile ranks ranging from 68 to 92.

All have multiple clear strengths, as well as limited areas of imperfection. Their ability to rack up K’s and limit BB’s gives them room for error with regard to their batted-ball frequencies, but they possess clear batted-ball frequency strengths as well, allowing them to be great, instead of merely good.

These three are not being paid for what they have already done, however. They are being paid – very handsomely, and for a very long time into the future – for what they are going to do. Kershaw is being paid $215M over seven years, through 2020. Felix Hernandez is being paid $175M over seven years, through 2019. Justin Verlander is being paid $219.5M over 10 years, through 2019. I don’t necessarily believe that these three are being overpaid, in terms of their annual salaries. Kershaw’s 2013 performance supports even a massive $30M/year salary. My concern is with the duration of these contracts. What will these guys be in 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020?

For each of these three star pitchers, let’s attempt to isolate a group of pitchers at the same age and experience level, with at least vaguely similar talent, and see how their careers as a group played out.

Kershaw was 25 in 2013, and has pitched enough innings to qualify for the ERA title in a total of five seasons. 37 starting pitchers, going back to 1901, meet this age/experience criteria. Of this group, 10 fit into a broad range of talent/accomplishment that would include Kershaw. All 10 pitchers below logged fairly heavy workloads through age 25, and had K rates exceeding the league average, some like Kershaw, by a significant margin. Many, like Kershaw, had command issues early in their career, and then gradually improved in that area through age 25. We aren’t solely looking for extremely close comps performance-wise – we are looking for a “family” of pitchers at the same age/experience level who share some discernible traits.

Age 25, 5 Yrs Age 25 Seas PEAK LAST AGE # QUAL ERA+ TO 25 ERA+ POST-25
Kershaw 2013 25 5 158
Hoeft 1957 23-25 25 5 103 N/A
Du.Leonard 1917 21-23 29 9 149 105
S.McDowell 1968 25-27 29 9 136 118
McLain 1969 23-25 27 6 122 81
Mungo 1936 24-26 34 8 112 116
C.Simmons 1954 23-25 36 13 123 117
Sutton 1970 26-28 42 22 96 117
Tanana 1978 22-24 40 18 127 100
M.Witt 1986 23-25 28 8 123 95
SJ.Wood 1915 20-22 25 5 162 N/A

An eclectic mix of pitchers, to be sure. And before you dismiss them as wholly inferior to Kershaw, please consider that: 1) One is a Hall of Famer (Don Sutton); 2) Two won 30 games in a season (Denny McLain, Smoky Joe Wood); 3) One had an 0.96 ERA in a qualifying season (Dutch Leonard); 4) One was one of the most dominant 22-24 year-old pitchers ever (Frank Tanana); 5) One once struck out 1652 batters over a six-year span (Sam McDowell), and 6) Another very quietly won 193 games in his career (Curt Simmons). All but three of these pitchers had already completed their three-year peak period by age 25, and only one (Sutton) had yet to begin his.

What did they do, as a group, after age 25? Two, Billy Hoeft and Wood, never again qualified for an ERA title. Hoeft, likely the weakest pitcher of the group, moved into the bullpen and had some success. Wood – who was a better pitcher than Kershaw through age 25 – was overused in his early 20’s, and his career was essentially over at age 25.

Of the other eight pitchers, six performed worse after age 25 than before. Of the six decliners, all but Simmons performed markedly worse, and none compiled better than a 118 ERA+ over their remaining qualifying seasons. Of the two who improved after age 25, Van Lingle Mungo did so by a negligible margin, and Sutton – the only one in this group who qualified for ERA titles in each of the next seven seasons, the period covered by Kershaw’s contract – evolved from a promising young pitcher with good peripherals into an unprecedentedly durable Hall of Famer, with 22 consecutive ERA-qualifying seasons.

Among the five “big decliners” are some interesting stories. McDowell was beset by arm trouble and off-field issues, and was essentially done by age 30. Tanana was grotesquely overused early in his career – he completed 14 straight games in 1977, which instantaneously transformed him from a dominator into a finesse pitcher, albeit one with a long shelf life. Denny McLain won 31 games in 1968 at age 24, and promptly saw his career and personal life go off of a cliff.

Overall, these 10 pitchers on average qualified for their last ERA title at age 32 – the age Kershaw will reach in the last year of his contract – and averaged five ERA-qualifying seasons after age 25. They averaged a 14% decline in their ERA+ in their post-age-25 seasons, a decline Kershaw can afford coming off a pre-age-25 average of 158. He is fighting against history if he is to remain a 120+ ERA+ performer after age 25, however, a level that none of these 10 historical peers – even Sutton – was able to reach.

Now, let’s talk about Felix, who last year qualified for his eighth ERA title at age 27. He’s keeping pretty fast company here, as he is one of only 13 pitchers since 1901 with that same age/experience combination. Of those 12 peers, we’ll toss out five who clearly don’t belong – and that group includes a Hall of Famer (Catfish Hunter) and two 200-game winners (Mel Harder and Milt Pappas). The seven pitchers remaining – well, they’re six Hall of Famers and Dwight Gooden.

Age 27, 8 Yrs Age 27 Seas PEAK LAST AGE # QUAL ERA+ TO 25 ERA+ POST-25
F.Hernandez 2013 27 8 131
C.Bender 1911 25-27 31 12 121 110
Drysdale 1964 25-27 31 12 128 113
Eckersley 1982 22-24 31 11 121 101
Gooden 1992 19-21 31 10 129 109
W.Johnson 1915 23-25 38 18 186 152
C.Mathewson 1908 27-29 34 15 147 149
Newhouser 1948 23-25 31 11 154 113

First of all, no one can say that Felix is overqualified for this peer group – according to ERA+ through age 27, at least, he fits smack in the middle of the pack. All of these pitchers carried comparably heavy workloads through age 27, had very impressive K rates and above average command. All but Christy Mathewson had completed their respective peak periods by the end of their age 27 season, and he had already begun his.

How did they fare after age 27? Well, unlike Kershaw’s group, none of them immediately went away. All had ERA-qualifying seasons as late as age 31, and all had at least three ERA-qualifying seasons ahead of them. Five of the seven, however, had only four more ERA-qualifying seasons – and Felix is to be paid $25M per season for the next six seasons. On average, these seven pitchers averaged five more qualifying seasons, with an average age of 32 in their final qualifying season.

How about the quality of those post-age-27 seasons? Both the Felix and Kershaw groups experienced a 14% decline in ERA+, from 141 before the age/experience cutoff to 121 afterward. The decline among this group was fairly uniform across the board with the exception of Hal Newhouser, who enjoyed his pre-age-25 peak period against wartime competition. Mathewson is likely the best-case scenario for Hernandez – he remained quite close to his peak level through age 32. He is the only member of this group to continue to qualify for ERA titles each year through his age-33 season – the last one covered by Hernandez’ current contract. Oh, and Walter Johnson, likely the best pitcher of all time, is in this group, so there’s that.

Lastly, let’s look at Verlander, who in 2013 qualified for his eighth ERA title at age 30. This is not nearly as exclusive a group historically, as 47 pitchers since 1901 share this age/experience combination. Of this group, 20 can reasonably be selected as a peer group for Verlander in terms of mileage and relative strikeout/walk frequency. Like Kershaw’s, this is a very mixed group, containing both stars and guys who seemed destined to be stars at one point in time.

Age 30, 8 Yrs Age 30 Seas PEAK LAST AGE # QUAL ERA+ TO 25 ERA+ POST-25
Verlander 2013 30 8 133
Ames 1913 27-29 35 13 115 104
An.Benes 1998 28-30 32 10 113 95
Candelaria 1984 23-25 30 8 123 N/A
Clemens 1993 27-29 42 19 157 153
Feller 1949 20-22 34 12 134 104
Grimes 1924 34-36 37 15 112 117
Hendrix 1919 23-25 31 9 119 89
Koufax 1966 28-30 30 8 151 N/A
Lolich 1971 30-32 35 13 106 107
Marichal 1968 26-28 35 13 136 120
Marquard 1917 24-26 36 13 117 99
P.Martinez 2002 27-29 33 11 189 158
Matlack 1980 22-24 30 8 125 N/A
Messersmith 1976 27-29 30 8 127 N/A
Mussina 1999 23-25 39 16 134 121
Pascual 1964 27-29 34 10 127 103
Podres 1963 24-26 30 8 112 N/A
Swindell 1995 26-28 30 8 110 N/A
Viola 1990 27-29 33 11 122 119
Welch 1987 28-30 36 13 115 104

Again, you can’t call Verlander overqualified for his group – there are eight Hall of Famers or HOF talents here (Roger Clemens, Bob Feller, Burleigh Grimes, Sandy Koufax, Juan Marichal, Rube Marquard, Pedro Martinez and Mike Mussina). All of the 20 with the possible exception of Greg Swindell were big K guys for their respective eras, and Swindell’s command more than compensates. All but Grimes and Mickey Lolich had completed their peak periods by age 30, and Lolich began his at that age. I feel comfortable saying that Justin Verlander’s three-year peak is behind us – that might also be the case with Kershaw at 25 and Felix at 27, but I certainly feel much more comfortable saying it about Verlander at 30.

How did this group fare after age 30? Six of the 20 – John Candelaria, Sandy Koufax, Jon Matlack, Andy Messersmith, Johnny Podres and Greg Swindell – never again qualified for an ERA title. Koufax retired at this peak, Candelaria and Swindell went on to have successful extended careers as lefty relievers, while the other three succumbed to a combination of injury and ineffectiveness. Five more hurlers (Andy Benes, Claude Hendrix, Pedro Martinez, Camilo Pascual and Frank Viola) had three or fewer ERA-qualifying seasons ahead of them at age 30.

Of the remaining nine, only three could truly be classified as post-age-30 success stories – Clemens, Grimes and Mussina. Clemens is an inner-circle great whose decline phase may have been softened by PEDs. Grimes was the last spitballer. Mussina, for some reason that I cannot fathom, is almost universally underappreciated. He is the only one among this group who qualified for ERA titles each and every year from age 31 through age 36, the age through which Verlander’s contract runs.

As a group, these pitchers combined for an average of three ERA-qualifying seasons after age 30, and on average posted their last such season at age 34. Justin Verlander will be very well-compensated – though not nearly as much so as Kershaw and Hernandez – through age 36. Very similarly to the other two groups, these pitchers’ average ERA+ declined by 12% from 129 through age 30 to 114 in their qualifying seasons afterward.

A contributing factor to the three current-day pitchers’ aging trends will be their ability to manage contact. Very quickly, let’s examine their production allowed by BIP type for 2013 to make an assessment for their current skill in that department.

FLY 0.190 0.469 42 57
LD 0.571 0.671 69 87
GB 0.203 0.244 80 97
ALL BIP 0.265 0.376 61 79
ALL PA 0.192 0.239 0.273 53 65 1.83 2.04 2.52
FLY 0.264 0.682 85 101
LD 0.739 0.991 129 105
GB 0.227 0.251 93 101
ALL BIP 0.330 0.488 99 97
ALL PA 0.238 0.281 0.352 78 77 3.04 3.04 2.98
FLY 0.281 0.667 87 93
LD 0.696 0.889 110 105
GB 0.264 0.277 121 109
ALL BIP 0.336 0.497 103 101
ALL PA 0.249 0.311 0.368 92 91 3.46 3.55 3.51

Kershaw was the contact management star of the three in 2013. He allowed extremely weak fly ball contact (actual relative production of 42, scaled to MLB average of 100, adjusted for context to 57) – even the liners he allowed were relatively weak (87 adjusted for context). He allowed 79 adjusted relative production on all BIP, second best in the majors to Justin Masterson (75).

On the other hand, Hernandez and Verlander were basically MLB-average contact managers last season – they relied primarily on their K and BB rates for their excellence. Both have had greater contact management success in the past – Hernandez used to allow much weaker ground balls on average in the past then he did last year, for example. Still, Kershaw had more weapons – bat-missing, command AND contact management – at his disposal than did the others in 2013. As perusal of these comp lists might suggest, however, injury can wipe out all of those weapons in one fell swoop.

Last week in this space, I wrote articles about Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout, which included two lists of comparable players through the two stars’ respective current ages. Tony Conigliaro stood out like a sore thumb on Trout’s comp list – he was that much of an outlier. There sure are a lot of “Conigliaro’s” on the above lists. Pitchers, even the very best of them, are very fragile creatures. Like Smoky Joe Wood. Like Johan Santana. Like Brandon Webb, and many of those referenced here today. Doing that they do is a very unnatural act physically, and their attrition rate greatly exceeds that of position players.

There is nothing wrong with paying premium dollars to premium talent, but there is something inherently inefficient in paying premium dollars for an inordinate number of years, multiple years before a club has to do so. As for the argument that the dollars and years will continue to grow indefinitely, and that these contracts will seem a mere pittance before long, I refer you to the stock market crash of 1929, the dot-com and housing bubbles, etc. – when money no longer seems to be an issue, it tends to become one in a big way. The vast majority of big-dollar, long-duration position players contracts have not gone very well. Don’t expect it to be any better now that the pitchers are in on the action.