The afterglow of the World Series became a distant memory in the minds of many fans as a blustery, record-setting snowy winter seemed to last forever. The only reprieve during the gray days of December, January, and February was the occasional signing of a big name player and the hope that spring would eventually arrive. The 2014 offseason presented an intriguing crop of free agent pitchers, some of whom had been homegrown with their original franchises and others who had been more transient in the recent past.
We all survived the offseason, as fans are wont to do, and unsurprisingly in the blink of an eye we are already rapidly approaching Memorial Day weekend. Late May is generally viewed as the acceptable time to look at standings, make some preliminary judgments, or decide which woefully unqualified manager a team's front office will appoint next. While six weeks can hardly determine the value of a long term contract, it is nevertheless a fun exercise to take a peek at the top free agent pitchers signed this past off-season to see if their current employers are getting their money's worth or if their former teams' front office members are high-fiving one another for letting their star player walk.
For the starting pitcher free agent class of 2014, Scherzer was the cream of the crop. Since breaking into the big leagues in 2009, Scherzer has never thrown fewer than 170 innings and has tossed 195 or more every year since 2010. He strikes out a quarter of the batters he faces and walks only about seven percent. For five years, he was a pillar in the Tigers rotation by amassing over 20 Wins Above Replacement per Fangraphs. He pitched 62 postseason innings, dialing up his strikeout rate to 11.49 per nine innings and posting a 3.73 earned run average against the game's most potent American League lineups. All of this translated into a big-time contract from the Nationals worth $210 million over seven years*.
*Just play along. Don't worry about the deferred nature of the contract.
The Nationals knew what they were getting in Scherzer, at least at the beginning of the contract. So far in 2015, he is doing what is expected of him and a bit more. In 8 starts Scherzer has gone 56 innings while striking out 66 batters. He leads the majors in FIP with a 2.04 mark and is fifth in ERA. Amidst a messy April, in which the Nationals went an unimpressive 10-13 with a negative run differential, Scherzer did his thing on the bump holding opposing hitters to a .185 batting average and an OPS+ against of 29. It's impossible to judge this contract in its entirety; there is plenty of time for this match to go sour. However, it has started off about as well as Tom Lerner and Mike Rizzo could have hoped, and there is something to be said for getting off on the right foot.
April was not kind to Jon Lester. There were certainly some ‘uh-oh' moments when the league figured out that he had barely thrown over to first base over the course of the last several years.
Even aside from the issues related to holding runners on base, Lester struggled mightily to start the year and did not get past the sixth inning in any of his four April starts. Since the weather in the windy city has warmed, he has gone at least six innings in all his contests and has given up only five earned runs in four games. Lester's numbers for May are indeed excellent, a 1.67 ERA and only seven extra base hits in 27 innings.
He is well on his way to a successful year one of a six-year, $155 million contract. Lester's 3.70 earned run average is mostly aligned with his 3.41 FIP and 3.25 xFIP thanks to his recent performance. Considering the Cubs are legitimate wild card contenders this year (which is probably a year earlier than many people thought), Lester is off to the start Chicago had hoped for when they offered the contract.
On the other side of the coin is the Red Sox, whose pitching woes are well documented. Boston had success going through the rotation the first two times around, and the team looked like they would do just fine without their ace. Then came the third and fourth time through the rotation, when Boston was down multiple runs before the third inning seemingly every night. It's still early and there is plenty of time for Boston's pitchers to figure out who they are; after all, their underlying numbers indicate they can't be this terrible all season. The moral of the story in Boston may be ‘don't low-ball your home-grown stars'. In either case, Boston's loss is Chicago's gain.
Shields was the last of the big three pitchers to sign this offseason. He ultimately landed with the Padres for four years and $75 million. Currently Shields is suffering a bit from homer-itis, as he's allowed 14 home runs over 55.1 innings. To put that into perspective, he allowed between 20 and 26 home runs the previous four years. His home run to fly ball ratio is an absurd 25.5 percent, which is 15 percentage points higher than what would be expected based on league average and his own career average of 11.6 percent. At some point those fly balls will likely not make it over the wall, though with the current composition of the San Diego defense, they may end up turning into doubles instead of outs.
San Diego's General Manager A.J. Preller made huge changes to this team during the offseason including revamping what had been a rather anemic offense (league worst 82 wRC+ in 2014), adding Shields as the team's true ‘ace', and even 'wheeling and dealing' his way into a dominant closer by obtaining Craig Kimbrel from the Braves hours before the first pitch of the season was thrown. From a performance perspective, Shields has been effective; he is striking out nearly one-third of the batters he's facing, though his ERA- is a pedestrian 102. His Fielding Independent Pitching numbers are not great due to the home run problems, but regressing his home run to fly ball ratio creates a more than respectable xFIP of 2.85.
Going into Wednesday's action, the Pads are sitting at .500 with a record of 20-20. They are highly unlikely to win the National League West, and the Dodgers look like a force well into the future. In order to make all these moves worth it, they'll have to play relevant games in September and at least make a decent run at wild card. Shields has shown durability and can be their workhorse as they try to make a run, but he's not getting any younger.
Over the past year, Miller has gone on a pretty nifty American League East tour. He came up through the Red Sox system and was traded to the Orioles last summer for Eduardo Rodriguez (what looks like a great deal for Boston). When Baltimore did not sign him to a long term deal, he signed with the Yankees to replace David Robertson. With Dellin Betances hitting his stride, New York complimented their bullpen by signing Miller to a four-year, $36 million deal, moderately less than what it took the Chicago White Sox to sign Robertson.
In his first 17 games in pinstripes, Miller was absolutely phenomenal, giving up no runs. He hit a bit of a speed bump on Tuesday night, serving up a game winning two-run home run to Ryan Zimmerman, but on the year has been excellent. In 18.1 innings Miller has struck out 31 batters and walked nine. He has successfully closed out 13 games for the Bombers, and with the progressiveness of skipper Joe Girardi has entered the game in high leverage situations prior to the ninth inning. Miller's 44 percent strikeout rate and .067 batting average against puts him among baseball's elite relief pitchers.
The Yankees have had a solid start to the season and put themselves in a good position despite having a rough road trip over the course of the last week. The biggest question mark for New York will be whether or not they will receive the starting pitching necessary to keep them in games and get them to their stellar bullpen. Miller is in his age 29 season and has three years left on his deal. The Yankees have a solid bullpen arm in him, but they're going to need some help in innings one through seven.
Robertson took over as the Yankees' go-to closer in a seamless transition from the great Mariano Rivera, but New York ultimately let him walk when it was apparent they'd need to sign him on a multi-year, $40-50 million contract. Meanwhile, the White Sox were in a similar position as the Padres, a middle of the road team with playoff aspirations; Chicago was not a good team in 2014 and made a bunch of moves toward playoff contention instead of continuing to wallow in the mud of mediocrity. Unfortunately, the play on the field has so far not matched the narrative. It looks as if the White Sox have a pretty dominant closer for a team that will finish well out of the playoffs.
After spending some time on the disabled list in April, Robertson has returned to his usual form. In just over 17 innings he has already amassed nearly one win per Fangraphs WAR and has an earned run average of 1.04. He has given up only two earned runs and has struck out 27 batters. Additionally, he has given only two free passes this season. Ultimately Robertson is the player the White Sox hoped he would be, but it looks like it may be going for naught --- at least in year one. With the volatility of relievers, Chicago better hope they can turn things around quickly or Robertson may not end up finishing that contact on the South Side of Chicago.