Gerrit Cole's recent comps

February 13, 2020

I’m sure someone has already done this study, maybe not in exactly this form, but rather than search for it online, I decided to take a crack at it. I may be among the most extreme of those who were puzzled by the Yankees offering Gerrit Cole the gigantic contract that they did, both in terms of years and in terms of dollars per year—it makes no sense to me, unless the concept of "money" is almost literally meaningless to the Yankees, which may be the answer right here-- in which case no need to read further.

By "meaningless" I mean that they might just be able to afford to dismiss an expense like 36 million bucks every year for the next half-dozen or so years as a mere inconvenience if such a sum were to disappear annually down a swirling toilet. It’s certainly none of my business how they choose to spend their money, and Cole is certainly the best free-agent pitcher on the market. My argument is just this: pitchers are fragile.

For all I know, the Yankees have taken out an insurance policy against Cole’s getting hurt over the course of his contract, but insurance is never cheap, either, and insurance companies make money selling contracts so I’ll assume this is a non-issue here, or at best a peripheral side issue. All I want to study is how pitchers like Cole perform in line with their contracts.

We’re dealing with a small sample size, of course, because there aren’t that many "pitchers like Cole" and the more broadly we define that term to expand the sample size, the less the other pitchers will resemble Cole.  If we go back too far in time, for example, we may be looking at pitchers who suffered injuries, or training regimens, that have become outdated by Cole’s time, and if we don’t go back far enough in time, we lose the basis for comparing their performance for the entire period of Cole’s contract. If we look at pitchers much younger or older than Cole is right now, or coming off seasons that are much better or worse than Cole is coming off, they might not be appropriate comparisons to Cole. Well, I suppose it’s going to be hard to find many pitchers having seasons all that much better than Cole’s 2019, so we can eliminate an upper limit to the quality, which eliminates—no one, really. Cole’s 2019 was about as good as you’re going to find.

So what I’m studying is pitchers with at least a 6.0 WAR at least one time in the six seasons between 2008 and 2013, who were between the ages of 26 and 30, with special attention to the tiny sample of age exactly 28. (Cole was 28 last year, with a WAR of 6.9.) Only a few were free agents in the target season, but we’ll pretend that all of them were free agents signing with a new team, and evaluating how they did over the length of Cole’s contract.

As I understand it, the Yankees are paying him the 36 bazillion dollars with a hard commitment to pay that salary for five seasons. (https://www.spotrac.com/mlb/new-york-yankees/gerrit-cole-13294/  --Cole has an opt-out after 2024, the fifth season, but he’d be walking away from the gross remainder of his contract—literally, a gross remainder, $144 million—only if he’s pitching really well after season five, 2024,  well enough to be worth a greater amount on the free-agent market. The Yankees can counter with an offer of adding one more year at $36 mil for 2029, after which he can walk and they can go piss up the proverbial rope—you’re familiar with the proverb, I assume.) But this isn’t about the money, other than in the sense that I don’t get, laying out anything like this kind of money for a pitcher who can pull up lame after his next pitch. If you care, I don’t believe in paying pitchers anything comparable to what you pay hitters, which I’ve explained way back at the end of 2016, if you want to search through the articles archived here.) All I want to study here is how often pitchers comparable to Cole deliver value for the buck.

Or simply how they deliver value, period. I don’t really believe, nor do I think the Yankees do, that they expect to get their money’s worth out of him. Partly, I think they’re investing the money in Cole because a) they can, and b) to show their fans and their organization that they’re committed to winning, and c) to keep him out of the hands of any of their rivals, particularly in the AL East. I’m more certain of the assertation that they don’t expect 36 million dollars worth of pitching annually from Cole all throughout the length of the contract (it ends in 2028, by which date this website, and this writer, will probably no longer be in existence). If they get a year or two of "Gerrit Cole, ca. 2019" out of him, the full price of $324 Million will be earned, and every year after that (allowing for hyperbole) will be gravy.

But I’m getting ahead of my study. Literally. I’m asserting that result, but I haven’t actually run any numbers yet. So allow me to shut up, and deliver what I’ve been advertising up to this point.

This study begins in 2008, eleven years before Cole’s 2019 season. Cole was listed as 28 years old in 2019 (he turned 29 on September 8th, but we’ll go with his baseball age as 28 here), and made his third All-Star team, finished just behind Justin Verlander in the Cy Young Award voting, and racked up 6.9 WAR, easily the highest in his excellent career so far. By starting in 2008, we can track out the subsequent careers of those pitchers who bore some resemblance to Gerrit Cole, by which I mean those pitchers who earned at least 6.0 WAR and were within two years of age 28  (26-30) that season:

2008

WAR

age

’09

 ’10

  ’11       

‘12       

’13    

‘14

Total WAR (’09-‘14) [per pitcher]

Average WAR over 6 seasons

Johan Santana

7.1

29

3.3     

4.7        

0.1       

--

--

--

  8.1

2.7

Cliff Lee

6.8

29

5.4

5.1

8.5

4.4

6.8

0.9

31.0

5.2

Dan Haren 

6.1

27

6.5

3.1

4.1

-.1

0.0

-.5

13.1

2.2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

AVERAGE

6.7

28

5.0

4.3

4.2

1.3

2.3

0.2

52.2 [17.4]

3.3

 

(You can ignore the color-coding, which sorts the individual seasons into groups, e.g. 2.0-3.9 WAR, which helped me to check that the numbers added up.) In addition to lightening my work-load considerably, I’m not tallying those pitchers with fewer WAR in 2008 than 6.0, and I’m not including those pitchers under 26 or older than 30 because they’re less directly comparable to Cole, though I understand why you might consider their age irrelevant. I think age is a relevant factor,  or may be, because younger pitchers might be thought to have more remaining healthy years than older pitchers, and older pitchers could be thought to have either demonstrated the ability to pitch heavy workloads or to be on the verge of having arms that are soon to collapse under their years of heavy workload.

I don’t know how valid any of these ideas are but as I say, cutting such pitchers from the study not only alleviates MY heavy workload (and yours in making sense of all these numbers), but there are all sorts of examples of older AND younger pitchers whose performances following a 6.0 or better season bear out similar patterns to pitchers within two years of Cole’s age now.  Tim Lincecum, for example, led all of MLB in pitcher’s WAR in 2008—he was only 24, and he put up comparable stats in 2009 (7.4 WAR) but after that point became the poster boy for mediocrity. So it’s not as if by excluding him from the study on account of his youth, I’m sidestepping those 6.0+ pitchers who did well. Also on the youthful end is John Danks, who put up a sparkling 6.4 WAR in 2008 at the age of 23, but then posted only 12.9 WAR over the remaining eight years of his career, almost all of it in 2009 and 2010.

24-year-old Jon Lester also didn’t make the cut, despite a 6.1 WAR. Lester’s had some spectacular years since 2008, but also some pretty spectacular health issues, with five seasons since 2008 below 2.0 WAR and three seasons since 2008 above 5.0.  On the other side of the age-ledger, Ryan (6.9 WAR) Dempster was 31 in 2008, so is likewise disqualified from this study, but any team signing Dempster to a nine-year contract for bazillions of dollars on the basis of his 6.9 season would be kicking its own ass: in the remaining five seasons before Dempster retired, he averaged 2.2 WAR (11-10 W-L, and a 103 ERA+ on average), not exactly superstar numbers, my point being that youth or age doesn’t seem to exempt pitchers from suffering sharp declines in performance.

I got started thinking along these lines by marveling at Matt Harvey’s rapid decline from "Best pitcher in the known universe" to "Can’t unload his contract for bupkis fast enough." Slight exaggeration, but he did go straight from fourth in the Cy Young voting in 2013 (5.4 WAR) to a grand total of 4.0 WAR in the six years since 2013. Plenty of others, just outside the parameters of this study: Jake Arrieta has his magnificent 8.3 WAR year in 2015, so lacks the requisite number of followup seasons, but otherwise is the poster boy for "DON’T SIGN HIM TO $30 Million-dollar CONTRACT!!!" In the four  years since 2015, he’s gone 12-9 on average with an ERA a little over twice what it was when he was winning his Cy Young Award—not bad pitching by any stretch, but not, I think, what you want for that kind of money.

This is all to explain why I’m excluding those pitchers more than two years older or younger than Gerrit Cole is now, and excluding those pitchers below a 6.0 WAR mark. On to 2009:

 

2009

WAR

age

 ’10

  ’11       

‘12      

‘13

‘14

‘15

Total WAR (‘10-‘15) [per pitcher]

Average individual WAR over 6 seasons

Wainwright

6.3

27

6.2

--

0.9

6.2

6.1

0.9

20.2

4.0

C.C. Sabathia

6.2

28

4.8

6.4

3.4

0.0

-.6

1.2

15.1

2.5

Dan Haren

6.5

28

3.1

4.1

-.1

0.0

-.5

2.1

  8.7

1.4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

AVERAGE

6.3

28

4.7

3.5

1.4

2.1

1.7

1.4

44.0 [14.7]

2.7

 

Haren, our first repeating qualifier, is another year older, still pitching very well in 2009, but this time he’s at the end of the line of excellence—his next few seasons will top out at 4.1 and there are only two seasons left for him.  Meanwhile C.C. Sabathia is looking like a good match for Cole and a good return on the dollar, at least in the short run: he’s got another 6+ WAR season ahead of him (in 2011) and a 4.8 in 2010. But is C.C. a good long-term investment? After 2012, he’s a. 500 W-L pitcher with a 4.22 ERA in under 150 IP—so if you sign him after 2009, you get three years of top quality pitching, and seven more years of back-of -the-rotation yeoman pitching. Like Cole, Sabathia turned 29 during the year, about two months sooner than Cole does. Our final match here is Adam Wainwright, who mixes in future brilliant years with future non-years.

2010

WAR

Age

  ’11        

‘12      

‘13

‘14

‘15

‘16

Total WAR

(‘11-‘16) [per pitcher]

Average individual WAR over 6 seasons

Josh Johnson

7.0

26

2.9

3.9

1.5

--

--

--

 8.3

2.8

Ubaldo Jimenez

7.5

26

-.9

1.1

-.5

2.9

0.3

2.4

 5.2

0.9

Wainwright

6.2

28

--

0.9

6.2

6.1

0.9

1.0

15.0

2.6

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

AVERAGE

6.9

27

0.7

2.0

2.4

3.0

0.4

1.1

28.5  [9.6]

2.1

 

 

2011

WAR

age

‘12      

‘13

‘14

‘15

‘16

‘17

Total WAR (‘12-‘17)

[per pitcher]

Average individual WAR over

6 seasons

Cole Hamels

6.4

27

4.5

4.2

6.6

2.7

1.6

5.0

27.5

4.6

C.C. Sabathia

6.4

30

3.4

0.0

-.6

1.2

3.2

2.9

10.0

1.7

Ricky Romero

6.4

26

-1.5

-.4

--

--

--

--

-1.9

-.3

Jered Weaver

6.9

28

4.3

3.6

2.8

0.4

-.7

-1.2

  9.2

1.5

J. Verlander

8.6

28

8.1

4.3

0.9

2.3

7.2

6.4

29.1

4.9

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

AVERAGE

6.9

28

3.8

2.3

1.9

1.3

2.3

2.6

73.9 [14.2]

2.5

[S1] 

2012

WAR

Age

‘13

‘14

‘15

‘16

‘17

‘18

Total WAR

 (‘13-‘18)

[per pitcher]

Average  individual WAR over

6 seasons

David Price

6.6

26

2.7

4.3

6.2

3.0

1.6

4.4

22.2

3.7

J. Verlander

8.1

29

4.3

0.9

2.3

7.2

6.4

6.2

27.2

4.5

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

AVERAGE

7.3

28

3.5

2.6

4.3

5.1

4.0

5.3

49.4 [24.7]

4.1

 

 

2013

WAR

Age

‘14

‘15

‘16

‘17

‘18

‘19

Total WAR

 (‘14-‘19)

[per pitcher]

Average  individual WAR over

6 seasons

Sanchez

6.0

29

2.3

0.2

-1.0

-.8

3.0

3.7

 7.3

1.2

Scherzer

6.4

28

5.7

6.9

6.3

7.2

8.7

5.8

40.6

6.8

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

AVERAGE

6.2

28

4.0

3.6

2.6

3.2

5.9

4.8

47.9 [24.0]

4.0

 

 

So what have here is the last five seasons that have six subsequent seasons, of pitchers with WAR above 6.0 who were listed as between the ages of 26 and 30 in each season, for a total of 18 pitcher-seasons (14 individual pitchers, with Verlander, Sabathia, Wainwright, and Haren making two appearances apiece.)  The bottom line is that the average of the 108 subsequent pitcher-seasons here is somewhere between 3.1 and 3.2, by my best eyeball estimate.  In other words, the average season that the Yankees might expect from Gerrit Cole over the next 6 years is about where Johan Santana was in 2009 (3.3), or Dan Haren (3.1) was in 2010, or C.C. Sabathia (3.4)  was in 2012, or David Price (3.0) was in 2016 , or Anibal Sanchez (3.0) was in 2018:

 

 

 

W-L

ERA+

IP

WHIP

 

Santana ‘09

13-9

130

166.7

1.212

 

Haren ‘10

12-12

106

235

1.272

 

Sabathia ‘12

15-6

125

200

1.140

 

Price ‘16

17-9

112

230

1.204

 

Sanchez ‘18

  7- 6

144

136.7

1.083

 

 

Now, if Cole puts up numbers like these over the next five seasons, are the Yankees going to be happy with this signing? It’s not at all a bad showing, but it’s not even close to Cole’s 6.9 showing in 2019. If Cole puts up these numbers from 2020 through 2024, do you think he opts to walk away from his contract. (He’d have to be pretty sure he’d get a more lucrative deal than $36M for the next four years, and these numbers don’t exactly scream "Superstar hurler walking!")  If he did, do you think the Yankees would counter with an additional year at 36M, bringing the total contract to ten years and 360M?

I think "No" and "No," meaning the years from 2025 through 2028 will very likely (if the charts above are roughly predictive) be pretty disastrous for Cole. Weaver, Romero, Johnson, Haren and Santana were all pretty much cooked by season #6. Only Verlander and Scherzer are still superstars past season #6, and the other seven (Wainwright, Lee, Jimenez, Hamels, Price, Sanchez, and Sabathia) are still serviceable in seasons 7-9, but nothing you’d ever willingly pay $36 million for. So the way I see it, it’s about 6-1 against Cole turning in nine seasons on anything like the scale of performance that Yankees are paying for.

It’s beyond obvious to opine that Cole’s contract is a huge gamble in the sense that buying a lottery ticket is a huge gamble, though the Yankees don’t see it like that, and you can understand why. Twenty-one of the 108 subsequent pitcher-seasons here show a WAR of 6.0 or better, and that’s double-counting some of Verlander’s and Wainwright’s 6.0 seasons. It’s unlikely that the Yankees expect more than one future season even approaching Cole’s 6.9 performance of last year, which is presumably what they’re shelling out 36M per year to see. What they’re hoping for is to add to the additional probable season of 4.0-5.9 that they’re likely to get  (seventeen pitcher-seasons between those two points here.) If the Yankees can get three seasons, in other words, of 4.0 or better, they’re beating the odds I’m projecting here, and that’s worth all the tea in China to them.

 

6.0+ WAR

4.0-5.9 WAR

2.0-3.9 WAR

0.0-1.9

-0.0- or --

TOTAL

21

17

22

22

26

108

 

The largest of these (somewhat arbitrary) groupings is the "-0.0 or –" group, nearly a quarter of all the seasons under scrutiny here, having a negative or null value, which the Yankees can anticipate (and not care) going in.

So do I advocate simply never signing a star free-agent pitcher? What’s the alternative? Is it to let an available superstar at the top of his game slip through your fingers simply to save a few (dozen) million?

Well, kinda, yeah. As I review these "6.0 WAR" pitcher-seasons, two patterns emerge:

 

1)     These guys are TALL—never noticed before doing this study, but so many high-quality pitchers nowadays are gigantic, 6’7", 6’6". Really huge guys who would have been total outliers when I first followed baseball.  Nothing to do with what I’m arguing here, just a little surprising how big pitchers have gotten across the board.

2)     The really huge contracts—huge in years, huge in megabucks—generally follow, rather than coincide with, the superstar seasons. I kept noticing that the pitchers getting paid the really big bucks (with Verlander and Scherzer the exceptions) were collecting superstar salaries for All-Star (or much worse) performances, again across the board.

Wealthy teams, of course, can spend their money however they like, and I’d bet that the Yankees in this instance will get a terrific season, maybe two or three, out of Cole, that is worth any amount of money to them if it results in another championship. But for most teams, they’d do better not even to consider signing pitchers in Cole’s category, and try to develop their own young pitchers and to scout other teams’ struggling pitchers with an eye towards bumping up their games, a la Arrieta or Dempster, and sink their free-agent money into offensive talent. The rate of return on free-agent superstar pitchers just doesn’t seem to me comparable to that of free-agent superstar batters.



 
 

COMMENTS (8 Comments, most recent shown first)

Marc Schneider
Strasburg.
10:00 AM Feb 24th
 
evanecurb
Good article. The Sherzer signing by the Nats in 2014(?) really looks like an outlier, doesn’t it? Speaking of the Nats, you might substitute “Strasbourg” for “Cole” and the analysis is probably similar.
7:10 AM Feb 15th
 
Steven Goldleaf
As to Lee, he was an excellent pitcher through 2013, worth every nickel. But we’re speculating here that he was signed to a mega-bux nine-year deal after his 22-3 Cy Young season of 2008, at the age of 28, and he “only” gave value through 2013. In 2014, he was washed up, which he acknowledged by promptly retiring. In 2015, 2016, and 2017, in other words, his value was zero. IF (big if there) he’d been signed to a nine-year deal after his 2008 season, he’d have fulfilled his end of the bargain ONLY through 2013. Given Cole’s precise deal, with a player’s opt-out after season #5, this would have had a disastrous effect, not for the team that signed FA Lee in late 2008, but for the team that Lee opted to re-sign with instead in 2013 (or with the team that countered his optout by extending his original contract for an extra year). Either way, the 2013 team would have been agreeing to pay Lee fabulous money for five years of VERY stinky pitching.

The proposition of bolstering this little study by extending the ages of Cole’s comps in either direction, young or old, or by going backwards further in time, did seem a little pointless to me. If I bolstered it a little, I could eyeball successes and failures, so the proportions of the overall success/failure ratio would have changed only marginally, if at all. And if I bolstered it a lot, readers would have rightly complained that these weren’t really comparable comps: where do I get off comparing a 32-year-old signing a nine-year deal to 28-year-old Gerrit Cole? Of course, he’d be likely to fail before reaching 40—duh! Or how dare I reach back in time to include a 30 year old Sandy Koufax in 1966 signing a nine-year FA deal, not one single pitch of which he actually threw because his left arm was hanging by a tendon? Medical science has advanced so much since 1966, Goldleaf, you dolt!

But I’d love to see someone extending or changing the terms of this small study. This was just a small step that I hadn’t seen quantified.

4:53 AM Feb 15th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Thanks. I remembered he missed a lot of time with cancer, forgot it was that long ago.

But Lester is outside the parameters, anyway--too young. Kershaw and Greinke don't make this study either, and as I said (at too-great length) there are a lot of hard-luck stories falling outside the parameters too. If you want to cherry pick the success stories, you need to include all the ones who failed outside the parameters as well. It seemed to me that the same patterns roughly speaking would have formed if I expanded them to ages 24-32, or starting back further than 2008--more work for me, more reading for you, and the same results--I figured why bother? If you'd like to extend this study, and prove me wrong, please do--love to see it. But include all the qualifiers--not just the one who succeeded.
9:58 PM Feb 14th
 
tomindc2334
Minor nitpick on Lester. You say he has "had some pretty spectacular health issues" since 2008. Lester's made at least 31 starts every season since 2008. He's had 5 All Star caliber seasons, 3 above average ones, and 3 below average but not absolutely awful ones. A team that signed Lester to a 10 year deal paying top dollar after either 2008 or 2009 would likely have been pretty happy with the results.

More generally, Verlander, Lee, and Scherzer also would have worked out very well. Kershaw, who falls just outside your study, also would have a been a good signing after his age 26 season in 2014. One more example - I think the Yankees will be very happy if Cole matches Zack Greinke's performance ages 29 to 35.
9:29 PM Feb 14th
 
Steven Goldleaf
That's not a bad username--Mark Mywords. Wish I'd thought of that.
5:18 PM Feb 14th
 
rtallia
Gerrit Cole is going to become the greatest pitcher in the history of MLB. Mark my words.
1:51 PM Feb 14th
 
trn6229
Nice article. I remember when Catfish Hunter signed with the Yankees. He was excellent for them in 1975, pitching in Shea Stadium. In 1976 he was decent, a bit better than league average. He got bombed in 1977 and early in 1978. Then a doctor manipulated his shoulder and he could throw again without pain. He pitched well the 2nd half of 1978. In 1979, he did not pitch well and that was it. So he had one great year, one ok year, one bad year and one year half bad and half very good. I think Cole will do better than Catfish.
1:04 PM Feb 14th
 
 
©2021 Be Jolly, Inc. All Rights Reserved.|Powered by Sports Info Solutions|Terms & Conditions|Privacy Policy