Acing it: Success of Nats, Astros puts attention on starters
SCOTTSDALE, AZ – Washington went against baseball's trend toward bulked-up bullpens, dedicating 39% of its payroll to three starting pitchers: Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin. The trio triumphed, lifting the Nationals to the first World Series title in the team's 51-season history.
Houston came within one win of its second championship in three seasons, led by a rotation headed by Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke.
In a sport of copycats, will rotation arms regain prominence throughout the major leagues?
"That's my favorite question of every GM meetings. It is the narrative of whoever won the World Series," Los Angeles Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said Tuesday. "I think as you look back at the World Series champions the last five, 10 years, they're all great teams and they all get there in slightly different ways."
Starting pitchers averaged 5.2 innings this year, the lowest since Baseball-Reference.com's figures began in 1925. The average ranged from 5.8 and 6.1 in every season from 1993 through 2015 but has dropped for five straight seasons.
The New York Mets and Washington led with an average of 5.8 this year, followed by Cleveland at 5.7 and Houston at 5.6.
"If people are copying us, then we must be doing something right," Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said. "Starting pitching has been our philosophy. Hopefully we're going to continue to utilize that formula for continued success."
Cole and Strasburg are on the free-agent market along with Zack Wheeler, Madison Bumgarner, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Jake Odorizzi. Cole, a 29-year-old right-hander who is 35-10 over the past two seasons, is expected to get a record contract for a pitcher, topping David Price's $217 million, seven-year deal with Boston before the 2016 season and Verlander's $31.33 million average salary under a three-year deal with the Astros that started in 2019.
Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow described elite starting pitchers in the same way billionaires covet luxury yachts.
"They're difficult to acquire. They're expensive to keep. And there's not that many of them around," he said.
Washington selected Strasburg with the top pick in the 2009 amateur draft and kept him with a $175 million, seven-year deal he opted out of this month with four seasons and $100 million remaining. Scherzer signed a $210 million, seven-year agreement as a free agent before the 2015 season and Corbin reached a $140 million six-year deal on the open market last December.
Houston went a different route, acquiring its aces in trades and eschewing long-term contracts for pitchers. Verlander was obtained from Detroit on Aug. 31, 2017, for three prospects and agreed last March to a deal adding $66 million and two years through 2021.
Cole was landed from Pittsburgh in January 2018 for four players and had two years of club control that cost the Astros $20.25 million. Greinke arrived from Arizona at this year's July 31 trade deadline for a quartet of prospects and will cost Houston roughly $50 million for 2 1/3 seasons.
"In general, the more flexibility we leave ourselves in the future, the better off we're going to be as an organization," Luhnow said. "That being said, there are certain players that can't be acquired on short-term deals. We were fortunate that Justin was willing to consider a short-term deal. But not everybody can do that. And so we have to make a decision at some point are we willing to go longer than we would normally go in order to have a certain talent on our team?"
Starting pitchers averaged six innings as recently as 2014. But modern analytics have taught executives effectiveness for many pitchers decreases the third time they go through the batting order.
And for every successful free-agent deal, there are ones that don't turn out to be worth it, especially after high-salaried players enter their late 30s.
"Pitching is fragile," Philadelphia general manager Matt Klentak said. "If you're relying on free-agent starting pitching to build your organization, you go into that knowing that you may be left disappointed at some point in the contract."
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