Quick quiz! Of all the players featured in our Red Sox Free Agent Targets pieces here at OTM (Pablo Sandoval, Jon Lester, Andrew Miller, James Shields, Russell Martin, and now Max Scherzer), which player was the most valuable last season (we'll go by rWAR)?
The answer, obviously, is Scherzer. Same is true if you're using Baseball Prospectus's WARP stat, though, oddly, FanGraphs has Lester as a half win better than Scherzer last season. I'll just let that one lie there and move on to telling you that, in fact, over the past three seasons only two pitchers in baseball have more FanGraphs WAR than Scherzer: Felix Hernandez and Clayton Kershaw. That's heady company. Scherzer is the best free agent available on the market, and I'm not sure it's even close. Yes, he's probably going to be paid like it, so get ready for some big numbers when his time comes, but if you're going to spend and you want to win, it makes sense to pay more and get the absolute best guy.
We all love Jon Lester, and with good reason. Heck, I root for a bunch of pro sports teams, but I own only one official non-replica jersey and it's a Jon Lester Red Sox jersey, so you know where my allegiances are. Lester came up with the Sox, he beat cancer with the Sox, he won two World Series championships while with the Sox. Jon Lester should have been a Red Sox for life. He should have been, but sadly that ship has sailed. I wish it hadn't, but it has, and now we're at the point where the Red Sox have to make a choice. No, they get to make a choice. They can go hard after Lester which they may or may not be doing depending on who you talk to and when you talk to them, they can settle for James Shields (which, really?), or they can move beyond the mistakes of the past, and get the best pitcher on the market.
If we put sentimentality aside, it's not so difficult to see that Scherzer has been a better pitcher than Lester (I'm not even going to entertain the possibility that Scherzer and Shields are in the same category; they're not). Scherzer has more strikeouts, a higher career strikeout rate, a lower career walk rate, a better career FIP, the exact same (?!) career ERA, has thrown 357 fewer regular season innings, and is a year younger than Lester. Whether Scherzer is better than Lester isn't really up for debate. You can give Lester extra credit for pitching in the more difficult division and in a more difficult media environment, and for his extraordinary pitching in the post-season (though Scherzer has been fine in the post-season), but even all that doesn't make up for the fact that Scherzer strikes out many more hitters, walks fewer, allows fewer runs, has thrown fewer innings, and is a year younger.
That's all in the past though. How do we know what these guys will be like going forward? Well, we don't. We know Shields will soon be in his mid-30s which isn't a place you want to be when you're spending $20 million per year on a guy. We know Scherzer throws super hard, we know he gets swings and misses, more swings and misses than any pitcher in baseball over the last three years. What that says to me is that this guy is really good, but also that he has some room to fall. If his skills start to degrade, he's not going to fall apart. He's still going to be very valuable. Shields, if he loses anything, is going to go to pieces. Lester is more wily and has better stuff, and I like him going forward a lot. But Lester has more wear and tear on his arm than Scherzer by almost two full seasons worth.
Photo Credit: Rob Carr
We all know Lester will be expensive (seriously, nice job on those extension talks, guys), but the consensus is he'll be cheaper than Scherzer. Lester is going to cash in, but Scherzer is going to get Scrooge McDuck money. The difference between the two will be more money than any of us ever see, but to the Red Sox, well, it won't be nothing, but it won't be team-destroying either.
The argument for signing Scherzer over Lester (though I'd be all for signing them both) is that Scherzer is the better pitcher. The difference in money matters less. It sounds strange to say that when we're talking about such huge dollars, but think about it this way. After the Red Sox signed Carl Crawford, the issue wasn't that Crawford wasn't good enough for his contract. He wouldn't have been good enough for his contract had it been half the size. The issue was that Carl Crawford was flat-out terrible at baseball. The problem wasn't that the Red Sox were paying him to be a five win player and he was a three and a half win player, it was that they were paying him to be a five win player and he was barely replacement level when he was healthy, which he often wasn't.
The real problem with free agent contracts isn't the difference in dollars between first and second place, it's whether or not that player will be a healthy and effective player in the years going forward. It sounds like a small bar to jump over when you're paying a guy $100 or $200 million, but really, that's the rub. Crawford, Teixeira, Sabathia, A-Rod, Joey Votto, Joe Mauer, Matt Kemp, Troy Tulowitzki, Masahiro Tanaka, David Wright, Prince Fielder, Ryan Zimmerman... should I go on? All those guys got huge deals and all of them have fallen well short of being worth their salaries. You can make a case that Votto has been worth it, but with his injuries and declining power, I think that money is starting to look albatrossy. Also maybe I'm being unfair to Tanaka in a sense as he was great before getting hurt, but then getting hurt is a real thing that can sap value from these contracts, so maybe I'm being fair after all.
Dirk Hayhurst said that pitching isn't an injury waiting to happen, it's an injury happening. That's one reason why, in addition to the overall quality, I'm concerned about workload. That's why it matters that Scherzer has thrown about 350 fewer innings and about 5,000 fewer pitches than Lester. Scherzer, Shields, and Lester have all been healthy so far and since the biggest red flag for future injuries is past injuries, they all grade out well in that regard. But given previous free agent signings, I keep thinking of workload and age. And quality. Scherzer grades out best in all of the categories. I'm as big a Lester fan as there is, and I'll do cartwheels if they re-sign him, but I'm a fan. The Red Sox need to get the guy who will make them the best team, who well win them the most games and give them the best shot to win another World Series. That's not Jon Lester, and it's definitely not James Shields. It's Max Scherzer.