This is an overly simplistic generalization, but when signing free agents to contracts smaller than $100 million, you can choose performance or health, but probably not both. Players who play everyday at a high level command massive paychecks, and are pursued by nearly every team with money to spend. When you’re shopping in the lower rent districts, you can sign healthy players with mediocre performances, or broken players with good performances, but there aren’t many good healthy free agents signing short term contracts these days.
The A’s, over the last few years, have very clearly prioritized performance over durability. When they wanted a center fielder back in 2010, they signed Coco Crisp despite the fact that he was coming off shoulder surgery. When they traded away Andrew Bailey in 2011, they targeted Josh Reddick from the Red Sox, who had been an interesting player when he was able to stay on the field. When they needed a shortstop last winter, they turned to the Astros and acquired Jed Lowrie, who had a history of both hitting well and breaking down regularly.
They’ve done it with pitchers too, acquiring guys like Brandon McCarthy, Brett Anderson, and Jarrod Parker at various points over the last few years. Because of their budget constraints, the A’s have to shop from the bargain bin, and they have consistently chosen to buy talented broken players over more reliable mediocrities. When faced with a choice between talent and health, the A’s have chosen talent and hoped that the health would get better.
Today, they’ve done that again, signing Scott Kazmir to a two year contract for a little more than $22 million. And based on both the A’s history and Kazmir’s 2013 season, this looks like a strong bet to be one of the best contracts given to a free agent starter this winter.
You’re already familiar with Kazmir’s story. Good young pitcher flames out at age-25, is out of affiliated baseball by age-27, and then works his way back to the big leagues after a stint in the independent leagues and the return of his velocity following rehab. After signing a minor league contract last winter, Kazmir gave the Indians 160 good innings, posting the best walk rate of his career and his best strikeout rate since 2008. Depending on how much emphasis you want to put on ERA or FIP, he was either a roughly average or well above average starting pitcher in 2013, and managed to make 29 starts, handling a nearly full season load for a contender in a pennant race.
And he actually got better as the season wore on. In the first half of the season, he allowed a .344 wOBA and posted a 3.84 xFIP, but in the second half of the year, he allowed just a .298 wOBA and posted a fantastic 2.79 xFIP. That second half xFIP was fifth best in baseball, behind only guys like Cliff Lee, Clayton Kershaw, A.J. Burnett, and Stephen Strasburg. Rather than breaking down again under his first significant workload in three years, Kazmir got stronger the more he pitched.
However, a .324 BABIP allowed and continuing problems against right-handed batters drove his ERA over 4.00, so Kazmir hit the market viewed more as a pitcher with a long history of health problems than a guy who just demonstrated significant stretches of dominant pitcher. When the crowd forecast Kazmir’s contract, they guessed $17 million over two years, putting in the same range as Bronson Arroyo and Phil Hughes. This, despite the fact that Kazmir posted the 18th best xFIP- of any starter who threw at least 150 innings last year.
There are plenty of reasons to think that Kazmir’s 2014 could be even better than his 2013. His career numbers suggest there’s no reason to expect him to continue running a highly inflated BABIP in the future. Moving to Oakland should help offset some of the home run problems that have been an issue for him in the past. And Kazmir’s velocity actually got better as the year went on, so the most recent version of Kazmir that anyone saw was about as good as he’s ever been.
There are obvious health risks here. The velocity has gone away once, and maybe it will again. Kazmir might have figured out how to fix himself, but that doesn’t mean he won’t break again. He hasn’t thrown 200 innings in a season since before the year the original iPhone was released. The A’s are signing Kazmir on the hope that they’ll get 150 to 180 good innings, and they have to expect that they’ll need someone to fill in for him at some point during the season.
But the performance is pretty clearly worth the health risks. Steamer thinks Kazmir is going to be better, on a per innings basis, than every other free agent pitcher on the market besides A.J. Burnett. It’s forecasting him to pitch at a level that’s worth around +3.5 WAR per 180 innings, so even if he only gives them 120, this still will end up being a pretty decent deal. And if he stays healthy, they might have just signed the free agent with the most upside of any hurler on the market.
Betting on talent over health doesn’t always work, and when it doesn’t, you pay a lot of money to watch a guy rehab. But given the choice, Billy Beane and his staff clearly prefer to pay for broken players who are good when they aren’t broken, and it’s worked out pretty well for them over the last few years. I wouldn’t be surprised if Kazmir simply turned out to be the latest example of the A’s getting a good player at a reduced price simply because they’re willing to overlook medical problems in search of quality performance.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.