Estimating Max Scherzer's Value on the Free Agent Market

Leon Halip

Max Scherzer is the premier starting pitcher in next year's class of free agents. What will he earn on the open market?

Over the last week, a pair of huge dominoes have dropped in the "will Max Scherzer be a Tiger beyond 2014?" conundrum. First, Clayton Kershaw signed what might be the most reasonable $215 million contract in professional sports history. Next, Scherzer and the Tigers agreed on a one-year contract worth $15.525 million. Both events will have an impact on Scherzer's contract negotiations after the 2014 season, but so will the deals that other players have signed in recent years.

The Tigers already have a large amount of money invested in their rotation, with Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez both having recently signed contract extensions. In a dream world, the Tigers would be able to re-sign Scherzer this offseason while still having plenty of money left over to pay Miguel Cabrera whatever he wants before he becomes a free agent after 2015. However, even the Ilitch family has limits, and the Tigers need to be mindful of their spending. Assuming that they plan on keeping Cabrera in Detroit for the remainder of his career, their ability to retain Scherzer will largely depend on how much he is offered by other teams in free agency.

So, the big question remains: what will Max Scherzer's next contract look like?

In order to estimate what Scherzer could pull in on the open market, I looked at all of the $100 million contracts issued to pitchers in MLB history (though I may have missed one or two). I then took the average WAR of their previous three seasons before signing their big contract, and found the amount of money teams spent per win above replacement. This isn't your typical Fangraphs estimate of $5-6 million per WAR, but given that contracts are handed out based on past performance, I thought this would provide a more accurate assessment than using surplus value. No vesting options were included in these calculations.

Player Kershaw Verlander Hernandez Greinke Hamels* Cain Lee Sabathia** Zito
Average WAR 6.2 6.7 5.4 4.4 4.2 3.9 6.9 6.5 2.9
Contract AAV $30.7 million $25.7 million $25 million $24.5 million $24 million $21.25 million $24 million $23 million $17 million
$/WAR $4.98 million $3.82 million $4.66 million $5.57 million $5.71 million $5.45 million $3.50 million $3.56 million $5.86 million
Contract Total $215 million $180 million $175 million $147 million $144 million $127.5 million $120 million $161 million $119 million

*In Hamels' case, I included his 2012 season despite the fact that he signed his extension in August of that year since the contract technically started in 2013.

**Sabathia has signed two separate $100 million contracts, but I only included the first one. This contract is the one that originally brought him to New York.

Despite a sizable variance in contract value and effectiveness after signing the big deal (looking at you, Barry Zito), the dollar-per-WAR figures are fairly consistent. This makes sense, given that the pitchers signed their respective deals when they were at the top of their game. Assuming Scherzer doesn't fall off next year, he will likely see a similar dollar/WAR figure over six or seven years. If we take the average of the $/WAR row above and multiply that by Scherzer's WAR, we can estimate the average annual value of Scherzer's next contract.

2012 WAR 4.6
2013 WAR 6.4
Estimated 2014 WAR* 5.5
$/WAR $4.79 million
Contract AAV $26.3 million
Contract Total (6 years) $158 million
Contract Total (7 years) $184 million

*Scherzer's "estimated WAR" is the average of his 2012 and 2013 WAR totals.

As we see above, Scherzer will be in for a huge payday next offseason. The average annual value of this deal seems a bit high -- of the nine pitchers listed above, only Kershaw's AAV is higher -- but Scherzer will have the benefit of multiple suitors and Scott Boras to drive his price skyward. Could the Tigers afford this and still retain Miguel Cabrera? Probably. Is it in their best interest? I don't think so, but that's just me.

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