First Pitch: Is Jeff Karstens Over-Rated or Under-Rated?

Back at the end of November the Pittsburgh Pirates non-tendered right-handed pitcher Jeff Karstens. The move was pretty controversial at the time. Karstens was projected to make $3.8 M through arbitration and was coming off a pretty good year when he was healthy. The starter posted a 3.97 ERA in 90.2 innings, with a 6.55 K/9, a 1.49 BB/9, and an 0.79 HR/9. The problem was that Karstens couldn’t stay healthy. Ultimately that’s why the Pirates opted to non-tender him.

The majority of Pirates writers that I read at the time criticized the move. I also criticized the move, pointing out that it was an inconsistent approach. A summary of my argument:

It’s true that Karstens is injury prone. If the Pirates felt he might miss half the season, then they’d be justified in letting him go. The problem is they’re not consistent. We know that Morton will miss half the season, and they gave him $2 M. We only think Karstens will miss time, and we don’t even know how much time that will be. Karstens was projected to make $3.8 M. So the Pirates paid $2 M for, at-most, half a year of Morton, but balked at Karstens for $1.8 M more over the risk that he might miss an unspecific amount of time.

It’s not just Morton and Karstens. Last year the Pirates signed Erik Bedard to a one year, $4.5 M deal. If there’s anyone who is a bigger injury risk than Karstens, it’s Bedard. Yet the Pirates felt that he was worth $4.5 M, even though at the time of the signing he looked like a guy who would be lucky to top 15 starts (which he only did once from 2009-2011). Karstens made 15 starts last year, and pitched 162 innings in 2011. The last time Bedard topped 129 innings was in 2007. Yet the Pirates gave Bedard $700 K more than Karstens was projected to make, plus incentives if he stayed healthy.

CLIP

I guess time will tell on this. We’ll have to see what Karstens gets on the open market.

CLIP

To sum it up, think of it this way. Karstens made 15 starts in 2012 and FanGraphs had him as a 1.7 WAR player. Russell Martin was a 2.2 WAR player in 2012, according to FanGraphs. The Pirates gave Martin $8.5 M a year for two years (about $3.8 M per WAR). They declined Karstens, who was projected to make $3.8 M. If we assume he only pitches 90 innings again in 2013 with the same results as 2012 (which I believe is a fair assumption), then Karstens would cost $2.2 M per WAR, which is a much better value than Martin. When you consider that, and you consider the inconsistent history of giving contracts to injury prone players, the decision to non-tender Karstens makes very little sense.

I’ve spoken with Neal Huntington a few times on this topic. One of those times was at PirateFest, when Huntington sat down with Charlie and Vlad from Bucs Dugout, Kevin Creagh, and myself. I pointed out that the decision with Karstens was inconsistent with Morton and Bedard. Charlie posted the transcript of the discussion, but here was Huntington’s explanation:

A couple things with Charlie [Morton]. When Charlie’s been healthy, he’s been nearly as effective [as Karstens]. It just hasn’t been as often, which is a risk we’re taking. $4 million compared to $2 million, [an] extra year of control. Jeff’s a free agent after this season. Charlie’s a free agent after 2014. Given the cost of starting pitching, if we’re right on Charlie Morton, we’ve got a very effective starter cost-controlled for the next year and a half, even if Charlie comes back midseason. If we’re right on Jeff, we’ve got one year of control at double the cost. So that’s the part of the factor. Not completely, but part of the factor.

With respect to Erik Bedard, we felt that there were strong enough indicators that the chance of success … ironically enough, we felt like we’d get 15 really good starts out of Erik Bedard with a chance that we might not get more than 15. Erik was good for two months, stayed healthy but wasn’t nearly as effective [after that]. Now … his indicators [were] about a run different than what his ERA and what his projected ERA should have been. But the reality is, we were deep in the hole too many times when Erik started, and that’s why we made the eventual move to release him. He wasn’t going to be on our postseason roster, so we figured we’d go with someone else who had a chance to be on our postseason roster, and we made a tough decision late.

Huntington also discussed how the decision could end up making him look foolish if Karstens went to have success elsewhere. When I asked if there was any consideration to biting the bullet, tendering Karstens, and trying to deal him, Huntington said that $4 M was too much for them.

Is Jeff Karstens over-rated by Pirates fans, or under-rated by the rest of baseball?

Is Jeff Karstens over-rated by Pirates fans, or under-rated by the rest of baseball?

We could debate all of that, but it’s kind of pointless now. Karstens is reportedly returning, and the Pirates will be getting him for about $2.5 M, which is $1.3 M less than his estimated arbitration price, and $600 K less than what he made in 2012. The Pirates took a gamble, and obviously it paid off. From what I saw, the majority of Pirates fans were happy with the move, which makes sense since most of those same fans were outraged when Karstens was non-tendered. That brings up an interesting subject. Are Pirates fans over-rating Karstens, or is Karstens an under-rated pitcher?

Obviously Karstens didn’t have a high value on the open market. We barely heard his name mentioned in rumors. The only team that had a reported interest in him was Colorado, and that was reported as a “mild interest”. If I’m Karstens, and my choices are a one year deal with Pittsburgh or Colorado, I’m going to Pittsburgh. Karstens had a below-average 36.8% ground ball rate last year. I doubt he’s going up in value pitching at Coors.

When he was non-tendered, I felt that Karstens would easily get $3.8 M or more on the open market. We saw Kevin Correia get a two year, $10 M deal with the Twins. Scott Baker has dealt with injury problems the last two years, will miss time this year recovering from Tommy John surgery, and received $5.5 M for one year, with incentives. Correia the last two years has been a 4.30-ish xFIP pitcher. Baker has been in the 3.60-3.80 range. Karstens has been in the 3.80-4.00 range. Baker is a little more flashy, posting some consistent strikeout numbers. You could see how he’d get more than Karstens, even when recovering from surgery. But Karstens is better than Correia, and Correia received four times as much money.

So are we missing something? Are we over-rating Karstens? If he played for some other team the last few years, would the reaction be the same? Probably not on that last one. But that doesn’t mean Karstens isn’t a good pitcher. It just means that he gets that home town boost, and the reaction to his signing is probably bigger than his talent deserves.

Karstens is arguably a good pitcher. He’s shown improvements almost every year since entering the majors. Since 2007 he’s seen his K/9 rate go up every year, from 3.07 in 2007 to 6.55 in 2012. His walk rate has been outstanding the last three years. His HR/9 rate has dropped in each of the last three years. His xFIP has gone from 5.42 in 2009, to 4.26 in 2010, 4.00 in 2011, and 3.84 in 2012. The improvements coincide with the improved control. In watching him the last few years, it’s clear that Karstens knows how to pitch. He’s not a number one or a number two starter. He occasionally puts up league average number three starter numbers, and is more likely a strong number four. So why the lack of interest?

Is it the injuries? The Pirates non-tendered him because of those health issues the last few years. They tried to trade him and got no takers. They tried to trade him for cash, and still got no takers. In hindsight, that should have been a sign of his value. Teams could have added him for nothing, paid his estimated $3.8 M, and no one bit.

I believe Karstens is a good pitcher. I don’t think Pirates fans are wrong about that. But I do think we under-estimated the hit that Karstens would take due to his injury problems. I think a lot of people just dismissed the comments about the Pirates trying to deal Karstens, thinking either:

1. Teams were just waiting until they could get Karstens on the open market.

2. The Pirates weren’t being honest about the lack of demand for Karstens.

I was in camp number one. A lot of people tend to be in camp number two. But it seems like the Pirates were right about Karstens and his value. If the reported deal is correct, and they were able to sign him for $2.5 M, then the gamble paid off. At the time they said they would try to bring Karstens back. We now know that the market for Karstens was very weak. The risk of losing him wasn’t really there. I think Karstens is a good pitcher, but it seems the market on him was low because of his health issues. That’s why the Pirates originally non-tendered him, and I believe that’s why the Pirates were able to get him back at a lower rate.

In short, Pirates fans might be over-rating Karstens a bit, especially by ignoring his health issues. At the same time, MLB teams could be under-rating him because of those same health concerns. He had a 1.7 WAR in 90 innings last year. Even if his production is half that in 90 innings this year, he’s still a steal at $2.5 M, especially when teams are usually paying $4-5 M per WAR on the open market.

Links and Notes

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**Pittsburgh Pirates 2013 Top Prospects: #13 – Tony Sanchez.

**Winter Leagues Recap: Marte Returns.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • emjayinTN

    Tim: I like Jeff Karstens as a Pirate because he is a solid contributor in the dugout, the clubhouse, and the community. Off of 2011 he looked like a guy moving up, and that all took a big hit last year. He is probably being paid what he is worth, and the market made that point very clear. Place me in the group that thinks this was the year to go in with AJ Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald, Jeff Locke, and either Justin Wilson or Chris Leroux, with McPherson being a dark horse. We have a severe case of constipation with moving pitchers into the majors. Jeff Locke has gotten his “big” opportunity in 2011 and 2012 after he had already thrown 140 IP one year and 150+ the other year at AAA. I think the Pirates are very capable of playing .500+ ball in 2013, and this is the year to take a gamble on some of these yound starting pitchers, and give them a shot when they are at their strongest point, not at their weakest points.

  • impliedi

    Good article, Tim.

    I tend to think that fans (and even writers) tend to overvalue most of their team’s players. I assume that’s because they have an affinity for many of them, but also because fans/writers seem to prefer a known quantity to an unknown. With Karstens, it’s pretty obvious what you’re going to get. With Bedard or Burnett or even Russell Martin, a lot of fans didn’t really know what to expect, so often they’d rather have a middle-of-the-road talent that they already know over the possibility of a new guy coming that has the possibility of being much more than that.

    I’m wondering if, whether it’s the injuries or the talent or whatever, that perhaps other teams didn’t think of Karstens as a starter. Maybe they believed he is best suited for the role that the Pirates have tried valiantly to keep him in, long man/spot starter. And that a person in that role wasn’t worth $3-4m+. Just a guess, I could be way off.

    Lastly, I always try to look at these things from the opposite perspective to get my rose-colored fan glasses off for a second.

    When some people were up in arms about not taking the Maholm $9m option or non-tendering Karstens, I looked at it this way: if Paul Maholm were on another team instead of with the Pirates and the Pirates were looking at signing him to a one-year, $9m contract, would that be a good move? What would the fan reaction be? How would the people who were upset with the move react to a signing like this?

    Same with Karstens. If he had been with another team, and had had the exact same career up to this point and the Pirates signed him to a 1-year, $4m contract, I think a lot of the same people who were upset about the non-tendering, would have been moaning about the Pirates “wasting” 4 million on a soft-tossing, injury-prone guy who can’t hold a job in a rotation.

    • impliedi

      I should add that I think that fans tend to overvalue their own players AND, at the same time (in an odd twist), overemphasize their own players’ weaknesses.

  • http://wkkortas.wordpress.com wkkortas

    I think the notion of Karstens being under-valued is spot-on, maybe because his negatives are easy to focus on–the lack of overpowering stuff, the health concerns. the lack of upside (which I think partly explains why Morton was tendered and Karstens was not.) Still, as you point out, he provides good bang for the buck; he’s one of those guys who seem like they’re a dime a dozen until you don’t have him around when you need him.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 Lee Young

    Correia takes the ball every 5 days. He is durable. JK isn’t.

    Managers want ‘avail’ability, not just ‘ability’.

    That is why KC gets the big bucks and JK doesn’t.

  • Happydude1

    I guess consistency/dependability pays – at least in Correia’s case – even if that consistency is at or below replacement level.

  • Ecbucs

    It still bugs me that the Pirates budget is so tight that they had to take the chance that Karstens could go elsewhere. If Karstens meets his incentives he will not get much less than he would have thru arbitration so the Bucs may not even save much money (but they will know that he performed well).

    I just don’t understand how the team’s budget can be this tight year after year yet they still end up with one of lowest payrolls in game (bottom 5). Especially for 2013, after the past two years the team should be making a strong effort to contend yet it appears it wants to nickel and dime most players but it is going to be spending big money on its catcher and shortstop when neither of whom is likely to be much above average even if they have better seasons than they did in 2012.

    • http://daleberrasstash.blogspot.com/ Kevin Creagh

      At Piratefest, NH said they tried to work out a deal with Karstens ahead of the non-tender deadline. I’m presuming that the deal during the pre-non-tender deadline was this deal that you are looking at right now — a base salary with incentives.

      Karstens turned it down in November, was non-tendered, realized the market wasn’t that great for him, and came back. The Pirates don’t have 100% full faith and credit that Karstens can pitch a whole season — thus the incentives.

      I’m not thrilled that Karstens is back, as I think he is not dependable and relies on a very fine margin of error, but an incentive based deal for him is good.

  • Y2JGQ2

    Tim- What was Jeff’s WAR in 2011 when he managed to stay healthy for the entire year? Just curious.

    a 1.7 WAR in 90 innings shows a lot of upside to me. It shows, even if Jeff is injured a large part of the year, that he can still have a positive impact when he IS on the field. I think as a #4 starter, he could easily post a 3.0 WAR this year for 2.5m. That would be a steal, and then my guess is he’d get a 3 year 15million contract for that somewhere