How Much Do Pressure, Incentive Motivate Stars in an MLB Contract Year?
All eyes are on New York Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano this year. He's a superstar in a walk year, after all, and that means he's either going to go boom or go bust.
Or Cano could just, you know, be himself. Is it at all possible that the pressure to perform in a walk year isn't the game-changer we think it is?
Short answer: yes.
Columnists and various baseball storytellers have led fans to believe that walk-year performances are special. Players are either going to turn their extra motivation into big numbers or allow it to completely overwhelm them.
I've always bought into this notion. In fact, I've never even bothered to think twice about it. The idea that walk years are high-pressure environments that make or break players has always seemed legit.
But the walk-year narrative is just that: a narrative.
When I got to thinking about it, I figured the walk-year narrative had probably already been shot out of the sky by one or more of the statistically minded baseball analysts out there. They generally don't take kindly to narratives, and they generally have the numbers to show why.
An old-fashioned Google-search session revealed that some notable number merchants have indeed taken the notion that free-agents-to-be are extra motivated to task.
There's no general consensus. But based on the studies I looked at, there's at least a loose consensus that the walk-year narrative is largely nonsense. Even if it's as widespread as we think it is, the pressure to perform for the sake of a big payday doesn't make that much of a difference.
In 2003, Gary Huckabay produced a piece for ESPN.com that tried to narrow down a "motivation effect" among free-agent-to-be hitters and pitchers. The idea was to compare how the guys in their walk years were performing relative to expectations—he used PECOTA projections to define expectations—next to how guys who weren't in walk years were performing relative to expectations.
Of the 78 free-agent-to-be hitters Huckabay looked at, 46 were outperforming expectations. That was compared to 55 of 105 hitters not eligible for free agency at the end of the season who were outperforming expectations. Thus, there was a difference.
But if you narrow things down to percentages, you'll notice that the difference isn't that wide. About 59 percent of free-agent-to-be hitters were outperforming expectations compared to about 52 percent for all others. That's a gap, to be sure, but it's not a significant gap.
It was a different story with pitchers approaching free agency. Of the 45 pitchers Huckabay looked at, 24 were performing below expectations. The 21 who weren't represented 47 percent performing above expectations. They were the minority, but the split was still pretty even.
Of the pitchers Huckabay looked at who weren't approaching free agency, 45 percent were outperforming expectations. As such, there was basically no difference between the two camps.
The gist of Huckabay's study was that if there is such a thing as a "motivation effect" among free-agents-to-be, it's going to exist more among hitters than pitchers.
The catch, however, is that he only considered hitters and pitchers from the 2003 season.
More recently in 2007, sabermetrician and Slate contributor Phil Birnbaum studied free-agents-to-be from a much larger sample size: 1977 to 2001. He came up with an algorithm that projected performances for a given year based on the four years around it. Then he compared the projections to the players' actual performances.
He applied it to 399 free-agent-to-be hitters and close to 3,700 regular hitters and found that the free-agent-to-be group performed only slightly better. His ruling was that the result was "not statistically significant."
As for pitchers, Birnbaum found that free-agents-to-be actually performed worse than regular pitchers, but that the difference between the two groups was only about 4.5 runs over 200 innings. That's not such a big gap and is therefore not very conclusive.
Other recent studies have been done, including one by people in an actual major-league front office.
Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote back in 2011 about a little experiment carried out by St. Louis Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak and others that put walk-year performances to the test. What they found was that walk years generally don't bring a spike in performance.
"Intuitively it feels like it does. A guy's on his walk year and boom!" Mozeliak said. "Historically, that's not the case. It doesn't give you quite the bounce that you feel in your stomach."
How about one more study?
Over the past nine years, 177 players performing in the last year of a contract hit for a collective .282 batting average, with an .824 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage, an increasingly used measurement of the moneyball era). They also averaged 19 home runs, 51 extra base hits and 73 runs batted in per 500 at-bats.
That's not much different from their collective numbers from the previous year: .283 batting average, .821 OPS, 19 homers, 51 extra base hits and 74 RBI. Two years before? A .279 batting average and .809 OPS, with 18 home runs, 50 extra base hits and 73 RBI per 500 at-bats.
In a nutshell: no difference whatsoever.
What I was curious about when rummaging through these various studies was whether one could notice a difference in walk-year performances if the field were to be narrowed from all players to just star players. Maybe stars have a tendency to have big walk years. Or maybe they have a tendency to crack in their walk years.
Relative to the studies we've talked about, I put together one that was pretty crude. What I did was go back and look at star free agents in line for multi-year contracts (meaning no old guys) from the 2007-2008 offseason to this past offseason. That's six offseasons, all since PED testing went into effect and the penalties were kicked up a notch in 2006.
I used Baseball-Reference.com WAR as a guideline and went looking for how guys performed in their walk years relative to their average WAR accumulated in the three seasons prior to their walk year.
To illustrate: Matt Holliday averaged a 5.1 WAR between 2006 and 2008 and then posted a 5.2 WAR during his walk year in 2009. His production in his walk year was par for the course.
What I found was that among the 34 players who averaged a WAR of at least 3.0 in the three years prior to their walk year, the majority of them stayed steady in their walk years by posting WARs within a point of their three-year averages.
The exact breakdown was: 16 neutral performers, 10 underperformers and eight overperformers.
That's the kind of breakdown that makes it hard to draw conclusions one way or another, and the task got all the more difficult when I went looking for cases of players who had no reasons to underperform or overperform other than the motivation to perform that goes hand in hand with a walk year.
For example, consider Albert Pujols.
Pujols averaged an 8.8 WAR between 2008 and 2010. In his walk year in 2011, he posted a 5.4 WAR. You'll recall that he didn't even hit .300 or post his customary 1.000 OPS, making it easy to speculate that the pressure had gotten to him.
But now we know better.
Based on what Pujols did in 2012, it's reasonable to conclude that he was simply breaking down in 2011. In the first year of his contract with the Los Angeles Angels, he hit .285 with an .859 OPS and compiled a 5.0 WAR. His early-season struggles skewed his numbers in the end, but his overall performance was pretty much on par with his performance in 2011.
His circumstances are reminiscent of the Andruw Jones situation back in 2007.
You'll recall that Jones had a brutal walk year, hitting just .222 with a .724 OPS. It looked like the pressure had gotten to him. But then he went to the Los Angeles Dodgers and showed that his decline was no fluke. He was just plain worn out.
On the flip side are guys like Prince Fielder. He only averaged a 3.2 WAR between 2008 and 2010 before exploding for a 4.6 WAR in 2011, but it wasn't like he had a career year. When he hit .299 with a 1.014 OPS and 46 homers in 2009, he posted a 6.3 WAR. In 2011, he just happened to pick a good time to do things that he had already proved he could do.
Another guy I looked at who exploded in a year before free agency was Alex Rodriguez, who had a huge season in 2007 with a 1.067 OPS and 54 homers. But 2007 wasn't really a walk year for him, as he only became a free agent by opportunistically opting out of his contract.
A-Rod was no doubt hoping he had an excuse to do so when the season began, but there was no pressure on him to put up or else. If he didn't have a big year, oh well, he still would have had millions upon millions of dollars coming his way over the next several years.
So while my crude little experiment did yield some guys who overperformed and underperformed ahead of free agency, it also highlighted the elephant in the room: It's extremely difficult to narrow down what's influencing a guy's performance in a walk year. There's always going to be a lot more at work than just the pressure to succeed.
A perfect study would consist of a group of stars who were confirmed to have been feeling the heat in their walk years, but that's impossible. It's not as if records are kept of that sort of thing, in part because so few players admit to feeling pressure to perform in a walk year.
For the most part, all we're ever going to be able to do is take educated guesses. Even those are only good for so much.
Take Zack Greinke, for example. He told Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com in February that he signed with the Dodgers because they offered him the best deal. In his words, money was always the "No. 1 thing" in free agency.
Now, Heyman also reported last July that Greinke had turned down a $100 million extension offer from the Milwaukee Brewers. If true, then he clearly had his mind made up that he was going to get as much money as he possibly could. It was time for him to have a huge year.
Greinke didn't have a huge year, however. He had a 3.44 ERA in 21 starts for the Brewers and a 3.53 ERA in 13 starts for the Los Angeles Angels. It's not like he got unlucky, either, as FanGraphs put his FIP at 3.10 and his xFIP at 3.22. His ERA was pretty close to where it should have been.
Greinke obviously got paid anyway, as he got a six-year, $147 million contract from the Dodgers that made him (at the time) the richest right-hander ever. But you can only imagine how much he could have gotten had he put up numbers similar to those he put up in his Cy Young season in 2009, a year in which he had an MLB-best 2.16 ERA.
In light of the studies we looked at above and the rudimentary one that I performed, Greinke looks like something of a poster boy for the walk-year ballplayer. The motivation to make money may be there, but it's not a given that it's going to greatly sway a player's performance.
It's also not a given that the rare ballplayer who confesses to feeling the heat during his contract year is going to be telling the truth.
New Boston Red Sox outfielder Shane Victorino is one of the rare ones. He admitted to Andy Martino of the New York Daily News that he felt pressure to top his 2011 season during his walk year in 2012. That's when things started to snowball:
I put pressure on myself because I wanted to go out there and try to top 2011, when I had one of my better years. That’s the part where I started falling into a trap with myself. And once you start falling, you bury yourself deep, trying to get back out. I tried to climb so fast, instead of just saying, you know what? You’ve got five, six months to go, and that was the part where I didn’t start off where I wanted to, and then I was pressing.
Victorino had a disastrous season in 2012, posting a .704 OPS and watching his WAR tumble from 5.4 in 2011 all the way to 2.6.
But here's the thing: How do we know that Victorino isn't just using contract pressure as an excuse for his poor walk year?
It's still super early in the season, but Victorino only has a .676 OPS. Per FanGraphs, his rest-of-season ZiPS projection calls for a .267/.329/.416 batting line. That would put his OPS at .745, which would still be a downgrade from the .800 OPS he averaged between 2009 and 2011, a three-year span in which his OPS topped the .800 threshold twice.
In the long run, it's entirely possible that Victorino's 2013 performance will prove that his down year in 2012 had just as much to do with declining skills as it did with increased pressure to perform. He deserves some kudos for being honest, but he may end up being just another Pujols or Jones.
So, is the pressure to perform in a walk year the game-changer it's made out to be, or is it little more than a cliche conjured by newspapermen and bloggers?
The studies we discussed indicated pretty strongly that it's not the game-changer it's made out to be, as the numbers generally show that players in their walk years tend to stay the course. There are always going to be exceptions to the rule here and there, but it's not as if a switch is flipped when a player enters his walk year.
I'm not one to disagree with the numbers, and the individual cases I brought up go to show that chalking both poor walk years and good walk years up to the pressure to perform is too simplistic. There are too many things that can dictate performances from year to year in baseball, and these things don't take a break in walk years.
This is not to suggest that players aren't thinking about their next contract when they're in a walk year. Of course they are, and there are always going to be players who are going to be more preoccupied with their next contract than others.
We should all just stop assuming that contract preoccupation is to thank when a star player has a big walk year and is to blame when a star player has a poor walk year.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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