"Dock Ellis was my first client in baseball, and he gave me as much joy as anybody outside of my family... He was so unique. He was viewed by some people as an outlaw, but he was far from that. He was so ahead of his time. He was so intuitive and smart and talented and independent. And he wasn't about to roll over for the incredible prejudices that existed at the time.Pre-empting my posting of the first two articles of my Hall of Fame JAWS series here, the Futility Infielder home office flag will be at half staff for the remainder of the holiday season due to the passing of Dock Ellis. The following is an encore of the piece I wrote about him back in May, when the news that he was critically ill came to light.
"He was a very special person and he had an absolute army of fans and friends. He was at the cutting edge of so many issues, and he never backed down. I was proud to be his friend and stand with him."
-- Tom Reich, Ellis' former agent
Second, and of more relevance performance-wise, [CC] Sabathia has proven himself to be a durable workhorse during his eight big league seasons, reaching the level of 30 starts seven times, never throwing less than 180 1/3 innings, and making only one trip to the disabled list, that due to a groin strain in 2006. Burnett, on the other hand, has reached 30 starts just twice in 10 seasons -- both times prior to entering the market as a free agent -- and has topped 180 innings just three times. He's got a long history of arm problems, one that includes Tommy John surgery in 2003 and more than four months on the DL in 2006 and 2007, the former for elbow pain caused by the breakup of scar tissue from his surgery, and the latter for a shoulder strain. Both times, he came off the DL for less than a week before returning, furthering the perception that he was unwilling to pitch through any discomfort. Burnett "has often needed reassurance that he's healthy," wrote BP injury analyst Will Carroll amid the pitcher's 2006 elbow woes.Meanwhile, Cliff Corcoran -- who within an hour of hearing the news about Burnett's signing had made two irate Bronx Banter posts, one titled "Shit Sandwich" and the other "A.J. Stands for Awful Judgment" -- gave SI.com a more measured take on the move's impact upon the Yankee organization, one that recalled our recent SNY.tv video segment:
Burnett's combination of fragility and perceived squeamishness calls to mind the darkest chapter of Yankee GM Brian Cashman's tenure, the two deals he inked at the 2004 winter meetings with a pair of injury-riddled pitchers coming off rare healthy, effective seasons, Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright. The Yankees just cleared the former's four-year, $39.95 million deal from the books this fall. A teammate of Burnett's with the Marlins from 2002 through '04, Pavano signed with the Yankees in December '04 after a season in which he'd gone 18-8 with a 3.00 ERA in 222 1/3 innings -- figures that were all career bests, but representing just the second time the pitcher had been healthy and effective over a full season. Pavano made just 19 starts in his four years in the Bronx, and his litany of injuries reached such an absurd level that his initials came to stand for "Can't Pitch." Wright was coming off his first healthy and effective season since 1998; he managed just 43 starts over the next three years (the last one in Baltimore) and was rarely effective. Suffice it to say that the Yankees' recent record of banking on pitchers with sketchy track records isn't a good one.
To be fair, Burnett is a good pitcher when healthy. Though he had never won more than 12 games prior to last season -- a function of his lack of availability and the occasionally meager offensive support he had received -- his ERAs have been 13 percent better than the park-adjusted league average over the past four years, which ranks 16th among pitchers with at least 700 innings in that span. His 4.07 ERA this past year was inflated by about half a run thanks to his .318 Batting Average on Balls In Play, 18 points above league average.
Burnett's strikeout rate over those four years, 8.89 per nine innings, is even better, ranking third among that group behind Cy Young winners Jake Peavy and Johan Santana. As noted in discussing Sabathia, strikeout rate is the key indicator of a pitcher's future success because it provides the window into his ability to fool hitters with his offerings. A pitcher's strikeout rate generally declines as he ages, but a high strikeout rate gives him more headroom before he does so. To the extent that the Yankees must look five years into the future on Burnett's deal, his strikeout rate offers some assurance of future effectiveness -- if not availability.
Rather than committing five-years and $82.5 million to Burnett (at an average annual salary of $16.5 million), the Yankees should have looked for shorter-term, more cost effective alternatives. Andy Pettitte, who may yet return on a one-year deal at a salary below the $16 million he earned last year, is one option. Former Sabathia teammate Ben Sheets, whose injury history resembles Burnett's, would have taken a two-year, $30 million deal. Even converted reliever Braden Looper, who threw 199 innings of league average ball for the Cardinals last year and would be a perfectly acceptable, budget-rate fifth starter behind Sabathia, Wang, Chamberlain, and either Pettitte or Sheets.That said, Burnett has better stuff than Pavano, Pettitte, Looper or even Sheets, he'll keep the ball out of the hands of the execrable Derek Jeter-Robinson Cano keystone combo, and given that he's 6-1 with a 1.35 ERA against the Yankees over the last two years, he's one less tough pitcher they'll have to face. But he'll be from the Roger Clemens/Kevin Brown/Randy Johnson school of angry Yankee pitchers who aren't much fun to root for. And when this blows up in Brian Cashman's face, don't say we didn't warn him.
Such less expensive, short-term deals would have allowed the Yankees to maintain the flexibility in their rotation that would have allowed the conga-line of starting pitching prospects in their organization to work their way up to the major leagues. Behind Chamberlain and Hughes are Ian Kennedy (24), Zach McAllister (21 and set to start 2009 in Double-A), 6-foot-8 Dellin Betances (a 21-year-old Brooklyn native set to start 2009 in High-A Tampa), 21-year-old lefty Jeremy Bleich (a 2008 draft pick out of Stanford who dominated in Hawaiian Winter Baseball and could move very quickly), 19-year-old Dominican Jairo Heredia, and assorted lesser prospects such as George Kontos (23 and set to start 2009 in Triple-A), Christian Garcia (23 and ticketed for Double-A), and the 6-foot-10 North Carolina State product Andrew Brackman (23), who is coming off Tommy John surgery.
With Sabathia, Wang, and Chamberlain already in place, the Yankees would only need two of the other nine pitchers listed above to pan out as back-end starters in order to field a young, cost-controlled rotation in the wake of shorter deals to pitchers such as Pettitte, Sheets or Looper. Instead, they've committed a rotation spot to an aging, injury-prone Burnett for the next five years (he'll be 36 in the final year of the deal) and are paying $82.5 million for the privilege. That's bad business.
Jay Jaffe responds to Keith Law's opinion about opt-out clauses, saying that he doesn't think they're a bad idea. Let's be clear about this: opt-out clauses increase the cost of a contract to a club. Depending on the player, they could cost a lot.Dave misconstrued some of what I had to say, so I responded via email:
Let's take CC Sabathia, who can reportedly opt out of his new seven-year Yankee deal after three years. Two basic things can happen: Sabathia can go downhill and decide to continue playing under the contract because he's overpaid compared to the "market" (bad for the Yankees) or he can continue to pitch well and the market for free agent pitchers can become even more expensive than it is now. In that case, he'll opt out of the contract and the Yankees will have to replace him at the now-higher free agent rate (bad for Yankees).
Opt-out clauses impact the value of options in the financial market and the impact the value of contracts in baseball. For CC, that impact is positive. For the Yankees, it's definitely negative.
[Y]ou've overstated my case regarding opt-outs; it's not that "he doesn't think they're a bad idea." It's that I don't think this particular one is a bad idea because of the way it could get the Yanks out of the back end of their deal after getting the more palatable portion of CC's services.Back in Dave's court, via email:
Functionally there's really no penalty for the Yanks in him going downhill and not opting out in year 3, because that's what 99% of all long-term MLB contracts are anyway -- guarantees that offer no leeway for such circumstances anyway. That's not to say 7/$161M contracts are a good idea by any stretch, but it's money the Yankees have already decided they need to spend to get the player. It's a sunk cost, and anything they get back from that is a bonus -- even if it costs more to replace him, they can spend it on a younger player with a lower injury risk, or on an area where they have more need circa 2011. They also get the draft picks at a time when he's more likely to be a Type A, with zero incentive to accept arbitration.
It's impossible to project pitchers very far into the future; if I get the next three years of prime CC but there's a chance I get off the hook for his Age 32-35 seasons once I've ridden him for 700 more innings, I'm not sure I complain. And if I'm stuck with him for those years because I misjudged how well he might hold up over the first three, I've got no right to complain.
I didn't mean to overstate your case -- I guess I was confused because you also referred to other opt out clauses in the same paragraph. I thought you were making a judgment about opt out clauses in general.So far as I know, no further details about the fine print on the contract or the opt-out clause have emerged, but the breakdown suggests that the salary remains a flat $23 million a year across the life of the deal, which to me telegraphs Sabathia's intention to opt out because to stay in would mean he doesn't expect his value to increase at all over that period, or even over the shorter increment.
I understand your argument but hey, I disagree. :) The opt out clause lets the Yankees get out of the back end only if it looks like it will be a good deal for them. They will stay in it if it looks like a bad deal for them. That's taking the risk without keeping the reward. It's basic finance, and not a good idea.
Thinking about this particular one, I disagree even more. The Yankees like to sign stars, and they pay more per talent than any other team in baseball. So if CC walks, that means that other teams are willing to pay even more than the Yankees are on the hook for -- which means the Yankees are losing out even more, based on their terms.
The compensation choices are a good point, but they don't offset the general argument to me (though I might be undervaluing them). Particularly for a team like the Yankees, which focuses on the "present value" of success. Sometimes the agents negotiate arbitration offers out of the contract in those situations -- do we know those details yet?
While this technically is a seven-year, $161-million deal, it's spiritually three years for $69 million. Is there any doubt Sabathia will use that opt-out after 2011? In signing this deal, he has sent a telegram to the Giants: "You have three years to get your house in order for my arrival! See you then!"Back to what Dave wrote, I don't think the Yanks "are losing out even more, based on their terms" because they're always going to find something they value more than what they have just as surely as God made little green apples, and having the inconvenience of a current payroll obligation disappear works to their advantage. I also think that if Sabathia stays in the deal despite being unproductive and/or unhappy in New York, the final four years of his contract might wind up being a miserable experience that could destroy his market value once the full term of the contract runs, so I see him as that much more likely to exercise the opt-out barring a year-three arm injury.
One more time: I agree with everything Keith [Law] said. In *this* case, however, I see Sabathia as such a long-term risk that I don't want his 32-35 years, even if he pitches well enough to make the opt-out a good idea. I would happily take the three good seasons and let him walk, even if the last four years of the contract looked reasonable come November 2011.At the end of the day, none of this settles the argument, but it makes for an interesting debate. Time will tell, of course, whether the gambit pays off. The bet here is that it will, even if Sabathia leaves after three years.
In all, Sabathia led the majors in games started, innings pitched, complete games, and shutouts, and was fourth in ERA, second in strikeouts, fifth in strikeout rate, and eighth in strikeout-to-walk ratio.A spirited dicussion of Sabathia's injury risk took place on BP's internal mailing list last week, and apparently I convinced Joe Sheehan of something, which is no small task. As he writes of the deal:
Those last numbers are very important. Strikeout rate is the key indicator of a pitcher's future success because it provides the window into his ability to fool hitters with his offerings; a pitcher's strikeout rate generally declines as he ages, but a high strikeout rate gives him more headroom before he does so. Furthermore, the more strikeouts a pitcher can notch, the less reliant he is upon his defense, which can vary in its ability to convert balls in play into outs. On that note, the Yankees were one of the majors' least efficient teams in the field, ranking 25th out of 30 teams in both raw Defensive Efficiency (.682) and Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (2.42 percent below average). According to PADE, that's about 30 runs—three net wins—below average, thanks in large part to poor up-the-middle defense by indifferent second baseman Robinson Cano, aging shortstop Derek Jeter (who's always been overrated by the media for his abilities in the field but near the bottom of the pile in any advanced statistical system), and rag-armed center fielder Johnny Damon. Cano and Jeter are still in place, and while Damon may move back to left field, the Yanks still need to upgrade in center field.
Back to Sabathia's numbers, his strikeout-to-walk ratio doesn't just indicate excellent control (a pitcher's ability to throw strikes) but excellent command—his ability to throw good strikes, to put the ball where he wants to with consistency. It's generally an indicator of sound mechanics, because without those, a pitcher won't be able to hit his spots with that level of consistency. That's important when it comes to gauging the risk of a pitcher of Sabathia's stature. He may be 6-foot-7 and pushing 300 pounds, but he's very athletic, and his ability to repeat his motion ranks with anyone. Baseball history is full of oversized pitchers who have been able to succeed despite their girth, with names like Mickey Lolich, Rick Reuschel, Bartolo Colon, and David Wells coming to mind. All had excellent strikeout-to-walk ratios.
...Sabathia has managed to avoid arm troubles in his career, and over the last three years he's become extremely efficient; his 15.1 pitches per inning last year ranked 75th-highest among ERA qualifiers. On the other hand, he's coming off by far the two heaviest workloads of his career, and his only two years above 200 innings. His early 2008 problems were believed to be linked to his combined 256-inning 2007 workload extending deep into October, where he exhibited the rare struggle with his command. His combined 256 2/3 innings with an early exit in his only post-season start this year was more of the same, though at least he'll have a couple of extra weeks' rest this time around.
Concern about Sabathia's fitness for this kind of contract have nothing to do with whether his established level is good enough, but rather with how much longer he'll be able to pitch this well. Above and beyond the standard concerns that come with any pitcher — his arm, his performance, the inscrutability of player performance more than a few years out — there's the issue of Sabathia's physique. I've said repeatedly that I don't think a pitcher with Sabathia's size is a good investment. We had a great discussion about this on the BP internal list, with Jay Jaffe getting in the final word:As it stands, the deal is for seven years and $161 million, an extra year and $21 million beyond what the Yankees reportedly offered in their initial deal. Later in the day, it also emerged that the contract contains an opt-out clause: after three years and $69 million, Sabathia can choose to re-enter the market if he so desires. That didn't sit well with ESPN's Keith Law, who was the first source that I saw reporting the clause:You've already decided that Sabathia won't be a good investment due to his size (as you just wrote and as you've written before) and look to be reaching for something to support that beyond your gut instinct about his gut.Jay is correct. I cannot back up my conservative opinion of Sabathia with data, in part because Sabathia is a rare case in baseball history, an ace pitcher of his size in the prime of his career. Most heavyweight pitchers have been softer and shorter than Sabathia is, with almost no pitchers tipping the scales at Sabathia's listed 290, or whatever number pops up when he takes his physical in February. He is unique, and in evaluating him, I'm personally weighing what I know about weight's effect on the back and on joints in deciding that he's too big a risk. His performance level, durability, and athleticism argue for the signing, though I've become fond of noting that you're never signing a free agent's past. Put it all together, and what you have is an opinion — Sabathia won't be durable enough over the length of his deal to make his signing for six years or more a sensible decision — that there aren't enough facts to support.
On the face of it, no pitcher is a good investment due to the injury risk, so you're at least half right, but it's important to separate skittishness about giving a long-term contract to any pitcher from the specifics of Sabathia's case. All we really know is that Sabathia is very good now, with a strong track record of successful performance — including an impressive uptick over the past three years—and a negligible history of injuries, particularly arm injuries. Despite his immense size, he's a very good athlete, and unless I'm wrong he doesn't have any red flags regarding his delivery.
The problem for the Yankees is the so-called "opt-out clause," better understood as a player option. The Yankees gave Sabathia a three-year deal, and Sabathia then has a four-year option worth roughly $100 million. Player options are universally awful for the signing clubs: They cede control of a big portion of a team's payroll to the player, and they represent a pure downside play, since the player will choose to stay only if he isn't performing well or if he gets injured. There's never a good reason to give a player an opt-out clause, and giving a player one as long as four years is (I believe) unprecedented and (I know) a terrible idea.While I understand some of Keith's reservations, I disagree. So far as I can recall, all of the big-name players with opt-out clauses that come to mind (Alex Rodriguez, J.D. Drew, A.J. Burnett) have exercised that option when it came up because the market for annual salaries has risen faster than the general rate of inflation. It would seem to me that the likelihood of Sabathia going back to market in three years means a more favorable economic climate than the current global crisis, if nothing else.
In the first big move of the Winter Meetings in Las Vegas, the Mets on Tuesday reached agreement with free-agent closer Francisco Rodriguez on a three-year, $37 million deal.It makes a nice follow-up to the SI.com piece I did on the Mets' bullpen collapse during the season's final week, and a great gift for the disgruntled Mets fan in your life.
The signing addresses the most glaring weakness of a club that came up short of the playoffs on the final day of the season for the second year in a row. It brings the former Angels hurler, who broke Bobby Thigpen's 18-year-old single-season saves record this past year with an eye-popping 62, to the Big Apple on a shorter and much less expensive deal than he had previously sought. This is a very good deal for Mets GM Omar Minaya.
As a unit, the Mets ranked 15th in the National League and 24th in the majors in Reliever Expected Wins Added, by far the lowest ranking of any playoff contender. With 4.9 WXRL, their total would have ranked among the 10 worst of any postseason team since 1988, a year chosen to represent the dawn of the one-inning closer era. By contrast, the two pennant winners, the Rays and Phillies, led their leagues with 15.4 and 15.2 WXRL, respectively. Rodriguez's AL West-winning Angels were fourth at 13.3. None of the eight teams that made the postseason was ranked lower than 16th (Boston) this year. Having a good bullpen isn't a requirement for a playoff team, but it certainly helps.
...As for the price tag on Rodriguez, three years and $37 million sounds quite reasonable given that he turned down a three-year, $33 million deal from the Angels in the spring and entered the offseason reportedly seeking a gargantuan five-year, $75 million deal. Obviously, the current economic climate, the slow free agent market, and the relative plethora of available closer options appear to have suppressed Rodriguez's asking price.
The contract appears to be slightly below market in terms of the current big-dollar closer deals. It comes in well below the three-year, $45 million contract Rivera signed last winter in terms of its average annual value. It's on par with the three-year, $37.5 million extension Brad Lidge signed with the Phillies in July, though Lidge's deal includes a $12.5 million club option and $1.5 million buyout for the fourth year, whereas no option or other embellishment has been reported for Rodriguez's deal. It's also a shorter commitment than the four-year, $47 million extension Joe Nathan got from the Twins back in the spring and the four-year, $46 million deal pact the much less established Francisco Cordero received from the Reds last winter, to say nothing of the five-year, $47 million deal B.J. Ryan signed with the Blue Jays three years ago. As the Ryan and Wagner deals remind, it's entirely possible for a reliever to lose a year to Tommy John surgery at a cost of $10 million or more. That can wreck a team's budget in a hurry.
The short deal works both ways. It minimizes the Mets' exposure to injury risk, something that any critic of Rodriguez's violent mechanics might be relieved to see, though it's worth noting that the pitcher's springtime ankle injury led to some tweaks in his delivery that cost him a little velocity but lowered the stress on his arm, which should help him in the long run. The deal also gets the going-on-27-year-old closer back to the market sooner rather than later, with the chance at another big payday before his 30th birthday, likely in a more hospitable economic climate.
The Baseball Hall of Fame announced its 2008 Veterans Committee voting results, and for the first time since 2001, the VC—which has changed constitutions several times since then —e lected a new member to the Hall. Alas, that player was not longtime Cubs third baseman Ron Santo, who has long been touted in this space and elsewhere. Instead, it was Joe Gordon getting the call, the second baseman for the Yankees (1938-1943, 1946) and Indians (1947-1950).That's a lot of inside baseball for those of you who read this space but aren't BP subscribers, but to those who are, it's an exciting development. As for the new system, it suggests that Joe Torre, 19th century shortstop Bill Dahlen, and pitchers Wes Ferrell and Bucky Walters are worthy enshrinement. In previous JAWS articles covering the VC, I had Torre as good enough, and my spreadsheets told me Dahlen was getting a raw deal by not being nominated. Ferrell fell short on my previous analysis; I'd never evaluated Walters' case but it too fell short. In any event, it won't be until 2013 when the pre-World War II players come up again, and 2010 for the postwar players. By that time, the WARP changes will presumably be old hat.
As you may have noticed, I did not run my usual JAWS-related breakdown to preview the ballot. This had less to do with the well-deserved ennui with which I greeted this year's VC voting process after three straight oh-fers, and more to do with the timing of a development that in the long term will be very exciting for BP and its readers, but in the short term runs the risk of being extremely disorienting: we're raising the bar.
Behind the scenes at BP, Clay Davenport has been hard at work revising the Wins Above Replacement Player system, our player valuation metric that covers the entirety of baseball history. Namely, he's incorporating two major changes; first, he's raising the replacement-level floor significantly beyond that of the bottom-of-the-barrel 1899 Cleveland Spiders or a current Double-A player to conform to a more modern definition of the major league replacement level, and second, he's adding a play-by-play based fielding component for the years where it is available.
Alas, the tail end of this research and development is taking place during the chaotic and often stressful period known around these parts as "book season," where our authors and editors are slaving away on player comments for our 2009 annual. The vanguard of Clay's fielding changes are geared towards the book, and as such, the fielding side of things for the years outside of its purview is not yet ready for prime time.
This leads to an awkward situation when it comes to my 2009 Hall of Fame balloting analysis, since JAWS is based on WARP. I am eager enough to see what the new replacement level means to my system's evaluation of the candidates, but the data I am using is not yet on the DT player cards available on our site, making it impossible for readers to play along at home, and furthermore, it's still using an older version of the fielding system that will soon be replaced for the years in which we have enough play-by-play data. As such, I'm going to acknowledge out front that we're on the bleeding edge as we briefly examine the VC ballot.
Back before joining Baseball Prospectus, I spent a lengthy portion of my winters writing for my own site, The Futility Infielder, systematically exploring the Yankees' options for rebuilding in the hope of restoring their championship luster. I first did this in the winter of 2001-2002, and if you've noticed a dearth of titles since that point (or the year before it, actually), you can blame Yankee GM Brian Cashman for not taking my advice.You'll have to read the article to see how I got to that point, and no, Underpants Gnomes weren't involved. If you watched the recent Bronx Banter video series you had hints of where I could go with this, so a special thanks to BB's Alex Belth and Cliff Corcoran because we've kicked some of these ideas around at length. Additional thanks to Nick Stone and Christina Kahrl for further sounding board duty as well. And apologies to Brian Cashman for reassigning him to the mailroom, at least for a day.
My duties on the BP annuals have overtaken my attempts to remake the Yanks, but today I take the reins from Cashman and put forth my blueprint for the 2009 club. For the purposes of this exercise, I'll assume there's no turning back the clock. Colleague Joe Sheehan rightly upbraided Cashman for failing to offer Bobby Abreu and Andy Pettitte arbitration, and those decisions are in the books; I won't cheat by hitting the magic "undo" button. We move on.
...As for the price tag on this, with the Yankees moving into their new cash cow of a stadium, money is hardly their biggest concern. Even so, this is actually relatively restrained by their standards. Using the worksheet at the excellent MLB Trade Rumors, and contract data at Cot's Baseball Contracts, the 25-man roster above comes in at $189 million before the raises due Wang, Bruney, and Nady, and generously assuming straight average annual value figures for the big-ticket free agents. Right there, that's $20 million less than last year's Opening Day payroll, and even if the free agent figures creep up a million here or there, the 2009 Yankees will be cheaper than their predecessors — and hopefully more successful.
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