David Price is the market's top free-agent pitcher, but should that earn him a $200 million contract? Cliff Corcoran breaks down his value in this winter's first installment of What's He Really Worth?
More than two weeks have passed since free agents were eligible to sign with any of baseball’s 30 teams. But outside of deals signed on Nov. 13 in conjunction with the deadline to accept or reject qualifying offers, the largest contract landed by a free agent thus far has been the one-year, $6 million deal the Athletics gave 35-year-old journeyman lefty Rich Hill. Given that lack of action, this seems like a good time to crank up our “What’s He Really Worth?” series, which attempts to calculate the actual value of some of the off-season’s top free agents. We’ll start with an attempt to estimate the actual value of the top free-agent pitcher on the market: David Price.
In addition to being the runner-up for this year’s American League Cy Young award, the 2012 winner of that award and the runner-up in '10, Price is two years younger than Zack Greinke and has a far less problematic injury history than Johnny Cueto or Jordan Zimmermann, making him arguably the most projectable ace on the market. Price’s only disabled list stint came in 2013, when he missed 47 days due to a triceps strain in his pitching arm, and outside of some soreness in his first full professional season in '08, he has never had an elbow or shoulder injury. He has averaged 217 innings per year over the last six years, not counting the additional 57 2/3 innings he has thrown in the postseason over that span.
Price’s durability is incredibly valuable on its own, but over those same six years, he has also recorded a 2.97 ERA (129 ERA+) and 3.05 FIP; over the last three years, he has posted a 5.78 strikeout-to-walk ratio; and over the last two years, he has struck out 496 men in 468 2/3 innings, a rate of 9.5 per nine innings. Before his 31st birthday next August, he should move into the top ten of all former No. 1 draft picks in terms of career Wins Above Replacement (baseball-reference version).
To figure out what a player like that is worth on the open market, we turn to the methodology that Jay Jaffe (currently hard at work on his annual JAWS series of Hall of Fame evaluations) developed in recent seasons. The basic elements of that system are the current dollar value of a marginal win (that is, a win above replacement level, or, simply, a full point of WAR) and an estimate of the player’s value for the coming season based on a weighted average of his last three seasons. We then factor in a steady rate of inflation for the value of a win and decline for the value of the player to figure out what he would be worth over the length of a multi-year contract.
Per ESPN’s Dan Szymborski, creator of the ZiPS projection system, the current value of a marginal win is $6.5 million (up from roughly $6 million a year ago). Using 5.4% inflation, that puts the 2016 value at $6.851 million. Using a 5/4/3 weighting of Price’s last three seasons (five times his 5.9 bWAR in 2015, three times his 4.6 bWAR in '14 and three times his 2.8 bWAR in his injury-shortened '13), we get an approximate value of 4.7 bWAR for next season, which is a near match for his straight average over the last six seasons (4.6 bWAR per year). Multiplying 4.7 bWAR by $6.851 million per win tells us that Price should be worth more than $32 million in 2017. But how does that value change as the price of a win increases and Price’s performance declines?
In evaluating pitcher value last year, Jay used an aggressive decline of 0.8 WAR per year. If we apply that to Price, he would hit replacement level in his age-36 season, resulting in this seven-year projection:
The idea of Price being replacement level at 36 seems dubious at first glance, but consider the manner in which some of the other elite workhorses of recent years have aged. Roy Halladay managed to pitch just 62 innings in his age-36 season before retiring due to injury and was roughly a win below replacement that season. Cliff Lee was 36 last year and didn’t pitch at all; his career may also be over due to injury. CC Sabathia won’t be 36 until July and has been worth an average of just a third of a win over the last three years. Justin Verlander won’t be 33 until February and is already battling a severe decline, averaging 1.6 bWAR over the last two seasons. Another former Cy Young award winner who just completed his age-36 season is Johan Santana, but he hasn’t been healthy enough to pitch a regular-season game at any level since 2012.
That may seem like cherry picking, but Cy Young award-winners are Price’s peer group, and the era of the superannuated pitcher appears to be over. Here’s the full list of the last five Cy Young award winners to turn in a season above replacement level at the playing age of 36 or later, not counting knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, who won the award at 37 in just his third full major league season:
1. Bartolo Colon (2005 AL): Colon won the award at 32 and was worth just -0.7 bWAR over the next five seasons (one of which he sat out entirely) before rebooting his career in his late thirties thanks to some questionable medical practices.
2. Chris Carpenter (2005 NL): Carpenter won the award at 30 and qualified for the ERA title just four more times in his career, the last coming in his age-36 season (3.5 bWAR). He made just three more starts after that season before retiring.
3. Roger Clemens (2004 NL): Clemens won the award at 38 and again at 41 and was one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history. He has also failed to make the Hall of Fame on his first three ballots due to extensive performance-enhancing drug allegations.
4. Randy Johnson (2002 NL): A late-bloomer, Johnson won the award at 36, 37 and 38 and was not only one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history but also an extreme outlier in terms of body type as well as career performance.
5. Pedro Martinez (2000 AL): Martinez was worth 0.7 wins in nine starts for the Phillies in 2009 at the age of 37 but was below replacement the previous year and retired after the ’09 season.
Given the above, committing to Price into his late thirties would be foolish. What’s more, the above estimate suggests that a five-year deal with a high average annual value is more likely to pay off than a seven-year deal with an only slightly higher total value. Unfortunately for Price’s suitors, the going rate for the best pitcher on the market has far exceeded that estimate.
Last winter, the Nationals signed Max Scherzer, also heading into his age-30 season, for $210 million over seven years, an average annual value of $30 million a year. Scherzer’s contract is complicated by various deferrals and bonuses, but that $30 million is still several hundred thousand shy of the average annual value of Clayton Kershaw’s extension. Kershaw is clearly a more valuable pitcher than Price, due to his youth and performance, but given Price’s status as a former top pick and perennial Cy Young candidate, you can be sure he’ll be aiming for that part of the market.
After Kershaw and Scherzer, the third-highest average annual value in major league history for a pitcher on a multi-year contract is Jon Lester’s $25.8 million from the six-year, $155 million deal he signed with the Cubs last winter. Lester was heading into his age-31 season when he signed that deal, and Price could reasonably argue that he’s a superior option this off-season than Lester was last (neither had free-agent compensation attached to their price). Per the table above, however, even the Lester deal would be an overpay for Price based on actual expectations of his value.
That table may be undervaluing Price, however. Note that his value has actually increased in each of the last three years, from 2.8 bWAR in his injury-shortened 2013 to 4.6 in '14 to 5.9 in '15. What if we let that trend continue for one more year before we start factoring in decline for Price? Scherzer moved from the American League to the National League in his age-30 season and went from a 6.0 bWAR season to a career-best 7.1 bWAR season. What if Price—who is sure to be pursued by many NL teams, including the Cubs, Dodgers and Giants—were to experience a similar improvement in 2016?
If we start Price at a 7.0 bWAR in 2016 and start his decline from there with 6.2 bWAR in '17 and so forth, his value more than doubles and would justify a contract as large as $268 million over the next ten years. A more reasonable estimate, however, may be simply for Price to repeat his 2015 value of 5.9 bWAR. Keeping our established rate of decline, he would still scrape replacement level in his age-37 season, which would keep him in line with the career paths of his fellow 21st-century Cy Young award winners but would push his value over the next eight years to more than $190 million, making a Scherzer-sized deal far less of an overpay.
Because of the deferrals involved, Scherzer’s seven-year contract had an estimated present-day value of $191.4 million, per Cots’ Baseball Contracts. The top seven years in the table above come out to roughly $188 million. Thus, it is within the realm of reason for Price to expect and receive a contract comparable to Scherzer’s in terms of length and total value. But if competition pushes his offers significantly beyond that point, teams would be well-advised to bow out and consider their alternatives.