The Shaka Smart All-Stars

Note: Last lingering thought from the NCAA tournament, promise.

Last week, Virginia Commonwealth men’s basketball coach Shaka Smart signed an eight-year contract extension worth $1.2 million a year — nearly quadrupling his previous base salary. With apologies to the team’s impressive 55-21 record in Smart’s two years at VCU, Shaka got his money for one reason: the Rams’ incredible tourney run, from play-in afterthoughts who many said didn’t deserve to make it, all the way to the Final Four.

Smart might prove to be an elite coach who turns VCU into a perennial power. But breaking the bank for any sports commodity based largely on one flash of excellence can be risky. In baseball, we’ve seen many players ride a small sample of greatness — a stretch-run tear, monster playoff performance, even a single game or play — to big paydays.

While Smart’s contract will be evaluated over the course of the next few years, we’ve already seen the track record of baseball contracts earned through signature moments. It’s not pretty.

Aaron Rowand, Giants, 5 years, $60 million: Google Rowand’s name, and you’ll find a litany of photos showing his face-first run into the center field wall, his smashed-up face from the May 2006 incident, or both. Rowand was a good player before he got his deal with the Giants, and his career year in 2007 (.309/.374/.515, 5.6 WAR) certainly played a big role in securing that contract. Still, he’d also struggled with injuries and a bad-to-terrible batting eye (nearly four strikeouts for every one walk) for much of his career, and had passed his 30th birthday when the Giants came calling. The legend of Rowand as face-smasher willing to do whatever it took expedited Brian Sabean’s $60 million gift. The disappointment (an average of less than 1.5 WAR a year in the three seasons since) that ensued has been one of many black marks in a complex GM career that also includes plenty of high notes.

Gary Matthews Jr., Angels, 5 years, $50 million: Another center fielder, another contract-year spike (.367 wOBA in 2006 for Texas), another all-timer of a catch to seal the deal. In this case, Matthews got credit for jaw-dropping athleticism (and defense), not nose-busting grit.

The catch, a July 1, 2006, home-run theft that prompted congratulatory clapping from Houston victim Mike Lamb, saw Matthews, then playing for Texas, clamber up the wall in center.

Planting his right hand atop the wall for leverage, he launched himself to his left. The ball dropped into his outstretched glove as he whirled about in a 180-degree helicopter spin that sent him crashing back to Earth with an enthused trot.

Rangers radio announcer Eric Nadel called the catch the best he had ever seen in his 26 years with the organization.

FanGraphs’ Matt Klaassen wrote a retrspective/rebuttal in 2009 which argued that the Matthews contract wasn’t that bad. While Matt makes some cogent points, it’s tough to get past Matthews’ age at the time of the deal (32), and his limited track record of success. Even his supposed ace in the hole, that amazing defense, wasn’t a lock. While one-year defensive metric samples should be taken with a grain of salt, Matthews’ -1.9 UZR the year he made The Catch proved to be an accurate predictor of future disappointment.

David Bell, Phillies, 4 years, $17 million: On paper, this was a defensible contract. Bell almost certainly got an extra look from the Phillies due to his heroics in the 2002 playoffs with the Giants (.350/.458/.525 in the LCS and World Series). But he was also one of the league’s top defenders, owned decent power (67 total homers in the four years leading up to his new deal), and was a 3-win-plus player in each of the two years leading up to his four-year reward. The biggest problem in this case was one of circumstance. Signing the then-30-year-old Bell meant putting the career of megaprospect Chase Utley on hold, as incumbent third baseman Placido Polanco shifted to second. Granted, no one could have predicted a .208 BABIP-induced disaster of a first Philly season for Bell (multiple injuries and a .579 OPS). But the roster chain reaction proved to be lamentable: With Utley knocking on the door, the Phillies dealt Polanco for, as colleague Eric Seidman noted, “a half-season of a guy who set his gardener on fire that off-season.”

Darren Dreifort, Dodgers, 5 years, $55 million: He’s made every worst free agent list of the past decade, with skeptics pointing to his 39-45 record and 4.28 ERA (in a pitcher’s park) as puzzling motivation for the 29-year-old’s big contract. But Dreifort did have a Shaka-like run of his own. In the second half of his 2000 walk year, he went 8-2 with a 3.14 ERA and the best strikeout rate of his career (8.4 K per 9 IP). Sure, he was mediocre the rest of his career, issuing walks aplenty and serving as a punching bag for lefty hitters. But the Dodgers thought their homegrown, #2 overall pick had turned a corner, and paid him accordingly. Injuries proved to be Dreifort’s downfall, as he (in)famously won only nine games the rest of his career.


Adrian Beltre, Mariners, 5 years, $65 million: By now everyone knows about Beltre’s Gold Glove defense, as well as the general importance of examining park effects in evaluating a player’s performance. But Beltre’s five-year deal with Seattle is still perceived as a huge disappointment, and the classic example of overreacting to a career year — in this case Beltre’s 48-homer, .424 wOBA performance in 2004.

In fact, Beltre’s glove alone was worth about 5 wins during the life of that contract. Moreover, he owed much of his perceived failures as a hitter to Safeco Field’s vexing dimensions: It’s always been one of the toughest hitter’s parks in baseball, and also the single toughest park for a right-handed-hitting power hitter. WAR has Beltre producing 12 wins with his bat, making him worth 16.9 total wins (or $68 million, given players’ market value during that time) over his five years with the Mariners. Most metrics don’t account for factors such as a specific stadium’s impact on a specific hitter, though it’s not hard to imagine Beltre doing considerably better offensively, and thus being worth a fair bit more, literally anywhere else. On the other hand, that’s on Mariners management. Now armed with years of data, the Mariners’ new guard must now recognize the challenge of getting full offensive value from right-handed sluggers.

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Jonah Keri is the author of The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First -- now a National Bestseller! Follow Jonah on Twitter @JonahKeri, and check out his awesome podcast.

31 Responses to “The Shaka Smart All-Stars”

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  1. CircleChange11 says:

    Gary Mathews career went downhill when his name was listed on a client list of a corrupt “anti-aging” (PED dealer) doctor’s client list.

    That should not be under-represented. There was a good reason why his career and athleticism took a jump.

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    • AA says:

      Matthews’ athleticism didn’t “jump.” The guy is a natural born athlete. His only real problem was staying healthy and lacking his dad’s patience.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        I was also referring to the power difference (ISO) from 2004-2007, that is very different than the rest of his career. I include strength in “athleticism”.

        You can throw PED us into the recovery situation if you would like … I’d agree with that.

        Little Sarge hitting HRs (PEDs) is a major leaguer.

        Little Sarge without HRs (non-PEDs) is a minor leaguer.

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    • NBarnes says:

      Because nobody, before PEDs, ever had a few peak years well beyond the shape of the rest of their career. That Matthews Jr. shows such a career arc can be taken as effective evidence of PED use.

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  2. DD says:

    You say Polanco moved from second to third base. Bell was the guy playing third, Polanco went to second to block Utley.

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  3. rfs1962 says:

    I saw the Matthews catch live. It was just about as good as the subsequent contract was bad. I can’t recall a better defensive play — maybe the Jeter play, which was obviously more important. Those would be my top two.

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  4. Kevin says:

    I remember Opening Day in Philly that year. Polanco was booed in his first at bat of the season…because everyone already wanted Utley up on the team.

    Funny story…that wasn’t the first time I was at an Opening Day game in the Vet and a Phillie got booed in his first AB.

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    • B says:

      lol, some of my prime youth years were spent at opening day @ the vet booing players on both teams.

      I remember one year the schedule magnets littered the outfield after a blown call or just plain terrible pitching from the Phils.

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  5. drtrix says:

    You know what would be nice? If MLB media got its act together and had video on demand so Jonah could link a video to the GMJ or Rowand catches among other things.

    How many times has one of us had a memory of a MLB moment and wanted to see a short clip of it? Kevin Mitchell with the barehanded catch in Busch and such. MLB does a good job of restricting access on places like YouTube but does not in return offer any access of their own. I’m sure people would pay a monthly fee to have access to this material. MLB get on it!

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  6. david says:

    in defense of seattle, beltre was only 27 when they signed him, and it’s not as though LA is a hitter’s haven either. i understand why it was a notable omission. couldn’t the argument be made that his current contract qualifies? 1 career year in the NL, and 1 career year in the AL.

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    • AA says:

      Dodger Stadium (especially back then with all that foul ground) isn’t a hitter’s haven, but its not bad for actual home run numbers. The short porches make it an excellent place to be a line drive power hitter (see Green, Shawn, see also Sheffield, Gary). Beltre’s skill set matches it perfectly, and he combined that with a monster year to look even better.

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  7. J Rich says:

    How did Carlos Beltran’s insane post-trade deadline run and playoff performance with the Astros not make the list?

    He was due for a great payday anyway, but that tear he went on drove his price up millions in free agency the following year.

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    • Dylan says:

      Because unlike the guys on the list, his contract made sense given the rest of his career, and he didn’t disappoint. Just looking at the “Dollars” he was worth on his page, Beltran according to his WAR was worth about 16.8 million per year the 3 years prior to that contract. In the life of that contract, despite missing a half season in 2009 due to injury (a surprise for a 31-year-old who had no history of injury), then missing 2010, he’s earned back 105.4 million of his 119 million, and figures to make at least slightly more of it back for them this year. That was a logical contract that turned out to be pretty fair.

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  8. ECNq says:

    The sad thing is, that wasn’t the only really dumb trade in which the losing team got half a season of Ugueth Urbina in return. If half a season of Urbina wasn’t so tempting a prospect, Adrian Gonzalez might still be a Marlin today. (Or at least a very recent ex-Marlin.)

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  9. And... says:

    Jeff Suppan, 2006 NLCS MVP = $40 million over 4 years

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  10. NBarnes says:

    No Alfonso Soriano?

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  11. I know there’s a ton of other omissions, but I’d have to look at the Vernon Wells extension here–7 years, 126 million dollars for a player with two high quality years (4.9 WAR in 03, 6.7 WAR in 07) out of 5? Granted, Wells was younger than the other players on this list, and reaction to the contract was mixed even a few years later–but in hindsight I think we see what backloading a contract that large does to a franchise. That contract sunk what could have been a Tampa like run for the Jays.

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  12. B N says:

    I have to say, I don’t think the Bell signing was such a bad deal. I mean, they paid 17m for 4 years of work. That sounds pretty darn reasonable. What I really don’t get is why they traded away Polanco for basically nothing when he was already better than Bell.

    I mean… if you’re a team with a lot of good parts, close to contention… shouldn’t you trade away the worse guy? The Bell contract wasn’t great, but it wasn’t an albatross. If the Phillies pitched in a little cash, I think they could have certainly got something equivalent in value to half a season of Urbina AND gotten rid of Bell before the bottom truly fell out on him.

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  13. CircleChange11 says:

    You could throw Jeff Weaver in the same boat as Jeff Suppan in terms of Cardinal playoff performances leading to an overpay.

    IIRC, he had one good 6 IP start and SEA gave him 8M per.

    From the Brewers perspective with Suppan they were probably looking at it as a double bonus … adding Supp to their team and removing him from the Cardinals.

    Mark Mulder could receive honorable mention on this list… as could Carlos Lee, Richie Sexson

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  14. portablestanzas says:

    Shame on you for dragging Adrian Beltre’s name through the mud once more. stop recycling 2007’s yahoo sports articles that were no more true then, than now.

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    • gu03alum says:

      I don’t understand the hate for Beltre either. He put up decent hitting numbers for the stadium, played amazing defense and played through a ton of injuries. I miss him as a Mariner’s fan and selfishly wished that the rest of the GMs in baseball were as dumb as some fans in recognizing his value so the Mariners could have resigned him cheap.

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    • Bad Bill says:

      Did you actually read this article? The whole point of the Beltre part was that he does NOT belong on the Shaka Smart All-Stars, having had a pretty decent few years after signing the contract, and seeing his offensive numbers unrealistically depressed by the park. How is that dragging his name through the mud? I suggest a remedial English course to improve reading comprehension.

      Mulder, Lee, Sexson, etc., don’t really fit this team perfectly, because they were overpaid for at least a year, and in some cases more, of good performance, rather than a moment in the highlight reels. But does anyone know what implausible event caused Texas to inexplicably pay Chan Ho Park $14M/year for four years starting in 2003? It can’t have been his 2002 season, which was mediocre as a whole; was it some single thing in the highlight reels that I missed?

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  15. GoGiants says:

    The you fail to point out is the effect that a run like that has on recruiting. Potential recruits will see Smart and recognize him from that improbable run. It may be difficult to quantify and evaluate, but that difference in recruiting will undoubtedly be significant. Smart is the face of that run, and that alone will be huge in recruiting.

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  16. david says:

    what about dice-k? 2006 WBC and then a crazy contract.

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  17. Mike Bravard says:

    Considering some of the other Seattle signings, the Beltre deal was sheer genius!

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