Nationals Baseball: Analysis in Action

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Analysis in Action

The Nats are going to be hard pressed to "win" this Scherzer deal. Such is how it goes with long term deals. You don't hope to have a guy perform up to his salary each year. Instead you hope to get enough value on the front end so it balances the value you lose on the back end (and you secretly hope real world inflation/baseball salary inflation makes your deal look better).  What we are looking for from Scherzer is really 3-4 very good to great years, plus 2 or so middling ones, followed by one or two bad ones. That would be the most reasonable scenario. 

But what can we really expect from Scherzer? That's hard to say. You don't have access to an infinite number of dimensions to test out Scherzer theories and while I do, I have better things to do with that power. Instead we'll have to look at comparables to Scherzer and kind of guess at how he'll do based on how they did. Which brings us to pitches.

One of the notes I heard about the process that brought Scherzer to the Nats had Boras telling Lerner that despite the high number of innings pitched, Scherzer hasn't worked that hard. He used the number of batters faced to show he really wasn't Top 5 in burden, more like Top 20. Boras of course is spinning a half-truth to favor his client. It's his job. He's right it's not innings that we should be looking at, but its not batters faced either. Both are proxies for what we are really interested in, the number of pitches thrown. That tells you how much work a pitcher has really had and with Scherzer, that number is pretty high.

I started the analysis there, Scherzer is a good pitcher that throws a lot of pitches. What do those people look like in their early to mid 30s? At first I looked at pitchers who threw over 10000 pitches over any 3 season period. The good thing is that this also tends to subset down to good pitchers. You don't get to throw the number of innings necessary to throw that many pitches if you are doing poorly.  What did I find? Not much good, but enough noise that I didn't feel good saying any one thing. So I narrowed the analysis. What I was really interested were those pitchers that threw that many pitches in the periods ending in their 28th and 29th years, like Scherzer has. What did I find now?

For those looking at it the legend is as follows
Black : DNP
Stripes : Started fewer than 28 games
Red : Had an ERA+ of under 100.
"X" or "YYYY" : Ended a 3 yr period with 10000 pitches or more
Heavy Black Borders / Gray : 2014 / Years that haven't happened yet

Anyway what we see is a mess. Almost none of these guys produced a fully useful year (100+ ERA+ with at least 28 starts) after the age of 31. Very few even produced one good pitching year of any number of starts after 31. A few were out of baseball within a couple years. If there is any good news to glean from this chart it's that most of these guys had more use than Scherzer prior to age 28 and the most comparable guy usage wise, Roy Oswalt, while done at 33, would come closest to giving the Nats what they want from Scherzer. Three good years and one good but injured one before being claimed by the baseball gods.

(Why did I stop at 35? Because when I started looking at this I thought anything that happens after 35 really can't be linked to arm abuse. Of course now I'm like should have just went to 36 because that's where Scherzer's contract ends but whatever. Too late now)

There are two big problems though thinking about the analysis. One is of course small sample size. Nothing I can do about that. The second it doesn't help answer the question - Scherzer over Zimmermann. Zimmermann is an extremely efficient pitcher who is not throwing over 10000 pitches. Does that make him a better bet to pitch well into his mid 30s? Or is it just that all pitchers crash and burn and you are rolling the same dice with any contract?

So I changed the conditions a bit for easier subsetting, using 13333 pitches from age 26-29 and an ERA+ of at least 100 during that time (Scherzer is only 117 mind you). That loses Lincecum and Livan from the above and adds Aaron Harang, Jon Lester, James Shields and Javy Vazquez. OH! Another thing to note - these data are only from 2000 on. That's what BRef has for pitches - How does that change the interpretation of the pitching group? It makes it slightly more favorable to have a decent age 32 year, but after that you are pretty much dead.

How did the other group do, the under 13333 pitches from 26-29 and and ERA+ over 100 (112 starts as a guideline - the ones where the color coding starts at 30 never had any 10000 3 year periods)

What we found was mostly the same thing. Ages 30 and 31 were coin flips. Some guys got injured. Some pitched poorly. Others were fine. At age 32 though things changed quickly and for the worse. However this group didn't completely die out like the other group in the 33-35 age range. For the right pitcher you could in fact still do well right into your mid 30s.

What's the conclusion? Well there isn't any. One of the strangest things about this whole process (other than realizing Edwin Jackson is only 31) is James Shields. For nearly all pitchers when they threw a ton of pitches over the course what amounts to 5 years around age 31 something bad happened. They got bad. They got injured. Something. But Shields ended up starting having these pitch burdens at age 29 and has kept them going right on through last season with no noticeable effect on his results. He did start a little later than most, and maybe he'll blow up next year but if he doesn't he'll really be an outlier doing something no other pitcher had done in the past 15 seasons. The point of that tidbit is there are outliers. There always will be outliers. Nothing can be said with 100% certainty espeically not with this kind of comparison work. (though I can break out some small-sample categorical analysis tests if you really want to find out if these groups are statistically significantly different)

Anyway I'm skirting around though what the question really is, what do I think? Well I'd say this. I'm not very hopeful that Scherzer will give the Nats any value past age 32. The above is a work in progress of course as some of these other pitchers Verlander, Lester, Greinke, etc. work into their mid 30s but looking at 50 or so pitchers during this whole analysis made it clear that pitching well in your mid 30s is hard enough given any amount of work. When you give someone a large workload, it becomes nearly impossible.

I do not see any reason though that we can't reasonably hope that if his workload is decreased and he's not already hurt, that he can pull a career like Oswalt did. I think frankly that would be pretty much on target for expectations from this contract.

Looking at all this, I'm not loving the deal no. I think from what he'll do on the mound, it's tough to see Scherzer give value back for the Nats on this deal. BUT that's only part of whether it's a good deal. The other part is whether they can win a series with Scherzer and he's probably got as good a shot as any arm at being healthy for the next 2 years which right now is what we care about.

As for the ZNN vs Scherzer - well this is just another piece of gold on Scrooge McDuck's side of the huge wealth measuring scales ("Scherzer's a better long term deal" people are obviously the Flintheart Glomgolds of the world). I imagine if the data wasn't skewed to get those that pitched a lot until age 29 we'd see that age 29 seasons are like age 30 and 31, maybe a tiny bit better. Meaning that you have a decent chance of getting a good year at that age. Given the real world age difference between ZNN and Max you are almost getting a year younger player for the contract. That favors ZNN giving you more good years right off the bat.  Add to that the fact that the "not heavy workload in their late 20s" group has Hudson, Lee, and Buehrle all successful into their mid 30s while the "heavy" has... well no one right now and you get a feeling that while it isn't likely, that ZNN does have a much better shot of being good through most of the next contract than Scherzer does.(those that don't think that at this point have to be literally draped over "Tommy John" hanging onto it for dear life)

There you go - my thoughts. Collect your own. Trade them with your friends.


BooyahSuckah! said...

This has nothing to do with health, but a similar topic... how well will Scherzer actually pitch for the Nats, in the NL, and in Nats Park? I posted at the very end of the last comment thread, but it was this morning, so I figured I'd repost it here.

cass said...

I had already posted that on a previous comment thread, actually. It's interesting, but it's still, frankly, insane to sign Scherzer before locking up Zimmermann and Strasburg. If you care about having a solid core for years to come, anyway.

I don't think it even makes sense to sign Scherzer before Desmond cause we need help in our infield more than our starting rotation. And Desmond isn't even close to a sure thing long term.

Oh well. Just crossing my fingers that we sign them all. At least Harp, Zimm, and Strasburg. I know we won't, but that's insane.

We need a discussion about the important ramifications of this trade, though, like who wears 37 and who starts opening day. (Kidding!) (Mostly.)

Harper said...

BS - I don't think it's crazy to think he'll come in and challenge for the Cy, if he's healthy. I'd quibble with the slow decline. The Tigers weren't always terrible on D and the Nats are getting to be overrated. (The OF D could be really be bad this year, just bad and it ain't getting better)

cass - Desmond... oh Desmond. WHy can't you be a sure thing. Why must you be a ticking time bomb who looks to implode into crap at any moment?

blovy8 said...

Absent actually knowing the realistic prospect of signing Zimmerman to an extension instead (I happen to think a similar value deal would have been easily possible), I think the point is, the other options at middle infield in a trade are so much worse or costly, and viable free agents coming here so unlikely, that spending on Desmond seems like a much better gamble than Scherzer. But there are decent odds that his downward trend continues to the point where you'd rather go glove-first with Escobar and hope for enough offense at other positions to make up for it. The trouble with that idea is it requires more from Zimmerman, Werth, etc. than they can reasonably promise. Rendon and Harper are the key guys. I'm starting to think Ramos has taken an aggressive turn that he won't adjust from in the near future if the continuation of last year and fall league numbers say anything. He can't be counted on for 120-130 games a year as would befit a guy worth an extension either. Where's Desmond's power coming from in 2016, or at least his offensive value? I don't think the plan is completed by making sure your sixth starter is better than everyone else's fifth starter.

John C. said...

FWIW, Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs is more optimistic about this deal than you are, Harper:

The money quote: "The long and short of it being, the Nationals aren’t getting a bargain with this, but the deal isn’t absurd. For what he is, Scherzer’s about as sure as you get."

Wally said...

Miracle Max v. Znn v. Stras.

Look, I don't know. Kind of can't know. But here's the thing: the Nats have access to better data than us, they are intimately familiar with the players, they are negotiating with all three (maybe, kinda). And Rizzo wants to win, more than us since he gets paid big bucks.

So, my question to you (Harper) is, why did he pick Miracle Max? This isn't Ned Colletti or RAJ that we're talking about, he is generally been good at talent appraisal.

What didn't he believe about your data set?

Harper said...

blovy8 - Trea Turner! I think right now the hope is Bryce turns a corner into superstar land and helps negate loss of Desmond. The "Nats don't need offense" people are right. The Nats don't need offense in 2015. But 2016 (minus Desmond and Span) and 2017 (minus Ramos) with Werth aging that's when you need offense. Perhaps they have a FA/trade plan though.

John C - the comps are interesting. personally I don't like using WAR if you are going to use the IP subset too. WAR factors in IP. Use something else to figure out "good". Have to look at it some more thinking about that.

Wally - Boras convinced Lerner. Rizzo probably saw there wasn't going to be a convincing for ZNN and they needed someone. 3 good years & pray - are you getting better than that with someone else the Lerner's will sign?

Donald said...

Harper -- how much is a WS win worth? If the Nats win in 2015 because of Scherzer, does that change the math. I'm assuming on top of whatever revenue that generates in the year they win, it also increases revenue for some number of subsequent years.

I know it's a gamble since the playoffs are such a crapshoot, but if this move increases their odds by 10% and the value of actually winning is huge, maybe that's a factor?

cass said...

I don't think it increases their odds of winning by anything near 10%.

They're almost certainly gonna win the division with or without Sherzer. So little difference there. Then we got the playoffs. Assuming there are tons of off days like before, they need three or four starters. How much better is Sherzer than Fister or Gio?

Not anywhere close to enough better to warrant a 10% better chance of winning the World Series, I'd imagine. Maybe 1%? 2%?

Our problem in last year's NLDS (against the eventual champions) was hitting, not pitching. Our pitching was actually quite good. If anyone other than Harper or Rendon had produced, we would've won that series and maybe gone all the way. Funny how it's the two youngest guys who did the best after a long season.

Just my two cents on the matter.

blovy8 said...

Turner hasn't even had an atbat in AA and some people want to turn him into a 2B already because of his arm. All I was talking about is 2016 really. You stand to lose about 20 homers going from Desmond to Escobar. And you've got your 2B hole unless Turner is Robbie Alomar or someone at least in spitting distance of him by then. I hope they're not done figuring out 2015.

There are plenty of warning signs for the offense. All you need are two loogies in the bullpen with breaking ball to neutralize Harper in the last four innings, since he's the only LH in the lineup with power.

Going from LaRoche to Zim costs you homers but I guess maybe a slight gain in overall offensive terms, but I'd also have counted on a bit more durability from ALR, so yay, more Tyler Moore! Plus, he'll likely acquire those pesky back injuries 1B's seem to attract, a new spot to entertain the trainers!

It will fall to Desmond to be the biggest power threat again, and a rising K rate tells you he can be pitched to more easily than ever. Do you expect 141 ops+ from 36-yr old Werth again, and for how many games? Even though I stuck up for Span last year, I don't expect that much from him again. Ramos has stopped taking pitches and his numbers nosedived even though it doesn't look terrible overall yet - I think there's a problem there that will need fixing, and it's not like hamstring injuries aren't the gift that keeps giving, you'll see lots of Lobaton. Escobar has been no one's idea of an offensive juggernaut probably since he was a Brave, but I know that all he has to do is be better than Espinosa to satisfy most and he's gonna bat 8th. But maybe he's not even as good a hitter as Cabrera, he certainly hasn't shown the power or even the baserunning. Unless, as you say, Harper takes a step forward and becomes the 140 ops guy that he should be and that Werth really isn't, who's going to be better to make up for this? Rendon is pretty good now, how much more can he give?

blovy8 said...

Also, the Nats "didn't need starting pitching" this season either. They needed a 2B and got a shortstop. I think that would be like moving Span to left so Taylor can play center and Harper can play right to start the season. Not what you really feel is "finished".

blovy8 said...

Have to agree with Cass. What they'll have is on hell of a shutdown bullpen. But I do think having Zim will help, if he gets there healthy enough. I don't buy all the clutchy stuff, but that guy loves to bat with the game on the line, it's all you can ask.

Anonymous said...

It's difficult to evaluate this deal out of context. I don't think it is a question of "buy Max or extend JZnn." Let's look at a not-too-unlikely scenario. They've been trying hard to sign JZnn for several years now. Management is clearly willing to spend, yet no deal is made. Management have proven to be smart, creative, and I believe highly motivated negotiators. I believe they wanted/want to keep JZnn but can't. It seems at least possible that they have tried everything. Why can't they sign JZnn? Theories abound, including the belief that he is committed to testing FA, or is hoping to land something in the midwest, etc., whatever the reason, the deal is not happening.

So, if you CAN'T resign JZnn and you're facing uncertainty with Fister and then Stras, you've got some big decisions to make. Beg them to stay, hope the young arms can make up for it, etc., or (but not limited to) grab an ace and insulate yourself against the uncertainty.

It also makes sense to evaluate this signing in the context of ongoing trading and dealmaking. It seems to me this signing does create some flexibility in crafting trades and sends a statement that the Nats are serious about being contenders and will not crumble if (no, when) they lose JZnn.


Matt said...

blocy8 - Never a good idea to be within spitting distance of Robbie Alomar!

cass said...

I find it hard to believe Zimmermann wouldn't have taken this deal. He's said he'd love to stay for a fair deal. I have to think this amount of dollars would've gotten it done.

Mark twain said...

There is no way ZNN turned down this deal I don't care how much he wants to play for a Midwest team. The fact is ZNN was not offered this and probably not even what Lester got. In the short term this helps us just not worth 15 million a year.
The nats had the consensus best rotation already this year so why not pay those already in the rotation and sign Sandoval. Yes Pablo is not a great regular season player but unlike the rest of our lineup he shows up in October.
I am encouraged that we are spending cash, but this seemed like throwing money away to me
Harper I heard a rumor that Lerner is going to spend so he can get a title before he dies is there any truth to this

Bjd1207 said...

I think JZimm would have declined the contract that Max Scherzer signed. But it's got nothing to do with him not thinking it's fair value (and our opinions on the fair value is even more irrelevant).

He would not have taken it because I doubt he would have wanted (or possibly was not offered) the deferred salary. Like I said, I expect that Scherzer made it very clear in the meetings that he's done after this contract. And he wanted the deferred option as a pretty hefty pension. JZimm on the other hand would be looking to continue pitching after the duration of this contract (both because of age and if he doesn't yet have a ring on his finger). So from that fangraphs piece, a similar value contract spread evenly over the 7 years would be $24M/year or 7/$168M.

If you're (collective you) contention is that the Nats management did not offer him a contract worth 7/$168M then I agree the fault is with the Nationals.

What I believe is more likely is that a contract in that value range was offered to him in November and again in December, and he declined as he saw what Lester got ($25M avg value, and FRONTloaded) and the rest of the market began to shape up. He wanted a contract worth more than 7/168M (in whatever form) and we weren't willing to offer that.

Then you'd have to prove that JZimm would be X amount BETTER than Scherzer to justify Y dollars above the 7/$168M contract. And that's where I can't be convinced. Seeing so much SABR speculation for both guys over the last 3 days has left my brain mush. I'm now in "wait and see" mode both with what we do with JZimm and comparing him vs. Scherzer over the next 5-7 years

Chinatown Express said...

I was on the fence about this signing until a few minutes ago when I typed "Scherzer" into my phone, which autocorrected it to "a geezer."


Max said...

Anon/BJD- I agree with you both. I don't think the JZIMM extension can quite work because he won't do the deferred payment. Maybe Ted doesn't give a shit about the last 7 years of Max's payout because of his age/inflation. I think (giving up on the idea that they will sign everyone), my dream scenario is keep JZIMM this year, trade Fister for some prospects, and extend Stras this year or next.

This gives you Stras, Scherz, Gio, Roark for the foreseeable future, with AJ Cole/Giolitto coming up. And it gives you JZIMM, Scherz, Stras for the 2015 playoffs (and give Gio a nod if he's pitching well, but only if).

Regarding Desmond, I've always thought he's a ticking time bomb for 2 years now, but he hasn't blown up. I wish we could extend him (even if he does blow up, he's still probably a top 10 guy), but that's looking less likely each day. Span is probably gone too with age and wanting to give Taylor a shot... Hopefully Ramos rebounds and extends too.

I really hope we extend Strasburg. He's a big reason why I started watching baseball on a daily basis again... Either way, here's to a fun 2015!

Harper said...

Donald - I'm not sure but it's something and I'm sure they factored it into their calcs when deciding on this move.

Donald / cass - cass is right no way this improves their chances more than a few percent. Not that that's a bad thing

cass - it was hitting but unfortunately Boras didn't represent a killer 2B. I tweeted it earlier but Jay Z stealing Cano may have possibly cost the Nats him (on some sort of 25 year deal...)

blovy8 - The offense has a ton of variability it could legitimitely slide from maybe best in NL all the way to slightly below average without adding in any crazy injuries. Yes the Offense was good last year but a lot went right and no much went wrong.

I'm more worried about the D though.

Everyone else - I think both are true. I don't think the Nats offered Zimm this deal - or even the equivalent. Look at what they are really paying scherzer for those first 7 - 105 right? I really think that they "stretched" for those 7 years like 130 or so. Didn't even think of the deferred contract for ZNN. That being said I think if they did offer it he wouldn't have taken it.

really we have no idea but I think the fact we didn't see a deal revealed (like we did for Ian) meant it wasn't fair (and that ZNN doesn't really care because he wants to leave anyway)

Anonymous said...

So, is Scherzer's contract guaranteed every year no matter what? I mean does all he have to do is show up and he gets paid? There must be more to this than a Dan Haran-esque kind of deal for 14 years, no?

Donald said...

@Harper / cass -- THe 10% I mentioned was just as an example. It probably is less, though if the Nats keep all of their pitchers, it means that Scherzer is effectively replacing Gio in the post-season rotation. Gio has a tendency to get flustered. How much more would you rather have Scherzer out there on the mound in a must-win game than Gio? How much more does he increase the Nats odds of winning that one game?

Strasburger said...

Have to get back to commenting (even in the off season) when an acquisition like this happens.

Did we need Scherzer? No.

Will he help the team win now. Almost definitively yes.

You have to remember this guy threw a 2.90 in the AL. That is impressive. I think he will be making more guys fan in the NL, especially when he is on the Nats with our terrible division.

Harper I'm surprised you are so complacent (even given the data) when you've seen an age 30 pitcher in our rotation actually get better with age (Doug Fister) and get markedly better in his move to the NL.

I think we will keep the whole band together for one year, and make a run at it. If it doesn't work out, I'm hardly heartbroken at Jordan leaving because if Stephen develops into the guy he should with his stuff we won't miss him, and JZ has made it very clear he doesn't exactly love DC.

Also, we need to stop acting like this is a back-breaking financial deal for the Nats. Yeah we'll have a long term liability, no doubt about that, but of $15 mil a year (at today's values), who cares? We need to stop thinking like the Lerner's and start looking at the bigger picture; the Lerner's are extremely frugal and have gotten lucky with their farm system in the past 10 years. This team is still far from being a big hitter financially, even though it easily could be. Just remember this team DOES have a lot of money to throw around, which is almost always the price of winning consistently.

Scherzer was a good move. hell be good for four years, and then he'll still be good enough to be a 3-4 starter at which point we wont care. He's also incredibly durable from an injury standpoint, which is invaluable. I'm excited that Rizzo is at least going all in.

Strasburger said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

As an obnoxious homer through and through, I love this piece by Schoenfield

Nick said...

I can't help but think of old Bobby Bonilla when I heard about this contract. 7 year deals for pitchers in their 30s just seems silly to me

blovy8 said...

I definitely can't wrap my head around two seven-year deals happening with the way the minor league pitching depth chart looks, so yeah, Zimmermann is gone after this year. But why should we assume it has to take Boras to put this kind of idea in their head? If they were serious about re-signing Zimmermann, the Nats could be just as creative with him, and have the advantage of controlling his salary this year - essentially it could be an eight-year deal. I don't think anyone's going to give him that in 2016, given the potential competition. That takes the risk out of his hands, as in what if he gets hurt or pitches worse? Right now, I'd say Price is better, and Cueto is as good. If Greinke opts out of his deal, you know it'll be for more $$$, so he'll get it. Maybe he should slot above guys like Samardzija, Latos, Porcello, Iwakuma, Gallardo, etc. who can be had for less, but that's a risk based on maintaing this level of success. Could be more international pitchers around to knock down his suitors, too.

If similar value was offered in a normal contract like 7/175 with some backloaded, I think he was a fool not to take it. The guy's already had one TJ, I can definitely see the Nats valuing health over age at a certain point. Of course, the easier answer would be he wasn't offered any such thing.

Harper said...

Anon - as far as we know, yes. 15 million a year until Bryce Harper is an old man.

Donald - that one game itself might actually be 10% the way you describe it. (even if you like Scherzer 20% more - one pitcher performance isn't everything) But it's just one game in a series.

Strasburger - Fister got big-time lucky last year. Doesn't mean he isn't good but I'd be more surprised with an ERA under 3.00 than one that jumps a whole run.

I like Scherzer. He as good a bet as any one not named Clayton Kershaw to be good for the next two year. After that it's not that I don't like him, just that I'd like ZNN better but a lot can happen in two years.

You do hit on a key though. With Max here, it doesn't matter if ZNN goes. It doesn't matter if Stras goes. But it DOES matter if both go.

Anon - 100 wins or bust!

blovy8 said...

Y'know, if this pitch clock thing happens, they're gonna regret letting Fister and Zimm leave. Just sayin'.

Bilbo said...

I'd have to disagree on the offense and on Sherzer. First, Zimmerman missed pretty much most of the year last year. LaRoche (who I miss both for his clubhouse presence and lefty bat) was streaky. When he was going good - great. When he wasn't - see last year's playoffs. Second, we had Espinosa play a good chunk of the year at second and Cabrera started off hot and fizzled at the end of the year and the playoffs. Also, am I the only one that thinks him getting thrown out of the extra inning game and thus getting Williams thrown out of the game was essentially the end of any chance he had of staying with the Nats?? Werth's shoulder injury hurt his production at the end of the year - see playoffs. Harper missed a good chunk of the year and came on in the playoffs. Desmond was not great last year. I watched probably 140 games last year. Desmond is a great leader and clubhouse guy, but last year he struck out A LOT. He pretty much only hit mistakes with power. Ramos was his usual injured self. I think his hand wasn't right the rest of the year and thus swinging early in counts. Having said all of that the Nats won 96 games. They lost to the Giants bc they couldn't hit a beachball. They also lost because they lost their composure multiple times. LaRoche throwing home, Gio's circus act in game 4, etc.

I like the Sherzer deal. I think it protects against Zmnn leaving and maybe Fister. I think it helps make Strasburg a better pitcher. I bet you right now that Strasburg throws that slider again next year. Read the article by Richard Justice on Sherzer always trying to get better. "If you're not trying to improve then you're already getting worse". Plus I think Znn had zero intention of signing an extension. Who can blame him.

John C. said...

FWIW, apparently Jayson's shoulder didn't affect him until the playoffs, because his SLG in August and September were .520 and .479 (his second and third best months of the season) and his OPS for each month was .944 and .957.

Hm. Or maybe he just got BABIP'd in a short series.