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.”

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

Zack Grienke 2010-2012 29 95 604 3.83 106 3.16 154 582
Zack Grienke 2013-2015 32 92 602.2 2.30 156 2.97 129 555
CC Sabathia 2006-2008 28 97 686.2 3.03 145 3.10 140 632
Max Scherzer 2012-2014 30 97 622.1 3.24 126 2.94 179 723
David Price 2013-2015 30 93 655.1 3.01 129 2.85 112 647
Cliff Lee 2008-2010 32 93 667.1 2.98 142 2.85 95 536
Jon Lester 2012-2014 31 98 638.1 3.65 112 3.49 183 563
Cole Hamels* 2010-2012 29 95 640 2.97 134 3.34 157 621
Johnny Cueto 2013-2015 30 77 516.1 2.81 137 3.45 129 469

*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
2016 17 100.1 3.41 134 3.09 31 132
2017 31 186.2 3.86 118 3.83 58 209
Total 48 287 3.70 123 3.57 89 341

Jake Arrieta (Age 32)

2015 33 229 1.77 215 2.35 48 236
2016 31 197.1 3.10 135 3.52 76 190
2017 30 168.1 3.53 123 4.16 55 163
Total 94 594.2 2.71 151 3.25 179 589

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?”

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.”

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  1. Mike Fassano

    October 04, 2017 10:09 PM

    No risk, no reward. At some point Klentak is going to have to make a bold move. He’s gotta be thinking that if he signs another Hellickson, Morton, or Buccholz, the fans will kill him. I don’t care how he does it, but he must come away with at least one front line starter this winter.

    • Steve

      October 05, 2017 08:18 AM

      Hellickson was worth the money on the original signing, it was the QO contract where we didnt get our moneys worth, but they were gamvling that hed decline. It was the right play for a team with excess payroll that valued a possible comp pick more than parting with 17 mil.

      Morton suffered a fluke injury running to first base. He has actually been quite effectice this year. We got unlucky.

      The Bucholz deal was not a good one.

  2. Michael C Lorah

    October 05, 2017 07:14 AM

    I’d love to go after Darvish. He may not be Scherzer-level great, but he’s been a very good pitcher for a long time now. Pitching in Citizen’s Bank shouldn’t be a huge problem for him after Arlington. I’d easily offer him five years, $100M (especially since it’s not my money!) and negotiate up from there if we’re in the neighborhood and he shows interest.

    I’m much less bullish on Arrieta, who has a shorter record of success and a more pronounced decline. I wouldn’t say I have no interest, but the market for him would have to be significantly less than I’m positive it will be.

    Personally, I like the idea of pursuing Lynn AND Cobb. I’m wondering if 3-4 years each, in the $50-70M range, would get it done.

  3. Philly Fan in NY

    October 05, 2017 02:19 PM

    I think the first half of this season was all about attitude for permanent phillies and non-permenent talent. Because the front office made it obvious that the team wouldn’t compete with all the 1 yr rentals, they played and acted like they didn’t have to compete. At the All-star break the mood changed, the rentals were gone and players were fighting for positions on the train pulling out of the station. The front office has to avoid 1 yr rentals (except maybe bullpen) to send the message to fans and the team, “the Phillies are moving forward now” and they will get the commensurate play which I believe equates to a .500 ball club next year.

  4. Paul

    October 05, 2017 07:31 PM

    Why not go after the Japanese Babe Ruth(Shohei Ohtani)? He would only cost the Phillies money which they have plenty. Not a lot of buzz around them doing this? What other international prospects are out there?

    • Steve

      October 05, 2017 10:30 PM

      They typically havent gone after the intl FA, but id mich rather pay Otani than Darvish. Otani and Cobb and one good BP arm would be a huge offseason.

    • Matt Winkelman

      October 06, 2017 09:29 AM

      Right now without a rule change Ohtani would be subject to the international bonus pools for the 2017-2018 signing period. There is also no way to go above bonus pools under the new CBA. The Phillies supposedly traded for about $1M at the deadline on top of the $4.75M they already spent. They can trade for up to their original pool (so an additional $3.75M), but that is all they can give to him as a bonus and the rules do not permit him to sign a major league contract.

      I think it is also safe to assume that major league baseball would punish any team that circumvented the rules to try and give him more money.

      So the reason why there is no buzz with the Phillies and Ohtani is because the entire Ohtani sweepstakes is not about money at all. By coming over this year he would forfeit at least $150M compared to the contract he would get if he waited a year. Given all of this it is hard to know what are the motivations that will lead to his decision.

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