The climate for right handed starting pitching exploded over the weekend, for two distinct reasons. First and foremost, ace-in-waiting Zack Greinke rode the coattails of Matt Cain‘s record deal (and the strength of Cole Hamels‘ extension) to a record deal for RHP (and an annual average that beats every multi-year starting pitching contract ever handed out).
Secondly, the Tampa Bay Rays sent two right handed pitchers to the Kansas City Royals for what seemed like their entire farm system. Following the Brewers’ deal with the Angels for two months of Greinke, previous trades involving Edwin Jackson, Dan Haren, and Matt Garza (among others), the Rays’ return on James Shields and Wade Davis is greater than just about every RHP trade in the last handful of years. Even Roy Halladay with one control year — as arguably the best pitcher in baseball — could not land two BaseballAmerica Top 30 prospects and another Top 70 prospect. Granted, Shields and Davis both have several years of club contract remaining, but it is rather extreme to even compare those control years of approximately average starting pitchers to one year of the best starter in baseball. When the Rays traded Garza to the Cubs a couple of years ago, Garza was arguably a better pitcher than Shields, and even then, he only landed one Top 100 (and rising) and one Top 30 (and falling) prospect.
My immediate thoughts on Sunday were simple: the Brewers NEED to follow the Greinke deal with their own extension of Yovani Gallardo:
Time for the Brewers to extend Gallardo in this culture of increasing RHP contracts.
— DeathToFlyingThings (@SpectiveWax) December 9, 2012
My initial argument relies on several factors about the Brewers’ current franchise starter:
(1) Gallardo is one of the most consistent National League starters to work 100+ IP over the last four consecutive seasons, posting four consecutive above average years (not even Greinke can claim four consecutive above average seasons).
(2) I’ve argued this in previous posts, but Gallardo’s trends look somewhat similar to mid-20s, mid-service time extensions to Jered Weaver and Justin Verlander. While some of Gallardo’s campaigns are closer to average, he also features consistent innings pitched, strike outs, and solid fielding independent elements that suggest that he can maintain a strong performance for some time.
(3) Gallardo’s easy-going, easily-repeated mechanics make him a less likely candidate for injury than other starters (I realize that any starter can be subject to freak injuries, Gallardo included, and freak arm injuries, too, but, Gallardo’s mechanics at least give us reason to expect that he should remain healthy).
Since Sunday, my fervor for immediately extended Gallardo subsided somewhat. Following developments in baseball’s most lucrative pitching deals, new lucrative pitching club members C.J. Wilson and John Danks did not match their previous years of production in the first year of their new contracts; Weaver, Verlander, and Felix Hernandez put together strong campaigns; and Ryan Dempster, Jake Peavy, Derek Lowe, and Carlos Zambrano completed their deals. Overall, for 32 lucrative deals, judging pitchers’ performances during contracts with the 3-4 (or more, in some cases) seasons preceding those deals, the average lucrative pitcher works approximately 74% of his previous workload, at approximately 80% of his previous ERA+ value. Currently, 23 of the 32 top pitching contracts are at least 60% complete, thanks to the development of the Verlander and Hernandez deals, and those newly completed deals mentioned above; considering those deals, things look slightly better, as pitchers maintain approximately 88% of their previous workload at approximately 88% of their previous ERA+ value.
(Note: when pitchers completed 3-or-fewer years on their contract, those years were compared to their previous 3 seasons. When pitchers completed 4-or-more years on their contract, those years were compared to their previous 4-or-more seasons; i.e., 4-for-4, 5-for-5, 6-for-6, etc.)
EDIT (2:48 PM): Okay, I apologize, my stats above about those pitching contracts are just ridiculous and misleading on my part. Those new deals, without any years on them, really influence the overall percentages and quality of production. Divided into two groups, here are (a) the completed lucrative deals, and (b) lucrative deals that are incomplete, but have more than one year played on them. These charts reflect the shift in production much more accurately; these groups are much closer to that 90% of previous workload/90% of previous production before.
Also, just for fun, here’s a chart of contracts (a) with more than 1-year played on them, but (b) without ERA+ improvement. Looking specifically at these contracts, we can see that this group of starters dropped to an 85% previous workload/85% previous production level. Interestingly enough, although this group’s ERA+ value featured a standard deviation of 15 points prior to signing their deals, a standard deviation was 26 points during the contracts. On the other hand, if we remove the 17 contracts with less than 75% of their previous IP workload reached, we find the production value to drop by less than 5%.
The bottom line is, though, pitchers signed to extensive deals are not likely to pitch as much as their previous workload or maintain their previous value.
One of the reasons I support the Brewers extending Gallardo is his service time. Since he remains under club control for at least two more years, there is a good chance that an extension involving Gallardo would place him closer to the range of the Verlander, Hernandez, and Weaver extensions, rather than the Cain or Greinke deals. This is important because the Greinke deal opens up the possibility that elite money can go to right-handed pitchers without elite records. One might argue that this previously was the case with left-handed starters, but if the Cain deal suggested that the threshold for right-handed starters earning big dollars could be lowered, the Greinke deal confirms that fact.
Stated simply, no right-handed starter earning more than $60 million on a contract is (or was) worse than Greinke’s previous three seasons prior to his deal; if we extend that threshold five years to include Greinke’s exceptional 2009 season, Greinke’s value improves to the point that he’s at least comparable-to, or better-than, Lackey, Burnett, etc. But Pedro Martinez, Roy Oswalt, or even Kevin Brown? Greinke is not as valuable as those previous markers for top right-handed money. This is significant because there will be more right-handed starters hitting the free agency market that are closer to Greinke’s value than those previous top RHP. The gamble for a club like the Brewers (or the Cubs or even the Royals, with Garza and Shields, respectively) is whether they will be able to complete in a free market for Gallardo’s services.
In the coming seasons, the Brewers will have more young starting pitching options, and hopefully, those starters become viable, consistent hurlers. In the meantime, the Brewers face the impending benefits in the next handful of years of owing fewer guaranteed contracts while the TV money and MLB revenue sources increase. One of the best ways for the Brewers to capitalize on this environment is to extend their franchise starter while it is possible. Even in a more balanced MLB marketplace, it is clear that the Brewers cannot compete with $145 million deals. Against those standards, a 5-year, $90 million extension looks downright reasonable and acceptable. In order to maintain the services of a consistent starter, the Brewers should explore this option.
Portions of this research have appeared, in various forms, on JSOnline (“Pricing Zack Greinke”), and Badger State Sports forum. I updated this research between December 9 and December 11, 2012, but it remains similar to arguments and research I published elsewhere.
Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC. 2000-2012.
Cot’s Baseball Contracts. BaseballProspectus. Prospectus Entertainment Ventures, 1996-2012.