Last week I dove into the value of YES broadcaster Ken Singleton as a modern-day free agent, in what now represents the first of a series where we explore just how much the market economy of baseball has changed. Today, we’re going to look at my favorite Yankees’ broadcaster, former right-handed pitcher David Cone.
Drafted by the Kansas City Royals in 1981, Cone didn’t make his debut until 1986 and really didn’t show his stuff as a front-line pitcher until two years later, posting a stellar 145 ERA+ as a 25-year-old for the Mets. Under the modern CBA, he would have become a free agent after his age-29 season, 1992, split between the Mets and World Series Champion Toronto Blue Jays. In the previous six-plus seasons, Cone accrued 21.2 bWAR and a 114 ERA+, made the All-Star Game twice and was third in Cy Young voting once.
Finding comparisons for Cone as a free agent was harder than Singleton, simply because teams don’t generally let good starters under thirty leave as free agents. Young, talented, controllable pitchers are just about the most valuable asset in the game, and teams go to further lengths to extend them pre-free agency than they do position players. One wonders how much effort is going into extending a current Yankee starter that is young, talented and controllable, but I digress.
Running a play index query for pitchers with 1000 innings, an ERA+ of 105 or better, and 20 bWAR or better in their first six seasons, I ended up with a list of 264 pitchers. Filtering down to the closest comps for Cone directly, with an emphasis on more recent pitchers for the most relevant economic data, we get these three comps, two of whom were extended before hitting free agency:
Tim Lincecum, Johnny Cueto and John Danks are pretty good company to be keeping. Cone is almost exactly at the average of adjusted ERA, wins above replacement and better than average in strikeout minus walk ratio, a crucial building block of a pitcher’s process and one of the more sustainable metrics year over year. At first glance it looks like Coney would be worth between four and five years at an annual value right around $17 million per.
There are a couple of factors that I think boost his value overall, though. First is that the nature of extensions is to pay players below market rate for their most valuable seasons. It’s no coincidence that the only comp who actually went to free agency in this window, Cueto, signed by far the biggest deal, more than twice as much total value as the next-best. If Cone was able to pick his destination, there would almost certainly be a bidding war between a couple of teams, boosting his earnings a bit.
There’s also the notion we talked about last week; that of the “elite” season. In 1992, Cone posted a 161 ERA+, which in 2018 would rank him as the fifth-best pitcher in all of baseball. His adjusted ERA in the season before free agency would have been better than the 2018 marks from Justin Verlander and Corey Kluber. If you doubt the impact of a single elite season, just look at the difference in opinion on Patrick Corbin and Manny Machado’s market value pre and post their stellar 2018. One year of excellence, given that the process used is roughly sustainable, yields more value than ever before.
The last thing, one that’s the most difficult to attach a dollar value to, is coachability and openness. Teams value organizational fit more than ever; they want to invest in players that buy into similar philosophies. The Tampa Bay Rays wouldn’t pursue a relief pitcher that wasn’t open to the franchise’s more flexible approach to pitching. This is where I think Cone really shines. He’s been vocal about his interest in pitching analytics, and I think he might be a little jealous of all the information available to modern day pitchers.
Back in August when he was on R2C2, Cone outright said he would have loved to have access to things like spin rate and pitch planes when he was pitching, and he’s open and smart enough to have incorporated that kind of optimization into his work on the mound. Cone’s attitude towards the modern advantages given to major league pitchers would make him a fantastic fit for the most forward-thinking clubs in the game, and boosted his value proportionally.
So, in total, we have a very good pitcher, under the age of thirty. He boasts a better process model than his closest comparisons, is open to augmenting and improving himself through analytics, and is coming off a truly elite season. I think David Cone would command an eight-figure deal, probably closer to Johnny Cueto’s deal than anything else. Six or seven years and right around $150 million sounds pretty reasonable given all the green flags in Cone’s case.
What do you think? Is that kind of investment worth it for a pitcher like David Cone? Who should we evaluate next? Let us know in the comments below.