Where The Free Agent Value Was Last Winter

When the calendar rolls over to January, teams traditionally start to go bargain hunting in the free agent market, shopping for players in the open box section of talent. Some of these “previously owned” goods are more damaged than others, but most of them come with significant health questions, and they’re often guys who underwhelm with mediocre physical abilities. Especially on the pitching side, the bargain bin is generally full of soft-tossing contact pitchers with below average strikeout rates, often coming off some kind of recent arm surgery.

It’s generally hard to get too excited when your team starts shopping for one of these blue light specials. Paul Maholm? Jeff Francis? Kevin Millwood? No one rushes to buy season tickets when these signings are announced. However, last year, no area of free agency provided a better return on investment, and honestly, it wasn’t even close.

Going through last year’s list of free agent starting pitchers, I came up with 20 pitchers who signed one year contracts, with 16 of those deciding to change organizations. Of the four who re-signed with their prior club (Hiroki Kuroda, Erik Bedard, Chien-Ming Wang, and Andrew Miller), I decided to exclude Kuroda from the list, since his desire to play for the Dodgers and only the Dodgers made him a free agent only by technical definition – he wasn’t really available to be signed by other clubs. That leaves us with a sample of 19 dumpster dive starting pitchers, who signed contracts that guaranteed them somewhere between $700,000 (Justin Duchscherer) and $7,000,000 (Javier Vazquez). Overall, this group of pitchers signed for base salaries of $40.8 million, though the overall payout was a bit higher due to many of these contracts having a good number of incentive clauses attached to them.

Without access to all of the contracts, we can’t pinpoint exactly how much the incentives increased the total payouts for these players, but it’s likely fair to pinpoint them at a bit less than $10 million overall, with most of that going to Bedard, Bartolo Colon, and Freddy Garcia. Overall, we can pretty safely ballpark the total payouts for these 19 pitchers in 2011 as around $50 million, give or take a few million in either direction.

For that $50 million, the group produced the following totals:

1 Year Deals BB% K% GB% HR/FB LOB% BABIP ERA- FIP- xFIP-
Totals 6.8% 15.9% 42.7% 9.7% 71.6% 0.296 103 105 104

Now, for comparison, here’s all Major League starting pitchers in 2011:

All Starters BB% K% GB% HR/FB LOB% BABIP ERA- FIP- xFIP-
Totals 7.5% 17.7% 44.4% 10.0% 71.6% 0.293 103 101 100

The scrap heap starters averaged slightly fewer walks, slightly fewer strikeouts, and a marginally lower ground ball rate, all of which goes along with the general pitcher type these teams were buying, and is confirmed by the fact that their average velocity was 89.4 MPH, two MPH less than the Major League average for a starter. However, look at the trio of stats that show their overall performance – these pitchers as a group were basically dead-on league average starters last year. Their ERA- is identical to the population of starters as a whole, and their FIP- and xFIP- are just slightly worse.

Here’s all the pitchers in the group along with their individual results:

Brandon McCarthy 170.2 3.6% 17.8% 46.7% 6.4% 67.6% 0.296 84 73 82
Erik Bedard 129.1 8.9% 23.1% 42.0% 10.2% 70.6% 0.295 90 92 88
Bartolo Colon 153 5.7% 18.9% 44.9% 11.6% 70.5% 0.305 95 94 90
Chris Capuano 185 6.5% 21.1% 42.6% 12.0% 71.9% 0.309 122 108 95
Javier Vazquez 192.2 6.3% 20.3% 34.2% 8.0% 69.3% 0.279 95 91 100
Jeff Francis 183 4.9% 11.3% 47.1% 8.5% 68.8% 0.316 117 101 106
Freddy Garcia 145.2 7.1% 15.3% 36.5% 8.3% 77.5% 0.292 85 99 107
Chien-M. Wang 62.1 4.9% 9.5% 53.4% 12.7% 65.9% 0.272 106 119 108
Aaron Harang 170.2 8.1% 17.3% 40.6% 9.4% 78.4% 0.302 105 119 109
Dustin Moseley 120 7.1% 12.7% 49.5% 8.0% 68.1% 0.273 95 114 110
Rodrigo Lopez 88 6.2% 12.4% 39.2% 16.0% 74.6% 0.306 113 135 114
Bruce Chen 155 7.7% 14.8% 34.6% 8.1% 75.1% 0.278 92 108 116
Brad Penny 181.2 7.7% 9.2% 49.5% 11.3% 67.2% 0.310 128 122 118
Andrew Miller 58.1 12.7% 13.8% 46.4% 13.3% 71.0% 0.321 130 127 121
Chris Young 24 11.6% 23.2% 18.6% 7.7% 96.0% 0.155 51 116 123
Jon Garland 54 8.7% 12.2% 39.1% 8.5% 74.3% 0.282 117 125 126

McCarthy, Bedard, Colon, and Garcia were nothing short of massive successes, all returning value many times over what their salary would have justified. After a terrible first half, Vazquez redeemed himself with a strong second half performance, and while he was the highest paid player of the bunch, he also more than earned his keep. After that, you’ve got a couple of guys who were serviceable by outperforming their peripherals (Moseley, Chen), two guys who underperformed relative to their solid secondary numbers (Capuano, Francis), a decent innings-sponge (Harang), a mediocre innings sponge (Lopez), a terrible innings sponge (Penny), a terrible reliever sponge (Miller), and then a collection of guys who got hurt or stayed hurt (Young, Garland, Wang, and the not-pictured Duchscherer, Brandon Webb, and Ryan Rowland-Smith).

Still, the massive positive return on investment from these guys is impossible to ignore. Of these 19 pitchers, only six could be considered abject failures. Penny was brutal, but he managed to soak up 180 innings for $3 million, so he wasn’t a complete waste of cash. Wang didn’t provide a lot of value in 2011, but by continuing to help him rehab, the Nationals also were able to convince him to stick around for 2012, so their minimal investment last year could still pay dividends going forward. The rest were either decent enough to justify their salaries, providing short term value without any long term cost, or just straight up steals. McCarthy was probably the single best free agent signing last winter, especially considering that he’s still under team control so the A’s get him back for 2012 at a below-market arbitration salary.

All told, this group totaled +23.7 WAR in just over 2,100 innings, coming in at a cost of just above $2 million per win, half the going rate of free agents last winter. They also averaged about +1.8 WAR per roster spot taken, as their average production per inning pitched was dragged down just slightly by the lower innings totals that these pitchers managed.

Obviously, you’re not going to find any workhorses hiding out in this section of the market. In general, teams are getting guys who are going to miss some starts with aches and pains and might only be good for six innings when they do take the hill, which is part of the reason their costs are low to begin with. But, as last year’s crop of rehab projects showed, there can be a ton of value in filling out your pitching staff with these types of pitchers.

Despite their less than impressive stuff and generally long medical histories, there’s usually a lot of value to be had in giving out a one year deal to this kind of starting pitcher. When you hear about big market teams shying away from higher profile pitchers to scrape the bottom of the barrel for their back-end starters, realize that they’re not being penny wise and pound foolish, but they understand that there’s often not a lot of difference between the results you can get from a reclamation project versus a “proven veteran” that wants a multi-year deal. In fact, the four pitchers who signed two year deals last winter (Jake Westbrook, Carl Pavano, Jorge de la Rosa, and Kevin Correia) were all demonstrably worse than the numbers posted by the one year guys.

Scott Boras might still have some brand name products to sell over the next 30 days, but the value is often in the generic models who don’t require any kind of commitment or much in the way of salary outlay. Maholm and Francis might not be sexy names, but if last year is any indication, they might end up being just as good as the pitchers who got multi-year deals in December.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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12 years ago

The beautiful thing about dumpster diving is the fact the potential reward is so high with such minimal risk. You can sign a guy like Bedard then flip him to a contender like Boston at the deadline. You can even get really lucky and find a Vogelsong who becomes a keeper. Im surprised more small market teams don’t treat these guys like lottery tickets – sign a bunch of low costs reclamation projects and cash in by trading the ones who are performing at the deadline. Rinse and repeat starting in the next season.

12 years ago
Reply to  jpg

The main problem is that not everybody is willing to go to AAA or be a swingman and wait their turn, so a team like the Pirates can’t sign a bunch and hope for the best. If they only have 1 or 2 open rotation spots, there’s only so much they can do. When the Mets hit gold with RA Dickey, he started out in AAA and got called up when the time was right. Not everybody would go for that.

12 years ago
Reply to  vivalajeter

True. There’ s also the bullpen though. Sign a guy to a major league deal be a bullpen piece, and then shift him to the rotation when someone gets hurt.

If he stays in the bullpen, he’s probably still a better value than what relievers go for in FA.

Rich Harden comes to mind.

12 years ago
Reply to  vivalajeter

a lot of times these guys don’t have that many options so going to AAA and being one of the first SPs that gets called up doesn’t look so bad.

12 years ago
Reply to  vivalajeter

I think most teams would love to sign these kinds of guys to either get great value from their play or by turning them into a trade chip. But that gives them options. So they go to teams where they think they’ll play, win or a location they like. Bedard, Wang and Kuroda all basically signed with the teams they did because that’s the only place they wanted to play. Garcia and Colon both went to the Yankees because they were a contender that had open spots in their rotation. So while an apt GM might want to sign a bunch of these types, the interest might not be mutual.