I periodically write free agent spotlights, and sometimes I’ll make a point to write about someone who I fear may get signed soon so that I can still write about that player. Well, this year I’m not sure that fear will emerge. I think the free agent market will be slow to materialize and I suspect I’ll have all the time in the world to write about whatever free agent I please.
It should be obvious why I’m addressing Max Scherzer first, Cardinals fans favorite player who never was a Cardinal. He’s a hometown kid, always a good start for a potential fan favorite, and more importantly, he’s one of the best pitchers in baseball. He’s a surefire Hall of Famer. And he’s got a bit of Bob Gibson in him, getting mad on the mound at just about everyone, but especially the manager when he comes to take him out earlier than he wants. What is there not to like about Scherzer.
Well, his age. He is fairly old. He is at an age where him suddenly not being very good would not altogether be a shock. I am not here to tell you the projection systems will say that, but more so than if he were 33, the potential is certainly there for him to fall off a cliff. Or get injured. Or any number of things that can go wrong for an older pitcher in baseball. Pitchers are already somewhat unreliable, and age only adds to that.
Ultimately you have to compare him to other 37-years-old coming off as good of seasons as he is, and I’ll get to that, but first I was just plain curious about 37-year-olds in general. Since 1969 - as good a date as any since it’s when the mound was changed - there have been 141 pitchers who pitched at least 50 innings as a starter at the age of 36-years-old, Scherzer’s age for the stat books in 2021. That is not a lot. That is 53 seasons of baseball. Less than 3 pitchers per year. We can add Charlie Morton’s 38 innings in 2020 to that list, but that’s otherwise it.
Of those 141, 29 of them either retired or had a forced retirement. There were only a few players who had a 2 fWAR or greater season who played their last season at 36, and I assume those are true retirements. Anything below may have just been non-interest, for example Anibal Sanchez recently. 12 of those pitchers pitched less than 50 innings after and were usually very bad in those innings. Chris Carpenter had the greatest season at age 36 (in 2011! 4.5 fWAR) who didn’t continue playing for at least 50 innings afterwards.
Anyway, I’ll limit this discussion to pitchers who had a 5 fWAR season or greater, which not including Scherzer is a mere 11 pitchers. Collectively, these 11 pitchers were worth 61.2 fWAR in their age 36 season, or 5.6 fWAR per player. Those 11 pitchers were worth 50 fWAR in their age 37 season, or 4.5 fWAR. Interestingly, two pitchers had 5+ fWAR at age 37 who did not have 5 fWAR at age 36. David Wells, coming off a 3.9 fWAR season, had 6.2 fWAR. And Mike Mussina, coming off a 2.6 fWAR season, had a 5.2 fWAR season. (It does feel a bit unfair lump to Randy Johnson, with two consecutive 9 fWAR seasons with this group, as if he’s in the same class)
I will be operating under the assumption that he gets 3 years. Here’s a weird one. I mentioned above that those 11 pitchers ended up with 50 fWAR at age 37. In their age 38 season, they ended up with 33.8 fWAR. At age 39? 33.7 fWAR. Which includes Randy Johnson only pitching in 14 games for his 2.8 fWAR and one dude retiring. Huh? This actually because a few pitchers, like Steve Carlton, had better years than at age 36 even. Hall of Famers age differently it turns out.
It would be helpful to have ZiPS three year projections, but for now, that appears to be under construction, if you will. We do at least have one estimate of his 2022, which I feel is probably accurate. Steamer projects Scherzer for 4.2 WAR. I would usually drop him 0.5 fWAR, but even among these special older guys, they dropped from an average of 4.5 fWAR to 3.4 fWAR from age 37 to age 38. They bewilderingly stayed there for age 39. So I’m going to somewhat arbitrarily guess a drop of 0.7 fWAR for both ages. I’m going to guess the age 38 to 39 thing is not necessarily something to be counted on, but merely a weird statistical quirk.
So, with the full disclaimer that my numbers are what one might call spitballing, what does his three year deal potentially look like? Using my valuation methods, he should be in line for a 3 year, $95 million deal. I do feel like the Cards, if they were to win Scherzer’s heart, would need to separate themselves from the pack with a four year deal, not being able to compete with the AAV of the big dogs.
I don’t think they would give a four year deal, but what they maybe could do is put an option for the 4th year that vests based on starts. So his option is automatically picked up if he makes 25 starts in his last year. Since his projected WAR - based on the declining 0.7 - would be 2.1 fWAR, the option year would be worth $20 million. Which is actually a slight overpay. So a 3 year deal for $95 million that could turn into a 4 year deal for $115 million.
It’s pretty safe to say if they make this move, that’s a wrap. They will make no other moves. They may trade players, just nothing else of significance in free agency. Which is probably accurate of any other significant free agent they sign, but it’s especially true here. I’m not even sure they’ll add $30 million in payroll, so it’s possible this is “out of the budget.”
Would you sign him to that deal?
Myself? I’m so convinced it won’t happen that it’s hard to imagine it as a possibility. Like if I imagine the Cardinals actually signing Scherzer, I’m not sure I’ll care about the contract. At the same time, the contract is theoretically large enough that I’m not stressing if Cards don’t sign it. So it’s a pretty good place to be. No way to be disappointed either way.