On Monday, the Rangers gave up a pretty hefty haul to acquire the rights to Matt Garza. With so many teams out of the race not selling, the prices that the few teams giving up talent can charge is very high, and so despite Garza’s impending free agency, the Cubs did very well in their return for a few months of a good-not-great pitcher. With Garza off the market, the teams hunting for starting pitching will likely now turn their attention to Jake Peavy.
Peavy doesn’t have quite same reputation as Garza does, and he probably won’t command the same kind of return. But if we actually stop and compare the two, it’s hard to make a case that Garza was the jewel of the summer and Peavy is simply a fallback plan for those who missed out on the big prize. In fact, the evidence actually suggests that Peavy might just be the better acquisition.
Here are their numbers, side by side, since the start of the 2011 season.
Because both have been something less than healthy, we’re only looking at about two full seasons worth of data for both pitchers. Across the board, their numbers are pretty similar, and in most cases, Peavy actually has the edge, especially once you adjust for the fact that he’s been pitching in the league that uses a DH.
While Garza looks to have a pretty decent advantage by ERA (3.45 to 3.95, to be exact), this is actually a great example of why ERA is a flawed way to evaluate and project pitcher performance. A half a run gap, even after adjusting for the league context, looks like advantage Garza, but note the fact that Peavy’s ahead in RA9-WAR, not just the version based on FIP. This is the result of a drastic difference in the number of unearned runs allowed.
Over the last two seasons and change, Garza has allowed 143 “earned runs” and 21 “unearned runs” in 373 innings. Peavy has allowed 186 “earned runs” but only nine “unearned runs”, so when you look at the gap in RA instead of ERA, it shrinks from half a run down to less than a quarter of a run. Basically, ERA is telling you to ignore a significant chunk of the runs Garza has allowed, while holding almost every run Peavy has allowed against him.
This is silly. If you’re going to adjust runs allowed for defensive contributions, then factor in defensive contributions. Going half way and simply erasing some runs from the record books because someone — maybe even Garza himself — made an error at some point in the rally is hardly a good way of going about it. Tango already ranted about this aspect of ERA, but he’s right, and this is one reason why I always chuckle when people say that ERA measure “what actually happened”.
No, it doesn’t. It arbitrarily decides some runs count and others don’t, and it pretends to account for fielding while not actually accounting for fielding at all. Based on things we know are mostly pitching and very little fielding, Peavy and Garza are actually quite similar. Don’t buy into the mirage of a difference that ERA creates. That difference is due to a problem with ERA, not with Jake Peavy.
If we focus more on recent performance, the tide actually tilts even further in Peavy’s favor. Since the start of the 2012 season, Peavy’s numbers are superior across the board. If we focus on just this season, Peavy wins on everything that isn’t ERA. The fact that Peavy’s ERA is over 4.00 is going to drive his price down, but for teams that know ERA isn’t all that useful, there are a lot of reasons to think he might just outpitch Garza the rest of the year.
And then there’s the contracts. Garza’s a free agent at the end of the year, and because he was just traded, he can’t receive a qualifying offer, so he won’t have any draft pick compensation attached this off-season. He’s probably going to aim for something in the range of the Anibal Sanchez contract, I’d imagine, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he got it. It’s going to take something like $15 million per year on a long term contract to have Garza pitching for your team in 2014.
Peavy, meanwhile, is already under contract for next season for $14.5 million. Essentially, for next year, Peavy and Garza will probably cost the same amount, except you don’t have to commit long term to Peavy, and he comes with the added bonus of potential qualifying offer status after 2014. If he stays healthy and pitches well over the next year and a half, whichever team acquires him could be in a position to either use the qualifying offer to get him at a discount or get a first round pick if he signs elsewhere.
Yes, Garza’s younger than Peavy, and he throws harder than Peavy, and his ERA is lower than Peavy, but he’s not really much better and he’s not going to be any cheaper. While the Rangers gave up a nice package to get a couple of months of Garza’s right arm and first crack at signing him, whoever acquires Peavy will get a similar pitcher without having to open up the checkbook to keep him around.
In a vacuum, I’d probably take Garza over Peavy — he doesn’t have the same platoon split, so I’d be a little more comfortable starting him in a playoff game against a line-up stacked with left-handed bats — but Major League Baseball is not a vacuum. Peavy is under control for an extra year at a more than fair price, and depending on how that year goes, he might offset some of the acquisition costs by returning a draft pick in the future. I don’t think the White Sox are going to get the same kind of package for Peavy as the Cubs did for Garza, as age, velocity, and ERA-based reputation still hold a lot of sway, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the team that ended up with Peavy turned out to be happier with their trade than Texas is with the Garza swap when all is said and done.
Given that it’s still an extreme seller’s market, I don’t know that anyone is likely to be a steal, but relative to what other pitchers are going for, Peavy might be the closest thing to a bargain this market has to offer.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.