White Sox Buy Low on Mat Latos and His Baggage

Well, that didn’t take long. Yesterday, I addressed the White Sox desperate need to bolster their rotation to be taken seriously as a contender, and suggested Yovani Gallardo as a sensible addition. The White Sox apparently agreed with me on the first count and rendered the second moot by agreeing to terms with Mat Latos just hours after the post went up.

The deal went down for one year and $3 million, a figure that jumps out as being essentially nothing in today’s free agency landscape. Especially so, when you consider what Latos was expected to receive:

Cheapeast Contracts Relative to Crowdsourced Predictions
Player CS_Yrs CS_$ CS_AAV Tru_Yrs Tru_$ Tru_AAV Yrs_DIF $_DIF AAV_DIF
Yoenis Cespedes 6 132 22 3 75 25 3 -57 3
Howie Kendrick 4 52 13 2 20 10 -2 -32 -3
Hisashi Iwakuma 3 42 14 1 12 12 -2 -30 -2
Mat Latos 2 22 11 1 3 3 -1 -19 -8
Alex Gordon 5 90 18 4 72 18 -1 -18 0

Looking just at guaranteed dollars, it’s the fourth-cheapest contract of the offseason, relative to the crowd’s guess. The crowd expected Latos would earn $22 million this offseason, and what he actually got was $3 million.

Look beyond that, and Latos’ deal stands out even more. We all know about the funky Cespedes contract, and even though he got $57 million fewer guaranteed than expected, that’s largely offset by him actually getting a higher AAV. Iwakuma’s price tag dropped after failing a physical. Gordon got an equal AAV, just one fewer year. In terms of just AAV, Latos is the bargain of the offseason, so far, according to this one-track methodology. His AAV is $8 million less than the crowd predicted; no other free agent has had a gap larger than $4 million.

How did this gap come to be? Did the crowd wildly overestimate Latos’ value? Did the White Sox get a total steal?

Let’s begin by justifying the crowd’s prediction. The basics: Latos just turned 28, which is unusually young for anyone to hit free agency. Very recently, he was one of the better pitchers in baseball. From 2010-13, a four-year period in which he averaged 32 starts per season, he was a top-15 pitcher by FIP, and a top-20 pitcher by runs allowed.

And, while Latos’ 2015 ERA may have been ugly, I’d like to present a list of names. What follows is a list of free agent pitchers who signed this offseason. Every pitcher on this list is both older than Mat Latos, and coming off a season in which they posted a worse xFIP than Mat Latos:

Just last year, Latos had a strikeout rate better than league average. He had a walk rate better than league average. He had a home run rate better than league average, and a ground ball rate just a hair beneath league average. The average number of guaranteed dollars given to this group of older pitchers with worse 2015 peripherals than Mat Latos was $81 million, and now a reminder that all it took to get Latos was $3 million, no innings incentives, no options.

Now, for some of the reasons Latos got what he did. For starters, he’s missed about half of each of the last two years. There was a knee surgery to repair a torn left meniscus in Spring Training of 2014, and later in that season, there was the dreaded inflammation in the throwing elbow. Last year, the knee acted up again and sent him back to the disabled list.

Perhaps the even bigger problem is that Latos’ injuries seem to be the result of mechanical flaws in his delivery. Brent Pourciau of TopVelocity did a nice job breaking down Latos’ mechanics after the 2014 surgery, and while it’s all informative, I want to focus on one frame in particular:

Screen Shot 2016-02-10 at 10.21.14 AM

Latos is a big guy — 6-foot-6. You can see in that frame, though, that he gets very poor extension in his delivery. Brent goes into better detail than I, but the gist is that Latos doesn’t use his lower half efficiently, getting a poor leg drive that results in him hyperextending his left knee upon release — the same knee upon which he had surgery in 2014, and the same knee that acted up again last year.

The White Sox possess an unparalleled ability to keep players healthy, and so perhaps they think they can fix Latos’ injury struggles, or at least help limit them. But Latos dropped nearly 2 mph off his average fastball velocity after the knee surgery, down to 90, and he’s now down 4 mph from where he was when he entered the league in 2009. Clearly, the mechanics have affected the knee, and the knee has affected the pitcher, and so you could argue that Latos hasn’t been himself in two years.

The counterpoint to that is, once Latos came off the second knee-related DL stint last year, he said the knee felt fine. And, over his final five weeks in Miami, Latos looked like vintage Latos, running a 2.96 ERA and 3.33 FIP over seven starts. It’s a small sample, sure, and I don’t blame you if you don’t want to trust the results. But you can’t fake fastball velocity, and in that same stretch, Latos had his old fastball back, averaging more than 92 mph and pumping it up to 95 at times. Latos hasn’t been himself for a full season since 2013, but flashes of the real Latos could be seen as recently as last June.

The other part of the equation that likely held down Latos’ value is the touchy part. Upon entering the league with the Padres, he had a reputation for being a “headache.” After leaving Cincinnati, he criticized the Reds organization for rushing him back from the disabled list, then went on to call the clubhouse a “circus” while seemingly taking a personal jab at Aroldis Chapman. Latos’ ex-teammates wasted no time firing back at him.

Latos has perhaps earned a reputation as a difficult personality to manage, and it’s not hard to imagine teams being hesitant to acquire such a boisterous presence in the clubhouse. It’s possible that perceived chemistry concerns allowed the White Sox to buy even lower on Latos than they’d be able to were he more gregarious. And if that’s the case, it wouldn’t be the first time the White Sox discarded character concerns to find value. Just this offseason, they were able to seemingly buy low on Brett Lawrie, who’s had his fair share of character issues surface in the past. After the White Sox acquired Adam Eaton in 2013, anonymous Diamondbacks players came forward to say that Eaton “irked people in the clubhouse” with a selfish attitude. They weren’t averse to acquiring Brett Myers and his baggage in 2012, and it’s probably worth noting that this is the same clubhouse in which A.J. Pierzynski and Ozzie Guillen coexisted for nearly a decade.

Perhaps there’s some risk in Latos off the field, but if there is, the White Sox don’t seem to be concerned. There certainly isn’t risk in the money or the years, and there really isn’t even risk in Latos on the mound. As long he’s healthy, there’s no reason to believe he won’t be an effective pitcher, and if he’s an effective pitcher, the White Sox got a bargain. The only risk comes in Latos going down, with the White Sox being left with nothing in his place. That’s the risk with every pitcher.

August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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Barry Gilpin
8 years ago

I like this move a lot. Even if Latos is a tool in the clubhouse or is ineffective, for what he’s being paid, they can tell him to shove off and not worry about it. This is low risk/high reward.