Someone is going to win the nine-figure lottery this offseason.
Every offseason for the past 10 years, at least one MLB player has signed a contract for at $100 million-plus. Some of those players have actually proved to be worth the lofty dollar figure; others haven’t. Thus, the focus for every team is determining which guys to pay big money to.
We know, at least generally, that giving a pitcher nine figures usually doesn’t work out well. Both Barry Svrluga at the Washington Post and Ted Berg at USAToday have looked at those contracts and didn’t like what they found.
But position players are a slightly better bet. Of the 12 $100 million contracts that have been handed out to position players, either via free agency or as extensions, and have run their course by now, six of them actually turned out to be bargains compared to the open market. Another couple were relatively decent deals, and only three of them were absolute disasters.
(Quick aside: To judge these contracts, I summed up the player’s wins above replacement over the life of the contract, divided that number by the salary, then took the cost of a win on the open market over the life of the contract and compared the two. If the player was cheaper than the average win, he was a “good contract.”)
Even if you add in the contracts that expire after next year — meaning Ryan Howard is in the mix — teams spent less per win above replacement on those 15 players with $100 million contracts than the open market spent on all wins above replacement during those years. So there’s really nothing wrong with signing a position player to $100 million — as long as it’s the right player.
The best $100 million position players can provide us some guidelines for this year’s free-agent class and also for players who aren’t even free agents yet.
With that, let’s build the $100 million man.
Your $100 million man should have defensive value. The seven good values with nine figure contracts averaged scratch defensive play going into their contract. The eight bad values cost their teams six runs a year going into the contract. The worst contracts generally belonged to the worst defenders, like Ryan Howard and Carlos Lee. The only double-digit bad defender that was even close to being worth his contract was Jason Giambi.
It’s not as easy as picking the outfielder or the shortstop over the first baseman. Yes, Derek Jeter and the first Alex Rodriguez deal were both good deals handed to shortstops. But the first Miguel Cabrera deal and Todd Helton’s deal, they worked out. And neither is a great defender.
But they weren’t terrible. There hasn’t been a good $100 million deal handed out to a defender that has averaged double-digit negative value. So the $100 million man has to have *some* defensive value, but doesn’t need to be a crack defender.
It’s hard to measure athleticism in baseball. Every number has a tinge of learned skill to it. Strikeout rate? How well does the player control the strike zone? Stolen bases? What about fast players like Dexter Fowler who don’t steal a lot of bases?
But Bill James did create a six-component speed score – it includes triples, stolen base attempts, stolen base percentage, runs scored, grounded into double plays, and defensive position and range — to try and evaluate speed, at least. 5.0 is average, and David Ortiz was the slowest player in baseball last year, with a 0.9 speed score.
Our good contracts averaged a 5.1 speed score. Our bad contracts averaged a 3.9 speed score. The only $100m player with above-average speed that was a bust was Alfonso Soriano. Between Ryan Howard, Mark Teixeira, and Manny Ramirez, the bad contract bin was full of slow players.
This one is obvious, and there’s not much a player can do to change it. He debuts when his team allows him to, and he plays as best he can, and every day he gets older. And yet the best contracts went to 26.7 year olds on average, and the worst contracts went to 30.3 year olds.
If you want to hand $100 million to a player, the birthdate is one of the most important stats.
It’s sort of amazing that you can’t take away more from yesterday’s big contracts. Both the good and bad contracts had power — a .230 isolated slugging percentage going into the deal for the good side, a .246 for the bad side, and .145 is about average. Both the good and bad contracts were better than league average when it came to making contact — the good contracts were a little better (16%) but the bad contracts (18%) were also above league average, and one of the better numbers belonged to the second-biggest bust (Vernon Wells, 13%). The good contracts were a year longer, on average, which might be surprising.
But take this mix to this year’s free agent class, and there’s a clear recommendation. The youngest free agent is Jason Heyward. He has above average speed and has been worth double-digit runs to his team on defense so far in his career. While Justin Upton is 28 and has some speed, he doesn’t have the defensive value. Yoenis Cespedes is fast, but is 30 and the defensive numbers are unclear. Alex Gordon is the second-oldest of the top-ten position player prospects.
Look at the contracts a little closer, though, and another thing pops up. The two best contracts for the dollar — Albert Pujols‘ and Miguel Cabrera’s first contract — were extensions. That’s part of why they were good values, and also why the players were young, but it also opens up every player on every roster as a possible $100 million value.
That opens up all players as comparisons, too. We have aging curves for all players, and we can split them up to see which types of players age best. Turns out, big players do not do well. Being fast is good. And, since the thing that ages the worst is contact on pitches outside the zone, it’s no surprise that players with plate discipline age better than the rest of the population. Ask Joey Votto, and he says he’s fashioned his career around these facts.
So who are the good young players with defensive value, a good sense of the zone, speed, and power? There are four under 25 that make the benchmarks in all four categories.
|Name||ISO||Defense||Reach Rate||Speed Score|
Kris Bryant, Mookie Betts, George Springer, and Carlos Correa — your next $100 million men. Along with Jason Heyward, maybe. And not a single one of them is your prototypical slugging first baseman, which have made up almost half of the previous group. Maybe baseball will learn from its past mistakes and get all of these right. Then again, almost everything looked right when the Cincinnati Reds signed Ken Griffey to eight years and $117 million.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.