What Can Gerrit Cole's Suitors Learn From Other $200 Million Pitchers?

One team is about to invest an enormous amount of money in Gerrit Cole. Very likely more than $200 million. Will it be worth it? Here's what history says.
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No pitcher in Major League Baseball was better over the final five months of last season than Gerrit Cole. He posted the longest winning streak in more than a century—including his first three postseason starts—and in the process probably secured himself $200 million in free agency this winter.

During that stretch of dominance, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Cole would be receive the largest contract for a starting pitcher in MLB history, exceeding the total value of David Price’s $217 million deal and Zack Greinke’s $34-plus million average annual value. And that’s definitely still possible, with all the teams in need of a top-tier starter that are expected to be in the running for him.

But is one pitcher—even Cole—worth that much? How these teams project Cole’s future performance surely will determine that for them, though they should also consider how similar megadeals worked out in the past. Certainly, Cole could be worth every penny of a $220 million contract—we’ve all seen what he’s capable of doing. However, is it worth investing upwards of a quarter-billion in a single pitcher who will spend the bulk of those years in his 30s? Here’s what history says.

David Price, Red Sox: 7 Years/$217 Million (2016-2022)

Price hit free agency after his age 29 season and had as good a track record as any starter hitting free agency over the last decade. From 2010-2015, he had a 2.97 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP while averaging 217 innings and 210 strikeouts per season. He won the AL Cy Young in 2012 and finished second twice more in that span. He posted 29.7 WAR, which converts to a value of about $216 million, per Fangraphs. He was durable, and his version of a down year (2013) was still pretty darn good: 3.33 ERA, 1.10 WHIP in 186 2/3 innings.

Naturally, after years of facing him and coming off back-to-back last-place finishes, the Red Sox went all in on Price in free agency, giving him the largest contract (total value) for a pitcher in MLB history. All things considered, the deal paid off immediately. Price was a bulldog, going 17-9 with a 3.99 ERA and 228 strikeouts, and leading the league with 35 starts and 230 innings. Boston finished first in the AL East. His projected value was $35.2 million, per Fangraphs, which exceeded the $30 million he earned that year.

Then injuries set in. Nagged by a recurring elbow problem in 2017, Price made just 11 starts, appeared in 16 games and pitched 74 2/3 innings—all career lows. When healthy, he pitched well (3.38 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 9.2 K/9), but it was a frustrating year for him. He was limited to the bullpen later that year in the playoffs. His $11.5 million projected value in 2017 was a far cry from the $30 million the Sox paid him, and they had five more years of paying $157 million to aging, injured pitcher with a history of playoff woes.

For the most part, Price returned to form in 2018. He went 16-7 with a 3.58 ERA in 30 starts (176 innings), and despite one, somewhat bizarre, injury early in the season (he had carpal tunnel syndrome that was reportedly the result of playing too much of the video game Fortnite), everything went smoothly for the 32-year-old lefty.

For Price, the real value he had left to prove was in October. He struggled in his ALDS start against the Yankees, a team that has continuously given him fits throughout his career, but in his five combined appearances (four starts) in the ALCS and World Series, he went 3-0 with 2.59 ERA.

The value of a key contributor in a team’s World Series title is perhaps hard to quantify in millions of dollars, though considering Price did it in his third season with Boston and still has three more years left, his deal should be considered worth its cost.

Max Scherzer, Nationals, 7 Years/$210 Million (2015-2021)

The short answer to whether Scherzer’s contract, currently the second-largest for a pitcher in total cost, was worth it: Absolutely.

Here’s a quick rundown of Mad Max’s first five seasons with the Nationals: 79-39, 2.74 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 11.7 K/9, two Cy Young Awards, five All-Star selections, one championship—the first in franchise history. No matter how the final two years turn out, this contract was worth the price of any Super PAC on Capitol Hill.

But what can we learn about Cole’s worth from the Scherzer deal? Well, both pitchers were highly touted prospects who had solid starts to their careers but didn't put it all together until their sixth season in the league, two years before hitting free agency. According to ERA+, a standardized metric that measures how much better or worse a pitcher was than league average (100), both Scherzer and Cole had a 144 ERA+ in their sixth seasons, meaning they were 44% better than the average starter. Scherzer won the first of his three Cy Youngs that year (2013), while Cole (2018) led the majors with 12.4 K/9. Scherzer was 28 that season, Cole, 27.

Cole followed his breakout year with the brilliant campaign we just witnessed. He finished second in the AL Cy Young race, behind teammate Justin Verlander, and led the majors in strikeouts (326), ERA+ (185) and K/9 (13.8). Scherzer took a slight step backward in his followup 2014 season (123 ERA+), though that was hardly a red flag.

It's perhaps unfair to say Cole will have to do the same things Scherzer did—win two Cy Young awards, post a 156 ERA+ and win a World Series—over the next five seasons just to live up to his expected $200-plus million contract. However, such a five-year stretch is entirely possible for someone as talented and young as Cole. The question is if he will age as gracefully as Scherzer has.

Zack Greinke, Diamondbacks/Astros, 6 Years/$206.5 Million (2016-2021)

Cole's situation is harder to compare to Greinke's deal, a record-setting contract in average annual value ($34.42 million) that he signed following his age 31 season, than it was to those of Price and Scherzer. 

For one, Greinke's deal began at age 32 and after 12 seasons in the bigs. He'd already logged more than 2,000 regular-season innings, while Cole has pitched less than 1,200. Also, Greinke is no longer with the team that signed him. Arizona traded him to Houston, where he slotted behind Justin Verlander and Cole in the rotation. Now, for the two seasons left on his contract, the Astros will pay Greinke $24.67 million per year, while the Diamondbacks will cover the remaining $10.33 million.

However, just in terms of performance value, Greinke has been worth $123.5 million over the first four years of his contract, per Fangraphs, and earned $136.5 million. Will the four prospects the Diamondbacks received in the trade for Greinke be worth the $13 million difference over the next two years? Probably, considering one WAR is worth about $8 million and they'll each be making less than a million dollars.

Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers, 7 Years/$215 Million (2014-2020)

Kershaw's situation is also different than Cole's because he is no longer receiving this contract. The lefthander's seven-year, $215 million deal included an opt-out clause following the 2018 season, and instead of exercising that option and testing free agency, he and Los Angeles restructured his contract. This new deal added an extra year worth $28 million. Over the next two seasons, Kershaw will make $62 million not including potential bonuses for performance incentives.

The difference here is also the added value, perhaps unquantifiable, that Kershaw has for L.A. as a homegrown Dodger. He's a future Hall of Famer who is arguably the best of his generation. He was drafted by the Dodgers, and there is sentimental value in an all-time great spending his entire career with one team.

Regardless, Kershaw's performance alone has been worth $268.1 million since 2014, and he's made about $176 million in that span. Even if he isn't worth anything in 2020 and 2021, when he's owed $62 million, Kershaw still will have outperformed his contract.

So is $200 million worth it?

So far, the four $200 Million Men have been worth their contracts, with the exception of maybe Price—though that World Series title and three remaining years indicate it may be too soon to say. 

What this exercise shows is that in rare instances, for the rare talent, these large deals are worth it. Cole, most certainly, is one of the few pitchers deserving of such a hefty contract.