January 30, 2013

Kevin Correia, free agent pitchers, and “better than the numbers”

Last week I wrote about how the Twins giving Kevin Correia a two-year, $10 million deal looks even worse now than it did back in December because so many equal or better starters have since signed one-year deals. That list then added another name when Shaun Marcum took a one-year deal from the Mets worth $4 million plus incentives. Marcum is an injury risk, but from 2010-2012 he threw 520 innings with a 3.62 ERA compared to 470 innings with a 4.77 ERA for Correia.

Here's an updated list of free agent starters who signed one-year contracts:

Brett Myers         Indians       $7.0 million
Scott Feldman       Cubs          $6.0 million
Scott Baker         Cubs          $5.5 million
Shaun Marcum        Mets          $4.0 million
Mike Pelfrey        Twins         $4.0 million
Roberto Hernandez   Rays          $3.3 million
Bartolo Colon       Athletics     $3.0 million
Jason Marquis       Padres        $3.0 million
John Lannan         Phillies      $2.5 million
Jeff Karstens       Pirates       $2.5 million
Jair Jurrjens       Orioles       $1.5 million
Jeff Francis        Rockies       $1.5 million
Freddy Garcia       Padres        Minor League
Erik Bedard         Astros        Minor league

Correia has topped 175 innings just once in his career and of the 91 pitchers to throw at least 400 innings as starters since 2010 he ranks 88th in ERA, 76th in xFIP, 81st in strikeout rate, and 80th in strikeout-to-walk ratio. Clearly the Twins are aware of those numbers, so why did they target Correia and feel the need to give him a two-year contract in a market where similar pitchers were available for one-year commitments? Here's what Terry Ryan told Phil Mackey of 1500 ESPN:

Well, I always go back to the scouting evaluation, people that have seen him, and we saw him a lot with the Pirates, and certainly before that when he was with the Padres and the Giants. We like his makeup, he has stuff, we had evaluators tell us and me in particular that this guy is better than the numbers.

I have a lot of faith and trust in people that have seen him, and they were adamant that this guy can help us. ... I don't think we overpaid drastically in this situation. People that know him say that he's a good teammate and all that type of stuff, so you take all of that into consideration. We needed pitching badly, so we went and got him.

I've been very skeptical of the recent talk about the Twins increasing their involvement in and reliance on statistical analysis and that quote is a prime example of why. Correia is 32 years old with a decade-long track record of mediocre or worse pitching, but for the Twins that abundance of data took a backseat to "makeup" and being "a good teammate" and their scouts saying "this guy is better than the numbers."

All of which would be fine if Correia were, say, 24 years old with just a couple hundred innings under his belt. In that case relying on scouting would be hugely important and could potentially give the Twins a significant advantage if done well. But at age 32, with 10 seasons and 1,066 innings of experience, Correia is exactly as good as his numbers. And those numbers include a 4.60 ERA in 159 career starts spent exclusively in the NL and a plummeting strikeout rate.

It's also worth wondering why exactly the Twins are so confident in their scouting when it comes to free agent starting pitchers, because their recent track record isn't pretty. They trusted their scouts and overlooked poor numbers to sign Jason Marquis last year and Livan Hernandez, Ramon Ortiz, and Sidney Ponson before that. Numbers would have told them to stay away from all four pitchers, who combined to throw 302 innings with a 5.90 ERA for $13 million.

I'd certainly like to see the Twins do more than dip their toes in the statistical analysis pool while so many other teams are swimming laps, but out-scouting other teams remains hugely important. In fact, an argument could be made that the value of out-scouting teams has increased as the MLB-wide reliance on statistical analysis has increased. Teams that zig while other teams zag will always have an opportunity to benefit.

Of course, the "out-scouting" part is what makes that actually work. If instead a team is miles behind many other teams in statistical analysis and continues to target players based on scouting that hasn't done a particularly good job ... well, that's an awfully dangerous combination. And unfortunately when it comes to free agent starting pitchers that's exactly where the Twins find themselves and how they ended up overpaying a mediocre-at-best 32-year-old.

For a lot more about the Twins' rotation plans, plus a lengthy interview with Twins president Dave St. Peter, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.


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  • Leon

    Pulling no punches, I see. And you shouldn’t. Really wish they’d just hire you already, and actually listen to reason

  • JB (the Original)

    But, but, we’re waiting to hear from Joe Saunders…..!?

  • Daddy

    So, so, so, so frustrating. It’s like they’re doubling down on the mistake. But what else can they do? And I really liked the trades this off-season.

  • Mark W

    Twins scouts reminds of all the A’s scouts in Moneyball (He’s got an ugly girlfriend = low self esteem).
    Aaron, do we know all the scouts for the Twins? How long they’ve been doing this, their track record, their background, how they evaluate players, etc ? You would think there would be some culpability in their job if they aren’t producing results. It’d be like a broker returning negative % on your investment for 20 years and you’re still paying commission to him (crazy).

  • jfs

    if correia delivers 175 innings with an era under 4.60, it’s a decent investment. give the guy a break. if his strikeout/walk ratio is anything above 2.5, so much the better.

    as for ponson, hernandez, marquis and ortiz, they were fillers. low risk. and low expectations.

    i didn’t see a koufax, spahn, or gibson in this year’s free-agent starting pitcher list.

  • BR

    We’ll never know all of the reasoning that went into this decision, but I think there’s a good chance that the Twins simply misjudged the market for back-end starters. It’s the classic if-we’d-only-known Marcum would go for 1 year/$4M, we would have…

    The Twins weren’t going big game hunting; they were looking for quantity. That doesn’t excuse keeping catfish when you could have trout, but it explains their basic approach this offseason. And yes, at least the trades brought in higher upside arms.

  • David

    If the Twins have scouts who believe that Correia is better than average, then the Twins have at least two have below average scouts. Terry Ryan at SABR harped on how important makeup is. Maybe, they look at Correia as a model and coach for young pitchers, given the Twins are going to be terrible anyway. Who knows? With better role models, maybe Liriano does the stretches, doesn’t injure himself and becomes Cy Young caliber instead of mediocre? That is the best I can do to give the benefit on the doubt. Thank you, Aaron, for not pulling punches and giving the Twins the criticism they clearly deserve in this case.

  • Matt #3

    Picture the scouts and baseball analysis in Trouble With the Curve.

    That movie was unintentionally hilarious so many times I lost count.

  • http://aol.com Steve

    Boooo, I came here for prospects 31-35, not Kevin Correia.

    Just kidding Aaron, keep up the good work!!

  • Wyatt

    it seems a team with starting pitching needs on a budget like the twins would be much more inclined to wait out an oversaturated mediocre starting pitcher market (as Aaron’s table alludes to. It indicates poor understanding of the economics of free agency and the valuation of talent on the twins behalf. It’s very difficult from a fan’s perspective to sit and watch the twins organization fall this far behind the rest of the pack.

  • Dave T

    Is it too much to hope for that Terry Ryan will fire the so-called scouts who recommended Correia, after Correia flops miserably? It’s not just Correia who has years of major league experience under his belt. As you point out, Terry Ryan has made this mistake before.

  • Brandon

    Or is it too much to hope for that Terry Ryan and his so-called scouts get shown the door. I can’t imagine how a finally healthy Justin Morneau feels like when he finally starts the season back at 1st base and batting clean up…and the team is literally out of the playoff race after April and the twins brass is moving on from Kevin correia to Liam Hendricks…to Brian duensing…to a kid from Edina (only because he’s from Edina). Lets start throwing GM’s against the wall and see if they stick. Clap your hands for the 7th best farm system that may or may not produce a quality product. Give ‘em credit for getting high ceiling pitcher in Meyer but honestly…it’s not like they “fleeced” the nationals. It was an even swap to fill 2 teams needs. I’d saw there’s little confidence from this fan that Terry Ryan will ever feild a team that makes a World Series push.

  • Jason

    It’s Terry’s job to use the information out there to make rational decisions. It is easy for beginners at the FA game to get nervous and buy early. But veterans should be familiar with looking at the marginal difference in quality versus substantial difference in cost and know when to wait.

  • Matt #3

    Dave T, don’t worry about that. They’ll blame it on an injury. Thems the breaks.

  • Breaker

    @ Wyatt & BR:

    It is frustrating, but unfortunately it should not be unexpected. As the offseason started the Twins FO (namely TR) was quoted a couple of times as saying the market for free agent starting pitchers was thin. It was correctly pointed out by Gleeman and other bloggers that it may not have had the “ace” or two of the previous free agent classes, but it was certainly deep in 3rd & 4th starters.

    I think BR has it right – TR simply misjudged the market for back-end starters. From the very beginning he insisted there wasn’t much depth, and he was wrong all along.

  • AM.

    The question for Terry Ryan is this: do you think Correia is a better pitcher than Marcum?

    It seems clear from the way this off-season went that he does. I can’t figure out how in the world the Twins would conclude that, but that is what the evidence suggests.

  • Wookiee of the Year

    @Mark W:

    I bet all the Twins’ scouts have ugly girlfriends.

  • RTG

    I agree with Aaron’s analysis of the Correia signing and the apparent mindset of the Twins’ front office. Still, I’m hopelessly disposed to look at the bright side. So here are two things to consider as signs that Correia might exceed expectations.

    First, Correia’s stats in 2011 and 2012 may have been affected by a lingering trunk/abdominal injury. The injury landed him on the 60-day DL in 2011 and he reaggravated it in early 2012.

    Second, Correia’s stats for the second half of 2012 may point to a return to form (and, perhaps, a full recovery from the trunk injury). Specifically, I’m looking at his K/9 in the second half of 2012, which rose to 6.1 strikeouts per 9 innings pitched (and accompanied a decent 1.29 WHIP). The 6.1 K/9 is closer to the numbers Correia put up in his strong 2009 season (6.5). (His 2010 season saw an even higher K/9 (7.1), but also, unfortunately, a -1.1 WARP.)

    Not a ringing endorsement, I know. And not to say that there may not have been better options available to the Twins. But it’s quite possible — and here I end with more faint praise — that Correia will be a more effective pitcher than he was in 2011 and the first half of 2012.

  • SDB

    I’m no stats expert, but I whipped up a quick regression analysis based on team stats for 08-12 seasons from Fangraphs.com correlating K/BB, K/9, WHIP and HR/9 to team wins. I realize that there are a lot of quibbles in such an experiment, but the result was that if a team pitched like Correia in 12 they’d win around 77 games. Based on his 09-12 numbers, it would be 75 games. So, if the Twins are hoping Correia returns to form, that’s not a high bar.

    If an entire team pitched like Marcum in 10-12, it could be predicted to win 107 games; based on career numbers that would be 100 games. Just picking a name off of the list at random, Jeff Karstens’ career numbers over a whole team would be worth 80 wins, at 1/2 the price of Correia.

    I realize there are huge grains of salt to be had in all of this; injuries, offense, team vs. individual stats, etc, but the sad fact is that in an hour it feels like I did more analysis than the Twins did. And they’re getting paid for it and I’m not. Oy.

  • brent

    Aaron is spot on, again. It will be interesting to see the evolution of what he does and doesn’t say as he is gets more mainstream play.