I don't want the Tigers to pay Max Scherzer $175 million. I just don't. It's hard to say what kind of deal was on the table for certain. ESPN's Jayson Stark reports it would have put Scherzer among the six highest-paid starting pitchers, but would not have been worth the same annual average value as what Justin Verlander earns. Fox Sports' Jon Morosi confirms the theory, saying his source puts the deal at six years, $144 million.
So the sticking point was years, and that's a pretty big sticking point for all involved. Scherzer has obviously earned a lot of money in his career -- before paying his agent, his taxes, his dues, etc. Even then he still has a lot left over. Just looking at Scherzer's Detroit years, that's worth about $26 million (that includes 2014.) That's more than most of us will earn in our lifetime, of course. So it's hard to feel sorry for Scherzer. Yet if we put ourselves in Schezer's shoes, maybe it gets a little easier. Financially, this is probably the most important year in his lifetime, and it can help set up his family not just for years to come, but for generations. And to do that, Scherzer needs to maximize the guaranteed number of years he's being paid. Because in the life of a pitcher, it can all fall apart quick.
That last statement actually cuts both ways. For Scherzer, there is absolutely no guarantee he'll remain healthy in 2014. Everyone likes to think so. And history suggests he probably will. Twenty-nine-year-old pitchers with no history of injuries don't usually suffer career-altering issues. But there's no guarantees, because pitching's an unnatural thing, and Scherzer's mechanics aren't the most perfect you'll see either. Betting he can earn more money after the season is betting he'll make it through 2014 intact. If his arm has issues, if his effectiveness has issues, that $24-25 million average value he turned down this month will have been a lost opportunity he'll never get back. But that's Scherzer's bet to make. Paying Scherzer that much money is a bet by the Tigers he'll continue to produce at the same level for the length of the contract. That's not exactly a sure-thing either.
In his four seasons in Detroit, Scherzer has seen varying success, though the recent trajectory is a generally good one. Scherzer had a hiccup in the start of 2012, a 2.53 strikeout-to-walk ratio below his career figure of 3.28 K/BB being one sign of that, before recovering in the second half and improving to 4.33 K/BB. Outside of that, Scherzer's success has generally improved each year, and especially after he began to rely more on his curveball in 2013. He credits that pitch for his success that year. Scherzer managed to stay on the mound for nearly seven innings per start, a career-best, while maintaining a strikeout rate around 29 percent and cutting his rate of walks issued to 6.7 percent. A key difference that showed up in his ERA: batters managed an average of just .259 on balls put into play, while Scherzer's career figure of .302 is notably higher. Although batters hit fewer line drives and more fly balls, "luck" can probably account for some of Scherzer's success in 2013. Still, based on the past few years, it's likely we'll see a pitcher whose ERA and FIP are both in the low-3s.
So, is Scherzer going to be worth $24 million per year at that rate of success? Well, it's hard to say what he's going to be worth, but based on what he's done in the past we can say the contract is in the right ballpark. Clearly Scherzer was top-six worthy in 2013, but what if we expand the view? Scherzer had the fourth-best WAR, per Fangraphs, in 2012-13. He had the 20th-best ERA (3.29) but seventh-best FIP (2.99). Among those who he is in the same neighborhood as (Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, Cliff Lee, Anibal Sanchez, and Adam Wainwright, depending on your choice of stat) Scherzer's issue is generally a lack of innings. By annual figures, he's nearest to Lee and Hernandez, while nowhere near the $30.7 million average value. Wainwright and Sanchez are, comparatively speaking, on much more team-friendly deals. But if you don't suspect Scherzer's going to slide back to his 2011 figures, and you probably shouldn't, $24 to $25 million a season is seems fair.
So it all comes down to years. This is where Scherzer would like seven years for a total of around $175 million. According to Morosi, the Tigers offered six years for a total of $144 million. In other words, Cole Hamels money. Hamels has fewer strikeouts, a similar ERA and a slightly-higher FIP over the past two seasons.
We could go further into the analysis, project WARs or stats as Scherzer ages, whatever. But ultimately what it comes down to is that Scherzer will be worth what he's paid at the start of the contract and probably worth less than he's paid at the end. If the Tigers aren't able to absorb this later, or if they want to continue to compete, it's probably best to decline. Which, so far, is what they've done.
Contracts will continue to increase. Today's $25 million will not be the same as $25 million seven years from now. From that angle, we can say Scherzer doesn't have to be a top six starting pitcher at age 35 or 36 because he won't be paid like one anyway. But that's still a lot of guaranteed money separating the Tigers and Scherzer.
Scherzer probably will get that seventh year from someone. Ideally his agent, Scott Boras, and the Tigers can negotiate some sort of option that is fair to both the team and the pitcher, allowing the Tigers to find a way to keep their starter, especially if he has another strong year in 2014.
In reality ... well, the team is making the right choice and if Scherzer signs with someone else it will almost certainly be the best thing for the Tigers. It's unfortunate, but that's just the business of baseball.