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Evaluating the Free Agent Starting Pitching Market

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The big name isn’t likely to land in St. Louis, but the market offers several alternatives

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Minnesota Twins Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

As we stand on the brink of the off-season, the Cardinals have three-fifths of their 2019 rotation under contract for 2020. That trio includes ascendant ace Jack Flaherty, everyone’s favorite charitable lizard consuming control artist Miles Mikolas, and groundball machine Dakota Hudson. Depending on what happens with Adam Wainwright, Carlos Martínez, and the copious depth options, that leaves up to two rotation slots to be filled. The good news is that a glut of free agent starting pitchers should provide the Cardinals with ample options. Let’s take a look at what will be out there.

Of 170 starting pitchers who threw at least 50 innings as starters last season, up to 30 of them could be free agents. Nine of those 30 have player or club options or opt-outs, meaning there will be at least 21 free agent starters. Note that I’m also excluding Corey Kluber, whose team option will surely be picked up. Gerrit Cole is the big name, the player everyone will want. To be sure, pitchers like Cole don’t reach free agency often. Including Cole, there are five free agents with 3+ fWAR in 2019; nine others between 2 and 3 fWAR; and potentially three more over 3 fWAR, each with either a team or club option. With so many options, what is a general manager to do?

We can simplify this a bit. If nothing else, we want starters who do two things well. They should miss a lot of bats, which we’ll gauge using swinging strike percentage. Also, we want pitchers who avoid loud contact. To measure that, we’ll look at barrel percentage on balls in play. I’m doubtful it holds up to a lot of scrutiny, but those two data points correlate to FIP-minus with an r-squared of .62375 (adjusted r-squared of .61925) for this year’s 170 starters. It’s not the best explanation for performance, but it’s a solid starting place. How do the 21 free agents and nine potential free agents fare? Note that while Kluber is excluded, I’ve left in Jose Quintana. In full disclosure, I’d be shocked if the Cubs don’t pick up his option. If you’d rather, just pretend he’s not there.

All starting pitchers are represented, with non-free agents in gray, free agents in red, and team/club option or opt-out players in brown. You want to be in the bottom right of this scatterplot- more swinging strikes, less loud contact allowed. The top left portion is what you want to avoid. The names alone in each quadrant should give you a pretty good idea of where it’s best to appear on the graph.

Cole is obviously the big door prize, with Darvish and Strasburg not too far behind should they opt-out. From there, you’ll see a trio of Twins (or would they be called triplets?)- Jake Odorizzi, Kyle Gibson, and Michael Pineda. At the top, Chris Archer could make for a fascinating rehab project if the Pirates don’t exercise his option. The same is true for a fourth Twin, Martin Perez, if the club doesn’t exercise his option. Given the impressiveness of his arsenal, you’d like to see more swinging strikes out of Zack Wheeler but his overall combination of suppressed barrels and swinging strikes is a pretty good starting place.

Let’s look at one more factor. Ideally, you want pitchers who are gaining velocity rather than losing it. Even one mile per hour gain can produce significant results. Here are our free agents, along with the net gain or loss on their four-seam fastball velocity in 2019, and their rank- among all 170 starters- in velocity gain. Pineda didn’t pitch enough innings in 2018 to qualify, and Arietta’s four-seam usage is extremely limited. As such, you won’t see them here. Team/player options and opt-outs are represented with an asterisk.

Four-Seam Fastball Velocity Gain in MPH, 2019

Pitcher Velo Gain Velo Gain Rk
Pitcher Velo Gain Velo Gain Rk
Hyun-Jin Ryu 2.4 2
Martin Perez* 2.4 3
Jake Odorizzi 1.6 9
Gerrit Cole 1.3 11
Rich Hill 1.3 12
Jhoulys Chacin 1.1 15
Zack Wheeler 1.1 18
Adam Wainwright 1.1 21
Kyle Gibson 0.9 25
Madison Bumgarner 0.7 29
Tanner Roark 0.6 41
Homer Bailey 0.1 56
Chris Archer* 0.1 58
Cole Hamels 0 61
Andrew Cashner* 0 63
Jose Quintana* -0.1 68
Julio Teheran* -0.2 70
Michael Wacha -0.4 78
Gio Gonzalez -0.5 85
Matt Harvey -0.5 88
Ivan Nova -0.6 92
Rick Porcello -0.7 96
Wade Miley -0.9 104
Yu Darvish* -1 107
Brett Anderson -1 111
Stephen Strasburg* -1.1 113
Dallas Keuchel -1.4 116
Jason Vargas* -2.3 125

Apparently, first-year Twins pitching coach Wes Johnson is quite a master at extracting additional velocity out of pitchers. Perez, Odorizzi, and Gibson all rank among the top 25 velocity gainers this year. None of them have elite or even above average velocity, either before or after their Wes Johnson makeover, but it was enough for Odorizzi and Perez to shave approximately a full run off of their FIP. Gibson’s FIP improvement would have been similar if not for an elevated HR/FB%. Adding to the Twintrigue, Odorizzi grew up in suburban St. Louis, while Kyle Gibson grew up in central Indiana and attended Mizzou.

As for red flags, Vargas- if there was ever any interest to begin with- has lost velocity, and Keuchel also slipped. Technically Darvish and Strasburg lost some horsepower, but it clearly didn’t hurt their results.

We can continue to nitpick individual options, but the larger point here is that there’s something for everyone in this market. There is at least one huge name, possibly three. There are barrel suppressors- Wade Miley and Martin Perez. There are swinging strike monsters like Cole, possibly Strasburg and Darvish, and even Kyle Gibson. There are plenty who combine both skills like Zack Wheeler and Hyun-Jin Ryu. They were interested in Wheeler as recently as July, and the thought of him pitching in front of the Cardinals defense instead of the Mets could finally unlock front of the rotation results for him.

We’ll see how the FanGraphs crowdsourced contracts look for these players soon enough, but there will surely be budget options. It’s doubly true given the high volume of options on the market, which could cool off dollars for the mid-range options. The agents for the three Twins, Wheeler, and even a Frankenstein’s monster version of Homer Bailey, fixed in Oakland, are all phone calls the Cardinals should make.

It’s altogether possible the Cardinals will completely pass up free agent pitchers, rendering this whole article irrelevant. In the Mozeliak era, here is the complete list of multi-year contracts they’ve given to free agent starting pitchers:

  • Mike Leake
  • Miles Mikolas

That’s it. There have been a lot of cosmetic one-year deals for the Brad Pennies and Kyle Lohses of the world, but this type of move has not typically been part of the team’s vernacular. More likely, they could survey the trade market and try to make a deal. Whichever they choose, there should be options for upgrades.