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January 19, 2012

Transaction Analysis

A Tale of Four Starters

by Ben Lindbergh

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

OAKLAND ATHLETICS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Signed RHP Bartolo Colon to a one-year, $2 million deal. [1/15]

Last March, I wrote a piece for BP and ESPN gauging Colon’s chances for success after missing a year at an advanced age. Spoiler: I didn’t think they were all that good, even though he was coming off strong performances in winter ball and spring training. In my defense, I wasn’t the only one who was spectacularly wrong—we didn’t even put him in the annual.

Of course, we didn’t know until May that Colon had undergone an experimental stem cell procedure in the Dominican Republic, which in retrospect turned out to be important information. Even if that news had come to light earlier, I probably wouldn’t have changed my tune, since “experimental stem cell procedure in the Dominican Republic” doesn’t inspire much confidence until you’ve seen the results. Colon was entering his age-38 season and hadn’t been simultaneously healthy and effective for several seasons. The safe bet was that he’d be unhealthy and ineffective again.

The safe bet was wrong. Colon pitched 164 1/3 innings (the most he’d managed since his 2005 Cy Young season) with an ERA below league-average and a FIP to match, giving the Yankees a lot of bang for their 900,000 bucks. His fastball averaged around 92 mph throughout the season, and he struck out his highest percentage of opposing batters since 2001, all while throwing fastballs (both four-seam and two-seam) almost exclusively. He did break down eventually, spending 20 days on the DL with a left hamstring strain from mid-June through early July and pitching relatively poorly thereafter, but he was still worth over two wins, making him the most valuable non-Sabathia starter in a thin Yankees rotation.

We’ve seen pitchers who were less effective last season sign for more than Colon this winter, which isn’t surprising. Signing Colon is the equivalent of signing lightning after it strikes for the first time. Unless he’s discovered an even more impressive experimental procedure this winter, he’ll enter next season a year older, and likely no lighter, than he entered last season. That, coupled with his underwhelming end to 2011, explains why he wasn’t signed until now. But there’s another reason for buyers to beware that has nothing to do with his birth date or body.

Remember that impressive strikeout percentage? In one sense, it may have been less impressive than it appeared. Over half of Colon’s strikeouts were called; among other pitchers with at least 50 IP last season, only Vance Worley could say the same. Colon recorded the ninth-lowest swinging-strike rate among pitchers with at least 2,000 deliveries. So what’s the problem? A strikeout is a strikeout, right? Well, yes, in a retrospective sense. But swinging strike rate is a better predictor of future strikeout rate than called strike rate, so the fact that so many of Colon’s Ks were called might not bode well for his chances of repeating his 2011 performance—especially since he’ll be throwing to an average framing catcher in Kurt Suzuki instead of an excellent one like Russell Martin.*

*It's official: I’ve now linked to Mike Fast’s framing article enough times that I know the URL by heart.

Still, stranger things have happened than Colon pitching well in 2012—Colon pitching well in 2011, for instance. With a winter of rest, a bigger ballpark, and—if he knows what’s good for him—another helping of stem cells, he could be capable of giving the A’s another good half-season before fatigue sets in and another DL stint inevitably follows, which would make him worth his salary. Until then, he’ll be the only member of the A’s rotation over 28, let alone 38, as Oakland attempts to field a watchable team while it rebuilds.

The deal has been pending a physical for a few days now, but it should become official once the A’s find a doctor willing to see Colon with his shirt off.

TEXAS RANGERS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Signed RHP Yu Darvish to a six-year, $60 million contract. [1/18]

We—and by “we,” I mean Kevin Goldstein, who knows much more about Yu Darvish than I do—have already told you what we (and sources inside the game) think Yu Darvish will be, as well as what his acquisition might mean for the Rangers. The only thing we haven’t been able to tell you is what he’ll cost. And now we know that, too.

It came down to the wire, as it always does,* but the Rangers reached an agreement to pay Darvish $60 million over the next six years, which—if all goes well—will give him a shot at an even bigger contract after his age-31 season. Of course, the Rangers also have to give $51.7 million to the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, Darvish’s former team, which brings the total cost to Texas up to $111.7 million. If you spread that over six years (which the Rangers can’t do, since they have to pay the posting fee now—possibly with interest, if there’s a loan involved), it works out to $18.6 million. Here’s a complete list of pitchers who earned more last season than the Rangers will be paying for the privilege of playing Darvish in 2012:

  1. CC Sabathia (Yankees)
  2. Johan Santana (Mets)
  3. Carlos Zambrano (Cubs)

One of those pitchers didn’t make a single major-league appearance in 2011, and one of them pitched poorly for a while before deciding that he’d rather stop pitching entirely. Darvish is expected to pitch, possibly for the whole season, so compared to those other teams, the Rangers are getting a good deal.

I’m being a bit facetious, but the fact that two of those three teams got almost no return on their large pitcher investments last season goes to show how risky large pitcher investments can be. Still, $18.6 seems like a reasonable range for a 25-year-old whom most teams believe has ace potential with a high probability of being at least a number-two type, and whom the Rangers clearly preferred to the over-30 C.J. Wilson, who got five/$75.

If there’s any victim here, it’s Darvish, who gets jobbed financially by the posting process. No team would be willing to pay that $51.7 million fee—which he won’t see a penny of—on top of an appropriate salary, so instead, he’ll make much less than Mark Buehrle money. That's significantly below-market value for a player with his background and ability, even if it does represent a raise over his roughly $6 million earnings last season.

*When does a baseball transaction not come down to the wire? Trade deadline. Draft signing deadline. It’s always the same. Whatever and whenever the deadline is, the signing happens a few minutes before it. Sometimes it happens a few minutes after it, and everything works out anyway. It’s like every member of Major League Baseball has senioritis and is taking the season pass/fail.

Nolan Ryan: Jon, have you started working on that Yu Darvish contract yet?
Jon Daniels: Not yet. The deadline isn’t for weeks.
Nolan Ryan: Wouldn’t it be good to get an early start?
Jon Daniels: I’m a GM. I have a lot of stuff to do.
Nolan Ryan: I’m just say—
Jon Daniels: I knooooow. Goddd. I’ll do it, okay?
[Four weeks later]
Nolan Ryan: The deadline is five minutes from now. Did we sign Yu Darvish yet?
Jon Daniels: JUST GIMME A MINUTE I’M ALMOST DONE
Nolan Ryan: /Has heart attack, takes Advil

Okay, so maybe it’s not procrastination. It’s negotiation. But still, if I’d procrastinegotiated that much while I was in grade school, I would’ve been grounded. Which I probably wouldn’t have minded that much, since it would’ve given me more time to read Arthur C. Clarke books or something. But that’s all in the past. Now I spend my free time writing fake dialogues between baseball executives.

ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Signed LHP Joe Saunders to a one-year, $6 million contract. [1/18]

Saunders made $5.5 million for the Diamondbacks last season. Despite his 12-13 record, his 3.69 ERA and 212 innings pitched put him in line for a raise to the $8-9 million range in his final year of arbitration. The D-Backs weren’t willing to pay that, but they were willing to talk multi-year deal, reportedly offering him two years and $12 million. Saunders countered at three years and $27 million, essentially asking the team to commit to a long-term contract without any discount on his expected arbitration earnings. Arizona understandably declined and, in one of the winter’s most predictable moves, non-tendered him.

Saunders will still end up with the Snakes, but he’ll have to settle for one measly year at a rate that earlier this offseason made him turn up his nose at two. That’s a win for Kevin Towers, even if the spoils aren’t especially exciting. Saunders at $6 million isn’t a steal, but it is at or below the going rate for a league-average pitcher. That’s exactly what Saunders is, though you wouldn’t know it from his FIP, which insists that he’s considerably worse than that. The secret to his ability to outperform his peripherals is an exceptional talent for inducing double plays, perhaps partially as a result of his quick pace.

Saunders won’t finish with an ERA below 4.00 again without another low BABIP or a further decline in league-wide offense, but his presence will allow the Diamondbacks to be patient with Trevor Bauer without blocking any prospects beyond 2012. If he eats innings that might otherwise have gone to Barry Enright, he’ll be worth a win or two. A win or two is worth a lot where the Diamondbacks are on the win curve, so they were probably right to bring him back on their own contractual terms. The only question is whether they could have gotten just as much out of Wade Miley for much less. One could wonder the same about their decision to displace Gerardo Parra with Jason Kubel earlier this offseason. There’s something to be said for making sure a win-now team wins now, but paying for redundant production causes problems in the long run.

COLORADO ROCKIES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Signed LHP Jamie Moyer to a minor-league contract with an invitation to spring training. [1/18]

If you’re between 40 and 50 and a baseball fan, you now have permission to feel young again.

When writing about Jamie Moyer, it’s customary to start off with a factoid that conveys some sense of how old he is. For example, I could name some long-forgotten players Moyer faced. I could count how many current Rockies hadn’t been born when Moyer debuted in the majors. I could mention that I hadn’t been born when Moyer debuted in the majors. (Neither had Yu Darvish, for that matter) But I’m not going to do that (any more than I just did, at least). We all get the point. Jamie Moyer is old, but he’s still clinging to his place in a young man’s game, and that’s something to be celebrated.

Watching major-league players in their primes thrills us, inspires us, and makes us want to see more. Watching Moyer does all of those things, but for different reasons. It’s not the same sort of thrilling to watch a 40-something man’s fastball barely break 80 as it is to see Aroldis Chapman touch triple digits, Mike Stanton hit a deep drive, or Peter Bourjos cross half an outfield to come up with a catch. But to see him barely break 80 on a major-league mound, somehow surviving in the same games as ultra-athletic men half his age, makes us all feel a better about where we’ll be at age 49 and beyond.

The thing that strikes me about Moyer’s statistical record is how little black ink there is. In 24 seasons and over 4,000 innings, Moyer has led his league only three times, in three separate categories. Two of those times were for bad things: in 1987, he led the NL with 114 earned runs, and in 2004, he led the AL with 44 long balls. The only time he was the best at something was in 1996, when he barely qualified for the AL lead in winning percentage, going 13-3 in 160 2/3 innings. He made an All-Star team only once, at age 40. He’ll finish with an ERA+ at or around 100. He managed a couple consecutive four-plus-win seasons in the late-1990s, but they’re almost buried under an avalanche of ones, twos, and threes. He was a good pitcher for a very long time, but the only thing he’s truly excelled at is staying employed, which is remarkable in its own right.

We all would’ve preferred to see Moyer land somewhere better-suited to a soft-tossing lefty, like Safeco, where he spent his last several years in Seattle, or Petco, where he could avoid the DH. Coors is no place for his kind (or, for that matter, for most of the Rockies’ new arms). He was last a valuable pitcher in 2008, he didn’t pitch last season, and he’s so ancient that aging curves can no longer tell us what he might be projected to do—he’s extending the aging curve as he goes.

This move has no playoff implications. If Moyer manages to make the team, he’ll be keeping a rotation spot warm for a much younger, more talented pitcher, and he likely won’t last long. The only reason to expect signing Moyer to succeed is that it’s always worked before, and at some point, entropy always wins. But that’s all in the future. Jamie Moyer has an invitation to spring training. For another few months, we can pretend that we won’t get old either.


Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

Related Content:  Jamie Moyer,  The Who,  Jon Daniels,  Joe Saunders

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