MLB Trade Rumors is firing up this year’s version of the Free Agent Faceoff series, in which comparable free agents are analyzed side by side. Each post will conclude with a reader vote on the value of the players involved. The first faceoff featured three shortstops. In the second, we’ll look at a pair of starters:
It’s a common consensus this year that the free agent class for starting pitchers has a great deal of separation between the top three starters — Max Scherzer, Jon Lester and James Shields — and the rest of the class. While opinions on the ranking of those three vary (perhaps a topic for another installment in this series!), there’s a cloudier picture when it comes to the second tier of free agents. Most of the pitchers in the second tier come with some form of blemish on their record, be it a checkered injury history, the possibility of a qualifying offer, inconsistent year-to-year results or some combination of the above. Today we’ll take a look at a pair of 31-year-old starters who can each try to make a case that he’s the best among the second tier: Ervin Santana and Brandon McCarthy. (This is, of course, not to say that the “best among the second tier” is specifically limited to these two.)
McCarthy vs. Santana is somewhat of a case of tantalizing upside versus steady and reliable. McCarthy totaled an even 200 innings in 2014 — the first time in his career he’s reached that mark and just the second time in which he’s topped 180 frames. Santana, on the other hand, threw 196 innings and has topped the 200 mark on five occasions in his career. He’s averaged 207 innings per season over the past five years — durability to which McCarthy cannot lay claim.
In four of the aforementioned seasons, Santana has posted an ERA south of 4.00 — bottoming out at 3.24 last season in Kansas City. McCarthy’s best seasons came in 2011-12 with Oakland when he posted a combined 3.29 ERA in 281 1/3 innings. However, those two seasons are the only in which he’s successfully kept his ERA under 4.00.
To this point, the argument seems skewed heavily in Santana’s favor, but McCarthy’s case is certainly not without merit. When looking at the two through a sabermetric lens, McCarthy can be seen as not only the better pitcher, but arguably one of the better pitchers in the league. McCarthy’s 2.86 FIP in 2011 led the league, and a comparison of their marks in ERA (3.81 vs. 3.87), FIP (3.44 vs. 4.19), xFIP (3.43 vs. 3.88) and SIERA (3.60 vs. 3.93) all favor McCarthy. The Yankees were likely drawn to McCarthy’s sabermetric profile this July when trading for him, and that investment paid off handsomely, as McCarthy pitched to a stellar 2.89 ERA with 8.2 K/9 and 1.3 BB/9 in 90 1/3 innings down the stretch.
McCarthy has generated more ground-balls than Santana since buying into sabermetric principles back in 2009, but he took his ground-ball rate to a new level in 2014 (52.6 percent) while Santana regressed in the same area (42.7 percent). Both pitchers possess strong command and can miss bats, but McCarthy has shown better control over the past four seasons while Santana has bested McCarthy in strikeout rate each year. McCarthy’s strikeout rate did jump in 2014, along with his velocity (career-best 92.9 mph average fastball), but Santana’s strikeout rate rose as well (even against non-pitchers in the NL).
Other factors to consider: Santana will pitch all of next season at age 32, while McCarthy won’t be 32 until July. Additionally, Santana is eligible to receive a qualifying offer, meaning he could again come with draft pick compensation attached to his name; McCarthy is ineligible to receive a QO after being traded midseason.
Each player has been on the receiving end of a Free Agent Profile at MLBTR (McCarthy’s penned by me, Santana’s by Tim Dierkes), which provide even more in-depth looks at the pros and cons of each. Use those as you wish to help formulate an opinion before voting…