MLB Metrics 101: Worst Bang-for-Your-Buck Stars at the Quarter Pole
Even with the average player salary at $4.5 million, the 2017 season contains many reminders that most Major League Baseball players are underpaid.
The overpaid players, however, stick out like so many sore badly broken and horribly mangled thumbs. The Bleacher Report MLB Metrics 101 is here to weed them out.
Hello and welcome back. This week's topic covers well-paid superstars who aren't earning their big bucks through three quarters (74 percent, to be exact) of the season. Here are the ground rules:
- Active players only, so no Carl Crawfords or Prince Fielders.
- Only players who are earning over $10 million, per Cot's Baseball Contracts.
- Player value will be determined by averaging wins above replacement from Baseball Reference and FanGraphs as of Monday, August 14.
Read on for more on how these elements will be combined to form a coherent list.
When this series has tackled contract earnings and on-field value in the past, it's kept it simple.
The go-to method was to cross a player's wins above replacement with his earnings to calculate how much WAR he was producing for, say, every $1 million or $10 million. It worked insofar as it presented an intuitive list of players, but the catch was always the ordering of said list was less intuitive.
So, it's time for a new approach: Find the biggest gaps between what players have been paid (74 percent of their 2017 earnings) and what they've been worth.
The latter requires a hypothetical dollar value for WAR. FanGraphs has a calculation for that. Other methods have been offered by Lewie Pollis at SB Nation and Matt Swartz at Hardball Times. Neil Paine of FiveThirtyEight considered all of these when he attempted to put a value on Bryce Harper's MVP-winning 2015 season:
"[If] you take a consensus average, teams were willing to pay about $7.7 million for every additional WAR this season. That means Harper’s 9.7 wins above replacement would have been valued at a staggering $75.4 million on the open market."
In reality, Harper was paid only $2.5 million. So in theory, he produced $72.9 million in surplus value. Not a bad deal for the Washington Nationals.
Thus, the proposition: Which actual bad deals turn up if this idea is approached from the other direction?
To start, the cost per WAR must be bumped up to $8 million. That's where FanGraphs has it, and it's a fair enough guess for how inflation would change things over two years.
For full results, go here. From here, it's on to honorable mentions for stars who are actually outperforming large salaries, a couple of exceptions to the rules and then, finally, a bottom 10.
Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals ($28.01M Surplus Value)
How do you qualify as underpaid despite earning a $22.14 million salary? If you're Max Scherzer, you put yourself en route to a third Cy Young with a 2.25 ERA and National League bests in innings (160.1) and strikeouts (220).
Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals ($28.32M Surplus Value)
Harper is pulling in "only" $13.625 million this year, but once again deserves far more. Although his numbers will be stuck as is while he recovers from a bone bruise in his knee, his 1.034 OPS and 29 home runs will remain impressive anyway.
Justin Turner, Los Angeles Dodgers ($29.18M Surplus Value)
Justin Turner is in the first year of a four-year, $64 million contract that seemed like a steal when he signed it and now looks like highway robbery. He leads the NL with his .345 average and has a 1.000 OPS to boot.
Chris Sale, Boston Red Sox ($43.12M Surplus Value)
Chris Sale has been one of MLB's most underpaid superstars for years. Why should things be any different in his best season yet? For a mere $12 million, he's leading the American League with a 2.51 ERA, 168.1 innings and 241 strikeouts.
Others: Giancarlo Stanton, Miami Marlins; Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels; Nolan Arenado, Colorado Rockies; Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds
A Couple of Exceptions
Matt Kemp, Atlanta Braves (Minus-$18.50M Negative Value)
Matt Kemp boasts an .813 OPS and 14 home runs, but that's not nearly enough offense to make up for his base-clogging and defensive ineptitude. But while he technically qualifies for inclusion in the bottom 10, the Atlanta Braves are only on the hook for $18 million of his $21.5 million salary.
James Shields, Chicago White Sox (Minus-$19.14M Negative Value)
James Shields' steep decline is ongoing, as he's made only 13 starts and put up a 5.90 ERA. However, the Chicago White Sox are only paying $10 million of his $21 million salary.
Jose Reyes, New York Mets (Minus-$21.88M Negative Value)
Jose Reyes has put up a .662 OPS without great defense or baserunning. However, it's the Colorado Rockies and not the New York Mets who are paying the remainder of his six-year, $106 million contract. The Rockies would rather be paying him nothing, but at least they aren't paying him to play well for another team.
10. Hunter Pence, San Francisco Giants
Since arriving at the trade deadline in 2012, Hunter Pence has helped the San Francisco Giants win two World Series as an everyday right fielder, clubhouse leader and fan favorite. It's been a good partnership.
Year 4 of his five-year, $90 million contract, however, is going even worse than Years 2 and 3.
The injury bug had it out for the right fielder in 2015 and 2016, limiting him to a total of 158 games. The trade-off was that he was solid when he could play, putting up an .808 OPS and hitting 22 homers.
This season has brought the worst of both worlds. Pence missed time with a hamstring strain and has managed just a .680 OPS and 10 homers when healthy. He's also rated as a below-average defender. Thus, his minus-0.4 WAR average.
But don't bury Pence just yet. The 34-year-old is mounting a charge with a .950 OPS in August. As he told Andrew Baggarly of the Mercury News: "At this point, I'm trying to give everything I have every at-bat."
If he keeps it up, Pence may save face and prove he has something in the tank for the final year of his deal.
9. Anibal Sanchez, Detroit Tigers
Unless the Detroit Tigers do the unthinkable and pick up Anibal Sanchez's $16 million option for 2018, this year will bring an end to his five-year, $80 million contract.
He has a 6.95 ERA in 22 appearances, only 11 of which have been starts. It all results in a minus-0.8 WAR average. He isn't going out with a bang, to say the least.
Unless, of course, you count all the bangs opposing hitters have made against the 33-year-old. He's surrendered 23 homers in only 77.2 innings for a rate of 2.7 per nine innings. He's the home run king of the most extreme home run era in MLB history.
So it goes. Sanchez led the AL with 29 homers allowed in 2015, and allowed 30 more in 2016. Of the 80 homers he's given up over the last three years, 54 have come off hard stuff that isn't as hard as it used to be.
Still, give the guy credit.
Sanchez has battled back from all sorts of injuries to pitch 12 years in the majors. And as bad as it looks now, he provided good value with a 2.92 ERA across 308 innings in the first two years of his contract.
8. Miguel Cabrera, Detroit Tigers
It was only a matter of time before Miguel Cabrera's eight-year, $248 million contract extension started going bad, but the Tigers surely hoped it wouldn't happen as soon as Year 2.
Cabrera is making $28 million this season, and so far his return on that investment includes a .751 OPS, 13 homers and a 0.3 WAR average.
This isn't the latest stop on a slow decline. The 34-year-old had a .956 OPS and 38 homers just last season. Now, exit velocity reveals he isn't crushing the ball like he used to.
This could be a case of age catching up with Cabrera all at once. But not to be ignored is what's going on inside his head.
His native Venezuela is in crisis, and he was recently vocal on his Instagram about the effect it's having on him and his family. Per Evan Woodbery of MLive.com, his remarks included "If I go to Venezuela they'll break me, they'll kill me" and "I'm tired of paying protection money so they don't kidnap my mother."
Imagine trying to hit 95 mph fastballs with that hanging over your head. You'd slump, too.
7. Victor Martinez, Detroit Tigers
The Tigers had a good reason to sign Victor Martinez for four years and $68 million back in November 2014. He was coming off a season in which he hit .335 with 32 homers and an MLB-high .974 OPS.
All the same, the deal felt like a mistake from the start. Three years in, it's been confirmed as one.
Martinez rebounded from an injury-marred 2015 with a solid 2016 season, but has fallen flat again this year. He has just a .699 OPS and nine homers. That makes him a designated hitter who can't hit, hence his minus-0.8 WAR average.
But it's also no wonder he isn't the player he once was.
Martinez is 38 years old and is playing on knees that have undergone several surgeries. He still has excellent bat-to-ball skills, but what used to be legit over-the-fence power is now more like warning-track power.
6. Homer Bailey, Cincinnati Reds
When the Cincinnati Reds inked Homer Bailey to a six-year, $105 million extension in February 2014, he was fresh off two strong seasons that were punctuated with a pair no-hitters.
But the deal began going south right away.
The right-hander made only 23 starts in 2014 and put up a good-not-great 3.71 ERA when healthy. He made only two starts in 2015 before undergoing Tommy John surgery, and he returned for only six outings in 2016.
Things aren't getting any better for Bailey in Year 4 of his six-year deal. Surgery to remove bone spurs from his elbow kept him out of action until late June. He's since made 11 starts and been lit up to the tune of an 8.44 ERA. That comes out to a minus-0.7 WAR average.
At 93.4 mph, Bailey's fastball still packs a wallop. But he's neither missing bats (6.9 K/9) nor throwing strikes (5.1 BB/9). Throw in nine homers allowed in 53.1 innings, and he's been ineffective in every which way.
Unfortunately for the Reds, the 31-year-old's contract only gets worse. He'll go from a $19 million salary this year to $44 million in salaries over the next two seasons.
5. Bartolo Colon, Atlanta Braves
Yes, Bartolo Colon is on the Minnesota Twins now. But it was the Braves who originally signed him for $12.5 million before deciding in July that their best move was to eat that money rather than let Colon keep pitching.
They had a good reason to do so. The 44-year-old had taken the hill 13 times and bombed with an 8.14 ERA. He gave up 92 hits in just 63 innings, including 11 home runs.
As Ted Berg covered at USA Today, some evidence pointed to Colon's being afflicted by bad luck. Peripheral stats such as his batting average on balls in play and left-on-base percentage were out of whack enough to suggest he was bound to run into better luck.
He's made this prophecy come true in his six starts for Minnesota. His BABIP has fallen from .360 to .306. His LOB% is up from 48.2 to 82.9. And his ERA is down from 8.14 to 4.21.
Nonetheless, his troubled tenure with Atlanta remains frozen in time. It amounted to a WAR average of minus-1.0 and $12.5 million down the drain.
4. Adrian Gonzalez, Los Angeles Dodgers
Adrian Gonzalez was the Los Angeles Dodgers' prize in their blockbuster deal with the Boston Red Sox in August 2012. And he's mostly fit the bill.
From the time he first arrived in Los Angeles through the end of 2015, Gonzalez played in 508 games and posted an .814 OPS with 80 homers while playing a good first base. He was thus giving the Dodgers precisely what they bargained for.
Things are worse in 2017. The 35-year-old's back has limited him to 49 games and all but killed his power. He's hit just one home run in 182 trips to the plate. Per the metrics, he's also continuing his defensive decline. Hence, his minus-0.8 WAR average.
Next season marks the end of the seven-year, $154 million contract Gonzalez signed in 2011. He told Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register that it could also mark the end of his career if his back doesn't heal.
Good thing the Dodgers already have somebody else to play at first base.
3. Pablo Sandoval, Boston Red Sox
The numbers above are actually a significant softening of the blow that Pablo Sandoval made (and will continue to make) on the Red Sox's finances.
When the Red Sox released the veteran third baseman last month, they committed to eating all the money remaining on his five-year, $95 million contract. That amounts to about $50 million. But since he isn't getting all that in a single check, simply focusing on his 2017 salary will have do for now.
That money paid for a .622 OPS, lousy defense and a minus-0.8 WAR average. This after Sandoval fell flat in his debut season in Boston in 2015 and then played in only three games in 2016 before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery.
"At the end of the day, I just never felt comfortable in Boston," wrote the 31-year-old at The Players' Tribune. He's since returned to San Francisco, where he was very comfortable between 2008 and 2014.
Despite the huge amount of money that went to waste, the Red Sox also have a reason to be happy Sandoval is gone: His release opened the door for 20-year-old rookie Rafael Devers, who can seemingly do no wrong.
2. Carlos Gonzalez, Colorado Rockies
Carlos Gonzalez is in the final season of a seven-year, $80 million contract that's actually been a better deal for the Colorado Rockies than it's been for him.
Despite a steady flow of injuries, an average season for CarGo between 2011 and 2016 included an .870 OPS and 25 home runs. Even as recently as last year, he was an All-Star with an .855 OPS and 25 dingers.
But in 2017, Gonzalez has crumbled about as rapidly as Cabrera. He's been healthy enough to play in 99 games but has managed just a .653 OPS and seven homers. He's also rated poorly on defense. Add it all up, and the result is a minus-1.8 WAR average.
Like with Cabrera, there's a sympathetic explanation for Gonzalez's sudden decline. He's a fellow Venezuelan who's also been vocal about the difficulty of keeping the trouble back home out of mind.
"It's really tough," he told B/R's Danny Knobler.
Yet it's also apparent that the 31-year-old is feeling his age. One clue is how aggressively pitchers are attacking him with fastballs, particularly up-and-in where his pretty but long swing can't catch up.
1. Albert Pujols, Los Angeles Angels
Now in the sixth year of his 10-year, $240 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels, Albert Pujols has only one way to earn his money.
It's not by running the bases. His 37 years and his injury history have rendered him the slowest runner in MLB. Nor is it by playing defense, as he rarely plays first base anymore.
There are no two ways about it: Pujols needs to hit, and he just isn't.
He owns a cringe-worthy .229/.274/.374 slash line and just 17 homers. He can no longer generate high exit velocity, so he can no longer generate power. Between this and the issues listed above, nobody should be surprised his WAR average is a paltry minus-1.5.
The one thing to say in Pujols' defense is that he's at least been clutch with a .933 OPS in high-leverage situations. However, those account for just 97 of his 467 total plate appearances.
It may not be long before the Angels must make like the Red Sox did with Sandoval and cut their losses on Pujols' deal. But if it comes to that, the man himself can rest easy knowing the Hall of Fame will still welcome him as one of the greatest players ever.