Kyle Kendrick's Worth

The face of unexciting lower/mid-rotation adequacy - Elsa

In a winter where low-ceiling starters are pulling down $8-10 million per year on three- and four-year deals, was it a good idea for the Phillies to hang onto Kyle Kendrick?

Even when the Phillies make a move that the analysis community supports, there’s a negative kicker to the story. This past week, while implicitly praising the club’s decision to sign Roberto Hernandez to a relatively low-dollar contract as the likely fifth starter, CSNPhilly and Beerleaguer contributor Corey Seidman took the Phils to task for their decision to tender a contract to Kyle Kendrick, and a (relatively respectful) Twitter argument ensued:

Seidman’s interlocutor went on to note the striking similarities in the career numbers of Kyle Kendrick, Jason Vargas (who signed a four-year, $32 million contact with the Royals last month) and Scott Feldman (three years, $30 million with the Astros):

The exchange got me thinking about what Kyle Kendrick might be worth on the open market today, and more generally how to value a pitcher with a relatively high floor but low ceiling and what sorts of teams are drawn to players with this profile.

First of all, does the comparison hold up? Is Kendrick really that comparable to Vargas and Feldman? It’s not impossible for very different players to see their career numbers converge at any one point in time: one guy with four similarly middling seasons and another with two spectacular campaigns and two disastrous ones might well look the same heading into their fifth year, even before you bring health into the equation. Below we look at the career rate stats for each of the three pitchers, with their Opening Day 2014 age in parentheses:

Career rates


H/9


HR/9


BB/9


SO/9

Kyle Kendrick (29)

9.8

1.1

2.5

4.8

Jason Vargas (31)

9.1

1.1

2.8

5.9

Scott Feldman (31)

9.3

1.0

3.0

5.6

Vargas has a slight edge on hits and strikeouts, and he wins on durability: he’s logged over 200 innings twice, in 2011 and 2012, and threw 150 this past season despite losing nearly two months to injury over the summer. He's been relatively consistent as well: over his last five seasons, Vargas has seen his H/9 range from 8.3 (2012) to 9.7 (2013), while his HR/9 rates have been as low as 0.8 (2010) and as high as 1.6 (2009); and his walks per 9 have been tightly clustered between 2.3 (2012) and 2.8 (2013). The one slight trend might be K/9, where his low of 5.3 came all the way back in 2009 and his high, 6.5, was registered this past season.

Feldman has seen his performance vary more than has Vargas, and has been less durable. His innings high is 189.2, set back in 2009, though he approached that mark with 181.2 IP this past season. He missed most of 2011, logging just 32 innings. His hits allowed per 9 has fluctuated pretty significantly: 11.5 in 2010, 7.0 in his abbreviated 2011, 10.1 in 2012, and then a plunge to 7.9 in 2013. But everything else has held steady: his HR/9 hasn’t been higher than 1.1 since 2008, nor lower than 0.8. His walks nosed just over 3 per 9 this past season, and his strikeout rate has risen from an anemic 4.4 back in 2008 to much more respectable 7.0 and 6.5 marks these past two seasons.

And then there’s our man Kyle. He’s logged fewer innings than Vargas, and certainly had the worst 2013 of the three—pushing his H/9 rate well above theirs—but he’s also the youngest and has the lowest walk rate by a fair margin.  Phillies fans also remember that Kendrick was on pace for perhaps his best season through the all-star break: to that point, he was 8-6 with a 3.68 ERA, holding opponents to a .261/.304/.394 line. This strong first half followed a very solid 2012 campaign in the rotation, and an even better 2011 when Kendrick bounced between starting and relief duties. He pitched through some discomfort in the second half of 2013 and was shut down for the last couple weeks of the season, occasioning those Raul Valdes and Zach Minor starts you’ve worked hard to forget about.

Feldman has had the best season, by bWAR, of the three: Baseball-Reference credits him for a 3.8 WAR season back in 2009. He's also been sub-replacement three times, and his 2012 was almost there with a 0.1 bWAR. He rebounded in 2013 with a 1.6 WAR season. Vargas topped out at 3.1 WAR in 2012, and was worth 2.5 in 2010, 0.9 in 2011 and 1.8 last season. Baseball-Reference buys Kendrick's 2007, giving him 2.2 WAR that year, and 1.8, 1.5 and 1.0 in the last three campaigns respectively.

I think it’s probably fair to conclude that were Kyle Kendrick on the free agent market this winter, he’d likely be in line for a contract similar to those Vargas and Feldman pulled down. Given his poor finish to 2013 and relatively short track record as a rotation regular, perhaps he’d merit Feldman’s shorter term and Vargas’s lower average annual value—so let’s call it three years, $24 million.

So what do the various projection systems see in store for Kendrick, Vargas and Feldman for 2014?

Kendrick (Steamer): 8-10, 144 IP, 4.52 ERA, 4.16 FIP, 1.1 WAR; (Oliver): 10-8, 162 IP, 4.01 ERA, 4.17 FIP, 1.0 WAR

Vargas (Steamer): 11-10, 173 IP, 4.36 ERA, 4.30 FIP, 1.9 WAR; (Oliver): 10-10, 182 IP, 4.15 ERA, 4.58 FIP, 1.4 WAR

Feldman (Steamer): 10-11, 173 IP, 4.34 ERA, 3.99 FIP, 2.1 WAR; (Oliver): 9-7, 143 IP, 3.58 ERA, 3.94 FIP, 1.7 WAR

This actually suggests some rationality on the part of the market. Kendrick is projected to be worth about a win above replacement, and TGP alum Matt Swartz suggests he’ll pull down approximately $6.6 million for 2014; if you buy that one WAR is worth $6.5m, he’ll be appropriately compensated. Vargas is set for an AAV of $8 million over the next four years, and is projected to be worth a bit north of 1.5 WAR if you average the two projection systems; again, this looks about right. Ditto Feldman, whom the two systems see as worth slightly under two WAR and will start a contract with an AAV of $10 million. Nice work, executives…

…IF those deals are appropriate for each team given where they are in the competitive cycle. Dave Cameron, writing about the Vargas deal for the Royals, offers a relatively benign take:

$32 million is paying for something like +5 WAR over the next four years, and even if we just project him for +2.0/+1.5/+1.0/+0.5, then we’d expect him to produce exactly +5 WAR over the life of this deal. This isn’t a gross overpay. It’s just transferring some of the cost of signing an average pitcher from 2014 to 2017. For a team with moderate financial resources trying to make a run for the playoffs, that’s not the worst idea ever. […]this is also a decent enough contract for a decent enough pitcher to make sure that they don’t throw away their season by handing a rotation spot to a total scrub. Jason Vargas might not raise the Royals ceiling all that much, but he does raise their floor. And there’s value in that kind of transaction.

How about the Astros? Unlike the Royals, they’re not in win-now mode; in fact, it seems likely that the Astros won’t make a serious run at the postseason until after Feldman’s deal is up. But they’re not signing him for that reason:

[T]he Houston market has potential if the club can field an interesting product. … That starts with dynamic, athletic talents like Fowler and starting pitchers who can keep the offense in the game like Feldman. If those two players can stay healthy, the Astros have a good chance to win over 60 games. That sounds like nothing, but given the breadth of young, unproven talent in the organization, it will only take a few breakout performances to get to 70 wins. Then everybody is talking about the up-and-coming Astros who have all the young talent and payroll flexibility necessary to bolster the club. That’s a compelling story to sell to fans and free agents alike.

With both Vargas and Feldman, I suppose there’s also the option of dealing either pitcher if he performs well while the team otherwise disappoints. In this scenario, their contracts could make them more attractive rather than less. If by some scenario Kyle Kendrick absolutely crushes it for the 2014 Phillies but the team otherwise stinks, he’ll be tradable, but control beyond 2014 won’t be a consideration (and under the new rules, the team that acquires him wouldn’t be in line for draft pick compensation were he to sign elsewhere after the season).

This seems, unlikely, though. Given good health, Kendrick is much more likely to do what he usually does: put up 150-180 innings of slightly below-average performance. When you do that for a competent-to-good offense such as the one that supported Kendrick back when his K/9 rates sat around 4, you win some games and impress GMs like, well, Ruben Amaro. When you do that in your cost-controlled years, you actually are valuable: in his career through 2012, Kendrick had produced 4.6 WAR for under $7 million.

But—to Corey Seidman’s original point—you’re not a difference-maker, and your high-probability mediocrity might not make sense for a team that will need a lot of things to go right for a surprise run at relevancy in 2014.

What’s interesting here is that Roberto Hernandez (like, I suppose, Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez) is the anti-Kendrick in that he could be a total waste, an enormous value, or almost anything in between. Fangraphs’ two publicly available projection systems might be considering two different players (insert obvious name joke here--or I will):

Fauxto (Steamer): 8-8, 125 IP, 3.81 ERA, 3.54 FIP, 1.7 WAR; (Oliver): 6-8, 123 IP, 4.83 ERA, 5.14 FIP, -0.7 WAR

Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs sees a roll of the dice with more upside than downside:

So the Phillies will take the chance, for a year and a little money. They’ll take the chance any sabermetric writer would’ve recommended a few years ago. Absolutely, it could work out real well. Absolutely, Hernandez could keep allowing homers, because he has a problem we can’t quite put our fingers on. For a team in the Phillies’ position, better to take a cheap chance than a more expensive one. Maybe Hernandez won’t be good, but then the Phillies probably won’t be good, either. As free agents go, the right thing to target is affordable volatility.

"Affordable volatility": I like the sound of that. Coming off one year of a top-five payroll and bottom-ten record, as the team remains saddled with a slew of high-dollar contracts to aging players in decline, the chance that a Hernandez could deliver, say, $10 million in value for half that in pay seems like one worth taking. As for Kendrick, I might rather have, say, Edinson Volquez, who signed with the Pirates for a year and $5 million (though the projections don't love him either). But it seems quite likely that if the Phillies had non-tendered their 29 year old righty, he'd have quickly received a contract offer that would have prompted many of us to choke on our morning cereal.

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