Wednesday, November 21, 2012

For Want Of A Pitcher: Jeremy Guthrie.

Before we talk about what the Royals gave up to re-sign Jeremy Guthrie, let’s talk about what they did not give up: talent. They gave up money, lots of money, probably too much money. But they did not surrender any players. Given that it’s the rare day that goes by without a rumor breaking that the Royals are trying to trade for pitching, this is significant. Given that most of those rumors involve the Royals trading established major league hitters – or Wil Myers, who’s almost the same thing – for pitching, it’s even more significant.

I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating again: before the Royals dip into their impressive pool of talent to acquire starting pitching, they should dip into their financial reserves, which are impressive in their own right, even though no one in the organization wants to admit it. You don’t get bonus points for winning on a $60 million payroll, and I’d rather the Royals go to war at $80 million than sacrifice young talent to keep that payroll at a Raysian level.

We can argue over whether Dayton Moore spent this money wisely, but at least he had money to spend. Given his comments from a few weeks ago, it wasn’t entirely clear that that was the case.

I already performed a (somewhat superficial) analysis of Guthrie in September, and I’d like to lean on that analysis a little, because coming before we knew if the Royals would re-sign him or not, it should probably be taken more seriously than any analysis I’d do today. At the time, I estimated that Guthrie’s 4.12 ERA from 2007 to 2011 was probably inflated by around 20 points because 1) he pitched for the one patsy in the toughest division in baseball and 2) his home ballpark was poorly suited for his talents. Combine that with the league-wide drop in ERA over the last two years, and I estimated that his true talent level, in today’s terms, was around a 3.70 ERA.

I also suggested that the Royals sign him for 2 years and $15 million. Obviously, that’s not what happened. Essentially, we can break his contract into two parts. He signed a heavily backloaded two-year deal ($5 million in 2013, $11 million in 2014), which given the backloading is almost exactly what I suggested. He also got a guaranteed third year at $9 million.

If Guthrie had signed a two-year, backloaded, $16 million deal with a club option for $9 million in 2015, I’d be pretty happy at the moment. The difference is that the option is guaranteed. That’s not a trivial difference, obviously, and it’s why I’m essentially neutral on the signing overall. But I’ll admit to being a little surprised by just how much vitriol this contract is getting from certain quarters – most notably Royals Review, where they believe the Royals have just shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand and they’re advocating revolution.

Here are the marks against Guthrie:

1) He turns 34 in April, and will be 36 in the final, guaranteed year of his contract.

2) He doesn’t strike anyone out – a career ratio of just 5.4 Ks per 9 innings, and just 5.0 per 9 innings in 2012.

3) He’s not that good a pitcher – a career ERA of 4.28 is basically average, and since he’s getting older, he’s not likely to be even average going forward.

4) He had a 4.76 ERA in 2012.

My rebuttal to these points would start with one thing: the fact that Jeremy Guthrie sucked donkey balls for one half-season in the worst pitchers’ park in major league history should not be held against him. Take out his time with the Rockies, and Guthrie’s career ERA drops to 4.11; his ERA in 2012 (3.16) would be a career high. It’s not just his ERA – the drop in Guthrie’s strikeout rate in 2012 was entirely an artifact of his time in Colorado. After joining the Royals, Guthrie struck out 15.7% of the batters he faced, which would (narrowly) be a career-high for him.

The last time the Royals signed a potential free agent to an extension on the basis of a fine (but small sample size) performance in a Royals uniform, it was Jeff Francoeur. I was ambivalent at the time about giving him a two-year, $13.5 million contract, and obviously I was dead wrong – I should have been adamantly against it. The core of my mistake (and the Royals) was that I simply weighed his most recent performance, the 2011 season, too strongly. I thought that his improvement was so broad – higher batting average, more doubles, more homers – that some of it was probably real. It was not. I was wrong.

Many of the people who are ripping the Royals for giving $25 million to a #4 starter were equally upset about the Francoeur signing. They were right. But if the central error in the Francoeur signing was weighing recent evidence too heavily, I think that calling Jeremy Guthrie a below-average starter evokes the same mistake. In contrast to Francoeur, the anomaly in Guthrie's performance was the sample size in which he sucked. And in Guthrie’s case, it wasn’t even a full season – it was a half-season, in a terrible ballpark (even with the Rockies, he had a 3.67 ERA on the road), and he’s already regressed to his previous performance level.

Incidentally, if you think that Guthrie’s performance with the Orioles – to say nothing of his time in Kansas City – made him “a #4 starter”, your frame of reference must be the 2011 Phillies rotation. For five years, Guthrie averaged 197 innings with a 107 ERA+ in the AL East. Maybe he’ll be a #4 starter going forward, but he’s been considerably more than that in his career.

The first two points above are more on point: Guthrie is getting older, and older pitchers tend to stop missing bats, and Guthrie wasn’t missing bats in the first place. That has to be the most frightening scenario for the Royals, that Guthrie suddenly turns into Aaron Cook or Livan Hernandez or something.

I find it somewhat mysterious that Guthrie has such a low strikeout rate in the first place, because he’s not a soft-tosser by any means. His fastball has averaged over 92 mph every year of his career. If he relied on a sinker, I could see how he might have a low strikeout rate because he aimed to get groundballs, but he’s actually a mildly flyball-oriented pitcher. Cook, by comparison, hasn’t averaged even 90 mph on his fastball since 2008, back when he was still good. No one knows how hard Hernandez throws because his fastball doesn’t set off the radar gun. (He averaged 84.0 mph this year. Livan hasn’t averaged more than 85 mph in the last seven years. He’s basically Jamie Moyer, only right-handed.)

That doesn’t change the fact that Guthrie’s strikeout rate is concerning. And admittedly, things like Pitch f/x data and fastball velocity are not my forte; when I say things like “given two pitchers with low strikeout rates, bet on the guy who throws harder”, I’m just guessing. But in Guthrie’s defense, his strikeout rate has held steady for the last four years, more or less, and perhaps more importantly, so has his fastball velocity. He averaged 92.6 mph this year, the same as he did in 2010 and higher than his average velocity in 2009 and 2011.

It’s hard to be successful as a pitcher in the modern era while striking out less than six men per nine innings. Guthrie has made a career out of it, in large part because his career BABIP is .278. His .298 BABIP this season was the highest of his career, and that was entirely because he had to pitch at Coors Field – after joining the Royals, it was .271. That’s roughly 20 points better than average, in a sample size that’s large enough to suggest it’s real. Combine that with above-average control (2.7 walks per 9 innings for his career, just 2.4 walks per 9 since 2010 not counting his Coors experience), and he’s been able to parlay a below-average strikeout rate into slightly above-average results.

I want to go on a tangent for a second…one of the criticisms I’ve seen of Guthrie is that based on fWAR – the Wins Above Replacement formula used by Fangraphs – he’s not a very good pitcher. He’s averaged barely 2 fWAR over the last six years, and has never been worth more than 2.6 fWAR in his career. Here’s the problem with that:

Jeremy Guthrie, 2008-2012: 9.5 fWAR
Luke Hochevar, 2008-2012: 8.9 fWAR

If you believe in fWAR as the end-all and be-all of player evaluation, then you have to believe that Luke Hochevar has been worth 1.8 fWAR per season – which is to say that he’s been a roughly league-average pitcher. According to Fangraphs, Hochevar has been worth at least $6.7 million in each of the last five years, so the Royals would be crazy not to bring him back for 2013 at less than $5 million.

Needless to say, that’s ridiculous.

The Fangraphs’ version of WAR defers from Baseball-Reference’s version in that Fangraphs seeks to strip out the noise from a pitcher’s performance. Instead of using runs allowed, Fangraphs looks at the component measures of a pitcher’s performance (walks, strikeouts, homers) to estimate his true value. There’s nothing wrong with this – I do this a lot when I mention a pitcher’s xFIP instead of his ERA. For a pitcher without a long track record in the majors, using these component measures usually leads to a better estimate of future performance.

But in the case of a pitcher who has over- or under-performed his components, year after year after year, at some point you throw up your hands and say that he is what he is, and not what he should be. In Hochevar’s case, he has a 4.28 xFIP for his career, but a 5.39 ERA, because he turns into jelly when there are men on base. Three years ago, when Hochevar had a 6.55 ERA despite a good strikeout-to-walk ratio and groundball tendencies, I had hope that his ERA was a fluke and he was primed to improve. Three years later, that hope is gone.

In Guthrie’s case, he has a 4.63 career xFIP but a 4.28 ERA, because he has consistently been above-average in preventing hits on balls in play. In a sample size of over 1200 innings, there’s a good chance that this isn’t a fluke, and there’s something about the way he pitches that leads to a slightly better-than-average BABIP. According to Baseball Reference, which measures value by runs allowed, Guthrie has been worth 12.4 bWAR over the last six years – 30% more than Fangraphs’ method.

But you know what’s funny? Even if you use Fangraphs’ method, and even accounting for Guthrie’s epic fail in Colorado, they estimate his worth over the last three years at $23.8 million. And yet a backloaded $25 million over the next three years, in an inflationary era, has some people grabbing pitchforks.

Another tangent: can we all please stop lumping in Player X with Players A, B, and C to make the argument that Player X is overpaid? Saying that signing Guthrie is stupid because the Royals are now paying $17 million for Guthrie, Jeff Francoeur, and Bruce Chen in 2013 makes as much since as saying that signing Guthrie is brilliant because they’re paying him, Salvador Perez, and Alcides Escobar $9 million in 2013. Billy Butler and Rany Jazayerli combined to hit .313 this season. It’s a non sequitur. Please stop it.

Let me turn to another impartial assessment of Guthrie’s skills. ESPN’s Keith Law put together his list of the Top 50 Free Agents on this year’s market, and ranked Jeremy Guthrie #26 on his list. Three spots higher, at #23, was Shaun Marcum. I was actually doing a write-up of Marcum before Guthrie was signed, and I struggled with the decision of which pitcher I’d rather have. On the one hand, Marcum is three years younger and has the better career numbers (3.76 ERA). On the other hand, Marcum has an extensive injury history – including missing two months in 2012 with recurrent elbow problems – and his fastball averaged just 86.5 mph this past season.

I ultimately came to the conclusion that Marcum was better, but very marginally so – which corresponds to Law’s assessment, which is that they were the 10th and 11th-best starters on the free agent market. Given that, it will be interesting to see what Marcum gets in free agency. He might not get a three-year deal given his injury history, but I expect him to get more money per season, maybe something along the lines of 2 years and $20 million. If Marcum’s fair value is 2/$20, then Guthrie at $3/25 is only a slight overpay.

At the beginning of the off-season I made the statement that this was the off-season where it actually made sense to strike early on the free agent market, given that I expect we’re going to see significant inflation with all the new TV money sloshing around. I’m going to own that statement. If I’m wrong about salary inflation, then I’m wrong to not condemn this contract. We’ll know the answer to both in the next 4-6 weeks.

I’m not complimenting the Royals on this signing. I have serious reservations about the guaranteed third year; there’s a significant chance that in 2015, Guthrie will contribute virtually nothing for his $9 million. But I’m not condemning it either. The Royals improved their rotation for 2013. They structured the contract in such a way that they might still have room to add one more starter in free agency – like, say, Shaun Marcum – that would obviate the need to trade prospects or established young hitters to improve their rotation. They cut Chris Volstad, making this column completely invalid. (Thankfully.)

I acknowledge that my opinion, while shared by many in the mainstream media, is not shared by analysts. Joe Sheehan texted me Guthrie is “fungible talent without upside, and locking up money for a team that’s cheap.” Dave Cameron was not complimentary of the deal either. Cameron made what I thought was an excellent comparison to Bronson Arroyo, who two winters ago signed a three-year extension with the Reds. Arroyo was the same age then as Guthrie is now, and essentially the same pitcher – very durable, but striking out barely 5 batters per 9 innings, making him barely above league-average overall despite good command.

From 2005 to 2010, Arroyo amassed 17.8 bWAR. From 2007 to 2012, Guthrie amassed 16.1 bWAR – but in the superior league. Very comparable.

Arroyo couldn’t have pitched much worse in the first year of his contract, leading the NL in homers and earned runs allowed. But he bounced back strongly in 2012, throwing 202 innings with a 3.74 ERA, and throwing seven one-hit innings in his sole playoff start.

I don’t know whether Guthrie will perform better or worse than Arroyo has. But I know this: when Arroyo signed, Reds fans weren’t threatening to revolt. And Arroyo got $36 million for three years.

Or take Mark Buehrle, who’s the same age as Guthrie, and like Guthrie survives without striking batters out. Buehrle is obviously superior – he’s left-handed, he’s amazingly durable, and he’s pitched at a slightly higher level than Guthrie. But Buehrle is going make $48 million over the next three years. The Blue Jays gave up talent to land his contract – admittedly, with a lot of other contracts attached – and were lauded for it.

Guthrie isn’t the pitcher Mark Buehrle is. But is he half the pitcher Buehrle is? I think he is. (Buehrle has 25.4 bWAR over the last six years.) If you think that the Blue Jays – who, like the Royals, are aggressively trying to overhaul their rotation to contend in 2013 – made a good move to land Buehrle, I’m not sure why you’d be up in arms over Guthrie’s contract.

I think it’s an overpay because of that third year. But I think it’s a reasonable overpay if it gives the Royals a true chance to contend in 2013. Which is the main reason why I’m not putting my foot down on either side of the scale yet. As it stands, the Royals need to add one more starting pitcher – preferably better than the Santana/Guthrie class – to be taken seriously as a possible contender next season. If the Royals don’t add another pitcher, or if they rip out the heart of their offense to do so, then they’ll open 2013 on the fringe again. If that happens, the main benefit of Guthrie’s contract – the low payroll cost for his service in 2013 – will be wasted, while the main downside of his contract will hamstring the team’s payroll in 2015.

As the Royals’ roster is currently constructed, their payroll for next year is around $70 or 71 million – which means, if you lop off Hochevar, it’s around $66 million. Again, that’s less than their payroll three years ago. There is PLENTY of room to add another starting pitcher, and they don’t have to give up Wil Myers or Eric Hosmer in order to acquire a young, cheap pitcher like Jeremy Hellickson. They can sign Marcum, or gamble on Dan Haren, or trade lesser prospects for a more expensive pitcher like James Shields or Matt Garza.

If they do so, and their Opening Day rotation goes (as an example) Shields, Santana, Guthrie, Chen, and Mendoza, with Jake Odorizzi ready to step in at a moment’s notice, and Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino returning by mid-season, and Kyle Zimmer and Yordano Ventura and John Lamb on the fast track…you can win with that in 2013, if your offense takes a step forward and your bullpen replicates what it did last year.

If their rotation is Santana, Guthrie, Chen, Hochevar, and Mendoza, now you’re going to need a miracle. Or Hochevar suddenly pitching up to his ability, which is even less likely.

So I’m not willing to sign off on this deal yet. The Royals needed three quality pitchers for 2013, and they only have two of them so far. But they landed both of them without surrendering any real talent, and they now have an entire winter to find that one final piece.