From the Archives: Signing Free Agent Pitchers

C.J. Wilson ended up signing for $77.5 million dollars and five years. Mark Buehrle signed for $58 million and four years. I have no idea which deal is going to look worse three years from now, but my guess is that neither team will be happy come 2015.

Originally Posted October 17, 2011

Should the Mets make a run at [free agent starting pitcher] this winter? They need pitching help, and if they don’t re-sign Jose Reyes they should have the money to sign [free agent starting pitcher].

– Outis the Mets Fan, via email

First: I might have invented this email. But the question is a real one, and something I looked into recently — it seems that there are a lot of bad contracts given to starting pitchers. A lot of bad contracts, along with some good ones, of course, but it seems as though the bad contracts outnumber the good. I wanted to see what the big picture looks like for these deals.

As it turns out, the big picture is really ugly. The short answer is: don’t ever sign a free agent pitcher for more than one year. Below is a list of the 46 multi-year contracts signed by a free agent pitcher between the winter of ’04-05 and the present, loosely running from best to worst, along with the five that were signed last winter. (EDIT: There are 51 contracts here, but five were signed last winter and it’s too early to make a call on them. So we’re really only looking at 46 contracts.) There were three rules for making this list:

– It has to be a free agent pitcher who hits free agency. Extensions don’t count, so no Johan Santana deal, ect. Re-signing with the same team after testing the open market does count. It seems that the bidding wars of free agency create a lot of these monsters.

– It has to be a multi-year deal. One-year deals don’t count. One-year deals with a team option for a second year doesn’t count. One-year deals with a player option for a second year would count, but there aren’t any of those so it doesn’t matter.

– If the contract isn’t over, we don’t count the years that haven’t happened yet when ranking the contracts. For example: Barry Zito’s massive contract counts as a five-year, $80 million dollar deal for our purposes. It’s still in last place.

We’ll start by looking at the top ten, then list the middle 26, and take a look at the bottom ten. Toby Hyde suggested throwing in the WAR total and how much money each win cost, so I threw that on too. Hat tip to him. [One more edit. These contracts are not ranked by dollars per win above replacement. Instead, we’re setting the price of a win at $4.5 million, and then comparing how much value the player brought in (that is, his WAR times $4.5 million) to how much the team paid him. That’s how they’re ranked.] Here we go:

The Ten Best Contracts:

1. Derek Lowe, Dodgers (2005-2008), four years, $36 million dollars
12.7 WAR, $2.83 million per win

Easily the best contract listed here. This signing looked risky at the time, with Lowe’s ERA rising from 2.58 during his first year as a starter with the Red Sox in 2002 all the way to 5.42 in his walk year in 2004. The theory was that Lowe lacked the stamina to remain a successful starter, having spent the first five years of his career as a reliever before being moved to the rotation. The secret, I guess, was that Lowe’s peripheral numbers remained about the same between 2003 and 2004, despite his ERA jumping almost a full run.

It seems that Paul DePodesta’s Dodgers saw that, and gave Lowe four years and $36 million dollars. Lowe pitched 850.1 innings over the four years, posting a 3.59 ERA and a 120 ERA+. Lowe’s Dodgers teams were good but never great, sneaking into the playoffs twice but never winning more than 88 games in a season. But if you sign a pitcher for four years and they make all 135 of their starts, that’s probably a great contract. It also almost never happens.

2. David Wells, Red Sox (2005-2006), two years, $8 million dollars
3.8 WAR, $2.1 million per win

The Red Sox took a chance on the 41-year-old Wells before the 2005 season, giving him a two-year deal. Wells made 30 starts and pitched 184 innings in 2005, going 15-7 and posting a 4.45 ERA (with a 3.83 FIP) for an iffy fielding Red Sox team. That performance right there was worth more than the $8 million Boston paid Wells, with anything else in 2006 being gravy — which was all they got. Wells was injured for most of 2006, but made eight gravy starts for Boston before being traded to the Padres at the August deadline.

Seriously, this is the second-best contract, and it was given to a fat, 42-year-old pitcher making $4 million dollars a year. We could stop here, because that’s probably all anyone needs to know about signing free agent pitchers to multi-year deals.

3. Ted Lilly, Cubs (2007-2010), four years, $40 million dollars
10.4 WAR, $3.85 million per win

See, it’s contracts like this one here that make me think that the good contracts on the list don’t necessarily reflect anything about a good process by the team handing them out. When the Cubs signed Lilly, he was a 30-year-old flyball lefty who had been traded four times and had a 4.60 career ERA. He walked a ton of batter and allowed a ton of home runs. He had never pitched 200 innings in a season. Basically, he was fairly Oliver Perez-like.

Then Lilly signed with the Cubs and became a much, much better pitcher overnight. He cut his walk rate in half. He pitched over 200 innings in 2007 and 2008 and missed 11 starts over four years. His ERA was 3.68, a 121 ERA+. A flyball lefty in Wrigley, he still gave up the gobs of home runs you might expect, but the Lilly contract was a boom for Chicago. Maybe the Cubs scouted him well and saw the potential, in which case credit to them — or maybe they didn’t and it just worked out. Bad processes sometimes lead to good results, and maybe Lilly is just that.

4. Randy Wolf, Brewers, three years, $18.5 million dollars (two years, $18.75 so far)
5.1 WAR, $3.68 million per win

There’s a year and $11 million left on this deal, so the jury is still out on this one. But two years and about $19 million dollars in, Wolf has given the Brewers 428 average-to-below-average innings over two years. Considering the cost, that actually counts as a huge win here.

5. CC Sabathia, Yankees (2009-2011), three years, $69 million dollars
16.2 WAR, $4.26 million per win

If we assume he opts out – probably a safe bet — this worked out to about a fair deal for both sides. Sabathia has been great, maybe even better than advertised: He went 59-23, made 101 starts, pitched 230 innings every season and had a 140 ERA+. He also gave the Yankees 61 innings in the postseason and went 5-1 with a 3.54 ERA. Everything they could have wanted out of an ace.

The reason it’s not number one on the list: In exchange, the Yankees gave him $69 million dollars and a “if you’re hurt or terrible, you can still get us to pay you $92 million for four more years” safety net. It wasn’t like he was doing it all for free.

6. A.J. Burnett, Blue Jays (2006-2008), three years, $31 million dollars
7.6 WAR, $4.08 million per win

Pitchers with opt-out clauses are the new Moneyball? This was a five year deal with an opt-out clause after three years, which Burnett exercised after a healthy and moderately effective walk year in 2008.

7. Jason Marquis, Cubs (2007-2009), three years, $21 million dollars
5.1 WAR, $4.12 per win

Remember the process/results thing about the Cubs and and Ted Lilly? Marquis is the same idea. The Staten Island sinkerballer posted a 6.02 ERA with St. Louis in 2006, leading the NL in earned runs and home runs allowed. The Cardinals left Marquis off their roster for the NLCS and the World Series – and then the Cubs gave him a three-year contract that winter. Not one year. Not two years. A three-year deal for a pitcher who didn’t pitch an inning for his team in the postseason because they didn’t want him pitching any innings in the postseason, and he led the league in earned runs allowed.

But it worked out. Marquis pitched 574.2 innings, posted a 106 ERA+, and made an All Star team with Colorado after being traded for the last year of the deal. Again, maybe the Cubs saw something they liked about him, too, but this smells of bad process, good results.

By the way, I’m starting to think that . . . something . . . happened in the winter of 2006/2007, because an enormous number of crazy contracts were handed out that winter. More on that later.

8. Jarrod Washburn, Mariners (2006-2009), four years, $37 million dollars
8.4 WAR, $4.4 million per win

This isn’t a great contract, but out of the 46 contracts multi-year, free agent contracts that were signed between 2005 and 2010, only like seven or eight worked out well. So we’re already stretching. Washburn gave the Mariners and the Tigers 710.1 innings and a 4.36 ERA over the four years. That counts as a win here.

9. Kenny Rogers, Tigers (2006-2007), two years, $16 million dollars
3.4 WAR, $4.71 per win

The Tigers gave a two-year deal to a 40-year-old pitcher. Rogers finished fifth in Cy Young voting in 2006, winning 17 games with a 119 ERA+, and pitched 23 scoreless innings while possibly doctoring the baseball during the Tigers’ playoff run. He was hurt and less effective the next season, but the first year makes this a good deal for Detroit. Seriously. This counts as a top ten deal, too.

10. Mike Mussina, Yankees (2007-2008), two years, $23 million dollars
4.7 WAR, $4.89 million per win

This looked like bad idea jeans at the time, with Mussina struggling to a replacement-level-y 5.15 ERA in 2008, though his 4.01 FIP hinted that better things were to come in 2008. They were. Mussina pitched 200.1 innings, made 34 starts and won 20 of them in his final season with the Yankees.

Now, if you’re thinking that there’s no way these are the ten best deals handed out to free agent pitchers between 2004 and 2010, well . . . just look at all the other ones. Think about how many of them make you say, “Oh, golly gee, that was a good deal,” and how many of them are, “Oh my . . . that actually happened.” Here are all the contracts that fall into . . .

The Middle Bunch:

From last winter, so the jury is still out (but four of them look bad already):

  • Cliff Lee, Phillies, five years, $125 million
  • Jorge de la Rosa, Rockies, two years, $21.5 million
  • Carl Pavano, Twins, two years, $16.5 million
  • Jake Westbrook, Cardinals, two years, $16.5 million
  • Kevin Correia, Pirates, two years, $8 million

Before that (2004-2010), in loose descending order of awfulness, with Wins Above Replacement and dollars (in millions) per win:

  • Orlando Hernandez, Mets, two years, $12 million; 2.1 WAR, $5.71 per win
  • Cory Lidle, Phillies, two years, $6.3 million; 0.8 WAR, $7.88 per win
  • Paul Byrd, Indians, two years, $14.5 million; 2.4 WAR, $5.94 per win
  • Woody Williams, Padres, two years, $8 million, 0.4 WAR, $20 per win
  • Yoslan Herrera, Pirates, three years, $2 million, -1 WAR, -($2) per win
  • Joel Pineiro, Angels, two years, $16 million; 1.5 WAR, $10.67 per win
  • Brett Tomko, Dodgers, two years, $8.7 million; -0.3 WAR, $(-29) per win
  • Woody Williams, Astros, two years, $12.5 million; 0.5 WAR, $25 per win
  • Jamie Moyer, Phillies, two years, $13 million; 0.4 WAR, 32.5 per win
  • Matt Clement, Red Sox, three years, $25.8 million; 2.6 WAR, 9.92 per win
  • Paul Wilson, Reds, two years, $8.2 million; -1.4 WAR, -($5.86) per win
  • Gil Meche, Royals, five years, $55 million; 9 WAR, $4.78 per win*
  • Esteban Loaiza, A’s, three years, $21.4 million; 0.8 WAR, $26.73 per win
  • Jaret Wright, Yankees, three years, $21 million; 0.6 WAR, $35 per win
  • Mark Mulder, Cardinals, two years, $13 million; -1.2 WAR, $(-10.83) per win
  • Kenshin Kawakami, Braves, three years, $23 million; 0.5 WAR, $46 per win
  • Jason Marquis, Nationals, two years, $15 million; -1.6 WAR, $(-9.38) per win
  • Miguel Batista, Mariners, three years, $25 million; 0.3 WAR, $83.33 per win

We start hitting the big fishes around here:

  • Kevin Millwood, Rangers, five years, $60 million; 7.7 WAR, $7.79 per win
  • Ryan Dempster, Cubs, four years, $52 million; 5.7 WAR, $9.12 per win
  • Pedro Martinez, Mets, four years, $53 million; 5.8 WAR, $9.14 per win
  • Vincente Padilla, Rangers, three years, $34 million; 1.1, $30.73
  • Matt Morris, Giants, three years, $27 million; WAR -1.3, $(-20.77) per win
  • John Lackey, Red Sox, five years, $82.5 million; 0.6 WAR, $61.25 per win
  • A.J. Burnett, Yankees, five years, $82.5 million; 3.4 WAR, $14.56 per win
  • Carl Pavano, Yankees, four years, $38 million; -0.1 WAR; $(-380) per win

Gil Meche is stared because he chose to retire instead of collecting the $12 million he could have been paid in 2011. Lackey’s deal still has a shot at getting down here, but for now here are . . .

The Bottom Ten

10. Derek Lowe, Braves (2009-2012), four years, $60 million dollars (three years, $45 million so far)
1.2 WAR, $37.5 per win

He’s still making all his starts, but he’s also stopped being an effective pitcher. Lowe has a 4.57 ERA as a member of the Braves, has been worth 1.2 wins above replacement according to Baseball-Reference thus far, and still have $15 million dollars coming to him next year. This might be too low. The peripheral numbers are still there, and Fangraphs values his performance much higher, but it’s not a great deal either way. If the question for the Mets before the 2009 season was Ollie or Lowe, it turns out the answer was Randy Wolf. Marty Noble was right.

9. Adam Eaton, Phillies (2007-2009), three years, $24.5 million dollars
-3.5 WAR, $(-7) per win

The damage: 268.2 innings over two seasons for the Phillies and a 6.10 ERA along the way. Philadelphia released Eaton and ate the rest of the contract before the 2009 season. Like most teams found down here, they would have been better off setting the money on fire.

8. Jeff Suppan, Brewers (2007-2010), four years, $48 million dollars
0.0 WAR, $ – dollars per win

Suppan had been an average innings eater for the eight seasons before signing this deal, and wasn’t THAT old at the time, just 32, so it didn’t look that bad at the time – good process/bad results? Or is signing a free agent pitcher to a multi-year deal always a bad process? That’s really the whole question here.

7. Oliver Perez, Mets, three years (2009-2011), $36 million dollars
-2.9 WAR, -($12.41) per win

I don’t want to talk about it. Let’s just move on.

6. Daisuke Matsuzaka, Red Sox, six years (2007-2012), $103.1 million (five years, $93.1 million so far)
9.6 WAR, $9.7 per win

Matsuzaka actually hasn’t pitched terribly overall – 49-30, 108 ERA+, 4.25 ERA and a 4.26 FIP, 9.6 wins above replacement – but he cost the Red Sox loads and loads and loads of money between a $51 million dollar posting fee just to negotiate with him and a $52 million dollar contract. He still has $10 million dollars coming to him for next season and it doesn’t look like he’s going to contribute much.

5. Jason Schmidt (2007-2009), Dodgers, three years, $47 million dollars
-0.6 WAR, -($78.33) per win

Made ten starts.

4. Kei Igawa, Yankees (2007-2011), five years, $46 million dollars
-1 WAR, -($46) per win

Made 13 starts.

3. Russ Ortiz, Diamondbacks (2005-2008), four years, $33 million dollars
-3.9 WAR, -($8.46) per win

The Ortiz contract is one of the scarier stories, because he had been healthy and moderately effective just about every season before hitting free agency before the 2005 season. Not great and not an ace by any means, but a mildly effective pitcher. Arizona rewarded him with a big, multi-year contract; Ortiz posted a 7.00 ERA in 28 starts and was released 18 months into a four-year deal. It wasn’t a good contract, but it was supposed to be this awful, either.

2. Carlos Silva, Mariners (2008-2011), four years, $48 million dollars
-1.3 WAR, -($36.92) per win

The only multi-year deal given out to a starting pitcher before the 2008 season, but Seattle made sure it counted. David Wells and CC Sabathia made the best contracts top ten list, but Silva puts a damper on the “it’s a good idea to sign fat free agent pitchers” theory.

1. Barry Zito, Giants, seven years (2007-2013), $126 million dollars (five years, $80 million dollars so far)
2.9 WAR, $27.59 per win

This is already at the bottom, and there are still two years left on the deal. Definitely the worst contract on this list. Zito hasn’t been awful and has remade himself into a decent innings eater – and although he was hurt this year, he has also been healthy every other year of his deal. But he’s being paid to be an ace, and he’s not anymore and hasn’t been one for a while.

Getting back to something mentioned ealier, looking at these contracts . . . something happened between 2006 and 2007. I don’t know what, but it seems that something happened. Because before the 2005 and 2006 seasons, teams gave out 54 years worth of guaranteed, multi-year deals to free agent pitchers, worth about $453 million dollars, or about $8.4 million per year. Not an awful amount, not too many unreasonable deals. Then the whole world went crazy. Before the 2007 season, teams gave out 57 years worth of multi-year deals to free agent pitchers at the cost of $632 million dollars, or about $11 million dollars per year. Barry Zito signed for seven years. Gil Meche signed for five years. The Red Sox signed Dice-K for six years. Jeff Suppan and Ted Lilly signed for four years apiece. Miguel Batista – Miguel Batista! – signed for three years with Seattle. Vincente Padilla signed for three years with Texas. So did Jason Marquis with Chicago.

And it wasn’t just pitchers. Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Lee, Juan Pierre, Aramis Ramirez, J.D. Drew, Gary Matthews Jr., Juan Pierre, and Julio Lugo – all those albatrosses happened that winter. Almost every contract given out the winter after 2006 season that ran longer than a single year was a bad contract. I’m not sure what happened, and we’re all free to speculate – so if you’d like to speculate that during the 2006 CBA negotiating sessions, the MLBPA agreed not to accuse the owners of colluding to drive down free agent prices publicly if the owners agreed to stop doing it, well, go ahead. But something weird happened, because everything went crazy that winter.

So here’s what I’ve learned: Signing [free agent starting pitcher] to a multi-year contract looks like a bad idea. For all the pitchers listed here, it has cost teams $12.4 dollars per win above a replacement-level pitcher. Outfielders signed to multi-year deals, over the same time period, ran at about $6.5 dollars per win above replacement. Some pitchers don’t pitch as well after they sign. Some are overpaid to begin with. Some get hurt and don’t pitch at all. Sometimes it’s all three. But the result is that signing a free agent starting pitcher to a multi-year deal is a massive risk, and one that usually burns the team.

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