- FanGraphs Baseball - http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs -

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?