Who are the Most Valuable Starting Pitchers in Baseball?

Jamie Squire

An arbitrary reaction to an arbitrary ranking of the "Most Valuable Pitchers" spurred surprising results and confirmed what we already knew: pitchers are fragile (except when they're not) and free agent markets are amazingly accurate in telling you how much things cost today, but consistently awful at predicting the future.

While trolling my RSS feed, I always stop by articles that have any of the following words: most, least, best, worst, top, bottom or rankings. These articles provide definitive valuations of players, albeit through a specific lens. When I saw the title "The Most Valuable Pitchers in Baseball" by Grant Brisbee over at Baseball Nation and scanned to the Top 10 in the middle of the article, I saw David Price at #6, Stephen Strasburg at #2 and Matt Moore at #1. What?

This merited further investigation, so I started from the top and it quickly became apparent that this was not an "MVP discussion" but a "most valuable player discu$$ion". These are often the best kinds, because value in the true sense of the word is in the eye of the beholder and financial commitments are very much a reality worth considering. Brisbee goes on to group players in buckets and gives us his ordering (bonus ranking!) of the buckets:

A) Proven greatness on a long term deal

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B) Proven greatness, but on a shorter team deal

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C) Peanuts, followed by arbitration

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D) Cheaper long-term deal that is still a bit speculative

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If I had to prioritize the four categories, I'd go in this order: d, b, c, a. I don't like risk, but that's not just the risk of overpaying a pitcher -- it's also the risk of losing a pitcher to free agency, the risk of a prospect not panning out, or the risk of not having a legitimate ace. It's a pretty delicate balance, and there probably isn't going to be a magic equation to answer this question.

His goal is to hope for a huge surplus on a cheap contract, but never be exposed to serious risk. This is sound advice for a general manager looking to keep his job, but perhaps not the best way to value pitchers across the baseball universe. Beyond just the thumb in the air quoted above and great working knowledge of baseball, I can’t tell any methodology used by Mr. Brisbee…so, let’s give it a shot:

How much does an ace really cost?

With a fresh batch of contract extensions behind us and a new season in front of us, a new bar has been set for the price of pitching. Among those extensions and free-agency signings are Justin Verlander (5/140), Adam Wainwright (5/97.5) and Felix Hernandez (7/175). Each of these players is making $20 million or more per year for at least the next 5 years. It is safe to say that the price of an ace is (at least) $20 million.

Saving, as opposed to Spending

A small change in perspective, but rather than looking at how much these players are costing teams (peanuts for some, tens of millions for others) let’s look at how much they are saving their teams as compared to the current market rate. I have taken their salaries and subtracted $20 million from each.

Summed and averaged at right, they are sorted from most to least total savings over the course of their contracts:

Charlie_table1

As expected, we see Matt Moore near the top. Maybe we are on to something here after all. What’s more interesting is to find Madison Bumgarner at an equal discount, albeit over an additional 2 years. Bumgarner, Moore and Sale are saving in excess of $80 million over a minimum of 5 years, that’s a lot of control and a lot of potential for surplus value.

You Get What You Pay For

The thing that we have ignored in our analysis up to this point is how these players actually perform. Some have been great over the past couple of years, some have been good with the potential to get better and some have even been hurt. The only thing I can say for certain is that not all of these players will be pitching like aces in 2013, let alone 2016 or 2020. We need to consider past performance, durability and age to try and give us some inkling of whether or not any of these players are more or less likely to keep pitching like aces and actually capture some of that surplus value that teams are seeking.

Below is the total innings pitched since 2011, WAR/200IP over that time frame and age as of the start of the 2013 season. The color coding in the first two columns is from most (green) to least (red):

Charlie_table1

Our big savers (Bumgarner and Moore) fare poorly once we look at performance. They haven’t pitched much, haven’t pitched well or both. Proceed with caution and note that Sale was note mentioned as harshly.

If we focus purely on performance, we see that Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez and Clayton Kershaw have, in fact, been the most durable and effective pitchers over the past 2 years. However, Felix and Verlander are the two most expensive pitchers and Kershaw is the one closest to hitting the market and receiving his, per Brisbee, "moon base" along with millions of dollars. They have the worst contracts.

Finally, If we look at the rest, there are a bunch of players that are middle of the pack in terms of performance or savings and provide our blended choices. Excrutiating explanation aside, we are still left with a subjective ranking, though now one with color-coded data tables backing it up:

13) Adam Wainwright – Old, injured and above-average (but not elite) is no way to go through life.

12) Jered Weaver – Already is getting old and isn't quite as effective as his W-L record and accolades would indicate (2.9 WAR in 2012)

11) Matt Cain – The first two were easy, this is tough now. Ultimately, he is very good, but not as good as others and he is very expensive for a long time.

10) Matt Moore – Little track record of success and it is pure speculation to say he is the most valuable.

9) David Price – Only under contract for three more years and he is actually on the bottom half of this list in terms of performance

8) Felix Hernandez – Massive contract, but he has been incredibly durable and successful (though not as much as someone further down the list….).

7) Gio Gonzalez – He was a top pitcher the past couple years and he is on a pretty friendly contract with a club option before he turns 33. The list gets tough from here on out.

6) Madison Bumgarner – He is exactly like Matt Moore, but a month younger with a longer and better track record. Only knock on him is that it’s harder to dream and Moore has one more option year.

5) Clayton Kershaw – Will absolutely earn the Dodgers significant surplus value over the next two years and then sign a contract that sees him earning in excess of $30 million/year at some point.

4) Justin Verlander – Incredibly durable and devastating. It is believable that he will pitch well for the next four years, but will still represent more than $70 million of salary for his age 35-39 seasons.

3) Chris Sale – On a rate basis, as good as Felix Hernandez, but is making $110 million less over the same period of time and is 3 years younger.

2) Stephen Strasburg – Considering his limited opportunities, he has performed better in the last 2 years than everyone on this list. He has 4 years of potential control and even if he breaks arbitration records at every single stage of arbitration, he represents significant cost savings and would make $25 million less than Jered Weaver over the same period of time. He even possesses upside as he is still figuring things out at the Major League level due to missing a year. However, injury history and lack of cost certainty, even within arbitration, keeps him from being #1.

1) Yu Darvish – I tried to make numerous cases in my mind about why he doesn’t belong here, but it’s too difficult . Despite struggling with free passes in the first part of 2012, he accumulated more than 5 wins and is on a contract that saves the team $50 million over 5 years. He is also younger than Gio, Price, Felix and Cain. In one season, with a poor first two months, he outperformed everyone but Verlander, Felix and Kershaw and was closer to them than the rest were to him. It is extremely close with Strasburg, but he represents the best mix of performance, affordability, youth, control and upside.

Here's the catch, and why I'm really cheating on this. Yu Darvish is a special case. He had a posting fee preceding his contract, and how much did Yu Darvish post for? You got it, $51.7 million dollars or, said differently, the exact amount of surplus that the Rangers are saving. Darvish represents the best contract/talent combincation but only because he cost that money up front. Markets are a funny thing; they always seem to work, even in something as screwy as long-term contracts for starting ptichers.

In less painful detail, what do you all think?

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