What's He Really Worth: Zack Greinke's age makes him tricky buy
This year’s crop of free agents includes four pitchers who could fairly be called aces: Johnny Cueto, Zack Greinke, David Price and Jordan Zimmermann. Of that quartet, Greinke, who opted out of his contract with the Dodgers earlier this month, is the oldest, having just turned 32 in October. Because of that, there is some belief that he could be had on a shorter-term deal than the other three, all of whom will be in their age-30 seasons next year. A closer look at Greinke’s projected value, however, suggests that there may not be as much savings involved in pursuing Greinke rather than the other three aces.
Once again, to determine what Greinke should be worth, we’ll use the methodology established by Jay Jaffe in prior off-seasons. That starts with the estimated market price of a marginal win (that is, a Win Above Replacement or one point of WAR) and a projected WAR total for the player in question for the coming season. From there, we can factor in the inflation rate in the cost of a win and the player’s expected decline in WAR to project his WAR totals for subsequent seasons, as well as how much those wins will be worth each year. Multiply the wins for each season by the going rate of a single win and add it all up, and we have an estimate of what he might actually be worth over the course of his next contract.
As far as the hard numbers go, ESPN’s Dan Szymborski, creator of the ZiPS projection system, estimates the current value of a marginal win at $6.5 million. Using the 5.4% inflation rate Jay has used in past years for these calculations, that puts the marginal value of a win in 2016 at $6.851 million. To estimate Greinke’s WAR total for 2016, we will follow Jay’s system by using a 5/4/3 weighting of his baseball-reference.com WAR totals from the last three seasons (taking the average of five times his 9.3 bWAR from his spectacular 2015, four times his 4.3 bWAR from '14 and three times his 3.9 bWAR from '13). Note that I’m using his pitching values only; Greinke, the best hitting pitcher in baseball, has been worth an average of 0.9 bWAR per year at the plate over the last three years, but an American League team would not be able to capitalize on that value.
That method gives us a 6.3 bWAR for Greinke’s 2016 season. Using a fairly aggressive decline rate that subtracts 0.8 bWAR of value annually, we get a projected value for Greinke that actually exceeds what I calculated for Price yesterday:
The only thing that’s really different between this table and the one we created for Price was that we started Greinke out at a higher 2016 bWAR, one generated by his big spike in value this past season. There is no adjustment here for the fact that Greinke is two years older than Price and only a slight adjustment for just how far out of line his 9.3 bWAR last year was relative to the seasons that preceded it.
Greinke’s 9.3 bWAR last year wasn’t completely unprecedented; he put up a 10.4 bWAR in his Cy Young season in 2009. In between those two spike years, however, he averaged just 3.3 bWAR per season. Greinke has shown steady improvement over the last four seasons, going from a 1.5 bWAR in his first year with the Brewers to 3.6 in 2012, 3.9 in '13, 4.3 in '14, and 9.3 last year, but even then, that 9.3 mark is way out of line with his rate of improvement in the previous seasons. Toss out 2011—which began with a disabled list stay for a broken rib suffered during the off-season—as a fluke down year, and from 2010 (3.4 bWAR) to '14 (4.3), he improved by a total of less than one full win despite showing steady improvement throughout that period, then jumped up five wins in 2015. That last figure is clearly a fluke.
Still, let’s not disregard the fact that he continued to improve. Greinke’s fielding independent pitching figure for 2015 was 2.76, 110 points higher than his actual ERA but still a 7% improvement on his '14 FIP and his best figure since '09. A 7% improvement on Greinke’s 2014 bWAR would give him an expected total of 4.6 WAR for '15; that's a 0.3-win improvement over '14, which is in line with his 0.4-win improvement from '13 to that year. Let’s be generous and double that improvement, giving him an expected 2015 bWAR of 4.9, then credit him with another 0.3-win improvement for '16, a generous assumption given that we’re talking about his age-32 season. That makes our starting bWAR for Greinke 5.2 and drastically changes his expected value going forward:
That’s roughly a seven-year, $150 million contract, which is more in line with what the expectations are for Greinke’s likely payday. Still, as discussed regarding fellow Cy Young award winner Price yesterday, precious few of the 21st century’s best starting pitchers have managed to remain above replacement level past the age of 35.
The last five Cy Young award winners to post an above-replacement season in their age-36 season or older (not counting late-blooming knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, who won the award at 37) are Bartolo Colon, who washed out of baseball in his mid-thirties before staging a comeback with the help of medical practices of questionable legality; Chris Carpenter, who made just three starts after his age-36 season; Roger Clemens, an alleged performance-enhancing drug user; Randy Johnson, a late bloomer and extreme outlier; and Pedro Martinez, who was below replacement at 36 but above in a mere nine starts in his age-37 season, which was also his last. Over that same stretch, we’ve seen Brandon Webb, Barry Zito, Johan Santana, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, CC Sabathia, Tim Lincecum and Justin Verlander experience sharp declines and/or career-ending injuries in or before their age-36 seasons, and that doesn’t include celebrated non-Cy Young winners from that period such as Mark Mulder, Roy Oswalt and Josh Beckett—all off whom were finished before their age-36 season—or Matt Cain, who has been a net negative since his age-28 season.
That’s not to say that pitchers can’t remain valuable into their late thirties anymore. But in the seven seasons since 2008 (when Randy Johnson, Mike Mussina and Jamie Moyer were last valuable starting pitchers), just six pitchers have had multiple seasons worth 1.0 bWAR beyond their age-35 season: Dickey, Colon, Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, Tim Hudson and A.J. Burnett. I wouldn’t be shocked to see Greinke add his name to that list, but the above projection of him being worth 3.6 bWAR beyond the age of 35 seems mildly optimistic.
Given all of that, a seven-year deal for Greinke, which would take him through his age-38 season, seems foolish. Teams would be better off hoping for stronger near-term performance than the second chart above projects while limiting the duration of their offers to six years at the absolute most. The primary comparison point here is Jon Lester’s six-year, $155 million deal from last year, which began this year with his age-31 season. Greinke is a better pitcher than Lester coming off a far better year than the lefty, but he’s a year older than Lester was last season, and given the prevailing trends regarding pitcher aging, that’s a major factor.