Signing any player to a long term contract is a risk. Things rarely work out for the life of the deal. Sometimes the player is so good in the first few years of the deal that the back end evens out the worth of the investment. The risk seems even larger for Max Scherzer because, first, he is a pitcher and secondly, all you have to do is look at his teammate from Detroit as a cautionary tale.
Scherzer famously turned down a large offer from the Tigers to test the free agent waters. And it seems he has set himself up nicely with another ace-like season. The financial rewards of his roll of the dice will pay off handsomely. Someone will give him the money. But will they be happy with the investment?
Scherzer’s own teammate, Justin Verlander and American League rival, CC Sabathia seem to show the risks involved with signing up a talented power arm up beyond their peak seasons. Let’s take a look at what could happen.
Justin Verlander was the unquestioned ace of the American League. His Age 26 to Age 29 seasons were all fantastic. In those four years, Verlander piled up 78 victories and compiled 26.1 rWar. His Age 30 season was still very good, but he started to show a few cracks and he really tumbled in 2014 and compiled only 1.4 rWAR. He was still a good pitcher, but not dominant like in years past.
Sabathia from his Age 26 season to his Age 29 season compiled 76 victories and 23.9 rWAR. He will still dominant at Age 30 but has since tumbled and lost velocity and endured injury.
The shared feature of Verlander and Sabathia were a ton of innings plus the stress of post season appearances. The old saying goes that there are only so many bullets in a power pitcher’s arm. The key for both when it comes to the rest of their contract life is whether they can adapt with less power and pile up enough statistics to warrant their pay and build Hall of Fame careers.
Now let’s look at Max Scherzer. Scherzer just completed his Age 26 through 29 seasons. He compiled 70 victories and a ton of rWAR. He won a CYA and pitched twelve times in the post season during that time. The only slight difference from Verlander and Sabathia is that he did not pile up innings in the first two seasons in the front end of those seasons. He pitched under 200 innings those first two seasons but has piled up the innings since.
And we can already see a difference beginning with Max Scherzer. According to Fangraphs.com, Scherzer averaged 94.2 MPH on his fastball three seasons ago and was down to 92.8 MPH in 2014. But that is really the only warning sign. The rest of his peripherals were pretty much identical to the season before.
Scherzer could very well have another season or three dominant seasons remaining as a power arm. Three would be a stretch based on the history that was just looked at. The problem is the amount of money it is going to take to sign Scherzer.
It is doubtful that Scherzer will get the length of a deal that Verlander and Sabathia received. Teams are not throwing around eight or ten years deals anymore (Cano being an exception). But say you give Scherzer $25 million a season for six seasons. That is $150 million and probably light for what it will take to sign him. Scherzer would have to average five wins above replacement per season for six seasons or 30 rWAR.
Projection systems do not see that happening. Baseball Prospectus, for example, projects Scherzer to compile 8.1 WARP over the next six years. That hardly comes close to the 20 WAR needed to pay off the investment. And remember that Scherzer will get well north of my low-ball figures.
The best a suitor for Max Scherzer’s services can hope for is two more ace-like seasons followed by better than league average contributions for the rest of his contract. The risk is very high. There are only a handful of teams that can afford to throw the kind of numbers at Scherzer that he will be looking for. Scherzer has taken a risk here himself.
It is a high stakes game in a baseball era where offense is becoming more valuable than pitching. No doubt somebody will give Scherzer the deal he wants. But if Verlander and Sabathia have taught us, power arms rarely stay powerful beyond the Age of 31, especially as the innings pile up in a career.