What a difference one off-season can make. Just one year ago, fans watched in suspended amazement as a frozen free agent market unfolded before their very eyes. As frustrating as it was for fans and writers alike to witness, the slow nature of last winter had to take a toll on the players late to the signing party.
Just weeks before the beginning of the regular season, the Philadelphia Phillies snagged one the top free agent starting pitchers, former Chicago Cubs right-hander Jake Arrieta on a three-year, $75 million deal. Even with his ‘down’ 2017 campaign, Arrieta’s want for $200 million quickly evolved into settling for much less than half of that total.
Almost a month prior to the Arrieta signing, the Cubs cashed in on the slow off-season, signing another free agent ace, Yu Darvish, to an also reduced $126 million over six years. While certain bonuses could push the deal upwards of $150 million, Darvish was another pitcher who could have commanded $200 million in another setting.
Fast forward to this off-season, and we are already beginning to see more big name free agents sign deals with contending clubs. As this is being written, Nathan Eovaldi and the Boston Red Sox are finalizing a four-year, $67.5 million deal to retain the right-hander’s services. Additionally, we have seen three blockbuster deals already this winter, two of which included the Seattle Mariners paring down their payroll, and one that sent Paul Goldschmidt to the St. Louis Cardinals.
Perhaps the most interesting deal, at least for me, was Patrick Corbin‘s six-year pact worth $140 million from the Washington Nationals.
Darvish’s Deal Put Into Perspective
A six-year deal is a long time to ink a starting pitcher for, not to mention a pitcher on the wrong side of 30 with many miles already on his arm from his time in Japan. Still, Darvish has been a well above average pitcher in a career that has spanned the Texas Rangers, Los Angeles Dodgers and now the Cubs.
Darvish’s first three years in the league were All-Star-caliber as he racked up an ERA-plus of 128 and averaged 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings. Tommy John surgery eliminated Darvish’s chances of pitching in 2015, but the righty never missed a beat, earning his fourth All-Star Game selection in 2017, despite his rather slow start to the season with Texas (4.01 ERA before being traded to the Dodgers).
His 3.44 ERA across 49.2 innings with his new club seemingly suggested Darvish was back on track after he posted his lowest strikeout rate (9.7 strikeouts per nine) prior to the trade. Not even an 11.1 K/9 rate, however, could save Darvish from the lackluster effort displayed in the 2017 World Series.
After cruising through the Dodgers’ first two rounds of the 2017 postseason, including 6.1 one-run frames against the Cubs in the NLCS, Darvish completely fell apart in the Fall Classic. Accused of tipping his pitches, the right-hander allowed nine runs (eight earned) in 3.1 innings spanning two starts, one of which was Game 7.
Following Darvish’s signing with the Cubs, it was floated the club decided to pursue the right-hander after his start against them in Game 3 of the NLCS. Whether that was the case or not, Darvish’s performance in the World Series had to have a lingering effect on his free agent value that winter.
Fast forward a year, and Darvish’s addition is being called into question more than ever. With possible financial constraints surrounding the Cubs this off-season, Darvish’s average annual salary of $21 million is not doing the club any favors. Neither is the now dead-weight of what’s left of Tyler Chatwood‘s three-year, $38 million deal also signed last off-season; but Chatwood did not spend the vast majority of 2018 hurt.
With various issues throughout the season that culminated in a stress reaction in his elbow, Darvish made just eight starts, working a total of 40 innings while posting a 4.95 ERA. Yes, there are still five years remaining on his deal and Darvish has proven he can bounce back from injury with solid years, but his absence from the club in 2018 has people worried, and for good reason.
Lost in the shuffle of these feelings of worry and regret (on the part of fans not the front office) is the fact: the Cubs got Darvish for a steal. To validate that, look no further than the $140 million deal given to Corbin just days ago.
At a much younger age (22), Corbin made his big league debut and almost immediately proved to be a solid pitcher on the game’s biggest stage. In the two seasons sandwiched around his own Tommy John surgery (2013 and 2015), Corbin posted a 114 ERA-plus across 293.1 innings, striking out 7.9 batters per nine innings.
The following two years, however, where more mixed as Corbin was essentially a league average pitcher (101 ERA-plus) with a 19-26 record and 8.1 strikeouts per nine across 345.1 frames. Alone, it looks like Corbin was league average in both seasons, but that doesn’t tell the entire story. His 87 ERA-plus in 2016 drastically pulled down his total, correcting for his 116 mark a year later.
Prior to the 2018 season, Corbin had not been able to prove himself as a consistently elite starting pitcher outside of 2013 and 2015. All told, Corbin, prior to 2018, owned an ERA-plus of just 104, a losing overall record of 45-47 and a middle-of-the-road 7.9 K/9 rate.
Not worth anywhere near $140 million with his 4.12 career ERA from 2012 to 2017, Corbin produced a career-year in 2018, boosting his value to new heights. Never before in his career had the left-hander posted a K/9 higher than 8.4, a mark that came in 2017. Last year, the southpaw upped that mark, logging an 11.1 K/9, reaching Darvish levels. His 2.2 BB/9 was also better than his career average, as was his 3.15 ERA which he amassed over exactly 200 innings.
For just the second time in his career, Corbin reached the 200 innings club, helping to propel his top-five finish in the National League Cy Young Award race and earn his second All-Star Game appearance.
Accounting for Corbin’s uptick in strikeouts, one would have to look no further than the usage of his bread-and-butter offering. Already his best swing-and-miss pitch, Corbin’s slider garnered a whiff rate of 30.2 percent in 2018, a career-best for the 29-year-old while he also introduced a curveball for the first time in his career, a pitch that produced a 13.4 percent mark in the whiff department.
Even with his outstanding 2018 season, Corbin is nowhere near a $140 million pitcher. Heck, he’s not even worth the deal Darvish received last off-season. To further drive home that point, let’s look at some numbers side-by-side.
While Corbin has around 70 more career innings than Darvish, something that can be traced back to Yu’s absence this year, the righty has a much better ERA (3.49 to 3.91). It’s true that Corbin has been a more efficient pitcher over the course of his career, working at least 200 innings twice while Darvish has accomplished that just once. That can be, at least in part, blamed for Darvish’s propensity for strikeouts, something Corbin hasn’t had until 2018. Still, for his career, the southpaw owns a K/9 rate of just 8.5 while Darvish sports an 11.0 mark, a difference of more than seven percent (29.5 for Darvish, 22.4 for Corbin).
Identical at 2.7 percent, both pitchers have allowed around the same amount of home runs while Darvish holds the advantage (7.1 percent) over Corbin (8.5 percent) in plate appearances ending in an extra base hit. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, Darvish has held opposing hitters to a much more ideal slash line compared to Corbin. At just .219/.296/.364/.660, opposing hitters sport an OPS around 70 lower when facing Darvish versus Corbin’s .729 mark.
There is one statistic that goes a long way in summing up everything that has been said here. In careers that have spanned similar links with both pitchers missing a full season due to Tommy John, Darvish owns a career WAR (according to Baseball-Reference.com) of 18.6. That number, in 33 less appearances is still 7.2 wins higher than Corbin’s 11.4 career WAR.
When considering value, 7.2 wins is a significant difference between players with similar career lengths. In a perfect world, that difference would, in turn, give Darvish more leverage in the free agent market compared to Corbin. However, between the freeze of last off-season and the possible bidding war among teams for Corbin’s services this winter, things turned out better for the southpaw who will now earn an average of $23.3 million per season through 2024.
More than anything, Corbin’s deal goes a long way in putting Darvish’s deal into perspective. What some people consider too much for Darvish will be and no doubt already have been blown away with the amount Corbin commanded. Yes, the situations are slightly different, the biggest difference being age (Corbin is still only 29). However, that difference should not make-up for the fact Darvish has been the better pitcher over the course of his career.
These two deals and all their similarities show the ever-changing nature of free agency. If Darvish had hit the market this winter, there’s little doubt he would have pulled down close to, if not, $200 million. For that reason, as Cubs fans, we should appreciate the bargain at which the front office acquired Darvish’s services. Year one may not have been the best outcome, but there are still five years for Darvish to prove he’s a $200 million pitcher, years that will hopefully all be spent with the Cubs.
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