The Gift That Keeps on Giving

The Boston Red Sox are the envy of Major League Baseball. While every other team in the league scours for starting pitching, the Sawx sit comfortably, and confidently, in the lap of luxury. Analysts have gone on and on about the club’s starting pitching depth, which is, after all, “ridiculous”. While such depth is useful, the theory of marginal utility tells us a different story, that the addition of each new pitcher brings diminishing returns, rendering their depth useless. This fable couldn’t be more wrong.

There is no more valuable commodity in the MLB than a quality starting pitcher. Take a quick look around the MLB and it becomes obvious that almost every contending team is looking for a starter to round out their rotation… except the Red Sox. With nine (yes, nine) quality starting rotation candidates, the BoSox are in uncharted territory. If any of their current five fails (Beckett, Lester, Wakefield, Smoltz, Penny), they can call on any of their four supremely talented alternatives (Buchholz, Bowden, Masterson, Daisuke). Talk about an embarrassment of riches.

But depth can only bring a team so far. Unless there are injuries, they’ll never use any of their backups. This is where the genius of starting pitching depth comes in to play, albeit at a more subtle level.

A free agent pitcher signed to a one-year contract is the ultimate low-risk high-reward play. If a hitter is terrible, he rides the bench or is designated for assignment. He loses all value, like Julio Lugo, Edgar Renteria, or any Red Sox shortstop since 2005. If a pitcher can’t cut it, he can be moved to the bullpen as a low-leverage reliever or long-man, where he still maintains a good deal of his value. But there is one additional, more subtle benefit of starting pitching depth: everyone else in the league wants one. If a contending team has a hole in their rotation, they have to compete with dozens of other teams to acquire a starter. If this same team is instead missing a hitter, they will usually only compete with a handful of other teams for the league’s available options. There is always more demand for a starting pitcher than for a hitter because of the number of starting rotation spots that teams need to fill. In any given year, 2 contending teams will need a third baseman, while 15 will need a quality starting pitcher. Demand sets the price, and starting pitchers are in much higher demand.

This surplus can also help in offseason negotiations, as well, as a team doesn’t have to sign an overpriced hitter because the team “needs the bat”. Instead, they can plan to trade one of their extra pitchers for a hitter at the deadline. This helps in the long run, especially, as the team won’t get tied down to albatross contracts when they sign a desperation deal.

Take the Red Sox for example. The signings of Smoltz and Penny gave them low-cost, short commitments that made starting pitching expendable. They avoided doling out millions of dollars for an overpriced free agent hitter, and are now in position to deal for a bat if they need one. If they don’t need a bat, they could even deal a pitcher for hitting prospects, which their farm system is short on. The only thing more dangerous than a good team is a good team with options.

There is nothing quite like starting pitching depth. The Red Sox are in the best position of any team in the Major Leagues: at the top of their division with pieces to trade that won’t take away from their current team or sacrifice their future. Who knows, trading Penny and swapping in Buchholz could even upgrade their rotation. Now, there’s an organizational model we can all appreciate.  

 

Thanks to Fangraphs.com for their contributions to this article.

Mike Silver recently completed his requirements for the Sport Management Major at THE University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where he is a brother of Theta Chapter of Theta Chi Fraternity, the best house in the country. He is a huge Red Sox and Bruins fan, and longs for the days of the REAL Boston Garden, Cam Neely, and the ultimate Dirt Dog Trot Nixon. If you have any questions, you can reach him at mjasilver@gmail.com. Have a good night readers, and know that Mike hopes to hear from you soon.

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4 Responses to The Gift That Keeps on Giving

  1. Matt S. says:

    Well stated. While the whole world goes crazy for Halladay, the Sox are sitting on an almost comparable talent (Beckett) 3 younger arms with high upsides (Lester, Bowden, and Buchholtz) and two expendable SP’s with experience (Smoltz and Penny). Personally I hope they either stock up on some young talent by moving Smoltz or Penny, since they can win this year without much additional help.

  2. Greg F. says:

    I didn’t realize pitchers with ERAs over 5 had so much value in trades.

  3. Mike Silver says:

    It seems a bit surprising, but lots of teams don’t have a passable fifth option, or are looking for that “consistent veteran”. A great example was just last year, when Joe Blanton was moved to the Phillies for Adrian Cardenas, Matt Spencer, and Josh Outman. At the time Blanton had a 4.96 ERA. For a team with pitching to spare, that’s a pretty nice return.

  4. Toffer Peak says:

    I’m not sure I totally agree with this premise. While starting pitching may be the most desired commodity in baseball for the same reason that is so it is also the most plentifully available commodity as well.
    As opposed to say the catcher or shortstop position or any of the other fielding positions, where each team only has, or needs, one “1st-string” player, teams need 4-5 “1st-string” starting pitchers. Most playoff caliber teams will only have one or maybe two position players where there would be a need to upgrade at this position. Unfortunately the needs of playoff teams does not always match the availability of players from rebuilding teams. In this case the price for a SS could be very high if two teams want one but their is only one available on the market. On the other hand if there is only one team on the market for a SS and two teams have one available they will probably get a good deal on him.
    Starting pitchers on the other hand are a much more ubiquitous commodity. Since each team needs 4-5 of them almost any team can always use an upgrade. However since each team also has so many of them the market for them is much more fluid and efficient.
    I would argue that you don’t necessarily get a better return on starting pitchers when trading them mid-season but rather that the investment is more consistent each season. While oftentimes a team will deal a SS for little in return since many are available just as often a team totally overpays for one because there are few available and lots of teams chasing one.

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