With the exception of the shocking Miami Marlins trade and a few relatively small signings, the first few weeks of MLB's offseason have been relatively quiet so far.
However, because baseball is flush with cash thanks to new media deals that double MLB's yearly take from national television, many teams won't be in the mood to be stingy. When baseball's executives descend upon Nashville in two weeks for the winter meetings, enough zeroes and commas will be bandied about to wear out computer keyboards. One of this year's big prizes, Zack Greinke, stands well positioned to benefit from the flow of dollars.
That Greinke is headed for a big payday is no surprise to anyone paying attention, but the question is, just how much is the 29-year-old worth, and how much he can get? A close look at his numbers reveals a pitcher who is as good as any other in baseball and could end up being the bargain of the winter. Allow me to explain.
One of the X factors surrounding Greinke has to do with his ERA, which hasn't been at the level of an elite pitcher the past few years. After a 16-8, 2.16 season for the Royals that netted Greinke a well-deserved Cy Young Award in 2009, his run-prevention statistics just haven't been anywhere near that level. Nobody's going to send a pink slip to a pitcher with 41 wins and a 3.83 ERA over three years, but on the surface, those aren't typically the stats of a pitcher you break the bank for. Greinke's 3.83 ERA, when compared to league average, comes to an ERA+ of only 106, a number more typically seen from a weak No. 2 starter rather than an ace.
According to ZiPS, Greinke will remain an elite starter over the next six years.
Year ERA IP BB K WAR
2013 3.42 200.0 50 187 4.7
2014 3.36 198.1 48 185 4.8
2015 3.40 193.1 47 179 4.6
2016 3.48 178.1 43 165 4.1
2017 3.55 156.2 41 155 3.7
2018 3.56 145.0 39 146 3.4
Advanced statistics, however, tell a different story. Of the 116 pitchers with 500 innings over the past five years, Greinke's FIP -- which is scaled to ERA and focuses on strikeouts, walks and other things a pitcher can control -- ranks sixth in baseball (3.05), a figure more in line with someone you could consider an ace.
While FIP and similar peripheral-based statistics are very useful predictive tools, it's one thing to play armchair GM when discussing Greinke and another thing to be using your own money when trying to prove Greinke's FIP provides a more accurate description of his abilities.
Over a long career, external factors that affect a pitcher's statistics will usually even out to an extent, but over a five-year period, you can't count on simply hoping that everything came out on the wash. Enter Greinke.
He hasn't played for random teams over the past half-decade, he's (mostly) played for the Kansas City Royals and Milwaukee Brewers, teams with two of the worst defenses in baseball during that time. Over those five years, by UZR, Greinke's defenses have been 87 runs worse than league average, helping explain some of the discordance between his basic and advanced stats. With league-average defenses, one would expect an extra 0.1 improvement in Greinke's ERA, nearly one-third of the difference between 3.05 FIP and 3.39 ERA over the past five years.
His bullpens have also not generally not done him any favors. Milwaukee had a solid 'pen in 2011, but outside of that season, Greinke's bullpens have generally been abysmal. From the distributions of Greinke's runners, I estimate that a league-average bullpen would have stranded 14 more of Greinke's runners, and his average bullpen had an ERA a half-run per game worse than league-average, enough to inflate his ERA by 0.15 more.
Given simply ordinary support, Greinke's five-year ERA improves from 3.39 to 3.14, just a hair worse than his 3.05 FIP.
What Greinke's disappointing ERA -- relatively speaking, of course -- means is that he ends up undervalued by the market. Assuming $4.9 million for a marginal win on the free-agent market and 5 percent growth a year (actually conservative as MLB has tended to beat that figure), ZiPS projects the retail price of Greinke's performance to be $118 million over six years in a neutral park. Insider's Jim Bowden projects Greinke to get $117 million over six years, which is right in line with that projection. However, it's much less money than pitchers like Cole Hamels (six years, $144 million) and Matt Cain (six years, $127.5 million) received in the past year, and Greinke is every bit the pitcher they are.
Extra wins are most valuable to teams in the 80-90 win range, as each win added significantly increases the odds of making the playoffs, and a team in that position can find good reason to pay Greinke even more.
Signing Greinke would be a coup for a team such as the Baltimore Orioles or Los Angeles Angels, two teams in tough divisions that have gaping holes in their rotations. Fortune favors the bold, and giving Hamels-type money to Greinke would be bold. Money comes and goes, but flags fly forever.