Nationals Opinions: Max Scherzer and the Value of Pitching
By Scott Bline
One of the more interesting facts about the Max Scherzer signing is how the Nationals and Scherzer’s agent Scott Boras structured the deal. A seven-year contract in length, the $210 million salary is actually paid across 14 years with $105M deferred without interest and paid between 2022-28 (reducing the contract in present-day value to around $191M, per Baseball Prospectus). Scherzer will be 44 when those checks stop being deposited.
I’ve argued elsewhere that Scherzer was the best in this year’s group of free agent pitchers with a historical comp of David Cone and the tantalizing projection of a K/9 that might approach 11 and lead the Majors now that he’s in the NL. Let’s just say my giddiness is only slightly subdued when I think the Nats will be paying an average of $35M in 2020-21. This year, though, he’s a top 10-player paid the 53rd highest salary in all of baseball, which seems like a good value to me.
Enjoy it while it lasts.
There’s also something to be said for cheap, controllable players. Give credit to Mike Rizzo and staff for being creative in the contract’s structuring, but the Nationals were in a position to offer that deal only because they aren’t paying top dollar for their own homegrown talent. How much will Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg cost to retain once they hit the market, seeking their own respective paydays? We’ll soon find out, but as it stands, Zimmermann is the second priciest pitcher on the Nats roster at 16.5 million (still way undervalued) while Strasburg makes a beggarly 7.4 million by comparison.
In their current projected five-man rotation, the Nats employ two homegrown starters, four starters still on their first, pre-free agent contracts (i.e. relatively cheap), and three either one or two years away from testing free agency, the Nats have just north of $63.5 million tied up in five All-Star quality starters. Is that a lot? If you consider that the Nats will spend more for their starters than the Marlins will on their entire team, and just barely come in under the Astros current payroll, then sure. That’s a lot. It’s the fourth highest in baseball, but it’s a far cry from the $85.5M the Dodgers will spend.
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Fret not. If the Nationals plan to keep everyone around (not a chance) then expect the starters to eclipse 100 million in a few years.
The real question, then, is it worth it? If it brings a championship to D.C. then it is. Financially, though, what is the return on investment? If the group goes out and breaks Cleveland’s four-month old record for strikeouts in a season, wins 80 games between them, and marches through the postseason, is that what it takes?
I’d like to ground this discussion in the quantitative rather than the qualitative. How much will the Nats spend per win share?
Over the last two years, the median value for cost per win (I’m using Fangraphs’ version of WAR, which I’ll refer to as fWAR from here on out) came in at 2.3 million in 2013 and 2.57 million in 2014. The Nationals came in shy of both those figures the last two years: each win by their starting pitchers cost 2.2 million in ’13 and a paltry 1.7 million last season. Both of those figures speak to the extraordinary quality of their pitching staff and the relative inexpensive options in the rotation.
Thank you, Tanner Roark!
There were extremes. The Giants paid nearly 12 million per win share by a starter in 2013 (an outlier in the truest sense as their total is nearly four standard deviations from the mean) while the Indians paid just under three hundred thousand last season. The Giants are one reason to proceed with caution if you’re the Nats. They had an expensive free agent signing in Barry Zito and a homegrown talent they extended in Matt Cain who pitched below expectations. Projecting pitchers is an endeavor fraught with hazards.
Value-wise, what can we expect from the Nationals in 2015? That’s an interesting question, and using Steamer projections we can make an attempt at answering it with a certain level of confidence. Steamer has the projected rotation of Scherzer, Strasburg, Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister earning a collective 14.6 fWAR next season, which seems rather modest but projections typically don’t predict monster seasons. Steamer projects every single starter to earn at least 2.0 fWAR, something done by only 56 starters who pitched enough innings to qualify or 12 percent of those making at least one start. They’re projections. We’ll revisit this at a TBD date to see how we did.
At the projected production of 14.6 fWAR, Ted Lerner would shell out slightly over $4.3M per win share. Last season, 4.3 million per would have placed the Nats 26th in the Majors just past the Cardinals and Brewers. If we allow our optimism to surpass our modesty, using the Nats total win shares of 17.6 from last season, the relative value drops down to 3.6 million, or now 23rd as they edge out the Blue Jays.
There are two ways for that figure to drop, and that’s either through reducing the budget or getting better production out of the players currently employed. I know which one the fans are clamoring for, but if you’re Rizzo, the path moving forward isn’t so clear. Paying for past production can lead to roster inflexibility, and there does come a point where a top heavy roster will eventually just crash. The Phillies are a prime example. They spent over 70 million on their rotation the last two seasons, and an expensive, aging core led the team to back-to-back 73-win campaigns.
From a value perspective, starting pitchers tend to peak in their mid-20s, then to drop by nearly half a win from that peak as they enter their 30s. If you’re interested, I go into way more detail here, but the basic point is that relying on aging starters, no matter how successful, is a recipe for disaster. Committing 80-90 million and relying on them for an extended run is just foolish. Since 1985, the average age of a starter that’s actually qualified for the ERA title (or a group of pitchers capable of finishing the season) is 28.7 years old. Hmmm. What a weird coincidence.
Dreaming of an extended run with a rotation of Scherzer, Zimmermann, Strasburg, Gonzalez, and Fister is all fun and games for a season or two. Even if Lerner was willing to foot the bill, history shows he’d regret the decision.