The Boston Red Sox suffered through a miserable 2015 season for many reasons, but not having an ace was near the top. New General Manager Dave Dombrowski moved swiftly to rectify that problem this offseason when he signed David Price. Shane Liss-Riordan has looked at how similar pitchers have fared in their 30s to determine how the veteran will do with the Red Sox.
Caveat emptor. That’s the warning everyone has heard about signing pitchers in their 30s to long free agent contracts. The Boston Red Sox seemed to be following that rule during their negotiations with Jon Lester. But this offseason, Dave Dombrowski targeted an ace, and on December 2, he got his guy: David Price, with a record setting $217 million contract for his age 30-36 seasons.
Will the Sox regret it?
To get some insight, I made a list of pitchers over the last 40 years who, like Price, pitched at an elite level in their late 20s, and checked to see how they went on to finish their careers. I defined elite as a pitcher who had a WAR of 4.5 or higher in at least two out of his three age 27-29 seasons (4.5 is the median for the 15th best WAR each season for the last 40 years which is very roughly the top 10% of qualified starters), and who showed a track record of durability and good pitching over his age 24-29 seasons (indicated by at least 20 WAR total over those years).
It’s an impressive group, headlined by current and future Hall of Famers such as Greg Maddux, Steve Carlton, Nolan Ryan, Mike Mussina, and Pedro Martinez. The list is easily divisible into three groups: 13 of the 29 pitchers remained at an elite level during their age 30-36 seasons (20 total WAR or higher); five were good (15 – 20 WAR); 12 were mediocre to bad (from 0 – 14.9 WAR.)
|Pitcher:||Age-30 Year||24-29 WAR||30-36 WAR||27-29 FIP||Pre-29 K%||29 K%|
*Removed J.R. Richard, who suffered a career-ending stroke at age 30
**List of pitchers who have either finished their careers or are older than age 36 as of 2015
An analysis of the group reveals three guidelines that help separate the good from the bad:
- Look at the trend in strikeouts. Of the bottom 17 pitchers on the list (below the empty row), over half had a downward trend in strikeout percentage in their late 20s: their age 29 rates were at least 10% worse than their previous career numbers. In contrast, only two of the 13 pitchers that maintained success after their age 29 season had a significant decline in strikeouts.
- Look at FIP, not ERA or wins. The median age 27-29 FIP for the 13 pitchers who performed the best in their 30s was 2.85; for the rest it was 3.45. It may seem obvious that FIP is the better stat, but four of the largest free agent pitching contracts ever were given to Barry Zito, Mike Hampton, Johan Santana, and Carlos Zambrano – players with great win totals and ERAs, but mediocre FIPs.
Pitcher: W-L ERA FIP Barry Zito, 2004 11-11 4.48 4.50 Barry Zito, 2005 14-3 3.86 4.34 Barry Zito, 2006 16-10 3.83 4.89 Mike Hampton, 1998 11-7 3.36 4.17 Mike Hampton, 1999 22-4 2.90 3.64 Mike Hampton, 2000 15-10 3.14 3.82 Johan Santana, 2006 19-6 2.77 3.04 Johan Santana, 2007 15-13 3.33 3.82 Johan Santana, 2008 16-7 2.53 3.51 Carlos Zambrano, 2005 14-6 3.26 3.70 Carlos Zambrano, 2006 16-7 3.41 4.14 Carlos Zambrano, 2007 18-13 3.95 4.58
- If rules 1 and 2 are met, then 30 is a favorable age. The conventional wisdom is that you’re better off investing in (or trading the farm for) a top young pitcher because you’ll be paying for the good seasons in his 20s before he hits his post-30 decline years. Although there have certainly been young, elite pitchers who went on to enjoy incredible careers, not every player lived up to his early promise. Ben Sheets, Ubaldo Jimenez, Matt Cain, Ervin Santana, Erik Bedard, Jeremy Bonderman, Tim Lincecum, Joe Blanton, Dontrelle Willis, and Josh Johnson all seemed like young aces to hitch your future to – the way that pitchers like Sonny Gray, Jose Fernandez, Noah Syndergaard, and, for the Diamondbacks at least, Shelby Miller may seem now.
Sheets had 15.6 WAR in his age 23-25 seasons; he was effectively out of baseball by the time he was 31. Jimenez had 15.0 WAR in his age 24-26 seasons, with an upward trend each year; in the five years since then he has been worth only 9.9 WAR. Cain had 12.8 WAR in his age 25-27 seasons and received a five-year, $112 million contract extension; in three years after that he has a combined WAR of only 0.9. Santana, sixth in the league in WAR with 5.6 as a 25-year old pitcher, looked like a future superstar, but in his next four years he totaled only 4.5 WAR. Bedard finished 5th in Cy Young voting as a 28-year old and was traded for Adam Jones, Chris Tillman, and George Sherrill; he had 7.2 WAR in six seasons after that. Bonderman was fifth in MLB WAR (5.6) as a 23-year old; he has 3.2 total WAR since then. Lincecum won two consecutive Cy Young awards in his age 24-25 seasons: his FIP has been in steady decline ever since to the point where he has become a replacement level starter the last two years. Blanton had a WAR of 5.3 at age 26, best in the league, but has never reached 2.5 WAR since then. Willis had already reached 16.1 WAR by age 24, but for the rest of his career, his combined WAR was only 0.6. Johnson was an All-Star as a 25- and 26-year old and signed a contract extension; he has 5.2 total WAR in five years since then.
A string of strong years for a pitcher in his late 20s may be a more reliable predictor of future success than briefly achieving top status for 1-2 years at a young age.
Out of the above list of 29, there are only four pitchers who were exceptions to these guidelines: two good, Frank Viola and Jose Rijo, and two bad, Don Sutton and Ron Guidry. Viola and Rijo maintained their strikeout percentages through their 20s and had strong FIPs, but each had Tommy John surgery in their 30s – Viola when he was 34 and Rijo when he was 30 – and were unable to fully recover from it. With recent advances in the success rate of the surgery, it’s reasonable to assume that this risk has been at least partially mitigated. Sutton and Guidry had declines of more than 20% in their strikeout rates when they were 29, but they went on to continue their success in their age 30-36 seasons.
How does David Price look in light of this list? Over the last three years – his age 27-29 seasons – Price’s strikeout percentage has surged, from 20.4% in 2013 to 25.3% in 2015. His FIP since 2013 is 2.85, sixth best in the game among pitchers who qualified for the ERA title. Additionally, he has achieved sustained success with six years in a row of 180 innings and at least 4 WAR.
Tom Werner when discussing the Price signing at the Fenway press conference said: “We know it’s a big risk. It just made sense to take this risk.” Price’s similarity to the top 13 pitchers on this list backs up Werner’s words. A pitcher performing at an elite level in his late 20s – with a track record of success, a low FIP, and a steady strikeout rate – is rare. He’s a good bet to have sustained success in his 30s and a Hall of Fame type career.