THE MYTH: Big contracts beget stud pitchers.
Alright, maybe it’s not an actual conundrum. But when two-time All Star Matt Cain, the San Francisco Giants’ No. 2 starter, signed a six-year, $127.5 million contract with the club, some were speculating whether Tim Lincecum’s eventual payday could lead to MLB’s first $200 million pitcher.
Cain deserves it. The man’s posted an earth-shattering 69-73 record, an eye-popping 3.35 ERA and an inhuman 7.4 K/BB ratio over parts of 7 seasons. He should carry around a ball gag and leather chaps and force opposing batters to wear them, he’s just that dominant.
Pascual Perez and Johnny Niggeling. Let that sink in for a second.
You get the point. Cain’s a talented pitcher in a weaker offensive league with an absurd contract, one that made him the highest paid right-hander in MLB history with $21.25 million average annual salary over the life of the deal. But it’s a contract for an elite pitcher, and Cain is just a very good one. Much better than most pitchers in the game, but not elite.
In anticipation of Cain’s first start of the season against the Arizona Diamondbacks, we’ll take a look at some of baseball’s biggest contracts doled out to right-handed pitchers and see how their new deals affected their performance.
Latest contract: 5 years, $91.5 million
Avg. annual: $18.3 million
Date signed: August 17, 2007
Little known fact: This is a rare picture of Zambrano actually pitching instead of chucking his glove at a teammate, coach or umpire.
Before the contract: Zambrano broke into the majors in 2001, but didn’t settle into a full season as a starter until 2003, when he went 13-11 with a 3.11 ERA over 214 innings. His strikeouts steadily rose each season and he racked up 168, 188, 202 and 210 K’s from 2003-2006.
Over that time, Zambrano posted a 59-32 record with a 3.14 ERA and 768 K’s in 861 innings. He pitched six complete games and two shutouts and was named to the All Star team in 2004 and 2006 and finished 5th in the Cy Young voting both of those years.
After the contract: Despite ramping up the crazy, Big Z actually had a solid five seasons after signing his new contract. He went 61-39 with a 3.96 ERA, 677 punch outs, 3 complete games and 2 shutouts in 849 innings. He finished 5th in the Cy Young voting again in 2007, was an All Star in 2008 and won two Silver Sluggers in 2008 and 2009. Apparently batting was Big Z’s anger outlet, much like punching a pillow is mine and beer and Popeye’s is Josh Beckett’s.
Latest contract: 4 years, $91.5 million
Avg. annual: $17 million
Date signed: April 5, 2010
Little known fact: This is the face Beckett makes when John Lackey tells him, “Sorry Joshie, there’s only dark meat left.” →
Before the contract: Beckett came up with the Florida Marlins (now the Miami Marlins) in 2001. The rough-and-tumble Texan went 41-34 with a 3.46 ERA and earned World Series MVP honors in 2003 before the Marlins shipped him up to Boston – along with Mike Lowell and reliever Guillermo Mota – for stud shortstop Hanley Ramirez.
Beckett broke the 200-inning mark for the first time in his career in 2006, finishing with 204.2 innings pitched. He was a critical player in Boston’s 2007 World Series title, the club’s second in four years. He finished 2nd in the Cy Young voting in 2007 and was named to the All Star team in 2007 and 2009. From 2006-2009, Beckett posted 65 wins, a 4.05 ERA and 723 strikeouts in 792 innings.
After the contract: A back injury ended Beckett’s 2010 campaign early, the righty going 6-6 with a 5.78 ERA over just 127.2 innings. Until last September’s chicken and beer scandal, Beckett redeemed himself with an impressive 2011 season with a 13-7 record, 2.89 ERA and 1.02 WHIP in 193 innings. He lost three of his four September starts in an epic collapse that saw the Red Sox bounced from the postseason on the final game against the Baltimore Orioles on September 25.
Beckett’s first start in 2012 was abysmal. The big lug gave up 7 runs and 5 dingers in 4.2 innings of work as the Sox dropped a 10-0 decision to the Tigers.
Latest contract: 5 years, $82.5 million
Avg. annual: $16.5 million
Date signed: December 16, 2009
Little known fact: Et tu, Lackey? Oh never mind, John. You probably wouldn’t get the reference.
Before the contract: 2002 World Series champion, 2007 All Star and ERA leader and the Angels’ ace for seven years, Lackey was a bulldog on the mound.
In eight seasons with the Angels, Lackey went 102-71 with a 3.81 ERA, 1,201 K’s and a 1.30 WHIP in 1,501 innings of work. He gave up just 151 home runs in that span and pitched 14 complete games and 8 shutouts.
After the contract: Whether it was the pressure felt by a rabid fan base in a big market or simple wear-and-tear over the years, Lackey’s performance dropped off when he arrived in Boston in 2010.
He went 26-23, posted a 5.26 ERA and a 1.50 WHIP from 2010-2011 before Tommy John surgery sidelined his 2012 season. Lackey routinely refused to take responsibility for a bad outing, and most press conferences went like this:
Reporter: John, you gave up sixteen runs over two innings of work. It’s being heralded as two of the worst innings of baseball you’ve ever pitched in your entire career. How do you respond to that?
John: Felt pretty good physically today. Left a couple balls over the plate, made a mistake here and there. You can always pitch worse than you did after a start. I could have given up…I don’t know, eighteen runs in an inning and a third of work.
Reporter: Why were you yelling at Tito for yanking you to start the third? Couldn’t you tell how ineffectively you were pitching?
John: Arm felt real good, thought I had some good life on my fastball. You always want to give your team a chance to win. I wanted to do that. Just trying to go out there and compete, every day.
Latest contract: 5 years, $80 million
Avg. annual: $16 million
Date signed: February 4, 2010
Little known fact: Justin Verlander and Will Smith’s character in I, Robot have something in common: they both have a freakish, bionic arm. The only difference is Smith’s left arm is robotic in the movie.
Before the contract: Total workhorse and stud pitcher. From 2005-2009, the big guy pitched to the tune of a 65-43 record and a 3.92 ERA, along with 6 complete games, 3 shutouts and 746 K’s in 840 innings. Oh, and only 80 homers served up in that time span.
He earned Rookie of the Year honors in 2006, was named to the All Star team in 2007 and 2009 and finished 5th and 3rd in the Cy Young voting for both seasons respectively.
After the contract: After going 18-9 with a 3.37 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in 224 innings in 2010, he improved vastly during his 2011 campaign.
Verlander won the pitching Triple Crown (leading the majors with a 24-5 record, 2.40 ERA and 250 strikeouts) last season and won the Cy Young award unanimously, while also earning MVP honors for his performance.
His 0.92 WHIP and 6.2 hits per 9 innings were the lowest of his career, and joins an impressive list of pitchers who won both awards in the same season, including Brooklyn’s Don Newcombe (1956), Los Angeles’ Sandy Koufax (1963), St. Louis’ Bob Gibson and Detroit’s Denny McLain (1968), Oakland’s Vida Blue (1971), Milwaukee’s Rollie Fingers (1981) and Detroit’s Willie Hernandez (1984).
Still a workhorse. Still a stud pitcher.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Whether Cain lives up to his contract remains a mystery, and one bad start this afternoon against Arizona won’t mean much.
Some pitchers, like Verlander, have lived up to their big contracts, while others – like Beckett and Lackey – have some ground to make up.
Look for ‘The Matt Cain Conundrum, part 2′ next week, as we examine some of the top lefthanded pitching contracts handed out over the years. Those Southpaws command a pretty penny, and more often than not, teams are willing to pay. Unfortunately.
Here’s lookin’ at you, Johan Santana.