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Phillies Shopping List: Scherzer, Lester, Shields, or None of the Above?

The family budget is blown. The McMansion turned out to be a doublewide. The family car needs a new transmission. The credit card is maxed, and there's no home equity. Yet, we're making a lot of money, and look to earn our way out of the mess. What does our Phillies family shop for at Christmastime?

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The best fit, but probably too much moolah.
The best fit, but probably too much moolah.
Ed Zurga

I really like Dave Ramsey. I'm not a religious guy, and he can be hokey at times, but he offers a lot of really sensible financial advice for regular people. Something I buy for all high school and college graduates is a copy of The Total Money Makeover.

His advice boils down to a few things that you already heard from your grandmother:

  1. Don't buy stuff you can't afford.
  2. No matter how little you make, having a savings buffer is incredibly important for emergencies.
  3. Live below your means.
  4. Get rid of your debt by using a plan (his is the "debt snowball").
The Phillies have a blown budget, a wealth of formerly nifty things that can probably be chalked up to "unwise purchases" (Papelbon, Howard) and some that have already been hocked (an unnecessary Hunter Pence).  Attendance has plummeted, the team won't be good again for a while, but (and this is a really big Sir Mix-a-Lot level but), they have a really solid income from the cable deal coming on line starting mostly in 2016, though it starts low and ramps up, and is part equity, not all cash. It hits the books as attendance is dropping like a stone, though, reducing other revenues.

The Phillies probably need a starting pitcher. Hamels can't pitch on 0 days of rest. Lee might be the subject of Toy Story 4, and who knows about the rest of the rotation?

The team won't be good in 2015. They probably won't be good in 2016. They will be flush in 2017, and they will likely have some nifty young players to build around, and maybe being good then is possible.  They will need pitching, but probably not until 2017.

Do the Phillies go to the store this year and buy pitching now? There are some fine cuts of meat at the market:

He is nearly 31 years old right now. He bounced back this year after what were for him two sub-par years where his groundball rate and strike out rate fell.  This year was sparkling, with a career low walk rate of 1.97 per nine innings and a strike out rate of 9.01, which approached his career highs from 2009 and 2010. His groundball rate has fallen every year since 2010 (53.6) to a career worst of 42.4%, excluding his early and short years in 2006 and 2007.

He is clearly an evolving pitcher, but he is moving away from groundballs and toward more fly balls.  It looks like he pretty much dropped his changeup this year (from 12.3% to 2.7%) and used his sinker less (23.4% to 15%). He used more curves, cutters, and fastballs. Obviously, that will cause the groundball rate to decline, but it was effective for him.

It looks like he is taking less time between pitches per the Pitchf/x data, with the 22.6 seconds being the fastest pace of his career. He is throwing fewer balls in the strike zone (his 46.3% rate was the lowest of his career) despite having considerably fewer walks per nine innings.  His "swing and miss" stuff this year was his best since 2010.  His Contact% for all pitches (in and out of the strike zone) fell from 81.9% to 78.5%. Cole Hamels, in comparison, was at 75.8% this year.

For his career, the left-handed Lester has a minor platoon split, but it was a reverse split in 2014. He is pretty effective no matter then handedness of the batter.

His fWAR this past year was 6.1 (CONTRACT YEAR) and he averages a little over 4.5 over the last 5 years, though he is almost 31 now, and his peak is presumably in the rear view mirror.

An interesting point about Lester, and I suspect this has been looked at elsewhere: his velocity has declined across the board this year by about 1 mph after having been steady for some time, but his effectiveness has not been diminished.  Combined with the substantially lower walk rate, I wonder if this is a difference in approach as opposed to an organic decline in velocity.

I kind of like Lester the best of the three.

Five years, $115MM?  That would be $23MM a year. More? I'm really bad at estimating that sort of (kind of important) stuff.

He is 30 years old. He is right-handed. He is a swing-and-miss (10.29 K/9) flyball (36.7% GB rate) pitcher with a controlled walk rate (2.57 BB/9). He is a little under 4.5 fWAR over the last 6 years.

Scherzer has a much more pronounced platoon split: His wOBA versus LHB is .326 and it is .282 against RHB.

While Scherzer is an objectively good pitcher, he's a flyball pitcher who is much weaker against lefties. I'm not sure he's a good fit for Citizens Bank Park.

Six years, $120MM? That's $20MM per year.

Shields is nearly 33 years old and a right-handed pitcher. He is below the "grade" of Lester and Scherzer.  Over 8.5 seasons, he has put up an average fWAR of a little less than 3.7.  He has consistently come in between 3.5 and 4.5 over the last 4 seasons.

He has a career xFIP of 3.61.  His numbers are: 7.14 K/9, 1.74 BB/9, and GB% of 45.2%.  He's not as good as Hamels, but he pitches more innings at a "pretty good" level, allowing him to close some of the fWAR gap over their careers.  His platoon split isn't, really. He's a hair worse against RHB, but not tremendously so.  He'd probably pitch fine in Citizens Bank Park with low walk numbers, a good groundball rate, and the ability to strike someone out when necessary.

Shields has stable velocity over the last few years, but, you know, he's nearly 33.

Four years, $72MM? the Phillies go to the mall this year?  Adding 3.5 to 4.5 "expected" fWAR in the next two seasons will not help. None of these three pitchers is likely to be in peak shape 3 seasons from now when the corner is hopefully being turned, and certainly not Shields.

Phillies:  Remember Dave Ramsey. Do your debt snowball.  Do not go to the pitcher mall this winter.  If you want anything, you want young dudes who can help during the next wave.