Cliff Lee‘s contract wound up being right where everyone anticipated, unlike the outsized deals the other big name free-agents got, but that doesn’t change the fact that he may not earn the money. Not even Lee is a sure thing. It raises the question of whether he’s also overpaid, even if his contract was within the market range for his services.
When it comes to contracts I always keep Barry Zito in mind as a reminder that for every Derek Jeter (who may have not quite earned his contract, but who did give the Yankees excellent, reliable production right up to the end of it) there’s a Kevin Brown, an Alfonso Soriano, or, hope above hope, a Cliff Lee — a mega-deal that blows up. The deals being inked this offseason smell like busts to me. I’ll use two tools to inform a prediction about them. First, I’ll investigate how much Fangraphs thinks each of these players has been worth over the past seven years. Then, I’ll use Baseball Reference to see which players their career trajectories most resemble. The first piece of analysis will help show if these guys have ever been worth the annual salaries they’re about to be paid while the second piece will shed light on whether or not the more fragile among them (ahem … Werth … cough) even has seven years left.
Jayson Werth | Fangraphs says that for his entire career to date, Werth has only been worth $90.8 million dollars. Much of that value was diminished because he wasn’t an everyday player until 2007. Since that season, he’s generated an incredible $78.2 million dollars, and has averaged about $20 million a season across 2008, 2009 and 2010. Given that his annual salary is going to be exactly $18 million a season, Werth figures to earn his paycheck at least for the next few seasons.
The problem is that no one has ever doubted Jayson’s talent when he’s on the field. Doubters question his ability to stay on that field. A combination of injury and development prevented him from becoming a regular player until his age 28 season. Next year he’ll turn 32. As an outfielder in the National League he doesn’t figure to age well. Baseball-Reference agrees. Brad Hawpe, Jeffrey Hammonds, and Tommy Henrich are listed as the most similar players to Werth through age 31. Hawpe, an active player, is already in decline, and Henrich played in the ’40s. Hammonds, however, retired a few years ago, and was pretty much dead weight after he turned 30.
Interestingly, Baseball-Reference doesn’t consider Werth to be a unique player. A score of 1,000 on a similarity comparison indicates a nearly perfect match. Anything above 900 is close. All of Werth’s top 10 most similar players rate above 930 as matches. After the three listed above, the next four closest are Chet Laabs, Henry Rodriguez, Wally Westlake and Trot Nixon. Apart from being similar to Werth, all four of them have something else in common: not a one played past the age of 35.
Carl Crawford | Full disclosure: I hate this deal. Crawford is a 107 OPS+ career hitter, and now he rates right up there with Manny Ramirez as one of the highest-paid outfielders ever. Manny’s career OPS+? 155. What’s not to love about this deal?
Crawford has been more valuable than Werth, but he too has actually not earned the money he is going to make up to this point in his career. According to Fangraphs, his value over his entire career has been $130.7 million dollars, which is phenomenal, but it would fall short of the $142 million Boston is going to pay him. Like Werth, C
rawford has also seen his value explode the last couple seasons. Through 2008 he’d never been worth more than $16.9 million in any given year. He’s been worth about $27 million each of the past two seasons. He also figures to earn his paycheck, at least for the next three or four years.
How about the rest of the deal? Unlike Werth, Crawford is a more unique talent. He is rated most similar through age 28 to Roberto Clemente (who is one of my all-time favorite players), but the similarity score is only 926. Recall that all 10 of Werth’s top 10 best comparisons rated 930 or more. After Clemente, Crawford is most similar to Sam Crawford and Sherry Magee, with scores of 907 and 905, respectively.
For those who don’t know, Clemente was an absolute beast of hitter who’s life was cut tragically short in a plane crash. His last career hit was his 3,000th. What I didn’t know is that he was a MONSTER from his age 29 through 35 seasons, putting up OPS+’s of 145, 135, 146, 171, 152, 168 and 160, respectively. He played two more seasons and put up OPS+’s of 143 and 137 in each season. Prior to turning 28 he had several below 100 OPS+ seasons. Crawford’s career trajectory isn’t quite the same as Clemente’s (for starters, he’s not as good), but he does appear to be coming into his own at the right time.
Sam Crawford and Sherry Magee played in the deadball era, so its not really fair to compare them to Carl Crawford. For thoroughness’ sake, Carl also compares favorable to Cesar Cedeno and Tim Raines, each coming in at just a touch below 900 on the similarity score. Cedeno didn’t age well, and started putting up sub par seasons just when he turned 30. Raines, on the other hand, aged well. Of all the players on the list he’s the one I feel (personally, not through any statistical measure) is most like Crawford. His OPS+ was anywhere from 98 to 131 from ages 29 through 35. Unlike Werth, this looks like a good deal. $142 million is clearly an overpay, but if your range of outcomes is Tim Raines to Roberto Clemente then you’re a pretty good player, to say the least.
Cliff Lee | Lee is an interesting case. Yes, he’s one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball right now. No, he doesn’t have a solid track record. Cliff first became a regular starter in 2004, and he was replacement level. In 2005 and 2006 he was above average, but not great. Then, in 2007 he was awful, and spent some time in the minors. It wasn’t until 2008 that he turned into the machine we’ve all come to fear. Unlike, say, CC Sabathia, who’s been at least an average pitcher and started at least 30 games every season since he was 20 years old, Lee bounced around and only has a three-season track record that he’s now turned into a fortune. Needless to say he’s only been worth $121.2 million in his career to date. (You hear that Philadelphia, you expect him to earn more money for you in his thirties than he did in his prime!) Of the three players examined here, however, in the last three years he’s been far and away the most valuable, generating about $30 million of value each of the past three seasons.
As with Werth, Baseball-Reference doesn’t consider Lee’s career to date to be all that unique. Each of the ten players most similar to him have similarity scores above 930. First on that list is none other than ex-Yankee Denny Neagle. That’s bad. Neagle was out of baseball by the time he was 35. Schoolboy Rowe is next on the list (is it just me, or have baseball nicknames lost something in the last fifty years?) and he played in the ’40s. World War II also cut his career short. Chris Carpenter, John Burkett, Kirk Rueter, Tom Browning and Charles Nagy all come next, each with a score of 933 or higher. Each had a history of injuries. None pitched past 36. Currently 35 and coming off a good season, Carpenter is the only one who might show some longevity.
The statistical models are suggesting that, rather than his control or his strikeouts, Lee’s signature characteristic is actually his lack of durability. I used a laptop and some spare time to figure this out. The Yankees, Rangers and Phillies hopefully put considerably more resources into their analyses. This clear lack of durability is probably why all three teams were hesitant to guarantee the seventh year Lee coveted. If these similarity statistics are to be trusted, Lee is not a sure thing to see the fifth year of his deal, never mind a hypothetical seventh.
The economics behind signing all three of these players is the same. To earn their paychecks they’ll probably have to outperform their deals in years one through three because they don’t figure to earn their salaries after that. Of the three, Carl Crawford actually looks like the closest thing to a safe bet. He’s the most durable. He’s the youngest. He has the most favorable comparisons. In many ways, Lee projects as the LEAST likely to earn his money. At least, that’s what I’ll be saying to myself while he annihilates the National Le
ague next year.