One of baseball’s age-old hypothetical questions — “If you had to win one game, who would you pitch?” — has become very real in the Wild Card age.
That was certainly my lead takeaway from the last two seasons of covering the Pirates, having watched Madison Bumgarner then Jake Arrieta throttle the Bucs in the last two NL Wild Card games.
MLB execs have been saying “Amen” to that with the frenzy in a free agent market that now is a sprint and not a marathon, in contrast to what we usually say about the season itself.
The Winter Meetings used to green-light the offseason action. Now it’s just a pit stop. Even before the symbolic gavel drops tomorrow morning in Nashville, clubs have spent a whopping $814 million in multi-year deals to 13 free agents (that compares to $307 million on six multi-year deals prior to the start of the ’14 Winter Meetings).
And most of that investment has been made in 10 pitchers — two setup relievers and eight starters: David Price, Zack Greinke, Jordan Zimmerman, Jeff Samardzija, John Lackey, J.A. Happ, Marco Estrada and Mike Pelfrey.
In a sense, I consider this demand for starters oxymoronic, given the game’s ongoing de-emphasizing of starting pitchers. Two-hundred-inning workhorses in 2015 (28) were the fewest in a full seasons since 1947 (25), when there were only 16 teams compared to today’s 30.
How many complete games do you suppose that elite eight had? Seven; Zimmerman, Happ, Estrada and Pelfrey had zero.
So, obviously, all starters are being paid exponentially more per inning than ever before. One example (I’ll let economists weigh in with the dollar-value factor):
At the height of his earnings ($4.2 million in 1992), Nolan Ryan made $26,752 for each of his 157 innings.
Pelfrey is the low man among our elite eight. If his workload matches his career average (124 innings), he would make $64,516 for each inning based on his two-year, $16 million deal with Detroit.
At the other end of the scale, Greinke will earn $149,782 per inning if he matches his single-season max of 229 innings (in 2009), based on the Annual Average Value of his six-year, $206 million deal.
And you know what? He’ll be worth every penny to the D-backs if they have a must-win game and Zack on the hill.