Undervalued Pitcher #1
A few days ago, I talked about why I don’t like long term contracts for pitchers, and why I expect the big name free agents this winter to get contracts that are not in their signing club’s best interests. There’s no way I’d get involved in the Barry Zito negotiations, and from the sounds of what he’s going to receive, I’d bow out on Jason Schmidt very quickly as well.
Of course, since I’m eliminating all the popular names from the discussion of who to acquire, the natural question that follows is “well then, who do you want?”, since we have to actually field a starting rotation next year. I’m of the opinion that pitchers, due to the significant effects that random variation can have on their performance, can often be valued incorrectly. Since the price of pitching has gotten so out of control on the free market, the best way to build a team is to spend on position players, develop your own elite starters, and find bargains to fill out your rotation.
I’ve identified three pitchers who will almost certainly be made available this winter that will require only a moderate cost in terms of talent to acquire and 2007 salary, and will come with no long term commitment, but could be expected to give the team quality innings at the back of the rotation. All three are undervalued, in my opinion, and would be terrific candidates for the Mariners to acquire, allowing them to spend most of their assets elsewhere.
Undervalued Pitcher #1 is probably going to be non-tendered by his current team this offseason because of his poor season. Among qualified American League starters, only Joel Pineiro and Carlos Silva have posted higher ERAs. His ERA is 25 percent worse than league average this season, and it was 15 percent worse than league average last year. He made $3.75 million this year and is arbitration eligible, and it’s unlikely that any team is going to want to take him to arbitration again after posting a 5.88 ERA.
Ladies and Gentleman, Rodrigo Lopez. You might remember him from the May 25th game, where he shutout the Mariners for 7 1/3 innings, or the August 1st game, where he shutout the Mariners for 7 2/3 innings, by far his two best starts of the year.
So yes, I really am suggesting that the Mariners acquire a pitcher who posted an ERA near 6.00 and who got beat around by everyone in baseball not wearing Seattle on their chest. This isn’t exactly the kind of acquisition that is going to get fans excited about coming back to Safeco Field, but it is the kind of acquisition that good teams make. Rodrigo Lopez is the classic buy-low candidate.
Over the past three years, he’s thrown 171, 209, and 182 innings. He’s 30 years old and has proven to be a durable innings eater who is remarkably consistent. But he’s not just a Ryan Franklin type rubber arm who takes the hill every 5 days and eliminates your chance to win the game. Rodrigo Lopez actually has some ability. Look at this five year history:
Season K/9 BB/9 HR/9 FB% HR/FB BABIP LOB% FIP ERA 2002 6.22 2.84 1.05 38.2% 10.1% 0.263 75.4% 4.36 3.57 2003 6.31 2.63 1.47 35.0% 13.7% 0.345 67.5% 5.00 5.82 2004 6.38 2.85 1.11 36.2% 11.0% 0.284 78.2% 4.37 3.59 2005 5.07 2.71 1.20 35.8% 10.9% 0.302 67.0% 4.81 4.50 2006 6.38 2.82 1.48 35.1% 13.9% 0.339 66.7% 4.93 5.88
That’s a pretty interesting chart. Several of those numbers have been amazingly consistent, while several others have been all over the board. He’s posted remarkably similar walk, strikeout, and flyball rates the past five years, showing almost no year to year variation in those core skills. His HR/FB and LOB% have been less consistent, however, ranging from very good to very poor, which has completely driven the wild swings in his ERA.
If you judge Lopez on run prevention, he was excellent in 2002 and 2004, mediocre in 2005, and terrible in 2003 and 2006.
If you judge Lopez on his skillset, however, he’s been practically the same pitcher every year for the last five years. You know exactly what you’re going to get from Rodrigo Lopez. There’s no chance he’ll be an ace, because his stuff just isn’t good enough, but when he’s stranding runners, he’s a valuable middle of the rotation starter. He hasn’t stranded enough runners in 2006, but if you’ve been reading the blog at all the past year, you know that isn’t predictive in nature.
One more chart, just for fun:
Pitcher K/9 BB/9 HR/9 FB% HR/FB BABIP LOB% FIP ERA J. Verlander 6.07 2.81 0.92 34.5% 9.5% 0.293 78.6% 4.20 3.42 Barry Zito 6.15 3.95 1.12 38.1% 9.2% 0.278 78.1% 4.97 3.86 Jose Contreras 6.16 2.44 0.86 38.9% 7.8% 0.286 69.8% 4.04 3.97 Rodrigo Lopez 6.38 2.82 1.48 35.1% 13.9% 0.339 66.7% 4.93 5.88 Kevin Millwood 6.48 2.10 0.91 33.2% 9.6% 0.315 67.2% 3.82 4.47 Ervin Santana 6.60 3.08 1.03 44.4% 8.5% 0.278 66.3% 4.41 4.50 Josh Beckett 6.90 3.33 1.61 38.8% 15.1% 0.270 68.7% 5.25 5.09 Vicente Padilla 6.96 2.96 0.94 35.7% 9.5% 0.307 69.5% 4.27 4.44
Based on his peripherals, that’s the class of pitcher that Rodrigo Lopez has pitched like. His 5.88 ERA is an extreme outlier based on his actual performance, just like Jarrod Washburn’s 3.20 ERA was an extreme outlier the other way last year. Lopez isn’t as good as all those pitchers, but the difference is far less drastic than you’d imagine. With a likely regression in his BABIP, LOB%, and HR/FB rates, combined with his durability and consistency in his core skills, Rodrigo Lopez looks like a prime candidate for a bounce back 2007 season.
Lopez would make a fine #4 starter for the Mariners next year, and he’ll probably cost no more than $2 million for the season, thanks to his atrocious 2006 ERA.
The power of ERA is still strong, and it’s going to cause Rodrigo Lopez to be significantly undervalued this offseason. The Mariners would do well to take advantage of this particular market inefficiency.