Rick Porcello’s Upcoming Enormous Payday by Mike Petriello February 11, 2015 The other night on Twitter, I put out one of those early-February thoughts that can’t really be properly explained in a mere 140 characters: Rick Porcello is going to make more than $100 million next year, and people are going to freak out about that. Needless to say, I received some interesting replies to that, because the second part’s pretty easy to understand. Porcello’s generally seen as a decent enough pitcher, but one who doesn’t miss bats or prevent runs like his peripherals say that he should, and he’s usually not been among the top three pitchers on his own team. (That he’s been teammates with Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, David Price, Anibal Sanchez, and Doug Fister generally gets left out of that last point.) James Shields, who has had something like seven seasons better than Porcello’s best, just very recently couldn’t get to $80 million. Porcello’s going to top that? Well, okay then. I guess I need to back this up. Let’s run through this and see if it’s crazy. Spoiler alert: It might be crazy. Normally, we’d start by looking at comparables, and we’ll make the best of that in a minute, but that immediately gets us into our first concern: there just aren’t many, because Porcello is still so young, headed only into his age-26 season. Put another way, he’s six months younger than last year’s NL Rookie of the Year, Jacob deGrom. He’s nearly two years younger than both of the top two finishers in last year’s AL Rookie of the Year, Jose Abreu and Matt Shoemaker, and while Abreu’s delayed arrival in the bigs obviously has some easily explainable circumstances, you get the point. It’s just not that often that a pitcher arrives at free agency headed into his age-27 season, as Porcello will do, and really, we probably should be talking about him arriving at free agency headed into his age-26 season. Despite six full seasons in the big leagues — he made at least 27 starts every year from 2009-2014 — Porcello isn’t a free agent right now. That’s because he’s all of two days short of having been a free agent already, a situation that’s due to a quick three-week demotion to Triple-A back in 2010. Those three weeks earned the Tigers a free Yoenis Cespedes five years later, basically. Porcello’s already thrown six years of baseball, but he’ll need to throw a seventh first. Getting to free agency when he will is what happens when you make your debut at 20 years old, but merely doing that only stands out a little. Coming up at 20 and immediately sticking, well, that’s what’s impressive. Over the last 30 seasons of baseball, there’s been only six other pitchers besides Porcello who threw enough innings to qualify for the ERA title in their age-20 season. Four of them are, or were, among baseball’s elite — Dwight Gooden, Felix Hernandez, CC Sabathia, and Jose Fernandez. One blew out his arm in his age-21 season and never saw the bigs again (Ed Correa). Another basically immediately forgot how to pitch (Rick Ankiel). None of these are exactly good comparables to what Porcello is, but it serves to prove a point, again: Getting to the bigs that young and immediately making an impact, no matter what happens next, doesn’t happen that much. Remember, now, how badly teams are trying to pay for prime years, and not post-prime years. Allow me to borrow a chart that Dave Cameron made while discussing Freddie Freeman’s extension a year ago: As you can see, paying for seasons in the late 20s keeps escalating at the expense of paying for years in the 30s, and while this data is a year old, remember that Dave made this before Giancarlo Stanton or Mike Trout signed their extensions. We all knew a guy like Stanton was going to get paid, but it’s his youth that got him paid. It’s why you can very reasonably argue that Jason Heyward could get $200 million when he hits free agency along with Porcello next winter. So, yes, being young and valuable and useful is worth more now than it’s ever been, even if obviously no one is arguing that Porcello is near the baseball commodity that Stanton or Trout or Heyward might be. You were promised comps, so let’s start with another right-handed pitcher of recent vintage who may have had a better reputation than Porcello, but never quite made it to the Clayton Kershaw / Hernandez level of elite pitching god: Matt Cain. I’m choosing Cain here because he also came up to the bigs in his age-20 season and never really left, reaching free agency — as Porcello will — prior to his age-27 season, and because their age 24-25 seasons look very similar: Cain vs Porcello, Age 24-25 Name IP K% BB% K-BB% HR/9 BABIP GB% ERA- FIP- xFIP- ERA FIP E-F xFIP WAR Cain 441 19.5% 7.5% 12.0% .90 .257 37.7% 76 95 99 3.02 3.77 -0.75 4.08 7.1 Porcello 381.2 17.2% 5.3% 11.9% .85 .305 51.8% 96 91 89 3.84 3.61 0.24 3.45 6.3 It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty close. K%-BB% is identical. Homers per nine, basically identical. Cain has long been known as a guy who outpitches his FIP, so he’s got the clear advantage in ERA, though that’s part skill and part his home ballpark. Porcello walks fewer but also whiffs fewer, putting more balls in play, especially on the ground, and relying more upon his defense; his own ability to under-perform his FIP has long been remarked upon, as has the fact that he’s very often had Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder at the corners of his infield. We’ll need to see what Porcello does in his age-26 springboard campaign, but we already know what Cain did: He went out and what superficially looked like his best season, putting up a typical Cain campaign with what ended up being a well-timed artificially low HR/FB season. He ended up signing for six years and $127.5 million without ever even reaching the open market, though if you prefer to look at it as a five-year, $112.5 million extension that began after his final existing season of $15 million expired, that’s fine too. Porcello has yet to have the big year that Cain did, and that Cain had put up a big postseason in San Francisco’s 2010 playoff run certainly didn’t hurt either. Remember, however, that the economics of baseball just keep on going up. The 2012 Opening Day salaries in baseball were just under $3 billion. By Opening Day 2016, we’re looking at something like $4 billion. Cain’s $112.5 million of new money would be nearly $150 million by those standards. In terms of percentage of overall salaries, Porcello doesn’t have to match Cain’s deal to match Cain’s deal and reach that nine-figure mark. Let’s throw out another comp, this time Homer Bailey. Bailey didn’t get started as young and he’s not the same kind of pitcher, but he also signed a big extension at near the same point in his career, in this case after his age-27 season. Let’s compare the two seasons he had leading up to that deal — his only two fully healthy ones — to Porcello’s two most recent: Bailey (26-27) vs Porcello (24-25) Name IP K% BB% K-BB% HR/9 BABIP GB% ERA- FIP- xFIP- ERA FIP E-F xFIP WAR Bailey 417 21.3% 6.2% 15.2% .99 .288 45.5% 92 93 95 3.58 3.64 -0.05 3.64 6.2 Porcello 381.2 17.2% 5.3% 11.9% .85 .305 51.8% 96 91 89 3.84 3.61 0.24 3.45 6.3 Bailey got there a different way, striking out more and offering more to dream on, but the ultimate outcome of his two showcase seasons were basically the same as Porcello’s last two. He signed for six years and $105 million, also without benefit of the open market, but limited somewhat by the fact that he was selling a final year of arbitration rather than all true free agent years, as Porcello would be. Two years later, his deal would look a little different through baseball inflation as well, though not as much as Cain’s. Of course, it’d help substantially if Porcello does have that great springboard season, and he’s been poised as a “likely breakout” for years. For the first time, we’re going to get a chance to see him outside of Detroit. While the Green Monster probably won’t help, any groundballer would probably prefer having Pablo Sandoval, Xander Bogaerts, and Dustin Pedroia behind him rather than what the Tigers offered, and Christan Vazquez and Ryan Hanigan offer pitch-framing assistance that Alex Avila and friends couldn’t. On a Red Sox staff often accused of “not having an ace,” Porcello won’t be buried by superstars. On a Boston team expected to win and always in focus even when they don’t, Porcello’s public profile will be increased. I’d like to say those last two things won’t have any impact on a payday, but we know that they do. Working against Porcello, potentially, is next year’s possibly historic group of free agent starters — Johnny Cueto, Jordan Zimmermann, Price, likely Zack Greinke, Fister, and so on. But if he has only his regular, quiet, three-win season, as both Steamer and ZiPS expect, he can easily expect a raise over his 2014 arbitration figure of $12 million. (Remember that a major league team decided to pay Edinson Volquez $10 million in each of the next two years despite all of his obvious flaws, and another gave that sum to Brett Anderson over one year despite the fact that he’s rarely available to actually pitch.) At his age, he can easily expect five or six seasons. How much of a raise depends on what he does with Boston. But that Bailey deal really did serve to rise the tide for second-tier starting pitchers. Porcello won’t sell tickets and he doesn’t blow you away with velocity, but considering his general utility, long history of health, his age, and two more years of baseball inflation, it’s difficult to argue that he’s not worth as much as Bailey. (Again, assuming a non-disaster 2015.) Maybe that’s something like six years and $108 million, a term that would still put him only into his age-32 season. Perhaps this doesn’t come to pass, and Porcello prefers a shorter term deal that allows him to get back on the market at 30 in what might not be such a crowded field. Maybe he gets hurt or flops in Boston and we’ll look back and laugh about the idea that we ever discussed this. But it’s not unreasonable to think that Rick Porcello, owner of a 4.30 career ERA, is less than a year away from a nine-figure payday. Maybe that says a little about ERA. Mostly, it says a lot about youth and the economics of baseball.