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James Shields, Adam Wainwright, and the value of workhorse innings-eaters in their mid-30s

Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Early in the offseason, there were three big-name starters on the free-agent market. While the conventional wisdom at the outset of the Hot Stove was that each would like sign a six-figure contract, this isn't to say that all three hurlers were in the same salary echelon. American League Cy Young winner and strikeout machine Max Scherzer was always on a Boarsian level unto himself. Lefty Jon Lester was a worthy target in part because his price would be less than Scherzer's (even if there's a question of how much cheaper—if at all, due to the time value of money—the Cubs' contract with Lester will be). Then there was James Shield, oft-mentioned in the same breath as Scherzer or Lester, but who thought likely to get a contract of five or six years in length, worth something on the low side of $100 million.

Time and again in the offseason's early days you would read that the first free-agent pitcher domino to fall would be Lester. The southpaw's signing would give Scott Boras something to distance himself from in the Scherzer talks that he would draw out into the new year and a benchmark for clubs to point to in Shields negotiations as a level they weren't willing to reach. The expected order in which the big names would sign, it seemed, would be Lester, Shields, and Scherzer.

Normally, when we talk about the risks of free agency, it's in the context of a club avoiding such unknown waters and the likelihood that one of the 30 major-league clubs (if not more) will drive up a player's price tag. We rarely talk about the potential for a player's market to fall apart, leaving his services to cost something less than what seemed likely in November. Yet that's exactly what happened with the man some call Big Game James.

As the winter crept slowly towards spring and Shields remained a free agent, you began to see more and more commentary that twisted what could be considered positives into negatives. Instead of talking about Shields the workhorse anchor, folks began tying his innings load to his age and pondering how long it would be until he broke down physically or saw his effectiveness wane. The point was that Shields was perhaps asking for too high a salary given the realities of pitcher mortality and his somewhat advanced age.

As such analysis proliferated, I began to pull at my collar uncomfortably. The points were at once fair and unfair. Some of them could be made about St. Louis Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright, only more so. And so they hit a bit too close to home for this Cardinals fan.

Bear with me.

Both Wainwright and Shields will pitch 2015 at the age of 33. That's a bit long in the tooth for a starter, especially one who derives a fair amount of value from munching up innings. By now, you know the Shields talking points. There was a time when totaling 200 or more innings for eight consecutive seasons would be an unassailable positive on a pitcher's résumé. Nowadays, though, the rash of pitcher injuries across the game makes some look at that number more as a ticking time bomb. The human body is not designed to throw a ball overhand thousands and thousands of times each year. It's only a matter of time until something breaks due to motion by which a pitcher makes a living.

Wainwright can't match Shields when it comes to innings pitched totals, but not for a lack of effort. Wainwright has thrown over 200 innings five times in the seven years he's been slated at the start of spring to be a member of the St. Louis rotation. In 2013, he led the league in innings pitched and that was before the Cardinals lost in the sixth game of the World Series. That deep postseason run pushed the righthander's workload to 276 2/3 innings, a level Shields has never sniffed.

The rebuttal to concerns about Shields's workload leading to injury is that the leading predictor of future injury when it comes to pitchers is past injury and Shields hasn't spent a day on the disabled list since breaking into the majors with the Rays (though he did undergo shoulder surgery as a minor-leaguer in 2002). As you know, such a clean bill of health isn't the case for Wainwright. The righthander missed a chunk of 2008 with a sprain in his throwing hand and then lost the entirety of 2011 to Tommy John surgery. Wainwright pitched most of 2014 hurt, sometimes unable to throw certain pitches due to pain in his throwing elbow. In October, Wainwright underwent a procedure to shave cartilage from the back of his throwing elbow.

Then there was the clucking about the drop in Shields's strikeout rates. Shields has seen his K% decline, from 23.6% in 2012 to 20.7% in 2013 to 19.2% last year. Wainwright has seen a similar downward trend—though, to be sure, with a fit and start—as strikeout rates MLB-wide have risen. In 2010, Wainwright struck out 23.4% of opposing batsmen. In 2011, Wainwright had his ulnar collateral ligament replaced. In 2012, he posted a 22.1 K%, 22.9% in 2013, and 19.9% last season. Here's a visual, showing the overall MLB starter K% over the last six seasons and the same for Shields and Wainwright.

Of course, Shields isn't the type of bona fide ace that Wainwright is. He is more the de facto No. 1 than "ace." Wainwright, when on the mound, is a top-tier starter. To flesh out this point, we'll use Fangraphs WAR (fWAR). Wainwright has posted 14.9 fWAR over the last three years; Shields, 12.1. Of course, that picks up after 2011, the season Wainwright lost to injury. Over the past five seasons, Wainwright has put up 20.5 fWAR to Shields's 18.3. Without pitching in 2011, Waino's five-year fWAR total is higher than Shields's.

Coincidentally enough, both 33-year-olds, with their K% decreases, are now under contract for the next four seasons.

  • The San Diego Padres signed Shields to a four-year contract worth $75 million, that could last a fifth year if the Padres exercise a $12 million club option ($1 million buyout). That's a $18.75 million average annual value.
  • You'll recall that the Cardinals and Wainwright are set to enter the second year of the five-year extension they agreed to on the cusp of the 2013 season. Wainwright has four years and $78 million remaining on his contract. Wainwright's average annual value is $19.5 million.

Even the wrapping up of the Shields free-agency punditry—the analysis of the contract—is making me think of Wainwright. Comparing the pitchers' performance and their respective deals is leaving me feeling pretty good about the Cardinals' decision to sign Wainwright to an extension (as opposed to allowing him to test the free-agent waters), even if I'm nervous about Wainwright's health. It will be interesting to see how the Padres' and Cardinals' valuation plays out for these mid-30s workhorses.