You Can’t Make a Unicorn by Putting a Horn on a Horse’s Head
Yesterday Phillies president Andy MacPhail sat down and answered questions about the Phillies rebuild and the direction the team would take going into the offseason. When asked about where they would go with pitching, MacPhail responded with this.
“We get inundated with stories across the game about everybody is looking for starting pitching. Just get two quality starters and we’ll be all set. Well, you might as well look for a unicorn at the same time. It’s tough.”
“You don’t want to be paying for past performance,”…”That’s often what you’re confronted with – someone who has probably logged over 600 innings in the last three years and been a great pitcher and now we’re on the wrong side of 30 and here we go.”Philly.com
Today Bob Brookover wrote a piece with this title “Phillies’ Andy MacPhail must not fear unicorns or long-term pitching contracts” where he argued the Phillies should not be afraid to spend money on pitching. While I don’t disagree that MacPhail might be a big gun shy on the Phillies signing a long term pitching contract, I don’t get the argument that it is a move the Phillies should make right now. In his piece, Brookover argues that the Phillies should follow the example of the Yankees (CC Sabathia), Diamondbacks (Zack Greinke), and Nationals (Max Scherzer) and give a giant contract to an ace level pitcher. Here are those pitchers plus a few more that meet that level of mega contract that Brookover is indicating, more specifically here is the combined line of their 3 seasons prior to being a free agent.
Age is the age of their first post-contract season
*Signed an extension and was not a free agent
That is a list of the best pitchers in baseball over the last half decade. Not all of their deals worked out perfectly. CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee declined heavily at the end of their deals, and David Price, Jon Lester, and Johnny Cueto had rough 2017 seasons. Outside of maybe David Price, no one is regretting any of these deals.
Now, it is widely acknowledged that there are two pitchers above the rest in this year’s free agent market in Jake Arrieta and Yu Darvish. Here are their numbers in the same activity as the aces above.
Yu Darvish (Age 31)
|2015||DNP Tommy John Surgery|
Jake Arrieta (Age 32)
It is clear quickly we have no comparison to Darvish, who is coming off his first full year after Tommy John surgery and was not the same stand out pitcher he was earlier in his career. As for Arrieta, his 2015 season keeps his total numbers up, but there is a sharp decline when we look at his yearly numbers. Arrieta will also be entering his age 32 season, so we should probably compare him to he peer group. In this case that is Zack Grienke, Jon Lester, and Cliff Lee. So here are their years leading up to free agency.
- Jake Arrieta: 168.1 IP 3.53 ERA
- Jon Lester: 219.2 IP 2.46 ERA
- Cliff Lee: 212.1 IP 3.18 ERA
- Zack Grienke: 222.2 IP 1.66 ERA
It becomes clear very quickly that Arrieta has the track record, but does not have the current performance of other ace level pitchers hitting free agency.
This isn’t to say Darvish or Arrietta are bad pitchers, or that their contract will be bad with whoever signs them, just that they aren’t that unicorn you are chasing. Neither are that ace level arm to build your rotation around for the next 2-4 seasons.
Now of course Brookover gives a buy low option:
“Regardless of how much money any team spends on analytics, there is no way to know when a star pitcher is going to run out of gas. It seemed to make no sense for the Minnesota Twins, coming off a 70-92 season in 2014, to pay 32-year-old Ervin Santana $55 million over four years. But guess who was on the mound for the Twins Tuesday night against the Yankees when the team made its first postseason appearance since 2010?”Philly.com
Ervin Santana just wrapped his 3rd year in Minnesota. Over those 3 seasons he has put up a 3.47 ERA over 500.2 innings and delivered 10.1 WAR of value. That WAR value and ERA is good enough for 21st in the majors over that time period. He has been a solid starting pitcher. The Twins also surrendered what would have been the 47th pick in the 2015 draft to sign him (also known as the pick 2 before the Phillies took Scott Kingery). Santana’s exist in every FA class. In this case it may be Lance Lynn or Alex Cobb, and it may also cost the Phillies a high 2nd round pick to do it. Santana also hasn’t be a huge difference maker, he isn’t a unicorn, he actually fits what MacPhail said…
“Just get two quality starters and we’ll be all set.”