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.


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Matt S
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Matt S

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?

Joe R
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Joe R

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.

MBD
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MBD

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.

Greg Foley
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Greg Foley

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.

Joe R
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Joe R

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.

Joe R
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Joe R

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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