The U Files #13: The Case of the Curious Contract

They say beauty is skin deep, yet so many go gaga over pretty things. The Mets are now set to find all about beauty. The team announced Thursday 12/05/02 the signing of LHP Tom Glavine to a three year deal worth with an option for a fourth year. Details of the contract of the deal have not been released, but ESPN reports the contract is worth at least $35 million with a vesting option that could raise the value to $42.5 million.

The deal will make the Mets look good to many observers. People will cry out joyously, "Wilpon finally stepped to the plate!!! The Mets signed a big name free agent!!!" But how much will it actually help them?

To estimate the value of Glavine to the Mets, I calculated how the presence of Glavine would have changed the fortunes of the 2002 Mets had he pitched here and posted the same numbers. In doing so I assumed he will replace Steve Trachsel, who is a free agent. Glavine pitched 224.1 innings and gave up 85 runs. Trachsel gave up 80 runs in 173.2 innings of work. Assuming the 50.2 extra innings Glavine pitched would be innings not pitched by the bullpen, and the bullpen pitched to the same RA, this makes for 21 fewer runs allowed by the pen.

The rest is a matter of simple math. The Mets gave up 703 runs in 2002. Taking away Trachsel's 80 runs, adding Glavine's 85, and subtracting 21 from the bullpen adds up to a net gain of 16 runs saved.

The Pythagorean Theory in baseball estimates a team's expected record from the number of runs it scores and gives up. The Mets scored 690 runs last year, and their Pythagorean record was 79-82. Had the Mets given up 16 fewer runs, or 687 in total, their Pythagorean record would have been .500. In 161 games this is a record of 80.5-80.5. Rounding that up to 81-81, this indicates Glavine is worth about 2 wins over Trachsel.

If it turns out that Glavine replaces someone other than Trachsel, the gain may be more. Still, it is safe to assume that the addition of Glavine by itself will not massively change the fortunes of the Mets. Some will observe that in a shortened postseason rotation, Glavine may have a greater effect if he pitches like Tom Glavine. On the other hand, Glavine hasn't fared well in recent playoff history, posting a playoff ERA of 6.60 in the last three years.

In any case, the Mets would need to be contenders to fully appreciate Glavine's value. It is safe to assume the under-performing hitters of the 2002 Mets can improve. Still, the Mets are left with holes at left field (Cedeno's not worth much even if he does improve), center field, and shortstop (a possible replacement of Rey Ordonez would likely only be a fill-in). Mike Piazza hasn't been the world-beater of old in recent years, and Edgardo Alfonzo isn't what he was before he was associated with the term "back trouble." Mo Vaughn and Jeromy Burnitz were never quite as good as they seemed to be, as they played mostly in hitter's parks. Nearly the entire team is past its prime. I project that even with Glavine, the Mets will win between 80 and 90 games.

Another thing to consider is age. Glavine will be 37 next year, and 39 in the last guaranteed year of the contract. Many studies, including a recent article by Rob Neyer, have concluded that pitchers lose it quickly in advancing age. Most pitchers who do pitch effectively in old baseball age are strikeout pitchers. Tom Glavine has never been a strikeout pitcher.

To give insight into the future of a player, Bill James invented similarity scores. These compare the statistics of the given player to those of all past players and award points in every category for similarities. The ten most similar pitchers to Tom Glavine by this method are (score in parenthesis): Bob Welch (903), Vida Blue (897), Jim "Catfish" Hunter (888), Orel Hershiser (887), Juan Marichal (886), Luis Tiant (885), Whitey Ford (879), Billy Pierce (871), Jim Palmer (869), and Charlie Buffinton (867).

Of these ten, Hunter and Buffinton didn't pitch past the age of 33. Welch had his last good season at the age of 35. Blue had an above average season at 32, followed it with two horrible years, and was above average again in his last year at the age of 36. Though, he only pitched 156.2 innings that year. Hershiser hung on until the age of 41, but his last good year came at the age of 38. Then, his ERA was 5 percent better than league average. His last exceptional year was the prior year, when he pitched to an ERA 16 percent better than average.

Marichal had his last good year at 33. Tiant had an exceptional year at 37, when his ERA was 25 percent better than league average. The next year, he was 5 percent better than average. That was his last good year. Whitey Ford never had a year in which his ERA was higher than league average. His ERA was 5 percent better than average at the age of 36. He pitched only 73 and 44 innings the next two years, then was out of baseball. Pierce had a great year at 31, when his ERA was 36 percent better than league average. In the ensuing years, his innings fell and he was little better than average. Palmer posted an ERA 29 percent better than average at 36, and pitched 76.2 and 17.2 innings the next two years, both worse than average in ERA.

This analysis suggests Glavine is due to fall off sometime in his next contract, and by the last year will be a fossil not worth his salary. Glavine, unless he turns out to be a freak, won't be worth his contract, and will not lead the Mets to the promised land. Thus, his signing will likely have little value other than as a public relations boost. The signing is, for all practical purposes, meaningless.

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