If there is one thing we have learned so far this offseason, it is that starting pitching is being held at a premium more than ever before. Pretty much every viable starter is getting at least eight figures, as teams rush the market to grab the available arms.
So far, the only pitcher who has secured a nine-figure contract is Aaron Nola, but there are two more big deals coming for the other ace-level pitchers on the market.
Yoshinobu Yamamoto is probably the most coveted free agent on the market right now, set to blow past $200 million on his first MLB contract, before even throwing a pitch in the big leagues. Meanwhile, Blake Snell is set to cash in, coming off his second Cy Young season.
On the latest episode of my show, Who’s Better Baseball, I am breaking down which of these two pitchers should be considered the best starting pitcher available in free agency. Let’s dive in and see which of these players is better right now.
Who is the Better Investment in Free Agency?
Let’s get something straight when it comes to these two free agents. The market has already spoken on who is the more attractive free agent and for good reason.
Yoshinobu Yamamoto is a 25-year-old ace that has hit the open market. It is not some indictment on Blake Snell that he has hit the market at 30 years old.
If we could go back in time and make Snell a free agent after his age-25 season, he would be enjoying a market similar to the one Yamamoto will this offseason. One in which a third of the league is holding out hope they can be the team that gets to sign him to north of $200 million before he has thrown a pitch on American soil (World Baseball Classic excluded).
Back in 2018, Snell was coming off his first Cy Young season, where he pitched to an AL-best 1.89 ERA with 221 strikeouts in 180 2/3 innings. If he hit free agency then at that age, there is no telling how much Snell would have made.
Yamamoto is hitting free agency after winning the NPB equivalent of the Cy Young in each of his last three seasons. He has also won the Japanese Triple Crown in each of the last three years, and has won their MVP the last three seasons as well.
Yamamoto is coming off a campaign where he pitched to a 1.21 ERA.
Aram Leighton did an entire article and a video for us breaking down how utterly awesome this young stud is supposed to be and I don’t doubt his analysis, or the entire league who seemed to be fawning over themselves to get even a meeting with him.
Now with all of that said, what is getting lost a bit in the translation is the fact that Yamamoto still has to prove it at the big league level. And the crazier the market gets from him, the better and better Snell could look once ink dries on these two contracts.
If Yamamoto gets an eight-year, $240 million deal like we projected earlier this month, teams will have taken a significant risk on the hope that Yamamoto will translate to facing MLB competition. As safe as the bet seems on the surface, any contract that long and for that much money is a gamble.
Especially if Yamamoto ends up landing a nine, or 10-year deal. Than all of a sudden that contract will clear $250 million and knock dangerously close to that elusive $300 million number, which only Gerrit Cole has cracked before.
If we had to bet right now on who between these two reaches $300 million, Yamamoto is the better pick based on age alone. If a team signs Yamamoto to a 10-year deal they are paying for his age-25 through age-34 seasons.
When we projected Snell’s contract, we had him signing a six-year, $185 million deal. While this checks in at $30.8 million for the AAV compared to Yamamoto’s $30 million, the total guarantee amount of money is $65 million less.
In some respects, this contract is less risky because Snell is a known commodity in the big leagues and the years and total value are far less. The problem however is that Father Time is undefeated.
Look at the two nine-figure contracts that were given to pitchers over the age of 30 last offseason. First you have Jacob deGrom, who signed a five-year, $185 million deal, only to go down with Tommy John surgery in his first season.
Carlos Rodon signed a six-year, $162 million deal and spent the first year of it banged up pitching to a 6.85 ERA in 14 starts with only 64 1/3 innings pitched. Now deGrom and Rodon were bigger injury risks than Snell, who, despite being tabbed as injury-prone, has eclipsed 100 innings pitched in each of his first six full seasons dating back to his 2017 sophomore campaign.
Snell has only eclipsed 180 innings twice during that span, more frequently finishing years just shy of 130 innings pitched. This is partly due to injury, but even more due to his pitching style where running up his pitch count has him exiting games prior to the seventh inning more often than not.
Combine age with a pitching style that is much more about pounding the zone and Yamamoto has the better chance of being a team’s workhorse over a long-term deal. Which is exactly why he is expected to enjoy a better market in free agency where he will make more money.
Yamamoto led the NPB in innings pitched in each of the last three seasons.
The GMs around baseball will show us who the better investment is very soon, and how much better they view that investment depending on the final contract figures each of them ends up getting.
If I were running a team, Yamamoto is absolutely the free agent I would be pursuing. A 2024 Ferrari is more valuable than a 2018 Ferrari and the same goes with free agents. A 25-year-old free agent is more attractive than a soon-to-be 31-year-old.
But in a market where only one teams gets to drive the 2024 Ferrari and everyone is fighting for the keys, there is a chance that the more vintage ride proves to be the better bet. At least for the upcoming 2024 MLB season.
Who Will Be the Better Pitcher Next Year?
If there is one place where we can level the playing field for Blake Snell, it is in this section of the article. Yoshinobu Yamamoto has jaw-dropping stats in the NPB. With that said, it is still the NPB.
While we look back at Kodai Senga’s season this past year as an example for how a Japanese pitcher can make a smooth transition to facing the stiffer competition of MLB batters, there is still a learning curve that exists.
Senga pitched to a stellar 2.98 ERA in his first taste of MLB action. Striking out 202 batters in 166 1/3 innings pitched. His “Ghost Fork” was immediately one of the best pitches in the game and he ascended to ace status with the New York Mets when they traded Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer at the deadline and continued to thrive all the way down the stretch.
Yet if we look back at his season, there was one month where he had an ERA over 4.00. And that was the first month of the season. Across his first seven starts, Senga allowed four or more runs on three separate occasions. In his final 22 starts he only allowed more than three runs once.
Yamamoto could have a similar seamless transition where he can learn how to dissect MLB lineups in a little over a month, or it could take longer. The difference for Yamamoto is that he lives in the zone a lot more than Senga, or than Snell for that matter.
Now this is part of what makes Yamamoto so attractive, the fact that he can live in the zone and get outs early in counts to go deeper in games. Still, an issue Yamamoto could run into in year one is making that adjustment on how to pitch to MLB batters who can make you pay more than those he is familiar with in the NPB.
Speaking from someone who watched every pitch of Senga’s rookie campaign, there was clearly a learning curve on display early on as the 30-year-old had to figure out what from his arsenal worked against MLB hitters.
The ghost fork was always going to play, but how he utilized it had to be optimized. Early in the year, Senga felt a bit predictable. He wanted to get ahead in counts, and once he had two strikes, the plan was to bury ghost forks until they struck themselves out.
This might have worked in the NPB, but stateside, hitters just started spitting on all pitches in these counts until Senga proved he could make the adjustment and throw the ghost fork in any count.
It took some time, but soon, Senga was throwing ghosts early in counts to steal strikes and even started going to his fastball as a putaway pitch, burying it in the zone on hitters who were sitting on his ghost fork.
We also saw Senga lean more and more into throwing his cutter and less into throwing his three breaking balls (sweeper, slider and curveball). For Senga, what worked was a heavy diet of fastballs and cutters, with the ever-present threat of that unbelievable ghost fork.
As you can read in Aram Leighton’s full breakdown of Yoshinobu Yamamoto, this is not a clone of Senga by any stretch. Yes, he has a fastball, splitter and cutter, but his curveball is a far better offering than any of Senga’s breaking balls, and there is probably more potential in his sweeper too.
Yamamoto might not have single pitch that grades out as well as Senga’s ghost fork, but he has way more tools in the kit to make adjustments. That is why he is going to by far trounce the $75 million that Senga signed for with the Mets last offseason.
As it relates to Snell though, it would be hard to assume that Yamamoto is going to enter the league and immediately be better than a reigning (and two-time) Cy Young.
On May 19th, Snell gave up six runs to the Boston Red Sox across four innings pitched. He would not allow more than three runs in another start all season, posting a sparkling 1.20 ERA across his final 23 starts and 135 innings pitched.
Pitching for a Padres team that could not get out of their own way this year, Snell went 13-3 in those starts. He struck out over 12 batters per nine, while allowing just six home runs for an MLB-best 0.40 HR/9.
Snell is more like Senga than Yamamoto, relying on his incredible movement to evade bats and keep the ball in the yard while racking up strikeouts. Both Snell and Senga run high walks rates, yet they were No. 1 and No. 2 among qualified starters in the National League last season.
One look at Snell’s Baseball Savant and you see that he ranked in the 100th percentile in run value on breaking balls and in the 99th percentile in run value on offspeed pitches. Snell’s curveball is devastating for hitters, who struggle to even get wood on the pitch.
Batters hit just .079 against his curveball in 2023, with a .140 slugging percentage. They whiffed at the pitch 56.3% of the time and were set down on strikes over a third of the time. Snell’s curveball has nearly 13 inches of horizontal break, which is close to six inches and 83% more than average.
Set to cross the 1,000 inning threshold a few starts into next season, Snell has all of the MLB experience to know how to utilize his arsenal against the top hitters in the game. Between his unhittable curveball and two other strong secondaries with a changeup and slider that each got whiffs at least 46% of the time or better, Snell has so many ways to miss bats.
Pair all of that with a strong fastball at 95.5 mph, all coming from the tall lanky frame of a 6’4″ lefty and you have a very unique skill-set that batters have to combat with.
Snell is all about avoiding damage by staying out of the zone, as he had a career-low Zone% of just 32.6% last season. He wants you chasing and doesn’t want you putting bat on ball, which is clearly a great method to run prevention.
While he is sometimes painted as inconsistent and injury-prone, a larger look at his career shows that Snell has an ERA of 3.20. Again, the biggest concern for Snell comes from the lack of innings pitched, but he did make it through at least six innings 20 times last year and eclipsed 180 innings on the season.
Over the life of the deal, Yamamoto is the much safer bet to provide value, but in the first two-to-three years, it is probably a leap to assume he is going to be better than Snell right away.
Who’s Better: Blake Snell or Yoshinobu Yamamoto?
Comparing Blake Snell to Yoshinobu as pitchers is apples to oranges. For staters, Snell and Yamamoto quite literally pitched in different leagues. So any direct comparison of their stats is not far, particularly to Snell, who has performed at the highest level in Major League Baseball.
Furthermore, Snell is a 6’4″ left-handed pitcher, who whips the baseball from a three-quarters slot, relying on movement out of the zone to get whiffs and evade all damage whatsoever. Yamamoto is a short 5’10” right-handed pitcher, who pounds the zone with authority, hoping to induce soft contact to be able to pitch deep in games.
Yamamoto has age and durability on his side, but Snell provides teams with the benefit of knowing that he can compete at the highest level in the majors. Say what you want about Yamamoto, his three Cy Youngs in the NPB are not nearly as valuable as the two Cy Youngs that Snell has on his resume already.
Could Yoshinobu Yamamoto win multiple Cy Youngs for being the best pitcher in the league in the not-to-distant future. Absolutely. That is why he is going to make well north of $200 million.
With that said, Snell seems to be the forgotten man in all of this.
Make no mistake about it, Snell will get his money. Some team will pony up and sign him to a massive contract this offseason. But if you give most teams the option between signing the two right now, I bet the answer would be to bet on the younger horse, just based on that alone.
While that might ultimately prove to be the case long-term, Snell is still a guy who can really help teams. Particularly those trying to win in 2024.
So far, we have already seen Aaron Nola get paid ace-money, or at least really good No. 2 money, considering the fact that he is still sharing a rotation with Zack Wheeler. Over the next month, both Snell and Yamamoto will sign massive contracts to become a team’s ace.
Who will better live up to that commitment is anyone’s guess.
Most pitchers who sign deals this big and for this long are bound to disappoint their lofty expectations in some capacity. But for now, it is safe to say that both of these free agents have the potential to be up for the challenge.
If it was my money. I believe Yamamoto is the better pitcher to sign this offseason. With that said, the market that has developed for him is making Snell more attractive by the day.
Some team will recognize that it is better to finish first in the race for the “second-best” free agent starter on the market, than to potentially strike out on the first. That team will be very happy to land Snell, as will whichever teams wins out in the Yamamoto sweepstakes.