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Braves Extension Analysis: Mike Minor

Much like his rotation-mate Kris Medlen, Mike Minor had a dynamite second half of his 2012 season. However, Minor is both younger and further from free agency. Is he an extension candidate, too?

Mike Minor: the next Tom Glavine or the next Horacio Ramirez?
Mike Minor: the next Tom Glavine or the next Horacio Ramirez?
Mike McGinnis

This is the sixth in my series on possible extensions for the Braves' young core players. Here are the links to part one (on Martin Prado, alas), part two (Jason Heyward), part three (Freddie Freeman), part four (Kris Medlen), and part five (Craig Kimbrel). In the last post, by the way, 60% of TC readers favored extending Kimbrel at the cost I proposed ($17.5M over 4 years).

I don't expect Mike Minor to sign an extension this offseason. I also don't think that the case for extending him now is persuasive even if you assume that several other players have already been signed.

However, there is a popular sentiment among Braves fans that Minor (buoyed by his excellent 2nd half of the 2012 season) is a burgeoning ace. Assuming that there is a realistic chance of Minor developing into a top-of-the-rotation starter, now may be the perfect time to sign him long-term. His price is undoubtably much lower now than it will be a year from now in that scenario.

Plus, I was quite curious to see what we can learn about Minor's future from comparable players. Such research can't tell us what Minor will do in 2013 and beyond, but it can give us a reasonable baseline for our expectations.

Accordingly, I will be proposing an extension for Minor at the end of this post, but I wouldn't take it too seriously for now. Rather, consider it a median projection of his future value.

The contract I'm proposing will be a 5-year deal that will buy out all 5 of Minor's years of team control. The proposal will also include 2 team option years at the end of the deal, a standard feature of early-career pitcher extensions.

I'll use the same three criteria from the previous posts to determine a fair value for the contract:

  • What is the player's present value?
  • What are the chances that he can maintain this value in the future?
  • How much did comparable players make in their extensions?

Let's start with the simplest of these questions:

What is Minor's Present Value?

Minor has a lot in common with his teammate, Kris Medlen; both far outperformed their previous levels with a spectacular string of starts in the 2nd half of last year. The difference is mainly that Minor was worse both during his streak ("only" a 2.25 ERA in 14 second-half starts) and especially before it (a 5.97 ERA in 16 first-half starts).

In Minor's favor, he's two years younger than Medlen, having just turned 25 in December, and he has more major-league rotation experience (53 starts to Medlen's 30). This allows us to better project Minor; it also tells us that he's more likely to improve during the course of the contract.

Because Minor has yet to enter the arbitration process (he won't be eligible until after the 2014 season unless he earns "Super 2" status), we have no real outside estimate of his value. However, we can place an estimate on his worth based on his performance to date:

302.2 3.1% 7.6% 20.8% .298 4.37 90 4.03 97

* FIP+, like ERA+, adjusts for park and league and sets 100 as average, with each point above 100 equal to 1% better than average. I converted FanGraphs' FIP- stat to FIP+ for better comparison with ERA+.

A few things jump out at me from this chart. First, Minor's strikeout and walk rates are pretty good but far from outstanding (the league averages over the past 3 years are 19% Ks and 8.2% BBs). More than outweighing that, however, is his poor home run rate (the league average in that span is 2.5%). This should come as no surprise to Braves fans who watched Minor's 2012 first half.

Add all that up and you get a useful but below-average pitcher. By ERA, he's been about 10% below average in his career (though he's been a bit better the past 2 seasons). By FIP, he's been 3% below average.

Minor's Wins Above Replacement (WAR) values are, accordingly, not that impressive. FanGraphs says he's been worth 3.5 WAR in his career, which works out to around 2.3 WAR per 200 innings. Baseball-Reference is much more skeptical, rating him at just 0.2 WAR, total, in his career (and just 0.4 WAR each of the past 2 seasons).

I trust FanGraphs' version of WAR more for pitchers with less than 3 full years' experience, so let's go with the more optimistic 3.5 WAR total. That would imply that Minor is roughly a league-average pitcher (~2 WAR in ~180 IP) right now. The free-market value of such a pitcher is around $9-10 million per season.

Using the 40/60/80 arbitration rule and factoring in a 20% extension discount, we get a total contract value of around $16M for the 5 seasons of the deal. But of course, this is based on present performance, and the whole idea of this contract is that Minor could develop into a top-flight starter. So let's look at that possibility.

What are the chances Minor will improve his value?

Unlike many of the other players I've covered in this series, Mike Minor is not all that unusual of a comparison. I decided to keep it simple for his comparison group. I looked for starting pitchers in the last 25 years who posted an ERA+ between 90 and 100 in their age 23 & 24 seasons, combined (Minor is at 96 in those years).

The result was a list of 19 players (it would've been 20, but I eliminated Sean Marshall because he switched to relief) ranging from Tom Glavine to Daniel Cabrera*. Here's the full list if you're curious.

* There were also 6 other players who were too recent to include in the data set: Mike Leake, Brett Cecil, Travis Wood, Homer Bailey, Brad Bergesen, and Wade Davis.

These players all had similar "just OK" profiles at Minor's age. Here are the averages for the 19 players in their age-23 and age-24 seasons. I've added Minor's numbers for comparison. The right column pro-rates the (B-Ref) WAR totals to 200 IP (but remember that FanGraphs rates Minor much more highly).

Comps 340 2.8% 8.4% 14.6% 2.3 96 96 1.3
Minor 262 3.0% 7.9% 20.4% 0.8 96 98 0.6

By ERA+ and FIP+, the comparison group is a dead-on match for Minor. Minor's peripherals are quite similar, too, aside from K rate. (And Minor's advantage in that category isn't as large as it seems, since many of his comps pitched at a time when strikeouts were much harder to come by.) The WAR difference is partially attributable to Minor's relatively low inning total.

At any rate, we next need to know how the comps performed in their age-25 through age-29 seasons, the years that will be guaranteed in Minor's hypothetical extension. Here are the average results for those five years combined (full results at this link):

Comps 731 2.6% 8.4% 15.5% 7.8 102 100 2.1

The group saw a slight, but across-the-board, improvement in its statistics over these years, which are essentially a pitcher's prime. Both their ERA+ and their FIP+ improved by around 5 points, and their WAR/200 went up from 1.3 to 2.1.

While the average player in this group posted 2.1 WAR per "full season" of 200 innings, notice that the average was only about 146 innings per year. Whether due to injury or ineffectiveness, these pitchers were only in the rotation for about 3/4 of the five-year period. This is consistent with the results of the comparison groups for Medlen and Craig Kimbrel. When projecting a pitcher, you just have to factor in that 25% injury/underperformance rate.

There were several unqualified successes in Minor's comparison group: Glavine, Ben Sheets, and Charles Nagy all pitched at All-Star levels (though no one else was even close). However, while there were no utter disasters in the group (everyone had a positive WAR), there were many disappointments: Frank Castillo, Jim Parque, and Zach Duke all earned less than 1 WAR, total, for instance.

Overall, 8 of the 19 pitchers improved their ERA+ figures by more than 5 points. Another 9 were about the same--within 5 points--of their previous levels. Just 2 declined by more than 5 points, though remember that because the figures were lowish to begin with, there was a lot more room to improve than to decline.

By FIP+, 6 improved, 9 were about the same, and 4 declined. By WAR/200, 8 improved, 8 were about the same, and 3 declined.

In other words, Minor probably won't get any worse, but the odds as to whether he'll actually get noticeably better are only 50/50 at best. Taking the above numbers into account, I'd project about a 40% chance of improvement, a 45% chance of staying roughly the same, and a 15% chance of decline. I'd rate the chances of a breakout at about 15% as well.

Since the decline risk is relatively low, and since any extension would be for a relatively small dollar value, you could make the case that those odds are definitely worth it for Atlanta. Even if Minor doesn't improve, he won't be much of a payroll burden as long as he stays healthy and doesn't completely collapse.

If we assume that Minor performs up to the averages of the comparison group (7.8 WAR), he'd be worth something like $35M over the 5 years of the deal, using 2012 free agent dollars (~$4.5M per win). Factor in Minor's pre-arbitration status, and we'd get a contract worth around $15M.

If we judge Minor by his more favorable FanGraphs WAR values, and assume that he will marginally improve upon them going forward, we'd get a total contract value of closer to $25M. Let's split the difference for now and say that Minor is worth about a $20M contract.

Finally, let's see how such a contract would compare with some of Minor's peers who have gotten extensions in recent seasons.

How much did players like Minor get for their extensions?

I looked for pitchers who got 4- or 5-year extensions at similar points in their careers. The closest comparables are probably Cory Luebke, Matt Moore, Wade Davis, Brett Anderson, Nick Blackburn, Gavin Floyd, and Scott Baker. Keeping in mind that Minor's WAR values are a lot better in the FanGraphs version, here are what these players' extensions looked like (TO = "team option years"):

Stats at time of extension Extension Details
Player Age^ Tot. WAR WAR/200 Yrs til FA Yrs/TOs Tot. $ Avg. Post-FA $
Luebke 26 1.4 1.8 5 4 / 2 $12M ~$9M (TO)
Moore 22 ** ** 6 5 / 3 $14M $9.5M (TO)
Davis 24 1.3 1.3 5 4 / 3 $12.6M $9M (TO)
Anderson 21 2.0 2.3 5 4 / 2 $12.5M $12M (TO)
Blackburn 27 4.6 2.2 4 4 / 1 $14M $8M (TO)
Floyd 25 2.1 1.1 4 4 / 1 $15.5M $9.5M (TO)
Baker 26 6.1 2.7 4 4 / 1 $15.25 $9.25M (TO)
Average 24 2.5 1.9 5 4 / 2 $13.7M $9.5M
Minor 24 0.2 0.2 5 ?? ?? ??

^ This is the player's age during the last season before the deal.
** Moore had pitched a total of 9 and 1/3 MLB innings when he signed his deal.

The first four deals on this list aren't quite comparable because the player's final arbitration season is a team option year, not a guaranteed year. But we can make them comparable simply by adjusting their total values upward somewhat, to around $18-20M in each case. That pushes the average total $$ to around $17M.

None of the deals exactly match our proposed 5 guaranteed year / 2 team options structure, but they're all pretty close; none guarantee a free-agent season, but all include a team option that runs into free agency.

This is a fairly diverse group, with a couple young studs (Anderson, Moore) mixed in with some older (but more accomplished) pitchers like Blackburn and Baker. Minor isn't nearly as heralded as the former group, but he's also got a lot more room for growth than the latter group. Probably the best comps for Minor in the group are Davis and Floyd.

If we use Minor's B-Ref WAR, he doesn't seem to compare well to the pitchers above. If we use his FanGraphs WAR or his peripherals, however, he slots right into the middle of the group. Since I trust the latter numbers more at this point, I think the average values above are a good baseline for our hypothetical contract.

Overall, I'd project a contract that looks something like this:

  • $0.5M in 2013
  • $1M in 2014
  • $3M in 2015
  • $5M in 2016
  • $7M in 2017
  • $9M team options for 2018 & 2019, with a $1M buyout

That works out to a total of $17.5M guaranteed over 5 years, with the chance of the contract being worth $34.5M over 7 years. With salary inflation likely in the future, Minor would probably only need to be worth around 1.5 wins per year (7.5 WAR total) to make the deal worth it. That's about the same as his past performance (at least, by FanGraphs' standards).

If we look at the above group of comparable contracts, we see that two of the pitchers listed (Baker & Anderson) have already needed major arm surgery, while another (Davis) underperformed and was demoted to the bullpen. There have been some solid values in the group (Floyd in particular), but nothing mind-blowing... not yet, anyway.

Personally, I would much rather that the Braves wait at least a year on Minor. He's still got five more years of team control, and he won't get expensive for a while even if he does improve. The proposed contract doesn't break the bank, but it seems like an unnecessary risk at this point. I'd much rather give Minor another year and then bite the salary bullet if he really has turned a corner.

I suspect that the Braves feel the same way; I doubt that they're eager to throw guaranteed money at a pitcher with fewer than 2 years' service time. Given all that can happen between now and the time that Minor would be due to enter arbitration, 2 years from now, I just can't see the Braves going for something like this. Not for a pitcher, anyway.

What do you guys think?

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