Pirates Go Super-Nova

The weather outside is frightful, but the hot stove fire is so delightful. I am delighting even more after my Pirates re-signed free agent starter Ivan Nova to a three year, $26 million dollar contract. Putting aside the fact that $26 million is more than I will ever earn in my lifetime (and probably you too, dear reader), $26 million over three years is steal for a pitcher of Nova’s caliber. Simply put, Nova should have made much more on the open market than he got from the Pirates in his freshly-inked three year deal.

To understand how valuable Nova is, you have to understand how players are valued. Typically, a ballplayer’s value is expressed in terms of wins. There are different formulae that attempt to model the value of a player in terms of wins, but several of them fall under the heading of “wins above replacement (WAR),” meaning the number of wins–above that of a replacement level player–that a given player brings to his team over the course of a season. The different formulae to calculate WAR mean that there are different flavors of WAR depending on who you talk to, but I will be focusing on Fangraphs data and the Fangraphs WAR calculation (fWAR). If you look at Fangraph’s Free Agent Tracker, you can see that most of the 2016 free agents with the highest 2016 fWAR values are projected to regress toward the mean/come back to earth/not do as well in 2017. But if you look for Ivan Nova on that list, you will notice that he is among the select group of free agents projected to have a better 2017 than 2016 by fWAR. The caveat here is that we are talking about a projection, and baseball projections have been shown season after season to not hold up in retrospect. But this should make for a fun exercise nonetheless. If we restrict our analysis to 2017 free agents with a positive fWAR, Nova ends up in the top 25% of free agents by projected increase in 2017 fWAR. But the real kicker for me? Nova is the only 2016 free agent with a 2016 fWAR greater than 2 (denoting a “solid starter“) who is projected to have a better 2017 fWAR. In short, among the best players who would become free agents in 2016, he is expected to be the one to continue to get better in 2017.

Another key point I want to make is that the Pirates may have turned the free agent market on its head with this signing. The free agent market tends to be all about big paydays for past achievements. A lot of players do not live up to the numbers they put up before their first free agent paycheck, but that is how the business side of the sport works. By signing Nova, and from my investigation into his previous and projected fWAR marks, I propose that the Pirates might actually be paying him for future value. If Nova lives up to his 2.5 win Fangraphs projection before giving another couple of years as a one to two win player, the Pirates come out on top. Based on analysis by Neil Paine at FiveThirtyEight, those 5.5 or so wins over the three years of Nova’s contract would cost about $42 million on the open market. This sounds more like the Pirates club that we all know and love, with a front office that seeks value above all other things.

I cannot help but wonder what made Nova offer the deep discount to Pittsburgh. Plenty of ink has been spilled on the topic of the contracts that starters are commanding this off-season, but Nova seems to have given the Pirates a hometown discount. Not being the type to look a gift horse in the mouth, I am just excited to see him pitch at PNC Park in 2017. Maybe I can even catch him at a doubleheader with Jose Quintana.

*Note added after publication: a blog post by Travis Sawchik at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review hit on some of the same points.

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