Statistics these days certainly can be overwhelming. Wins Above Replacement is a particularly fuzzy stat because it depends on so many factors and is about as easy to calculate as the NFL's quarterback rating. It's easy to say that Jon Lester was worth 6.2 wins to the Red Sox last season while Jonathan Papelbon was worth 1.9, but what does that really mean?
How can you really compare the contribution of a starting pitcher to the contribution of a relief pitcher in a way that makes sense?
Let's figure out a rough but simple measure of pitcher production, then. Every scoreless inning a pitcher throws is a good thing. Every run a pitcher allows is a bad thing. Let's say a pitcher earns one Pitcher Production Point (PPP) for every scoreless inning he pitches, and he loses one PPP for every earned runs run he allows.
A relief pitcher with a 3.00 ERA in 60 innings, for example, would finish with 40 Triple-Ps. A starting pitcher with a 3.00 ERA in 180 innings would finish with 120 Triple-Ps because he would have pitched significantly more effective innings than a relief pitcher with the same ERA.
That's the idea: Just like how hitting .300 over 600 at-bats is more valuable than hitting .300 over 400 at-bats -- there are, after all, 60 more hits involved -- a low ERA is more valuable the more innings a pitcher can pitch. Make sense?
Here are the top five Red Sox pitchers last season as measured in Triple-Ps, including their newest acquisition:
Jon Lester: 126 1/3
Josh Beckett: 121 1/3
John Lackey: 101 1/3
Tim Wakefield: 63 2/3
Jonathan Papelbon: 54
Factoring in salary for 2010 makes the list look a little different:
Lester: $3.75 million
Beckett: $12.1 million
Lackey: $18.7 million
Wakefield: $3.5 million
Papelbon: $10 million?
First things first: It seems clear that Papelbon was less valuable last season than any of the team's front-line starting pitchers. Even Clay Buchholz accumulated 49 Triple-Ps, and he didn't make his first appearance in the major leagues until after the All-Star break. Starting pitchers inherently are more valuable than relief pitchers.
Papelbon finished last season with less than half the production, as measured by Triple-Ps, of Beckett, and he's going to go to arbitration looking for a salary close to what Beckett will earn. Papelbon finished last season with less than half the production of Lester, and he's going to go to arbitration looking for a salary close to three times what Lester will get.
The only salary with which Papelbon might line up is Lackey. He'll earn a little more than half of what Lackey earns after producing a little more than half of what Lackey produced. On the open market, $10 million for Papelbon actually looks relatively reasonable.
But the salary structure of baseball rewards veterans who hit the open market and curtails the earning power of younger players who don't yet have the service time to get to the open market. When you're talking about quantifying the value a player brings to a team, that artificial structure almost becomes irrelevant. No, Papelbon wasn't three times as valuable as Lester was to the Red Sox, but he certainly was just about half as valuable as Lackey was to the Angels.
(For the record, WAR bears that out, too: FanGraphs.com has Lackey compiling a WAR of 3.9 last season. Papelbon, once again, compiled a WAR of 1.9 -- and that was in a relatively bad season by his standards.)
Lester compromised a higher short-term salary for the certainty of $30 million over the next five seasons. That was his decision. Had he chosen to go to arbitration -- he'd be eligible for the first time this season -- he'd have been within his rights to ask for a number similar to the $6.25 million to which Papelbon agreed last season. He's been one of the top pitchers in the American League in each of the last two seasons and the ace of the Red Sox staff.
Lackey, on the other hand, got to the free market and thus will be paid a salary far more commensurate with his value to a team. One can question the deal -- and, given the sport's economic climate, it certainly looks inflated both in years and in value -- but the Red Sox wouldn't be paying Lackey close to $19 million next season if they didn't think they were going to get close to $19 million in value from him.
If the Red Sox believe Lackey's production is worth close to $20 million, Papelbon's production certainly is worth $10 million.