THE MYTH: Left-handed pitching is worth more than right-handed pitching.
Culminating our three part series on Matt Cain’s six-year, $127.5 million contract – the largest ever for a right-handed pitcher – we’ll examine the salary disparity between righty and lefty pitching and see if Southpaws are actually worth the hefty contracts they command.
The four pitchers we looked at in part 1 – Josh Beckett, Justin Verlander, Carlos Zambrano and John Lackey – all had average annual salaries ranging from $16 million to $18.3 million.
Collectively, those four righties had an average annual salary of $16.95 million.
The four lefties we’ll look at today – Barry Zito, Cliff Lee, CC Sabathia and Johan Santana – have a combined average annual salary of $21.97 million.
That’s a difference of just over $5 million annually.
So what does that extra $5 million a year buy the Giants, the Phillies, the Yankees and the Mets? Let’s look.
Latest contract: Six years, $137.5 million
Avg. annual: $22.9 million
Date signed: February 1, 2008
Bad pun: Johan? More like, “No-han.”
Before the contract: 93-44 record, 3.22 ERA, a 1.094 WHIP, 9.5 K/9 ratio, two Cy Young Awards and three All Star appearances over parts of eight seasons.
Yeah, there’s a lot of boldface in there.
After the contract: Santana gets a lot of flak for not pitching up to his contract, but his first two seasons with the Mets were pretty impressive. In 2008, his first season with his new club, he set multiple career records for himself, including lowest season ERA (2.53), most innings pitched (234.1), and most batters faced (964). He started 34 games that year, tied for his previous career high in 2006, and finished third in the Cy Young voting.
The Venezuela native starter had a relatively successful 2009 campaign, going 13-9 with a 3.13 ERA, 7.9 K/9 ratio and a higher-than-average 1.21 WHIP. He was voted to the All-Star team, but only made 25 starts before arthroscopic surgery in his left elbow sidelined the rest of his season. The team placed him on the 15-day disabled list on August 25 that year.
After the surgery, Santana wasn’t quite the same.
He showed flashes of brilliance in 2010 – like his 3-0 record and 0.71 ERA in parts of July – but there were also some stinkers. Namely, the worst start of his MLB career, where he gave up 10 runs in 3 2/3 innings against the Phillies on May 2.
Again, an injury cut his season short when he strained his pectoral muscle September 2 in a game against Atlanta. He had rotator cuff surgery on September 15 and would miss the entire 2011 season.
Through two starts this year, the lefty is 0-2 with a 3.97 ERA, 1.5 WHIP and 13 strikeouts in 11.1 innings.
Latest contract: Five years, $120 million
Avg. annual: $24 million
Date signed: December 15, 2010
Bad pun: Now that he wears red and white, everyone should call him Clifford the Big Red Hurler.
Before the contract: Before winning his Cy Young in 2008, Lee actually wasn’t that dominant of a pitcher. In 2004, Lee’s first full season, the Arkansas native went 14-8 but had a horrid 5.43 ERA. He gave up 30 homers that season, 21st most in the majors, and walked 81 batters, tied for 15th with Carlos Zambrano and Barry Zito.
In 2006, Lee’s 1.405 WHIP was 29th worst in the majors. 31st worst? Barry Zito, with a 1.403 WHIP. Lee’s 4.40 ERA betrays his 14-11 record, as he was helped along by a Cleveland offense that was second in the majors in runs scored, fourth in batting average, third in on-base percentage and fourth in slugging percentage.
Lee didn’t really have a breakout season until 2008, when he posted an absurd 22-3 record, 2.54 ERA, 1.4 BB/9 ratio and 1.11 WHIP and won both All Star honors and the Cy.
In 2010, the man gave up 18 walks and 16 home runs with the Mariners and the Rangers. That’s insane.
Save for his two starts against the Giants in the 2010 World Series, Lee was a dominant postseason pitcher with the 2009 Phillies and the 2010 Rangers. He was 7-0 with three complete games, a 1.01 ERA and 67 strikeouts in 64.1 innings. Lee was 0-2 with a 6.94 ERA and a 1.28 WHIP in the aforementioned World Series.
After the contract: Lee’s return trip to the Phillies for more than $30 million less than the Yankees offered him proved a successful venture for him. The big lefty finished 17-8 with a 2.40 ERA, six complete game shutouts and 238 strikeouts in 232.2 innings.
Though he finished third in the Cy voting and earned his third career All Star selection, he disappointed in the NLDS, giving up three runs in six innings of work to the St. Louis Cardinals in his only start. The Cardinals won the best-of-five series, 3-2.
Latest contract: Seven years, $161 million
Avg. annual: $23 million
Date signed: December 18, 2008
Bad pun: Everyone knows what “CC” stands for. Cheese curls. Because the man eats a lot of them. What I’m trying to say is, he’s got some girth.
Before the contract: Not lights out, but Sabathia is and will forever remain the penultimate workhorse. Sabathia was second in the 2001 Rookie of the Year voting, but it’s a hard sell to say he deserved that much consideration. His 17-5 record was impressive. His 4.39 ERA and 1.35 WHIP were not.
He also walked the fifth most batters in the majors that year (95) but struck out 171 batters in 180.1 innings, so he was able to limit the damage when batters reached against him.
From 2001-2008, Sabathia went 117-73 with a 3.66 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and 1,393 K’s in 1,659.1 innings. He made three All Star appearances during that time and won the Cy Young Award in 2008.
After the contract: Over the next three seasons, Sabathia pitched an average of 235 innings a season. He posted a 59-23 record, 3.18 ERA and 1.18 WHIP.
He was outstanding in the 2009 postseason, where he went 3-1 with a 1.92 ERA and 32 strikeouts in 36.1 innings, though he lost one World Series start and earned a no decision on the other. The Yankees beat the Phillies in six games to earn their 27th World Series championship trophy.
Latest contract: 7 years, $126 million
Avg. annual: $18 million
Date signed: December 29, 2006
Biggest qualm: You ruined my perfect quartet of overpaid, pinstriped pitchers, Barry. Thanks a lot.
Before the contract: Zito was a three-time All Star and a 2002 Cy Young Award winner over parts of seven seasons, with a 102-63 record, 3.55 ERA and 1.25 WHIP with the Athletics.
Zito struggled his last three seasons with the A’s to the tune of a 41-34 record, 4.05 ERA and an 8.3 H/9 ratio. The shortest outing of his career came in 2006 against the New York Yankees, when he allowed 7 earned runs in just 1.1 innings.
Despite his difficulties, Zito threw 200 or more innings in each of his six full seasons with the A’s. He never missed a scheduled start and led the American League in starts four times. There’s obvious value in that.
After the contract: There just isn’t much value in a 43-61 record, a 4.55 ERA and a 1.40 WHIP in five seasons with his new club, the Giants. In April 2008, Zito went 0-6 with a 7.53 ERA, becoming just the third pitcher in the last 52 years to go 0-6 before May 1.
His horrible start earned him a demotion to the bullpen, though he returned to the rotation nine days later, on May 7, having never made a relief appearance.
The 2009 season saw a bit of a resurgence in Zito’s performance, though he still posted a losing record (10-13), and a promising start to the 2010 season ended in a disappointing fashion, Zito going 9-14 with a 4.15 ERA.
After an ankle injury cost Zito his spot in the 2011 rotation, the Las Vegas lefty was slotted in a utility role, starting just 9 games and pitching 53.2 innings on the season.
And then, redemption. In his first start this season, Zito pitched a 7-0 complete game shutout against the Rockies. It was his first shutout since 2003.
Some spin wins, some toss losses
Time to look at the four righties we examined two weeks ago and the four lefties we examined today and see how much better the Southpaws actually fare.
THE RIGHTIES (after signing their new contracts)
Seasons pitched: 11
Average ERA: 4.02
Innings pitched: 1,871.1
Complete games: 12
Home runs given up: 179
THE LEFTIES (after signing their new contracts)
Seasons pitched: 13
Average compiled ERA: 3.24
Innings pitched: 2,434
Complete games: 23
Home runs given up: 230
THE BOTTOM LINE: The lefties we looked at had 2 more seasons worth of data to draw from, but there are some sizable differences in the numbers.
The lefties won 28 more games than the righties did, and with a $5 million difference in average annual salaries, that’s $20 million spent across four clubs for a collective 28 wins.
That amounts to $714,285 per win.
Our lefties lost 40 more games than our righties did, but pitched 563.2 more innings, racked up 852 more strikeouts, pitched 11 more complete games, 8 more shutouts and posted an ERA 0.78 points below the opposition.
Even with an extra two seasons of data, there’s no way Beckett, Lackey, Zambrano or Verlander make up for those disparate figures.
The win goes to the Southpaws (as if they need another one).