He's the biggest prize on the free-agent market, but Jon Lester is a huge long-term risk for whichever team signs him. Also, thoughts on Oakland's rebuild and the Hall of Fame's latest shutout.
Whichever teams winds up winning the bidding for Jon Lester will get a very good pitcher and a very bad contract. Combine a bidding war between three high-profile, big-market teams — the Cubs, Giants and Red Sox — and a durable pitcher who is available without having to give up talent or draft picks, and you get a recipe for overpayment. It's bound to end poorly.
It's foolish to give a pitcher in the Testing Era a six- or seven-year contract that begins with his age-31 season. In fact, it's so foolish it's never been done before. The history of such contracts even for younger pitchers all but assures Lester's new team will get poor value for the length of its investment. But with Lester looming as the kind of pitcher who can make a difference for one year and one championship, clubs have lined up to buy this veritable lottery ticket.
How big is the risk? Let's put together an actuarial table of pitchers on six- or seven-year contracts. The first thing we need to do is throw out the seasons before 2004, when testing for steroids with penalties began. Kevin Brown, a notorious character in the Mitchell Report, signed a seven-year deal that began with his age-34 season in 1999. That baseball world, a pharmacological Wild West, has no likeness to this one. Brown posted three qualified seasons with adjusted ERAs of 143, 167 and 169 from 1999 to 2001, but he had a 4.95 ERA after testing with penalties was introduced for the 2004 season.
So let's remain grounded in current reality and consider the 2004-14 seasons. We have 12 pitchers who have combined to pitch 39 seasons under six- or seven-year contracts in that span.
Now let's give those 39 seasons pass/fail grades and put the passing mark at a qualified ERA+ of 120. (That statistic adjusts for ballpark and league effects). An ERA+ of 100 is average; the higher the number, the more above average.
So just how good is an ERA+ of 120? Look at it this way: Last season there were 25 qualified pitchers with an ERA+ of at least 120. That means almost one pitcher per team, but not necessarily elite ace type stuff, but more like very good pitchers. The Astros' Dallas Keuchel and the Braves' Alex Wood fit the requirements, for instance.
If you're going to hand out a six- or seven-year contract to a pitcher, it's reasonable to expect qualified seasons of 120 or better. How often does it happen? Take a look at the bad news:
You're going to lose 62 percent of the time on these long-term investments.
But wait. It gets worse. Now consider age, which is the real poison to long-term contracts for pitchers. Here's what happens if we break down by age rather than contract length:
|Ages 30 and 31||7||4|
The failure rate is 73 percent for pitchers in their 30s, and 100 percent once they hit 32. Now you see where the risk exists with Lester. He's a great pitcher today, but less likely to remain so through the contract. (The age 32-plus group consists of Mike Hampton, CC Sabathia, Johan Santana, Barry Zito and the last two seasons for Brown.)
Let's go back to those 25 pitchers last season who qualified at an ERA+ of 120 or better. Only two of them did so after their age-30 season, and both of them were 32: the Cardinals' Adam Wainwright and the Royals' James Shields, the latter of whom is also a free agent.
Last season marked only the fifth season since 1901, and the first in 46 years, in which no qualified pitcher over 32 posted an ERA+ of 120 or better.
Of course, the team that signs Lester will be quick to point out he will be an exception because of his durability, his work ethic, his mechanics, his most recent season, etc. — all the things that brought him to this point. That guarantees nothing. The Tigers could have made the same argument for Justin Verlander when they signed him to a seven-year, $180 million extension in March 2013. In two seasons since signing the contract, Verlander is 28-24 with a 3.99 ERA and a 102 ERA+. Verlander was entering his age-30 season with 1,624 major league innings, postseason included, when that deal began. Lester will be entering his age-31 season with 1,680 innings, postseason included.
Finally, there's the question of how Lester's stuff will play as he ages through his 30s. Lester's four-seam velocity dipped by about a full mile per hour last season. He also used his cutter more often than ever before in his career (31 percent of the time).
Those exact warning signs at the exact same age applied to Dan Haren three years ago. Haren, too, pitched well in his age-30 season, but showed a decline in velocity and career-high use of his cutter. Check out the statistical similarities between the two at the same age:
How has Haren fared since then? He has aged the way most durable pitchers do these days through their 30s: not well. He is 35-38 with a 4.33 ERA and an ERA+ of 86 for three different teams.
The point is not that Lester isn't any better than was the 30-year-old Haren; he is. And it's not to say he would not be a fabulous addition to anybody's rotation; he will be. It's just a reminder that the team that gets Lester has to hope he is an exception to what generally happens to pitchers on long-term deals. History tells us the euphoria of the big press conference to announce the signing usually doesn't last very long.
2. A's shifting strategies again
Five months ago, Oakland was the best team in baseball. Since then, the Athletics have been dismantling their roster, which continued on Monday when they made a pair of trades. First, they sent lefthanded slugger Brandon Moss to Cleveland for minor league second baseman Joe Wendle, who turns 25 next April and has played just 87 games above Class A, none of them in Triple A. They then traded starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija to the White Sox for infielder Marcus Semien and pitcher Chris Bassitt (a third, low-level prospect is reportedly in the deal as well).
Oakland sold low on Moss. He is coming off hip surgery, and as a lefthanded, flyball pull hitter without speed, he is also the kind of player whose style plays better at the arbitration table (about $7-8 million for 2015) than in today's game. He will get paid on his ability to hit some home runs, and not much else. Check out Moss' yearly batting average on balls in play to the pull side beginning with 2012, as shifts and defensive intelligence expanded: .469, .341, .306.
A's general manager Billy Beane built a team around flyball hitters, with a preference for walks, home runs and the avoidance of double plays. That's not a winning formula, not in a game with more sophisticated shifts and more pitchers with the kind of strikeout stuff to exploit hitters who swing up at the baseball. Oakland led the majors in flyball percentage and ranked next-to-last (to San Diego) in batting average on balls in play. None of the 12 teams with the worst BABIP won a playoff game; Oakland, which went one-and-done in the postseason, was the only team in the bottom dozen to even make the playoffs. Now Beane has been adding hitters who don't put the ball in the air as much (Semien, Wendle and recently signed designated hitter Billy Butler).
Losing Moss isn't a huge deal for a team that needs a more diversified offense. The problem with that move is that the Athletics didn't obtain much for a guy who six months ago was an All-Star with an .878 OPS. As for the Indians, they clearly don't mind being too lefthanded (Moss joins Michael Bourn, Michael Brantley, Lonnie Chisenhall, Jason Kipnis and David Murphy in Cleveland's lineup) and the addition of Moss cuts into the usefulness of Murphy and/or the switch-hitting Nick Swisher.
3. Hall of Fame's side door remains closed
The road to Cooperstown for players who fall off the baseball writers' ballot has become harder than ever.
The Golden Era Committee on Monday threw another shutout in a long string of shutouts by various iterations of the old Veterans Committee, the "side door" entrance to the Hall of Fame that considers players not voted in by the writers. The old Veterans Committee, which operated with little transparency, secret votes and the trading of favors, was rightly criticized by sending too many players into the Hall; one year, it voted in seven players. The tipping point to the howling was the 2001 election of Bill Mazeroski, with his former general manager, Joe Brown, chairing a 14-person committee that released no vote totals.
The Hall of Fame reacted to the criticism by doing away with the "smoke-filled room" format and has re-engineered the process at least three times. But the well-intentioned effort has left little hope for players who weren't elected by the writers. There have been 10 committees since then that considered players. Out of 135 names on the ballots, many of which appeared multiple times, only three players have been elected. Here is your Veterans Committee scorecard for players only since 2001 (note that 2008 had two committees, one for players who played the majority of their career before 1943 and one for those who did so after that year):
The tally: Only three players in 13 years got in on a second look, including only two players who first appeared on a writers ballot — and only one player born in the past 98 years. Nobody who was alive at the time of induction was elected. Gordon was voted in by the second of two committees in 2008. Santo was elected a year after his death. White was born in 1847 and never appeared on a writers' ballot. He was considered in 1936 by a panel of 78 Veterans Committee members — and received one vote.
Next year is the return of the Pre-Integration Committee. Its top returning vote-getter from the 2012 ballot is Bill Dahlen, who was born in 1870, played his last game in 1911 and received one vote out of 262 in the one and only time he appeared on a writers ballot.
It's crazy to think that players who have been eligible for the Hall every year since it opened 75 years ago and still aren't in get considered just as often (every three years) as players from the Expansion Era. It's also crazy to think that players not voted in by the writers have such little hope of being enshrined. The writers do a very good of voting (I am a voting member) and the 75-percent threshold required for enshrinement is justly a difficult one. But are the writers so good that in the past 13 years there is room to add only one player born after 1915?
The Hall of Fame does a good job of constantly reviewing its voting systems. It will need to devote a closer look again. The problem is not the 75-percent threshold, which has always been there and keeps a historical premium on high standards. One problem is that guys who have been considered for decades get the same look as players fresh off the writers' ballot. Another problem is that players get squeezed onto the same ballots as executives, umpires and innovators, which creates an especially big problem for players new to the second-look process.
In 2016, for instance, the Expansion Era ballot is so crowded that if it sticks to its 10-candidate limit it would not have room for all among these longtime contributors to the game: commissioner Bud Selig; union leader Marvin Miller; owner George Steinbrenner; executive John Schuerholz; umpire Bruce Froemming; managers Dusty Baker, Cito Gaston, Jim Leyland and Lou Piniella; and players Dave Concepcion, Steve Garvey, Keith Hernandez, Tommy John, Don Mattingly, Jack Morris, Dale Murphy, Dave Parker, Ted Simmons, Alan Trammell and others. It seems a review of the review system is in order.