Metrics 101: Exposing MLB's Worst Contracts Entering 2018 Season
Major League Baseball players with expensive contracts carry two things: big wallets (presumably) and big targets on their backs.
Today, MLB Metrics 101 takes aim at the latter.
Hello, and welcome back. This week's topic covers the worst contracts in MLB as teams get ready to embark on the 2018 season. Here are the ground rules:
- Only players with contracts worth at least $50 million in guaranteed dollars were considered.
- Deals must still be active rather than dead money. So, don't expect to find Pablo Sandoval, Yasmany Tomas, Rusney Castillo, Hector Olivera, Prince Fielder or Adrian Gonzalez listed here.
- Deals must also be at least two years old. So, nothing that began in 2017 or is set to begin in 2018.
Spotrac made it easy to whittle the list to 64 qualified players. For the record, the majority of them have lived up to expectations. In some cases—e.g., Mike Trout, Buster Posey and Andrew McCutchen—they've even surpassed them.
Read on for more on how the other side of the spectrum will be unveiled.
This topic can be approached from any number of different directions. The simplest is to try and answer this question: Where are the biggest negative gaps between what a player's been worth and what he's been paid?
Discovering the latter is the easy part. It merely requires using Spotrac to look up each player's annual earnings (see, for example, Giancarlo Stanton's) during the life of his contract then adding them up.
To one extent, discovering what a player's been worth is also easy. One element of the equation is his on-field value, which is what wins above replacement is good for. We'll be using the average of a player's Baseball Reference WAR and his FanGraphs WAR for each season of his deal.
The complicated part is the dollar value of WAR.
This is one of those subjects that defies consensus. But since FanGraphs makes its version (which, specifically, has to do with the open-market value of WAR) easy to look up, we're going to take its word for it that the cost per WAR has been between $6.5 million and $8.0 million since 2011—which is as far back as this study reaches.
Thus, we can do this:
- Calculate each player's WAR value for each season during the life of his contract.
- Add those values up.
- Subtract his overall earnings from his overall WAR value.
The higher the resulting number, the better. The lower the resulting number, the worse.
Go here for full results. For full reports on the bottom 10, keep reading.
10. Jason Heyward, Chicago Cubs
The Deal: 8 Years, $184 Million (2016-23)
Paid Out: $49.8 Million
WAR Value: $24.0 Million
Difference: Minus-$25.8 Million
Jason Heyward can thank his glove for the fact that his contract hasn't been a complete disaster.
The 28-year-old already owned three Gold Gloves and a whole bunch of defensive runs saved when the Chicago Cubs guaranteed him $184 million in December 2015. Nothing's changed in his two seasons on the North Side, as he's added two more Gold Gloves and 32 DRS (second among right fielders).
As for his bat...well, it brings the "Not great, Bob" meme to mind.
Heyward has taken 1,073 regular-season trips to the plate as a Cub and come away with a .669 OPS. That's fifth-worst among all similarly qualified hitters. He's been worse in the postseason with just a .337 OPS in 24 games. Even a fiery speech isn't enough to make up for that.
This is quite the departure from the respectable .784 OPS Heyward put up from 2010 to 2015. The fundamental problem: the erosion of his ability to hit the ball hard.
It used to be easy to imagine Heyward taking advantage of the 2018 opt-out in his contract. Now, not so much. In all likelihood, the Cubs are stuck with him for the next six years.
9. Joe Mauer, Minnesota Twins
The Deal: 8 Years, $184 Million (2011-18)
Paid Out: $161.1 Million
WAR Value: $135.2 Million
Difference: Minus-$25.9 Million
The feel-good vibes were strong when Joe Mauer and the Minnesota Twins agreed to an eight-year, $184 million contract extension in March 2010.
It seemed like an inevitable step on a journey that had taken Mauer from hometown hero to No. 1 pick to two-time MLB batting champion to, in 2009, American League MVP. He followed with another great season in 2010, batting .327 and winning his third Gold Glove.
His contract, however, didn't kick in until 2011. Which brings us to this:
- 2004-10: .327 AVG, .888 OPS
- 2011-17: .291 AVG, .784 OPS
Injuries haunted Mauer in 2011 and 2013 and forced him from catcher to first base in 2014. The 34-year-old has been one of the weakest hitters at the position since then.
To be fair, Mauer was a deserving All-Star in 2012 and 2013, and he hit .305 with an .801 OPS in 2017. It's largely thanks to these seasons that he's less "disaster" and more "disappointment."
To be even fairer, Mauer was severely underpaid while he was one of the game's best players from 2004 to 2010. So, on balance, the Twins don't have much to regret when it comes to his tenure with the team.
8. Shin-Soo Choo, Texas Rangers
The Deal: 7 Years, $130 Million (2014-20)
Paid Out: $68.0 Million
WAR Value: $39.6 Million
Difference: Minus-$28.4 Million
Shin-Soo Choo entered the 2013-14 free-agent market off a heck of a walk year. He'd played 154 games with the Cincinnati Reds and posted a .423 on-base percentage with 21 home runs and 20 steals.
It's no wonder the Texas Rangers fought their way to the front of the line for his services. They had stolen plenty of bases (149) in 2013, but their OBP (.323) and home run output (176) were both significant departures from previous seasons.
Thus, Choo came aboard for $130 million. Naturally, his production tanked and has stayed tanked.
Though the 35-year-old has continued to get on base at an above average rate, his good-not-great .358 OBP probably isn't what the Rangers had in mind when they signed him. Likewise, they probably didn't have it in mind for Choo to average just 16 homers and six steals per season.
Cutting into his overall value, meanwhile, are injuries that shortened his 2014 and 2016 seasons and forced him into a part-time role as a designated hitter in 2017. For 2018 and beyond, he's likely to be more of a full-time DH.
The Rangers tried to offload Choo this winter but were unsuccessful. Thus, he's set to weigh them down for three more years.
7. Ryan Zimmerman, Washington Nationals
The Deal: 6 Years, $100 Million (2014-20)
Paid Out: $56.0 Million
WAR Value: $25.7 Million
Difference: Minus-$30.3 Million
Ryan Zimmerman is here largely because of what happened in the first three years of his second contract extension with the Washington Nationals.
Injuries not only limited him to only 271 games from 2014 to 2016 but also contributed to an offensive struggle that resulted in just a .720 OPS. Throw in poor defense, and you get zero rWAR and just 0.5 fWAR.
The 33-year-old finally snapped out of it in 2017. He played in 144 games and set full-season career highs with his .930 OPS and 36 homers. That's the kind of health and consistency that can only come from the power of...yoga?
"It's the hardest thing I do for an hour," Zimmerman said of embracing yoga, per Jon Tayler of Sports Illustrated. "But after I'm done, it's definitely worth it. By the end of last offseason, I really started to notice myself getting better at it and how much better I felt in my body."
There is one catch with Zimmerman's revival, however: It started a lot stronger than it ended. He had a 1.382 OPS through May 6 and a more modest .813 OPS the rest of the way.
So, he hasn't really given the Nationals one great year for their money. It was more like a few great weeks.
6. Homer Bailey, Cincinnati Reds
The Deal: 6 Years, $105 Million (2014-20)
Paid Out: $56.0 Million
WAR Value: $10.6 Million
Difference: Minus-$45.4 Million
Homer Bailey was one of the best pitchers in baseball when the Reds inked him to a $105 million extension in February 2014.
The potential that made him the No. 7 pick in the 2004 draft had finally come together in 2012 and 2013. He compiled a 3.58 ERA over 417 innings and threw two no-hitters.
Buried further within Bailey's 2013 season was a sign he could get even better. Whereas his fastball had once averaged about 92 mph, suddenly it was averaging 94.1 mph.
In retrospect, maybe that was actually a red flag.
Things took a turn for the worse in 2014, as an injury limited him to only 23 starts. Then came another bad turn when he underwent Tommy John surgery in May 2015. He didn't return from that until July 2016, and then he had another elbow surgery in February 2017.
Along the way, Bailey has been various levels of ineffective when he has pitched. All told, what the Reds have gotten for their money over the last four years is a 4.95 ERA across 271 innings.
Since he's still only 31 years old, Bailey may be able to save face. He has quite the hill to climb, however.
5. James Shields, Chicago White Sox (from San Diego Padres)
The Deal: 4 Years, $75 Million (2015-18)
Paid Out: $52.0 Million
WAR Value: $4.4 Million
Difference: Minus-$47.6 Million
James Shields was as steady as they come once upon a time.
He was good for over 200 innings every year from 2007 to 2014. He turned into an ace with a 2.82 ERA in 2011 and kept it up with a 3.29 ERA over the next three seasons.
You'd think a guy with those creds would have been a hot item on the 2014-15 open market. Instead, teams were hesitant to sign a pitcher on the verge of his age-33 season. He landed with the San Diego Padres for what seemed like a reasonable price.
As it turns out, the teams that were skeptical about Shields had the right idea.
He regressed to a 3.91 ERA over 202.1 innings in 2015 and has regressed even further in two seasons since, putting up a 5.60 ERA over 298.2 innings. Dried up velocity has worsened a preexisting home run problem. The 100 homers he's allowed since 2015 are the most in MLB.
One bright side for the Padres is that Shields is the Chicago White Sox's problem now. On a less bright side, they agreed to pick up the bulk of the tab ($30.8 million of $57.8 million, per Baseball Prospectus) when they traded Shields to Chicago in June 2016.
4. Albert Pujols, Los Angeles Angels
The Deal: 10 Years, $240 Million (2012-21)
Paid Out: $126.1 Million
WAR Value: $73.3 Million
Difference: Minus-$52.7 Million
If anyone's surprised at Albert Pujols' inclusion on this list, it's probably only because he didn't place even higher.
That's a credit to how his time with the Los Angeles Angels has been just fine on occasion. For one example, he started with an .859 OPS and 30 homers in 2012. For another example, he blasted 40 homers as recently as 2015.
Still, "just fine" isn't what the Angels signed up for back in December 2011.
At the time, they were inking a guy who'd been the best hitter in baseball in 11 seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals. He's been anything but since he got to Anaheim, which leads us to another one of these:
- 2001-11: .328 AVG, 1.037 OPS
- 2012-17: .262 AVG, .777 OPS
The primary culprit for Pujols' demise is Father Time. The 38-year-old has endured the kind of aches and pains you'd expect with a player his age. He's also endured the steep decline of two formerly formidable talents: his patience and his power.
Pujols said he was healthy and in good shape when he reported to camp this year, so there's hope he may turn things around. But at this point, anything beyond hope is not advised.
3. Hanley Ramirez, Boston Red Sox
The Deal: 4 Years, $88 Million (2015-18)
Paid Out: $65.3 Million
WAR Value: $7.2 Million
Difference: Minus-$58.1 Million
After they finished 13th in the American League in OPS in 2014, the Boston Red Sox entered the offseason in need of bats.
Enter Hanley Ramirez on an $88 million contract.
That November also included the signing of Pablo Sandoval, of course. But Ramirez—the 2009 National League batting champion who'd raked with a .907 OPS across the two prior seasons—was the bigger prize.
There have been times when the Red Sox have gotten exactly what they desired out of Ramirez. He tied a club record with 10 homers in his first April with the team. He went on a tear in the second half of 2016, posting a .947 OPS and slamming 22 homers.
On the whole, though, Ramirez has given the Red Sox just a .785 OPS and 72 homers.
This would be acceptable if Boston were getting something out of him in other phases of the game, but it's not. The 34-year-old has been a value vampire on the bases and on defense, the latter of which has forced him to get used to the DH slot.
Fortunately for the Red Sox, it'll all be over after 2018...unless Ramirez logs 497 plate appearances this year, in which case a $22 million option for 2019 will vest.
2. Victor Martinez, Detroit Tigers
The Deal: 4 Years, $68 Million (2015-18)
Paid Out: $50.0 Million
WAR Value: Minus-$12.0 Million
Difference: Minus-$62.0 Million
When Victor Martinez entered free agency following the 2014 season, the Detroit Tigers were faced with losing one of the best hitters in baseball.
Martinez had always been a solid hitter, but he had gone way beyond that in '14. He played 151 games and set career highs with a .335 average, a .409 OBP, a .565 slugging percentage and 32 homers. His .974 OPS was the highest in the majors.
No small feats, considering how hard it was to find offense that year. So, the Tigers came running with a $68 million contract.
In three years since, Martinez has mostly been a designated hitter who can't hit.
All told, he's managed just a .266/.327/.412 slash line and .739 OPS. That's a roughly average OPS by normal standards. But it's the worst among all DHs who've made at least 1,000 plate appearances since 2015.
Obviously, Martinez isn't helping Detroit on defense. He's also one of the worst baserunners in MLB.
Now that he's 39 years old, there isn't a ton of hope he'll turn things around in 2018. But with his contract set to expire and the Tigers in the midst of a rebuild, the silver lining is that it doesn't really matter anyway.
1. Matt Kemp, Los Angeles Dodgers
The Deal: 8 Years, $160 Million (2012-19)
Paid Out: $116.0 Million
WAR Value: $30.5 Million
Difference: Minus-$85.5 Million
Let it not be said that Matt Kemp didn't deserve the $160 million contract extension he signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers in November 2011.
He was only 27 and coming off a near-MVP season highlighted by a .986 OPS, 39 homers and 40 steals. He then promptly continued to look the part of an MVP at the outset of 2012.
That's when the injury bug bit, and it bit hard.
The hamstring woes that did Kemp in that summer merely started a succession of lower-half maladies that have tripped him up over the last six years. He also had shoulder surgery after the 2012 season and after the 2013 season.
Kemp just hasn't been the same player since that hot start in 2012.
His injuries have limited him to 126 games per year since then. His .274/.321/.469 batting line is solid, but it's far from what he did at his peak. His baserunning value has been basically zilch. His defense has gone from bad to worse.
Now that he's healthy, in great shape and back with Los Angeles, the 33-year-old may be on the verge of a comeback. The Dodgers have little to lose by giving him a shot, as the Padres and Atlanta Braves are helping to pay his salary.
And yet, this much will stay true: Whatever chance Kemp had of living up to his contract was over almost as soon as it began.