Calculated Risks: Weighing Rick Porcello’s Contract vs. Big Deals Given to Other Red Sox Pitchers

Fort Myers, FL - 02/23/15 - Not yet a Boston Red Sox legend Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Rick Porcello (22) heads past a large poster/mural of Red sox legends on the way to the practice fields. Red Sox Spring Training. (Barry Chin/Globe Staff), Section: Sports, Reporter: Peter Abraham, Topic: 24Red Sox, LOID: 8.0.2717390732.
Rick Porcello will have a chance to carve his own legacy in Boston over the next five years.
The Boston Globe

Rick Porcello’s new four year, $82.5 million contract extension makes him the highest paid pitcher in Red Sox history without throwing a single regular season pitch for the franchise. It’s a huge vote of confidence for Porcello, whom the Red Sox essentially acquired for Jon Lester by way of renting Yoenis Cespedes for a few months and then sending him to Detroit in December.

Porcello will make $20 million in 2016 and 2017, $21 million in 2018 and 2019, and collect a $500,000 signing bonus. He’s still in line to make $12.5 million this season. The $82.5 million total value of the contract matches John Lackey’s free agent deal prior to the 2010 season, and Porcello’s $20.625 average annual value replaces Josh Beckett’s $17 million AAV extension that covered the 2011-2014 seasons.

That’s a lot of dough.

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With baseball’s bloated market for starting pitching, it’s hard to determine with any certainty what level of production is required for Porcello to be “worth” an $82.5 million contract. But we can look back at the value the Red Sox have returned on similar pitching investments as a basis for comparison. For guidelines, let’s look at the four other pitchers to whom the Red Sox have ever pledged a contract valued at $50 million or more.

Pedro Martinez signed a six year, $75 million deal after the Sox traded for him prior to the 1998 season. That deal made Martinez the highest paid player in the game and would dwarf the other lucrative pitcher contracts in Red Sox history if contract inflation is accounted for. There’s a reason Martinez received such a contract: The best pitcher of his era and now a Hall of Famer, Martinez won a pair of Cy Young Awards and led the American League in ERA and/or strikeouts three times each in his seven years in Boston. Given the era in which he played, Martinez has a strong argument as the most dominant pitcher in his prime in baseball history.

The Red Sox made history again in 2006 with the pursuit and signing of Japanese pitching sensation Daisuke Matsuzaka. The Sox paid a record $51.1 million posting fee for exclusive negotiating rights with Matsuzaka, and struck a six-year deal worth $52 million. Matsuzaka pitched six largely frustrating seasons with the Red Sox, but did offer immediate return on investment by helping the team win the 2007 World Series and following it up with an 18-3 season in 2008.

Beckett had one of the best seasons of his career in the first year of his extension, posting a 13-7 record and a 2.89 ERA in 30 starts in 2011. However, he was a central culprit in the “chicken and beer” fiasco and concurrent September collapse that ultimately cost Terry Francona his job, and Boston traded Beckett and his 5.23 ERA in 2012 as part of the salary dump trade with the Dodgers.

Lackey’s return on investment was just the opposite. An adequate but unspectacular 2010 campaign followed by a disastrous 2011 (a 6.41 ERA and a -1.9 WAR) inspired little confidence, and Lackey missed all of 2012 after having Tommy John surgery. He returned in fine form, however, and slid into the number two starter role behind Jon Lester as the Red Sox went worst to first. Lackey continued his effectiveness in 2014 but was traded to St. Louis when the Red Sox season went down the tubes before the trade deadline.

Historically speaking, the only slam dunk in the group is Martinez, and he’s a once in a generation talent. In fact, across baseball, “massive contracts for starting pitchers almost never work out.”

There is reason to be optimistic about Porcello, of course. Despite having no track record in Boston, he’s an AL-lifer who has seen his numbers improve each of the last five seasons. Forget the 4.30 career ERA. Porcello has been a big leaguer since age 20 and his cumulative statistics reflect that. A 3.43 ERA and 4.0 WAR at age 25 is what the Red Sox are investing in. Fangraphs predicted Porcello would sign a $100 million contract in free agency next offseason because of his age and room for further improvement. Taking that projection and the aforementioned bloated pitching market into account, and the Red Sox may even get good value out of the extension if Porcello establishes and maintains himself as a solid number two or high-end number three starter on a World series caliber team.

Consider that Max Scherzer, Porcello’s former rotation comrade in Detroit and 4 1/2 years his senior, signed a seven year, $210 million deal on the open market. Porcello’s numbers at age 25 are superior to what Scherzer’s were. While Scherzer has the swing-and-miss stuff scouts love in top of the rotation arms, Porcello’s ability to induce groundballs and not rely on dominant velocity make him better suited to pitch at his peak level at a later stage in his career.

Or consider the big money pitcher the Red Sox didn’t sign: Jon Lester. The Cubs will pay Lester upwards on $25 million annually for his ages 31-36 seasons. When Porcello’s four year extension is up, he’ll be the same age that Lester is right now. When you project Porcello’s presumed prime against an ace in his thirties, the Red Sox made a safer bet for about half the ante.

Beckett’s extension covered his ages 31-34 seasons. The Lackey deal covered his ages 31-35 seasons. Porcello’s extension covers his ages 27-30 seasons, which puts him more in line age-wise with Matsuzaka (26-31) and Martinez (26-31). That’s not to say it’s a sure thing Porcello will continue to pitch at an above average or better level, just that he’s a safer bet (in a vacuum) to continue his productivity than Beckett or Lackey were at the time they were signed.