Not long after the San Francisco Giants signed Barry Zito, I wondered whether they might come to regret giving the left-hander $126 million for seven years. I made the obvious (to everyone but the Giants, I suppose) comparison between Zito and Mike Hampton, who had landed a similarly spectacular deal with the Colorado Rockies years earlier and fizzled.
Hampton actually was a little better and younger than Zito, but you get the idea. Again, none of this is terribly novel. A quick check of Baseball-Reference reveals that Zito’s most comparable pitcher through age 28 was Hampton. Their similarity score was 963, which is pretty darned similar.
However, similar is not the same as identical, and so although Hampton’s contract gave (or should have given) teams ample reason to fear doling out the big bucks (and years) to a finesse lefty, it does no good to point these things out a priori and then walk away under the assumption that history must repeat itself. In that spirit, I revisited the signing toward the end of Zito’s first season in San Francisco. Turns out it bore stronger resemblance to Hampton’s first season in Colorado than I’d imagined possible.
If you removed the names and told me these lines were generated by the same player, I would believe it.
Twins? Minnesotans hope not
Now that Zito is approaching the end of his third season with the Giants (only four more to go!) and has more than 500 innings under his belt in San Francisco, I thought I’d check in again. First off, unless you are a fan of the Giants, you’ll be happy to know that Hampton and Zito remain difficult to tell apart from a statistical perspective. They’ve been tied at the proverbial hip for a while now, as their similarity scores over the past several years attest (a perfect match is 1000):
- Age 26: 971
- Age 27: 976
- Age 28: 963
- Age 29: 941
- Age 30: 965
Let’s see how Hampton and Zito fared over the first three (well, almost three in Zito’s case; this is through his August 19 start at Cincinnati) years of their contracts.
You know how certain men all end up looking like Kenny Rogers (the singer, not the pitcher) and you can’t tell ’em apart? That’s kind of what’s happening with Hampton and Zito. Only instead of Kenny Rogers, it’s Doug Davis. Creepy, huh?
What about Doug?
Speaking of Davis, I had an interesting discussion about him the other day. I had forgotten that the Arizona Diamondbacks traded for him right around the same time as the Giants signed Zito. I had forgotten because Davis isn’t the sort of pitcher you remember.
Zito once won the Cy Young Award. Davis once had three straight seasons in which he pitched 200 or more innings and won exactly half of his decisions. (He blew his shot at a fourth by going 13-12 and working just 192.2 innings in 2007.)
Anyway, within the span of a few weeks, both Zito and Davis came to the National League West to ply their craft. One arrived with a good deal more fanfare and money than the other, but what were both teams actually getting?
Zito was the better pitcher, but not by much. At least, not by enough to offset the difference in cost.
We’ve already touched on Zito’s contract, but what did the Diamondbacks pay for Davis’ services? Well, in November 2006, they sent Greg Aquino, Johnny Estrada, and Claudio Vargas to the Milwaukee Brewers for Davis, Dana Eveland, and Dave Krynzel.
None of the players Arizona gave up did much for their new team. Eveland and Krynzel didn’t do anything for the Diamondbacks either, although Eveland later became part of the package that netted them Dan Haren. Overall, the cost to acquire Davis was modest.
Turning to financial considerations, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, Arizona signed Davis to a three-year deal worth $22 million In January 2007—just a couple months after they’d traded for him. That broke out as follows:
- 2007: $5.5M
- 2008: $7.75M
- 2009: $8.75M
Now let’s look at their respective cost and production since both signed.
Okay, so Davis missed a few starts in ’08. I’m guessing that whoever took his place wasn’t bad enough to drag their collective ERA+ down to Zito’s level.
Davis has been the better pitcher so far, for about half the cost. And the Diamondbacks don’t need to worry about how he’ll perform into his mid-30s because his contract is up after this season. The Giants, on the other hand, owe Zito a minimum of $83 million over the next five years (assuming they buy him out in 2014 rather than pick up his option, which would bring the total cost to $94 million).
Oh, and Zito has a full no-trade clause. On the bright side, he doesn’t figure to collect on potential bonuses earned from winning the MVP or Cy Young Award.
The Giants paid for… well, I don’t know who you can compare Zito to because his was the largest contract ever given to a pitcher at the time. What they got was Dennis Rasmussen.
No disrespect to Rasmussen, but you don’t pay a guy who produces at that level ace money. You pay him like you pay Doug Davis and let him soak up innings at the back of your rotation. If you are intent on playing the market, spend a little less for roster filler and save your big bucks for impact players.
There are two take-home lessons here. The first is that it’s a good idea to pay attention to history. It didn’t take a genius to note the similarities between Hampton and Zito, and suggest that maybe throwing giant wads of cash at the latter wasn’t the best use of resources. Yet somebody did just that.
The other concerns the gap between perception and reality. The perception after the 2006 season was that Zito was a superior pitcher to Davis. The reality was that their demonstrated abilities were similar. Sometimes people will pay more for something they think has greater value… because it costs more.
To put it another way, if Hampton was the cautionary tale reminding us about the dangers of overspending on a certain type of pitcher, then Davis was the generic equivalent that provided solid value without much marketing hype. If you are buying the same thing, why not take the one that costs less so you can spend more of your money on something else you might need?
Actually, now that I think of it, there is a third lesson as well: Even if something seems obvious (as I claimed the comparison between Hampton and Zito did at the top), it’s probably worth examining.
This is all the more true if you have the authority to spend millions of dollars on talent. The next time you think about purchasing a Zito, you might first want to check for a Hampton. And if you find one, maybe it’s time to start shopping for a Davis instead.