Just How Awful Is This Crop of Free-Agent Starters?

After Jeremy Hellickson‘s decision to accept his qualifying offer, Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey’s respective agreements with the Atlanta Braves, and the Houston Astros’ acquisition of Charlie Morton last week, the starting-pitching market in free agency is pretty well depleted. If two 40-plus-year-old pitchers and two other pitchers who’ve produced a single above-average season between them can deplete a class, it’s probably safe to assume that the class in question is pretty dreadful. Last year, eight pitchers signed contracts guaranteeing at least $70 million; this year, we might not see any.

We can get a decent idea of how little there is out there by looking at the projections. Our Depth Chart projections call for 247 pitchers to record at least five starts next season. Of the top 150 — equivalent to five per team — only seven are free agents currently.

Free Agent Starters
Rich Hill 23 138 3.36 3.50 2.9
Ivan Nova 29 168 4.10 4.03 2.3
Edinson Volquez 29 167 4.36 4.30 1.9
Derek Holland 29 170 4.33 4.45 1.8
Jason Hammel 28 155 4.35 4.30 1.7
Jorge de la Rosa 26 145 4.29 4.38 1.6
Doug Fister 28 158 4.51 4.52 1.4

For those clubs in need of a starter, there’s 38-year-old Rich Hill, a half-season of optimism courtesy Ivan Nova, and… zero other pitchers forecast to record an average, two-win season. Generally, free agents will not have youth on their side, as it takes six full years of service time to get to free agency, but this group is particularly long in the tooth. Nova is the only one under 30, while five of seven will play next season at age 33 or older — and that doesn’t even include the aforementioned Colon and Dickey.

Perhaps it’s not that the class lacks talented starters, but only healthy ones. What if we prorate the available free agents to a full season? We can, but it doesn’t look any better. The graph below shows all 247 pitchers prorated to 180 innings, with the best of the free agents highlighted.


Rich Hill, on a per-inning basis, is one of the best pitchers in baseball. His age and unusual track record just don’t lend themselves to durability. After Hill, there’s a huge dropoff to Ivan Nova. The two guys after Nova — Brett Anderson and C.J. Wilson — combined for 15 professional innings in 2016, and their innings-total projections for next season reflect that. Apologies are in order for the Blue Jays’ Conner Greene, who projects to record fewer wins than a replacement player and is responsible for the single blue line below zero.

If a team went out and signed the top-seven free-agent starting pitchers from the first chart above and managed to find them the 1,100 innings for which they’re projected (instead of the usual 960 or so a rotation usually records as a group), their 13.6 WAR would still manage to rank in the bottom half of the league. Rich Hill might keep this hypothetical rotation from developing into one of the worst in baseball, but it wouldn’t be pretty. Compared to last season, this year’s crop is really bad. Here are the next-season projections for free agents from the past two winters.

2017 Projections from Last Two-Free Agent Classes
David Price 2016 213 5.0
Zack Greinke 2016 212 4.6
Johnny Cueto 2016 216 3.8
Jeff Samardzija 2016 202 3.4
Kenta Maeda 2016 185 3.3
Wei-Yin Chen 2016 196 3.1
Rich Hill 2017 138 2.9
John Lackey 2016 176 2.8
Hisashi Iwakuma 2016 169 2.7
Scott Kazmir 2016 162 2.7
Jordan Zimmermann 2016 199 2.6
Ivan Nova 2017 168 2.3
Mike Leake 2016 201 2.3
Bartolo Colon 2017 164 2.2
Edinson Volquez 2017 167 1.9
Derek Holland 2017 170 1.8
J.A. Happ 2016 148 1.8
R.A. Dickey 2017 164 1.8
Jason Hammel 2017 155 1.7
Yovani Gallardo 2016 176 1.7
Jorge de la Rosa 2017 145 1.6
Doug Fister 2016 163 1.6
Bud Norris 2016 161 1.6
Charlie Morton 2017 119 1.6
Rich Hill 2016 153 1.5
Bartolo Colon 2016 113 1.5
Doug Fister 2017 158 1.4
Ian Kennedy 2016 180 1.4
Colby Lewis 2016 162 1.1
Andrew Cashner 2017 155 1.1
Colby Lewis 2017 163 1.0
This year’s free agents highlighted in orange.
Projections are from FanGraphs depth charts.

Last winter, five MLB pitchers projected to record three wins or more changed teams in free agency; this winter, none will. Rich Hill is the only free-agent pitcher from this season who would have even made last year’s top-10 list. Don’t let the orange highlights in the bottom half of the graph fool you, either, into thinking this year’s crop has depth. Even if you started the list with Hill at the top, last year’s class would still have more pitchers projected for more than 1.0 WAR (13 to 12), and they would have a higher average WAR (1.9 to 1.8). As it stands, the top-10 free-agent starting pitchers last year averaged a 3.4 projected WAR, while the top 10 this season averaged 1.9 projected WAR.

Last season’s free-agent class was an incredibly good one, and it’s reasonable to have expected this year’s class to take a step back from that one. What we’re seeing isn’t merely a step back from last year, though, but a step back from the last five years — especially if you compare free-agent pitching classes relative to their field-playing peers.

Consider: over the past few years, Carson Cistulli has gathered some crowdsourced contract predictions. This year, that project was combined with Dave Cameron’s top-50 free-agent list. Per the crowd, only one starter appeared among the top 10 of all free agents in terms of estimated value of contract. It was Jeremy Hellickson, who took the qualifying offer.

Looking at the crowdsourcing results over the past five years, we can get a better look at where the starting pitching in previous years ranked compared to free agency as a whole. We know that last year’s was one of the best overall free-agent classes in quite a while, but even relative to a weak free-agent class like the present one — due, in part, to the very pitching that is the subject of this post — this year’s starting pitching is worse than it has been in quite some time. The chart below shows how many starting pitchers appeared among the top 10, top 20, and top 40 every season in the annual crowdsourcing project. Players who took the qualifying offer were removed from consideration.

Number of Starting Pitchers Among Top Free Agents
Year Top 10 Top 20 Top 40
2013 4 8 15
2014 4 7 17
2015 3 8 13
2016 5 9 17
2017 0 4 8
FanGraphs Crowdsourcing

In most years, there were as many starting pitchers among the top 10 of a free-agent class as this year features within the top 20. Most years have featured as many starting pitchers within the top 20 as this year’s class has in the top 40. You already knew that this year’s free-agent class was bad, and you probably already knew that some of the fault lies in the lack of starting pitching. Last year, Rich Hill received $6 million on the strength of 29 innings, and this winter he’s set to make about eight times that despite pitching only 110 innings last year. Once he’s off the market, upgrades are negligible. If you want to see more than one good pitcher change teams, it’s going to have to come in the form of a trade.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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Original Greaser Bob
7 years ago

Not going to disagree about the lack of top-shelf talent this year. And I know that this argument isn’t being made but these guys are still useful to teams who lack rotation depth I.E. Mariners, Marlins, Pirates, Tigers, Orioles, Yankees.

7 years ago

Us O’s fans thought the same thing about Gallardo last year too, but that didn’t quite work out.