2012 Free Agent Options: Starting Pitching
For Pittsburgh Pirates fans, the 2012 free agent market for starting pitchers will be simple: compare everyone to Paul Maholm. The Pirates made it clear that they wouldn’t be bringing Maholm back in 2012, despite having a $9.75 M option for him to return. With the starting rotation looking like it needs one spot, the Pirates will either need to re-sign Maholm on the open market, or add someone similar to Maholm in order for the move to make sense.
Looking at the available free agents, there are some alternatives to Maholm. Some are clearly out of the price range for the Pirates. Some are better than Maholm, but might come with injury risks that make Maholm the overall better value. But there are some players who are better alternatives to Maholm, and a few that would come cheaper than $9.75 M a year. Before we look at those players, we have to look at what Maholm brings to the table.
When analyzing any player, I like to look at the previous three years of work. I feel that gives a good sample size for what the player can do, and gives a good indication of where the player is currently at in their career. I took this approach when analyzing Maholm and the rest of the options on the free agent market.
When it comes to statistical analysis, I don’t really believe in focusing on one individual stat to tell the story. I look at a wide variety of stats, although to keep things consistent, I mostly focus on a few specific areas. The first group I focus on is the strikeout, walk, and home run rates. Those are the three areas that feature a battle between the pitcher and the hitter, and aren’t swayed by other players on the field. They reflect the true skill level of the pitcher in question. Generally, for a starter, I’m looking for a combination of a K/9 ratio of 6.0 or greater, a BB/9 ratio of 3.0 or below, and a HR/9 ratio of 1.0 or below.
I also factor in ground balls to the mix. There’s two obvious reasons to this. First, ground balls are typically easy outs. Second, a pitcher, on average, tends to give up a home run in 10% of his fly balls. The more ground balls you have, the fewer fly balls. The fewer fly balls, the fewer home runs you have. I also did a study in 2009 that focused on the impact of ground ball ratings. Pitchers with a K/9 of 6.0 or better and a K/BB of 2.0 or better saw the following results:
The pitchers with a GB ratio of 43% or better had a 3.58 ERA and a 1.23 WHIP.
The pitchers with a GB ratio of less than 43% had a 3.85 ERA and a 1.23 WHIP.
The pitchers who didn’t have a K/9 of 6.0 or better and a K/BB of 2.0 or better had the following results:
The pitchers with a GB ratio of 43% or better had a 4.28 ERA and a 1.38 WHIP.
The pitchers with a GB ratio of less than 43% had a 4.52 ERA and a 1.39 WHIP.
In each case, the ground ball pitchers produced better numbers, almost 30 points better.
In addition to the desired metrics above, I also prefer a pitcher with a ground ball ratio above 42%, which is the league average.
I talk about luck a lot when discussing starting pitchers. The three numbers I look at in this category are Batting Average Per Balls in Play (BABIP), Strand Rates, and home runs per fly balls. Generally a starter will be around a .300 BABIP, a 70% strand rate, and a 10% HR/FB ratio. There are some exceptions, although those are shown over time, and one year differences usually regress to the norm. I focus on a pitcher’s xFIP to get an idea of their true skill level, as that focuses on things the pitcher can control (K, BB, HR), removes the lucky or unlucky BABIP and strand rates, and normalizes the HR/FB ratio. xFIP is also considered the best indicator of future ERA performance.
Overall, I’m looking at the xFIP of each pitcher, along with the K/9, BB/9, HR/9, and ground ball rates.
The first thing that needs to be done is establishing what kind of pitcher Paul Maholm is. In the last three years, Maholm has pitched 542.1 innings, with a 5.3 K/9, a 2.9 BB/9, and an 0.7 HR/9 ratio. Two of those stat categories fit my requirements, although his strikeout numbers are low. Maholm does have a ground ball rate of 52.3% in this time frame, which is one of the highest rates on the 2012 free agent market, and the highest of anyone with 400+ innings in the last three years.
His xFIP over the last three seasons is 4.29. One thing to consider is that xFIP normalizes the HR/FB ratio to a 10.6% average. Maholm has a 7.53% HR/FB ratio over the last three years. I looked in to this earlier in the year, and believe this to be legit, due to PNC Park. Maholm is an extreme ground ball pitcher in a park that favors left handers, due to a spacious left field. That keeps his home run totals down, and PNC Park’s right field keeps a few balls in the park that would be gone in other stadiums. This is a bigger benefit to Maholm than most other pitchers, because he has one of the best ground ball ratios, and he’s left handed, which means he’s not seeing as many fly balls in the first place. The fly balls he does allow provide fewer opportunities to leave the spacious left field of PNC Park.
What this means is that Maholm’s xFIP might be a little high. If we sub in his 7.53% HR/FB ratio for the 10.6% in the formula, he’s a 3.90 xFIP pitcher. For now, we’ll leave him at a 4.29, but we’ll keep the HR/FB numbers in mind.
Alternatives to Maholm
Prior to running this site, I provided content to ESPN, Yahoo Sports, USA Today, and various other outlets, covering baseball, football, and hockey. One of the things I wrote about was fantasy baseball. Each year I had to come up with rankings for the upcoming season, followed by analysis throughout the year on who to add and who to drop. I had the most success with pitchers, finding breakout aces like Adam Wainwright, Zack Greinke, and Matt Cain before they started posting ace-like numbers. To do this, I took the same approach outlined above: focusing on the K/9, BB/9, and HR/9 ratios, and adding in the ground balls.
I’m telling you this to introduce you to my ranking system. I had three groups of pitchers. The names of the groups weren’t very scientific. They were “Star”, “Good”, and “Risk”. The pitchers in the “Star” category met all four requirements. They had a K/9 of 6.0 or better, a BB/9 of 3.0 or lower, a HR/9 of 1.0 or lower, and a ground ball percentage greater than 42%.
The 2012 free agent class only has four pitchers with this “Star” rating, based on the last three seasons. They are Adam Wainwright (option year), Hiroki Kuroda, Roy Oswalt (option year), and C.C. Sabathia (option year). The Pirates have no shot at these guys, so we won’t spend any time on this category, other than pointing out the players in the group.
The next category featured the “Good” pitchers. That removed the ground ball rates, and just focused on the strikeouts, walks, and home runs. The 2012 free agent class doesn’t have any US players in the “Good” category from the past three years. However, there are two international free agents who qualify, based on their numbers in the Japanese leagues. They are Hisashi Iwakuma and Tsuyoshi Wada. Both are 31 next year, and they might be the best options on the free agent market. However, any team wanting to sign them has to pay a posting fee. The fee is returned if the player doesn’t sign, but is lost if the team signs the player. Last year the Oakland A’s paid over $19 M to negotiate with Iwakuma (they got it back when he didn’t sign). Keeping that in mind, it would cost at least $20 M for these players, and that’s not even considering their salaries. The posting fees essentially make these guys $10-15 M a year pitchers, without any Major League experience. For that reason, I would be shocked if the Pirates were involved in the bidding for these guys.
The final group, the “Risk” group, looks at pitchers who are missing one of the four requirements. Maybe they have a high walk rate. Maybe they give up too many home runs. Or maybe they’re like Maholm, with a good walk rate, a good home run rate, an above average ground ball rate, but not a lot of strikeouts. There are eight pitchers on the 2012 free agent market who fit this description. If the Pirates are going to find an upgrade over Maholm, it most likely has to come from this group.
The eight pitchers include the following players: C.J. Wilson, Joel Pineiro, Mark Buehrle, Dontrelle Willis, Jeff Francis, Erik Bedard, Edwin Jackson, and of course, Maholm. Not all of these guys are good alternatives to Maholm, and some of them are guys I wouldn’t touch. Take Willis, as an example. He has an acceptable strikeout, home run, and ground ball rate. However, he’s got a 6.2 BB/9 ratio in 175 innings over the last three seasons. Even with the strikeouts, homers, and ground balls, I’m not going near that walk rate.
Wilson is the guy I like the best from this group, with his 3.6 BB/9 ratio holding him back from “Star” status. He probably won’t be anywhere near the price range for the Pirates, as I wouldn’t be surprised if he got close to $100 M. I’d be surprised if Mark Buehrle leaves Chicago, so it probably doesn’t make sense to talk about him either.
Edwin Jackson barely missed “Star” status, with a 3.03 BB/9 ratio (the cutoff is 3.0). At 28 years old, he’s pretty much in line with Wilson as one of the top options on the market, and his age might make him a highly sought after guy. Like Wilson, I don’t see the Pirates in on Jackson.
That leaves Joel Pineiro, Maholm, Jeff Francis, and Erik Bedard. Pineiro is very similar to Maholm. Both guys are on the “Risk” list because of low strikeout numbers. However, each player has good walk, home run, and very good ground ball numbers. Pineiro is coming off a two year, $16 M contract, which he got after a season with a 3.49 ERA. Of the two, I prefer Maholm, due to his left handedness, and his younger age (Maholm will be 30 in 2012, Pineiro 33). Pineiro’s contract could provide a guide for Maholm’s potential deal on the open market. I don’t think that Maholm will receive $9.75 M per year, but I think $8 M a year is reasonable on a multi-year deal.
Jeff Francis and Erik Bedard are wild cards. Bedard is an outstanding pitcher when healthy, which he showed in 2011 with a 3.62 ERA, and a 3.56 xFIP to back that up. The problem is that he’s rarely healthy. His 129.1 innings in 2011 was the most he’s pitched since throwing 182 innings in 2007. He threw 81 innings in 2008, 83 in 2009, and missed the 2010 season. He signed for $1 M, with $6.35 M in performance bonuses last year. He probably will cost more than that after his 2011 season, although injury concerns should keep the price down to a reasonable level. He’s a risk of a signing, but he’s better than Maholm when he’s healthy. The only thing that kept him out of the “Star” category was a 3.5 BB/9 ratio over the last three years.
Francis is coming off of a year where he had a 4.82 ERA in 183 innings with the Royals. The innings are good, as Francis came in to the year recovering from a shoulder injury in 2010. The Pirates expressed an interest in Francis last off-season, but he ended up signing with Kansas City for $2 M, with up to $2 M in performance bonuses, most of which he earned. Francis is a similar pitcher to Maholm. He doesn’t strike out a lot of guys, but has a low walk rate, a good home run rate, and an above-average ground ball rate, especially in the last two seasons where he had a 47% ground ball rate. He has a 4.23 xFIP over the last three years, which is lower than Maholm. Despite his poor ERA, all signs point to him being a better pitcher than he’s shown, which could make him a value pick as an alternative if the Pirates can’t sign Maholm.
Switching gears a bit, and looking at xFIP over the last three seasons, there are 14 pitchers who were ahead of Maholm. They included most of the above names (the only exceptions were Buehrle and Willis), and the following additions: Javier Vazquez, Chris Capuano, Ryan Dempster (option year), Aaron Harang (option year), Bartolo Colon. Aaron Cook (option year), Rich Harden, Sergio Mitre, and Jason Marquis were also within ten points of Maholm, although they rated lower.
Vazquez and Dempster can be removed due to the price tag. I also wouldn’t consider Colon due to his age of 39 next year. That leaves Harang and Capuano. The Padres will probably pick up Harang’s 2012 option of $5 M, especially after a year where he posted a 3.64 ERA in 170.2 innings. That leaves Capuano, who will be 33 years old next year. Capuano wouldn’t be a bad alternative to Maholm, and would probably be cheaper. He’s kind of under-valued, but has always been a solid pitcher. In 2011 he had a 4.55 ERA with the Mets, but had a 3.67 xFIP. His xFIP over the last three years is 3.88, which is 41 points better than Maholm.
Capuano had a 7.9K/9, a 2.6 BB/9, and a 1.3 HR/9 ratio over the last few years. He also has a ground ball rate that is right around average. He’s borderline a “Risk” player, with the big drawback being his home run totals. However, he fits PNC Park, as he’s left handed, which might help to drive down those numbers. Capuano was coming off an injury last off-season, and signed for $1.5 M with the Mets, plus incentives based on starts and innings. He made 31 starts and pitched 186 innings, so it’s likely that he reached almost all of those incentives.
Capuano would probably be cheaper than Maholm, and looks like a better version than Maholm. As an alternative to picking up Maholm’s $9.75 M option, the Pirates could throw money at Capuano, possibly even signing him for Kevin Correia money.
The Best Free Agent Options
Overall, when considering the realistic options for the Pirates, my preference would be:
1. Chris Capuano – He’d be cheaper (allowing the Pirates to re-sign Derrek Lee and giving them space for other moves), and his xFIP indicates that he could be a better pitcher than Maholm going forward.
2. Paul Maholm – I’ve always liked Maholm, and feel his $9.75 M option would be fair value, although I think he could be had for cheaper on the open market. He’s 30 years old next year, so a multi-year deal wouldn’t be a bad thing.
3. Erik Bedard – He’s a high risk guy, but also a high reward guy. When healthy, he’s the number one or number two starter that the Pirates don’t have. The problem is that he’s rarely healthy. The risk is that the Pirates could end up paying for 15 starts, and it would probably take a multi-year deal to bring Bedard in. That’s a lot of risk to take.
4. Jeff Francis – I see him as a last resort type player. He’s a wild card, and I think he’s similar to Maholm, although I’d take Maholm if I had the choice. I think he will improve on his 4.82 ERA from 2011, mostly based on his xFIP from the last few years. His ground ball, walk, and home runs numbers are all good, and he would really benefit from pitching in PNC Park. He’d also be much cheaper than Maholm.
The 2012 free agent market doesn’t provide a lot of opportunities to find a player that is similar to Maholm, especially when you consider that the Pirates don’t really have a chance for guys like C.J. Wilson or Edwin Jackson. However, there are a few options, which shows that the Pirates don’t need to pick up the $9.75 M option to add Maholm’s production to the rotation. The option guarantees that they get his production, but declining the option doesn’t prevent them from that same production.