MLB Metrics 101: The Best Contracts of Baseball

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterApril 13, 2017

MLB Metrics 101: The Best Contracts of Baseball

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    There's never going to be a shortage of overpaid players in Major League Baseball. But in this day and age, there might be even more underpaid players in MLB.

    It is to them that the latest in Bleacher Report's MLB Metrics 101 series pays tribute.

    A couple weeks ago, the series took a look at the worst contracts in baseball. Now it's time to flip the concept around and ask: Which active contracts have thus far gotten the biggest returns for the smallest investments?

    This requires a few ground rules:

    • It's too soon to read into 2017 production, so the focus will be on 2016 and previous years.
    • The contract must contain at least three guaranteed years and be at least two years in progress.
    • If it's an extension, it must also have bought out at least one free-agent year with either guaranteed years or option years.
    • Only active extensions that have covered multiple arbitration and/or free-agent years will be counted.

    That last part is the best way to weed out cheap contracts that have thus far only covered seasons in which the signing player would have either been earning pennies anyway. These deals should prove to be steals in the long run, but it's a bit too soon to make the call.

    For more on how qualifying deals will be judged, read on.


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    For the sake of consistency, the system that applied in the MLB Metrics 101 on bad contracts will also apply here.

    The first order of business is the status of each contract: the overall years and dollars, as well as how many years have been served and how many dollars have been paid out. For that last part, a big debt is owed to Baseball Prospectus for keeping detailed books on salaries and bonuses.

    Then it comes down to how much value each player has produced in the life of his contract. For that, Baseball Reference's version of wins above replacement is an ideal go-to stat.

    With a player's WAR and earnings to date on hand, things can be boiled down to "WAR/$10M Earned."

    This shows how much WAR each player has produced for every $10 million he's been paid. Be warned that some players listed here haven't actually been paid that much yet, but the idea would be the same regardless if it was WAR per $X, $Y or $Z million: the higher the number, the better.

    As with the roundup of bad contracts, the disclaimer is that this is a crude way to have this discussion. But it's also nice and simple. And since more complicated calculations kept turning up the same names in slightly different orders, the nice and simple way will do fine.

    If you want to see a spreadsheet with all the players and contracts researched for this project, go here.

    Otherwise, it's on to some honorable mentions and then to the top 10.

Honorable Mentions

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    Christian Yelich, Miami Marlins

    Christian Yelich is two years into a seven-year, $49.57 million contract and has so far produced 8.7 WAR for just $1.57 million. That's a staggering 55.4 WAR per $10 million. There's just one problem: 2017 would have been his first arbitration-eligible season. Let's see how things change once the real money in his deal starts to kick in.

    Starling Marte, Pittsburgh Pirates

    Starling Marte is three years into his six-year, $31 million extension and has produced 15.4 WAR for just $6.5 million. However, only 2016 would have been an arbitration-eligible season. Give it some time.

    Adam Eaton, Washington Nationals

    Adam Eaton's five-year, $23.5 million extension has also covered just one arbitration-eligible season. But in producing 10.2 WAR on just a $3.6 million payout, he's also well on his way to being a steal.

    Corey Kluber, Cleveland Indians
    Chris Archer, Tampa Bay Rays
    Julio Teheran, Atlanta Braves

    These are three awesome pitchers who are signed to dirt-cheap contracts that should be huge steals in the long run. But—you guessed it—their deals have only covered one arbitration-eligible season.

    Jung Ho Kang, Pittsburgh Pirates

    Jung Ho Kang was picked up from South Korea on a four-year, $11 million contract and has produced 6.3 WAR for just $5 million in two seasons. But his contract situation is complicated by a $5 million posting fee. And now, his situation is complicated by a visa snafu that has put his 2017 season in question.

10. Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels

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    Harry How/Getty Images
    YearsDollarsYears ServedDollars EarnedWARWAR/$10M Earned
     6$144.5M$25.5M 19.9 7.8 

    Leave it to Mike Trout to make such a lucrative contract look not only fair, but like a steal.

    Following MVP-caliber seasons in 2012 and 2013, the Los Angeles Angels star set a record for a pre-arbitration salary when he signed for $1 million for 2014. He inked his extension shortly thereafter, giving up all three of his arbitration years and three free-agent years.

    The deal began in 2015, a year in which Trout slugged 41 home runs and led the AL with a .991 OPS. He regressed to 29 homers last season but excelled enough elsewhere to lead MLB in WAR for the fourth time in five years. He won a second MVP to go with the one he nabbed in 2014.

    The Angels likely would have had to pay a lot more for all this if they hadn't acted when they did.

    Even before Trout won his first MVP in 2014, some were projecting him for a record $15 million arbitration payday in 2015. A raise on that in 2016 could have taken him to, oh, $35 million for his first two arbitration years.

    Oh well. A measly $25.5 million will have to do.

9. Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants

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    Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
    YearsDollarsYears ServedDollars EarnedWARWAR/$10M Earned
     5$35M $22.1M 17.8 8.1 

    Although Madison Bumgarner had only one full season under his belt by April, 2012, that was apparently enough for the San Francisco Giants. They extended him right then and there.

    By giving Bumgarner a then-record amount of money for a pitcher with so little service time, the Giants were taking a risk. Perhaps he wouldn't pan out in the long run. Or worse, perhaps he would get hurt.

    Neither of these things has happened. In the four seasons the lefty's contract has covered, he's been the only pitcher to log over 200 innings and post an ERA under 3.00 each year. 

    Had Bumgarner gone to arbitration in 2014, he would have gotten a lot more than the $3.75 million salary his extension paid him. More money would have come in 2015 and 2016. Then he would have entered the open market, where he would have been a lone ace in an ace-less landscape.

    Don't feel too bad for Bumgarner, though. The really big money will soon find him.

8. Matt Carpenter, St. Louis Cardinals

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    Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
    YearsDollarsYears ServedDollars EarnedWARWAR/$10M Earned
     6$52M  3$12.35M 10.2 8.3 

    Matt Carpenter was a 13th-round draft pick who was never a top prospect and who didn't establish himself in the majors until he was getting into his late 20s.

    Thus, his rise wasn't too dissimilar from that of Allen Craig, whom the St. Louis Cardinals signed to an extension in 2013. That's turned into a disaster. In a parallel universe, the deal the Cardinals signed Carpenter to in March 2014 might have gone the same route.


    As it did in 2012 and 2013, Carpenter's bat has continued to do the talking for him in the first three years—the last two of which would have been arbitration years—of his deal. He's continued to get on base with a .373 percentage. He's also turned on the power in the last two seasons, cranking 49 home runs.

    The obligatory word of warning is that Carpenter might not be able to keep this up. He was limited by injury to 129 games in 2016 and is now playing in his age-31 season. There's a chance he's past his prime.

    But with so much value in the first half of his contract already secured, the whole thing should be a win even if the second half isn't as good.

7. Carlos Carrasco, Cleveland Indians

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    R. Yeatts/Getty Images
    YearsDollarsYears ServedDollars EarnedWARWAR/$10M Earned
     4$22M $6.838M 7.4 10.8 

    When the Cleveland Indians extended Carlos Carrasco in April 2015, they were gambling on a small glimmer of hope.

    After years of ups, downs and injuries, something clicked for the right-hander the previous August. In 10 starts down the stretch, he posted a 1.30 ERA and struck out 67 more batters than he walked in 69 innings.

    Given Carrasco's checkered past, the safe move for the Indians would have been to remain patient. Instead, they bought out all three of his arbitration years and at least one of his free-agent years—his deal includes club options for two more. Presumably, they then crossed their fingers.

    It hasn't been all good for Carrasco in the two seasons he's served so far. He's only been durable enough to make 55 starts and pitch 330 innings. But he's continued to dominate when he's been healthy, posting a 3.49 ERA and 4.8 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

    With his age-30 season currently underway, Carrasco's durability will continue to be a question mark. But when he is on the mound, Cleveland should keep enjoying an ace for considerably less than ace prices.

6. Chris Sale, Boston Red Sox

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    Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
    YearsDollarsYears ServedDollars EarnedWARWAR/$10M Earned
     5$32.5M $19.56M 21.7 11.1 

    Chris Sale's contract is one of many successful dice rolls the Chicago White Sox took on him.

    They drafted him with the No. 13 pick in the 2010 draft and had him pitching in the big leagues just two months later. Rather than keep him in the bullpen role he owned in 2010 and 2011, they moved him to their starting rotation in 2012 and watched him turn into a Cy Young contender.

    Then came his extension in March, 2013. It covered his final pre-arbitration year, all three of his arbitration years and one year of free agency, with the potential for two more thanks to 2018 and 2019 options.

    To date, this contract has paid for one of the three best pitchers in baseball. Sale has averaged a 3.04 ERA and 206 innings per season, finishing in the top five of the AL Cy Young voting each year.

    It sure helps that the 28-year-old has stayed mostly healthy. That makes it easy to forget that there was once a lot of hang-wringing about whether such a slender pitcher with such a weird delivery would hold up.

    The White Sox took the risk and it paid off for them. It should now keep paying off for the Boston Red Sox.

5. Anthony Rizzo, Chicago Cubs

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images
    YearsDollarsYears ServedDollars EarnedWARWAR/$10M Earned
     7$41M $14M 17.2 12.2 

    The extension the Chicago Cubs signed Anthony Rizzo to in April, 2013 wasn't an immediate success.

    That season was a disappointing year following Rizzo's big breakout in 2012, as his OPS fell from .805 to .742. As Andrew Cashner pitched well for the San Diego Padres, you couldn't help but wonder: Had the Cubs committed to the lesser end of the trade that swapped the two players?

    Several years later, the answer is somewhere along the lines of: Ha, no.

    Rizzo turned into one of the best players in baseball in 2014, posting a .913 OPS and hitting 32 home runs. He barely budged from those benchmarks in 2015 and 2016, and has produced more WAR than all but one other first baseman over the last three seasons.

    As a Super Two player, 2015 would have been the first of four arbitration-eligible seasons for Rizzo. The first two of those would have paid him a lot more than the $10 million his extension has paid him. Assuming the Cubs pick up his 2020 and 2021 options, the big savings will continue for five more years.

    Smart team, those Cubs.

4. Jose Quintana, Chicago White Sox

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
    YearsDollarsYears ServedDollars EarnedWARWAR/$10M Earned
     5$26.5M $9.65M  12.6 13.1

    If something here seems off, that's because the five-year extension the White Sox gave Jose Quintana in March 2014 was originally worth $21 million.

    The deal included language that would escalate his salaries for 2015-2018 if he qualified as a Super Two player after 2014. That happened and Quintana is a richer man for it.

    And yet he's still drastically underpaid.

    The 2013 season that preceded Quintana's extension was good enough, as he posted a 3.51 ERA in 200 innings. He's proceeded to get better in three seasons since, racking up a 3.29 ERA and averaging 205 innings. Not many lefties have been more valuable.

    He earned a total of $8.8 million in 2015 and 2016. That's surely less than he would have made had he gone to arbitration. It'll be the same story for 2017 and 2018, and the $21 million he's owed in options for 2019 and 2020 is far less than what he would have been paid in free agency.

    In all, the White Sox scored an even bigger victory with this deal than they did with Sale's deal. And like with Sale, it shouldn't be long before another team gets to enjoy it.

3. Jonathan Lucroy, Texas Rangers

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    Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images
    YearsDollarsYears ServedDollars EarnedWARWAR/$10M Earned
    5$11M $11.05M18.2 16.5

    Jonathan Lucroy came up with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2010 and established himself as a solid everyday catcher in 2011.

    Since even solid everyday catchers are valuable, it's no wonder the Brewers were quick with an extension offer in March 2012. And since Lucroy himself was already getting into his mid-20s, it's no wonder he was willing to sign on the dotted line for a mere $11 million.

    Five years later, now you wonder if Lucroy wishes he had a time machine.

    With an .818 OPS, the 30-year-old has been one of the best hitting catchers in baseball over the last five years. And even his 18.2 WAR sells his total value short. His WARP at Baseball Prospectus comes out to 25.6, mainly thanks to his legendary framing talent.

    Although the guaranteed portion of Lucroy's contract is in the books, he's not free just yet. His deal came with a $5.25 million option for 2017. That will be at once the highest salary he's received and also far less than what he would have found on the open market last winter.

    Bummer for him, but bully for first the Brewers and now the Texas Rangers.

2. Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona Diamondbacks

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    Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images
    YearsDollarsYears ServedDollars EarnedWARWAR/$10M Earned
     5$32M $10.25M 18.1 17.7 

    Between 2009 and 2012, Paul Goldschmidt went from a ninth-round draft pick and non-prospect to an intriguing prospect and, finally, a budding star.

    The Arizona Diamondbacks moved quickly, inking Goldschmidt to an extension in March 2013. It would kick in the following year and ultimately cover all three of his arbitration years and at least one of his free-agent years. Even if he didn't get better, they would at least get some cost control out of the deal.

    Well, Goldschmidt didn't get better. He got a lot better.

    He became a full-blown superstar in 2013, making the All-Star team and finishing second in the MVP voting. He didn't regress in 2014 or 2015 and was still one of baseball's best first basemen in a down 2016 season.

    In all, Goldschmidt has averaged a .948 OPS, 25 home runs and 21 stolen bases in the three years covered by his contract. The last two of these would have been arbitration seasons that would have paid him a lot more than the $8.75 million he's earned under his contract.

    Not much has gone right for the Diamondbacks in recent seasons. But at least they have this.

1. Jose Altuve, Houston Astros

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    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
    YearsDollarsYears ServedDollars EarnedWARWAR/$10M Earned
     4$12.5  3$8.075 18.2 22.5 

    It's important to remember what Jose Altuve was when he signed his extension in July 2013.

    As a former non-prospect who stood at just 5'6", he looked more like a novelty act than a major league star. And even though he had been an All-Star in 2012, he was far from an elite player that year and actually got worse in 2013.

    His contract looked like a PR stunt. It was as if the Houston Astros were taking a time out from an eventual 111-loss season to say: "We're trying, OK?"

    In retrospect, maybe they knew something the rest of us (and even Altuve himself) didn't know.

    He became a superstar in 2014, hitting an MLB-best .341 and leading the AL with 56 stolen bases. He won another batting title last year and also hit a career-high 24 home runs. And in all, he's been the most valuable second basemen in the league.

    Altuve would have made a killing in arbitration starting in 2015 and an even bigger killing in free agency after 2017. Instead, the 26-year-old is stuck making pennies for now and will make only $12.5 million when the Astros exercise his 2018 and 2019 options.

    The nine other contracts on this list can be put in other, equally valid orders. Altuve's contract, however, stands alone as easily the biggest steal in baseball.

    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs. Contract information courtesy of Baseball Prospectus.

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