Early Saturday morning Buster Olney tweeted something interesting about the Mariners.
One of the three most prominent free-agent starting pitchers–Ubaldo Jimenez, Ervin Santana, Matt Garza–seems bound to wind up w/Seattle.
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) November 30, 2013
It isn’t that this news is shocking. If you’ve followed this blog, or are aware of advanced analytics in any sense, you know that the Mariners need starting pitching, regardless of what the home-run-hungry front office may actually do. Right now the rotation looks like it will include both Taijuan Walker and James Paxton, but not only is that far from a success-certain proposition, but it still leaves an empty spot.
The team has the opportunity to bring in a quality starter, replacing someone like Erasmo Ramirez or Brandon Maurer. The Mariners opportunity for their largest marginal gain, especially at a price that won’t completely change their economic future, may be in the form of a quality starting pitcher.
Olney mentioned the three top starting pitchers not named Masahiro Tanaka. Tanaka may be in this mix too, but he may not. We know very little about him if he is. We don’t even know if the posting system will be available this offseason. Tanaka coming to Seattle has some obstacles. More than the average free agent.
The three starters that Olney mentioned represent the consensus top three starting pitchers. Each is coming off a pretty good season, and each is going into a season that will be either their age 30, or age 31 season.
But the Mariners are reputed for being able to turn garbage into gold as it relates to starting pitchers, you say. Safeco helps pitchers, you say. Flyball lefties, you say.
Balderdash. Not the board game.
The Mariners haven’t done what the Detroit Tigers or St. Louis Cardinals have done with pitchers. The Cardinals teach their pitchers to throw ground-ball-inducing fastballs. The Tigers teach their pitchers to miss bats, somehow. The Mariners, in the past, have allowed their pitchers to do what they do well, to allow fly balls, and then fielded a defense that made such batted balls more likely to become outs.
That changed in 2013. They kept the fly ball pitchers, but scraped the meat out of the fruit that good outfield defense bore.
You see, what the Mariners have is a ballpark that discourages home runs. Ballparks that discourage home runs don’t necessarily discourage doubles or triples, that’s the job of outfield defense. The advantage of avoiding home runs is one that belongs to both pitchers, as nearly all home runs are decided by the interaction between the pitcher and batter only. Outfield defense creates another series of moving parts.
Of course, the outfield defense argument isn’t new here. Around these parts, Michael Morse and Raul Ibanez are severely worn drum heads, producing a weak, out-of-tune sound at this point. It’s not that we assume the Mariners won’t again punt defense, but rather that we assume that they won’t stop trying to make improvements, no matter how misguided, even if they choose to trudge forward with an outfield that has cleats made of lead.
Expected contract per Fangraphs
Garza: Four years, $58.7 million
Jimenez: Four years, $48.8 million
Santana: Three years, $39.8 million
Stats the last three seasons combined
It should take only a basic understanding of the importance of peripheral stats to realize that Matt Garza is the best option of these pitchers. While Ervin Santana had the lowest 2013 ERA of the trio, Garza’s peripherals are better than Santana basically across the board, and while Santana has been durable, durability is certainly a fleeting characteristic for all pitchers.
The reality is, if you’re willing to buy into the expected contracts, you’re paying Garza for around 12 wins above replacement, Jimenez about 10, and Santana about eight. Of course, you’re expecting Santana to accrue his in one less seasons, and he’s also one year older.
Not only that, but one has to question how much of Santana’s 2013 success has to do with luck. He’s basically only a fastball-slider pitcher, averaging around 35 percent sliders throughout his career. He’s got a nominal change up that he uses sparingly. It has become well-known that the slider has one of the worst, if not the worst platoon splits among all pitch types.
Santana pitched well against lefties in 2013, but his career numbers indicate that 2013 was a fluke in that regard. Santana allowed a .280 BABIP to lefties in 2013, that compared to .293 for his career. In recent years Santana’s BABIP against lefties has actually improved compared to his career, but he’s done so in part because he gives up a ton of home runs against lefties. Santana averaged 1.51 HR/9 against lefties from 2011-12, but in 2013, despite giving up more fly balls, Santana’s home run rate dropped to 0.85/9IP in 2013.
Normally we’d look at something like this and say that moving to a pitcher’s park helped him, or something. But Santana pitched his entire career in Anaheim, a known pitcher’s park, before moving to Kauffman in Kansas City. Santana’s HR/FB rate against lefties dropped from 15.7 percent to 9.7 percent without any change in pitch types. To call this inexplicable would assume that such metrics become explicable within a season’s time. Home run rates can be tremendously volatile, and Santana’s success involves some pretty substantial improvements, without explanation mind you, in areas where he’s struggled consistently through his past.
Ervin Santana isn’t as bad a pitcher as he was in 2012, and he isn’t as good a pitcher—and never has been as good a pitcher—as he was in 2013.
So far as Jimenez and Garza are concerned, they’re very similar pitchers. Each has had some motivational or attitude concerns in their career. Each strikes a lot of hitters out, and each throws a variety of pitches.
Garza is clearly better, and even his homerun issues in recent years can likely be chalked up directly to a change in his home ballpark, moving from the cavernous grounds of Tropicana Field to the confining boundaries of Wrigley Field, and later the Ballpark at Arlington.
Garza hasn’t pitched 200 innings since 2010, and has only pitched 258.0 innings in the past two seasons, but has still managed to outpace Jimenez and Santana in terms of WAR. That means that the combination of say 22 starts from Garza and the balance his starts made by a replacement level starter (of which the Mariners have something close to a half-dozen), would be better than full seasons from Jimenez or Santana.
In paying Garza only about $10 million more than Jimenez and Santana a team would really only be asking for about two additional wins above replacement over Jimenez, and four more than Santana, though in our scenario he’d have an additional year to accrue those wins. There’s a decent chance that with Santana’s likely regression and Jimenez’s tendency to walk batters, a minor swing in luck could have a healthy Garza in position to accrue either of those win total margins within the first year of his contract.
Also, Garza wasn’t offered a qualifying offer because he was traded mid-season. While teams seem to overvalue compensation round picks, the expected value of the pick the Mariners would lose if they signed a player tied to draft pick compensation, their second round pick, would be something under $3 million on average, studies have shown.
That’s nearly a half-win of value that Garza has over Santana and Jimenez, each of whom rejected a qualifying offer from their former team, before any of them toe the rubber.