The Gift That Keeps on Giving
July 21, 2009 4 Comments
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 email@example.com. Have a good night readers, and know that Mike hopes to hear from you soon.