Clayton Kershaw‘s seven-year, $215 million contract might be the first megadeal in MLB history that seems like a bargain. First and foremost, Kershaw’s exceptional pitching record does not make it strange to hear that he’s the best-paid pitcher in MLB-history. Not only does Kershaw boast the most valuable ERA among active starters, he has the best ERA+ of any modern pitcher except Pedro Martinez. Recent big-time contract earners Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, Zack Greinke, Matt Cain, or even CC Sabathia could not make the same claim to historical greatness at the time of their deals. Secondly, since the Los Angeles Dodgers will be able to keep at least $6 billion of the revenue from their absurd TV contract, Kershaw’s contract does not even take one full year of TV money from the Dodgers. During Kershaw’s deal, the Dodgers will earn more than $1.6 billion in revenue.
Kershaw’s age is also another factor that makes his contract seem like a bargain. The lefty will be 26 for opening day in 2014, which means that the Dodgers wouldn’t necessarily expect the same potential physical decline during Kershaw’s contract as they would with an older pitcher. Furthermore, Kershaw’s career performance at age-25 also places his greatness in context. 37 MLB pitchers made a start during their age-25 season in 2013, and little more than half of those pitchers have more than 200 IP in their career; no one but Kershaw has an ERA+ above 130 (let alone 145):
Given Kershaw’s age, exceptional performance, and the Dodgers’ TV situation, it seems like the southpaw did not sign a contract that matches his value to their club. Specifically, in the last three years, Kershaw prevented 120 runs (against the NL/Dodger Stadium), which was 81 runs better than the club’s second starters from 2011-2013. In fact, the Dodgers needed 18 starting pitchers to complete the last three seasons, and their their full rotations were 110 runs above average:
|2011-2013 Dodgers||Runs Prevented|
|R. de la Rosa||1|
Basically, it is not a stretch to say that the vast majority of the Dodgers’ pitching value has come from Kershaw. This is yet another reason that Kershaw’s $215 million deal seems like a bargain. Certainly, one can use replacement theory and similar contracts to build a player’s expected contract, but how does one weigh the value of a pitcher that carries an entire team’s rotation?
At a certain point, there are diminishing returns from dependable starters. This seems like a strange thing to read on a Brewers website, given the club’s pitching issues in 2013 due to a lack of dependable starters. Yet, I think Kershaw’s contract shows that, at some point, simply having dependable starters does not create rotation success. In fact, even though fans lament the Brewers’ rotation, the rotation does feature two of the best dependable starters in the National League (Kyle Lohse and Yovani Gallardo). Despite these dependable starters, the Brewers’ rotation had a tough year in 2013 (especially compared to the successful seasons of 2011 and 2012). This shows a difficulty for general managers: although maintaining a strong top rotation sounds absolutely necessary for success, having that solid top rotation does little to nothing for the bottom rotation.
Ideally, value is simply production measured against scarcity. However, in the MLB, value is also determined by service time. This can be demonstrated when analyzing arbitration buy-out contracts, as compared to free agent contracts. Madison Bumgarner is a better pitcher than Tim Lincecum, but since Lincecum’s arbitration pedigree and service time is higher than Bumgarner’s, Bumgarner boasts a max 7/$69 million contract while Lincecum is earning $17.5 million per season (for two years). In fact, when analyzing the NL’s dependable starters from 2011-2013, it appears that the sheer scarcity of dependable starters produces contracts that only minimally reflect performance value. Notably, there were only 26 pitchers to work 100+ IP each season from 2011-2013 in the NL:
|2011-2013 NL starter||IP||Runs Prevented||Full Remaining Contract|
|C. Kershaw (LAD)||697||120||7/$215|
|Cl. Lee (Phi)||670.7||91||3/$77.5|
|C. Hamels (Phi)||651.3||64||6/$132.5|
|J. Zimmermann (Was)||570.3||54||7/$118|
|K. Lohse (Mil)||598||43||2/$22|
|M. Latos (Cin)||614.3||36||1/$7.25|
|Z. Greinke (LAD)||472.3*||33||5/$130|
|T. Hudson (SF)||525.3||24||2/$23|
|M. Cain (SF)||625.3||22||5/$101|
|M. Bumgarner (SF)||614.3||20||6/$46|
|Y. Gallardo (Mil)||592||15||2/$24.25|
|H. Bailey (Cin)||549||15||arbitration|
|M. Leake (Cin)||539||10||arbitration|
|I. Kennedy (SD)||611.7||9||arbitration|
|T. Wood (CHC)||462||8||arbitration|
|P. Maholm ( n/a )||435.7||AVG||free agent|
|B. Arroyo ( n/a )||603||-4||free agent|
|R. Vogelsong (SF)||473||-13||1/$5|
|J. Niese (NYM)||490.7||-13||5/$42|
|K. Kendrick (Phi)||456||-16||arbitration|
|D. Gee (NYM)||469.3||-17||arbitration|
|C. Capuano ( n/a )||490||-28||free agent|
|R. Nolasco (Min)||596.3||-30||5/$62|
|T. Lincecum (SF)||599.7||-36||2/$35|
|J. Westbrook ( n/a )||474.7||-44||free agent|
|E. Volquez (Pit)||461.7||-72||1/$5|
|*AL stats not counted|
In terms of annual value, the below average dependable starters earn more than $10.6 million, while the above average dependable starters earn more than $19.4 million. This undoubtedly reflects the service time of Jordan Zimmermann, Mat Latos, Bumgarner, and even Gallardo, compared to Ricky Nolasco and Lincecum. Still, the average distance between these pitchers’ performances is between 66 and 80 runs prevented over three years:
|Pitching Class||Years / $Millions||Average Runs Prevented||Median Runs Prevented|
|Above Average (11 under contract)||46/$896.5||47||36|
|Below average (5 under contract)||14/$149||-33||-30|
This basic distance in runs prevented translates to anywhere between 2.5 and 3.0 wins above average (not replacement) for these two classes of pitchers. That value is reflected, in part, by the differences in contract length (no below average dependable starter has a contract with more than 5 years remaining, while four above average dependable starters have contracts with 6-7 years remaining). However, that value is not reflected in the annual value of those contracts, since the floor for the below average contracts is so high. Lincecum’s contract is one thing, but even near-replacement pitchers such as Ryan Vogelsong and Edinson Volquez landed $5 million contracts. Given that three replacement pitchers could arguably match their production for minimal cost (between $1.5 million and, maybe at most, $3 million. See here, also), the $5 million contract seems high. Yet, this is where factors such as service time impact contracts (as well as free agency, in some cases); for example, the arbitration-controlled Mat Latos will earn $7.25 million in 2014, despite being between 49 and 108 runs better than Vogelsong and Volquez during 2011-2013.
Interestingly enough, only one AL and 10 NL clubs control these 26 dependable starters (four remain free agents). Here is where one might question the impact of dependable starters on a rotation. San Francisco, Cincinnati, and Philadelphia control the most dependable starters (11), and the Dodgers, Mets, and Brewers each control two. The Cubs, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, San Diego, and Washington each control one, and Atlanta, Arizona, Colorado, Miami, and St. Louis do not control any dependable starters. Needless to say, only Cincinnati made the playoffs among teams that control several dependable starters, and two NL clubs made the playoffs (and will be expected to compete again) without dependable starters. This simply shows that if a club can develop excellent young pitchers, going with those pitchers instead of dependable veterans can help those clubs compete (even if several of their starters do not have experience). On the other hand, the Phillies and Giants prove that having a rotation full of dependable starters is not as beneficial as one might expect.
One could draw the same ambivalent conclucsion about the Brewers’ rotation. While the club controls two of the best dependable starters in the NL, the balance of the 2014 Brewers will hang on the back-end starters, including Wily Peralta and Tyler Thornburg. Solid seasons by Gallardo and Lohse could ease the pressure on the back end of the rotation, but there’s still a question about how the Brewers’ young arms compare to those of their competitors.
Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC., 2000-2013.
MLB Advanced Media LP, 2014
2011-2013 NL Rotations with Runs Prevented.