When Andrew Friedman secured Matt Moore to be the Rays’ personal diamond in the rough for eight years into the entry years of his adulthood, he highlighted the soon-to-be ape madness for Major League Baseball teams to lock up the best pitchers in the game early. No longer do clubs allow chance or the sweet smell of Benjamins from the other side of the country to entice their Cy Young-caliber arms. They all know the name of the game now: Performance enhancing drugs no longer taint the sport (but we’re still watching you, Melky, Bartolo!), so the arms are the key. Securing the best pitchers for their prime years means everything now that the playing field has seemingly been leveled back to a single divide: the green-shaded face of the electric inventor.
Matt Moore’s eight-year contract made waves because at the time in the Majors, he had fewer innings under his belt than websites Melky Cabrera made as backups to avoid being caught for using PEDs. The Rays knew, though, that they had a gem on their hands who had just struck out 210 batters in 155 innings pitched in Triple A. Such sparkling numbers don’t go unnoticed. So, they abided by the new theory: lock the arm up. Nearly a decade commitment for a starting pitcher is mad in free agency, but if a MLB team secures their current starters, then it doesn’t seem so bananas. It’s even viewed as a show of faith by the team and the player.
You can look around in the recent headlines to find startlingly-bold deals for starting pitchers: A five-year, $80 million deal for Justin Verlander in 2010; five years for $85 million for Jered Weaver in August of 2011; a six-year, $127.5 million deal for Matt Cain in April of this year; a six-year, $144 million contract for Cole Hamels in July. The Detroit Tigers, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, the San Francisco Giants, and the Philadelphia Phillies all rushed to their star pitchers’ agents to hammer out deals before they could enter the market. Double figures every year? No problem. Five years at least? Really, no problem. All the teams will gladly grin and fork over the large chunks of change now if it means ensuring that they don’t have to shell out even in more in the winter, or worse, let another deep-pocketed team give offers to their success cogs (or the other two-thirds of MLB teams who have bigger payrolls, in the Rays’ case).
The game requires such covetousness now. In the previous era when half of the sluggers were juiced, starting pitchers could hardly crave to compete. For whatever reason, not nearly as many pitchers were found to be using PEDs as hitters were, so the average pitcher was seen as second-class to a bat. With the drug policy tighter today, home run totals have plummeted and no-hitters have become as commonplace as dances that Felix Hernandez can come up with. From 2003 to 2007 there were 26,020 home runs in Major League Baseball; from 2008 to 2012, so far there have been 22,980 with less than a quarter of the season to go. On the flip side, from 2003 to 2007, including combined no-hitters, there were seven notations of history; in the last five years, there have been 19. The statistics don’t lie; starting pitchers are key to teams’ success now, even if they only pitch once every five days. Philadelphia’s desire to bring together Halladay, Lee, Hamels, and Oswalt two years ago was as much evidence required to see that front offices deemed rotations as top-priority. Even the most feared lineups in Texas and the Bronx gulp and perspire when they face teams with three or four aces.
Risks can’t be taken on the valuable starting pitchers any longer. The arm of the man on the mound is fickle; it’s liable to bow the wrong way and no longer aim properly. There is no logical reason for a pitcher to be given a six, seven, or even an eight-year deal; who knows if the pitcher will even have arm ligaments by the time such a contract ends. Yet, MLB teams understand that pitching is what wins games again, not the home run ball that makes people excited to see because they go out of the ballpark so less often now. Investing in a pitcher for half a decade or longer with huge amounts of capital is preferable over letting a Verlander enter the free market to be swallowed up by the team with the biggest wallet.
But while the largest safe hold of cash doesn’t automatically trap these prized assets now, how many clubs with a $50 million payroll can afford to compete with even the next-to-biggest ones shelling out at least $10 million a year on the apple of baseball diamonds? (A bargain sale amount for a Cole Hamels-like starting pitcher, but still, do you really think the Tampa Bay Rays can afford anyone else like Matt Moore if he’s seen by everyone, now that no one doesn’t use stat-studded eyeglasses?) No Cy Young-level starting pitcher can hide after a few seasons, make GMs scoff, and think it’s just an anomaly. As a consequence, no pitcher of such a stage will accept Matt Moore-like money when he knows he has so many suitors waiting in the winter. Jered Weaver himself said that big money is enough and is preferable to Yankee money, but the small teams can’t even afford to shell out big money once their assets comprehend their worth.
So we come back to money. To the outside observer it seems as though the playing field of significant management and prudent ideas is equal. All teams wade in statistics now. The best players can’t hide anymore – not even the pitchers. As a result, money is the divide now, once again. No longer can the Oakland Athletics expect that the Yankees will have the inability to remember how to calculate WHIP, thus allowing them to compete with a payroll more than triple their girth.
The game is becoming less fair again, focused on the richer becoming more and more impossibly stacked in the lineup card and arm locker. Fewer players are undervalued now. The advantage has run dry.
But hey, maybe the external observer can’t see what’s going on behind the wall of stats and calculators that now coat Major League Baseball. Maybe a new theory is being whispered from ear to ear throughout the bottom table of payrolls. That would explain how it’s 2002 all over again in Oakland. But until this is confirmed for the less keen of eye, it appears as if locking down the powerful arms is the new theory on the Major League block.