With the start of the regular season only a month away, three prominent free-agent starting pitchers are still searching for new homes. Lance Lynn, Jake Arrieta and Alex Cobb aren’t living on the streets, or scrounging for their next warm meal. But why can’t they find a job?
— Arrieta won the Cy Young in a brilliant 2015 while pitching for the Cubs. He’s averaged 200 innings (including postseason) over the past four seasons, and his 2.67 ERA ranks second in the majors over that time. Only three NL starters have more quality starts than Arrieta’s 80 since 2014. He’s made nine postseason starts. He’s 5-3 with a 3.08 ERA in nine postseason starts. When the Cubs won the World Series in 2016, Arrieta started Game1 and Game 6 and won them both, giving up three earned runs in 11.1 innings.
— Cardinals fans love Lance Lynn for his durability, intensity, competitiveness, cutting sense of humor and burly presence on the mound. Lynn thrived on hard work and grinding his way through jams. Each start had the feel of a heavyweight fight. Lynn missed the 2016 season with elbow surgery. But in his five healthy seasons as a member of the St. Louis rotation, Lynn averaged 189 innings, 32 starts, 19 quality starts, 14 wins and a 3.39 ERA. Lynn’s performance was a significant factor for a Cards rotation that ranked second in the majors in quality starts, third in ERA, and fourth for most innings pitched over six seasons (2012-2017.)
— Cobb’s profile isn’t as flashy. When compared to Arrieta and Lynn and their big-game platforms during so many successful seasons for the Cubs and Cardinals, Cobb pitched in relative quiet for Tampa Bay. He also missed nearly two full seasons (2015, 2016) with elbow problems and surgery, but made a positive comeback for the Rays last season: 29 starts, 179 innings, 12 wins, and a 3.66 ERA.
When the baseball pundits and free-agent tracker sites began to put together their lists of the top free agents going into last offseason, Arrieta, Lynn and Cobb were prominent in the rankings.
The anticipated appeal of three right-handers was summarized by MLB Trade Rumors. Arrieta was ranked second among available starters, with only Yu Darvish ahead of him. Lynn and Cobb were 4th and 5th (respectively) on the starter listings.
The predicted contracts: Arrieta 4 years, $100 million … Lynn, 4 years $56 million … Cobb 4 years, $48 million.
They’re still waiting. And multiple contending teams need a good starting pitcher.
Arrieta, Lynn and Cobb will eventually be signed … but much later than expected.
They will get paid … but not as much as anticipated.
What’s going on here? This seems to be a real mystery.
Except that it isn’t.
In retrospect, the slow pace of discussions and negotiations makes sense. We had no idea what was coming when the offseason opened for business. But here’s what no one realized at the time: this would not be business as usual. It would not become the annual free-agent bonanza, with many of the more notable players fielding preposterously excessive contract offers from crazed general managers and wild-eyed team owners.
The baseball ops departments have evolved and changed. They’re more pragmatic. More selective. More discerning. The team front offices are filled with sharp Ivy League grads and prominent business-school brains that understand player value with a helluva lot more sophistication than the old cigar-chomping GMs who prioritized ERA, batting average or intangibles. These days player agents are finding it considerably more difficult to pass idiotic, outsized, poor-value contract proposals through the front-office inspection process. The wiz kids in the analytics department will come up with projections that all but shout BAD VALUE … BAD CONTRACT … ABORT NOW… ABORT NOW … BAD CONTRACT…BAD VALUE … OPT OUT NOW …
It used to be so darn easy for agents. The GMs would sign a player based on their past accomplishments rather than make a financial assessment based on what the player will do in the future. Decline phase? Huh? What’s that?
Add in the several big-market teams have eased up to avoid the heavy penalties for exceeding the luxury-tax payroll threshold, and add in the absurd number of teams that are tanking and spending little cash …
Arrieta, Lynn and Cobb are good examples of why baseball ops staffs are more alert.
Alert to see the red flags instead of missing or ignoring them.
Let’s take a quick look at the three RH starters:
First, he’s repped by Scott Boras who always asks for the moon — actually he asks for the entire solar system — when negotiating with GMs. Boras is used to getting his requested price … $150 million, $200 million … but it’s obviously been more challenging for the best agent in the game. The smoke and mirrors and magic tricks don’t impress the wiz kids. In the end, Boras will probably return to his most reliable pitch late in the game: call Washington GM Mike Rizzo and order Rizzo to sign Arrieta.
Here’s why the smart front-office analysts are cautious: Arrieta soon will be 32 years old. His strikeout rate was 27 percent in 2015 and again in 2016. But in the last two seasons, the Arrieta K rate has slipped to 24 percent, then 23%. Arrieta’s home-run rate has worsened four consecutive years going from 0.29 per 9 innings in 2014 to 1.23 per 9 IP last season. Arrieta’s ground-ball rate is down. His swing and miss rate (via STATS LLC) was in the 25 percent range for three straight seasons until dropping to 21% in 2017. Arrieta’s velocity is going the wrong way, losing two miles per hour on his fastball and slider and nearly three mph on his sinker since his dominant 2015 Cy Young season. His slider became more hittable in 2017.
From 2014 through 2016, LH batters got owned by Arrieta, who held them to a .264 OBP, .269 SLG, and .533 OPS. But in 2017 the left-side hitters clobbered Arrieta’s sinker (.534 SLG) and punished his slider (.870 SLG.) His walk rate vs. left side bats jumped up to nearly double digits. The grim result: LH batters worked Arrieta over for a .345 OBP, .498 SLG and .843 OPS.
Arrieta also benefited from superb Cubs’ defense in past seasons. But with the CHI defense not nearly as sharp in 2017, the batting average on balls in play against Arrieta went up 37 points. Finally, take note of Arrieta’s decline in WAR over three seasons: 7.3 in 2015 … 3.8 WAR in 2016 … 2.4 WAR last season. Consider that Michael Wacha had 3.2 WAR in 2017.
The big man is one of my personal favorites. But I have to put that aside and go through some numbers…which I’ve presented several times since late in the 2017 season.
Lynn was the most fortunate starting pitcher in the majors last season; hitters had a .244 average against him on balls in play. That was the lowest BIP allowed by a starter in 2017 … and no, that’s not a positive. It’s an indicator of uncommonly good luck… and when a pitcher has the benefit of wonderful, beautiful luck it covers the disturbing trends in his pitching profile.
Lynn’s baseball-card ERA was 3.43 last season. Great! Well, no. Because his fielding independent ERA, a more accurate measure, was 4.82. And that was the fifth worst FIP among 56 qualifying starting pitchers. His home run rate nearly doubled in 2017. His strikeout rate (19.7%) was his lowest in a season. His walk rate (10.1%) was his highest in a season. That created the poorest K-BB ratio (1.96) in his career. Only three MLB starting pitchers had a worse K-BB ratio in 2017.
In his three full seasons before 2017, Lynn’s WAR ranged from 3.1 to 3.7. In 2017, that WAR declined to a career-low 1.4.
I know you don’t want to read this stuff. Go ahead and sneer and call me a stats nerd. It’s OK.
Because I like Lance Lynn as much as you do.
But I’m not a GM … and the GMs are obligated to understand the risk of signing Lynn to a long-term contract. He’ll be 31 in May. As we know, Lynn entire approach is based on fastballs. And his fastball velocity has gone down slightly in each of his last three seasons of pitching.
Cobb, like Lynn, will be 31 later this year. Cobb, like Lynn, experienced a lower strikeout rate after returning all the way from Tommy John elbow surgery. But Cobb’s strikeout rate, which peaked at 24 percent a few years ago, plummeted to 17 percent last season. (WARNING.)
Cobb’s defenders will say: give the dude a break, after missing two seasons it was unreasonable to expect him to be at his best in 2017. OK, fine. He pitched decently enough in 2017 after being away for two years (except for five starts in 2016.) But it’s also true that Cobb’s home park, Tropicana Field, was a good yard for him. A protective shelter. His road ERA (4.72) was telling. Teams that have a home-run derby setting at home — hello, Milwaukee! — should proceed with caution.
The slash line against Cobb at Tropicana Field last season: .211 / .255 / .351 for a .605 OPS. And he gave up only 9 homers in 308 at-bats
Now, the slash line vs. Cobb on the road: .289 /.343 / .449 for a .792 OPS … and 13 homers in 381 at-bats.
Cobb’s ground-ball rate dropped by 8 percent in his first season back from the elbow misery.
Arrieta, Lynn and Cobb would be good buy-low risks for a team’s rotation. If an interested GM could get one of them on two-year contract (three tops) without a monster annual salary, then it’s probably worth a shot. But their agents have some work — and convincing — to do.
I apologize because this piece was too long … but if you got to this final sentence thank you very much for reading it.