Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, December 6, 2022 -- "deGrom and Verlander"

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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 14, No. 120
December 5, 2022

You know, between the recent strange winters and the slow ones before that, I stopped expecting the winter meetings to be meaningful. In the run-up to these meetings, and in the first couple of days of them, it’s felt more like the meetings-as-legend. I haven’t attended the meetings in a decade and I generally don’t miss them, but these last couple of days it definitely would have been a lot of fun to be in San Diego.

I would love an evaluation of the Mets choosing Justin Verlander over Jacob deGrom.

-- Danny T.

While these two free agents are naturally paired, this question centers the Mets in a way that I don’t agree with. I’m not sure they chose Justin Verlander over Jacob deGrom. Remember, of course, that it was deGrom who opted out of the final year of his Mets contract after making just 26 starts in the last two years. The contract deGrom signed with the Rangers, very early in the free-agency process, is for five years for $185 million guaranteed plus a complicated option year. That seems to me to be the outer bounds of what deGrom’s reasonable expectations were for both length and average annual value.

deGrom has become the most extreme member of the “great or unavailable” club in the history of the game. When on the mound he’s been damn near unhittable, throwing 101-mph fastballs and 94-mph sliders, pitches unheard of for starters until very recently. His 2021 season, just 15 starts, was quite possibly the best 90-inning season ever: a 1.08 ERA, 1.24 FIP, 146/11 K/BB, just 40 hits allowed. Over his last 224 innings, deGrom has a 2.05 ERA and a 1.80 FIP.

The obvious problem, of course, is that it’s 224 innings over three years. The Mets have better knowledge of deGrom’s body than any other team, and they’ve watched him miss time over the last four years with minor injuries to...[deep breath]...his hip, his elbow, his back, his neck, his hamstring, and his shoulder, the last of which limited him to 11 outings in 2022. deGrom hasn’t missed a season by blowing out his UCL like so many pitchers at the high end of the velo chart have. (deGrom had his Tommy John surgery in 2010 as an amateur.) He’s just transferred the burden of his velocity down the kinetic chain.

Like they did a year ago in signing $500 million worth of infielders, the Rangers busted through the wall like Kool-Aid Man to get the player they wanted early in the offseason. They treated deGrom as if his rate stats are real and his availability stats are not. There’s no precedent for the combination of financial guarantee and recent workload we’re seeing here.

Wishcasting (largest pitching contracts ever, with pre-signing workloads)

                    Year     $MM     WY    WY-1
Gerrit Cole         2020    $324    212     412
Stephen Strasburg   2020    $245    209     339
David Price         2016    $217    220     468
Clayton Kershaw     2014    $215    236     463
Max Scherzer        2015    $210    220     434
Zack Greinke        2016    $207    222     424
Jacob deGrom        2023    $185     64     156
Justin Verlander    2013    $180    238     489
Felix Hernandez     2013    $175    232     465
Stephen Strasburg   2017    $175    127     342

WY: Walk year
WY-1: Walk year + previous year

The closest line in this chart to deGrom’s is Stephen Strasburg’s, who signed his first long extension with the Nationals in May 2016, coming off a 2015 season in which he’d made 23 starts. Availability was never Strasburg’s forte, but he did throw more than 500 innings over the first three seasons of his contract before opting out, signing a second deal -- for $245 million over seven years -- and all but disappearing.

The Rangers decided they wanted deGrom’s performance and would take the risk that he might be unavailable. They made an offer that was, given deGrom’s recent innings totals, unprecedented. That, to me, doesn’t say anything about the Mets at all. It says that the Rangers were willing to make a huge risk/reward play. They want to contend now, and after an extended fallow period their farm system may be ready to produce low-cost, high-productivity players who help subsidize three stars making a combined $90 million a season. The Rangers aren’t really trying to catch the Astros; they’re trying to catch the wild-card teams, trying to play .520 ball into July, get better at the trade deadline, and force their way into the brackets.

Will it work? I think it’s an impossible contract to evaluate. deGrom has a body struggling to hold up under the massive force he generates, and like any starter who throws this hard, his ulnar collateral ligament, already once repaired, could go at any time. Look at the top two names on that chart above. Gerrit Cole has made almost every start (missing a few to a non-arm injury in 2021) since signing his deal, throwing 455 innings, plus some more in the playoffs, in 2.4 seasons. Strasburg, a year older than Cole at the time of signing, has thrown 31 innings in three years.

That, I think, is the range of potential outcomes here, and if you have a strong opinion about where deGrom will land in that range, you’re a smarter person than I am.

The Mets signing Verlander wasn’t a choice they made between him and deGrom. The Mets signing Verlander was a very quick, very essential reaction to the loss of their #1 starter. Given the back end of their starting rotation and what is, at the moment, a thin bullpen, the Mets needed to run back the shape of the 2022 team to stay with the Braves in the NL East. If a 40-year old with two lost seasons in three can be said to be safe, it’s Verlander. The righty missed 2020 and 2021 with a torn UCL and the Tommy John surgery required to repair it. He bookended the missed seasons with AL Cy Young Awards in 2019 and 2022, and prior to that he’d finished second in 2018. deGrom and Verlander have had very different paths through the last five years, but when you total them up...

             ERA     IP    FIP   ERA+   K%   K-BB%
deGrom      2.05    645   2.14   193   36%     30%
Verlander   2.33    618   2.90   182   33%     28%

deGrom is second in pitcher bWAR since 2018, Verlander is sixth. The four other pitchers in the neighborhood have all thrown at least 785 innings in this timeframe.

Verlander, of course, threw nearly three times as many innings as deGrom did last year. He’s about 5 1/2 years older than deGrom is, which is reflected in his getting a two-year contract as opposed to a five-year deal. Even with a repaired UCL, you have to have some concern about how long Verlander will hold up. The trade-off is cash up front. Verlander signed for pretty much the identical annual salary new teammate Max Scherzer did a year ago, $43.3 million per, tying Scherzer for the highest mark in baseball history, at least for the moment. (Aaron Judge is a threat to surpass that number this winter, and Shohei Ohtani will be a threat to do so next winter.)

A few weeks back I wrote up the top position-player free agents. I didn’t do the same for the pitchers in part because I genuinely don’t know what to do with them. The top guy hasn’t pitched a true full season since 2019. The next guy missed the two years prior to 2022 with a blown elbow. The next man up, Carlos Rodon, just had his first full season since 2016 and has, even at his best, always felt like a threat to break down. Rodon has never thrown 180 innings in a season and has thrown 150 just twice, and that just once in six years. On the other hand, he’s been one of the five best pitchers in baseball over the last two seasons. It’s just an impossible profile to parse, and an impossible future to predict.

I suppose the lesson we can take from the pitcher signings that we’ve seen and Rodon’s to come is that baseball has just about given up on volume. It’s nice to have, if you can employ Aaron Nola or Sandy Alcantara or someone else who will reach 200 innings in a season. It’s a bonus. Very quickly, though, the expectations for a top starter have been lowered sharply. Maybe it’s a leftover from the pandemic season, but I think it was always headed that way. This winter has just underlined the point. The standard is now 180 innings, and if you’re good enough, maybe even 150 if that’s what it takes to keep someone healthy. Maybe it’s a strict five-man rotation, like in Milwaukee, or a six-man, as Shohei Ohtani dictates in Anaheim. Maybe it’s regular skipped starts, or even an expectation that you’ll need a month off now and again to stay healthy. Whatever the details, MLB teams have made very clear that they’re paying for per-inning performance, and just hoping for volume.