Estimating the Astro(nomical) Worth of Gerrit Cole’s Next Contract

Gerrit Cole, who’s coming off a Cy Young-caliber season, is in line to receive an extremely hefty (record-breaking) paycheck.

In 2019, he led all qualified starting pitchers in FanGraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement (7.4), strikeouts per nine innings (13.82), strikeouts (326), xFIP (2.48), and SIERA (2.62). He was second in the majors in wins (20), second in WHIP (0.89), third in ERA (2.50), and fourth in innings pitched (212.1). Hitters posted an abysmal .185 batting average (second in the majors to only Justin Verlander).

Cole also had a stupendous postseason, going 4-1 with a 1.72 ERA and a ridiculous .165 batting average against.

In an effort to best estimate the contract a player is mostly likely going to receive, most baseball sites use a generalized $ (in millions) per 1 WAR figure, meaning that they apply the same factor to all free agents.

When I dived into the cost per 1 WAR from last season, I found that it varied depending on a couple of factors:

a. how good the player actually is

b. what position does he play

So instead of using an MLB-wide $ / 1 WAR figure, I’m going to examine the contracts that recent No. 1 and 2 starters have signed (I excluded deGrom because his deal interfered with arbitration).

Chris Sale

In late March of 2019 (just before the commencement of the regular season), the Red Sox announced that they had signed their ace pitcher Chris Sale to a 5 year contract extension totaling $145 million (plus some awards-based incentives and some other bonuses).

Here’s the breakdown of that deal (dollar amounts denoted are the ones that count towards the team payroll)…

2020: $30 million

2021: $30 million

2022: $30 million

2023: $27.5 million

2024: $27.5 million

But if we want to calculate the $ / WAR, we first need to convert the dollar values into 2019 terms (we will subsequently apply a 5 percent inflation once we combine all $ / WAR totals together [that will make more sense later on]).

2020: $28.57 million (30/1.05 [inflation])

2021: $27.21 million (30/1.05/1.05)

2022: $25.92 million (30/1.05/1.05/1.05)

2023: $22.62 million (27.5/1.05/1.05/1.05/1.05)

2024: $21.55 million (27.5/1.05/1.05/1.05/1.05/1.05)

Total: $125.87 ($25.174 million per year in terms of 2019 dollar worth)

FanGraphs has their own Contract Estimation Tool, and although it appears that it hasn’t been updated recently, it can still prove to be of assistance for the purpose of this exercise.

They make several assumptions:

  • 5.0% inflation (for first 5 years)
  • Aging Curve: +0.25 WAR/yr (18-27), 0 WAR/yr (28-30),-0.5 WAR/yr (31-37),-0.75 WAR/yr (> 37)

Chris Sale’s fWAR measure by year coming into the contract is as follows…

2016 (age-27 season): 5.3

2017: 7.6

2018: 6.2 (age-29)

We can weight these three numbers based on recency [(2016 * 0.2) + (2017 * 0.35) + (2018 * 0.45)]. That comes out to 6.51.

Here are Sale’s projected fWAR totals for the impending seasons at the time of the deal based on the weighted WAR of 6.5…

^2019 (age-30): 6.5

2020: 6.0

2021 (age-32): 5.5

2022: 5.0

2023 (age-34): 4.5

2024: 4.0

^ = doesn’t count towards deal

Total for years signed on contract: 25.0 fWAR

That makes $5.03 million / 1 fWAR on Sale’s contract. Once again, that’s $5 million in 2019 value (we are simply undoing the supposed inflation).

Patrick Corbin

In December of 2018, the Nationals reached a deal with southpaw pitcher Patrick Corbin, who was coming off of a career year in he accumulated 5.9 fWAR. The list of pitchers who were more valuable than Corbin that year is small (Gerrit Cole, Chris Sale, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Jacob deGrom). The deal was $140 million over the course of 6 years.

Here’s the financial breakdown of that deal (reminder that dollar amounts denoted are the ones that count towards the team payroll)…

2019: $12,916,666 million

2020: $19,416,666 million

2021: $24,416,666 million

2022: $23,416,666 million

2023: $24,416,666 million

2024: $35,416,700 million

Here are the 2019 equivalency dollar amounts…

2019: $12.917 million

2020: $18.492 million

2021: $22.147 million

2022: $20.228 million

2023: $19.882 million

2024: $27.750 million

Total: $121.416 million

Patrick Corbin’s fWAR measure by year coming into the contract is as follows…

2016 (age-26 season): 0.7

2017: 3.0

2018: 5.9 (age-28)

We can weight these three numbers based on recency [(2016 * 0.2) + (2017 * 0.35) + (2018 * 0.45)]. That comes out to 3.845.

Here are Corbin’s projected fWAR totals for the impending seasons at the time of the deal based on the weighted WAR of 3.8…

2019 (age-29): 3.8

2020: 3.8

2021 (age-31): 3.3

2022: 2.8

2023 (age-33): 2.3

2024: 1.8

Total: 17.3 fWAR

That makes $7.02 million / 1 fWAR on Corbin’s contract. Once again, that’s $7 million in 2019 value (we are simply undoing the supposed inflation).

Justin Verlander

One day after the Red Sox resigned Chris Sale, the Astros inked their ageless front of the rotation arm Justin Verlander to a 2 year / $66 million extension that would kick in starting in 2020. His numbers to that point with Houston were insane.

  • 290 IP (excluding postseason)
  • 2.33 ERA
  • 383 SO
  • 2.92 FIP
  • 3.04 xFIP

The layout of the deal was quite simple…

2020: $33 million

2021: $33 million

Those values converted into present-day value (2019)…

2020: $31.43 million

2021: $29.93 million

Total: $61.36 million

Justin Verlander’s fWAR measure by year coming into the contract is as follows…

2016 (age-33 season): 4.1

2017: 6.6

2018: 6.4 (age-35)

We can weight these three numbers based on recency [(2016 * 0.2) + (2017 * 0.35) + (2018 * 0.45)]. That comes out to 6.01.

Here are Verlander’s projected fWAR totals for the impending seasons at the time of the deal based on the weighted WAR of 6.0…

^2019 (age-36): 5.9

2020: 5.4

2021 (age-38): 4.65

^ = doesn’t count towards deal

Total for years on contract: 10.05 fWAR

That makes $6.11 million / 1 fWAR on J.V’s contract. Once again, that’s the 2019 monetary value.

Clayton Kershaw

In early November of last year, the Dodgers and Kershaw announced that they had reached an agreement for a 3 year contract extension (that totaled $93 million [plus some potential incentives]).

Kershaw, dating back to 2009, had thrown 140+ innings and recorded a sub-3.00 ERA in 10 consecutive seasons. There are only three other pitchers in MLB history to embark on such a streak (Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, and Eddie Plank, who all pitched in the very early 1900s). All three of them are in the Hall of Fame in case you were wondering.

Kershaw’s contract broken down financially…

2019: $31 million

2020: $31 million

2021: $31 million

Those numbers once you account for inflation…

2019: $31 million

2020: $29.52 million

2021: $28.12 million

Total: $88.64 million

Clayton Kershaw’s fWAR measure by year coming into the contract is as follows…

2016 (age-28 season): 6.3

2017: 4.3

2018: 3.3 (age-30)

We can weight these three numbers based on recency [(2016 * 0.2) + (2017 * 0.35) + (2018 * 0.45)]. That comes out to 4.25.

Here are Verlander’s projected fWAR totals for the impending seasons at the time of the deal based on a weighted WAR of 4.3…

2019 (age-31): 3.8

2020: 3.3

2021 (age-33): 2.8

Total: 9.9 fWAR

That makes $8.95 million / 1 fWAR on J.V’s contract. Once again, that’s the 2019 monetary value.

$ / fWAR is not a perfect science. But that doesn’t mean one cannot use it to make approximations when it comes to contracts.

Considering Kershaw lands so much higher than the other three pitchers, I think the median is a better choice. The middle value (median) is $6.565 million.

Gerrit Cole

Cole is the top free agent this offseason, with Strasburg not to far behind (especially after such a strong postseason showing).

His fWAR totals the last three seasons…

2017 (age-26 season): 3.4

2018: 6.0

2019 (age-28): 7.4

Weighted WAR total: 6.11

His projected fWAR measures in 2020 and beyond…

2020 (age-29): 6.1

2021: 6.1

2022 (age-31): 5.6

2023: 5.1

2024 (age-33): 4.6

2025: 4.1

2026 (age-35): 3.6

2027: 3.1

2028 (age-37): 2.6

2029: 1.85

Here is what Cole will be worth in each year moving forward using $6.565 million per 1 fWAR as the baseline…

2020: $42.05 million (6.1 * 6.89 [6.565 * 1.05 {inflation}])

2021: $44.15 million (6.1 * 7.24)

2022: $42.56 million (5.6 * 7.60)

2023: $40.70 million (5.1 * 7.98)

2024: $38.54 million (4.6 * 8.38)

2025: $34.35 million (4.1 * 8.38)

2026: $30.16 million (3.6 * 8.38)

2027: $25.97 million (3.1 * 8.38)

2028: $21.78 million (2.6 * 8.38)

2029: $15.50 million (1.85 * 8.38)

Possible contracts…

  • 1 yr / $42.05 million
  • 2 yr / $86.3 million
  • 3 yr / $128.86 million
  • 4 yr / $169.56 million
  • 5 yr / $208.1 million
  • 6 yr / $242.45 million
  • 7 yr / $272.61 million
  • 8 yr / $298.58 million
  • 9 yr / $320.36 million
  • 10 yr / $335.86 million

Prediction: 10 yr / $335 million deal with the Yankees

Where Cole’s new contract would rank among active players in total dollars (not accounting for inflation)…

  1. Mike Trout ($426.5 million)
  2. GERRIT COLE ($335 million)
  3. Bryce Harper ($330 million)
  4. Manny Machado ($300 million)
  5. Nolan Arenado ($260 million)

Where Cole’s new contract would rank among active players in average amount per year:

  1. Mike Trout ($35.5 million)
  2. Zack Greinke ($34.4 million)
  3. GERRIT COLE ($33.5 million)
  4. Justin Verlander ($33 million)
  5. Nolan Arenado ($32.5 million)

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