The second-best starter left on the free-agent market, James Shields reportedly wants an ace-level contract. But is the 33-year-old hurler worth the max money?
After Max Scherzer, James Shields is the top starting pitcher still available on the free agent market, and while he's been a key part of two pennant winners and four postseason teams during his nine-year major league career, the 33-year-old righty doesn't figure to command nearly as large a contract. Unlike Scherzer, Shields doesn't have a Cy Young award to his name, and more daunting than the two-and-a-half-year age difference between the two is a gap of 671 major league innings and more than 1,000 over the course of the two pitchers' professional careers. Earlier this week, Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal reported that Shields has a five-year, $110 million offer in hand. Is it possible for him to live up to that?
As I did on Thursday with Scherzer, I'll take a swing at estimating Shields' value using the model I've called upon over the past two off-seasons for big-name free agents, including Giancarlo Stanton, Pablo Sandoval and Nelson Cruz back in November. Scherzer was my first attempt to apply that model — which incorporates past performance, a projection of future performance, the market cost of a marginal win, inflation and aging based on top research in those areas — to pitchers, applying a more aggressive rate of regression than for position players, albeit one that's less founded in research on aging curves and more on simple common sense that acknowledges that pitchers tend to fade more dramatically over time.
First, a thumbnail sketch of the pitcher's career. Chosen out of Hart High School in Santa Clarita, Calif., in the 16th round in 2000, Shields climbed slowly through the minors, in part because he missed all of his second professional season (2002) due to shoulder surgery. He debuted in the majors on May 31, 2006, and after getting his feet wet that year, became the team's top workhorse and a key figure in their march to respectability and postseason contention. From 2007 to 2012, he averaged a whopping 222 innings per year, more than all but four other pitchers, putting up a 3.80 ERA and 3.79 FIP over that span. Those figures conceal wild year-to-year swings in effectiveness, as wide variances in his batting average on balls in play and home run rates pushed him as high as a 5.18 ERA in 2010 and as low as 2.82 the following year. Through it all, he topped 200 innings in every season and made exactly 33 starts in the last five of them, never taking a detour to the disabled list.
During his time in Tampa Bay, Shields helped the Rays to their first pennant in 2008 and subsequent postseason appearances in '10 and '11. A team-friendly, four-year, $11.25 million deal with three consecutive club options, signed in January 2008, kept his cost down and provided the Rays with plenty of bang for their buck. Via the Baseball-Reference version of Wins Above Replacement (which is driven by actual runs allowed with an adjustment for the quality of defense behind him), he averaged 2.9 WAR per year for that span. Via FanGraphs' version (which is driven by FIP, cutting his fluctuating BABIPs out of the equation), he averaged 3.6 WAR per year.
In December 2012, the Rays pulled off a blockbuster deal with the Royals, one that sent Shields and Wade Davis to Kansas City in exchange for 2012 Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year Wil Myers. The move, designed to provide a veteran front-of-the-rotation starter who could help push a young team toward contention after nine straight losing seasons, was widely panned for the Royals at the time (including here), but it paid off, and Shields was a big part of the reason why. He made 34 starts in each year, with nearly identical ERAs and innings totals (3.15 and 228 2/3 in 2013, 3.21 and 227 in 2014) and lower FIPs than his career mark (3.47 and 3.59 in the two seasons). A dramatically lower walk rate helped compensate for a lower strikeout rate in the second season en route to a 4.1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, his best since 2008. Though his playoff performance was rather wobbly, with a 6.12 ERA and just two quality starts out of five, he was part of a Royals team that reached the World Series for the first time since 1985 and came up just a run short of forcing extra innings in Game 7 against the Giants.
Since we don't know whether Shields is going to land in front of an above-average defense when he signs — as he has enjoyed in each of the past seven seasons according to B-Ref — I'll use his FanGraphs WARs to set his baseline value for 2015, via a 5/4/3 weighting (five times his 2014 value of 3.7 WAR, four times his 2013 value of 4.5 WAR, three times his 2012 value of 3.9 WAR). Projecting that out over five years, using $6 million as the cost of a win in 2014, 5.4 percent annual inflation and an aggressive decline of 0.8 WAR per year such that he'll be a below-average pitcher in the last two, here's what I get (all dollar figures in millions):
That set of assumptions yields a value of $82.2 million over five years, an average of $16.4 million per year — a raise from the $13.5 million he made in 2014, but far short of the annual value he's said to be seeking. If I move the rate of decline by 0.1 in either direction, that adds or subtracts 1.0 WAR from the bottom line, yielding values of $89.6 million at the high end and $74.8 at the low end, still far outside the ballpark of his asking price.
If we reward Shields for his stability by including his strong 2011 season (4.5 WAR) in a 5/4/3/2 weighting, his baseline projection rises slightly to 4.1 WAR, and — again rewarding his durability — if we presume his performance will decline at a less aggressive pace of 0.7 WAR per year, that pushes the yield to 13.4 WAR and $92 million, with only the final season eyeballing as a below-average one, worth 1.3 WAR. Cutting the decline to 0.6 per year yields 14.4 WAR and $99.4 million, finally in the ballpark of a nine-figure deal, while a decline of 0.5 per year boosts that to 15.4 WAR and $106.8 million. Hitting that last projection more or less requires him to remain average or better during the entire five-year span, including a 2.1 WAR in his age-37 season.
How realistic is that? Over the last 10 years, 45 pitchers in their age-37 seasons or older have posted seasons worth 2.0 WAR (FanGraphs version). Seventeen of those seasons belong to pitchers who have either been elected to the Hall of Fame or are currently on the ballot, namely Roger Clemens, Tom Glavine, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling and John Smoltz — pitchers with higher peaks who retained their value for an extraordinarily long time. Shields, who has just one All-Star appearance and one top-three Cy Young finish, doesn't belong in that class. Nor is he a knuckleballer à la Tim Wakefield and R.A. Dickey, who own eight of the remaining 28 seasons. What's left averages out to two such pitchers per year, with Bartolo Colon and Hiroki Kuroda, both 39 or older, the remaining representatives from 2014. Note that just 10 pitchers 37 or older made even one start in 2014, with Jason Lane, Randy Wolf, Bruce Chen and Jamey Wright accounting for 13 of them and Dickey 31 of them. Of the remaining five, Bronson Arroyo needed Tommy John surgery after an amazing run of durability, and A.J. Burnett (1.0 WAR) and Tim Hudson (1.7 WAR) missed the 2.0 WAR cutoff.
In other words, under the assumptions that I've presented, it appears to be a tall order for Shields to be good enough five years down the road to justify the back end of a deal that would push him above $100 million, and even hitting that mark in total value would require a relatively gentle decline. Missing a season due to injury (say, Tommy John surgery) or experiencing a more drastic drop in value would turn his contract into a significant overpay, though the same can be said for most of those involving high-cost pitchers; ask the Yankees, Phillies and Mets about the latter-day yields of the CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay and Johan Santana deals.
From that, we might infer that I've dramatically underpriced the cost of a free market win in the pitching department and that teams are prepared to overpay relative to the cost of a win for a position player, knowing that at some point they'll be signing checks for a sidelined pitcher. If I take one more stab by assuming that the 2014 cost of a win for pitching is $7 million instead of $6 million, but apply the same rate of inflation and revert to a 0.8 WAR/year decline, the numbers crunch down to a yield that's much closer to the range of Shields' reported offer:
Voilà! Reduce that decline back to 0.7 WAR and he gets to $107.3 million, again within range of the reported offer. It still takes optimism to get to that figure, but that cost per win does a better job of reflecting the inherent risk that any team footing the bill is likely to face, something probably worth keeping in mind as a starting point for future models. It's tempting to tack on another dollar figure to account for the draft pick the signing team will lose — since Shields did receive a qualifying offer from the Royals — but that has its own complexities attached.
If Rosenthal's report is true, Shields is likely to get his money. As to who it might be from, there's very little clue. As with Scherzer, the Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox and Cubs appear to be out of the equation, and between Rosenthal and other recent reports at MLB Trade Rumors, the same can apparently be said for the Athletics, Angels, Blue Jays, Diamondbacks, Giants, Marlins, Padres, Rangers, Rockies and Royals as well. That still leaves 16 teams, but without any substantial rumors connecting him to any one of them, we're just throwing darts. The bottom line, however, is that Shields will get paid, but that he'll have to hold up particularly well into his late 30s for the deal to be anything close to a win.