Hamels Kicks Off Farewell Tour with $15 Million Contract

The Phillies have signed LHP Cole Hamels to a one-year, $15 million deal, avoiding a final year of arbitration with one of their aces. In the short term, this is fine. Hamels was among the best pitchers in baseball last year, and $15 million is more or less in line with what he was going to make in arbitration, and at any rate, makes him something of a minor bargain.

This news, however, does warrant jumping off a cliff, because indications look good that one of two things will happen to Hamels: 1) He’ll re-sign with the Phillies next year for one of the richest contracts ever given to a pitcher or 2) He’ll sign with the Yankees for one of the richest contracts ever given to a pitcher. What appears almost impossible now is that he’ll sign for something along the lines of the 5 years and $85 million the Angels gave Jered Weaver last summer, or the 5 years and $77.5 million they gave C.J. Wilson last month.

In the winter of 2008, Sabathia was entering his age-28 season, a left-hander who had posted a career 120 ERA+ over 1,659 1/3 innings. Up to that point, he’d posted a K/BB ratio of 2.66 and accumulated 33 wins above replacement, according to Baseball-Reference. Hamels, in the winter of 2012, will be entering in age-29 season, and if he slides back to his career averages, he’ll have posted a 128 ERA+ and a 3.74 K/BB ratio over a little less than 1,400 innings, good for about 27 WAR in half a season less than Sabathia. When Weaver signed with the Angels in August, ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick, among others, suggested that Weaver’s deal would make a good starting point for a Hamels extension. Now, after a breakout season, and with another year’s worth of uncertainty resolved, Hamels could easily make half again what Weaver made in overall value. With another season like 2011, when he posted a WHIP under 1 and struck out more than four times as many batters as he walked, Hamels will raise his price to the point where Weaver’s contract will look like Evan Longoria‘s. Even in a strong pitching market, bidding could start at Cliff Lee‘s 6-year, $147.5 million deal and end up looking like Sabathia’s 7-year, $161 million contract from the 2008/09 offseason, adjusted for inflation.

Of course, there’s nothing to be done about this now–the time to act was after 2009, when Hamels’ public perception was at an all-time low, but his peripheral stats remained unchanged, or after 2010, when Hamels was once again the front-line starter who was voted MVP of the World Series at age 24, but before he turned into the kind of molten lava-flinging cartoon superhero he was in 2011.

Locking up top homegrown talent long-term has become almost a reflex action for Major League Baseball’s smarter franchises. The Rays signed Longoria in 2008 to a contract that allows them to pay, on average, less than $4 million per year for one of the game’s best two-way players until the end of the 2016 season. James Shields will cost the Rays an absolute maximum of $44 million between 2008 and 2014, and this offseason, they signed rookie starter Matt Moore to a 5-year, $14 million contract that could run to eight years for $40 million.

The key to those contracts is signing players with great potential early. The longer a team waits to sign a player, the more certainty exists over his value. So a team like the Rays can approach Longoria or Moore before either has established himself as a quality major league player and offer to lock them up to a long-term extension with multiple team options. If Longoria had flamed out, he’d have cost the Rays less than 3/4 of what Ryan Howard will make this year, but instead, the Rays have locked up a perennial all-star third baseman for roughly the same annual salary as Kyle Kendrick. Likewise, Moore, who has thrown only 9 1/3 regular season innings in the majors, is projected to become one of the top left-handed pitchers in the game, comparable to Hamels, David Price, and their like. If he blows out his arm in April and never pitches again, the Rays have lost less than what Cole Hamels will make this year. If he fulfills his potential, they’ve picked up a bargain–an ace lefty for about a fourth, give or take, of his market value.

The Rays, as you know, are characterized by their extreme relative poverty, so their reliance on signing players long-term and early is extreme. The Phillies can afford to be more conservative, but they’ve overshot the mark with Hamels. The advantage to signing young homegrown players long-term is that they can be had for less than what the free market would dictate, and for a term that would end before the decline phase woes that make teams gunshy about thirtysomething free agents like Jayson Werth and Albert Pujols. This is what the Phillies did with Chase Utley before the 2007 season, and what the Cardinals did with Pujols when they extended him in 2004. Those were instances of teams locking up players after they’d become franchise players, but before they demanded to be paid as such.

The Phillies have missed that opportunity with Hamels, and this $15 million deal is evidence of that. As Longoria, Shields, Moore, Utley, Weaver, and Pujols all showed is that young players are willing to sacrifice earning potential for financial security. As their quality becomes evident, their value goes up. Now, there Hamels has no uncertainty for the Phillies to buy out. He knows he’s a star, he knows he can make nine figures over six years if he wants to, and he has no incentive to take a discount for the Phillies to give him long-term security. If they’d tried to sign him a year or two ago–or even five months ago–he might have, and failing to pounce on that opportunity will likely cost the Phillies somewhere on the order of $40 to 60 million, if it doesn’t cost them Hamels himself.

So as far as the one-year arbitration buyout is concerned, that’s fine. Hamels is well worth front-line starter money, and he’s making a little bit less than that, so he represents, as I’ve said, a minor bargain. But when all is said and done, that this contract is only for one year and not for six could very well lead to Hamels playing out the best years of his career in pinstripes of a different color, and that could cause the Phillies’ run of dominance to unravel quite a bit more rapidly than it might have otherwise.

Which Hunter Pence is at the Negotiating Table?

This winter, Hunter Pence heads to his second salary arbitration hearing, in his third year of eligibility. 2011 was, indisputably, the most successful season of his young career. He produced a .314/.370/.502 line, including a particularly impressive .324/.394/.560 run in 236 plate appearances following his trade to the Phillies. He set career highs in OBP, OPS+, rWAR, and fWAR. Not surprisingly, Pence could net a fair purse for 2012. Matt Swartz, via his salary arbitration model, projects the value of his case to be around $11 million. Under Amaro, the Phillies are typically loathe to leave a player’s salary up to an arbitration panel, so they may try to reach a deal with him in advance of the deadline for exchanging salary submissions later today. Either way, the proceedings hinge on the Phillies knowing just how valuable a player Hunter Pence really is, and the gulf between his 2011 season and those that came before it introduces substantial doubt to that determination.

Prior to 2011, Pence had a career 115 OPS+ on his resume, and was just shy of being a 2 win player (rWAR) in the average season. His offensive numbers were respectable, but not those of a top-flight MLB corner outfielder. From 2007-2010, 17 other leftfielders and rightfielders accrued at least 1500 plate appearances and posted a better OPS+ than Pence, and they are some of the names more closely associated with the offense-first character of the position — Manny Ramirez, Ryan Braun, Jayson Werth, Matt Holliday, Andre Ethier, etc. Pence’s bat was above average at a position which is usually home to excellent or even elite ones.

Still, he developed a reputation that somewhat overstated his abilities. This was due in part to playing for a Houston Astros team that was perennially short on talent; Craig Biggio retired after playing alongside Pence for one season in 2007, and after that, Hunter, Lance Berkman, and a declining Carlos Lee were the lone bright spots on a team that never climbed higher than third in the NL Central. Phillies fans in particular were made to watch Pence post a .330/.382/.681 line against their team’s pitching from 2007-2010. His schizophrenic, penguin-out-of-water, proprioceptively-impaired style of play garnered additional attention and (understandably) clouded attempts at level-headed evaluations of his talent (during a rough stretch for Pence in 2010, Eric Seidman quipped, “I’d say he isn’t seeing the ball well, but he never closes his eyes so I don’t see how that would be possible”).

2011 was a different story entirely. His .378 wOBA last season put him on the same offensive tier as Mike Stanton, Robinson Cano, and Dustin Pedroia. As the five win player that Pence was in 2011 (rWAR), he would be more than worth the money he is poised to make, either by arbitration or extension. The temptation with any sudden surge or depression in hitter production is to search for signs that it could be a passing fluke. In Pence’s case, his BABIP jumps off the (web)page. In both 2011 and his rookie season, which was his second most successful season by OPS+, his BABIP reached levels which are hard to imagine any hitter sustaining — .361 and .377 respectively. Only three hitters in history have logged a BABIP above .360 for their career (minimum 2000 plate appearances): Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, and Shoeless Joe Jackson — none of whom, I think we can agree, are suitable comparisons for Pence. In the last decade, the BABIP leader with that minimum is Shin-Soo Choo, who tops out at .353.

Pence’s BABIP wasn’t the only difference, though. His line drive rate spiked in 2011, reaching 17.9%, the highest since his rookie year mark (19.4%). This, along with the corresponding decline in ground ball and fly ball rates, works favorably towards his BABIP. If he is consistently hitting the ball harder, he’ll obviously have more success on balls in play going forward. But “consistently” is the key there. According to research by Derek Carty, a hitter’s line drive rate stabilizes when the sum of his infield flies, outfield flies, ground balls, and line drives reaches 795 (using MLB Advanced Media, which was not the source of my earlier figures but which shows the same spike for Pence). For Pence, that sum was just 487. And even if we had evidence that Pence had reliably boosted his line drive ability, his 2011 rate still doesn’t support the .361 BABIP. Per Fangraphs’ xBABIP estimator, his batted ball profile in 2011 portends just a .319 BABIP, which also happens to be his career expected BABIP using that same formula. That’s a 42 point difference, which means about 20 less hits, reducing his 2011 batting average to .281 and his on base percentage to .340, and that’s discounting the peripheral effects that reduced contact success might have on his walk and extra base hit rates.

The bulk of Pence’s batted ball fortune in 2011 appears to have come on ground balls. His BABIP on grounders was .329 in 2011; the league average was .237. Looking at the distribution of his ground ball hits, it’s easy to pick out a few that were luck-of-the-draw:

Then again, Pence has always outpaced the league in ground ball success, maybe owing to his speed. Even removing 2011, his career BABIP on grounders is .296.

There is plenty more at stake in the evaluation than just one arbitration hearing. Three of the prospects surrendered by the Phillies to acquire Pence immediately became top 10 prospects in the Astros system — Jonathan Singleton and Jarred Cosart at 1 and 2 respectively, and Domingo Santana at 6, by Baseball America’s reckoning. Granted, the Astros farm system was essentially a wasteland prior to the trade, but Cosart and Singleton would rank well in any system, and it says a lot about the trade that the player-to-be-named turned out to Santana, a formidable well of potential in his own right. The Phillies may not have had a clear spot for Singleton in the big leagues, as he now does with Houston moving to the AL and adding a DH slot to their lineup. They also may not have had much need for Cosart, with Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee locked up for several more years, and Cole Hamels presumably on his way to an extension. It may also be true that, as fresh entrants into the heavyweight class of payroll spenders, the Phillies can afford to exchange prospects in favor of established, more expensive big league talent. But if the true Hunter Pence is closer in ability to his 2007-2010 self, and not his 2011 self, then the Phillies acquired an above-average corner outfielder for a premium package of talent that they were well positioned to sit on until the ideal target came along.

Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections, likely drawing on the BABIP concerns already mentioned, forecast a .281/.334/.450 batting line for Pence, amounting to a 108 OPS+. That’s not a bad season by any means, but it’s not far off from, say, Carlos Ruiz‘s 2011, or Ben Francisco‘s 2010. It’s certainly not the sort of elite bat you can use to maximize the value from a corner outfield position. If that’s the sort of player Pence is going to be, they’ll need offensive surplus from positions where it’s harder to find. They used to have that built-in, season after season, in the form of Chase Utley, but his health leaves that to question now. They may have it from Shane Victorino if he builds on his immensely successful 2011, or from Carlos Ruiz, or from Jimmy Rollins if he can spark a rare late-career surge. Suffice it to say, there are no standout candidates. More importantly, if Pence’s value will reflect something in the neighborhood of that ZiPS projection going forward, the Phillies will have to hope that the package they surrendered manifests more of its risk than its potential, and they’ll have to exercise restraint with negotiating the salary of a new fan favorite and bona fide good guy.