February 20, 2014
The Greatly Exaggerated Demise of Free Agent Starters
A few weeks ago, just after signing Matt Garza to a four-year, $50 million contract, Brewers general manager Doug Melvin discussed his newest addition on MLB Network Radio. He talked about how the market developed in a way that allowed them to sign Garza, and how he disagrees with agents who disregard the value of first-round picks. But Melvin's most interesting statement came when the discussion turned to injuries, because according to him 67 percent of all free agents signed last winter spent time in the disabled list.
While there's no reason to doubt Melvin—a sharp individual by all accounts—we decided to run the study ourselves to see if two-thirds of the free-agent class really missed time due to injury. Despite Andrew Koo's best efforts in the time since, we haven't been able to replicate Melvin's results.
According to our numbers, of the 123 pitchers who signed last winter and pitched in the majors, 35 of them (or 28 percent) made at least one trip to the DL. When we changed the criteria to starting pitchers, the percentage increased to 37 percent; same for when we looked only at pitchers who signed for multiple years (38 percent). In a last ditch effort, we included free-agent hitters (since Melvin did say "all" free agents), but only 30 percent of them hit the DL—well below the necessary threshold to hit 67 percent overall.
There are three reasonable explanations for the discrepancy between Melvin's numbers and ours:
1) His study used different criteria—for instance, we didn't include all the minor-league signings who failed to pitch in the majors;
2) He misspoke—perhaps he meant the inverse, around 33 percent of free agents, wound up on the DL;
3) He made the number up on the spot
Whatever the case, fans of teams that signed free-agent pitchers this winter should rest easier, since it doesn't look like two-thirds of them are likely to get hurt in 2014.
(Note: Jon Shepherd of Camden Depot also tried to verify Melvin's percentage without success.)
Special thanks to Andrew Koo for research assistance.