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Nationals, Stephen Strasburg both took incredible risks with their mega-deal

Strasburg is the least experienced and least durable pitcher to ever receive an $100+ million deal, making it unprecedented risk for the Nationals.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

The Nationals have never been known as a club willing to shy away from big, shocking contracts, as evidenced once again by their agreement with right-hander Stephen Strasburg on a 7-year, $175 million extension Monday night. Strasburg, the team's No. 2 starter alongside $210 million-man Max Scherzer, gave up his chance to be the premier starting pitcher available on this year's weak free-agent market, opting instead to not to test the open market this winter and remain in Washington for the foreseeable future.

On its face, the move is a shocking one-- there had been no public rumors of talks between the sides and agent Scott Boras is known for his general unwillingness to sign players to long-term extensions before free agency. Strasburg's status as the top dog in an extremely weak free-agent pitching class that includes the likes of low-level No. 2 starters and high-end No. 3 starters like Andrew Cashner, Mat Latos, Jeremy Hellickson and Clay Buchholz seemed to prime him for a massive payday this offseason, which seemed too promising for the right-hander (and Boras) to pass up.

It's hard to fault Strasburg for signing the extension

Reactions to the deal from around baseball have been mixed, as evidenced by the responses of three certified agents polled by MLB Daily Dish Monday night. One agent noted that Strasburg "left money on the table assuming the deferrals are significant," but that it was "hard to fault him for wanting to get it done now especially given his history." Another cited two comparable contracts from 2013 (Felix Hernandez's 7-year, $175 million deal with the Mariners and Justin Verlander's 7-year, $180 million) and criticized Boras for not getting a better deal considering the role inflation plays in today's game. The third, who believed the deal was a good one for Strasburg, put it bluntly: "That's a lot of cake."

As noted by Yahoo! Sports' Jeff Passan, Strasburg is the second Tommy John survivor to receive a deal worth more than $100 million, joining ex-teammate Jordan Zimmermann, who signed a 5-year, $110 million contract with the Tigers in November. Strasburg's deal is the 7th-highest for a pitcher in major-league history in terms of both total value and average annual value, and the 21st contract of more than $100 million handed out to a starting pitcher.

What makes Strasburg's deal unique, however, is that he is the least experienced (in terms of innings pitched) and least durable pitcher to ever receive a deal worth $100 million or more. Strasburg's 818.1 major-league innings are-- by far-- the fewest innings thrown by a pitcher at the time of his $100+ million contract, as evidenced here:

Pitcher Team Date Contract AAV IP (at time of contract)
Stephen Strasburg Nationals May 2016 7 years, $175M $25M 818.2
Jordan Zimmermann Tigers Nov. 2015 5 years, $110M $22M 1094
Clayton Kershaw Dodgers Jan. 2014 7 years, $215M $30.7M 1180
Max Scherzer Nationals Jan. 2015 7 years, $210M $30M 1239.1
Mike Hampton Rockies Dec. 2000 8 years, $121M $15.1M 1260.2
Johan Santana Mets Feb. 2008 6 years, $137.5M $22.9M 1308.1
Matt Cain Giants Apr. 2012 6 years, $127.5M $21.3M 1317.1
Cliff Lee Phillies Dec. 2010 5 years, $120M $24M 1409
Johnny Cueto Giants Dec. 2015 6 years, $130M $21.7M 1420.1
Barry Zito Giants Dec. 2006 7 years, $126M $18M 1430.1
David Price Red Sox Dec. 2015 7 years, $217M $31M 1441.2
Cole Hamels Phillies July 2012 6 years, $144M $24M 1453.1
Zack Greinke Dodgers Dec. 2012 6 years, $147M $24.5M 1492
Justin Verlander Tigers Mar. 2013 7 years, $180M $25.7M 1553.2
Jon Lester Cubs Dec. 2014 6 years, $155M $25.8M 1596
Felix Hernandez Mariners Feb. 2013 7 years, $175M $25M 1618
CC Sabathia Yankees Dec. 2008 7 years, $161M $23M 1659.1
Zack Greinke Diamondbacks Dec. 2015 6 years, $206.5M $34.4M 2094.2
CC Sabathia Yankees Nov. 2011 5 years, $122M $24.4M 2127
Kevin Brown Dodgers Dec. 1998 7 years, $105M $15M 2178.1
Masahiro Tanaka Yankees Jan. 2014 7 years, $155M $22.1M 0 (1315 in Japan)*

*(Note: Masahiro Tanaka had pitched 0 major-league innings at the time of his signing with the Yankees in 2014, but had completed 1315 innings in Japan. He is the only $100+ million pitcher to have thrown less major-league innings than Strasburg at the time of signing his deal)

Strasburg's low number of major-league innings is obviously a direct product of his injury history, as he has made at least 30 starts in only two seasons and has crossed the 200-inning threshold only once. In addition to having Tommy John in late 2010, he has dealt with a variety of other injuries, including issues with his shoulder, lat, upper back and oblique in recent years. Strasburg's widespread health problems make his deal a lot riskier than a deal for someone like Hernandez, who, also in entering his age-27 season at the time of signing, had topped 200 innings on five occasions.

As a result of his inability to stay on the field, Strasburg is one of the least accomplished starters to receive an $100+ million deal, according to Fangraphs' WAR statistic. He falls behind only Mike Hampton, who signed his mega-deal with the Rockies in 2000 in a time when pitchers were valued differently, and is tied with Zimmermann:

Pitcher Team Date Contract AAV WAR (at time of contract, per FanGraphs)
Mike Hampton Rockies Dec. 2000 8 years, $121M $15.1M 19.1
Stephen Strasburg Nationals May 2016 7 years, $175M $25M 20.4
Jordan Zimmermann Tigers Nov. 2015 5 years, $110M $22M 20.4
Johnny Cueto Giants Dec. 2015 6 years, $130M $21.7M 22.7
Barry Zito Giants Dec. 2006 7 years, $126M $18M 24.1
Matt Cain Giants Apr. 2012 6 years, $127.5M $21.3M 24.7
Max Scherzer Nationals Jan. 2015 7 years, $210M $30M 25.6
Zack Greinke Dodgers Dec. 2012 6 years, $147M $24.5M 26.5
Cliff Lee Phillies Dec. 2010 5 years, $120M $24M 28.1
Cole Hamels Phillies Jul. 2012 6 years, $144M $24M 28.2
Jon Lester Cubs Dec. 2014 6 years, $155M $25.8M 29.6
Clayton Kershaw Dodgers Jan. 2014 7 years, $215M $30.7M 30.7
Johan Santana Mets Feb. 2008 6 years, $137.5M $22.9M 31.7
David Price Red Sox Dec. 2015 7 years, $217M $31M 31.9
Justin Verlander Tigers Mar. 2013 7 years, $180M $25.7M 32.7
CC Sabathia Yankees Dec. 2008 7 years, $161M $23M 34.9
Felix Hernandez Mariners Feb. 2013 7 years, $175M $25M 35.4
Zack Greinke Diamondbacks Dec. 2015 6 years, $206.5M $34.4M 46.0
Kevin Brown Dodgers Dec. 1998 7 years, $105M $15M 49.0
CC Sabathia Yankees Nov. 2011 5 years, $122M $24.4M 52.3
Masahiro Tanaka Yankees Jan. 2014 7 years, $155M $22.1M 0.0

That's not to say Strasburg hasn't been very good in his 6+ major-league seasons; he ranks 13th in the majors in WAR (per FanGraphs) since 2012 (his first full season) behind $100+ million pitchers Kershaw, Price, Scherzer, Hernandez, Greinke, Hamels, Verlander and Lester. In 138 career starts, he is the owner of a 3.06 ERA with promising metrics (10.4 K/9, 4.72 K/BB, 0.8 HR/9).

Can you blame the Nationals for betting on him, though?

The hype has always been present with Strasburg, as he was touted as the game's next ace during his time at San Diego State, and, along with teammate Bryce Harper, was as much of a lock as the first overall pick as we have seen in recent memory. Though his one All-Star Game appearance, one top-10 Cy Young finish and one playoff appearance (a loss in 2014) have not lived up to that hype, he has been one of the best pitchers in baseball over the last few years and has proven himself as a very solid option at the front-end of the Nationals' rotation behind Scherzer.

He just hasn't proven he's durable enough enough to justify the Nationals giving him the 7th-largest commitment to a pitcher in the game's history. The fact that Strasburg, as the least experienced pitcher to ever receive an $100+ million deal, blew past 14 other pitchers in both total value and average annual value speaks a great deal about what the team is paying for. Washington is paying for potential in a way that the game has never seen before; they are banking on Strasburg to be a 200-inning, ace-caliber pitcher after seeing him pitch a full season (counting his 160-inning limit in 2012) just twice in six years since 2011.

Who wins this bet in the long run?

Maybe Strasburg and Boras recognized this fact and decided that $175 million was too good of an offer to pass up. While the open market looked promising to the outside observer, teams very well could have been wary of Strasburg's injury history, making them unwilling to commit such a large sum to an anomaly of a free-agent case.

Bottom line: It appears Strasburg and Boras were unwilling to bet on themselves by hitting free agency this winter, even though many believed Strasburg would blow past the $200 million mark on his way out of the nation's capital. Luckily for Stras and his camp, the Nationals were willing to make a big bet-- one that appears to be the biggest contract risk for a pitcher in recent memory.