Greinke, Hamels both elite but one is a better bargain
Less than a week ago, things were looking up for the Phillies. Though they had fallen four games under .500 amid an injury-riddled first half, they appeared headed toward becoming whole again, as Chase Utley had returned to action, Ryan Howard had started a rehab assignment and Roy Halladay had a timetable for returning as well. Five consecutive losses later, the Phillies are now 36-45, 11 games out of first place, buried in the NL East cellar and clearly sellers on the trade market. Over the weekend, they shipped Jim Thome to the Orioles, and according to multiple reports, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. is calling teams about the availability of Cole Hamels, who’s headed toward free agency at the end of the year.
Hamels may not be the only ace on the market. With the Brewers six games under .500 and seven games out of first place at 36-42, general manager Doug Melvin must reckon with the likelihood that the team won’t be able to sign Zack Greinke to an extension. They don’t appear to have committed to trading him yet, but the defending NL Central champions haven’t been above .500 since April 12, so such a move is almost inevitable.
Certainly, both pitchers rank among the game’s elite and could be potential difference-makers in a pennant race but if both wind up on the market, Greinke is likely to be the better bargain for a contender if only because the asking price for him would be lower than it would for the postseason darling Hamels. The 28-year-old lefty is a former NLCS and World Series MVP who has made 13 postseason starts and posted a 3.09 ERA in them. Hamels has never won a Cy Young award, and has only been on two All-Star teams, but in his seven-year career — all with the Phillies — he’s posted a 3.37 ERA while striking out 8.5 per nine. He has been slightly better than that this year, albeit in a lower-scoring environment, with a 3.08 ERA and 9.0 strikeouts per nine.
Greinke has posted a 3.75 ERA and 8.0 strikeouts per nine in his nine-year career, the first seven of which were spent with the Royals. That timespan included serious growing pains; depression and social anxiety disorder nearly led him to quit baseball early in his major league career. The 28-year-old righty has long since rebounded from that low, winning the AL Cy Young award in 2009 and helping the Brewers to a division title after being acquired in a six-player blockbuster in December 2010. His postseason track record — a 6.48 ERA in three starts — however, pales in comparison to Hamels’. Greinke has been superb this year, with a 2.82 ERA and 9.0 strikeouts per nine, but unlike Hamels, he was left off the NL All-Star squad, perhaps the most glaring snub among pitchers when it comes to the Midsummer Classic.
Statistically, there isn’t a whole lot separating the two, though any value metric-based comparison depends upon both the timeframe one uses and the extent to which one accounts for those things over which a pitcher has more control (strikeouts, walks and homers, largely) versus the ones he doesn’t (defensive and bullpen support). Using Baseball-Reference’s version of Wins Above Replacement, which attributes all of the responsibility for runs allowed to a pitcher, Greinke has a 17.6 to 15.3 edge if you compare the two pitchers since the beginning of the 2009 season. Take that year — in which Greinke posted a 2.16 ERA and won the Cy Young, while Hamels posted a career-worst 4.32 ERA (twice as high!) — out of the equation and it’s Hamels with a substantial edge, 13.6 to 7.5.
Using Baseball Prospectus’ version of Wins Above Replacement Player, which adjusts for defensive and bullpen support, as well as sequencing (the ability to get a groundball or a strikeout with runners on base, for example), Greinke has a significant edge going back to 2009, 16.2 to 11.3, and a smaller edge if that campaign is excluded as ancient history, 9.0 to 7.6. The two pitchers’ peripherals are fairly similar, with a 40-point difference in batting average on balls in play driving the gap in their ERAs:
Note that Greinke has a much lower home run rate as well; the Royals’ Kauffmann Stadium suppresses homers, while the Brewers’ Miller Park promotes them, with the Phillies’ Citizens Bank Park somewhere in the middle. Neither of the two WAR(P)s adjusts directly for that, instead adjusting at the level of runs per game in a given environment — and over the three-year span, Greinke has pitched in the tougher setting of the two, with a park-adjusted scoring rate about seven percent higher.
Both pitchers’ respective teams have tried to sign them to extensions, but negotiations have stalled — a development that strongly favors the pitchers in the wake of the six-year, $127.5 million extension Matt Cain signed with the Giants just before Opening Day. That’s the third-largest contract ever signed by a pitcher in terms of total value; only CC Sabathia’s seven-year $161 million deal — since reset via an opt-out clause and an extension — and Johan Santana’s $137.5 million deal were more lucrative. In terms of average annual value among current deals, only the pacts of Sabathia ($24.4 million via the five-year, $122 million extension he signed in December), Cliff Lee ($24 million) and Santana ($22.9 million) supersede Cain’s $21.25 million average. Hamels, who is on a one-year, $15 million contract, and Greinke, who’s earning $13 million via the final year of a four-year, $38 million deal, can look forward to substantial raises if they reach the open market this winter. Neither pitcher has come out and announced his intention to test the waters, but given the payroll limitations of both Milwaukee and Philadelphia and an understandable resistance to negotiating in-season lest it present a distraction, both figure to do so.
One can make a case for either pitcher as the better of the two, but in the end, their price may be what separates them. ESPN’s Buster Olney reported on Sunday that Amaro is asking for four or five prospects, a return that will be hard to come by given recent trades for aces such as Santana, Sabathia, Lee and Grienke; keep in mind that under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, a team acquiring a pending free agent won’t receive draft pick compensation if he signs elsewhere. The Brewers, whose system was depleted by the trades for Greinke and Shaun Marcum, will certainly be open to offers for prospects, but according to Fox’s Ken Rosenthal may prefer more immediate help in the form of young major league players. Which return is more valuable depends upon the actual players involved and is unknowable without a crystal ball to see which ones pan out; both involve risk. As we’re certain to see over the next four weeks as teams check in on the two pitchers, those are risks that many contenders will willingly take, and the bet here is that both the Phillies and Brewers will find partners.