Ever play that game “Would You Rather”? You know, you have to answer questions like, “Would you rather use someone else’s toothbrush or be forced to watch every game of the 2004 Tigers season?” As we wait for all these free agents to finally start picking their 2018 homes, let’s play a version of that game by matching up two similar free agents. We’re not necessarily asking who the better player is, but which free agent is the best player to sign at his estimated contract.
2017: 31 GS, 186.2 IPs, 3.86 ERA, 3.83 FIP, 27.3% SO rate, 7.6% BB rate, 3.5% HR rate, 3.9 WAR
2015-17: 48 GS, 287 IPs, 3.70 ERA, 3.57 FIP, 28.9% SO rate, 7.5% BB rate, 3.3% HR rate, 6.5 WAR
Age: Entering age-31 season
Contract estimate: Six years, $160 million
2017: 30 GS, 168.1 IPs, 3.53 ERA, 4.16 FIP, 23.1% SO rate, 7.8% BB rate, 3.3% HR rate, 1.9 WAR
2015-17: 94 GS, 594.2 IPs, 2.71 ERA, 3.25 FIP, 24.8% SO rate, 7.6% BB rate, 2.1% HR rate, 13.9 WAR
Age: Entering age-32 season
Contract estimate: Four years, $105 million
This is a fascinating comparison in part because of the paths each took to get to this point in their careers. Darvish was a star in the Japan Pacific League while still a teenager, winning 12 games at age 19. Arrieta didn’t break out until he was 28 and had one of the great pitching seasons this century, when he won the 2015 Cy Young Award with a 1.77 ERA. Darvish entered 2017 having to prove he could handle a full-season workload after missing all of 2015 with Tommy John surgery, while Arrieta entered 2017 as a strong candidate to receive a $200 million contract.
The offseason began with reports that Scott Boras was seeking just that for Arrieta, the argument being that even after a mediocre 2017, Arrieta still ranks seventh in WAR among pitchers over the past three seasons. There's no way he’s getting a seven-year deal, however, and the best estimates are he’ll end up with a figure closer to half of that $200 million asking price.
There are two obvious red flags in assessing Arrieta’s future. In 2015, he threw 229 innings; in 2017, while making just three fewer starts, his innings dropped all the way down to 168. You can rationalize this as Joe Maddon protecting Arrieta and trying to keep his arm as fresh as possible for the stretch run and the playoffs. After throwing 100-plus pitches 23 times in 2015, Arrieta did it just six times in 2017. Among 58 qualified starters, he ranked 46th in average innings per start. Yes, the 200-inning starter is becoming a rarity -- only 15 got there last season -- but if you’re going to make Arrieta one of the 10 highest-paid pitchers based on annual average value, you should expect more than 170 innings.
The other concern is Arrieta’s drop in average fastball velocity from his 2015 peak. That season he averaged 94.6 mph with his heater, but it was down to 92.1 in 2017. Back in late May, Boras said the analysis had to focus on the three-year track record, not just 2017. “Don’t do it. That’s not fair. That’s not an evaluation,” he said.
Arrieta himself said, “I don’t worry about [the velocity] because I know that I’m smart enough to work around that. The velocity’s still good enough to get it by guys and do certain things in certain situations with it.” He also expected that 95-to-97 mph heater to come back at some point in the season, but it never did. His hardest pitch all season was 95.5 mph. He also ended up with a big platoon split as he held righties to a .612 OPS while lefties hit .840 against him.
One thing always brought up with Arrieta is his legendary conditioning program, which no doubt helped him reach these levels. He also has never had a major arm injury in his career and, due to the up-and-down nature of his early seasons with the Orioles, he's thrown just 1,161 innings in the majors. Some believe that even though Arrieta turns 32 in March, that lack of wear and tear on his arm is a sign he’ll maintain his value in his mid-30s. I’d suggest that predicting pitcher health is a little more difficult than looking at a guy’s physique.
Darvish, on the other hand, has thrown more than 2,000 innings between Japan and the majors, plus he has that Tommy John surgery in his past. He’s also coming off the better season: higher WAR, higher strikeout rate, more innings. The season ended in disaster, as he allowed nine runs over just 3.1 innings in two World Series starts. Tom Verducci later reported that an Astros player told him Darvish was tipping his pitches in both outings:
“The player said it worked like this: Darvish holds the ball at his side when he gets the sign from the catcher. Whether he regrips or not as he brings the ball into his glove was the tip-off whether he was going to throw a slider/cutter or a fastball,” Verducci wrote.
OK, if that’s what happened, that can be corrected. Post-surgery, Darvish’s velocity remains elite, averaging 94.2 mph with his fastball and touching 98 when he cranks it up. He has a lower home run rate over his career on the road, so a permanent new home could make him even tougher. Even with the surgery, there are fewer red flags here.
Still, any pitcher with 2,000 professional innings has thrown a lot of innings, and maybe Darvish should be viewed as a higher risk because of that. (Arrieta is up to 1,900 if you include his minor league and college innings, however, so I’m not sure it’s a difference-maker when comparing these two.) I’m wary of Arrieta’s declining numbers and that large platoon split, as well as leaving a good defensive team (assuming he doesn’t re-sign with the Cubs). Arrieta certainly could rebound and give you two or three 4-WAR seasons, which would make a four-year contract a great deal, but I’d rather go with Darvish.