Who Needs Pitching?

Last winter, two starting pitchers signed multiyear contracts as free agents – Hiroki Kuroda (3 years, $36 million) and Carlos Silva (4 years, $48 million, $#%!). It appeared to be a combination of a really bad year for free agent pitchers and teams learning about the risk of pitcher attrition and how badly long term contracts for free agent pitchers can go. The recent busts of guys like Barry Zito and Jason Schmidt hung like a cloud, suppressing big money deals for starting pitchers.

This winter will be different. This is almost certainly going to be the greatest collection of free agent arms to hit free agency at the same time in the history of the game. The quality and quantity of arms available this winter is staggering – here are the guys who, in my estimation, have some chance of getting either a multiyear deal or a one year contract for a significant chunk of cash.

CC Sabathia, 2.98 FIP, 4.05 WPA/LI
Ben Sheets, 3.20 FIP, 2.18 WPA/LI
Derek Lowe, 3.33 FIP, 2.33, WPA/LI
Ryan Dempster, 3.38 FIP, 2.91, WPA/LI
Mike Mussina, 3.44 FIP, 1.62 WPA/LI
AJ Burnett, 3.65 FIP, 0.00 WPA/LI (can opt out of current contract)
Andy Pettitte, 3.78 FIP, 0.99 WPA/LI
Randy Johnson, 3.83 FIP, 0.23 WPA/LI
Kyle Lohse, 3.90 FIP, 1.54 WPA/LI
Greg Maddux, 4.03 FIP, 0.70 WPA/LI
Jamie Moyer, 4.29 FIP, 0.63 WPA/LI
Randy Wolf, 4.32 FIP, -0.43 WPA/LI
Oliver Perez, 4.74 FIP, 0.37 WPA/LI
Braden Looper, 4.89 FIP, -0.44 WPA/LI
Jon Garland, 4.91 FIP, -0.72, WPA/LI
Pedro Martinez, 5.40 FIP, -0.62 WPA/LI

There’s literally something for everyone. You want to throw huge money at a franchise savior? Sabathia is the jewel, but there’s always the luring upside of Sheets and Burnett that will tempt shoppers looking for an all-star in his prime. Want a solid middle of the rotation arm who never gets hurt? Look at Lowe, but lean on Dempster and maybe even Lohse as a fall back plan. Want a hall of famer with something left in the tank? There’s Johnson, Maddux, Mussina, and even Pedro, whose velocity is back to 2005 levels and whose main problem has been an absurdly high HR/FB% that could easily regress to the mean next year. Or do you want a lefty who misses bats? You can try to get Pettitte to leave NY, but if you lose out, you could turn to Perez and Wolf. Or maybe you just want to give a lot of money to a guy who isn’t that good but your fans won’t know that until its too late – you’ve got options with both Garland and Looper. And I didn’t even manage to pigeonhole Moyer into any specific category.

The supply of quality pitching on the free agent market has never been higher, but don’t expect to see prices dropping just because there are lots of choices this winter. All this quality pitching becoming available also means that there is a lot of payroll commitments expiring at the end of the season – the 16 pitchers above made about $148 million in 2008, so even without any inflation, there’s $9.25 million per pitcher available to that group. Toss in the fact that teams are still making significant amounts of money through new revenues, and I think we should expect that these 16 guys will sign for a total of at least $200 million for 2009, not even counting the value of the long term contracts that the top names will get.

With so many pitchers available, one thing is certain – this will be one of the most fun hot stove seasons we’ve ever seen.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.


7 Responses to “Who Needs Pitching?”

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  1. Terry says:

    What might this do to the trade value of a pitcher under contract say a Harang, Arroyo, Bedard?

    Also, how might effect the extension of a pitcher if negotiations were under way?

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  2. Tom Au says:

    Hitting is (mostly) where it’s all at. Then relief pitching. I wouldn’t pay market prices for any of these starters, good as some of them might be.

    The Pirates made a huge mistake trading Bay’s and Nady’s bats for more pitching. Jason Bay has 0.85 WPA in just over a month with his new team,and Nady about half that.

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  3. Dave Cameron says:

    If you were going to break down the value of the different aspects of the game, it would look something like this:

    Offense: 40%
    Starting Pitching: 30%
    Defense: 20%
    Relief Pitching: 10%

    There are legitimate ways to build a rotation without spending big money in free agency, but we can’t pretend like starting pitching doesn’t matter.

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  4. Scappy says:

    Over/Under on the number of these guys the Yankees sign, 2.5

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  5. Tom Au says:

    It’s true that starting pitching is important. But it is the area that I would invest the least in, because it is so unreliable.

    This takes two forms. One is that (starting) pitching is more taxing, and hence more likely to lead to injury than even relief pitching. Cases in point are the Yankees’ Joba Chamberlain and Chien Ming Wang. If you depend on your rotation, and one or two are out for injuries, you’re stuck. Not to mention guys like Barry Zito.

    The other unreliability was best exemplified by Dave’s excellent article on Kuroda. Overall, Kuroda’s ERA is an enviable sub-4.00. But it’s all over the map from game to game (as is true of most other people), meaning that such a pitcher can be “perfect” one game, and be outpitched by e.g. Bronson Arroyo or Ian Snell, the next. With such low reliability, it’s hard to structure a game-plan..

    Winning teams like the Angels and the Rays have WPA contributions from their relievers (as a group) that are about twice that of their starters (as a group). The Yankees also have much greater contributions from reliever than starters (and the reason they’re not in the running is because of lack of hitting).

    My preference would be to aim for a starting pitching staff with a WPA of around 0, and let the hitters and relievers do the the rest. That was almost the Pirates’ formula this year. It’s true that their starting pitching was nowhere near a 0 WPA, but it’s also true that the emergence of Maholm and Karstens (the latter could have been had for Marte alone), plus the fact that Snell, Duke and Dumatrait had ERAs above their FIPs made it possible to eventually hope for a 0 WPA from the group.

    Put another way, I’d rather spend $16 million for a Jason Bay than for an Andy Pettite. In fact, Bay might have been had for much less than $16 million (with a no trade clause, given his desire to stay in Pittsburgh). Some of the other starters might command the combined (“free agent”) salaries of Bay and Nady, and offer less.

    So it’s not that hitters are better than starters. But they appear to be better for the money (and risk).

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  6. Sentinel says:

    Like Dave said, it’s possible to build a rotation without spending a bunch of money on free agents. With that said, I wouldn’t mind it if my team spent some money on the rotation if that was the one thing that was needed to push us over the top. Sure, you’d probably spend more money than you wanted, and it could be for a one year rental, but the prospect of winning the elusive championship is pretty alluring. A gamble? Yes, but one that teams should be willing to make in the right circumstances.

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  7. Tom Au says:

    Good point, Sentinel, that buying pitching is a good idea if “needed to push us over the top.” But I didn’t say I wouldn’t do it, only that it’s the last thing I’d do.

    Who’s a good pitcher changes a lot from one year to the next, more than hitters do. (And starters more than relievers.) That’s why I’d assemble my corps of hitters first, and see how far they can go with say, league average starting pitching. If the missing ingredient in a play-off push were starting pitchers, then I’d trade (or sign) for them.

    If you’re going to trade a tested hitter like Jason Bay, it would be for one of the pitchers listed above (when you know exactly who they are, relative to when you need one). After all, the Pirates did trade Mattie Alou for Nelson Briles in the 1970s. Trading a veteran for prospects doesn’t make sense to me today, when a “youth movement” has made prospects unusually expensive by historical standards.

    The Pirates wanted e.g. Reid Brignac and Wade Davis (from the Rays) for Bay, and were turned down; a trade that would have been routine five or ten years ago (as when the Pirates traded Brian Giles for both Bay and Perez). Given that, they should have kept Bay instead of trading for the second- (or third-) best package they got, even if it included two pitchers.

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