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.