The Great Bargain Of 2009

It’s official – not even Mark Ellis knows how valuable he is. Yesterday, he gave up free agency to re-sign with the A’s on a contract that guarantees him $11 million over two years. Not per year, total. $5.5 million per year, or basically the same contract that Octavio Dotel received last winter.

Now, Dotel’s a decent enough reliever, but Ellis is just so much more valuable than this. He’s the poster boy for just how undervalued defense is in today’s MLB economy. From 2006 to 2008, the Fielding Bible’s +/- system has ranked him at +13, +19, and +26 plays above an average defensive second baseman. He’s been one of the best defensive players at the position since getting to the big leagues, and his outstanding work with the glove has been one of the big reasons why the A’s have been so good at preventing runs from scoring while shuffling through no-name pitchers.

Going forward, we can project Ellis to be worth something like 15 runs above an average defensive second baseman. To contrast that with his offense, considering that most observers would say that he had a poor year with the bat (.233/.321/.373), he was worth about six runs less than a league average hitter this year. Even if we assumed that his offense wasn’t going to rebound at all (a bad assumption, given his underlying skills and .249 BABIP in 2008), his package of offense + defense are still worth about 10 runs above an average second baseman. With replacement level set at about two wins below average, and 10 runs equaling a win, it’s fair to say that Mark Ellis is about a +3 win player compared to replacement level.

Last year, there were a few +3 win position players who hit free agency. Torii Hunter got $90 million for five years, Aaron Rowand got $60 million for five years, and Mike Lowell gave the Red Sox a discount, signing for just $37.5 million over three years. The going rate for a +3 win position player was about $15 million per year, which is pretty much in line with the $5 million per win that we’ve seen teams pay in free agency.

Mark Ellis just signed for about $1.67 million per win. This is one of the best free agent bargains in the history of baseball. In an environment where Ellis’ skillset was properly valued and he had a desire to test the market, he should have gotten about three times what he signed for.




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


13 Responses to “The Great Bargain Of 2009”

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  1. Tom Au says:

    Mark Ellis is one of my favorite players in baseball today. A quiet but very disciplined individual. Not flashy with either style or results, but gets the job done in a workman-like way, with stats that show he’s more valuable than many more conspicuous players. At least he’s getting the recognition on this site that he deserves. Good post, David.

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  2. BK says:

    Damn. This was one of the two 2b I was hoping the Cardinals would pursue.

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  3. Bob Warja says:

    He sucked offensively last year. I know defense is important but for a .321 OBP to pay him any more would be ludacrious. Rowand is a 4th of’er, he was vastly overpaid last year.

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  4. philosofool says:

    Bob, I don’t think you’ve really understood Dave’s argument. Once we combine offense production (6 runs below replacement) with defensive production (15 runs above), Ellis nets the team 10 runs above an average second baseman. Replacement level (i.e. league minimum salary AAA guy you could have via rule 5 or whatever) is about 20 runs below average. That makes Ellis 30 runs or about 3 wins above replacement, which (when it’s all from offense) is worth about $12-15M a year in a five year contract. But Ellis particular skill set is terribly undervalued by today’s market, so Billy Beane (who knows what almost everything in baseball is worth) just got two years for Ellis for the price on one year of a guy who’s skillset is all about a bat. Have you noticed how much A’s pitchers seems to exceed their FIP this season? That’s because the A’s have several very good infielders on their team (and also partly their pitcher’s park home field.)

    I noticed that Rotoworld canned this move by Beane the other day. Immediately went to look at Ellis RZR at the THT. Sure enough: Ellis stands out as among the best defensive 2B’s alive by the (inferior but still helpful) RZR metric as well.

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  5. Isaac says:

    There is another point of this article that Bob missed. Beane isn’t paying Ellis for what he did this year, rather for what he will do the next two seasons. Ellis put up ugly surface stats, but when you look deeper you see that Ellis didn’t play that badly and his AVG/OBP would have been much higher if his hit rate wouldn’t have been so low. Even if he keeps up his current slash line he is valuable; Imagine how big of a bargain he will be when his numbers regress appropriately.

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  6. Joel says:

    Does anybody know a good resource for fielding stats?

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  7. salb918 says:

    Agreed, Dave, as I’ve been touting how much I love this signing all over the blogosphere.

    One nitpick, though: MaEl’s low BABIP last year may not be totally undeserved. He popped up at an alarming frequency (easily highest rate in the majors at 25%), and popups – though counted as BIPs – are turned into outs at basically 99%+ frequency.

    Now, all those popups could be fluke, or as one commenter at athleticsnation posited, it could have to do with the shoulder injury. Or it could be a change in skill (unlikely), who knows?

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  8. AZSEAfan says:

    Well there goes AZ’s plan “A” once O-Dawg runs for the hells.

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  9. Lukas says:

    Great post, I’ve been telling everyone what a smart signing this was after seeing those +/- defensive stats bear that out. Low risk signing as well as it’s only his age 32-33 and possibly 34th year.

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  10. Marcel says:

    Joel –

    Bill James Online has the Dewan +/- numbers (costs three bucks a month). And you can find RZR at TheHardballTimes.com. I don’t know where to find MGL’s numbers though (and I don’t think he’s done the year-end numbers yet, anyway.)

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  11. Jay says:

    Hey look – I’m all for Dave’s argument that Ellis’ past performance says he’s undervalued by the terms in his new contract, but that doesn’t account for the future suck that is destined to become Mark Ellis 2009/2010.

    He’s taking physical steps down, not up, and his range isn’t likely to improve. He’ll be less sharp defensively, even worse offensively, on a team that is stock full of 2nd-basemen and 2nd-basemen-to-be at every level of the minors.

    Now if Ellis gets dealt in some crazy package for a bounty of insurmountable assets, then this was a good sign of an undervalued resource, but if he just takes up a starting spot because his defense is undervalued, I’m not for it.

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  12. Dave Cameron says:

    The idea that Ellis is going to go from a +3 win player in 2008 to a “future suck” next year is… wrong is really the best word for it.

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  13. Lukas says:

    Dave, what would be a good source exactly of seeing +X win players, age, and the free agent deal they signed? It would be interested in seeing how much exactly Ellis would have to regress before this deal would actually be considered bad.

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