Stephen Strasburg Deal Jolts Market for Free-Agent Starters

These are rich days to be a starting pitcher. Stephen Strasburg and Zack Wheeler are the latest example of this, and Gerrit Cole and Madison Bumgarner are on deck.
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SAN DIEGO – Starting pitchers throw fewer innings than ever before in baseball history. Yet this offseason they are being paid like never before–often more than everyday players who are superstars.

This is a world in which the Phillies will pay Zack Wheeler, who has had roughly the same career as Mike Foltynewicz and never been an All-Star or received a single Cy Young Award vote, more per year than what the Astros pay Jose Altuve or what the Red Sox pay J.D. Martinez.

It is a world in which the Nationals on Monday made Stephen Strasburg the highest paid pitcher in history at $245 million over seven years, though Strasburg has thrown 200 innings just twice in his career. And when Gerrit Cole blows away that contract–likely in the next few days with either the Yankees or Angels at about $300 million–it is a world in which eight of the 12 contracts worth $30 million or more per year will have been handed to pitchers.

The prestige and value of the starting pitcher is back, even though innings by starters have declined five straight years, including a record low each of the past four years. The game is cyclical. What triggered this cycle?

1. The 2019 postseason.

The Houston Astros and Washington Nationals reaffirmed how important starters are in three rounds of playoffs. Overall in the postseason, starters threw at least seven innings 17 times, the most in six years as baseball became bullpen-palooza. There is no one way to win the World Series, but the most recent way tends to most influence team building.

2. Value increased as supply shrank.

This decade began with 45 pitchers throwing 200 innings. It ended with only 15. Among them: Cole, Strasburg and Madison Bumgarner, another starter in the deepest free agent pitching class seen in years.

3. Pitchers are staying healthier.

The incidence of Tommy John surgeries is declining among those who get to the majors. Last season only four major league starters underwent the surgery. In 2014 there were 13. If you can survive the formative years while strength and mechanics develop, earning power is terrific.

4. You need an ace to win the World Series.

Starting with Johnny Cueto going to the 2015 Royals in a trade, the past five world champions added an expensive pitcher as its finishing piece (Jon Lester for the 2016 Cubs, Justin Verlander for the 2017 Astros, David Price for the 2018 Red Sox and Patrick Corbin for the 2019 Nationals, with Max Scherzer before him).

You can argue the merits of doling out seven-year contracts to pitchers as they age through their 30s, but there is no denying their impact if you want to win the World Series just once.

The past four World Series have included eight of the 10 most expensive pitchers in history, and none of the 10 most expensive position players (Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Giancarlo Stanton, Manny Machado, Alex Rodriguez, Nolan Arenado, Miguel Cabrera, Albert Pujols, Robinson Cano, Joey Votto).

Now you know why the Yankees are so desperate to sign Cole.

The idea of building a sustainable winner is hogwash in today’s game. The World Series champion has failed to repeat 19 consecutive times, easily a record in the World Series era. The playoffs are too fluky, the distribution of talent on the elite level too even.

So the reality is you build teams that can cycle as often as possible through the chance to win one. You spend the money on Cole not because you think in eight years he will still be worth $37 million a year, but because if you’re the Yankees or Angels you think he can deliver one championship that changes your franchise’s narrative (i.e. 2019 Nationals, 2017 Astros, 2016 Cubs and 2015 Royals; ending a combined 241 years of droughts).

The Yankees haven’t won a title in 10 years. They know the next four years of free agency offer nothing close to Cole when it comes to an ace (i.e., Luis Castillo, Noah Syndergaard, Jose Berrios, James Paxton). They have to spend now on their biggest need.

The Angels need Cole even more than the Yankees. They haven’t won a title in 17 years. The greatness of Trout, who turns 29 next year, is wasted. He has yet to win a postseason game. Billionaire owner Arte Moreno just bought Angel Stadium and the land around it, and if he wants the property to appreciate in value–so that he has the ancillary commercial revenue streams as do teams such as the Cardinals, Braves and Cubs–he must put a playoff team on the field soon.

Meanwhile, in this market, Bumgarner is a proven workhorse who deserves to get near-Wheeler money. Check out this comp:

Career

W-L

ERA

ERA+

K/9

Bumgarner

119-92

3.13

120

8.7

Wheeler

44-38

3.77

100

8.7

Last Three Years

W-L

IP

ERA

ERA+

K/9

Bumgarner

19-25

448 1/3

3.57

115

8.3

Wheeler

26-22

464

3.94

100

8.8

Bumgarner is just nine months older than Wheeler. The Phillies enriched Wheeler because they like his ability to throw hard. His performance has not consistently met the level of his stuff.

Bumgarner is the better pitcher, even with slightly below average velocity. The choice between them is similar to the choice last year between Nathan Eovaldi and Dallas Keuchel. Teams pay more for pitchers who throw harder because velocity allows a greater margin of error and offers the enticement of a higher “ceiling,” but pitchers with track records such as Keuchel and Bumgarner project more reliability.

“Wheeler has more explosive stuff but is not the competitor Madison is,” said one NL talent evaluator. “Bum is a good fourth starter now. He could be a three on any given day. Zack seems to have turned the corner. Yet there is always that doubt about him.”

Strasburg has put himself in the “elite reliable” category, a big change from how he began his career: with a big arm and poor mechanics. Over the past four years Strasburg is 58-21 with a 3.25 ERA with 10.8 strikeouts per nine innings. He has become a different pitcher, having already successfully made a key transition for extending a career.

Go back to 2012. Strasburg threw 501 pitches clocked at 97 mph. The Nationals famously shut him down to protect his health rather than expose his surgically-repaired elbow to being overworked.

Do you know how many times Strasburg hit 97 mph this year? Zero. Instead, he has developed his changeup and curveball into two of the best secondary pitches in the game. Among the 10 best put-away pitches by starting pitchers (lowest average allowed with two strikes), Strasburg is the only one with two of them, and neither one is his fastball: his changeup and curveball.

Seven years after the shutdown, Strasburg is a world champion and World Series MVP with not only the richest contract in the history of pitching, but also the most career earnings among all pitchers who ever climbed a mound ($361,775,000).

The Nationals made it a priority to sign Strasburg. Why bet on his elbow holding up for another seven years? In part, they were eager to help define the franchise’s first legacy players, according to one source close to the negotiations. Ryan Zimmerman will qualify as one, but Strasburg may be even bigger: a 1-1 draft pick who won twice in their first World Series. This contract will have him in a Washington uniform for 17 years. He can be their Bob Gibson or Jim Palmer.

“It’s a little surprising,” one team president said when he heard the terms. “The seven years is the surprising part.”

These are rich days to be a starting pitcher. Cole is two years younger than Strasburg with better mechanics, better stuff and a better platform season. He will sign for more years and more money. He also will get the expectation that he will help deliver nothing less than a World Series title.