Last night word leaked out that the Dodgers had reached a contract extension with Chad Billingsley, with the reported figures putting the deal somewhere in the range of $35 to $36 million for three years, with the contract not kicking in until next winter – he will still earn the $6.3 million salary in 2011 that was already agreed upon. The deal covers his final arbitration year and the first two years of free agency at an average rate of around $12 million per season.
Given what other pitchers with similar service time have been signing for of late, however, it looks to me that Billingsley may have left a lot of money on the table in order to sign this deal. While he might not have the reputation as one of the premier pitchers in the game, his arbiter-friendly numbers stack up well against some bigger name pitchers. In 4+ seasons, he’s thrown 826 innings, posted 59 wins, and has a 3.55 ERA.
Last winter, Felix Hernandez was at the same stage of his career. He was arbitration eligible for the second time, coming off an initial $3.8 million award in his first trip through the process – the same amount Billingsley received. He had thrown 905 innings in his career, posting 58 wins and a 3.45 ERA, eerily similar to what Billingsley had posted. He signed away his final two years of arbitration and his first three years of free agency for $78 million, an average of nearly $16 million per year, which is also the same contract that Justin Verlander got from the Tigers last winter. Verlander was arbitration eligible for the second time, coming off a $3.7 million award in his first trip through, and had career marks of 840 innings pitched, 65 wins, and a 3.92 ERA. He received barely more than Felix received, signing for $80 million over five years.
While it’s easy to scoff at a comparison between Felix and Billingsley, Verlander is actually a decent comparison, even by metrics that provide better information than wins and ERA. To start, Verlander was the same age when he signed his extension as Billingsley is now, so their numbers come from similar stages of development. They have nearly identical FIP and xFIPs as well, as Billingsley is at 3.68/4.05, while Verlander’s marks through 2009 put him at 3.80/4.15. Verlander’s marks are a little bit better since they came in the American League, but the difference is fairly minimal.
Now, Verlander’s 2009 season was significantly better than Billingsley’s 2010 – he threw an extra 50 innings and simply pitched better than Billingsley ever has, and I’m not saying that Billingsley is as good as Verlander. I’m simply noting that their statistical profiles at a similar stage of their careers are pretty similar, whether you look at traditional metrics (as the arbiter would) or whether you look at more advanced metrics. Billingsley’s agent could have made a pretty convincing argument that Verlander was a realistic comparison to work from, and even if all parties agreed that he should not get quite the same deal as the Tigers and Mariners handed out, the general framework for a pitcher at this level of service time and prior performance had been pretty well established.
Instead of getting 5/80, though, Billingsley settled for a contract that essentially pays him $43 million over four years once you factor in his 2011 salary that was agreed upon to avoid arbitration. That contract is essentially in line with what Zack Greinke and Josh Johnson received in their extensions at the same point of their careers – Greinke got 4/38 from the Royals before the 2009 season, while Johnson got 4/39 from the Marlins last winter. These seem to be the two deals that the Billingsley contract was actually built upon, but while both of them are certainly terrific pitchers, neither of them had the same resume that Billingsley came to the table with.
We’ll start with Johnson, since his deal also came last winter and is more recent. He was coming off a first year arbitration award of just $1.4 million, and he signed the deal with career numbers that included just 481 innings pitched, 34 wins, and a 3.40 ERA. He had pitched well in 2009, but had a history of arm problems and had spent nearly half of his Major League career on the disabled list.
Greinke was also coming off a first year arbitration award of $1.4 million, and while he’d thrown more innings than Johnson (659, to be exact), his career ERA was 4.28 and his W-L record was 34-45. He obviously went on to do quite well in the season immediately after he signed the extension, but that wasn’t in evidence when he agreed upon the deal. His track record to that point was rather inconsistent, and he didn’t have the quantity or quality of performance that Billingsley could point to in negotiations.
Perhaps most interesting, however, is the extension that Wandy Rodriguez signed with the Astros just a few months ago. Rodriguez was in his final year of arbitration, so he was at the point where Billingsley would have been at the end of the 2011 season – when his new deal actually kicks in. Rodriguez signed a 3 year, $34 million extension with the Astros covering the same years that Billingsley just gave up to get some security. His career numbers – 985 innings, 62 wins, and a 4.18 ERA.
If, this year, Billingsley threw 160 innings, posted a 7.43 ERA, and won just three games, he would end the year with those same career numbers. If Wandy Rodriguez’s deal set the market for what the final year of arbitration and first two years of free agency are worth, Billingsley essentially locked in a price that would be fair (based on career numbers) if he was the worst pitcher in baseball this year.
Perhaps he really wanted to stay in Los Angeles, and he had motivations beyond simply squeezing the Dodgers for every last penny he could get. Whatever the reasoning, though, it seems pretty clear that Billingsley left a lot of money on the table with this deal.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.