While the Royals are trotting out their “Our Time” slogan, on the streets of Kansas City you’re more likely to hear “If only they had a better starting rotation”. Less snazzy. More Accurate. Not really the balance a marketing professional is looking to strike. However the refrain is grounded in truth and it is almost certain that the Royals will only go as far as their starting rotation will take them. So then why is it that the Royals, when faced with two free agent pitchers selected what appears to be the lesser one?
Going into this offseason the Royals had both Jeff Francis and Bruce Chen entering free agency. When the dust settled, the Royals gave Bruce Chen a 2-year contract worth $9m and Jeff Francis is with Cincinnati on a Minor League contract that might be worth $800.000. Why?*
*I’m going to pause here because I know that most of you are going to look up their numbers and attempt to come to your own conclusion. Those of you who are about to say “But his Wins and his ERA!” I will re-direct you back to your Delorean and suggest you return to your original time of 1985.
Jeff Francis is a 31 year old pitcher who just came off of his worst full season in his career which came just after a major surgery. At one point in his career, he was looked at as an Ace. His 2007 fWAR was equal to Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez. Bruce Chen is a 35 year old pitcher who just came off of his best season in his career while pitching only 155 innings due to a mid season injury. So, maybe it seems that Francis is on the decline while Chen is on the incline. Follow the trend, right?
Let me tell you something about 35 year old pitchers: they’re not getting better. It just doesn’t happen that way. Bruce Chen’s story has been a fascinating one and I really like the guy so I wish him all the success in the world. However, if I were laying down $9m of my own cash, I’d bet it on the don’t pass line.
Let’s take a look at some numbers:
Jeff Francis 180
Bruce Chen: 169
If experience on the mound is what you believe Chen brings, then he actually loses out to Francis in terms of starting pitching experience. Actualy in terms of total innings, Chen has a mere 99 more in his much longer career. Bruce Chen is new to being a starting pitcher, maybe that’s not a detriment but I don’t know that fewer starts is somehow to his benefit.
Jeff Francis 4.82
Bruce Chen: 3.77
This is the key number that people will bang you over the head with to prove that Bruce Chen is a better pitcher. Look at that, over a run every 9 innings. That is significant. What it was significant in was the fact that Chen got over 10x more than Francis in pay. However, I’m not sure it signifies one was better and certainly does not suggest one will be better. Why?
Jeff Francis: 4.29
Bruce Chen: 4.68
Pitchers can not control what happens once balls leave the bat of an opposing player. Thus their ERA depends heavily on things out of the control of the pitcher. Thus ERA introduces a whole lot of information which tells us nothing about the actual pitcher. xFIP is designed to give us a better look at the true talent and effectiveness of a pitcher. In 2011, xFIP is telling us that Francis was actually better than Chen or at least much more similar than their ERA suggests.
Jeff Francis: 2.33
Bruce Chen: 1.94
Chen struck out more batters than Francis, but he walked significantly more as well. Jeff Francis was one of the stingiest pitchers in baseball in terms of walks. With an improving defense, giving up walks become even more onerous. Striking a player out is the best out come for a pitcher, but walking guys is one of the worst. If Francis can get even stronger with another year to recover from surgery, then maybe his strikeout totals jump. Then again, maybe not.
Jeff Francis: 183
Bruce Chen: 155
I don’t want to gloss over the tendinitis that Francis had last season, but the bottom line is that he started 6 more games for the Royals than Bruce Chen did. Injuries will happen to pitchers and they’re somewhat unpredictable. But one of the highest areas of correlation is age. The older you are, the more likely you’ll have to hit the DL. This difference in innings is one of the main reasons that Francis had a higher fWAR last season. You aren’t adding value to a team when you’re hurt.
Jeff Francis: .316
Bruce Chen: .278
This is the batting average for balls that are put into play. Basically this is what happens to pitchers when they have no control. The vast majority of research suggests that there is little to nothing that a pitcher can do about this number and an abnormally low or high one cannot be sustained. Let’s just assume that it’s possible that somehow Bruce Chen has been able to find a way to limit the damage done by balls in play. Maybe he has beaten the odds. If that’s the case then he just might be more valuable, but everything suggests that he cannot keep his BABIP that low.
2011 Contract Signed:
Jeff Francis: $800,000 if he makes the roster
Bruce Chen: $9,000,000 guaranteed
I don’t have all of the information. Maybe the Royals doctors took a look at Francis and decided that his arm was shot. In fact, that seems to be the most logical reason for them to have passed on him completely. Since he was willing to accept a Minor League deal, I hope that there was a significant reason to pass on him.
The fact he signed a Minor League contract is the most interesting thing in all of this. Why wouldn’t the Royals have signed both Chen AND Francis. It’s not like the starting rotation is perfect or incapable of being injured. From the outside looking in, the Royals passed on the superior pitcher at a bargain basement price in order to sign an aging soft-tossing lefty who by all indications won’t provide the same value in 2012.
I don’t believe Jeff Francis is the key to unlocking the playoffs for the Royals, but having him around couldn’t hurt. It certainly wasn’t expensive.
– Nick Scott