What Heaney, E-Rod deals say about market

First two big free agent signings combined for 5.23 ERA in '21

November 16th, 2021

In the first two weeks of the free agent period this winter, we’ve seen two different veteran starting pitchers depart their old clubs in favor of new teams. Neither had what you might call a “traditionally good” platform year, as the duo combined for a 5.23 ERA in 2021 -- yet they still managed north of $80 million in contract guarantees regardless.

Want to know how baseball teams look at players these days? You can get the general idea of an entire industry in merely these two deals, as well as looking at a comparable ERA pitcher and how differently their winter is likely to go.

1) The first free agent pitcher to sign with a new team this winter, Andrew Heaney, got $8.5 million for 2022 from the Dodgers. That’s coming off a year where he posted a 5.83 ERA for the Angels and Yankees -- and pitched so poorly for New York (7.32 ERA) after being traded there that they essentially stopped putting him on the mound at all, throwing just 7 2/3 mop-up innings in September. Still, more than a dozen teams were reportedly interested in adding him.

Meanwhile: Jose Ureña, who is three months younger than Heaney, posted a nearly identical 5.81 ERA this year, and has a nearly identical career ERA (4.77 to Heaney’s 4.72) in nearly the same number of starts. He's also a free agent, but he is likely to get a much lighter one-year deal at best, and might not get a Major League contract at all. Heaney is left-handed where Ureña is not, but otherwise, the backs of the baseball cards look pretty similar, right down to the fact that they both entered pro ball with the Marlins in 2009 and shared some team top prospect lists together.

2) The second free agent pitcher to agree with a new team, Eduardo Rodriguez, reportedly will receive $77 million over five years from the Tigers, with the added ability for him to opt out after two years. Detroit will even give up a Draft pick to do it, because Boston had extended him a qualifying offer. That’s off a year where he posted a 4.74 ERA for the Red Sox, and a 2020 where he did not pitch at all due to the effects of COVID-19.

Meanwhile: Rodriguez wasn’t the only lefty Red Sox starter with a 4.74 ERA, because Martín Pérez did exactly the same thing. But he’s not getting anything near what Rodriguez did in free agency -- the Red Sox chose to decline his $6 million option for 2022 -- and like Ureña, it’s not clear he’ll do better than a Minor League contract for next season.

What, exactly, is happening here? Just look at the first part of Heaney’s post-signing comments, which sound like pretty much any player coming off a bad year in the history of the sport, to the point that you could imagine a player in 2001 or 1981 or 1941 saying the same ...

“I know that I’m much better than my numbers say I was last year.”

… and compare them with the the second part of his comments, which reflect a very modern way of baseball thinking.

“And I think it was really exciting and eye-opening to see how many other teams felt the same way.”

For how many years of baseball history would so many teams “feeling the same way” for a pitcher coming off of a 5.83 ERA mean “he’s headed to the Minors next year?” But all those interested suitors were not expecting a repeat of 2021. They think they’ve found something they can work with.

What’s happening is the same thing that’s been happening for a number of years now, and it’s clearer than ever in these pair of signings. The first aspect is obvious: Teams don’t place value on pitcher win-loss records or, increasingly, even ERA. Second: They don’t care so much about what you have done for other teams in the past. They care about what they think you will do for them in the future, especially if they think they have the coaching, tools or skills to make you a better player.

“We think there’s real upside with Andrew,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said after signing Heaney. “We wouldn’t have done it if we didn’t think there was some real upside that we can tap into, and we’ll see as we get into the season.”

“I do think teams look at not only pitchers’ stuff, but underlying metrics, especially with a guy like me, where it’s a bounce-back season,” Heaney said.

Exactly, and it's not hard to see what they see. Aside from the lefty/righty difference, what makes Heaney’s 5.83 ERA so much more interesting than Ureña’s 5.81?

Heaney vs. Ureña, 5.83/5.81 ERA

Heaney, to begin with, has a relatively rare ability to miss bats. Even in his lousy 2021, he struck out 150 in 129 2/3 innings, a 27% strikeout rate. Among the 129 pitchers to throw 100 innings, that’s just outside the top 30; it was better than Walker Buehler, Logan Webb or Julio Urías. Ureña, more of a ground ball artist, struck out just 14.7%, or fifth-worst.

Heaney walks fewer than average as well, so if you were to sort those 129 pitchers by the largest differences between their strikeout rate and walk rate, Heaney would be 31st, just behind Buehler, on a list where the top 30 could credibly be a list of the 30 best starters in the game. On the four-seam fastball, nearly 29% of the time a batter offered a swing against Heaney, he missed, putting the lefty very high on an incredibly impressive list.

Plus, for all the homers Heaney allowed, it was actually Ureña who had the second-worst hard-hit rate of any regular starter.

Looking deeper, Heaney has 90th percentile fastball spin, with Ureña merely 26th percentile, and while “high spin” does not automatically mean “good pitcher,” it provides a lot more raw material to work with if you know how to use it, which a team like the Dodgers generally does, especially if they can teach him the sweeping slider they’ve used so effectively to try to limit some of those loud homers. "He'd be good if not for all the home runs he allowed" seems like a Yoga Berra bit -- "nobody goes there anymore, it's too crowded," comes to mind -- but there's plenty to try to unlock here, anyway.

It’s not that some team can’t find use out of Ureña, a hard thrower who can get some grounders. But his upside is necessarily limited due to his inability to miss bats, and “upside” is what teams want. Heaney, at least, starts from the baseline of being above average at getting strikeouts and above average at limiting walks and with an interesting starting point in that high spin fastball. It will likely be easier to get Heaney to avoid home runs than to get Ureña to start finding strikeouts, is the point.

It was just a year ago that another similarly-aged lefty coming off a rotten season (6.62 ERA) split between two teams (Arizona, Toronto) signed a nearly identical one-year, $8 million deal. Robbie Ray had better pure stuff than Heaney ever did, but Toronto bet it could help him harness it. Later this week, he’s likely to win the 2021 AL Cy Young award.

That explains one of these two deals. Similarly, setting aside the relatively minor age difference, what made one ex-Boston lefty with a 4.74 ERA more desirable than the other ex-Boston lefty with a 4.74 ERA?

Rodriguez vs. Pérez, 4.74 ERA

This is different, in that it's not about a way to make Rodriguez better as it is with Heaney. It's that if you can look past the Red Sox defense, you can see that Rodriguez already was better than this.

Set aside ERA for a minute, and look at a variety of advanced ERA estimators, which look at underlying things like strikeouts, walks, quality of contact, etc., and less about the actual runs in the scorebook.

4.74 ERA // 3.55 xERA // 3.32 FIP // 4.18 DRA

4.74 ERA // 5.51 xERA // 5.02 FIP // 6.05 DRA

(xERA is Statcast’s ERA estimator; FIP can be found at FanGraphs; DRA at Baseball Prospectus.)

Whichever one you prefer, they all tell the same story, which is that Rodriguez’s performance was much better than his 4.74 ERA, while Pérez was fortunate to manage such a mark. Considering that Rodriguez had a better strikeout rate and a lower walk rate and a lower home run rate and a much better hard-hit rate, it’s exceptionally clear that these two did not perform the same way. It’s a lot easier to see why Rodriguez agreed to a big deal and Pérez will have to battle for a roster spot.

Why, then, did Rodriguez have such a high ERA? Because the Boston defense was so porous behind him that no regular pitcher had a lower rate of grounders being turned into outs than he did, to the point that on balls that weren’t homers, he and his defense allowed one of the highest batting averages in baseball history.

Maybe that’s bad luck or bad defense or both, but it’s not something you’d expect to repeat itself in 2022. Meanwhile, this is the kind of repeatable stat that’s eye-catching to anyone making pitching decisions -- on four-seamers, only Yu Darvish, Alek Manoah and Lance Lynn had a better swing-and-miss rate.

Plus, his own manager, Alex Cora, came out after the season to say that he believed Rodriguez had been tipping his pitches, which is a far easier thing to fix than a lack of skill.

This shift -- we'll try to find players who will be good, or who we think we can make good, rather than worry just about players who have been good -- has been ramping up for years, of course. It’s not new this winter or even this decade, so you can pretty easily find recent examples.

That doesn’t mean that the teams are always right in those evaluations. Sometimes the underlying metrics don’t predict a breakout or collapse; sometimes the improvements the team suggests for a player don’t work out. (Look no further than Heaney himself, since the Yankees could do little to help him, though in a relatively brief time, and without an offseason.) You can definitely overthink this, because someone like Garrett Richards will get chances endlessly due to incredible spin rates, despite the fact that the on-field performance rarely seems to match up.

For example, last winter, Alex Colomé reached free agency with a half-decade of solid performance behind him and a sparkling 0.81 ERA for the 2020 White Sox. But he somehow managed it despite a regularly declining strikeout rate and a decline in velocity, and no one believed he could go a full season without allowing a homer, as he did in ‘20. Despite the low ERA, he managed just a one-year deal with Minnesota, where he was generally ineffective.

We saw it before 2018, when the Phillies signed Jake Arrieta to a three-year deal weeks after Spring Training had begun, after he'd been waiting months for more based on how fantastic he'd been with the Cubs before a somewhat shakier final season in Chicago. As the story at the time read, "sources indicated for weeks that the Phillies were unwilling to guarantee anything more than three seasons because analytics about Arrieta's 2017 season raised concerns about a long-term contract." Arrieta had a 4.36 ERA in three seasons with Philadelphia, and a 7.39 mark in 2021, split between Chicago and San Diego.

Or, perhaps most notably, think about two winters ago, when many were surprised to find that Zack Wheeler signed for more (5 years, $118 million) than Madison Bumgarner (5 years, $85 million), despite Bumgarner’s far longer track record of health and success for the Giants. It was clear even at the time that the underlying metrics in terms of velocity, spin and movement made Wheeler a far more interesting pitcher -- he was compared favorably to Gerrit Cole -- and two years into the respective deals, Bumgarner has struggled, while Wheeler has become a true ace.

None of this means there’s not some human self-interest here at the team level, because surely Blue Jays executives and coaches are riding high having turned a one-year investment on Ray into a fantastic season, like the Giants with Kevin Gausman prior to 2020. You look a lot "smarter" having unearthed a diamond in the rough than you do identifying that, say, Jacob deGrom is a very good pitcher. (Not to mention the obvious factor that if you’re willing to risk a huge whiff, you can try to create strong performance at a much lower outlay than simply going out and buying strong performance.)

So: Who is next? Longtime aces still performing at a high level, like Max Scherzer, have little to worry about, because they will be valued highly. But remember that Jon Gray won't be valued based on his career 4.59 ERA, not coming from Coors Field; some team will see more. Zack Greinke won't be valued based on his Hall of Fame credentials, not when he is struggling to throw 90 after nearly two decades as a pro.

It goes both ways -- good for players like Heaney and Rodriguez who are much more valued now than they ever would have been, and less so for players hoping to recoup pre-free agency success before they were on the market -- but it's clear evidence of a changing sport. It's not really what have you done for me lately, not anymore. Even "lately" is too long ago.