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Another Way of Explaining Mike Trout’s $50 Million Valuation

Mike Trout is reportedly close to signing a long term deal with the Angels that will value the free agent years he’s giving up at around $30 to $35 million apiece. At the time he signs the deal, he’ll almost lock in the largest single season salary ever guaranteed to a Major League player, topping the $33 million that Clayton Kershaw will earn in the last year of his freshly minted extension. And even with that, he’s still going to be drastically underpaid.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had a few conversations with folks where I’ve unsuccessfully tried to explain why Trout is worth something between $40 to $50 million per year for his free agent years. In a time where even the best free agents are signing for half of that, it’s a tough sell, and I’ve realized that most people just generally don’t believe that Trout is twice as valuable as other star players.

So, this post is an effort to help illustrate the dramatic gulf between Trout’s value and the kinds of players that are signing for $20 to $25 million per year. I’m going to try to make the math as non-scary as possible, and avoid using fancy acronyms or models that rely on black box data. We’re just going to deal with the basics.

Thanks to Jacoby Ellsbury and Shin-Soo Choo, we have a pretty good sense of what premium free agent outfielders cost this winter. Between the two of them, the Yankees and Rangers will pay an average of $40 million per year for the next seven years. Is it really possible that Trout and some random scrub is more valuable than having the two best free agent outfielders from the 2013 free agent class?

Well, just for fun, let’s do a comparison of their performances from last year, combining the two free agent outfielders into a tandem we’ll call Jacoby Choo. The difference between Trout’s individual line and their combined line produces the numbers that Random Trout Teammate would need to produce for that pair to be equivalent to owning both Ellsbury and Choo instead.

Mike Trout 157 589 716 190 115 39 9 27 110 136 9 33 7
Jacoby Choo 288 1146 1348 334 229 65 10 30 159 225 31 72 15
Difference 131 557 632 144 114 26 1 3 49 89 22 39 8

To make Trout’s 2013 line match up with the combined line of Jacoby Choo, Random Trout Teammate would have to play fairly regularly, rack up some doubles, draw some walks, get hit by a bunch of pitches, and steal a lot of bases. He wouldn’t have to hit for any power, and since Trout and Ellsbury come pretty close to canceling each other out on defense in center field, he’d just have to manage to be about as good in a corner spot as Choo is, which is nothing special. Basically, he needs to be an average corner defensive OF with some speed, but no power.

He needs to be Eric Young Jr. Seriously, look at Young’s 2013 line compared with the gap between Mike Trout and Jacoby Choo.

Difference 131 557 632 144 114 26 1 3 49 89 22 39 8
Eric Young 148 539 598 134 98 27 7 2 46 100 2 46 11

There’s 20 missing HBPs, but there’s also 16 fewer singles and six extra triples, and the differences mostly come out in the wash. 2013 Eric Young is almost an exact match for what Random Trout Teammate would have needed to do to make Trout’s pair equal the combination of Jacoby Choo. In other words, in terms of performance, you wouldn’t have a huge preference between having last year’s versions of Trout and Young or Choo and Ellsbury.

Last summer, the Rockies traded Young to the Mets for Colin McHugh, a replacement level minor league arm. Young wasn’t free, but he was pretty close to it. He played better in New York, so his stock has probably gone up some, but I think it’s fair to say that Young’s market value is in the low single millions. As a free agent, maybe he’d cost a few million, and land a similar deal to the ones signed by guys like Willie Bloomquist, Skip Schumaker, and Emilio Bonifacio this winter.

Just for sake of argument, let’s give Random Trout Teammate $3 million for the above line. That leaves $37 million per year for Trout, right? Pretty close to what the reports suggest he’s going to get for his free agent years from the Angels, so maybe this is all proof that the $50 million figure that $/WAR comes up with is total bunk, no?

No, because there’s one more thing we have to keep in mind: Ellsbury and Choo are getting $40 million per year for their age 30-36 and 31-37 seasons, where significant decline is expected. The Yankees and Rangers have locked themselves into a $20 million per year valuation for each player despite knowing that neither is going to continue to be as good as they were in 2013. They’re almost certain to get worse simply due to the effects of age. Trout is 22. While he has to be expected to decline a bit just because there is far more downside than upside when you’re a +10 WAR player, the rate of decline is much slower for a great young player than it is for a good old player.

In other words, Trout should be able to retain a good chunk of his value for the next seven years, while by the end of their current deals, Ellsbury and Choo will probably be somewhat close to worthless. The Yankees and Rangers knew this, but were willing to guarantee them $20 million per year for those worthless years because they believe that they’re worth more than $40 million per year in the short term. They’re getting a discount on the value of their current performance in exchange for paying for years where there won’t be much value coming back in return.

These deals for Ellsbury and Choo essentially value their combined value at somewhere in the range of $50 million for 2014, and hope that they’ll play at that kind of level long enough to make up for the fact that they’ll be getting money for nothing at the end of the contract. Since Trout would not be expected to be a nothing player at the end, his free market value wouldn’t have to reflect that kind of significant decline, and thus, his long term AAV would be even higher than the one commanded by guys in their 30s.

Now, of course, Trout isn’t a free agent, and he doesn’t get to sign a deal that pays him market value for the next seven years. But the recent trend of extensions shows that players are getting something very close to current market value for the free agent years they sell in advance, essentially exchanging their injury/collapse risk for the team’s risk of future inflation. If Trout’s really planning on signing away three or four free agent years for between $30 and $35 million apiece, the Angels are getting a huge steal, because Trout actually is, by himself, as valuable as two premium free agents. You are as well off with Trout and Random Trout Teammate as you are with Choo and Ellsbury.

Certainly, there’s additional risk with tying up your value in one player, as having an +8 WAR player instead of two +4 WAR players means that one injury can do more damage to your team’s chances of success. However, there’s also a decreased chance of injury, since it’s less likely that Trout will get hurt than that either Choo or Ellsbury will get hurt, and there are the roster benefits that go along with consolidating value into one player instead of requiring two roster spots to get the same total production.

I’ve spent a lot of time arguing that having one superstar isn’t clearly better than having two good players of equal value to the one star, but at the same time, it isn’t clearly worse either. The point is to accumulate value, and if you can +8 WAR in an +8/+0 package versus a +4/+4 package, you shouldn’t pay dramatically more for either one. +8/+0 should cost something fairly similar to +4/+4, and the market is pricing +4 WAR free agents at between $20 and $25 million per year for their decline years.

I know it’s not easy to accept, but Mike Trout is worth more than Ellsbury and Choo combined. And the market clearly is pricing that kind of combination in the $40+ million range. If Trout takes anything less than $40+ million for his free agent years, he’s giving the Angels a real discount.