Zack Greinke enters the free agent market at an ideal time, with the dearth of available starting pitching promising him a number of ever-increasing offers. Reports place Greinke’s value at 6 years and $150 million and if that total sounds steep, repeat after me. B.J. Upton. $75 million.
Out of the 37 $100-million contracts signed in baseball history (including opt outs), only 7 were handed to starting pitchers. Not without reason, teams tend to view starting pitchers as carrying a higher risk for injury, inconsistency, and post-30 regression. With a higher emphasis on pitch counts and innings limits, the value a single starting pitcher offers his team falls short of what it did 30 years ago. Greinke’s ability to command at least $20 million a year says much more about the free agent climate than it does about Greinke’s abilities. He’s a very good pitcher, a control artist whose numbers have been hampered by bad luck in the last two seasons, but he’s not a legitimate ace. Only once has his WAR exceeded 5.0 in a season.
I thought I’d take a look at the $100 million contracts handed to pitchers and evaluate their worth. With such a small sample size, this exercise isn’t meant to predict Greinke’s future but instead offer a very general idea of what happens after the ink dries on a blockbuster deal. And in celebration of me coming up with a pop culture hook for this article, let’s compare each deal with a recent blockbuster movie.
“King Kong” Kevin Brown: 7 Years/$105 million (1999-2005)
The Team: Los Angeles Dodgers
The WAR: 21.6
King Kong was a Peter Jackson spectacle designed to win a dozen Oscars, make a billion dollars, and extend his financial supremacy beyond the Tolkien brand. None of those things happened, which is shocking because Adrien Brody and Colin Hanks proved themselves to be box office dynamos in the years since. But King Kong still grossed $550 million, impressive considering its 3-hour run time and fully nude leading man. Like Kong, Kevin Brown developed a reputation for carrying a nasty temper, but someone still thought he was worth trapping and bringing to the big city.* The Dodgers handed the former San Diego ace the largest contract ever offered at that point, $105 million, and the expectations for his performance were gargantuan.
*One story I remember about Brown was how he was briefly hospitalized for hand tremors that he blamed on drinking too much Diet Pepsi. It was the late 90’s so draw your own conclusions.
Brown was 34 when he first took the mound for the Dodgers, and in hindsight the deal should have been an outright disaster. But Brown actually performed pretty well overall, finishing in the top 3 in WAR his first 2 seasons with the Dodgers. In 5 seasons with LA, he posted ERA+’s of 143, 167, 151, 79, and 169, with injuries limiting his capabilities in 2001 and 2002. Still, for a mid-30’s pitcher, getting 3 legitimately great seasons was more than the Dodgers should have expected, even if Brown’s price was waaaay too high. Which leads us back to Greinke. I’d fully expect Greinke to pitch well for whichever team he signs with. I’d also fully expect him to come across as a disappointment because of the inflated price tag.
“Captain America” Cliff Lee: 5 years/120 million (2011-2015)
The Team: Philadelphia Phillies
The WAR: 12.5 (so far)
Captain America was the sort of movie designed almost exclusively as a set-up. The half-baked villain, the cliffhanger ending, the period backstory suddenly moving into present day…all pointed to a sequel that took precedence over the 1st. Of course, The Avengers followed Captain America, taking Steve Rodgers and throwing him into a star-studded ring of fighters designed to fight evil through the powers of teamwork, quips, and impressive overseas grosses.
Widely expected to sign with the Yankees and team up with C.C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee instead opted to return to Philly where he absolutely dominated during the 2009 postseason. Like Captain America, he was a leaner superhero and a late bloomer, establishing himself as an ace in 2008. Yet, when the Phillies gave Lee the 5-year deal, he wasn’t seen as the cornerstone of the team. Instead, his contract was inked as a way of supporting megastar Roy Halladay, who won a Cy Young with the Phillies months before they signed Lee. Cliff was seen as part of a major cast that included Rollins, Utley, Howard (obviously Hawkeye in The Avengers scenario), and Cole Hamels (obviously Black Widow).
While 2011 went exactly as planned for Lee and the Phillies (during the regular season at least), 2012 was a disaster for almost everyone but Cliff. Lee’s 6-9 record speaks volumes considering he threw 211 innings, put up a 127 ERA+, and led the league in K/BB rate (7.4). He and Hamels were dynamic but an inept offense hampered by injuries to Howard and Utley (plus Halladay) meant that, I dunno, The Avengers failed to stop Loki and greasy mullets became all the rage on the Eastern seaboard.
“Battleship” Mike Hampton: 8 years/121 million (2001-2008)
The Team: Colorado Rockies
The WAR: 1.8
We’ve entered face-palm territory. I remember how the announcement of Paramount turning the Battleship game into a movie sounded like an Onion joke, the sort-of high concept poster you’d see in Tracy Jordan’s dressing room. $200+ million dollars spent on, what, explosions that kind of suck because they’re happening in the water? Director Peter Berg and company certainly hoped to make a big splash with their action picture but the price tag alone prematurely seemed to sink it. (Quit groaning. These terrible puns would be the funniest lines in the movie.) Then the plot synopsis told us that Battleship would involve alien invaders, leading critics to predict multiple Oscars. Sadly, the film opened to dismal reviews and audiences rejected the starpower of Taylor Kitsch and Andy Roddick’s wife.
Like Battleship, Mike Hampton’s contract was seen as ludicrous from the beginning. He’d pitched well for 4 years leading up the signing, all of which saw him exceed 200 innings. But Hampton’s K/BB rate in that span was about 1.7 and he relied exclusively on the downward movement of his pitches. You know what the mortal enemy of downward movement is? Coors Field. Hampton’s home run rate tripled his first season in Denver and he only stayed in town for one more woeful season. He was serviceable with the Braves (on Colorado’s dime, of course), but Tommy John surgery knocked him out of commission during the final three years of his contract. Hampton was like Battleship, a terrible idea that still managed to fall short of expectations. Greinke’s pedigree alone makes him a better option to overspend on.
C.C. “Iron Man” Sabathia: 7 years/161 million (2009-2015), 5 years/122 million (2012-2016).
The Team: New York Yankees
The WAR: 20.6 (so far)
The first Iron Man was great entertainment and it proved that giving a glib zillionaire a bunch of explosive toys is always an option the United States can consider in times of conflict. The second Iron Man proved that giving a glib zillionaire a bunch of explosive toys gets sort of tiring and replacing one black actor with another to play the exact same character seems a bit off. Still, both movies made the guy who whined a lot in Swingers so much money they let him direct Cowboys and Aliens and Gwenyth Paltrow got to give her $40,000 red hair dye made out of unicorn blood and the tears of single mothers another whirl. A third Iron Man is in the works and it’s sure to be a hit no matter the quality.
Marvel Studios mastered reliable cinematic fun, taking the same premise of quippy hero vanquishes villain and turning it into gold. C.C. Sabathia’s ability to throw 200+ very good innings every year reminds me of a Marvel film. He’s almost never the best pitcher around but he’s someone the Yankees can bank on to always bring them All-Star level seasons. Even with only 28 starts in 2012, Sabathia’s reached 200 innings in each of the last 6 seasons, averaging 233 frames a year. As a southpaw, he can mitigate Yankee Stadium’s little league dimensions against fellow lefties. As a Yankee, his ERA+’s range from 124 to 143 and he has three seasons with exactly 197 strikeouts.
2012, with a 3.3 WAR and 6 missed starts, marked Sabathia’s weakest campaign since 2005. It also represented the first season of his renegotiated contract, one that saw a slight uptick in his annual salary with one year added to the back end. At least in the very beginning, the proto-sequel to Sabathia’s Yankee tenure falls a little short. But his league-leading K/BB rate and strong finish mitigate concerns of decline, and it’s likely that Sabathia will be the one pitcher on this list to make good on his contract.
“John Carter of the Bay Area” Barry Zito: 7 years/126 million (2007-2013)
The Team: San Francisco Giants
The WAR: 3.8 (so far)
If Mike Hampton generated a facepalm, Barry Zito produces a plunge through festering sewage because teams were supposed to know better in the 21st century. Remember that cool scene in Catch Me If You Can where DiCaprio escapes an airplane by unscrewing the toilet and presumably squeezing through some pipes lined in that nasty blue water? And then he hustles down a runway as planes land around him? And then he meanders through New York in wintertime to head to his mother’s house on Christmas? And then he sees that his mother has a little daughter and the sort of expansive suburban house taken from DiCaprio as a teenager? And it’s snowing and all the lights are out and he feels miserable because his father is dead and his mother’s moved on and he smells like airplane sewage and he’s alone on the holidays and THEN he gets arrested right there on the front lawn? That’s how the Giants’ management feels every time they have to write Barry Zito a check.
John Carter was a Disney movie that cost $350 million to make with additional marketing costs somewhere in nine figures. I’m pretty sure it was more expensive for Disney to fake going to Mars than it was for NASA to send the Rover to the actual planet. And John Carter wasn’t even an extravagant failure, the kind of “Dead God” misstep more common during days in which producers were paid in grams of pharmaceutical cocaine. It landed with a mild thud, receiving mediocre reviews and ensuring that while Disney would continue to pump out the sort of lavish products and merchandise that control all our children’s’ minds, they wouldn’t be returning Taylor Kitsch to space any time soon.
For the Giants, the Zito signing resembles the John Carter debacle. He’s been an awful waste of money, but they continue to prosper, winning two World Series in the last three seasons. Part of baseball’s new fiscal culture, based around enormous revenues generated from television deals, allows such mistakes to get swept under the rug. Barry Zito has, overall, given the Giants less value over the last six seasons (for over $100 million) as Bryce Harper gave the Washington Nationals in 2012 for a few hundred grand (not including his signing bonus). In three of those six years, Zito’s been below replacement level, while Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and now Madison Bumgarner achieved major successes for a fraction of the cost combined. If Barry Zito is John Carter, the rest of the Giants staff are those dangerously popular “High School Musical” movies that cost $87 plus endless supplies of Ritalin for the cast.
Johan “Hugo” Santana: 6 years/137 million (2008-2013)
The Team: New York Mets
The WAR: 14.6 (so far)
Hugo seemed like such a winning idea. For the first time in his career, director Martin Scorsese was legitimately bankable. Even Shutter Island, which confused and/or depressed the hell out of everyone who saw it, grossed almost four times its production budget while The Departed and The Aviator were successful awards magnets. Hugo, based on a lauded children’s graphic novel, involved whimsy, a bustling train station, kids, dogs, villains, film history (yay?), and a surplus of talented character actors. It also employed 3D technology, which, like Lunchables, is the sort of thing kids love until they ask themselves why. What Paramount forgot about as they financed the film was that spending $170 million on a kid’s movie that doesn’t feature inanimate objects that talk is always a dicey move. Plus, Scorsese’s name only matters to people if he casts DiCaprio as someone who spends the movie growing progressively more unnerved. Even Raging Bull flopped. So Hugo, despite being pretty terrific and eschewing the vocal talents of Larry the Cable Guy, bombed at the box office.
Johan Santana looked like a similar bet and has produced similar results. He was the best pitcher in the American League every season from 2004-2006, very good in 2007, and earned himself major money from a Mets team desperate to recapture the turn-of-the-century Halcyon days of Al Leiter and John Olerud. In 2008, Santana held up his end, leading the N.L. in innings pitched and ERA and helping the Mets to a 2nd place finish.
Troubles were present the entire year, though. 2008 featured that strange Willie Randolph firing and the Phillies were beginning their brief run of dominance in the NL East. Santana’s strikeout rate plummeted, hitting 7.9 after 6 straight years over 1 per inning. His xFIP was over a run higher than his actual mark and a falling velocity came to predict the injury issues that marred Santana’s next two seasons; he was still very effective, with a 130 ERA+ thanks to plus control, but his dominance was clearly over. He missed all of 2011 and struggled mightily in 2012. Now 33 years old, Santana’s fastball sits at 88, lessening the impact of his once-devastating change-up. A former surefire ace will likely conclude his Mets career on disappointing terms, only providing the team with one season to match his contract despite a tremendous track record. Zack Greinke’s 2009 might rest in the pantheon of great seasons, but overall, he’s a riskier bet than Santana.
“The Avengers 2” Cole Hamels: 6 years/144 million (2013-2018)
The Team: Philadelphia Phillies
The WAR: Unknown
I’m running out of blockbuster parallels but since I already compared Hamels to Scarlett Johansson…Hamels’ contract doesn’t start until next year and Johansson looks to reprise her Black Widow role in the sequels for Captain America and The Avengers. There. Hamels begins his contract at the age of 29 and concludes it at 35, ages I expect Greinke to match with his deal. I imagine Greinke will command a similar amount of money as well. We’ll see what happens.