On Friday, the Houston Astros signed free agent pitcher Doug Fister to a one-year contract with a guaranteed salary of $7 million and an additional $5 million in performance bonuses. That may seem like a nice salary, but in a landscape in which Mike Leake got $80 million and Ian Kennedy got $70 million (both on five-year commitments), you can see how Fister is on the low end of today's pay grade for veteran starters. Furthermore, the structure of the deal says it all -- when there is an incentive for reaching 100 innings, the message is that this pitcher is a big risk.
Meanwhile, back in November, the Oakland A's signed free agent pitcher Rich Hill to a one-year contract with a guaranteed salary of $6 million and no further incentives. You don't need context or nitty-gritty contractual details to prove that this is a show-me deal for a bounce-back candidate -- Hill has thrown 100 MLB innings exactly once (2007), he didn't make a single MLB start from 2010-14, and in 2015 he made nearly as many starts (two) for the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League as he did in the bigs for the Red Sox (four). He's a big risk no matter how you slice it.
So, which team made the better buy-low gamble? Let's investigate! Note that the A's also signed Henderson Alvarez as another bounce-back flyer, and you may have higher hopes for him than for Hill, but I'm using Hill because he's been guaranteed a rotation spot while Alvarez is almost certain to miss the first month or two of the season.
Let's set the scene with a few big-picture facts:
- Fister is a righty, Hill is a lefty
- Fister turns 32 on Thursday, Hill turns 36 in March
- Fister has made 167 MLB starts, with at least 25 in five of the last six years; Hill has made 74 MLB starts, and has made more than 16 only once (32 in 2007)
- Fister has a 117 ERA+ in over 1000 career innings, while Hill has a 100 ERA+ in 500 innings
- Fister relies primarily on a sinker-split-slider arsenal, with a fourseam and curve on the side; Hill goes with fourseam-curve, with a change and a slider on the side
Unfortunately, most of that stuff favors Fister. He's younger (or less old?), and he has a far superior track record both in terms of quantity (he's pitched more) and quality (he's pitched better). He's even got a slightly bigger repertoire, with five pitches to choose from instead of four. The only advantage Hill has on that list is that he's a lefty.
If we stopped there, Fister would clearly be the better signing. But of course, there's more to this equation, starting with ...
If you look at base salaries, the contracts are about the same. But that comparison will only be relevant if Fister flames out completely, and if that happens then Hill would likely look like the better signing in hindsight (or, if both flame out, then none of this matters anyway).
But what if these guys actually contribute something? Fister's incentives kick in quickly, as he earns an extra $1 million for hitting the following innings thresholds: 100, 125, 150, 175, 200. Over the 2011-14 seasons, which are the ones that put Fister on the map as a quality starter, he averaged 188 frames. A "successful" Fister season in 2016 probably includes at least 150 innings, which would increase his earnings to $10 million. That's nearly double what Hill will earn, no matter how well he performs.
In a scenario where both hurlers stay healthy and put in reasonable workloads, Hill only needs to be about half as good as Fister to break even. Any more than that, and the A's likely got a better value. Granted, the only bottom line that truly matters is how much a player helps the team win, as you don't get extra credit in the standings for wins-per-dollar, but the point here is to see which guy is the better bet. The real comparison should be Fister at $10M+ vs. Hill at $6M.
The risks: Fister
So why are these guys so cheap? Fister's story is simple: he missed a month in 2015 with "right forearm tightness" that was diagnosed as a flexor strain in his elbow. For those who have been following baseball for a while, those specific terms will light up your Tommy John radar, although let me be clear that the injury didn't and hasn't progressed to that point yet and may not ever. But we're looking at risk factors here, and that's a major one that must be considered ongoing.
The good news for Fister was that he did return to the mound after his brief layoff, but the bad news is he was a bit of a gascan afterward and ended up moving to the bullpen. So, he literally came back, but he did so at a diminished capacity and only ended up notching 103 innings overall.
The worst news for Fister, though, is the continual drop in his fastball velocity over the last several years. Numbers will vary slightly based on the source, but here's the general gist (rounded to the nearest mph):
2011: 90 mph
2012: 89 mph
2013: 89 mph
2014: 88 mph
2015: 86 mph
It's natural for velocity to dip over time, but a two-mile drop coinciding with elbow problems that are often associated with TJS? That still stands out. And no matter what the circumstances, it's tough to succeed in MLB when you're throwing 86. For evidence of that, consider that Fister's strikeout rate has fallen steadily from 20.4% in 2012 to 14.0% in 2015. (Or, if you prefer strikeouts per nine innings, he went from 7.63 to 5.50.) A big part of that decline in Ks is that he isn't missing bats anymore -- he induced swings-and-misses on 8.1% of his pitches in 2012, but that rate dropped to 5.2% in 2015. In other words, he gets whiffs around two-thirds as often as he did in his peak, which is significant even for a pitch-to-contact command specialist. (Some of this Fister info was adapted from a post by David Schoenfield on ESPN.)
The risks: Hill
What's tougher to come back from, major elbow surgery or major shoulder surgery? Oh wait, it doesn't matter, because Hill has had both, with some back problems mixed in too. That's a triple-whammy.
After a wonderful 2007 season as a 27-year-old for the Cubs (32 starts, 195 innings, 118 ERA+, 2.90 K/BB), Hill missed almost all of 2008, though it's unclear to me if it had more to do with his back problems or simply his Ankielish loss of command (which resulted in a walk per inning even after a demotion to the minors). Either way, things managed to go downhill from that low point -- he tore the labrum in his shoulder in 2009, and then he had Tommy John surgery on his elbow in 2011. Between those two significant injuries, he only threw around 30 innings in MLB from 2010-12, plus another 130 in the minors in that three-year span.
Hill finally returned to health in 2013, but at that point he was relegated to a LOOGY role with the Indians. And worse, he didn't even do a good job with it, posting a 6.28 ERA in 63 games. In 2014, he made 16 appearances and recorded 16 total outs (for the Yankees and Angels, gross). The one bright side is that, even through the worst of these struggles, Hill always racked up strikeouts -- in those three lost years of 2010-12 he still fanned more than a batter per inning, and in his time as a LOOGY in 2013-14 he struck out 60 batters in 44 frames (12.3 K/9). When Hill is healthy enough pitch, he misses bats. (And that's not just a factor of beating up on lefties in recent years; his strikeout rate is actually higher against righties dating back to 2012.)
That brings us to 2015, when Hill fought his way through a release (by the Nats) and a stint in independent ball to crack Boston's rotation in September. The four starts he made for the Sox are the reason we're having this discussion: he threw a shutout against the Orioles in one of his games, and overall he struck out 36 batters in 29 innings. That led to the following record, via Sean McAdam CSN New England: "Hill became the first American League pitcher in the last 100 years to record at least 10 strikeouts in each of his first three starts with a team." Dang. He didn't just come back, he came back so hard that he made history. Sure, September success is sometimes a mirage, but you can start to see why he was such a hot commodity this winter.
Since we looked at Fister's velocity, how about Hill's? First we must remember that the lefty has moved between the bullpen and rotation over the years, and you would expect a guy to throw harder as a short reliever than as a starter. And yet, his velocity has stayed constant for his entire career. He was a touch above 89 mph in his early years as a starter, moved up a tick to 90 as a reliever, and then maintained that 90 mark with Boston last year. After all those surgeries, he still throws as hard as always, if not harder. But of course, as with Fister, velocity is not Hill's game. Rather, it's this curve:
When we add it all up? Despite all the injuries, Hill's stuff doesn't seem to have deteriorated even in his mid-30s. The gamble seems to have more to do with if he will pitch, rather than how well he pitches. If he's on that mound, he's gonna rack up Ks at the very least.
Obviously there is no right or wrong answer to this debate. It's all a matter of what traits you value and which risk factors scare you more, and frankly both of these guys are at least worth trying out. But in a world of "what have you done for me lately," it's sure tempting to side with the 30-something who was briefly awesome last year rather than a 30-something whose downward spiral hit a new low last year. Factor in that Hill is a lefty, and that he might only earn half the salary that a healthy Fister would get, and I think it's easy to make a case that Hill was the better bounce-back signing..
But of course, none of this will matter once the games begin in April. The best-laid schemes aren't worth the newsprint they're written on if Fister jumps out and returns to top form for, I dunno, reasons, or if Hill's arm explodes in his first game. When it comes down to it, we'll have to wait and see what happens. But, with the understanding that my glasses are green-and-gold tinted, I'm happy the A's got the guy they did.
The best part about all this, for both teams? The Astros don't need Fister to be good, just as the A's don't need Hill to pan out. Houston still has Keuchel, McCullers, McHugh, Fiers, and Feldman. Oakland still has Sonny, Bassitt, Graveman, Hahn, and some other backend options like Nolin and Brooks, not to mention a backup bounce-back guy in Alvarez and a top-100 prospect in Manaea. Hill and Fister are both gambles for teams that can afford to gamble on an extra arm. Which one do you prefer?