The Hidden Gem Of Free Agent Pitchers
Odds are, you’ve probably read a post by Derek or myself where we rail on the ludicrous pricetags for free agent pitching. The salaries have been so far out of touch with reality the last decade or so that the smartest teams have almost entirely ignored free agency as a way to fill out a starting rotation. It’s just a bad market, full of franchise-sinking contracts and overrated pitchers having money thrown at them simply because they have a pulse and a few ligaments in tact. In almost every case, it makes more sense to simply go another direction, build a lower cost rotation, and use the money to purchase other things in free agency.
However, the general insanity of the market doesn’t mean that every pitcher is extremely overvalued. We were okay with the Miguel Batista signing last winter, believing that MLB executives undervalued Batista as a pitcher, and he turned in a pretty solid season for the Mariners. Ted Lilly’s move to the National League worked out well for him, and that contract looks great in retrospect. It’s not impossible to find a valuable, fairly compensated starting pitcher in free agency – it just requires some creativity and an understanding of what the market overvalues and undervalues.
In general, major league teams have overvalued two main things: health and recent success. Jeff Suppan and Barry Zito cashed in at prices far beyond their ability because they’ve been able to avoid the disabled list. Jeff Weaver cashed in because the last memory everyone had of him was World Series hero, not regular season batting practice thrower. Teams find it much more appealing to give huge amounts of money to guys who have thrown 200+ innings the previous year, so expect the bidding for guys like Carlos Silva to go crazy.
Since there is a finite amount of money in team payroll, despite what it might seem like, if MLB as a whole is overvaluing one skill (such as durability), it follows that they’re also undervaluing another skill – the money being spent on innings eaters is coming out of someone else’s pockets. The key is to find the undervalued skills and the players who fit the profile of someone who has a strong probability of outperforming the level at which he’ll be compensated this winter.
As I’m sure you’ve heard, it’s a bad year for free agent pitching anyway, so that makes this task tougher. Lots of teams are going to be looking for a starting pitcher, and with a paucity of talent available, finding an undervalued arm will be more of a challenge. But, after looking over the list, I think there is one guy who stands a good chance of being the best free agent pitcher signed this winter, and almost certainly won’t command the paycheck that goes along with that potential reward.
That guy is Bartolo Colon. Yes, for the second straight year, I’m throwing my support behind a guy who posted an ERA of 6+ and has some non-trivial arm problems. Last year, I drove the Rodrigo Lopez bandwagon (and, shameless plug, but Colorado got some 80 good innings out of him before his elbow blew out), and Colon is this year’s version of the same idea.
From 1998-2005, Colon was a horse, throwing 200+ innings every year except 2000, when he threw 188, and posting an ERA below 4.00 in each season besides 2001 (4.09) and 2004 (5.01). Each of his “off years” were followed by a rebound season, and while Colon moved from being a dominant Cy Young contender to a good middle-of-the-rotation guy, he was one of the most reliable starters in the majors.
Then, 2006 hit, and the injuries began to take their toll. He battled shoulder inflammation that cost him most of the first half of the ’06 season, then lost the last two months with a triceps injury. He began the ’07 season the DL due to a problem with his rotator cuff, then fought the tricpes thing again, and was finally shut down with pain in his elbow.
He’s spent the last two years pitching hurt, and the results reflect that. He’s thrown just 155 innings and posted an ERA of 5.89 over the last two seasons. Considering the arm problems he’s faced, it shouldn’t be any huge surprise that he hasn’t pitched all that well.
However, as is often the case, ERA doesn’t tell the whole story here. In ’06, Colon was sitting 88-92 range with his fastball, and knowing he didn’t have the stuff to make anyone miss, he just threw it down the middle. He posted the lowest strikeout rate of his career, but also the lowest walk rate, while seeing his home run rate go through the roof. He was basically an extra large version of Cha Seung Baek.
This year, his stuff started to return, and he added a couple of MPH back to his fastball. Using the Pitch F/X data, including a start against the Mariners opposing Miguel Batista, he was regularly hitting 94 MPH with his fastball and matching Batista pitch for pitch in velocity and movement. The complaints about Batista are never about the quality of his stuff, and in the second half of ’07, Colon’s stuff was quite similar to Batista’s.
The results bear this out – his strikeout rate returned to the ’04/’05 level and his HR rate dropped significantly as well. The overall package was a guy who threw strikes (2.5 BB/G), missed bats (6.5 K/G), and got enough groundballs to keep the ball in the park at an acceptable level (41.7% GB, 1.28 HR/G). Based on those rates, we’d have expected his ERA to be somewhere between 4.30 and 5.20.
Instead, it was 6.34. Why? He was absolutely terrible at stranding runners (63.4% LOB%) and the balls that were put in play against him turned into a lot of hits (.361 BABIP). Among pitchers who qualified for the ERA title (and, to be fair, Colon did not, so he’s not part of this sample), only Jose Contreras posted a lower LOB% and no one posted a higher BABIP. As I’m sure you guys know by now, these two numbers are highly influenced by factors outside of the pitchers control and have very little predictive ability. In almost every case, we’re best off assuming that a pitcher will perform at a league average rate, or at least his own personal career average, instead of believing that performance in BABIP or LOB% will carry over from one year to another.
So, we know several things about Bartolo Colon.
1. When he’s healthy, he’s demonstrated that he’s one of the better pitchers in the American League.
2. He hasn’t been healthy the last two years, though he showed improved stuff in the second half of 2007.
3. His ’06 and ’07 ERA are significantly higher than we’d have expected based on his peripheral numbers.
I know it seems like he’s been around forever, but Bartolo Colon is only 34-years-old. If his arm isn’t totally shot (and his stuff and strikeout numbers say that it’s not), there’s no reason to expect him to be totally done as a pitcher yet. However, after battling injuries the last two years and having potential factors beyond his control push his ERA into the stratosphere, Colon is unlikely to be a highly coveted pitcher this winter. He will almost certainly be on everyone’s list as damaged goods.
Colon, right now, reminds me a lot of where Orlando Hernandez was after the ’05 season. He’d struggled with injuries in Chicago, posting a 5.12 ERA and having everyone push him off the cliff as a guy on his last legs. The Diamondbacks acquired him that winter, then dumped him on the Mets the following May after 45 innings where he posted a 6.11 ERA despite good peripheral numbers, largely in part due to a high BABIP and a low LOB%. The Mets stuck him in their rotation and have since been the beneficiaries of 250 high quality innings, as Hernandez’s results caught up with his stuff.
Most major league teams have not yet learned to take smart gambles on pitchers coming off bad years due to factors beyond their control. Bartolo Colon fits the bill as just such a pitcher this winter. We know he’s got the talent – the only real question is health. However, since the team has already loaded up on durable innings eaters, the priority shouldn’t be getting another pitcher who can throw 200 mediocre innings, but instead on finding a guy who may be able to give you 100-150 high quality innings and can slot in as a real #2 starter behind Felix Hernandez.
Bartolo Colon could be that guy. In this market, I expect that his potential and name recognition will be enough to get him a decent payday, so I’m thinking he’ll end up with something in the $7-$9 million range for one year, potentially with vesting options for future years based on innings pitched.
Colon at 1 year, $9 million would be a bargain. I’d probably be willing to go 2/16 or 3/21 if need be. There aren’t any other pitchers of Bartolo Colon’s quality available for a reasonable cost this winter, and it’s not often that you get a chance to acquire a guy with this kind of potential at such a low price in free agency.
Bartolo Colon – USSM endorsed pitching acquisition of the winter.