14 February 2018

Darvish: Worst 100 MM Free Agent Pitcher Deal Ever?

The first 100 MM contract signed by a free agent pitcher was Kevin Brown before the 1999 season, which he played at 34.  It was scheduled to take him to age 41 and included many perks, such as private jet flights and what not.  It was shocking at the time.  It would be shocking now.  If you inflated his deal to what free agents are currently getting paid, his deal would be equivalent to a 7/307 contract.  That is a 44 MM salary each year.  So, yeah, that is a stunning deal.  Yu Darvish's 6/126 taken back in time would be around 6/43 in 1999.

In other words, 100 MM means different things over the years as revenue in the game increases.  Still, it marks a major bright line for players to cross.  Only twelve free agent pitchers, including Brown and Darvish, has signed deals passing the 100 MM mark.  When Jake Arrieta inks his name, he might make it a lucky 13.
1st Yr Yrs Total $
David Price 2016 7 217
Max Scherzer 2015 7 210
Zack Greinke 2016 6 206.5
CC Sabathia 2009 7 161
Jon Lester 2015 6 155
Johnny Cueto 2016 6 130
Barry Zito 2007 7 126
Mike Hampton 2001 8 121
Cliff Lee 2011 5 120
Jordan Zimmermann 2016 5 110
Kevin Brown 1999 7 105
Yu Darvish 2018 6 126
While the talk about Yu Darvish as being a great bargain for the Cubs has been the main story line this past week, I thought it at first to be a weird statement.  Darvish arrived in MLB with incredible promise and a dizzying array of pitches.  He pitched very well, but never really transcended the scene to become a feared ace.  He has been largely restricted to that frame of mind about what if he could hit the next level.  That kind of talk feels peculiar now that next season will be his age 31 season.  Add on to that how hittable he was last year and the persistent search to find one easy trick to get him back to where we all thought he was going.

So what I did was compare all of the pitchers in this 100 MM FA club.  I added up the bWAR they accumulated over their previous six years and their previous three years.  Additionally, I did a simple count of seasons in the past six years where they accumulated more than four bWAR.  These are simple metrics, but metrics that give a decent indication of how good a pitcher was and how often he was quite good.
6 yr bWAR 3 yr bWAR >4 bWAR
Kevin Brown 33.6 23.6 5
David Price 27.9 13.4 4
Barry Zito 27.5 10.5 4
Zack Greinke 26 17.5 2
CC Sabathia 24.2 17.7 3
Jon Lester 24.2 8.3 4
Max Scherzer 23.5 16.9 3
Johnny Cueto 22.5 11.7 2
Cliff Lee 20.8 17.1 3
Jordan Zimmermann 19.4 12.1 2
Mike Hampton 19.3 14.8 2
Yu Darvish 19.3 5.8 1
Can we just take a moment and reflect how amazing Kevin Brown was and how we all basically ignored how amazing he was or perhaps that we really on focused on him when he was a 40 year old Yankee pitcher?  How is that guy not in the Hall of Fame?

Anyway, what we see is that Darvish is tied for the lowest 6 yr bWAR tally, clearly lower in the 3 yr tally (and would be at best second lowest if he did not lose a whole season to Tommy John), and the only pitcher with only one season above a four bWAR.

At first blush, it looks like Darvish is leading the pack as the worst 100 MM contract recipient, but we still have that change in revenue issue.  To look at that, I decided to utilize the BORAS model that we use to project free agent contracts.  This works by looking at recent performances and project salary terms based on that performance.  This way we can strip out the differences in pay over time and compare that to adjusted 2018 earnings.
2018  AAV* BORAS Diff
Barry Zito 24.4 16.4 49%
Yu Darvish 21.0 17.3 21%
Zack Greinke 34.4 28.7 20%
Mike Hampton 29.5 24.7 19%
Kevin Brown 43.8 40.4 8%
Jon Lester 25.8 24.2 7%
Jordan Zimmermann 22.0 20.8 6%
Max Scherzer 30.0 28.5 5%
Johnny Cueto 21.7 21.4 1%
David Price 31.0 31.4 -1%
CC Sabathia 27.3 35.0 -22%
Cliff Lee 24.0 32.5 -26%
There have really only been two deals that looked like great signings at the time according to BORAS: CC Sabathia with the Yankees and Cliff Lee with the Phillies.  BORAS considers both to be well below the expected market value.  On the over-committed end, Zack Greinke comes in third place.  Of course, this probably overstates the overpay as much of his deal was deferred, which decreases the cost.  Deferments are not easy to find for all of the deals, so I simply assumed that they did not exist.

Darvish ranks as second worst.  As an overpay of 21%, according to BORAS.  Some will note that this is due to BORAS' inability to differentiate between time lost due to injury and simply being unable to accrue bWAR during terrible performances.  And that may be the rationale.  If we assume that 2016 was increased from 100.1 IP to 180 IP at the same WAR rate and 2015 went from 0 IP to 180 IP with the 2016/2017 average WAR rate, then BORAS would estimate a 5/108 deal (21.7 AAV).  That is pretty close to what he got.  The other pitchers on the list did not have to deal with that situation.  If we assume that Tommy John's mean nothing and performance is projectable, then that places Darvish on the other end in the same grouping as Johnny Cueto and David Price.  This would represent what BORAS would consider an on-market value.  In other words, not a bargain.

This leaves us with the answer as Barry Zito.  His deal awarded him what BORAS considered a 49% overpay.  This off season only one other free agent pitcher may see a 100 MM deal: Jake Arrieta.  BORAS projects him as a 17.3 MM AAV just like Yu Darvish.  He would need a deal paying him 25.8 MM to be on par with Zito.  That seems unlikely to me, but supposedly his agent is trying to push that 25 MM number.  Arrieta would have the far lowest 6 year bWAR with 18.8, but a very respectable 14 bWAR over the past three seasons.

We shall wait and see if Zito is forced to hand over the crown.

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