Thursday, December 10, 2020

Is Paying Big for a Starter Still a Wise Move?

I was taking a look at potential Mets target Jake Odorizzi's stats today. While Sandy Alderson certainly hasn't come out and said anything, Odorizzi is widely viewed as a fallback from Trevor Bauer, depending on how the Mets elect to allocate their spending and what other offers Bauer receives. One thing that immediately jumps out when I looked at Odorizzi was the innings totals. The guy has a pretty substantial track record as a 5 innings and out pitcher. Throwing his lost 2020 season out, in 2019 Jake averaged 5.3 innings per outing, in 2018 it was 5.1, and 2017 was also 5.1. Those aren't shocking numbers given the way the game has evolved away from being dominated by starters, but I still found it eye-opening.

In contrast, also tossing out last season's weirdness, Trevor Bauer's average per outing was 6.3 in 2019, 6.3 in 2018, and 5.5 in 2017. Neither pitcher is likely to make it around to the end of a game. Bauer has 5 complete games in his 9 year MLB career, and Odorizzi has yet to accomplish that feat a single time over his 9 MLB seasons. Yet Bauer is clearly the best pitcher available as a free agent and Odorizzi is probably the second best. It all goes to show how much things have changed in the game.

Trevor Bauer's lifetime ERA is 3.90, which is only a miniscule upgrade from Odorizzi's 3.92. In fairness, Bauer is looked at as having made a significant jump in effectiveness thanks to the magic of spin rate, but that remains to be proven going forward. Even so, the difference between what it will cost to sign Trevor Bauer and the cost to ink Odorizzi is going to be quite significant in both years and millions of dollars. It's unlikely that Bauer will continue to put up sub-2.00 ERAs, but even if he manages to keep his ERA under 3, we're talking maybe an extra 30 or so innings and less than a run per start difference between the two pitchers. I'm not trying to pretend here that the difference between Bauer and Odorizzi is trivial, but I am starting to think that older fans like myself value starting pitching a little higher than we should. After all, I grew into my fandom in an era when starting pitching was king.

Tim Britton had a piece in The Athletic a couple of days ago where he looked at options for the Mets to sign free agents while staying under the luxury tax threshold. I don't agree with all of his choices, especially Marcus Semien, but his "Plan A" involved cheaper pitching options than Trevor Bauer, choosing to spend more on position players. That approach may very well prove to be the smart play when all is said and done. Especially with de Grom and Stroman already at the top of the rotation and Noah Syndergaard returning during the season, maybe fortifying with a cheaper option such as Odorizzi and spending big elsewhere makes more sense. If they went that route, however, I'd like to see them sign a decent starter or two for depth — I don't want to see Steven Matz as the fifth starter at coming out of spring training unless he really earns it.

But beyond all of the considerations for this offseason, I'm really struggling in my mind to decide how much of a value to place on starting pitching going forward. Even when I look at what Jacob deGrom has done in the same 2017-2019 time period that I used for Bauer and Odorizzi, he only averaged 6.55 innings per start over 95 starts in that stretch. He had two complete games over those three seasons. That would have been rather unimpressive not all that long ago.

Al Leiter averaged about 6.75 innings a start when he was in his first three seasons with the Mets from 1998-2000. Go back a decade earlier to 1988 and Doc Gooden, David Cone, Ron Darling and Bob Ojeda had 30 complete games between them, with Gooden contributing 10 in 34 starts. Even that number pales compared to the 16 complete games in 35 starts Gooden put up in 1985, his greatest season. He averaged just under 7.9 innings per start. A lot more was expected of starting pitchers back then.

When you compare numbers from different eras, you admittedly have to be careful not to read too much into them. The lineups that Jacob deGrom faces today are much tougher than the ones that Gooden faced when he first arrived, and even tougher still compared to the ones Tom Seaver battled against a decade and change earlier. And there is still value in having a great or even very good starting pitcher take the mound for your team. But it's not comparable to the value starters had when they were routinely pitching deeper into games.

I'm starting to think that I'd rather have a team with a really good, deep bullpen and decent starting pitching over a team with great starters but a not-so-great bullpen. Give me decent starting pitching, a couple of good multi-inning options in the 'pen and some flame throwers for the end of the game and I like my team's chances in any given season. For the Mets, that approach combined with shoring up the club's defense and balancing out the lineup could easily make them one of the better teams in the National League. So, while I'd still be happy to see the Mets sign Trevor Bauer, I won't be broken hearted if they choose to go another way.

Please stay safe, be well and take care. Let's go Mets.


 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos

4 comments:

  1. Thanks Mike for another great article. I like the way you make us think and to view the game today as opposed to what it was years ago. You are correct when you point out how starting pitching is viewed different now than what it was in the past. Pretty much gone are the days of a pitcher throwing a complete game. Today most starting pitchers have given their team a great effort if they complete six full innings,so you are right when you say a great bullpen is so much more important today than in the past. When you have an ace pitcher like deGrom then you can fill out the rotation with good but not great pitchers as long as your bullpen is strong and above average. Like you ,I would be happy if they sign Bauer ,but I wouldn't be disappointed if they signed some solid starters and strengthened bullpen more either.

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  2. Yeah, that's where my thinking has evolved. Even 10 years ago I would have felt differently. And I would still grant that the Dodgers depth in starting pitching gave them a clear advantage over the Rays, but the Dodgers had a really deep bullpen, too

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  3. Hey Mike, more great stuff.

    A couple perspectives perhaps. A month or so, right as the off-season was starting, I was railing against Bauer, both because of the cost and his total track record. I was not enamored with the 3.9 ERA (over 4.0 prior to 2020). I just felt that his 'great' year against rather inferior hitting teams was really fortunate for him in a walk year and people were seeing the new shine on the old wagon.

    My proposal was to trade for a young player under team control (Zach Plesac), then sign another young(ish) FA with some upside (Tiajuan Walker), and mix and match the #5 slot with David Peterson and Thomas Szapucki. Steven Matz is spare parts in any plan I put together and should be traded for whatever value they can get.

    I have come around recently - just in the last few days actually - to being OK with a Bauer signing, as long as it doesn't get out of control with a $35M deal for several years or something.

    I guess I considered last year's debacle when I was actually pretty comfortable with the Porcello and Wacha signings at the time. These types of guys typically just don't work out (Arietta?) I view Odorizzi and co. in that group.

    I am more on the James Paxton line than anyone else out there (except Walker, who I am still high on for the #4 slot.)

    I still like the idea of looking at one of Cleveland's young guys - if not Plesac, then MacKenzie or Civale.

    Both Thor and Stroman will be free agents in another year and we'll have to do it all over again. If they can have a you guy there for stability for two or three more years, see how Allan, Wolf, and Ginn develop, then we'll be talking.

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  4. Seems like a solid plan to me. I do hope they make an effort to keep Syndergaard, as long as he's healthy. I think with deGrom and Noah at the top of the rotation they'd have a lot of flexibility to mix and match with the rest of it

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