While discussions of a new deal have apparently hit a snag, it still appears likely that the Seattle Mariners will eventually come to terms on a contract extension that will make Felix Hernandez the highest-paid pitcher in baseball.
There might not be a player in baseball happier about that than Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander, whose “Holy cow” reaction to Felix’s contract perfectly sums up how he should be feeling. Verlander, after all, now has a starting point for negotiating what could be the sport’s next mega-contract.
If contracts were solely about where players were presently at in their careers, it would be easy to say that Verlander – the 2011 Cy Young and MVP Award winner – should be the highest-paid pitcher in the game. But baseball contracts are not just about the present; they are also about a player’s performance several years down the road. And the list of big contracts that turn into albatrosses late in the deal is long and distinguished.
Felix and Verlander both entered the league in 2005 and are at roughly the same stages of their respective careers. So which player represents the greater long-term value?
One of the downsides to pitching is that the position carries with it some inherent injury risks. Throwing a baseball is not a natural motion for the body, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a pitcher with a long career who did not spend significant time on the disabled list.
With that said, both Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander are among the most secure bets to stay healthy in all of baseball.
Neither pitcher has any history of arm troubles, as both have made 30 or more starts in each of the past seven seasons and have gone over 220 innings in the last four. Both pitchers are true workhorses, and there is no reason to believe that either is particularly susceptible to injury at this stage of their respective careers.
And do not let the concerns over Felix’s elbow fool you; Seattle GM Jack Zduriencik even says that he is not worried about the health of his ace. More than likely, this is just a ploy by the Mariners to make sure they are protected in case he does go down with an unforeseen injury. Really, it is hard to fault the team for doing so.
King Felix has settled into a very nice groove, striking out between 217 and 232 batters in each of the past four seasons while also seeing small declines in his walk totals in each of the past five. He is also one of the best in baseball at keeping the ball on the ground, though last year’s 48.9% groundball rate was the worst of his career. There is some concern about declining velocity, but Felix has never been a pitcher who solely relies on power.
Verlander, meanwhile, has led the AL in strikeouts in three of the past four seasons and has put together walk rates that are slightly better than even Felix. But Verlander tends to give up far more hits in the air; the best groundball rate of his career is lower than Felix’s worst, and his 40.4% career rate is 14 points lower than that of Hernandez.
Felix’s ability to induce groundballs and use his defense more than makes up for Verlander’s slight advantage in strikeout and walk rates and bodes well for future effectiveness as a starter.
While innings pitched is a convenient stat, many people do not realize that it is actually an imprecise measure of how much a pitcher actually pitched. This is why pitch counts have become more-scrutinized than ever, as they give a much more accurate read of a pitcher’s workload.
On the surface, it does not seem like that big of a deal that Verlander has thrown 552 more pitches than Hernandez – it is roughly the equivalent of five starts. On the other hand, Felix has thrown fewer pitches despite pitching 66.2 more innings, which is a direct result of his ability to induce grounders and use his defense.
It should not be surprising that Felix’s career rate of 3.71 pitches per plate appearance dwarfs Verlander’s 3.94 rate.
But most experts tend not to focus on career pitch totals, as not all pitches are created equal. A greater concern is the number of pitches thrown in a game, as research has shown that pitchers who throw when fatigued are more likely to break down sooner. While there are no set rules on pitch counts, it is generally accepted that managers are risking fatigue on their starter when they hit 110 pitches and put them at further risk when they hit 120.
Very few pitchers in MLB history have had their pitch counts as closely-monitored as Felix Hernandez, which explains why he has only gone over 120 pitches on 12 occasions in his career. Verlander, on the other hand, has a whopping 47 outings that clear the 120-pitch threshold, including four games where he went over 130.
It could be that Verlander has an arm that can withstand such a workload or that he will be able to make adjustments down the road. But there is no arguing that Felix has far less mileage on his pitching arm.
Last year’s Cy Young Award winner, David Price, just completed his third consecutive season of 30 or more starts at age 27.
Felix Hernandez has seven such seasons, and is eight months younger.
A lot of people are surprised to find out that Hernandez is still so young, mainly because it seems like he has been around forever and has held the title of King Felix right from day one. If he follows the regular aging patterns of MLB pitchers, Felix can look forward to hitting his peak over the next three or four seasons.
Verlander, meanwhile, turns 30 later this month and is nearing the age when pitchers tend to start to slip.
Now, this does not necessarily mean that Verlander is more likely to break down over the next seven years; it does, however, mean that Verlander is three years closer to his expected retirement age. This is a major reason why Felix should probably be considered a safer bet to reach some of baseball’s storied pitching milestones.
There is no doubt that Justin Verlander is headed for a payday, and there is a very good chance that his next contract may exceed the $25 million yearly value that Felix Hernandez will be expecting over the next seven seasons. But while Verlander is probably the better pitcher right now, he is also probably the bigger long-term risk due to his age and the greater mileage on his arm.
Still, Verlander is just as worthy as King Felix of being the highest-paid pitcher in baseball.