Five-Year Deals For Free Agent Starting Pitchers Rarely End Well

3 weeks ago
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Prior to the lockout this winter, three starting pitchers signed free agent deals for exactly five years:

  • Mariners signed Robbie Ray for five years, $ 115MM with an opt-out after third year
  • Blue Jays signed Kevin Gausman for five years, $ 110MM
  • Tigers signed Eduardo Rodriguez for five years, $ 77MM with an opt-out after second year

Free agent contracts of exactly this length are fairly rare.  We saw a pair of five-year starting pitcher deals in the 2019-20 offseason for Zack Wheeler and Madison Bumgarner.  Before that, you have to go back to the 2015-16 offseason, when teams incredibly inked five of them.  Interestingly, Marcus Stroman signed a three-year deal prior to the lockout even though we predicted five

I think free agent starting pitchers signing five-year deals have some commonality: the combination of their ability and age resulted in enough market pressure for exactly that number of years, no more and no less.  I’d say it’s generally a pitcher who is considered good or very good, yet something short of an ace.  While it’s true that market conditions may result in a five-year deal for a pitcher in a certain offseason and not another, these guys still seem to fall within the same bracket.

Going back to Gil Meche’s December 2006 contract with the Royals, 11 different free agent pitchers have signed five-year deals that are now completed.  Spoiler alert: very few of these ended well.  Stat note: ERA- is a park and league-adjusted version of ERA, where 100 is average and lower is better.

Jordan Zimmermann: five-year, $ 110MM deal with Tigers

  • Starts: 97
  • ERA-: 127
  • fWAR: 5.0
  • bWAR: 0.9
  • When Regret Set In: In Year 1, when Zimmermann posted a 4.87 ERA.
  • How It Ended: Zimmermann made three September outings in the shortened 2020 season.  He’d go on to make two appearances with the Brewers this year before retiring.  By measure of bWAR, Zimmermann’s performance was the second-worst of this sample.

Jeff Samardzija: five-year, $ 90MM deal with Giants

  • Starts: 110
  • ERA-: 103
  • fWAR: 6.9
  • bWAR: 7.1
  • When Regret Set In: Samardzija was solid in three of the five years, including the fourth.  So regret never really set in here.
  • How It Ended: Samardzija made four starts in the shortened season.  He has not pitched since.

Mike Leake: five-year, $ 80MM deal with Cardinals

  • Starts: 124
  • ERA-: 103
  • fWAR: 8.6
  • bWAR: 5.8
  • When Regret Set In: Year 1, when Leake posted a 4.69 ERA.  In August of Year 2, Leake cleared waivers and was traded to the Mariners along with $ 17MM.
  • How It Ended: Leake opted out of the 2020 season due to the pandemic, forgoing his salary.  He hasn’t pitched since September 24th, 2019.

Wei-Yin Chen: five-year, $ 80MM deal with Marlins

  • Starts: 53
  • ERA-: 129
  • fWAR: 2.1
  • bWAR: -0.6
  • When Regret Set In:  At some point in Year 1, in which Chen posted a 4.96 ERA.
  • How It Ended: Chen was released with a year remaining on his contract, with the Marlins eating $ 22MM in salary.  He signed a minor league deal with the Mariners but was released in June 2020.  Chen signed with the Chiba Lotte Marines and made four appearances in ’20.  He pitched for the Hanshin Tigers in 2021.  Chen’s Marlins contract was the worst of all of these five-year deals.

Ian Kennedy: five-year, $ 70MM deal with Royals

  • Starts: 86
  • ERA-: 102
  • fWAR: 3.9
  • bWAR: 6.3
  • When Regret Set In: In Year 2, when Kennedy posted a 5.38 ERA.
  • How It Ended: Kennedy was moved to the bullpen in the fourth year of the deal, saving 30 games.  He struggled in 14 relief innings in 2020 to finish out the contract.

Anibal Sanchez: five-year, $ 80MM deal with Tigers

  • Starts: 118
  • ERA-: 109
  • fWAR: 12.0
  • bWAR: 7.0
  • When Regret Set In: In Year 3, when Sanchez posted a 4.99 ERA.
  • How It Ended: Sanchez played out the contract with the Tigers and posted a 6.41 ERA in 2017, the final season.

C.J. Wilson: five-year, $ 77.5MM deal with Angels

  • Starts: 119
  • ERA-: 102
  • fWAR: 7.5
  • bWAR: 5.7
  • When Regret Set In: Wilson had a 3.89 ERA as late as Year 4 of the contract, so you could argue that regret didn’t set in until he had season-ending shoulder surgery in August of that year.
  • How It Ended: No one realized it at the time, but Wilson’s career was over after that August 2015 surgery and he’d be injured for all of Year 5.

Cliff Lee: five-year, $ 120MM deal with Phillies

  • Starts: 106
  • ERA-: 76
  • fWAR: 19.6
  • bWAR: 20.2
  • When Regret Set In/How It Ended: One of these things is not like the others, as Lee was an ace when he signed to remain with the Phillies.  Lee made his last start for the Phillies, and of his career, on July 31st of 2014 – three and a half years into the contract.  He left that trade deadline start with an elbow injury and never pitched again, yet he was so good in those three and a half years that it’s fair to say the Phillies never regretted the contract.

John Lackey: five-year, $ 82.5MM deal with Red Sox

  • Starts: 121
  • ERA-: 106
  • fWAR: 9.2
  • bWAR: 3.6
  • When Regret Set In: Quite soon, with Lackey posting a 4.40 ERA in Year 1 and a 6.41 mark in Year 2.  At that point, Lackey underwent Tommy John surgery.
  • How It Ended: Lackey’s time with the Red Sox ended with a bit of a resurgence, as he posted a 3.60 ERA in 21 Year 5 starts before being traded at the deadline to the Cardinals for Allen Craig and Joe Kelly.  What’s more, the Red Sox included a clause in Lackey’s contract that triggered a league-minimum sixth-year option upon the Tommy John procedure.  This turned into a six-year deal in which the Cardinals received a stellar 2015 campaign from Lackey for just $ 500K.

A.J. Burnett: five-year, $ 82.5MM deal with Yankees

  • Starts: 159
  • ERA-: 103
  • fWAR: 12.2
  • bWAR: 8.3
  • When Regret Set In: In Year 2, when Burnett posted a 5.26 ERA.
  • How It Ended: After three seasons of Burnett, the Yankees shipped him to the Pirates and kicked in $ 20MM of the $ 33MM still owed to him.  Burnett flourished with the change of scenery.

Gil Meche: five-year, $ 55MM deal with Royals

  • Starts: 100
  • ERA-: 96
  • fWAR: 8.6
  • bWAR: 10.2
  • When Regret Set In: In Year 3, when Meche posted a 5.09 ERA.
  • How It Ended: Meche underwent shoulder surgery in July of Year 4, and the Royals planned to use him in relief in the final season of the contract.  Instead, Meche felt that he didn’t deserve the $ 12MM he still had coming.  He retired, letting the Royals off the hook for all of the money.

Conclusion

It’s not fair to take this 11-pitcher sample and say that the deals for Ray, Gausman, and Rodriguez won’t work out.  Teams are evaluating pitchers better, and the Chen contract doesn’t have anything to do with how Ray will hold up.  Perhaps we can set the bar for a successful five-year starting pitcher contract at 10 total WAR: 3 in Year 1, 2.5 in Year 2, 2.0 in Year 3, 1.5 in Year 4, and 1.0 in Year 5.  By fWAR, Lee, Burnett, and Sanchez were able to accomplish that.  By bWAR, only Lee and Meche got there.  Over the life of their contracts, only those two produced an ERA better than league average.

How many of these 11 contracts ended with a useful pitcher still working for the signing team at the end of Year 5?  Zero.  However, five-year deals are given out because of market pressure, not because the team expects five strong years out of the pitcher.  Lee produced 17.7 WAR in the first three years of his deal, so the rest didn’t matter.  Meche, Wilson, Samardzija, and Sanchez started off their contracts with a pair of strong seasons.  Zack Wheeler isn’t in this sample but he’s well on his way to 10+ WAR for the Phillies despite a shortened 2020 season.  Madison Bumgarner, however, seems like a long shot.

What do the Mariners, Blue Jays, and Tigers really expect out of Ray, Gausman, and Rodriguez?  If they looked at these comparables, they’re likely expecting two strong years and hopefully a third.  If Ray or Rodriguez sees fit to opt out, the clubs will likely have gotten the best of them and could duck a few decline years.

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