Lee and LaRoche

With the off-season winding down and a need at first base, the Orioles targeted Derrek Lee and Adam LaRoche as the best options remaining in free agency. They ended up signing Lee because he was willing to accept a one year deal, while LaRoche was holding out for a multi-year contract. His demands are reportedly going to be met, as he’s rumored to be nearing a two-year deal to sign with the Washington Nationals.

The shakeout seems a little bit backward to me. LaRoche is an inferior player to Lee in just about every way, and yet he’s the one getting the multi-year contract. Let’s compare their skills, shall we?

Power? LaRoche has a career ISO of .216, boosted by his one big power year back in 2006. Lee also has a career ISO of .216, boosted by two big power spikes – one in 2005, and one in 2009.

Contact? LaRoche has a career 25 percent strikeout rate, and posted a career high 30.7 percent mark last year. Lee has a career 23.2 percent strikeout rate, and was just above that at 24.5 percent in 2010.

Patience? LaRoche has a 9.2 percent walk rate for his career, compared to 11.2 percent for Lee. LaRoche has had a double digit walk rate once in his career, while Lee has done better than that every year since 2001 with the exception of 2004, when his walk rate was 9.9 percent.

Defense? LaRoche has a career UZR of -15.9, while Lee is at +7.3. Don’t like UZR? Cubs fans gave Lee a 61 in the Fans Scouting Report, compared to the 52 that Arizona fans gave LaRoche.

Recent success? LaRoche had a .339 wOBA in 2009, compared to the .340 mark that Lee posted last year. If you go back one year, LaRoche did post a .357 wOBA, but Lee posted a .412 wOBA in 2009, blowing him out of the water. Lee was better in 2008, and in 2007… you get the idea.

The only number in LaRoche’s favor is date of birth. He is four years younger than Lee, so his slip in 2010 can be perceived as more of an off-year, while Lee’s slip is assumed to be age-related decline. It fits the narrative: guys get worse in their mid-30s, so we’re more apt to accept Lee’s regression as real, while looking back at LaRcohe’s 2006-2009 performance and thinking that he still has time to rebound.

The problem is that Lee is starting from a much higher tier, so even if he’s regressing, he still has a pretty long way to fall before he reaches Adam LaRoche levels of expected production. After all, Lee is a guy who put up +12.3 WAR from 2007-2009, more than LaRoche has accumulated in his entire career. We shouldn’t let one season where they were equally productive let us fall into the trap of believing that they are now on the same level.

If Lee is only worth a one year deal in this market, than LaRoche should be as well. I can’t see the justification giving the inferior player a longer deal, even if he is younger.

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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

29 Responses to “Lee and LaRoche”

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  1. DJ says:

    Solid analysis, but maybe it’s because LaRoche is a lefty! Nats need a lefty bat.

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  2. DonM says:

    Length of contract was the key in the whole deal. Lee didn’t really want to play in Baltimore, and accepted a one-year contract so he could prove he was the Derrek Lee of old, not the DL of 2010, and get a better deal next year. Or get traded to a contending team in late July. Laroche wanted a three-year contract, longer than the Orioles were willing to provide. He held out, knowing the Orioles needed a first baseman with power, but McPhail did not blink. A right-handed hitting first baseman is more what the Orioles needed. Now the Nationals are in the driver’s seat; Laroche is running out of options. I bet he’ll end up taking less than the Orioles offered.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      Laroche is running out of options. I bet he’ll end up taking less than the Orioles offered.

      I’ve seen this movie before.

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  3. Bobby A. says:

    What’s up with Leslie Anderson?

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  4. CircleChange11 says:

    If Lee is only worth a one year deal in this market, than LaRoche should be as well. I can’t see the justification giving the inferior player a longer deal, even if he is younger.

    Agree. Actually, I think there are a whole lot of “1-year contract players” in MLB.

    But, we’re talking about the team that gave Jayson Werth a “Matt Holliday Contract”. I don’t think anyone would say that Lee and LaRoche are comparable players. I think you are spot on with the age thing.

    The perception of Lee’s injuries and age are likely worse than his actual performance and age. I think injuring your neck sliding into second, and getting back spasms rounding first, probably make him sound more fragile than he really is.

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  5. DJ says:

    The Nats needed to overspend for Werth; it shouldn’t be that hard to understand that. And he had a been a pretty solid player the last couple years. I’d rather have him than Jason Bay.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      [1] I don’t see where the Nats needed to do anything before 2012.

      [2] I don’t see where the Nats needed to give him a “Matt Holiday Contract” when he’s (A) not as good and (B) older at the time the contract was given.

      “Need” implies that they did not really have a choice. Why did they need to sign him now, and why did they need to overspend.

      I’m open to changing my opinion.

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      • Will says:

        Your points are valid, but the Nats management envisions making a run in 2012, when Strasburg returns and potentially Harper will be playing, as well as the development of a few other young players like Derrek Norris, Jordan Zimmermann, Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa.

        That team has potential, but there’s a need for another power bat with the loss of Dunn and Willingham. So if they stood pat this year, they’d have to make a move next offseason. The only real power bats available then are Fielder, Pujols and A. Gonzalez. I’d assume that the Nats FO thought that overpaying Werth was probably better value, and most importantly, more realistic than signing one of those 3 firstbasemen.

        So, yes, they did overpay for Werth, who is inferior to Holliday. But the fact is Holliday wasn’t available this offseason, and so they signed the best bat they could, who will play an important role for the Nats over the next 5+ years.

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  6. Casadilla says:

    Nicely spoken.

    It’s nice to see the O’s didn’t overpay for LaRoche. Given your comparison it’s pretty clear who will likely be better in 2011 even in view of the risk involved.

    In general, it’s impressive to see how the O’s remade their infield in one offseason without compromising their future. I’m curious to see what this offense can produce.

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  7. Phillies Red says:

    Perhaps Lee is also looking to rebuild some value and sign one final 2-3 year contract at higher annual rates? Generally agree that Lee is the better bet on a two year contract.

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  8. MASNstinks says:

    The O’s made the right choice here. With the acquisitions of Reynolds and Hardy (RHB’s) added to their decent LHB returning players (Markakis, Roberts, Scott and Weiters), adding a righty bat at first was very important. And on the hook for only one year makes it even better.

    As for LaRoche getting a 2-year deal (or longer, shudder), for most other teams this wouldn’t happen. Ever. But since the Nats are basically the only other team that needs a starting 1B (and one that hits lefty!), they *HAVE* to at least give LaRoche 2 years. Otherwise, what alternatives do the Nats have in 2011? Start Mike Morse (RHB) and see if his power numbers from last season carry over to a full season? Sign Russell Branyan (L)? Nick Johnson (L)? If they stick with Morse at first, then they have a very right-handed leaning lineup. The Nats need a viable lefty in the middle of their lineup to break up the Zim, Werth, Desmond, etc lineup they’ve assembled …

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  9. DIVISION says:

    Lee is coming off injury and that is why his value is depressed and he had to settle for the one year deal.

    Teams are willing to make a small commitment for the proven commodity, even though LaRoche’s ceiling may not be as high as Lee’s.

    The odds of Lee not coming back from injury is the variable at play here.

    I thought this was common sense and the justification question is child’s play.

    Any time a player is coming off injury, they are more likely to get a one year (prove yourself) type deal.

    The difference between LaRoche and Lee is negligible, which is nullified by LaRoche’s age.

    Lee had much less bargaining power than LaRoche and that is reflected by the difference in terms.

    LaRoche will get a multi-year deal for about $10Mill.

    That’s what he wanted.

    That’s what he’ll get.

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    • Casadilla says:

      I question how much bargaining power LaRoche has at this point.
      What are his options outside the Nationals?

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      • DIVISION says:

        Just because the Nationals are the only REPORTED team in negotiation with LaRoche doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the only team he’s talking to.

        There’s probably one or two more who still have feelers out, otherwise I don’t see a reason for LaRoche to hold out.

        Even last year when LaRoche supposedly had no bargaining power, he had offers from Zona, San Fran and another mystery team before signing with the D-backs.

        I don’t see any reason for that not to be the case again this year.

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      • Casadilla says:

        Hm. I was just asking if there were other reports out there I missed. The Nationals were the only other team I had heard that were interested.

        I take it you haven’t heard of any others either?

        Of course, there could be a “mystery” team as you suggested.

        Guess we’ll see. If LaRoche gets 2+ years, then I think it’s fair to say that team has overpaid. No other 2-2.5 WAR 1B/DH has been able to pull in such a contract this offseason. And I’m not sure LaRoche is the one that deserves to break the mold.

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  10. Reuben says:

    I think Lee could have gotten a multiyear contract but wanted a one year contract to rebuild his value (pulling a Beltre as you state). LaRoche, who is playing at his value, has no desire to risk a one year contract in order to get a better contract next year. Lee is worth more than LaRoche, but he chose to set the market lower for himself than he had to.

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    • Luke in MN says:

      Nice point. We’re not used to thinking that a player might prefer a 1-year deal, but it makes perfect sense for someone like Lee (or like Beltre last year).

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    • DIVISION says:

      I half-agree that Lee wanted a one year deal, but that isn’t the entire reason he signed for one year.

      Who was offering a multi-year deal for Lee coming off injury?

      I don’t think the market was there for him like it is for LaRoche.

      Teams obviously didn’t see Lee as a huge upgrade over LaRoche, for various reasons.

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  11. DCN says:

    Could also be Lee wants to play for a winning team, in which case the fewer years he stays in Baltimore, the better.

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  12. Mike says:

    Lee is way better, but he’s also a huge injury risk. Perfect candidate for a 1 year deal.

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  13. notsellingjeans says:

    I may have missed an article on this recently, but if not, I would be grateful if one of the fangraphs authors could write an article addressing positional scarcity or lack thereof in this year’s free agent market, and how it is affecting the going rate for players at different positions.

    There is an abundance of first baseman and DHs, and not enough starting jobs for all of them.

    I think we’re seeing a few franchises – San Diego and Tampa Bay – recognize that the supply is greater than the demand at those spots and they are content to settle for bargain options. Meanwhile other franchises have pinpointed a specific 1b/DH that they absolutely wanted and aggressively attempted to sign that player.

    Conversely, there’s a scarcity of quality up-the-middle guys, and even corner OFs, perhaps even more than ever.

    I think this is worthy of a stand-alone fanpost, or hopefully at least some additional discussion within this Lee/LaRoche thread. Thank you for the insights guys.

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    • notsellingjeans says:

      My follow-up to that is, “Should positional scarcity affect the WAR values or the $4-5M cost per win on the free agent market?”

      Maybe shortstops and CFs should be valued at $5M per win, and 1b/DHs should only be valued at $2-3M, simply because know that there will be a few potential 2 WAR 1b/DHs that are left without a full-time job this offseason.

      That’s my hypothesis, I don’t have the skill level/knowledge to test it, would be grateful if someone else addressed it though.

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      • Dave says:

        Defensive value and positional adjustment is a part of the WAR equation.

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      • JRoth says:

        But the WAR equation is driven by onfield performance, not FA value – isn’t it? I thought the positional adjustments were driven by defensive/offensive value per position, independent of cash value on the market.

        WAR can be tied to actual wins generated in games or to average FA contract, but I don’t see how it can be correctly calibrated for both, because the two don’t align perfectly – as this year’s glut of 1B/DH (and near-absence of SS) indicates.

        Maybe I’m thinking about it wrong. But in a market where 3 teams are chasing 2 SS, SS WAR will be overpriced, completely independent of the adjustments that tell us that, every season, SS provide inherent value relative to a 1B.

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      • Atticus says:

        Yes, JRoth gets it, that was my point.

        I’d like for Dave or one of the other fangraphs authors to address that in a post if they get a chance. I asked Dave about in his chat today but he ignored or missed the question.

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  14. Michael says:

    Lee is coming off an injury, and like Pena he doesnt want one bad year to set the terms of his contract. Come on, was that difficult to figure out?

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  15. wobatus says:

    Laroche’s 2 year deal is $7 million this year and 8 next year, with a 1 million buyout. There’s little doubt in my mind Lee is better, but that isn’t a bad deal for laroche. The last 5 years, he’s earned 8.4, 11.5, 7.8, 10.3 and 9.6 million. There’s abeen a tad bit of salary inflation. So he is a pretty solid bet to out-earn this contract, you get morse to keep bashing lefties as a super sub (although he even mashed righties last year) and need not rely on marrero, who isn’t ready now if ever.

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  16. Jeff Wise says:

    If I were a free agent looking for a one year deal and my options were Baltimore or Washington…I guess I would choose Buck and Baltimore over Riggleman.

    Lee will do well with Buck as the skipper.

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