This past offseason, Max Scherzer was the top free agent pitcher on the market, eventually signing a massive seven year, $210 million dollar contract with the Nationals, the second biggest contract ever given to a pitcher. One of the caveats with the Scherzer contract was that a lot of the money involved was deferred, lowering the present-day value of the contract to around $190 million, according to Cot's Baseball Contracts. Even so, the Nationals are paying Scherzer a boatload of money, and giving a boatload of money to a pitcher on the wrong side of thirty is always a risky move.
There are plenty of examples of long-term contracts for pitchers that haven't worked out. The Yankees probably regret the decision to give CC Sabathia a second deal after his opt out, and the Tigers probably wish they didn't have to pay Justin Verlander another $112 million through 2019. And who can forget the infamous Mike Hampton contract? From 2001-2008, Hampton accumulated 8.2 fWAR while getting paid a total of $121 million.
As things stand right now, there is little reason to believe that the Max Scherzer contract will turn out to be a monumental disaster like the deals listed above. In his first season with the Nationals, Scherzer has done exactly what the Nationals could have reasonably expected from him. Perhaps more importantly, he has made it through the year without missing any time due to injury. Through 31 starts, Scherzer has posted a 2.97 FIP in 219 2/3 innings, good for an fWAR of 5.8. Using Fangraphs' dollar per WAR metric, Scherzer has been worth $46.1 million, and is scheduled to make one more start this season.
Because Scherzer's contract has an AAV of $30 million, some might look at his production this season and claim that he might even be a bargain. For 2015, that may be the case, but he will likely not be this effective as he enters his decline phase over the next few years. Teams typically sign players to long contracts fully aware they will overpay for a player's decline years because it means that they get his remaining peak years at a slight bargain; depending on where a team is on a win curve (sorry 2015 Nats!) this makes sense. The Nationals knew that Scherzer likely wasn't going to be worth $30 million at age 37, but they were okay with this because they were getting one of the best pitchers in baseball at the peak of his career.
For this reason, a contract like Scherzer's needs to be analyzed in its entirety, not simply at a specific point in time. If we set Scherzer's decline at half a win per year, this is what his value would look like for the remainder of his contract.
|Year||WAR||Value (in millions)|
Using this rough approximation of Scherzer's value as he declines, it appears that he will produce somewhere around $252 million in his seven years with the Nationals. While this is a good deal more than what the Nationals paid to sign Scherzer, it is important to keep in mind that this projection assumes that Scherzer makes it through his contract without missing significant time with an injury, which is probably unrealistic.
In addition, Scherzer's preseason projections had him in the 4.5-5.0 WAR range, so at the time the deal was signed, his projected value was much closer to the $210 million the Nationals signed him for. Nevertheless, the fact that Scherzer outperformed his projections in 2015 bodes well for the Nationals going forward, especially in the shorter-term.
Now, there might be some Nationals fans out there who are concerned about Scherzer because of his struggles since the All-Star Break. Scherzer was perhaps the best pitcher in baseball during the first half of the season, but he has not been able to replicate this performance since then, at least in surface stats like ERA.
The good news for Nationals fans is that Scherzer's second half struggles show up in statistics that are generally unsustainable. The two numbers that stand out the most in his half season splits are his BABIP and HR/FB rate. Both of these numbers were unsustainably good in the first half, and in the second half, they have been unsustainably bad.
While his walk rate is up slightly, his strikeout rate is virtually unchanged as is his xFIP, which is generally a good indicator of a pitcher's effectiveness going forward. Overall, Scherzer has an ERA/FIP/xFIP line of 2.91/2.91/3.01 in 2015, suggesting that his luck has effectively balanced out, which is what we would expect to happen in a larger sample size.
Another positive indicator for Scherzer this season is his average fastball velocity, which is back up to 94.7 MPH after a slight decline (93.9 MPH) in 2014. As the season has gone along, Scherzer's velocity has increased, while the horizontal movement on his pitches has remained fairly steady. In other words, there is no reason to believe that Scherzer's "stuff" has declined in any way this season, both during the season and compared to prior years.
There is no doubt that 2015 has been a disappointing season for the Nationals, but it would be unfair to blame Max Scherzer for the team's failure. If anything, the Nationals should be disappointed that they were unable to make the playoffs in what may amount to Scherzer's best season with the team (not to mention Bryce Harper's monster year).
The Scherzer signing was a win-now move for 2015, especially with Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, Ian Desmond, and Denard Span set to hit free agency after this season. Scherzer will likely still be a good pitcher for the Nationals going forward, but it would be unfair to expect him to improve, especially given how pitchers typically age.
It is quite possible that the Nationals' disappointing season will lead to significant changes in the offseason. With Max Scherzer one year older and Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg one year closer to free agency, the Nationals' window for contention may be starting to close. Mike Rizzo and company will have to turn things around quickly if the Nationals hope to be contenders again in 2016.
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