Monday, January 12, 2015

Should Shields Get Nine Figures?

James Shields is going to become very rich very soon (Sports Now)
The first big name starting pitcher to go off the board this winter was Jon Lester, who set the market by inking a six-year, $155 million deal with the Chicago Cubs. James Shields, Lester's former AL East rival, appears next to go. According to Ken Rosenthal, Shields has received a reported five-year, $110 million contract offer from an unknown team. Since his agent isn't Scott Boras, the offer may well be legit.

The obvious question: is Shields worth that kind of money?

Up to now and in a vacuum, Shields's' performance suggests he is. In three of the past four years he was worth north of $20 million, and in the one year he wasn't (2012) he was valued at $17.4. Adjusting for inflation, $22 million per year seems perfectly reasonable for someone who's a) been worth it in the past and b) a free agent, thus requiring a mark-up for his services.

Pitchers are inherently risky investments because of their propensity for getting hurt, but Shields is as safe as any hurler can be. He's topped 30 starts and 200 innings eight years running, leading the sport in innings pitched during that time. The definition of a workhorse, Shields has never spent a day on the Disabled List. He takes the ball every fifth day and can be counted on to pitch deep into games. Last year, for instance, he completed at least six innings in all but four of his 34 starts. Shields soaks up innings and preserves the bullpen.

What's more, Shields is also a great pitcher. Over the past four years, while averaging 233 innings per year, he's posted a 3.17 ERA (124 ERA+), 1.16 WHIP, 3.49 FIP, and 3.51 K/BB ratio. Shields has been one of the 10 most valuable pitchers in baseball during that time, beating out the likes of Zack Greinke, Madison Bumgarner, and Jered Weaver. Aside from his rookie year and a disastrous 2010, he's been a better than average pitcher every year of his nine-year career.

Problem is, all those innings take a toll on a pitcher's arm, making it fair to ask how Shields will hold up. Last year, he threw more pitches than anyone else in baseball, something that will likely come back to haunt him next year. It's also worrisome that his strikeout rate, which plummeted from almost a better per inning in 2012 to 7.1 K/9 last year--roughly league average. He's not missing bats with the same regularity, and thus relying more on his defense and park for success. That was fine in Tampa Bay and Kansas City, where he benefitted from pitcher-friendly parks and strong defenses behind him (not to mention the Royals' shutdown bullpen), but might not be the case elsewhere. His hit rate has risen every year since 2011, and will continue to do so should his strikeout rate continue to fall.

On that note, it's also concerning that Shields has allowed more than a home run per inning throughout his career despite pitching in home parks that are notoriously tough on power hitters. It's hardly surprising given his fly ball tendencies, but definitely something to keep an eye on. A move to a homer-friendly venue would definitely be troublesome for him.

At 33, Shields is also in the decline phase of his career, even more so than a position player of the same age because pitchers typically peak earlier. To earn his keep, Shields will need to be worth about three wins per year over the life of the contract, which will cover his age 33-37 seasons. That would entail replicating his 2014 season (3.3 bWAR) five times over, which doesn't seem likely to happen. His 2014 (3.3 bWAR) was already a bit of a step down from his great 2013 campaign (4.1 bWAR).

If we project a similar annual decline going forward, then Shields will only have one season that comes close to matching his paycheck. If we conservatively estimate he'll lose about half a win per season, then he'll have three more average to above average seasons but will still come up short on value. I see this as the most likely scenario; that Shields will be effective for two or three more years, than probably fall apart. The only way Shields will be worth nine figures is if he a) stays healthy and b) suffers no noticeable drop-off in performance. He'll need to be a rich man's Mark Buehrle for the next half-decade.

Based on how many recent aces have broken down in their mid-30s, that seems virtually impossible. Pedro Martinez had his last great year at 33 and started just 57 games over the ensuing four years, which proved to be the final seasons of his career. Roy Halladay was Cy Young runner-up at 34, mediocre at 35, and a dud at 36. Johan Santana, though not officially retired, last pitched at 33 and is probably done for good. Josh Beckett just retired at 34. CC Sabathia, who carried a similarly large workload for more than a decade, has been a disaster at 32 and 33. Justin Verlander, the best pitcher on the planet in 2011 and 2012, looks washed-up, and he's not even 32 yet. The list goes on an on.

Jay Jaffe showed there's almost no way Shields will be worth the money (on what will probably be his last contract), but any team that signs him has to know that. They're banking on a few more good years from Shields and will be okay with absorbing a loss on the back end. After all, a team that adds Shields is trying to win now, and there's no question he'll help them do so. He's a boon to any rotation, likely an ace or strong number two depending on where he lands. He'd be better off pitching in the National League and/or in a big ballpark, obviously, but his solid defense-independent numbers suggest that he'll thrive wherever he goes.

And while his plunging strikeout rate is discouraging, there's nothing else to suggest he's going to fall off a cliff next year. Accordingly, Steamer projects him to top 200 innings again next year and be worth three fWAR. If he does that, he'll not only earn his paycheck, but he'll also be making a big difference for a team in the postseason hunt. That's why I'd like to see the Red Sox go after him, if only because they don't have anyone who bears even a passing resemblance to an ace (not that one is a requisite for making the postseason, but it sure would be nice to have one). With Shields, they'd be the best team in the AL East, but it doesn't look like that's going to happen.

Whoever lands Shields is going to get a great pitcher, but not for long.

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