Here's a question for you: how valuable has Brett Myers been to the Houston Astros?
Is he the team MVP? Is he the team's best pitcher this season?
The answers are very, yes and yes. That brings up the question in the title to this piece: has Myers been the best free agent signing in team history? Let's look at how he's done this season and then explore that question a little.
What Myers has done is nothing short of amazing. He's definitely vying for team MVP honors right now (depending if you think a pitcher should win such an award). He's set the team record with 29 straight starts of at least six innings or less. He's also done it without an average ERA, posting an ERA of 2.91 this season and only having one month all season where his ERA was over 4.00 (June).
He's not striking out batters at a rate like he did in his prime with Philadelphia, but Myers still leads Houston in strikeouts with 157 in 198 innings. With his next start, he'll top 200 innings pitched for the first time since 2005. He also has given up fewer home runs and walks than ever before and has an outside shot to tie his career-high with 13 victories.
Going briefly into some more advanced stats to show how awesome Myers has been, he's posting a Fielding Independant Pitching (FIP) number of 3.38, which is the lowest of his career. This stat measures ERA by taking out all the things a pitcher can't control and looking just at how effective he is at things he can control (walks, strikeouts). There's also a more refined version that normalizes home runs allowed to the league average called expected FIP. Myers' xFIP jumps up to 3.76, but that's mainly because he's been so good at not giving up home runs. We've seen before that pitchers can utilize the deep outfield and speed of Michael Bourn to limit homers at Minute Maid Park, so I'm more inclined to believe his FIP number than any of the others.
The other measure of Myers' ERA that is more instructive is Baseball Reference's ERA+. This stat looks at his ERA compared to the league. Myers is eighth in the National League at 141 (41 percent better than league average). He's one of four pitchers who were on the free agent market last winter to post above-average ERAs (RA Dickey, Livan Hernandez, Jon Garland), but Myers has clearly been the best.
Consider his Wins Above Replacement total from Baseball Reference. Myers sits at 4.8 WAR right now, and should easily climb over 5.0 by the end of the season. That puts him in rare company, as only four pitchers have a higher WAR total than Myers this season in the National League. Only one of those pitchers has a lower salary than Myers 3.1 million (Ubaldo Jimenez, in his first year of arbitration). Of all the players with WARs over 2.0 this season in the NL, Myers is the only starting pitcher to change teams via free agency last winter. Billy Wagner did post a WAR of 2.3 and he signed with the Braves last December, but he's only thrown 58 innings this season.
Clearly, there haven't been many pitchers this season to match Myers for value and none who could match him for value in free agency from last winter. Astros general manager Ed Wade clearly made a great move to sign him to a two-year contract in January. Time will tell whether Myers can sustain this value past this season for the life of his recent contract extension, but there's no question Myers has been the top pitcher on this 2010 staff.
The question I asked in the title, though, is a bit more complicated. The word "best" is one of those tricky ones which can mean many different things. Does it mean the best value? The best overall player? The best player over the course of the contract? The best individual season? The most awards won?
To narrow down the scope somewhat, let's look at all the free agents who managed to post WARs of 4.0 or more with the Astros. Only four players popped up on the list. You can probably guess three of them, but the fourth will stump you. Three are pitchers and one is a position player.
Nolan Ryan (check)
Roger Clemens (check)
Andy Pettitte (check)
Billy Spiers (wha?)
Yep, Spiers beat out Jeff Kent as the only free agent position player to post a WAR over 4.0. Kent, for the record, posted scores of 2.1 and 3.8 in his two seasons with the Astros. In his second season with the club, Spiers posted a WAR of 4.6, but barely totaled that in his other three seasons combined.
Pettitte similarly posted a WAR of 1.1 in his first season but had a 5.8 in his second, when he took the Astros to a World Series appearance. Ryan topped out at 5.5 in 1987 and had a 4.5 WAR in 1981, his second with the Astros. Unfortunately, he posted a WAR of 2.0 in the strike-shortened 1980 season.
That leaves us with Clemens, who posted a WAR of 5.2 in 2004 and a Cy Young Award and a 7.2 in 2005 with a third-place Cy Young appearance.That's the highest two-year WAR total of any Astros free agent.
Since we have only one (still incomplete) season for Myers as a comparison, let's look just at that first season after the contract was signed. Only Clemens topped Myers in WAR, though Brett could get to 5.2 with a few strong starts down the stretch. He doesn't have a shot at the Cy Young, though, meaning he's probably just second on the list of Best Free Agent Signing behind The Indicted One.
You could almost make an argument, though, that Myers was more valuable. Clemens cost the Astros 5.5 million that first season while Myers cost almost half that. He also produced similar results, giving Houston more surplus value on the signing. So, in a way, Myers was slightly more valuable. Still, the hardware and good will Clemens brought to Houston that season can't be topped. Call Myers the Best Free Agent Bargain, then. Whatever he's been, Myers has made this Astros team both watchable and likeable again. I, for one, can't put a price on that.