The Twins agreed to the largest free agent contract in franchise history last week, inking Ricky Nolasco to a four-year, $49MM deal with a fifth-year vesting option. Nolasco, 31 in December, projects as the team's Opening Day starter in 2014. What did the Twins get for their investment?
FanGraphs' standard wins above replacement metric is not a great one to use for Nolasco. By FanGraphs WAR, Nolasco has been solid over the last three years, accumulating about 2.9 per year. FanGraphs WAR, however, uses Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), and Nolasco is notorious for posting an ERA above his FIP. He's done so in every season since 2009. In those five seasons, his ERA has been more than half a run higher than his FIP every time except for 2013.
The important questions for the Twins are why Nolasco's ERA has been consistently higher than his strikeout, walk, and home run rates suggest, and if that will remain the case over most of the next four years. From 2009-13, the typical NL starter has stranded around 72% of his baserunners. Nolasco's strand rate in that time is a bit shy of 68%, worst in MLB among those with at least 700 innings. Perhaps that's unfair, as it's roping in some really low strand rates from 2009 and '11. If we look at just 2012-13, Nolasco is at 70.1%, 16th worst in MLB among those with 300 innings. Nolasco has a 4.08 ERA in that time, versus a 3.60 FIP. A metric that treats Nolasco as a 3.60 ERA pitcher is overstating his value.
Nolasco's strand rate problems stem from his performance with men on base. His strikeout rate falls below six per nine innings and his walks jump up to around three, even in his successful 2013 campaign. If the Twins don't find a way to address this, they might have a 4.50 ERA pitcher on their hands from the start. FanGraphs has another version of WAR called RA9-WAR, which essentially uses a pitcher's actual runs allowed instead of his FIP. That metric suggests Nolasco was a two-win pitcher in 2013, his best season in years. If Nolasco begins at two wins, this contract is not good value even if a win on the 2013-14 free agent market costs $6.2MM. I'm not comfortable valuing a pitcher based on ERA or FIP, however. The valuation changes drastically if we split the difference and project Nolasco as a 2.5 win pitcher in 2014. In that case, I think this can be an even money deal, though I don't have a lot of confidence in predicting the annual inflation of the free agent market.
Nolasco's contract clearly resembles Edwin Jackson's four-year, $52MM deal from the Cubs last winter. Jackson pitched the first year of his deal at age 29 as opposed to 31 for Nolasco. While Jackson got about 6% more than Nolasco in guaranteed money, Nolasco's 2018 vesting option adds value even if he's a long shot to trigger it. Another similarity is that the Cubs did not seem primed for contention in the first year of Jackson's deal, nor will the Twins be picked as division favorites for 2014. Labeling certain teams non-contenders prior to the season often proves wrong, to be fair. Nolasco must be viewed as a win-now signing for the Twins, since he'll likely provide the most return in the first few years of the deal. A few weeks ago, Cubs president Theo Epstein said of the Jackson signing, "Given the situation, I think we could have been more patient." The same may prove true of the Twins and Nolasco.
2013 was Nolasco's first season with a sub-4.00 ERA since '08, and the timing was excellent for the pitcher and agent Matt Sosnick. The early July trade to the Dodgers was a big boost to Nolasco's value, removing the possibility of draft pick compensation and giving him a bigger spotlight. For the Twins, the Nolasco contract has little upside, and represented the market price for mid-to-back rotation innings.