Gary Matthews Jr. is Available! A Contract Retrospective

In the snarky corners of the baseball blogosphere, regions of which I am occasionally (ahem) guilty of inhabiting, nothing says “gift that keeps on giving” like a terrible contract. That’s why the news that Gary Matthews, Jr. is available (the Angels are apparently emboldened by the Dodgers’ trade of fellow 2006-07 crazy-contract recipient Juan Pierre) brought such a smile to my face. I can hear the boardroom conversations now:

Really? The Angels are willing to listen to suitors for “Little Sarge?” The Gary Matthews, Jr.? Hey, before we call, we should call the Blue Jays about Vernon Wells! I wonder if Dayton will finally talk about Jose Guillen? With those three guys, we’ll totally make the 2006 playoffs! Seriously, Gary Freaking Matthews? Hold my calls, Marty, I gotta ring up Reagins ASAP before Jack Z. gets to him!

Snark aside, it’s easy to criticize a bad contract after the fact, but it’s worth looking back into the situation in which it was originally signed. Hence my award-winning Contract Retrospectives (that no one read), an occasional series that I hope to revive. By trying to reconstruct whether or not the team doing the signing had a good “process” at the time or not, perhaps we can also learn what sort of mistakes they did (or didn’t) make.

Matthews signed with the Angels during the 2006-2007 offseason for five years and $50 million to much derision, with many attributing the contract to a memorable catch by then-Ranger Matthews. In terms of Wins Above Replacement, what were the Angels paying for? Back then, a win above replacement was going for about four million dollars on the open market, with about ten percent inflation each season. Assuming a generic half-win-a-year decline curve, a five-year, $50 million contract implies that Matthews would be 3-3.5 WAR in his first season, let’s call it 3.3 WAR. Was that totally unreasonable of the Angels? For this kind of retropective projection (or “retrojection”) I try to stick with the simplest sort of projection possible, using weighting, regression, and slight adjustments of basic stats.

Offensively, from 2003-06, Matthews had wOBAs of .298, .347, .329, and .367 respectively. That “retrojects” to .338 for 2007, about 3.6 runs above average per 700 plate appearances (assuming 2006′s run environment). Defensively, Matthews was good, with +6.6, +21.3, +18.7, and +1 UZR/150s in the outfield. Regressing and adjusting, he retrojects as a +5 position-neutral defender. (+3.6 offense + 5 fielding + 25 AL replacement level) times 85% playing time = about a 2.8 WAR player.

Yes, the Angels overpaid, but it may be surprising to some that they “only” overpaid by half-a-win per season. Given that my deliberately crude projections don’t take parks into account offensively, 2.8 may be a bit high given the Rangers’ bandbox. Still, given Matthews’ WAR performances from 2007 through 2009 (0.5, -0.8, -0.8), this may seem wildly optimistic, but that’s exactly the kind of unfair 20/20 hindsight I’m trying to avoid. Look at Matthews’ WAR totals from 2004-2006: 2.1 (in limited playing time), 3.2, and 4.2. It was a poor contract, but not as crazy as it now appears. Given his performances from 2004-2006, one certainly would not have predicted (at least from statistics alone) that Matthews would become a replacement-level scrub almost immediately.

The longer a contract is, the more a half-win mistake can burn a team, by making a bad contract that much more unmovable, especially a longer contract (hence the “discount” teams should try and get on longer contracts in particular). It can burn a team so badly that they’ll make even a stud like Gary Matthews Jr. available to the highest bidder. Brian, Ned, Omar, Dayton, Jim, Ed… anyone?




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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.


43 Responses to “Gary Matthews Jr. is Available! A Contract Retrospective”

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  1. Matt S says:

    I like this bit of analysis. GM Jr. had one big year in Texas and got a big contract out of it, nothing too surprising really. The Angels bet that he was on his way up, while in fact he was very lucky and played a bit above his head as well. I think the truly surprising thing from the LAA of A perspective is the decline in his fielding. Before 2007 Matthews looked like a very good fielder, both in terms of UZR and by eye. Now he is well below replacement in CF and overall completely average. What did they miss? And what does this say about the prospect of projecting future defense from past UZR?

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    • Joe R says:

      I feel like signing guys based on fielding, whether perceived or not, is always risky. Fielding ability is not like wine, it doesn’t age well.

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      • MBD says:

        But I believe you are a fan of Cameron’s deal with the Red Sox, as am I. Is that because of the great price and length, his longer track record, his steady offense, or something else? I’m just interested in your thoughts.

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      • Greg Foley says:

        Also, when a large portion of a player’s value is based on his fielding skills, his end-of-season WAR totals are subject to the oscillations of his UZR totals even when the UZR variation is not related to age or decline in athletic ability. See Jacoby Ellsbury’s 2009 season. Like Joe says, paying for future defensive ability is risky.

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      • Joe R says:

        Longer track record, really. Haven’t seen the performance spikes of GM2 in Cameron, not to mention he’s always been a steady offensive contributor (Cameron’s constantly in the 110′s in wRC+, Matthews Jr was constantly in the 90′s outside of his one monster year), and of course 2 year / $15.5 million is a far cry from 5 year / $50 million.

        Essentially, even if Cameron’s defense goes away, I still think the Red Sox get fair value out of him. The Angels paid based on the expectation that Matthews’ defense would not decline. Not stupid, mind you, but risky.

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      • Joe R says:

        I’ll say that better.

        I just think the Red Sox got a good deal on Cameron. They pretty much paid for his bat, so whatever he does with the glove is a bonus.

        Angels paid for everything. And considering he was averaging about 3.8 WAR / 600 PA the past 2 seasons before it, it probably wasn’t all that nutso. But $50 mil over 5 years for a guy who projects to be a 2.5-3 WAR player is pretty risky. Especially when year one on the contract for that guy is when he’s turning 33 that August.

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  2. Steve says:

    in cases like this, i think the most interesting piece of information would be to know what was the second highest bid.

    i’d be shocked if any other team went to 5 years or within $10M of this whopper.

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    • Bhaakon says:

      Prepare to be surprised, because the Giants supposedly matched the Angel’s offer. Actually, you probably shouldn’t be surprised about it, since the Giants supposedly also nearly matched the Dodger’s offer for Juan Pierre, and topped the Astro’s offer on Carlos Lee before finally hitching their wagon to Barry Zito. Evidence: http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/news/story?id=2672448

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  3. Awz says:

    I think Matthews might have been okay, if the Angels didn’t sign Torii Hunter the next off season. I’m not sure, but I think more regular playing time would have kept him happy and productive.

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  4. Danya says:

    I still wonder how Sabean somehow managed to NOT be the one to grossly overpay him.

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  5. rwperu34 says:

    Maybe in the next installment of this series you could look back at the Pierzynski/Nathan/Liriano trade?

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    • Maybe… I generally go for FA contracts because it’s straightforward and I only have to deal with one player, which is easier when I’m trying to stay at 500 words. Also, that one is so OBVIOUSLY insane that it isn’t all that interesting. Stuff like Matthews, Wells, and Hafner are interesting because while they’re obviously bad now, they aren’t nearly as silly when I go back and look at their numbers. All of them “only” miss by about half a win. The SF/MIN one is just insane from every perspective.

      Still, thanks, it’s worth thinking about… without looking at the numbers, I wonder if it would have been fair even just for Boof?

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  6. odbsol says:

    No reference to steroids? It wouldn’t be a complete discussion without bringing it up. Keep in mind that after the contract, Matthews name came out in the steroid mix. So his not playing much in Anaheim might have had something to do with not wanting to showcase a lapse in judgement by management – a constant reminder of due diligence and not paying for a career year (which the Cubs followed suit with another helium Ranger in Bradley).

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    • Steve says:

      no, his not playing is because he sucks. no team would ever bench a productive player for reasons like this. it’s not like the 2002 Angels weren’t riddled with juicers. i don’t think the organization tries to downplay that season.

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  7. Big Oil says:

    I had a horrible dream a few nights ago the Nationals traded for Matthews. For a second before actually reading the article, I thought it had happened.

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  8. Greg Foley says:

    The one lapse in judgment that the author fails to mention is that the Angels should have considered Matthew’s place on the aging curve. He had trouble breaking into the big leagues as he didn’t play his first full season until he was 26 and was only average until he had a couple good years in Arlington’s band box in his late peak age 30 and 31 seasons with the Rangers. He was 32 when he started his Angels career. Players who have their best year in their age 31 season are generally destined to decline and should not be paid like stars through their age 36 seasons, especially if they have had only one star level season up to that point.

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    • That may be true, but my projection is deliberately simplisitic so as to give the clubs as much benefit of the doubt as possible. However, there are adjustments built into it such that the older the player is, the steeper the decline is. Also, the 0.5 WAR-a-year decline built into the contract expectation is a generic curve taken from Tango that seems to work pretty well.

      I’m not saying this is an adequate response to your concerns, just letting you know why and how I do things the way I do them. Thanks for the comment.

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      • Greg Foley says:

        Thanks for responding to my comment. The methodology behind your devilish projection seems sound but my quibble is that you didn’t discuss the certainty of the projection. Some player’s projections are more reliable than others. For example, we all knew what Adam Dunn was going to do this year, but Milton Bradley’s late peak performance spike threw us off. Would he revert to his established level? Would he continue to be one of the best hitters in baseball? Something in between? A projection system would give an answer, but nobody would really be too confident in it. The same goes for Matthews. He briefly established a high level of play in his late peak years and the Angels payed him like it was going to continue without taking into account the risk inherent in his projection due to his previous years of mediocre production. That was the flaw in their process.

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      • I see what you’re saying, Greg, and I guess it’s a minor difference between us, but I’m not sure that it makes that much of a difference relative to, say, maybe the point you and others make about defense above. Some players to “peak” later than others, and Matthews had, in fact, seen a lot of playing time from 2005-2006, averaging more than 500 PAs a season, with most of those in 2005 and 2006. Over that period, he had a .349 wOBA. I’m away from my own computer at the moment, but for offense, at least, if you look at his Marcels projection for 2007, the reliability rating (which measures how much of the projection is based on the players stats and how much is regression to the mean) is .82, which right there with guys like Jason Bay, Adam Dunn, Troy Glaus, etc.

        Now, that doesn’t necessarily answer your point about age, and I suppose it is a small difference between us. We both agree they significantly overpaid, we disagree over how much they needed to go beyond something like Marcels generic aging curves in order to see his likely value.

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  9. CaseStreet says:

    Looks like Omar was the one who answered the phone.

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    • Joe R says:

      Notable line from this:

      Report: Mets acquire Matthews Jr. from Angels

      New York, NY (Sports Network) – The New York Mets have apparently acquired outfielder Gary Matthews Jr. from the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

      An American League source told SI.com that the Angels will be paying a good portion of the $23 million remaining on the five-year, $50 million deal Matthews signed prior to the start of the 2007 season.

      Matthews, one of the best defensive players in the game, appeared in 103 games last season for the Halos and hit .250 with four home runs and 50 RBI.

      This will be Matthews’ second stint with the Mets, as he appeared with them briefly in 2002. Of course, he fills a void in center field for the Mets with Carlos Beltran likely to miss at least the first month of the season recovering from knee surgery.

      The switch-hitting Matthews is a .258 lifetime hitter with 108 home runs and 483 RBI in 1,245 games for the San Diego Padres, Chicago Cubs, Pittsburgh Pirates, Baltimore Orioles, Mets, Texas Rangers and Angels.

      Matthews’ best season came in 2006 when he was an All-Star and set career highs by hitting .313 with 19 home runs and 79 RBI for the Rangers. It was after that breakout season that he joined the Angels. Shortly after signing the deal he was part of a human growth hormone controversy and later admitted to taking the performance enhancing drug.

      *blink*

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      • CaseStreet says:

        Gotta love The Sports Network

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      • Joe R says:

        Mets have to be optimistic about something; this is crazyballs outside of a straight dump of money and player to NYM.

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      • JayCee says:

        Last time I laughed so hard on this topic was right before the RS signed Mike Cameron, when the Boston scribes all chimed Jacoby Ellsbury was an “above average” defensive centerfielder. I’m not sure I ever came up with a worse starter, let alone 15 of them.

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      • Joe R says:

        An above-average? They were hailing him as a GG-caliber demigod in CF.

        When the Red Sox decided to move Cameron to CF, a lot of RSN said “wait, what, really? Ellsbury isn’t a great defender?”

        (I always get accused of harping too much on Ellsbury’s SSS 2009 UZR, but visually, he struggles with his reads. He helps the team much more in LF).

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    • JayCee says:

      Regarding Joe R’s link there, I can honestly say I am speechless. And, it takes a lot to get me to shut up.

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      • Joe R says:

        Look at some of these awesome points:

        Stat geeks will tell you that those magnificent diving catches are the result of Ellsbury’s speed making up for his bad read of the ball off the bat. That’s all well and good, but chances are, if the ball ends up ensnared in Ellsbury’s glove, the Red Sox are happy.

        I bet Jim Riggleman is happy when Adam Dunn catches the ball, too. This means nothing.

        Terry Francona probably sleeps a little easier knowing he’s got such solid defense in center, and Red Sox pitchers likely don’t mind knowing that no bloop will fall in shallow center and no blasts will hit the dirt in the triangle.

        No bloop? Remember Game 3, inning 9, ALDS? No? Moving on…

        Yet according to FanGraphs, Ellsbury’s ultimate zone rating was -18.6 in 2009 — good for dead last among center fielders. Only Toronto’s Vernon Wells had nearly as low a rating (-18.2), and only two other players (Colorado’s Dexter Fowler and the Cubs’ Kosuke Fukudome) were in the negative double-digits.

        But for anyone who wants to live and die by the defensive statistics, then what is there to say about Ellsbury’s 2008 statistics? In 2008, Ellsbury’s UZR was a cool 16.5. Yes, on the other side of zero. So if the stats are to be believed, Ellsbury spent the 2008 offseason eating Cheetos and working on deadening his reaction skills. His jump was just too good — nearly dangerous — for his own good, so he must have wanted to get much, much worse. You know, for safety’s sake.

        Or, he switched to a tougher position and didn’t pan out as well. But who needs facts when making points?

        Jacoby Ellsbury is simply a solid defensive player. The argument that he is subpar brings to mind Mike Lowell’s assessment of scouts and reporters who said that his bat speed slowed tremendously in 2005. In his autobiography, he wondered where exactly those scouts kept their bat speedometers and how exactly those things worked.

        In the case of Lowell, the scouts and pundits were dead wrong. In the case of Ellsbury, so too are the stats.

        Okay, so take one skill from a different guy, say that the scouts and eyeballs were wrong, and then ascribe a totally new villain to a totally different skill to a totally different guy. My 4th grade English teacher called me a bad writer. She was wrong, therefore when Billy Bob tried to argue 2+2 = 5 in his junior college math class, he argued it so excellently and the stats don’t matter.

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    • stolenbases says:

      Wow. I thought this was some type of early April Fool’s Day joke when I read that the Mets actually gave up something for GMJR. Unbelievable.

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      • SteveM says:

        And Omar takes the lead in The Contest.

        Not only does he acquire a useless, aging player with deteriorating skills and a bad attitude, but he actually gave away a serviceable player in the process. Was Cory Sullivan not a better option than GMJ, regardless of salary??? Of course he is…

        Well played, Omar. Well played indeed.

        Dayton???

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  10. JayCee says:

    Joe R-

    I have nothing personal against Ellsbury or the RS, but watching Ellsbury play CF is excruciatingly painful. He has no inistinctive ability to track a ball off the bat. Brutal.

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    • Joe R says:

      Agreed. I think there’s still time to teach it, though.

      But watching him this season, it was just a death by 10,000 paper cuts routine. His instincts stink, so he plays deep to prevent the gapper as a result. Of course, because of that, anything that was flaired into the outfield turned into a single.

      In the now infamous BS in Game 3 of the ALDS, you may remember where that ball landed. Center field, in front of Ellsbury. Of course using one play to crucify a guy (especially when the pitcher was giving up base runners to begin with) is http://www.retarded.com, but in a microcosm of the season fashion, it was almost appropriate. Ellsbury made spectacular speed plays, but those 50/50 balls never became outs on his watch.

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      • Joe R says:

        I definitely didn’t mean to make a link there.

        I’d click it now to see exactly what I linked up, but last thing I need is it turning into a shock-image site for all of my office to enjoy.

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  11. JayCee says:

    OK, I’ll bury this here.

    Details are out: For Brian Stokes, the Mets get 2 years of GMJR for a total of $2 million.

    The Rangers were going to trade Max Ramirez for one year of Mike Lowell for $3 million.

    Because of the tides, the Rangers’ moves are jocked in here while Minaya is ridiculed. Maybe in general, yes, but this acquisition by the Mets is far superior to the one the Rangers planned.

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    • Joe R says:

      Is it? Even if Lowell regresses to 0.7 WAR in 2010, that’s not far off fair market value for $3MM. GM2 has been negative value.

      btw, got some more, it was so bad I had to comment:
      http://www.lowellsun.com/baseball/ci_14160928?source=rss

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      • JayCee says:

        fantastic comment. just fantastic.

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      • JayCee says:

        Your hyperlink a few threads above above is a simply perfect embodiment of the lack of numeracy in the popular press. I wish Rob Neyer was made aware of that article, to eviscerate it on a bigger stage.

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      • joser says:

        Oh Em Gee. Double-you Tea Eff.

        This isn’t going to be news to anybody here, but have a look at the team pitching BABIP (sort on it — I wish the sort column was captured in links). Some of that is going to be the monster, but still.

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      • Joe R says:

        2007: 3rd in BABIP against, 7th in UZR
        2008: 6th in BABIP against, 4th in UZR
        2009: Last in BABIP against, 16th in UZR

        BTW, using 2008 data, the linear r-squared (simple regression) of BABIP-against to UZR is 56.33%. It breaks down a bit using 2009 data (45.23%), but still, BABIP-against is a rough measure of how well a team turns balls into outs, so UZR correlating well with it shows UZR = not worthless.

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      • JayCee says:

        Shouldn’t errors be included? It’s my understanding BABIP against does not penalize the team for errors. Ideally, when using BABIP against, an error would be considered a hit, IMO.

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      • Joe R says:

        True, but I felt like a lazy analysis.

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