Patrick O'Keefe

MDGOP Political Director, UF Political Comms Program Director. Focused on using digital to reach the masses.

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Patrick O'Keefe

The 2000 Inning Wall/Aging Curve for Starting Pitchers in Baseball

Patrick O'KeefePatrick O'Keefe

Cole Hamels and the Starting Pitching Aging Curve

Philadelphia Phillies Starting Pitcher Cole Hamels has been discussed as a trade target by many MLB teams including the Rangers, Dodgers, Cubs, Yankees, Giants, and Red Sox. He’s attractive to these teams as he only has 3-4 years left on his contract depending on if his option is picked up. This is preferable for many teams instead of signing a free agent pitcher to a 6 or 7 year deal in the offseason. The primary with Hamels though has been his age and worries of injury. Many teams are hesitant to trade a large amount of prospects for a player who may become a salary liability in a short amount of time.

There have been an extensive amount of studies done on pitcher aging curves, like this one on Bleacher Report, but those studies focus primarily on age. Age seems to be a poor indicator for pitchers as they generally decline due to wear and tear on their arm rather than pure aging (injuries for the most part). More interesting when looking toward future performance is how much wear pitchers can take before their production declines. Hamels, Johnny Cueto, and others on the trade market are generally considered aces right now. By taking pitchers who have thrown 1000+ productive innings, and previously finished in the top 10 in pitcher Wins Above Replacement (WAR) in a single season since the early 2000’s, trends start to emerge. These trends give a very good indication of the expectation teams who acquire current aces can have going forward.

Warning to those teams those: the trend for pitchers near 2000 innings is a very ugly one. Not only does production fall-off for most aces around 2000 innings pitch in their career, most either never pitch again or pitch close to replacement level for a few years after they hit their wall. There are 19 pitchers in the last 12 years who fall into the criteria mentioned above and they fall into 3 distinct categories:

Hit Wall Around 2000 Innings

Player Name IP Before Wall WAR Before Wall IP per WAR Before Wall IP After Wall WAR After Wall IP per WAR After Wall
Cliff Lee 2075 42.5 48.82352941 81.1 0.8 101.375
Livan Hernandez 1950 21.6 90.27777778 1238 3.6 343.8888889
Justin Verlander 1772 40.7 43.53808354 248 0.8 310
Josh Beckett 1721 33.1 51.9939577 329 2.2 149.5454545
Ben Sheets 1428 25.6 55.78125 168 0.5 336
Jason Schmidt 1953 32.2 60.65217391 43.1 -0.5 N/A
Johan Santana 1908 50.5 37.78217822 117 0.2 585
Carlos Zambrano 1681 37.1 45.30997305 278 1.1 252.7272727
John Lackey 1324 23.1 57.31601732 1070 8.1 132.0987654
Chris Carpenter 2202 35.3 62.3796034 17 0.2 85
Dan Haren 1700 31.7 53.62776025 655 0.4 1637.5

11 pitchers (58%) fall into the first group who either do not surpass 2000 innings or barely surpass 2000. 8/11 pitchers failed to throw more than 500 innings after hitting their respective fall-off point. Almost every pitcher on this list hit their point due to a significant injury (or multiple injuries). Dan Haren, John Lackey, and Livan Hernandez all continued to pitch beyond their fall-off point, but collectively they produced 1/3 of the WAR per inning when compared to their “pre-wall” statistics. Lackey, Haren, and Justin Verlander are still active, but all 3 do not look to have any more than a few years left in their career.

Hit Wall Around 2500 Innings

Player Name IP Before Wall WAR Before Wall IP per WAR Before Wall IP After Wall WAR After Wall IP per WAR After Wall
Roy Halladay 2531 65.7 38.52359209 218 -0.1 N/A
Tim Hudson 2503 52.7 47.49525617 601 3.7 162.4324324
CC Sabathia 2564 54.1 47.39371534 369 -0.1 N/A
Javier Vasquez 2490 41.1 60.58394161 350 2.2 159.0909091

4 pitchers (21%) fall into the second group of pitchers who fell off around 2500 innings. Halladay, Hudson, and Sabathia all have significant differences though when compared to most of the first group. All 3 have a lower IP per WAR rate than all but 3 pitchers in the top group, and out of the 3 pitchers who hit the 2000 inning wall, only Johan Santana was more dominant. All 4 pitchers in this group pitched fewer than 3 full seasons after their fall, although Sabathia is still active and could pitch more innings.

Hit Wall at 3000+ Innings or Didn’t at All

Player Name IP Before Wall WAR Before Wall IP per WAR Before Wall IP After Wall WAR After Wall IP per WAR After Wall
Randy Johnson 3953 97.7 40.46059365 541.2 6.6 82
John Smoltz 3367 66.1 50.93797277 106 0.4 265
Curt Schilling 3261 80.7 40.4089219330855 N/A N/A N/A
Mike Mussina 3562 82.7 43.0713422 N/A N/A N/A

The 4 pitchers (21%) that fall into the final group are all very likely Hall of Famers. All pitchers in this group were even more dominant than the two groups above. Each pitcher has a unique case for accruing their innings.

Randy Johnson had a very unique body as a 6’11” pitcher with very clean, down-plane mechanics. He was highly dominant his entire career and never really fell off.

John Smoltz was converted to a closer in the middle of his career before returning to starting. He converted after losing all of the 2000 season to injury and it may have helped lengthen his career. Prior to the injury, Smoltz had accrued 2414 innings and many felt he may not be able to return from Tommy John surgery. Other good examples of mid-career relieving switches include Derek Lowe and Dennis Eckersley. Both pitchers had careers far longer than the norm and their respite from starting may have had something to do with it.

Curt Schilling re-invented himself in the year 2001 at the age of 33. He appeared to be hitting his wall, but re-invented himself by significantly reducing his number of walks and relying more on his split-finger fastball. These changes allowed him to overcome velocity drops.

Mike Mussina was not a power pitchers unlike almost every other pitcher in the group of 19. Although Mussina never dramatically fell-off, his Walks Plus Hits Per Innings Pitch (WHIP) rate did decline significantly after he reached 2668 innings and he was not as good in his last 5 seasons.

Active, Not Yet Hit Wall

Player Name IP Before Wall WAR Before Wall IP per WAR Before Wall IP After Wall WAR After Wall IP per WAR After Wall
Cole Hamels 1930 43.1 44.77958237 N/A N/A N/A
Zach Greinke 2010 45.5 44.17582418 N/A N/A N/A
David Price 1361 26.9 50.59479554 N/A N/A N/A
Adam Wainwright 1566 33.3 47.02702703 N/A N/A N/A
Johnny Cueto 1339 25.1 53.34661355 N/A N/A N/A
Jared Weaver 1688 36.4 46.37362637 96.2 -0.3 N/A

This final group of pitchers are all currently active. Out of this group, Wainwright is currently injured and may not return and Jared Weaver appears to be hitting his own wall in a similar manner to pitchers in the first group. Cole Hamels and Zach Greinke appear best suited to stand the test of time based on the previous study cases, so let’s look at the likely scenario for each.

Cole Hamels Value

This past offseason, it was analyzed that a win on the free agent market costs somewhere between $5-7 million. With Cole Hamels, his most likely result is he will fall-off somewhere between 2400-2600 innings if not much sooner. If he continued at his career average production, here is the surplus value for the rest of his contract:

Projected Innings Projected WAR Dollars Left on Contract Surplus Value
2400 10.5 $90.5 million -$26.5 million
2500 12.7 $90.5 million -$14.3 million
2600 15.0 $90.5 million $0

This projection did not include any of Hamels 2015 salary and was assuming that he would follow the path of most of the case-studies who did not provide much value beyond their fall. Overall, the projection is terrible news to any team attempting to acquire Hamels. Hamels will need to surpass 2600 innings to provide any excess value. When compared to free agents who will be available though, it may not be the worst move.

Free Agency 2015-2016

Looking forward to free agency in 2015 and 2016, this study can be used for pitchers like Johnny Cueto and David Price. Price and Cueto’s IP per WAR do not match any pitchers outside of the first group, so it’s reasonable to say that an optimistic view of their wall will be 2000 IP. Here’s a look at Cueto and Price’s projections then:

Pitcher Innings to 2000 WAR Using Current Average Projected Value
David Price 639 12.6 $88.4 million
Johnny Cueto 661 12.4 $86.7 million

David Price is projected to earn a contract north of $200 million. Even if he manages to pitch 2500 innings, he would still only be projected for $157.6 million in total value, which is still a massive deficit. Cueto is in a similar situation. Price and Cueto look much more comparable to Barry Zito than the Hall of Fame group. This is not a good comparison for teams looking at these pitchers as Zito is widely considered as one of the worst free agent contracts ever.

Who’s a good alternative to Price or Cueto? Perhaps Jordan Zimmermann. Here’s a look at Zimmermann’s projected numbers considering the 2000 inning wall:

Projected Innings IP per WAR Projected WAR Projected Value
985 54.6 18.04 $126.28 million

Zimmermann has pitched far fewer innings, yet his WAR numbers are not far off Cueto or Price’s. Zimmermann may not top $150 million in total contract earnings using last season’s commitments to Jon Lester, Max Scherzer, and James Shields as comparables, yet his reasonable projected value of is $126.28 million.

This template I’ve laid out may not work in every circumstance, but if the past 12 years are any indication, it’s a pretty good outline when evaluating who teams should be looking to acquire.

 

MDGOP Political Director, UF Political Comms Program Director. Focused on using digital to reach the masses.

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