The Benson and Rusch Gambles, Er, Contracts

A current and a former New York Met signed contracts over the weekend. And when the words “Met” and “contract” are in the same sentence, you know there’s bound to be some head-scratching going on.

As expected, the Metropolitans signed Kris Benson to a three-year deal, in which he’ll earn $7.5 million a year with a club option for a fourth year. That is a steep price to pay for a pitcher who has never won more than twelve games and has never had an ERA below 3.85.

Last year, Benson went 12-12 between the Pirates and the Mets, with a 4.31 ERA and nine Win Shares. According to Lee Sinins, he had a -11 RSAA. In fact, he hasn’t had a positive RSAA since 2000 (he missed the entire 2001 season due to arm injury).

I’ve tweaked my Net Win Shares Value Calculator to make it project “expected” salaries for next year, given a certain level of performance. Well, maybe not “expected” salaries. How about “deserved” salaries? No, that doesn’t seem right either.

Anyway, it not only doesn’t have a name, it’s not finished yet. But the idea is to predict what a player’s salary should be next year, based on total 2004 salary levels, Win Shares, the player’s position and a dollop of inflation. I ran Kris Benson through the Salary Whatchamacallit and found that he should expect a salary of $4 million if he compiles nine Win Shares again. That’s a lot less than $7.5 million.

OK, so what are the positives here? Well, Benson did have a 3.62 :FIP:, indicating that he had solid strikeout and walk ratios, as well as an ability to keep the ball in the park. FIP is actually a better predictor of future ERA than ERA itself, so Benson may well have some upside next year. And Benson actually pitched well in Shea, based on the batted ball types I pulled from the Hardball Times Baseball Annual:

Type       AVG     PIT     NYM
K          17%     15%     18%
BB         10%      9%      7%
GB         32%     32%     30%
FB         22%     23%     26%
IF          4%      4%      4%
LD         13%     15%     14%

Still, Benson’s batted ball profile seems only slightly better than average, and last year’s FIP was the best of his career, owing largely to a relatively low home run rate. So this signing is a definite gamble by the Mets. Maybe the question is, how big a gamble is it?

Turning once again to my Salary Thingamajig, I created the following table of predicted salary by ERA, given the 200 innings that Benson is likely to pitch:

    ERA      WSAR       Sal
    2.75     11.5    $18,500
    3.25      7.7    $12,467
    3.75      4.3     $7,100
    4.25      1.1     $2,038
    4.75       -2       $300

Based on this table, it looks as though the Mets expect Benson to register an ERA right around his 2004 FIP for the next three years (hey, think they read the Hardball Times?). Seems to me that’s pretty optimistic, but there have been bigger gambles.

You can tell that my Salary Widget still needs work, by the way, as I doubt that the replacement level of a starting pitcher is a 4.50 ERA. But the other thing that knocked me out about this chart is the impact half a run in ERA can have on expected salary. Essentially, half a run equals $5 million a year in salary. Do you know anyone who can always predict a pitcher’s ERA within half a run? If so, I hope they’re not in your APBA league.

I went over to Baseball Prospectus to look over Nate Silver’s outstanding PECOTA charts. PECOTA is a system that Nate put together to project a player’s future performance, and he put bands, or percentiles, around each player’s expected outcome. I reviewed a few pitcher PECOTAs, and the general impression I got was that the average pitcher has an expected outcome distribution that looks something like this:

                       Percentile
A full Run less             90%
Half a Run less             75%
Average ERA                 50%
Half a Run more             25%
A Run and a half more       10%

In other words, if you think Kris Benson will have a 3.75 ERA next year, there is a 50% chance that he will come in between 3.25 and 4.25. That’s a $10 million swing, with only a 50% chance of certainty, and the outer-bound downside is worse than the upside. Essentially, every pitcher contract is a huge gamble, and we haven’t even talked about injury risk yet.

All told, however, I don’t think Kris Benson is the biggest gamble in the world. Based on his FIP and age, I think there is a very good chance he’ll at least have an ERA under 4.50, and he may in fact have a decent shot at 3.75 for a year or two. The Mets have made worse gambles.

Glendon Rusch, a former Met, Brewer and Royal, signed a $4 million, two-year deal with the Chicago Cubs over the weekend, just one year after going 1-12 with a 6.42 ERA with the Brewers.

Remember how Rusch signed that $7.3 million two-year contract in February of 2002 with the Brewers? He went on to compile a cumulative -35 RSAA in the next two years, which means that the Brewers essentially got nothing for their money. That was one gamble that really didn’t work.

But Rusch had a surprisingly fine year last year — one Cubs announcer (I forget which one. Maybe I’ll remember when I hear him on TV next year… Doh!) went so far as to call Rusch the Cubs’ pitching MVP. Now, Carlos Zambrano might have other ideas, but Rusch did go 6-2 with a 3.47 ERA, 16 RSAA and a 3.55 FIP. Reportedly, Rusch learned a new pitch, or pitched inside more, or something like that. Did it work? Here’s a table of his batted ball types:

Type       AVG   Rusch
K          17%     17%
BB         10%      7%
GB         32%     30%
FB         22%     24%
IF          4%      3%
LD         13%     17%

Glendon Rusch has always been one of the poster boys for high line drive rates, and 2004 was no different. The big improvement he made was in his walk rate, which plummeted to 2.3 a game, vs. 3.3 the previous two years. He also managed to keep his home run rate under control, which was quite a feat considering he pitched in one of the best home run parks in 2004.

As you know from the salary chart, a $2 million signing is appropriate for a 4.25 ERA given 200 innings pitched. Based on his history, I don’t believe that Rusch will match either figure in either year of his contract. A smaller gamble by the Cubs, but one just as unlikely to pay off, in my opinion.

Both of these moves were probably good PR moves. The Mets had to sign Benson, given that they gave up a couple of very good prospects for him. And Rusch had become very popular with Cubs’ fans (and announcers!). And both pitchers probably would have made just about as much money from another team.

But there is so far no evidence of the fiscal restraint we saw from owners last year. With the big names watching and getting their dossiers ready, this may become an expensive offseason.

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