The Meat Market: Starting Pitchers

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As usual, there are a ton of available starting pitchers this offseason, although there aren’t as many big name free agents as there have been in past years. However, at the very top of the list is Pedro Martinez, a name as big as any around. The problem with Pedro is that teams can’t possibly be sure what they’ll be getting if they sign him. He is one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history and was as dominant as a starting pitcher could possibly be for quite a long time, but what Pedro accomplished in the past won’t help the team that signs him as a free agent.

The fact that Pedro went 41-10 with a 1.90 ERA between 1999 and 2000 is simultaneously one of the most impressive feats in baseball history and about as relevant to his current free agency as Bob Gibson going 22-9 with a 1.12 ERA in 1968. It is clear to everyone that the Gibson who put up those numbers isn’t around anymore, and while it may not be quite as clear about Martinez, it is just as true.

That is not to suggest in any way that Pedro is no longer a very good pitcher, because clearly he is, but any team that believes they are courting Pedro Martinez as a free agent this offseason is sadly mistaken. Pedro’s peak season was in 2000, when he went 18-6 with a 1.74 ERA in 217 innings with the Red Sox. When you account for the era and the offensive environment, it was one of the most remarkable years of all time — Martinez’s 285 ERA+ (a stat that adjusts for context) was the best baseball has seen since 1880.

Now take a look at how his numbers have deteriorated since that historic season …

YEAR          SO/BB         AVG         OBP         SLG         OPS
2000           8.88        .167        .213        .259        .472
2001           6.52        .199        .252        .274        .526
2002           5.98        .198        .253        .309        .561
2003           4.38        .215        .271        .314        .585
2004           3.72        .238        .299        .399        .698

Despite the declining strikeout-to-walk ratios and the fact that he was allowing more and more offense each season, Pedro managed to maintain outstanding ERAs of 2.39, 2.26 and 2.22 from 2001-03. It finally caught up to him this season. His strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.72-to-1) and strikeout rate (9.42/9) were his worst since 1996, when he was with the Expos and just 24 years old. His 2004 batting average against (.238), slugging percentage against (.399), OPS against (.698) and ERA (3.90) were all his worst ever, in 13 years in the majors.

Even if Pedro can reverse some of that decline — which seems unlikely, since he’ll be 33 in 2005 and is not getting any younger — the old Pedro just isn’t coming back. The guy with the ridiculous numbers who came out of the bullpen to pitch six no-hit innings against the Indians in 1999 playoffs like some scene out of a movie has been replaced by a very good pitcher who is entirely hittable on a regular basis and has a 4.39 postseason ERA over the past two years. With all that said, as long as teams realize who they are going after and adjust their interest and contract offers accordingly, Pedro is still a very desirable free agent.

The other Hall of Fame name on the market this offseason is Roger Clemens, who won his seventh Cy Young award last week and then filed for free agency on the final day he could so. That may be a sign that he’s going to play again in 2005 or it may have just been a formality before another retirement, because with Clemens you never know. The two things that are certain are that he is still an extremely good pitcher (better than Pedro this year, in fact) and even if he sticks around to play in 2005 he’s not a “true” free agent. If he plays — and I suspect he will — I’m guessing it will be for the Astros, Yankees or Rangers, so it’s probably not worth analyzing his worth past saying he’s still one of the elite pitchers in baseball.

The rest of the top available starting pitchers this offseason fall into the class of what I would call “solid starters” — middle-of-the-rotation guys who are a clear step below front-of-the-rotation aces. The two free agents who challenged that “solid starter” label this year are Brad Radke and Carl Pavano, who each had their best season right in time to cash in. Radke threw 200+ innings for the ninth time in 10 years and finished fourth in the American League with a career-best 3.48 ERA. Pavano tossed a career-high 222.1 innings, went 18-8, and finished seventh in the National League with a 3.00 ERA.

Clearly if they could duplicate what they did this season, both Radke and Pavano are better than solid starters, but I’m not a believer. Having watched nearly every Radke start during his 10-year career, I saw nothing different about him this season. He was the same guy he has always been, relying on pinpoint accuracy, a timely strikeout on a nasty changeup when he really needed it, and good outfield defense. He did a good job keeping the ball in the ballpark this year with 23 homers allowed in 219.2 innings, including a 13-start stretch early in the year when he allowed just one long ball. That, along with the fact that he either had some particularly good defense played behind him or got a little lucky on balls in play (depending on how you look at it), is why his ERA was lower than usual.

From 1996 to 2003, a span of eight seasons, Radke’s ERA fluctuated from 3.75 to 4.72, and he had a career ERA of 4.32 coming into this season. Radke is consistent, reliable, fun to watch, a big-game pitcher, and has been the one constant for the Twins over the last decade, but one thing he’s not is as good as he pitched in 2004. In fact, if anything I would say he is the very epitome of a second-tier starting pitcher, a guy you can count on for 200+ innings of above-average pitching every year, but who you probably don’t want to have as your ace if you plan on being a serious contender.

Pavano is a little more intriguing. Originally a top prospect with the Red Sox, he was traded to Montreal in the 1997 deal that brought Pedro to Boston. Pavano struggled with the Expos and had a lot of trouble staying healthy, and when he was traded to the Marlins in the middle of the 2002 season, he was 26, his stock had taken a nose dive, and he had a career ERA of 4.83 in 452.2 innings. He has pitched far better since coming to the Marlins, but perhaps the biggest difference has been his ability to stay on the mound. Pavano’s 201 innings in 2003 were the first time he threw more than 136 innings in a season, and his 222.1 innings pitched this year established a new career-high for the third straight season.

However, even assuming for a moment that he has gotten over the injury bug and will now be a healthy pitcher for the foreseeable future, what Pavano did in 2004 screams fluke. There is no denying that his 3.00 ERA this year was excellent, but when you look a little closer at some of his numbers you can see some problems. Take a look at Pavano’s pitching with the Marlins in 2002/2003, compared to this year.

                ERA      SO%     BB%     HR%     BIPH
2002-03        4.18     15.6     5.7     2.1     .303
2004           3.00     15.3     5.4     1.8     .282

As you can see, his strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed occurred at nearly identical rates in both time periods. From 2002-03, Pavano got a strikeout against 15.6% of the batters he faced and he struck out 15.3% last year. He allowed a walk 5.7% of the time in 2002/03 and 5.4% of the time this season. He gave up a homer 2.1% of the time in 2002/03 and 1.8% of the time last season (a difference of about 3-4 homers over the course of a season). The one major difference in his performance (aside from ERA) is the fact that 30.3% of the balls put in play against Pavano in 2002/03 went for hits, while that number dropped to 28.2% in 2004.

That may not seem like a big deal, but it is. If Pavano had duplicated hit ball-in-play numbers from 2002/03 this season, he would have allowed 15 more hits than he did, which would have inflated his batting average against from .253 to .271. If you choose to believe that Pavano learned how to better prevent hits on balls in play in 2004, then he is likely to repeat that feat in future seasons, but I choose to believe he benefited from some good defense and a little luck (particularly considering the Marlins as a whole allowed 30.0% of balls in play to fall for hits and the entire NL was at 30.5%).

I think the odds are against Radke and Pavano repeating their outstanding 2004 seasons and because of that I would still lump them in with the rest of the “solid starters” this offseason, although I would certainly put them at the top of the group. Who are the other guys who fall into that category? Well, there are quite a few: Matt Clement, David Wells, Jaret Wright, Matt Morris, Russ Ortiz, Jon Lieber, Woody Williams, Eric Milton, Kevin Millwood, Kris Benson, Odalis Perez, Al Leiter, Orlando Hernandez, and Derek Lowe.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Some of those guys are better than others and some are more desirable as free agents, but I think, more or less, they can all give you 180-200 innings of above-average pitching in a good year. The ones who are the biggest risks — Hernandez and Millwood because of injuries, Wright because he won’t be able to bring Leo Mazzone everywhere he goes — also offer some pretty big potential rewards, which makes choosing who to target a bit difficult.

With at least 190 innings pitched in 10 of the last 11 years and eight straight seasons of above-average pitching, I like Wells as a low-cost, short-term signing. The potential downside is that he’ll be 42 next year and has a history of back problems, but he pitched very well for the Padres this season at 41 and he’s only had one season in the last 11 where he missed significant action for any reason. Wells got base salaries of $2.25, $3.25 and $1.25 million over the last three years, with a lot of incentives thrown in, and for that relatively small up-front commitment he went 46-22 with a 3.88 ERA and ate up (no pun intended) 615 innings. I’d definitely offer him something like that for 2005.

Similarly, both Millwood and Hernandez should be available for discount prices this offseason and both are definitely worth one-year deals with some incentives and/or an option for 2006. In fact, once you get past the elite starting pitchers in any free agent class, I’m a big believer in taking some chances on guys who, for whatever reasons, come at discount rates. Would you rather pay top dollar for a guy like Milton, who threw 201 innings with a 4.75 ERA this year and has a career ERA of 4.76, or would you rather roll the dice that Wells can give you something fairly similar for a fraction of the cost without a multi-year commitment? Assuming I’m not working with the Yankees’ budget, I’d go with Wells every time.

From what I’ve heard so far, guys like Milton, Lieber, Ortiz, Clement and Benson are looking for three-year deals worth somewhere around $20-25 million at the very least. Depending on a team’s budget, those wouldn’t be horrible signings, but doing a little shopping in the Wells-Millwood-Hernandez bargain bin is a much better idea, and you also might be able to luck into getting someone like Perez or Lowe for a cheaper-than-expected deal too. Laying back and letting the bargains come to you is a very viable option in the starting pitcher market.

And, of course, if you really feel like shopping for bargains, there are plenty of guys who don’t quite fit into the “solid starter” category. This offseason that list includes Esteban Loaiza, Cory Lidle, Hideo Nomo, Paul Wilson, Paul Byrd, Glendon Rusch, Wilson Alvarez, and Jose Lima. And trust me, I’m as surprised as anyone that I just included Lima’s name in an article about free agent starting pitchers, but that fact is that he’s 19-8 with a 4.46 ERA in 38 starts over the last two seasons, a span of 224.2 innings.

I would guess that most of the guys I just listed could be had for one-year deals worth very minimal money. While they won’t pan out as often as the guys in the “solid starter” group, they are potentially the same caliber of player. Hell, Wright was on this same scrap heap last year, and now he’s a big free agent after going 15-8 with a 3.28 ERA in 186.1 innings with the Braves. A team could sign two or three guys like Lima, Lidle and Byrd, add someone like Wells, see which ones pan out, and still save about $5 million a year over what Milton or Leiter would have cost by themselves. For some teams the money saved isn’t worth the certainty you give up, but for most teams it is.

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