MLB: Analysing the 2017/18 Free Agent Market – Starting Pitchers

Our 2017/18 MLB free agent market break down begins with starting pitchers. It includes predictions… sort of

As the 2017/18 MLB free agent market begins to heat up, it’s time to take a look at the players whose services will be bid on in the coming months. While the rumor mill will likely be in full force and the debates full of speculation and narrative, it’s worth taking the time to step back and analyse the market from afar. As, it would seem to be the chronological starting point for any positional break down, we start today with the starting pitching market.

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The starting pitching market in 2017/18, perhaps more than any recent off-season can be characterized by risk. The jewel of the market, Japanese phenom, Shohei Otani is coming off an injury shortened year with the NPBs Nippon Ham Fighters and of course there is also the inherent risk of trying to project performance across the Pacific Ocean. Joining him at the top of the market are other high risk/high reward arms Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta who come with their own set of concerns. Beyond that, the 2017/18 free agent pitching market is loaded with mid-rotation options with lengthy injury histories.

Below you will find two sets of tables. The first are backwards looking, showing the three year averages for some (though not all) relevant statistics as well as their Qualifying Offer status, the second of these are forward looking and attempt to assign a dollar value to the players’ future performance. I have broken the market into what I see as being three clear tiers of pitchers, though the distinction between the end of the 2nd tier and the start of 3rd tier are somewhat less clear. Within the tiers I have also tried to rank the pitchers in order as best I can though this is clearly a subjective exercise.

A Short Note on Methodology

The averages shown in the first table for each tier are a simple three year average taken from the Fangraphs Leaderboards, they give us some context as to the type of pitcher the player has been over the last 3 years in some key statistical categories as well as the players age and whether they have been extended a Qualifying Offer or not.

The second set of tables, attempt to project each players values as determined by WAR over a four year period and then assign a dollar value to this value. To achieve this, a three year weighted average was taken of the pitcher’s WAR for the last 3 seasons and then a simple age adjustment was applied. The age adjustment used here was as follows:

Player < 28 = +.25 WAR
Player 28-20 = + 0 WAR
Player > 30 = -.25 WAR

This is just a simple adjustment to account for the effects of aging on player performance. The players WAR was then projected out over a 4 year period and the average WAR per year appears in the table below. The projected years column is a subjective assessment of the expected length of the players contract and does not factor into these calculations – it is simply a guide for you, the reader. The same applies to the “interested teams” column.

For the purpose of this exercise one ‘Win’ was valued at $8M.

So with out further delay, let’s dive in to this year’s pitching market.

Tier 1 – Aces for Hire

Player Age K% BB% ERA QO?
Shohei Otani* 23 30.31* 7.41* 11.24* No
Yu Darvish 31 28.9 7.5 3.70 No
Jake Arrieta 31 24.8 7.6 2.71 Yes

The three pitchers here clearly stand above the rest of the free agent market and will be the primary target for many of the teams looking for rotation help this off-season. All of these pitchers have been the undisputed ace of their respective teams in recent years and in some cases project to be so moving forward. All three pitchers in this top tier come with plenty of risk however, with Otani moving from a foreign league, Darvish showing mixed performances since returning from Tommy John Surgery and Arrieta appearing to enter his decline phase.

Nonetheless, these arms will all be highly sought after and will be compensated handsomely (with the exclusion of Otani) this Winter. With that let’s see how they project moving forward.

Player Proj. WAR/yr Proj. Yrs Proj. AAV Teams
Jake Arrieta 3.73 4 27.2 Brewers, Rangers, Angels
Yu Darvish 3.23 5 26.04 Dodgers, Cubs, Angels

You will see that Shohei Otani is notably missing from this list. Whilst it would have been great to include him in these projections the international free agent system is far too divorced from regular free agency to be accurately represented here.

By this model, Jake Arrieta comes out as the jewel of the class, projected to accumulate an average of 3.73 WAR per year over the next 4 years – a figure that brings Arrieta’s projected value to $27.2M per year. This model is similarly high on Darvish projecting him for 3.23 per year at $26.04M.

It should be noted however, that this model still rewards Arrieta for his outstanding 7.3 WAR campaign in 2015 (even though it is heavily weighed against), a performance that appears unlikely to be even close to matched by Arrieta going forward. While Otani is clearly the prize in this class, our model still finds plenty of value in the arms already stateside.

Tier 2 – Mid-Rotation Reinforcements

Player Age K% BB% ERA QO?
Alex Cobb 28 17 6 4.20 Yes
CC Sabathia 37 19.3 8 3.69 No
Lance Lynn 29 21 9.6 3.24 Yes
Jaime Garcia 29 19.5 7.9 3.95 No
Brett Anderson 28 15 6.7 4.66 No
Tyler Chatwood 27 18.2 11.3 4.27 No
Michael Pineda 27 24.8 5.2 4.56 No
Doug Fister 32 16.1 7.7 4.58 No
John Lackey 39 21.2 6.7 3.49 No
Jeremy Hellickson 30 13.8 6.8 5.43 No
Andrew Cashner 29 17.3 9.1 4.26 No
Ricky Nolasco 33 18.1 6.5 4.85 No
Jhoulys Chacin 29 20 9.4 3.89 No
Hisashi Iwakuma 35 18.5 5.3 3.93 No

If tier 1 could be considered risky then I am not sure that there is an adjective left to describe this second tier. Almost every arm listed here is either currently injured, has had a recent serious injury, has a long track record of serious injury or is Ricky Nolasco and Jeremy Hellickson and well… that says enough. There will be some diamonds that emerge from this rough as there are some arms that do possess some interesting upside. This class will certainly test every General Manager’s risk aversion, however.

Player Proj. WAR/yr Proj. Yrs Proj. AAV ($M) Potential Teams
Cobb 2.19 3 17.52 Cubs, Brewers, Phillies
Sabathia 1.64 1 13.14 Yankees, Brewers
Lynn 1.71 2 13.74 Cardinals, Brewers
Garcia 1.62 2 12.98 Twins, Angels
Anderson 0.88 2 7.06 Phillies, Athletics, Brewers
Chatwood 1.09 3 8.68 Phillies, Padres, Pirates
Pineda 2.61 2 20.9 Injured
Fister 0.53 1 4.2 Padres, Red Sox
Lackey 1.29 1 10.32 Cubs, Angels
Hellickson 0.98 2 7.8 Phillies, Padres, Athletics
Cashner 1.08 2 8.64 Orioles, Athletics
Nolasco 1.66 2 13.26 Twins, Brewers, Angels
Chacin 1.87 2 14.98 Padres, Phillies, Athletics
Iwakuma 1.33 2 10.6 Mariners

As I mentioned above, there are some potentially interesting arms available here, though I will touch on just a few. Alex Cobb has been solid since returning from Tommy John surgery in 2016 even if the strike out numbers are yet to return. He already looks like a solid mid-rotation option and has been linked to a number of contending teams. A jump in his strikeout rate to pre-injury norms could see him become one of the better signings in this free agent class.

Tyler Chatwood is a young right-hander who possesses tantalizing stuff. He has spent his career so far in the notoriously hitter friendly confines of Coors Field so a move away from the altitude could see a real jump in his performance and a more pitcher friendly environment may have him looking like a mid-rotation starter in the near future.

Perhaps one of the more interesting free agents available this winter, Michael Pineda will be in charge of his own future. Set to miss the majority of the 2018 season as he rehabs from Tommy John surgery, Pineda will have to decide whether to sign a smaller deal this off-season or hold out until fully healthy and hope for a bigger payday next year. Pineda is clearly the best pitcher in this tier when healthy.

Tier 3 – Also Available

Player Age K% BB% ERA QO?
Bartolo Colon 43 15.7 4 4.52 No
Chris Tillman 28 17 9.5 5.12 No
Hector Santiago 28 19.1 9.7 4.39 No
Martin Perez 25 13.3 8.1 4.57 No
Yovani Gallardo 30 15.8 10 4.66 No
Derek Holland 29 15.9 9.5 5.50 No
Jason Vargas 33 17.4 7.4 4.03 No
Trevor Cahill 28 22 11.3 4.29 No
Wade Miley 29 18.8 9.1 5.1 No
Miguel Gonzalez 32 16.2 7.5 4.44 No
Tyson Ross 29 23.3 11.2 4.31 No
Jordan Lyles 25 14.5 8.5 6.39 No
Matt Garza 32 15.5 8.5 5.1 No
Wily Peralta 27 15.8 8.6 5.39 No
Christian Bergman 28 14.5 5.7 5.45 No
Ubaldo Jimenez 32 20.8 9.5 5.33 No

I have not completed a projection table for this tier as these players a likely to be compensated with smaller MLB deals and NRIs.

There are some solid innings eater types here at the top of this group capable of providing 160+ innings at the back of the rotation. Colon will likely find a job in a rotation somewhere at the age of 43 – an outstanding achievement in its own right – though teams perhaps looking for some younger arms may turn to the likes of Santiago, Tillman and Perez. The back half of this list is comprised of lottery tickets and reclamation projects.

On the Whole

The 2017/18 free agent starting pitching market is one full of risk with no clear option standing out as ‘safe’. There is plenty of upside in this class however, so many teams will be looking for some Charlie Morton like reclamation projects. There will be some big money thrown around at the top of this class, though once you get past Cobb, look for some smaller, shorter term deals.

If you have any thoughts on this years free agent pitching, be sure to let us know in the comments below.

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3 thoughts on “MLB: Analysing the 2017/18 Free Agent Market – Starting Pitchers

  1. 100 pitch limit and the dawn of 4-6 inning SP as normal is destroying the value and quality of SP. Many in this market will get excessive AAV deals as a result. I am left wondering when the market correction will take place across the sport. 7-8 man quality bullpens are now a must which will require greater financial resources being drawn from the same budgets. In my opinion the era of monster contracts for SP is diminishing except for the 15-18 truly dominant exceptions as long as innings pitched remains 6+ for that group, The reign of the RP may quickly be upon us.

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