Last week, Nick Underhill of masslive.com shared an article with me (via Twitter) by Michael Felger of Comcast Sports Net New England. Within the piece, Felger shared his opinion that newly acquired LF Carl Crawford is not a $20M per season player.
“Carl Crawford‘s problem is simple, and it has nothing to do with this weekend and it’s not even his fault.
He’s not a $20 million player.
11. Crawford ($20.3 million, 2011-2017) Only $20 million hitter without a 20-homer season. Along with Mauer, who had 96 two years ago, only one on the list without a 100-RBI season (Crawford’s career high is 90). Career OPS of .780. The next-lowest player on the list, Mauer at .887, beats him by over 100 points. The others? ARod .959, Howard .944, Ramirez .997, Teixeira .914.
Simply put, there has never been a $20 million player like Crawford. Put another way, he doesn’t belong on the list.”
In the words of Cher Horowitz from the movie Clueless, “Whatever.” He doesn’t have a 20 home run season. So what? Does that really matter? He does have 18 and 19 home run seasons under his belt, which Felger conveniently fails to acknowledge. I guess those totals aren’t quite good enough to fit his agenda. Artificial boundaries are funny that way it seems.
My biggest problem with Felger’s assessment of Crawford’s value is two-fold: (1) he uses stats like home runs, RBI, and OPS to determine a player’s value and (2) his methodology to determine value is entirely subjective. While home runs and RBI are meaningful stats to an extent, they neither indicate value, nor were they originally intended to do so. They’re both counting stats that were specifically created to record events. That’s it.* OPS, a much more accurate measure of a player’s offensive abilities than the two previously mentioned statistics, is a crude rate measurement that’s rife with flaws. While a correlation between OPS and run creation is strong, it struggles to hold up to the smell test against superior metrics like wOBA and EqA. Furthermore, as a measure that solely measures run creation, it fails to measure the other important components of value like defense, base running, position, and durability.
* Hence my irritation when people claim that Roger Maris is the real single season home run record holder. No, he’s not. The record holder is Barry Bonds with 73. We can argue the validity of Bonds’s home runs for days on end (or the time it takes to get through four innings of a typical Dice-K start), but that still doesn’t change the fact Bonds exceeded Maris’s single season total by 12 home runs.
Before, I delve into Felger’s questionable and subjective methodology; let’s determine Crawford’s true talent value using Fangraphs’ Wins Above Replacement (WAR) method. Using his last three seasons as a performance baseline and giving each season (starting with the most recent) a weight of 5/4/3, I’ve determined his true talent level for 2011 to be around 5.4 WAR. While his talent level isn’t quite at the perennial MVP candidate level (~6 WAR), he’s awfully close. Considering his athleticism, speed, defensive abilities, considerable pop, and age; it’s understandable (at least on the surface) to see why a team might be interested in paying him $20M per season.
Crawford has been remarkably productive and durable throughout his career, which definitely plays in his favor going forward. Despite the fact he’s both young and still within his prime, we can’t assume he’s going to continue to produce at this level indefinitely. Furthermore, at some point he’ll likely fall prey to the nagging injuries (pulled hamstring, sore back, etc.) that plague most players once they cross into their 30s. As a result, he’ll be forced to take additional time off, which in turn, will cause his value to decline.
If we use the standard half win decrease per season aging curve (starting with his true talent level 5.4 WAR), we can expect Crawford to produce approximately 27.3 wins above the replacement level over the next seven seasons. Assuming a steady 5% increase in salary inflation over the next seven years, the value of those wins would be worth approximately $154.8M.
Clearly, this is only a projection. It’s possible that the average cost of a win on the free agent market could remain around $5M for the period covering Crawford’s contract. In the unlikely event that scenario actually came to fruition, his projected 27.3 WAR would translate to $136.5M in performance based value. While that value wouldn’t be optimal for the Red Sox considering his $142M salary, it’s still pretty solid. It’s virtually an even investment return.
Could his projected WAR fall below 27.3? Absolutely. Still, I think it’s a pretty safe bet he follows this general regression pattern. As I mentioned above, Carl Crawford has been incredibly durable and consistent throughout his career. In five out of the last seven seasons, he’s produced at least 4.0 WAR. Considering the manner in which players of a similar skill set have historically regressed, I think his projection is more than fair.
Now, let’s look at Felger’s methodology. In his piece, he gives us the skinny on the other ten players that received contracts that exceeded the average annual value of $20M per season. Let’s take them one by one.
“1. Roger Clemens ($28 million, 2007; $22 million, 2006)
One of the greatest pitchers in the history of the game. Seven Cy Young awards, the most ever.”
While nothing he said in his narrative is false, what Felger fails to mention is that Clemens was in his age-44 season; switched leagues; pitched only 212-1/3 innings; and provided only $20.6M combined during 2006-2007. Is he one of the greatest pitchers of all time? Yes. Was he worth the money he was paid? Not even close.
“2. Alex Rodriguez ($27.5 million, 2008-17; $25.2 million, 2001-10).
One of the greatest right-handed hitters in baseball history. On pace to become MLB’s all-time home run champ.”
I don’t have a problem with his initial contract. If you look at it objectively, it was a great contract for everyone—even the Rangers.*
* His contract didn’t bring down the Rangers. It’s really tough to win when 55% of your payroll (and 70% of your roster) is built with replacement level players. Look it up. The Rangers pitching staff was worth negative WAR from 2001-2003.
When he signed his second big contract during the winter of 2008, it seemed like a solid (albeit imperfect) deal for the Yankees at the time. Now? Not so much. The steroid use admission and torn hip labrum pretty much destroyed whatever regression expectation the Yankees had when they re-signed him. Oh, and if he passes Bonds for the all-time home run record, his total compensation balloons to $305M. Is there anyone that sees the second contract as a good idea–even at $20M per season?
“3. Ryan Howard ($25 million, 2012-16)
Howard’s HR/RBI totals from 2006-09: 58/149, 47/136, 48/146, 45/141.”
This contract hasn’t even started yet, and already every self-respecting baseball analyst knows this is a terrible contract. Considering his “old man” skill set, and considerable skill regression to date, it wouldn’t surprise me to see this contract end up among one of the ten worst of all time. Also, just for reference, Howard has exactly one season where he produced a WAR above 5.0 (2006). Crawford’s done it twice—in each of the last two seasons.
“4. Cliff Lee ($24 million, 2011-15).
Arguably the best left-handed pitcher in baseball. Has taken two teams to the World Series. Career postseason mark of 7-2 with a 2.13 ERA.”
No real issues here. I was advocating Lee earning $20M+ at my old site this past winter, so I can’t really quibble with his one. I do have age concerns, but he should still be able to provide enough value on the field to justify his contract. He’s produced at least $28M in performance based value in each of the past three seasons.
“5. Joe Mauer ($23 million, 2011-18).
Only catcher in major-league history to win three batting titles. League MVP in 2009.”
I love Mauer just as much as the next guy, and he’s certainly worth his salary right now. Still, does anyone like the idea of throwing $23M a season at him for his age-32 through age-35 seasons after the Twins move him to 1B or DH to save his body from breaking down too early? Probably not. In the short term, it looks like the right move for the Twins. Mauer’s produced at least $20M in value in four of his last five seasons.
“6. CC Sabathia ($23 million, 2008-13)
Four-time All-Star, 2007 Cy Young winner. Most consistent and durable left-handed pitcher in the game over the past decade.”
This is easily the best contract on this list. Hands down. He’s produced at least $20M in value in each of his last five seasons.
“7. Johan Santana ($22.9 million, 2008-13)
Four-time All-Star, two-time Cy Young winner.”
Was he worth it when he signed the contract? Yes, but he was hardly a sure thing. Santana was showing signs of either regression or injury a full year prior to being traded to the Mets. In 2006, Santana’s average fastball velocity was 93.1 MPH. In 2007? 91.7 MPH. A drop in velocity that dramatic rarely occurs unless there’s something physically wrong with the pitcher. To date, he’s been effective in New York, but hasn’t been anywhere close to the pitcher he was between 2003 and 2006. While he’s still a good pitcher, he’s neither an ace, nor worth $22.9M per season. Santana’s value exceeded $20M in a season four times in five years between 2004 and 2008. He’s provided $26.2M in combined value over the last two seasons.
“8. Manny Ramirez ($22.5 million, 2009-10; $20 million, 2001-08).
Twelve-time All-Star. 555 career home runs. Best right-handed hitter in baseball for a decade (1996-2006).”
The eight year $160M contract Manny signed during the 2000-2001 offseason is completely defensible because when he signed his deal, no one cared about defense and base running. I’m not justifying the move, but I am defending it based on the context of the time period. Considering what we now know about value, it’s hard to believe he’d get that kind of deal assuming the same circumstances today. Despite Manny’s offensive prowess, his defensive exploits negated much of his value. Overall, he produced $120M in value despite getting paid $160M. When you look at it this way, it’s hard to consider the contract to be a bonifide success. Manny only produced one season where his performance value exceeded $20M ($28.9M in 2009).
9. Mark Teixeira ($22.5 million, 2009-16)
Averaged 37 homers and 121 RBI over his first nine years in the majors.
Despite his numbers being down across the board last season, I’ve projected him to return to form this season. I don’t see any reason why Teixeira and the Yankees won’t break even (or at least come close) on this contract.
10. Roy Halladay ($20 million, 2011-13)
Arguably the best right-handed pitcher in baseball over the past decade. Seven-time All-Star, two-time Cy Young winner.
Three years at $20M a pop for Halladay? Yeah, it’s for his age-34 to age-36 seasons, but the guy has been a 6-7 WAR pitcher for a decade. Unless he gets hurt or suffers from Steve Blass disease, I’d bet my life savings on him producing $60M over the next three seasons. Halladay’s value exceeded $20M in a season in seven out of the previous nine seasons.
Looking at it objectively, it’s pretty clear that a few of the contracts/player Felger names to justify his opinion ended up being pretty poor. The consecutive one year deals Roger Clemens signed? Terrible. A-Rod’s second contract? Awful. Ryan Howard? Let’s put it this way. If there’s one contract I’m willing to guarantee becoming an albatross, it’s that one. Manny? Santana? Those contracts didn’t/haven’t worked out quite as planned either–at least in terms of marginal value. Crawford, at the very least, projects to be worthy of his contract.
Sometimes, things aren’t always as they appear. To quote Clueless again, Carl Crawford is a “Full on Monet…From far away, it’s OK, but up close, it’s a big old mess.” That’s how Felger views Crawford. Up close, all he sees are the home runs, RBI, and OPS. It’s unimpressive. If he’d only take the time to step back a couple of paces, he’d see the real Crawford—an incredibly talented, versatile baseball player who resides among the game’s elite.
Again, a special thanks to Nick Underhill of masslive.com for sharing the article.