Friday, February 8, 2013

King of The Hill

Felix Hernandez
Yesterday USA Today reported that the Seattle Mariners and ace pitcher Felix Hernandez have agreed to a 7-year $175 million contact. Felix's previous contract wasn't set to expire for two more seasons, but his new contract doesn't extend on top of those two years, instead it modifies the next two seasons and adds 5 more. The aspect of this news that stands out the most is that Felix Hernandez, at 26 years old, is now the highest paid pitcher of all time. The previous high for AAV for a pitcher was the recently signed Zack Greinke. His contract with the Dodgers was set to pay him $24.5 million annually, but after 2 years of Hernandez's deal, Felix will be receiving $25 million annually.

So, did Felix Hernandez deserve this contract, and if so, why did he sign it, and why did the Mariners offer it? First, Felix deserves to be paid like a top 5 pitcher because his numbers prove it. Felix has played 8 seasons in the Majors, all for the Mariners, coming up as a 19 year old, and immediately began throwing 190+ innings in only his second season in the Majors. Hernandez, like many young ace pitchers, came in throwing in the mid 90's with his fastball, showing sharp breaking balls including a slider with velocities peaking above 90 mph. Comparing heat maps of Hernandez's pitches from early in his career to his most recent seasons shows a move from pitches near the middle of the plate to the corners. Hernandez's does a great job of keeping his pitches low and away to righties and on the inside corner to lefties, the perfect combination for pitching success. This maturity on the mound has shown in King Felix's numbers as well. Due to his improved precision and strategy, Felix's BB/9 has been getting steadily less and less since peaking in 2008. While Hernandez's ground ball percentage has been seeing some attrition, Felix has countered it with an increase in strikeouts while his swing percentage (the total percentage of pitches a batter swings at) has remained constant, showing better control and precisions despite drops in velocity and number of ground balls induced.

Hernandez's statistics have been following the typical age curve for a starting pitcher as constructed by the good people at As you can see, velocity should begin to trend down around age 27, but FIP, BB/9, and K/9 should all remain constant until age 29 or so when the edges begin to fray. This graph is meant to generalize the production of starting pitchers over time, it doesn't take into account that Hernandez, who has huge amounts of talent, may age better than the average or even above-average pitcher. The Mariners weren't completely trusting in Hernandez's ability to age like Greg Maddux, not giving him a 7-year extension, but adding 5 years onto the already guaranteed 2 years from his previous contract. This decision shows that the Mariners understand that even the best pitchers reach stumbling blocks after they turn 31 years old. On the other hand, if there was a pitcher or two I would be counting on performing at a high level will into his thirties, Felix Hernandez is near or at the top of my list. In his career Hernandez has shown an ability to stay healthy and stay on the field. He's thrown over 200 innings 5 of his 8 MLB seasons, from 2008-2012. Hernandez has reaching the disabled list twice in his career, in 2007 and 2008, which isn't unreasonable as his innings work load had just increased dramatically, a change that commonly leads to some arm issues.

Now that I've answered whether Felix Hernandez was worth the money and years in this deal, now let's talk about why King Felix would sign this contract. First, the money is on the table now. Hernandez, like all other athletes know that once their careers in professional sports end their income will fall drastically, so they go for the most money and for financial security whenever they can during their careers. Hernandez had two years remaining on the 5-year $78 million contract he signed in 2010, taking him through his arbitration eligible years. He could have played out those seasons in Seattle and then explored his options, and there would be many, on the free agent market as a 28 year old, but instead Felix resigned with the team that scouting him, drafted him, developed him, and has treated him as well as a team that has won recently can. Seattle has been a team never lacking a franchise player, loved in the city, no matter the Mariners winning percentage. In the 90's the team had Ken Griffey Jr., between 2000 and 2012 it was Ichiro Suzuki, and with this new contract, the torch has officially been passed to Felix Hernandez. Hernandez is loved by the city of Seattle, when he starts at home; Mariners fans in right field count his strikeouts, calling themselves the King's Court. In addition, Seattle, while not New York or Boston, is a fairly metropolitan city, ranking 22nd in population according to the most recent census data.

Another reason for hope in Seattle, and thus another justification for Felix resigning in the Emerald City, is Seattle's incredible group of young talent. ESPN's Keith Law recently ranked Seattle as having the 8th best farm system in the league with a solid core of young starting pitchers like Taijaun Walker, James Paxton, and Danny Hultzen. In addition, they sport a top infield prospect in Nick Franklin, young catching prospect Mike Zunino, and young players already with the big club like Jesus Montero, Michael Saunders, Kyle Seager, and Dustin Ackley. So, maybe the Mariners won't be a winning team this season or even next season, but just around the time Hernandez's AAV goes from $20 to $25 million the Mariners should have the type of team ready to compete for the playoffs. This shows that Hernandez has faith in the Mariners system, and when the face of the franchise shows confidence in the team, the fans won't be far behind.

So, while Felix may have given up a chance to make maybe more money in a bigger city like Boston or Chicago, and might have lessened his chances of winning a World Sereis, there were numerous solid justifications for resigning with the Mariners. So, the only question left to answer is the simplest, why the Mariners would offer Felix a contract of this length and magnitude. The Mariners aren't a big time franchise, but the team has never had a problem spending money on free agents, a la Chone Figgins. In addition, Hernandez will now make up 20% or more of Seattles overall payroll. We've recently seen how big contracts can still force the hands of the richest teams as with the Alex Rodriguez situation with the Yankees. The Mariners may be extending a lot of money to Felix, but as we've already proven, he's worth the money. The Mariners have most of their future success tied up in youth, and you is inexpensive. This paradigm is conducive to having a large portion of the payroll going to one or two players because young players are cheap. Signing Hernandez allows the Mariners to now change their marketing strategy to make King Felix a brand, a name that every citizen of Seattle knows. Given Seattles solid history of rabid fandom and passion for the Mariners, the team will have little trouble anointing Felix Hernandez the next Sultan of Seattle.

Justin Verlander
So, this deal looks good, it benefits the player, the team, and the fans, but what does it mean for the rest of the league? Baseball is a business and in Hernandez's contract changes the landscape of the market just like Zack Greinke's did before this and Cole Hamel's deal did before that. Two of the top 3 pitchers in the league have contracts ending in two years, and without a doubt King Felix's new deal will affect both of their next contracts. Clayton Kershaw, currently 24 years old, and Justin Verlander, currently 29 years old. Verlander has been the best pitcher in Baseball since 2009; he won an MVP and Cy Young award with the Tigers, and has brought them to two World Series. He may get similar AAV to Felix Hernandez, in fact he may get a little more, but he won't get a 7-year deal. At his age a 5-year contract would be the most I would go.

Name Team IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP WAR
Justin Verlander Tigers 953.2 9.22 2.37 0.73 2.95 2.93 28.6
Felix Hernandez Mariners 954 8.43 2.49 0.61 2.81 3.03 24.2
Zack Greinke - - - 833.1 8.9 2.21 0.71 3.37 2.93 23.5
Clayton Kershaw Dodgers 836.1 9.41 3.11 0.55 2.6 2.87 20.8

Clayton Kershaw
As for Kershaw, Hernandez's contract impacts him greatly. If Kershaw wants an extension now, he could get a deal similar to Hernandez due to his youth and his already stellar career. On the other hand, if Kershaw plays through his current deal becomes a free agent at age 26, Kershaw could sign a contract of similar length to Hernandez but for even more AAV. That would seem like the most lucrative path for Kershaw, but if the native Texan wants to stay with the Dodgers, and like Jared Weaver with the Angels, not want to deal with contract speculation, he could sign an extension now and still get a second huge deal around his age 30 season. Overall, the Dodgers have a lot of money, holes burning in their pockets, and so one way or the other, Kershaw will make a lot of money, most likely in Los Angeles.
So, while $175 million sounds like a huge amount of money, and it is, we now see that the money is justified, for all parties involved. Felix Hernandez and the Seattle Mariners now go hand-in-hand; Felix represents the city, similar to the Mariners greats before him. In 2011 he won the AL Cy Young award, in 2012 he threw a perfect game, now he's the highest paid pitcher of all time, and, as all Mariners fans hope, he will be a World Champion down the road. If there was ever a more perfect road to Cooperstown, I haven't heard of it yet. Now comes the hard part, everything just has to work out. 

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