Sunday, October 17, 2010

Dodgers, Decision Making...A Match Made in Heaven

On Saturday, FOX Sports Ken Rosenthal reported that the Dodgers were close to finalizing a three year deal for left handed starting pitcher Ted Lilly.  Now, it appears it's a done deal.  Now, I don't know the financial details of the deal, but considering the state of the McCourt's divorce and ownership situation, I do question wisdom behind signing Lilly for his age 35, 36, and 37 seasons.  Historically, good starting pitchers start to slowly decline around age 27-29, and then see a more precipitous decline after age-32.  Ted Lilly has done a good job at holding off Father Time, so far, but how much longer will that last?  Over the last three seasons, Lilly has been worth 8.9 wins above the replacement level, which is exactly what you'd expect out of your number three starter.  Is it fair to expect this level of performance over the life of his new contract?  Well, that takes further analysis.

Over the past three years, Lilly has actually outperformed his career numbers in K/9, K/BB, BB/9, HR/9, ERA, FIP, xFIP.  All of this bodes well for him in the future, as there's no clear line of regression in these areas.  Another area that helps Lilly is the fact that he'll be pitching at Dodger Stadium.  Historically, Dodger Stadium has favored pitchers (multi-year park factor of 95 with 100 being a neutral park), and hampered home run power hitters.  This really works in Lilly's favor considering he's an extreme fly ball pitcher.  Last year, Lilly gave up fly balls at a rate of 52.6% (his second consecutive season above 50%).  When you consider that on average a pitcher in a neutral ballpark will have a home run per fly ball (HR/FB) rate of 10.5%, pitching in a homer unfriendly environment will certainly help Lilly's ability to prevent runs.  On the other hand, Lilly's contact rate has steadily increased from 79.5% in 2008 to 81.9% in 2010, while his whiff rate has dropped from 9.7% to 8.9% over the same time span.  As a pitcher allows contact at a higher rate, more balls will drop in for hits, and his ERA will start to rise.  We can expect this trend to continue for Lilly because a velocity, movement, and location decline as a pitcher ages, particularly after age 32.  (This may explain why Lilly has been giving up fly balls at an extremely high rate over the pas couple of years.)

So how much will Lilly regress over his three year contract?  That's really tough to say.  In my earlier post on Cliff Lee, I assumed that Lee would lose approximately 1 win above replacement for every season from his age-35 season on.  That doesn't really work in this situation because in the Cliff Lee situation, I was looking 5-6 years out.  In this situation, I'm looking at each of the next three years.  To adjust, I will assume 0.5 WAR regression for his age-35 and 36 seasons, and 0.75 for age-37.  Here's how he looks:

2008-2010 average WAR - 3.0 WAR
2011 - 2.5 WAR
2012 - 2.0 WAR
2013 - 1.25 WAR

Based on my raw projection, Lilly will be worth 5.75 WAR over the life of his next contract.  This season, a win on the free agent market was worth approximately $3.9M.  Assuming a 5% increase in the value of a win over each of the next three years, Lilly's contract would to be valued at no more than 3 years and $24M in order for the Dodgers to recoup enough value from Lilly over the life of the contract.  Based on the fact Lilly is coming off of a 4 year $40M contract (he made $13M in each of the last two seasons), I don't see Lilly taking that big of a pay cut.  In all likelihood, the Dodgers are going to be stuck with a pitcher that will underperform over the life of his next contract.  Considering the likely financial constraints that the McCourt's are under, Lilly's contract will hamper the Dodgers' ability to not only maintain payroll and roster flexibility, but also maximize the amount of production they can get out of the young talent currently at the Major League level.

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