The business of baseball is played under two sets of rules: contracts that make sense and those that don’t. The Red Sox tried playing under the former rules, which meant letting homegrown ace Jon Lester go because, now more than ever, it is ridiculously inefficient to pay more than $20 million a year for a pitcher to decline through his 30s. Here is what being smart with money got Boston: a last-place team with a $186 million payroll. The Red Sox were in last place and 10 games out even before school let out.
Goodbye, Ben Cherington. Hello, Dave Dombrowski, who took over Aug. 18 as spender-in-chief. Goodbye, efficiency. Hello, baseball baccarat.
This is what one rival executive told me a week ago: “The Red Sox are going to pay more than any other team to get David Price. They didn’t bring Dave Dombrowski in to start a rebuilding program. They brought him in to win now. And Dave has his own legacy to look after, too, after Detroit let him go. You don’t think he wants to show them? Prospects, money … whatever it takes.”
So far, Dombrowski has jumped out front in the market to overpay with prospects for closer Craig Kimbrel and overpay in years for Price, who just became the highest paid pitcher in baseball history ($217 million over seven years) and did so without winning any of his eight postseason starts. His teams lost every time he started a postseason game. (In fairness, they also scored 19 runs in those eight games.)
The Red Sox are spending all of this money on Price because they have it (baseball’s little secret is that revenues have been rising faster than salaries), and because it didn’t work when they tried to play it smart. Will the about-face work? In the short term, yes. In the long term? In the names of Brown, Hampton, Santana, Sabathia, et al.: No way.
This is what you need to know about the Price signing: The Red Sox are paying Price his market rate and betting an enormous sum of money that he is an extreme outlier, an ace who ages well into his 30s.
So Price gets $7 million more, but the contract has even more value because Scherzer deferred without interest half of his money ($105 million) and did not obtain an opt-out clause. Price has no deferred money and can opt-out after three years. In the context of the money flying around today’s game, Price hit his market value.
Now think about all the reasons Boston can talk themselves into thinking Price is an outlier when it comes to pitchers’ aging patterns. He has pitched great at Fenway Park (6–1 with a 1.95 ERA in 11 starts); he has excelled in the cauldron of the AL East (he is 29–4 on the road in Boston, New York, Baltimore and Toronto); he has maintained his velocity (his average four-seam velocity from last season of 94.9 mph was his best since 2012); he already has transitioned into a more multi-faceted pitcher (his changeup usage increased for a fifth straight season); he has super clean mechanics, which he has maintained with little change to his body structure; and he has no history of major arm issues.
It’s all true and it sounds great, but you can’t think it’s a good long-term based on recent sampling. I’ve already examined all free-agent contracts over the previous five years that were worth $50 million or more and studied the return on the 81 seasons for those players age 30 or older. I found that teams on average were paying $19.2 million a year for a 53% chance that a free agent in his 30s will be at least average. A veritable coin flip. Overall, the rate of productive players in their 30s in baseball is the worst in 40 years, and the worst in the history of free agency.
Pitchers, as velocity has crept up, are losing effectiveness sooner and sooner. Let’s give Price three good years in Boston: ages 30, 31 and 32. What will his age-33, -34, -35 and -36 seasons look like at $124 million?
Let’s look at last season, and every pitcher between ages 33 and 36. Now count all of those pitchers who threw 162 innings with an adjusted ERA better than 100. You can stop counting at just three: Mark Buehrle, Dan Haren and John Lackey.
Five years ago, you would have found 10 such pitchers who aged well. Sixteen years ago, in a much tougher pitching environment (but with no drug testing), you would have found 16 of them.
Here’s another exercise to try. Rewind the clock to five years ago and find all the pitchers who threw at least 162 innings in their age 29 season, as Price did this year. You find seven of them. How did they hold up? None of them are close to anybody’s idea of an ace just five years later: Brett Myers, CC Sabathia, C.J. Wilson, Roberto Hernandez, Haren, Joe Saunders and Joe Blanton.
The greatest pitchers of this generation fade quickly: Sabathia, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Johan Santana, Roy Halladay, Justin Verlander, Cliff Lee, etc. Over the past two seasons 44 names have filled Cy Young Award ballots, but only one was older than 32 (Lackey).
Winning in baseball is not an either/or scenario. The 2015 Royals did not have an ace on Opening Day, though they did rent Johnny Cueto for two months. The Blue Jays are moving on without their rental, Price, and spreading far less money around to J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada. The Cubs, already on the hook for the decline of Lester, don’t have the stomach for paying for another such decline and are more likely to trade for a young starter such as Shelby Miller, Kevin Gausman or Taijuan Walker. The Yankees, after the mistake of not letting Sabathia walk on his opt-out, are staying out of the aging pitcher market and borrowing from the Kansas City model (decent starting pitching backed by a deep, power bullpen). It’s not that the Red Sox have found the better way; it’s that they got burned trying it the other way.
Today, on paper, Boston is the best team in the American League East. Price gives them stability, an extroverted personality who won’t crater in Boston and a positive clubhouse presence who should be especially helpful to young lefthanded starters Eduardo Rodriguez and Henry Owens. For the next two or three years, it’s a great fit. After that? Well, the Red Sox and baseball must hope revenues continue to rise.
It’s appropriate that Price’s agreement should come on the first day of the month that marks the 40th anniversary of the greatest win ever by the players. On Dec. 23, 1975, arbitrator Peter Seitz, in a 64-page decision, ruled for the players in the grievances brought by Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally. Baseball’s reserve clause, which bound players to their teams indefinitely, effectively was dead. It was the birth of free agency. It was the birth of the freedom for the clubs to buy their way out of last place.