I recently read a fascinating article by Ricky Mears at Innings Pitched that discusses how different teams got value out of their pitchers. Mears asked the question whether teams were getting what they paid for when it came to their pitchers. After examining his findings for 2016, I want to extrapolate into 2017 and see what we might expect from the Toronto Blue Jays in terms of how much they’re paying their pitchers and whether they’re going to get equivalent value.
According to Mears, in 2016, the Toronto Blue Jays had the fifth highest WAR from their starting pitchers at 15.3 (using the Fangraphs calculation of WAR). They weren’t far off the leading club, the New York Mets, who got 18.3 Wins Above Replacement from their starting pitchers. When it came to their bullpen WAR, the Blue Jays were in the middle of the pack at 3.9 WAR, well behind the leaders, the Houston Astros (at 7.9 WAR).
I’m going to focus on starters’ return on investment rather than relievers mainly because a) clubs tend to spend their money on starting pitchers, and b) the effect that starters have on the game is far more pronounced due to the greater percentage of innings that they pitch. Now, Mears writes that the average salary per WAR is “approximately $7.97 million for 2016.” This means that the Blue Jays got approximately $121.941 million in value from their starting pitchers (somehow, Mears gets $122.1 million in his calculations so I’m going to use that, since he bases his conclusions on that). While the Blue Jays got $122.1 million in value from their starting pitchers, they only paid them $34.5 million, giving them the fourth-best return on investment, getting $87.6 million over their cost (with the Mets getting $131.8 million over what they paid their starters).
Mears uses this information to talk about a number of things like how much of a team’s salary budget is going towards their starters (the Blue Jays had 24.9% of their total salary in 2016 go to their starters) and whether there was a correlation between salary paid to starters and actual wins. While there wasn’t any significant correlation, Mears does note that teams who went to the playoffs tended to get at least 10 WAR from their starting pitchers.
So what does this mean for 2017? If the Blue Jays’ five starting pitchers are Marco Estrada ($14 mm), Francisco Liriano ($13 mm), J.A. Happ ($13 mm), Marcus Stroman ($3.4 mm) and Aaron Sanchez (est. $525,000) then they’ll earn a total of $43.925 million this season. This means that in order to be “worth” their salaries, they’ll have to put up a total of about 5.5 WAR (if each win above replacement is going for about $8 million, based on 2016 numbers).
That’s not such a high number and the Blue Jays, who have been mentioned as the club with one of the best starting rotations in baseball (as their fifth-place WAR ranking in 2016 attested), can expect to get more from their starters. I’m going to use a few different projection systems available at Fangraphs to try to get an idea of what we can expect from the Jays’ starters.
If we look at Marco Estrada, who was worth 3.0 WAR last year and 1.8 WAR the year before, Fangraphs’ own “Depth Charts” projection system has him throwing 168 innings with 1.9 WAR. Steamer has him at 1.4 WAR while ZiPS projects a 2.5 WAR.
J.A. Happ was worth 3.4 WAR in 2015 and 3.2 with the Blue Jays last year and Depth Charts has him at 2.6, Steamer at 2.3 and ZiPS at 2.4.
Francisco Liriano had a big fluctuation with a 3.6 fWAR in 2015 and 0.4 in 2016. He’s projected for better numbers than last year with Depth Charts projecting 1.7, Steamer 2.0 and ZiPS 1.7.
Marcus Stroman was worth just 0.4 WAR in 2015 (the year he missed most of the year with his blown-out knee and pitched just 27 innings) and 3.6 in 2016. He’s projected to be worth 3.2 WAR by Depth Charts, 3.2 by Steamer and 2.6 by ZiPS.
Finally, Aaron Sanchez was worth 0.3 WAR as a reliever in 92 1/3 innings in 2015 but in 192 innings as a starter in 2016 was worth 3.9 WAR. He’s projected to be worth 3.4 WAR by Depth Charts, 2.9 WAR by Steamer and 3.6 WAR by ZiPS.
Here is a chart with all of that data, just to help keep things straight.
Now, you’ll notice that Mears’s article had the Jays at 15.3 WAR by their starters and this chart notices that the Blue Jays only had 14.1. We still need to consider that Liriano was only with the Blue Jays for a couple of months and that R.A. Dickey was also in the rotation for most of the year.
When we take a look at what we expect to get from the Blue Jays’ starters, we’re well below the 15.3 WAR we got last year but still well above the (somewhat arbitrary) 10 WAR threshold that Mears designates as being that which most playoff teams need from their starters. So if the Jays get 11.8 WAR from their starters, they’ll get about $50.475 million more in value from their starters than they’re paying, which would put them right in the middle of the pack in terms of return on investment. If they get 12.8 WAR from their starters, they’ll get about $58.475 million more than they’re paying in value, which, on 2016’s chart, wouldn’t move them up that much but would probably help the club to another win which, in the AL East, could make a difference.
Obviously we can’t predict things too much. We’re not taking into account many variables like injuries, pitcher ineffectiveness and having to go to at least seven, eight, or even nine starting pitchers over the course of the season. The conclusion here is that the Toronto Blue Jays did very well last year maximizing their returns from their pitching staff and, if they want to make the playoffs again this year, they’ll likely have to continue to do the same.
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