Bill Madden: Yankees join the desperation trend in baseball with Marcus Stroman signing

NEW YORK — If there is one common theme to this baseball offseason it is the desperation everywhere for quality starting pitching.

Desperation as in the Dodgers forking over $325 million over 12 years to Yoshinobu Yamamoto who’s never thrown a single pitch in the majors and another $136.5 million over five years to Tyler Glasnow, who’s never thrown over 150 innings. Desperation as in the Mets giving Luis Severino $13 million, the Reds giving $16 million to Frankie Montas, who missed all of last year and is recovering from shoulder surgery, the Red Sox signing Lucas Giolito, who was a mediocre 8-15 with a 4.88 ERA for three teams last year, to a two-year, $38 million contract.

It goes on. Jack Flaherty, with a 4.99 ERA and 162 hits allowed in 144 1/3 innings last year, gets $14 million from the Tigers; Shota Imanaga, another Japanese pitcher, gets $53 million from the Cubs without ever throwing a pitch in the majors. Seth Lugo, who only last year became a full-time starter, parlayed a nice middle-of-the-rotation 8-7, 3.57 season in pitcher-friendly Petco Park with the Padres into a three-year, $45 million deal with the Royals.

Everyone is looking for aces, or pitchers they think can be pseudo aces, like the Yankees’ two-year, $37 million signing of Marcus Stroman, who pitched like an ace with a 2.28 ERA the first half of last year before regressing badly the second half with a multitude of injuries. But once the Yankees were spurned by Yamamoto and saw how ridiculous Scott Boras’ demands were for Blake Snell, they became desperate too and swallowed hard in signing Stroman despite his reputation as a clubhouse disrupter.

The problem is there are fewer and fewer prototypical 200-plus inning “Gerrit Cole/Justin Verlander/Max Scherzer/Adam Wainwright” aces in baseball anymore, as evidenced by a recent Elias Bureau “durability” chart that shows a dramatic decrease in workhorse starting pitching over the last 10 years.

In 2014, there were 34 pitchers in the majors who logged 200-plus innings. A year later that number was down to 28, then 15 in 2016-17 and ’19. Following the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, the numbers have dropped into the single digits, to just five this past year. At the same time, the MLB average of innings per game for starting pitchers has dropped a full inning — from 6.0 in 2014 to 5.0 in 2023. This may be the reason why Boras is having so much trouble landing an “ace-like” deal for Cy Young winner Snell this winter.

Boras is said to have set the Snell benchmark at nine years, $270 million. That’s quite a hefty number for a pitcher — Cy Young Award aside — whose 180 innings ranked 24th in the majors and led the majors in walks with 99. As effective as Snell is, he’s become the epitome of the five-inning pitcher. The Giants were one of the teams pursuing Snell but when they saw what Boras was seeking, they made their own “desperation” pivot, signing Jordan Hicks, a career reliever who’s started only eight times in 212 games, for four years, $44 million, with the idea of converting him to a starter.

Nevertheless, Boras is selling Snell as a workhorse ace and is obviously counting on some owner getting really desperate — which could still happen if a team expecting to contend for the World Series loses an “ace” to injury in spring training. Right now, no one is buying on a pitcher who’s never pitched over 180 innings but seeking that kind of years and money.

And just where have the 200-inning aces gone? Gone to analytics, every one.

As we all know, one of the principal tenets of pitching analytics is not allowing starting pitchers to go through the batting order a third time. From the moment pitchers are drafted and signed, they immediately are conditioned not to have to worry about pitching out of trouble once they’ve gone through the batting order two times around.

When the owners first started buying into analytics they were told how much money it was going to save them as it would help them to better put values on players. What’s happened instead is they’ve created a whole generation of five-inning pitchers, where genuine 200-inning aces are few and far between — and when they’ve got one, like Cole, Scherzer or Verlander, or think they may have one in Yamamoto, the price tag is over $300 million for them.

Such is the desperation level in baseball for quality starting pitching.