“They didn’t think it was substantial enough,” Dombrowski said at the time.
Scherzer’s wager: I’ll get more years and more dollars the following offseason in free agency. When he did — seven years and $210 million from the Washington Nationals — it might have seemed an outlandish sum, too much for a team to spend on something so fragile as a pitcher, who almost always decline in value and performance with mileage and age.
Instead, $30 million a year borders on a bargain. The immediate questions about Scherzer concern his balky back and when his next start will come. The broader question: Is Max Scherzer the best free agent signing of all time?
“Our evaluation of him, with our own algorithms, is he’s worth about $60 million a year,” said agent Scott Boras, who guided Scherzer through that process and convinced Nationals owner Ted Lerner that $210 million was a fair price.
Boras’s evaluation may be true. But as Scherzer, the Nats hope, puts his slightly balky back behind him, there’s a more fun way than finances to evaluate his contract: performance. And Scherzer’s is unparalleled.
Since the beginning of Scherzer’s deal, the 2015 season, he ranks in the top two in all of baseball in virtually every important pitching category, be it modern or ancient: first in wins, wins above replacement (WAR), innings, strikeouts, opponents’ batting average and strikeout percentage; second in ERA, walks and hits per inning pitched and fielding independent pitching. His finishes in the National League Cy Young Award voting: fifth, first, first and second — with a chance for another trophy ahead over the final 2½ months of this season.
It is a dominant run for any player. But for someone who turned down unimaginable riches and then embraced the pressure brought on by what was, at the time, the largest free agent contract ever for a pitcher, it’s staggering.
“Every player who makes it to this level, at some point we’ve all heard all of the knocks against us,” Scherzer said. “When you get to that point in the ballgame, staring down free agency, nothing’s new. You played through arbitration. You played through a draft. You played through all these contracts. This is just another contract situation. From a player’s perspective, this is what we’ve signed up for.”
If only every big-ticket free agent could approach his job as such — routine — then maybe more of them would succeed as those massive paychecks roll in. Thirteen players have signed contracts for more total value than Scherzer’s $210 million. Many of them — deals for Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Nolan Arenado and even Giancarlo Stanton — are too new to evaluate one way or the other. Only one looks truly solid: Clayton Kershaw’s seven-year, $215 million extension with the Dodgers. A bunch petered out near the end or even the middle: Miguel Cabrera, Robinson Cano, Alex Rodriguez and maybe Joey Votto. And there were a few outright clunkers: Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, for sure.
With the exception of Rodriguez’s two gigantic deals — one for $252 million with Texas in 2001, the second for $275 million with the Yankees in 2008 — these are all contracts signed since 2012, a period when baseball has been awash in unprecedented revenue. Comparing Scherzer’s deal historically requires looking away from total dollars and instead across eras, which brings us back to performance.
And who, after receiving a new deal from a new team, performed better than Randy Johnson?
Johnson’s four-year, $52.4 million contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks spanned from 1999 to 2002. His finishes in the Cy Young voting those four seasons: first, first, first and first. Oh, and the Diamondbacks won the 2001 World Series. In retrospect, Arizona got Johnson on a deep discount.
Another contender would be Greg Maddux, who in 1993 left the Cubs for the Braves, and $28 million over five years. Maddux’s Cy Young finishes: first, first, first, fifth and second, which could be the finishes of Scherzer should he win again this year. Maddux can’t match Scherzer or Johnson in any of the strikeout categories, but in that span, he was first in WAR and wins, in ERA and WHIP. The Braves won four division titles, two pennants and the 1995 World Series. The Braves got their money’s worth.
Few free agents altered the course of a franchise as did Barry Bonds, who left Pittsburgh to sign with San Francisco in 1993. That first season of his six-year, $43.75 million contract, Bonds was the NL MVP, and the Giants won 103 games.
But Bonds’s best seasons — achieved by whatever means — didn’t come until after that first contract. He set the season record for homers in 2001, when he won the first of four straight MVP awards. He became the career home run king in 2007. During the lifetime of the contract, he did lead all of baseball in WAR, on-base percentage and runs. But seven players drove in more runs, four hit more homers, and Mark McGwire posted a higher on-base-plus-slugging percentage.
There are those who will excoriate Bonds for the methods he used, understandably. But Bonds’s addition changed baseball in San Francisco, undeniably. When considering one contract against another, evaluate it how you will. It’s personal.
Who else would even be a candidate? Ichiro Suzuki’s arrival from Japan helped save baseball in Seattle; his value there went beyond his performance, which was Hall of Fame-caliber. David Ortiz was a free agent flier for the Boston Red Sox in 2003 and became one of the most important figures in franchise history, as did Manny Ramirez on a much more lucrative deal. Roger Clemens won two straight Cy Young Awards after signing with Toronto; Vladimir Guerrero was the MVP in his first year with the Angels; Pete Rose helped transform the Phillies; Reggie Jackson and Dave Winfield made splashes with the Yankees.
There are choices, plenty of them, all fun to kick around. Scherzer, right now, is right there. But at some point, he has to fall off, right? By the end of the month, he’ll be 35. By the end of the contract, he’ll be 37.
“This is where I give [Lerner] all the credit in the world, because we gave him an algorithm, an evaluative measure that said, ‘This player will be one of the greatest signings in values for major league teams,’ ” Boras said, thinking back on the negotiations. “And the reason was — don’t look at chronological age as the primary factor.”
Scherzer is 4½ years into this contract — and he may be getting better. His past nine starts have produced a 0.84 ERA, a 0.77 WHIP and 94 strikeouts in 64 innings, all while holding opponents to a .172 average and a .476 OPS. It’s why his next start, whenever it comes, is so anticipated.
That’s the tiny view, and it matters for the Nats as they continue their important series in Atlanta. The wide view shows that what he’s doing is historic — outperforming a contract that seemed lavish at the time but now may just be the best free agent buy ever.