The Yankees should learn from the Giants and Zito: big contracts to pitchers are rarely worth it. (Image: Rob Grabowski-US PRESSWIRE)

Attention Yankees: Don't Break the Bank for Pitching


The New York Yankees have some holes to fill for 2013, not the least of which is starting pitching. As I wrote last week, after CC Sabathia, there are a lot of question marks. Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte may or may not come back, but even if they do, the Yankees would still greatly benefit from some extra depth or another solid pitcher in the rotation.

That being said, I believe that the Yankees should avoid breaking the bank for a starting pitcher. What do I mean by breaking the bank? Well, consider the following list of the most expensive starting pitcher contracts for the past six years:

 
Notes:
- The “Annual Values” column was created using FanGraphs WAR dollar values. They aren’t perfect measures, of course, but are generally accurate with large sample such as the one above. So don’t look into the individual values too closely, but instead at the overall trend.
- For contracts that are still in progress, the annual value is just what the player has been worth thus far. Since these pitchers are, for the most part, past their prime at the time of signing, they are likely to be worth less at the backend of their respective contracts.
- “Age” is approximately the player’s age when the contract was signed. They may not be completely accurate, but are good enough for our purposes.
 

As you can see, there have been a lot of very bad contracts to pitchers over the years, and not many good ones. Out of the 22 most expensive contracts (in annual salary) since 2007, only nine have been “worth it”. Of those nine, only two pitchers were worth over five million dollars more than their contracts (one of those being Felix Hernandez, who still has two years left on his contract). On the other hand, nine of the 13 “bad” contracts have been very bad, the pitcher being worth less than $5 million per year than he was being paid.

Additionally, as I noted above, most of these pitchers began their contracts during or after their prime, so those who are still in the middle of their contracts are likely to pitch worse during the remaining portions of their contracts. This will make the above results look even worse for these contracts.

Now, I’m not trying to say that it’s never smart to hand out a large contract to a pitcher. The Yankees were probably right to do so for Sabathia, despite the fact that he will almost surely not produce $24.4 million worth of value every year. The Yankees had a huge need for an “ace”, and Sabathia was one of the only aces available. In his case, it was probably (though we’ll see) worth overpaying a bit in order to ensure that he would pitch for the Yankees.

However, when you look at some of these other contracts, it’s clear that Sabathia was the exception (maybe), not the rule. Especially in the case of long-term contracts and contracts for old pitchers, the success rate is very low. Barry Zito is a famous case, but the contracts to Jason Schmidt, Carlos Zambrano, Johan Santana, and John Lackey aren’t far behind.

There aren’t a whole lot of pitchers that will receive contracts like the ones above in 2013, luckily, but Zack Greinke, Anibal Sanchez, and Kyle Lohse may each break the $15 million a year mark (Greinke almost surely will, and may surpass $20 million per year). While each of them could be worth this money, the inherent risk for any pitcher is just too high. Injuries and aging are incredibly common and tough to predict in starting pitchers, and guys that seem like sure things one year can fall apart the next (just ask Roy Halladay).

So if you’re reading this Brian Cashman (unlikely), please don’t hand out a big contract to Greinke, Sanchez, Lohse, or anyone else. There are a lot of solid pitchers out there that will be much cheaper and could provide similar value. As we learned from Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia in 2011, and Hiroki Kuroda in 2012, solid starting pitching can be found very cheaply. Sure, the Yankees could have signed Cliff Lee or C.J. Wilson, but who no one knows what Lee will do for the next three years, and Wilson is already looking like a bust.

Maybe teams will soon learn that signing top pitchers to big contracts just isn’t worth the risk, thus lowering the cost of those pitchers, but until then, the Yankees should hold off on those contracts. Instead, they should look for low-risk, high-reward guys like Shaun Marcum, Roy Oswalt, Joe Blanton, etc., and use the money they save on holes in their offense instead. Those big names are enticing, but tend to be busts more often than not. Just ask our dear friend Carl Pavano.

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