By Ashley Dunkak
CBS DETROIT – Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Max Scherzer (and his agent Scott Boras) wanted more than the reported six-year, $144 million contract extension the Tigers were willing to give. According to Jim Bowden of ESPN, the impasse between the parties revolved not just around the money but around the number of years Scherzer would be receiving it.
Bowden reports that Scherzer and Boras wanted an eight-year deal. Scherzer turns 30 in July, so he would have been 38 at the end of such a contract. How many starting pitchers in their upper 30s would warrant the kind of money Scherzer would be receiving (evidently $24 million or more) at the end of such a deal?
Not many. Some of the best of all time are the ones that jump to mind – Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddox. While Johnson, a freak of nature in the best possible way, hit his stride around 30 and got better with age, the other three began establishing their phenomenal track records early, displaying dominance well before they turned 30, the age Scherzer will hit in a couple of months.
Between the ages of 25 and 27, Ryan turned in three straight seasons in which his ERA was under 3.00. Clemens had recorded six years of an ERA under 3.00 by age 30. Maddox put together four straight seasons of with ERAs of 2.50 or less by age 30. All three starters, plus Johnson, impressed for many, many years. However, most pitchers do not.
Scherzer has been something of a late bloomer. Does that mean his performance will steadily improve for nearly the next decade? Obviously, no one knows for sure, but recently teams have not extended quite that much faith even for some of the best in the business. Clayton Kershaw and Felix Hernandez signed seven-year contracts, while Cole Hamels signed a six-year deal and Cliff Lee signed a five-year contract.
Kershaw is 25 years old, and Hernandez is 27, and both have much stronger résumés than Scherzer, whose year of brilliance in 2013 followed several years of pitching well but not extraordinarily well. Much has been made of Scherzer’s low pitch count compared to other hurlers, but those numbers hardly offset Scherzer’s lack of particularly impressive numbers in years prior to 2013. Scherzer may well go on to an amazing career, but there is limited evidence for that projection at this point.
Looking at Scherzer’s career stats next to the career stats of some of these other high-profile pitchers who signed for big money, Scherzer simply does not have a comparable track record. Again, that does not mean he will not go on to be astoundingly successful. It just means he and Boras are expecting a some general manager to have a considerable amount of faith (and invest a phenomenal amount of money) in what Scherzer might turn out to be instead of what he has proved to be thus far.
Historically speaking, signing bank-breaking contracts does not bode well for teams. Since the Los Angeles Dodgers just signed Kershaw for seven years and $215 million, it seems unlikely that even a massive deal for Scherzer would set any records. Then again, teams often overpay for starting pitchers, and if Scherzer produces a 2014 season anywhere near the level of his 2013 season, a bidding war in free agency could result in Kershaw’s record deal being shattered after all.
Again, though, the past indicates that teams should steer clear of being cashing in all the chips and giving a pitcher an unrealistically long contract. The record-setting deals of Kevin Brown, Mike Hampton and Barry Zito all live in infamy.
Maybe the Tigers will rue the day they refused to accommodate the alleged eight-year contract request by Scherzer and Boras. On the other hand, Detroit could be relieved in a few years that some other team is stuck with an outlandish contract with a player that no longer has the ability to hold up his end of the bargain.
Time will tell, but either way, the Tigers appear to be quite justified in their decision to walk away.