Why First Basemen Get Paid So Much

First basemen and outfielders seem pretty overpaid if we look at their salaries and their WAR. At the same time, catchers and the three other infield positions seem pretty underpaid. As I showed in February, second basemen were only paid about $3 million per WAR from 2007 to 2011; first basemen were paid exactly twice that much. I think I might know why.

Claims that some positions are relative bargains using $/WAR hinge on “positional adjustments” — estimates of how much more valuable equivalent production is from different positions — using what hypothetical defensive performance would be if you moved players between positions. Last month, I looked into how much credit general managers seem to give performance at different positions, and how offensive performance varied across those positions. My logic was that, if the average first baseman produces only a few more runs per season than the average second baseman, then it may explain why general managers pay so much more for power-hitting first basemen.

In that story, I produced the following table:

Table 3—Average FanGraphs adjustment based on defense, average general managers’ adjustment with free agents and average differences in offensive performance at each position

Position FanGraphs Adjustment General Managers Adjustment Offensive Adjustment
C 12.5 8.5 11.3
1B -12.5 -7.9 -9.6
2B 2.5 -8.8 0.6
3B 2.5 -6.9 0.3
SS 7.5 -1.5 5.8
LF -7.5 0.4 -4.9
CF 2.5 7.2 -2.2
RF -7.5 -3.6 -8.2
DH -17.5 -9.0 -2.2

Offensive performance was usually pretty close to the positional adjustment, which is evidence that GMs weren’t valuing positional adjustments correctly. Of course, the average offensive performance at each position is not the perfect metric to use. The real question is not the difference in average performance, but the difference in replacement-level performance.

Let’s say you’re a general manager and the free-agent market is wrapping up, but you still need a first baseman and a second baseman. Your owner tells you that you have $10 million left to spend, and fortunately there is a first baseman on the market who you expect to have a .330 wOBA and a second baseman who you also expect to have a .330 wOBA. If you sign the first baseman, you have a few minor-league veterans who are prepared to take over at second base, and there are also a few more minor-league veterans who are prepared to play at first, if they’re needed. If you ask WAR, it will say to go with the .330 wOBA from the 2B, since he plays the harder position. But a general manaher must determine how much pop they will get from the replacement-level players.

But who are these replacement-level players we keep talking about? To know what replacement-level is, we need to know who is a replacement-level player. The standard sabermetric definition is “a freely available talent who could fill into a player’s role at little cost.” You can’t use salary to define “at little cost,” unless you limit yourself to players with service times close to or exceeding three years, since most young players get paid little but are not easily available and won’t come cheap. On other words, “cost” can’t just mean salary. Using playing time to find back-ups and looking at their performances is tricky too, since players who get lucky and play over their heads are going to get more at-bats in case they can keep it up. On the other hand, using future-performance projections to eliminate that concern only makes it harder. After all, projections for fringe players are based on “Minor League Equivalencies,” which are the performances only for minor-leaguers who were given the chance to be promoted.

So I came up with three different methods to look at replacement-level, and they all lead me to similar conclusions:

1) I separated players into “major-leaguers,” who were among the top 50 players in their position in PA that year, and “replacements” who were not.
2) I tried to use all the replacement-level players who had enough service time to be paid more, but were not.
3) I found all the players who were older than 26, who had at least 20 plate appearances in Double-A or Triple-A  and who had fewer than 400 plate appearances in the major leagues. I called them “replacement level”.

Method 1

Taking the 50 players with the most PA at each position in a season, we can estimate who would be on a major league roster if everyone were healthy. But we also probably include some people in the “replacement level” pool who we shouldn’t and perhaps we’re excluding some people we should consider replacement-level. Anybody who plays above their true talent level is going to get extra plate appearances, so this method excludes over-performers (who end up with too many PA) and includes relatively more underperformers. It’s no surprise that this method yielded the biggest gap between “major leaguers” and “replacements” among the three methods.

I calculated what I call a “run gap” for each position, which is the difference in performance for “major leaguers” and “replacements” in batting runs, baserunning runs and UZR (though UZRs were pretty close to zero, on aggregate).

Since I only had a few thousand plate appearances at each position, and since the sample is somewhat biased, I took the “run gap” for majors versus replacements, normalized it to a 20 runs per position average (normal FanGraphs replacement-level) and regressed the differences between positions halfway back to average hitting performance for each position. This gave us some new numbers for replacement-level, which I used on my free-agent data to determine $/WAR.

This gives us pretty similar conclusions to last time. Outfielders are overpaid across the board; middle infielders and third basemen are underpaid; and designated hitters are a little underpaid. But catchers and first basemen are both paid pretty fairly. This is quite different than looking at average performance at each position. As it turns out, minor-league catchers are not all that much worse than minor-league first basemen at hitting — which changes our perceptions star first basemen’s value.

Position PA majors PA rep. level Majors Runs per 600 PA Replacements Runs per 600 PA Run Gap Majors vs. Replacements Half regressed normalized Run Adjustment Method 1 $/WAR
C 82,598 14,355 -6.6 -24.58 17.98 7.73 $5.30
1B 92,805 6,412 13.63 -10.36 23.99 -9.76 $5.45
2B 92,004 7,995 4.28 -25.35 29.63 3.3 $2.99
3B 88,667 8,486 5.42 -29.5 34.91 7.97 $4.11
SS 94,067 6,380 -1.93 -30.99 29.06 5.21 $3.46
LF 80,740 13,690 9.81 -9.91 19.72 -7.23 $7.16
CF 94,147 7,120 6.25 -16.12 22.37 -2.98 $6.05
RF 87,717 8,697 13.03 -9.22 22.25 -9.59 $6.71
DH 33,536 3,551 8.12 -15.67 23.8 -3.81 $4.22
All hitters (non-P non-PH) 746,281 76,686 5.64 -18.99 24.63 $5.05

Method 2

The next thing that I tried was to look for players whose salary and service time suggested that they were replacement level. These were guys who made under about $1.4 million, even though the CBA allows them to be bid up if they are worth it. First, I found all players eligible for free agency who had low salaries. Next, I found all players who were eligible for arbitration, but were non-tendered and then received low salaries. Unfortunately, this does not give me many players at all. It also seemed to include many players on “make good” contracts, who had non-guaranteed deals. Some weaker players got Spring Training invites, looked bad, and were released, so they were not included in the sample, while other players made the team but had low salaries. As a result, these players were only about six runs below an average major league player at batting, baserunning, and fielding combined, so they looked a little too good to be “replacement level.”

Nevertheless, when I normalized the positional differences to the FanGraphs standard 20 runs per season, and then used these to determine replacement level, I found that free agents’ salaries (in my original free agent data for 2007-11) followed the same pattern. Middle infielders and 3B are underpaid, and outfielders are overpaid. But now catchers do look a little underpaid and 1B do look a little overpaid. Designated hitters still seem pretty fairly paid.

There seemed to be a problem with sample size for SS, CF, and RF, which might suggest this isn’t a great method. With half as many PA at these three positions, it looks like players like these were placed at easier positions more often and regular backups were shifted over to harder defensive positions.

Position PA replacement level Replacements Runs per 600 PA Normalized Run Adjustment Method 2 $/WAR
C 8,326 -20.88 -14.75 $3.72
1B 6,313 5.63 11.77 $5.98
2B 5,846 -7.09 -0.95 $3.24
3B 6,846 -14.11 -7.97 $3.94
SS 3,688 -20.58 -14.44 $2.84
LF 8,250 -1.6 4.54 $6.24
CF 3,727 7.24 13.38 $7.58
RF 3,692 6.24 12.38 $7.91
DH 3,077 3.21 9.35 $5.12
All hitters (non-P non-PH) 49765 -6.14 $5.05

Method 3

This is my favorite method, though it took the most work. I figured that replacement-level players were probably expendable enough that they were shuffled up and down between the major and minor leagues. Sometimes, prospects get moved up and down, but players older than 26 are rarely considered prospects. Players were replacement-level if they were older than 26 years old, had fewer than 400 plate appearances in the majors, and had more than 20 plate appearances in Double-A or Triple-A. The result was a larger player sample that appeared to represent most replacement-level players.

The overall replacement level for these players came in at about 13 runs below average, which is smaller than the typical 20 runs used at FanGraphs. Note that this doesn’t account for “chaining,” where backups are put in the field and weaken the available pinch-hitting pool. I suspect that this might account for the difference between 13 runs calculated and 20 runs used. (When I tried experimenting with lower replacement levels in the past, I found that superstars appeared to be underpaid using $/WAR. Because of that, I agree with the 20 runs below average replacement level). After normalizing the “run gaps” to average 20 at each position, I got the table below.

The results are pretty similar to what we found in the other two methods: Outfielders still appear to be very overpaid, especially corner outfielders; and middle infielders and third basemen are underpaid. This is partly because replacement-level players had poor UZRs in the infield and good UZRs in the outfield. But the table still looked very similar when I re-set everyone’s UZR to zero, so that doesn’t drive the results.

Interestingly, first base, catcher and designated hitter all seem to be slightly underpaid using this method. The varying results for catcher and designated hitter show the difficulty figuring  replacement level at these positions. Catchers are a unique breed, since other players cannot play catcher well and catchers cannot play other positions well. Designated hitters are the opposite. Anyone can be a designated hitter, though there are varying skills to staying fresh while sitting on the bench.

Position PA majors PA rep. level Majors Runs per 600 PA Replacements Runs per 600 PA Run Gap Majors vs. Replacements Half regressed normalized Run Adjustment Method 3 $/WAR
C 86,346 10,847 -7.32 -24.57 17.26 12.31 $4.15
1B 98,452 5,883 12.94 -10.91 23.85 -5.23 $4.54
2B 97,634 7,755 2.61 -12.89 15.5 0.72 $3.27
3B 95,431 7,449 3.69 -23.51 27.2 6.33 $4.04
SS 96,769 6,649 -2.85 -18.07 15.22 5.87 $3.72
LF 93,288 11,370 7.69 0.75 6.94 -9 $7.93
CF 95,909 10,460 5.71 -9.07 14.78 -2.43 $5.98
RF 96,741 7,757 10.51 6.66 3.85 -13.86 $8.75
DH 42,616 5,639 5.99 -5.94 11.93 -3.85 $4.22
All hitters (non-P non-PH) 853,812 80,315 0.87 -12.08 12.95 $5.05

Note that I also regressed the “run gap” halfway to the average positional difference using this method as well. The results would be more extreme, but qualitatively similar had I not done so.

Averaging all three methods, I get the following table with $/WAR for each position, which reinforces the arguments above.

Position Methods 1-3 average $/WAR
C $4.39
1B $5.32
2B $3.17
3B $4.03
SS $3.34
LF $7.11
CF $6.54
RF $7.79
DH $4.52

Other People’s Players?

So how do teams get their hands on these undervalued infielders? Can they? Or do teams lock them up quickly? Take a look at the upcoming free agents this offseason and you see that solid infielders are poised to reach the open market. There are Kelly Johnson and Marco Scutaro, but no superstars. Dustin Pedroia and Troy Tulowitzki both would have reached free agency this winter, but the Red Sox and Rockies signed them to long-term deals.

One point that I have hammered hard for several years is that teams get a pretty bad deal when they sign free agents from other teams. Teams get far better bargains on re-signing their own free agents. This is far truer for pitchers than hitters, but it’s still true for hitters. So what if we look at re-signed players (RSP) $/WAR and other team’s players (OTP) $/WAR separately? Do we still see this difference between outfielders and infielders? Yes.

Position Re-signed Players (RSP) Other Team’s Players (OTP) OTP Premium
C $5.39 $2.84 -47%
1B $5.76 $7.53 31%
2B $3.55 $2.24 -37%
3B $4.76 $3.52 -26%
SS $3.31 $3.77 14%
LF $6.31 $8.01 27%
CF $8.16 $4.80 -41%
RF $5.23 $6.53 25%
DH $7.95 $7.20 -9%

The argument holds up: Infielders are better bargains than outfielders, even if you restrict it to players who reach free agency. The best-priced infielders on the market in recent years have been Adrian Beltre (on three different deals), Alex Rodriguez’s 2001-2007 deal, Edgar Renteria’s 2005-2008 deal, Luis Castillo’s 2004-2007 deal, Mark DeRosa’s 2007-2009 deal, Miguel Tejada’s 2004-2009 deal, Orlando Cabrera’s 2005-2008 deal and Troy Glaus’ 2004-2008 deal. There are other players, as well, but the point is that these bargains are out there for savvy general managers to find.

What Should Teams Do?

Once again, it seems that the best bargains are in the infield and the worst prices are in the outfield. When Josh Hamilton becomes available this winter, teams should be wary about just how much they want to spend. It’s pretty obvious that  teams will have an opportunity to put decent role players in outfield positions who can get the job done.

On the other hand, the mantra that teams should stop spending so much on first base might be wrong. Although you won’t get the same WAR for the money, the replacement-level first baseman who teams use often is below the technical replacement level. Teams are often forced to pay a lot to get “one of the good ones.” Even still, the best bargains remain at other infield positions, and smart general managers would be wise to make sure that they have money available when star infielders become available.



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Matt writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times, and models arbitration salaries for MLB Trade Rumors. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Swa.


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Jason461
Guest
3 years 11 months ago

Here’s a question: could handedness be part of the equation for GMs? Generally speaking, left handed hitter play first base or in the outfield and those are the four highest paid positions. I wonder if good hitting lefties are skewing because they are more scarce than good hitting righties.

It’s a thought, at least.

Richie
Member
Richie
3 years 11 months ago

Given that lefties can only play those positions, that ought to push supply there toward surplus then. If you designed a study to account for that, tho’, I do wonder what might come out of it.

brendan
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brendan
3 years 11 months ago

” that ought to push supply there toward surplus”

dont think that holds, because lefties are a minority of the population, only about 10-20 %

def an interesting angle to consider here

Richie
Member
Richie
3 years 11 months ago

It holds in that:

As hitters, they’re definitely more than 10-20% of the MLB population, especially when you figure in that half the fielding positions are denied to them.

Even were they only 10%, that amount still plops down exclusively at half the positions. Creating that much of a surplus there in comparison to the other half of positions.

Matt Hunter
Member
Member
3 years 11 months ago

Matt Swartz needs to write more articles on FanGraphs. This is superb.

zipperz
Member
zipperz
3 years 11 months ago

I concur.

Richie
Member
Richie
3 years 11 months ago

I dunno. Matt might be too good. Cameron writes something controversial or maybe even obnoxious, with a few logical or empirical holes just begging for rejoinders, and so generates dozens of response hits. Which figures into profitability, if I recall my internet economics accurately.

Matt, on the other hand, covers each base you can think of. Often nothing to respond with other than ‘this is superb’.

Well-Beered Englishman
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Well-Beered Englishman
3 years 11 months ago

Also, Matt leaves far fewer opportunities to shamelessly collect upvotes with witty rejoinders.

Nathan Biemiller
Member
Nathan Biemiller
3 years 11 months ago

If teams played some of the many replacement-level corner outfielders at 1B, which is generally considered to be an easier position on the defensive spectrum, would the pool of replacement-level 1B increase? It seems intuitively as though there are plenty of capable of playing replacement-level 1B, even if they aren’t “first basemen” by trade.

The Real Neal
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The Real Neal
3 years 11 months ago

I would think a big part of why outfielders and 1st basemen (maybe) get paid so much is because they’re #3 and #4 hitters. The MLB GM’s and managers try to get 60 of these guys onto their teams every year. Other lineup slots they’ll fudge a bit with (Cubs batting Starlin Castro of the .300 OBP batting leadoff because he can run a bit), but you HAVE to have 25 to 40 HR guys batting third and fourth. This mentality artificially drives up their value.

When A-Ro got $25 million a year, it was $22.5 of it because he could hit 50 HR’s, and $2.5 of it because he happened to play short at the time.

ralph
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ralph
3 years 11 months ago

I think this is a big part of the explanation for why it happens, but it’s an open question whether it should be happening this way. I also wonder how much of this might be because of perceived injury expectations, since 1B should theoretically project to be healthier than C or 2B.

Joebrady
Guest
3 years 11 months ago

I was thinking the same thing. How quickly will a SS decline v a 1B? And the defensive replacement value at SS might be huge. The RS traded Scutaro with no decline at SS. They can replace Aviles with Ciriaco this year, or Iglesias next year, and the defensive values might be enough to cover the lack of hitting. The difference in range is really that meaningful.

The difference in range at 1st for guys like Tex and Gonzo, 5 years from now, will hardly be noticeable.

Baltar
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Baltar
3 years 11 months ago

You hit my pet peeve: the myth that 1B’s are less prone to injury than players at other positions.
Whenever I bring this up, I get a lot of replies of the “it’s logical so it must be true” sort. I don’t even agree with the “logic” even if “logic” were a good guide to what is true.
The argument that 1B’s are older doesn’t prove anything, as players are moved to 1B when they get older because of their limited range–a clear case of selection bias.
I have never gotten a reply referring to an actual study nor any statistical work done by the replier himself.

Baltar
Guest
Baltar
3 years 11 months ago

I think this injury difference at 1B is a myth. The “logic” (what you call “theoretical”) does not hold up, except perhaps in the case of 2B’s and C’s, who probably are more likely to get injured due to collisions than other positions.
I have challenged this theory many times and never have received a reply in the form of referral to an actual study nor a statistical case by the replier.

ralph
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ralph
3 years 11 months ago

This is prompting me to think out loud a little more about offense and defense. Obviously, just looking at WAR does not separate out hitting and defense. Pitching can replace defense to some extent, but clearly cannot replace hitting. So perhaps all things being equal, teams are more willing to pay for hitting WAR than defense WAR (and I’d classify positional adjustment as contributing to defense WAR) simply because of those facts of life, and then hope they can make it up on the pitching side?

It’d be interesting to see a breakdown of how the WAR of top teams’ hitters through the years have been broken down into hitting versus defense… I suspect the Rays would be high the defense side, perhaps showing that the two are more interchangeable than prevailing wisdom allows for.

Sweeny
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Sweeny
3 years 11 months ago

First basemen and outfielders also have greater utility as pinch-hitters than similar-WAR players of other infield positions. This likely contributes to the scarcity of a true “replacement level” 1B, for example.

Take the Cardinals. Organizationally, they choose to have considerable depth at first base. With Allen Craig, Lance Berkman, and Matt Carpenter at the MLB level, and Matt Adams who proved to be above MLB replacement level before being demoted back to AAA, they clearly choose to keep tons of organizational depth at 1B. Carpenter can also play other positions, but generally is a poor defender at 3B and 2B, so it is reasonable to consider him in the 1B category. No wonder so many teams have trouble finding a “replacement level” 1B as easily as they can find a replacement level SS. Replacement level players at tough defensive positions are much less likely to be stockpiled as pinch hitters at respectable salaries, their value derives directly from their presence on the field.

Richie
Member
Richie
3 years 11 months ago

Interesting thought here, thanks. Basically every team will want 2 1B to 1.33 2B, SS and 3B. Then 2 more in the OF. With the backup 1B and OF guys getting onto the field more than the other backups for special duty.

Does WAR really capture that?

miffleball
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miffleball
3 years 11 months ago

interesting argument – does this mean that a lot of those big contracts to first basemen and corner outfielders that look bad on the surface but may in fact be market price need to be re-evaluated?

Richie
Member
Richie
3 years 11 months ago

Yep. Some, at least.

Pinstripe Wizard
Member
Pinstripe Wizard
3 years 11 months ago

Great article. It is funny to see that AROD’s 2001-2007 deal was considered a bargain, given the enornomity of that contract. The fact that is considered a bargain is a good reflection of just amazing he was as a younger player. When AROD is as much of a bargain as Luis Castillo, it can change your thinking about contracts.

Joebrady
Guest
3 years 11 months ago

That’s paper value. In real life, the contract was so bad that TX paid the NYY $27M (?) to take the contract.

Harry
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Harry
3 years 11 months ago

Simple answer: They hit the most homeruns. Homeruns = what casual fans care about. If a banana costs $100 and your team needs a banana, guess what, you’re gonna buy a banana.

KMiB
Guest
3 years 11 months ago

I think it’s almost that simple, yeah. I think it ultimately comes down to the fact that each WAR is not created equal; it’s not linear. The dollar value from 0 to 1 WAR is not the same as the dollar value equivalent from 5 to 6 WAR. It’s pretty evident that teams are willing to pay more for that 6th win than they are for that first win, likely because the market for players that can put up a 6th win is terribly scarce compared to the market for players that can put up the 1st win.

Players who are capable of 5 WAR seasons have a better likelihood of putting up a 6th or 7th win than players capable of 1 WAR have of putting up a 2nd or 3rd win…that’s the current mantra of front office execs these days not named Andrew Friedman.

The Real Neal
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The Real Neal
3 years 11 months ago

Actually if you use historical data (WAR) to match one teams best case scenario projection for a player, you’re always going to have incorrect conclusions.

A basic principle of good business decsion modelling is to never use agglomerations of data to make a specific forecast (or to due the reverse, which is what the linked articles and dozesn of others over the past few years have done).

If your FA value projections don’t match up to what the market is doing… your model is wrong.

Average_Casey
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Average_Casey
3 years 11 months ago

This is very interesting but I think the answer is probably much more simple than this. There is a large amount of debate about defensive statistics and the value of defense, while there is not much debate about the value of offense. Furthermore, we know that some of the organizations do not utilize sabermetrics much or at all. Most of the better hitters are your outfielders and first basemen, with some exceptions in other postions like Tulo, Longoria, etc. When you have an undetermined value (defense) influence a player’s worth, more weight will be given to the statistics that are a certainty. I would believe that is why you have those players receiving the most money since they put up a large amount of offense that is easily measured.

Richie
Member
Richie
3 years 11 months ago

All organizations now use some saber. Some just don’t talk about it at all in the press.

Nor have much reason to, given that doing so doesn’t do much to put fannies into the seats.

bill
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bill
3 years 11 months ago

Hitting is also a more scarce resource than defense. Any decent minor leaguer could probably play in the majors purely in terms of fielding & throwing, but it’s the ability to hit that is placed at a premium.

Richie
Member
Richie
3 years 11 months ago

I don’t see this, Matt.

“(M)inor-league catchers are not all that much worse than minor-league first basemen at hitting “, your 4th paragraph under ‘Method 1”. If that holds for minor-league shortstops too, then who cares how few shortstops hit like Mark Texeira?

Your tables 1 + 3 suggest different things regarding the replacement level gap vis-a-vis 1st base and short. Now if teams do restrict FA supply by signing up their promising you middle infielders in a way that they don’t for 1st base or outfield, then that again goes quite a ways toward wiping out any payment gap.

Richie
Member
Richie
3 years 11 months ago

“promising YOUNG middle infielders”, of course.

DD
Guest
DD
3 years 11 months ago

Interesting that Matt wrote this article and never mentioned arbitration salaries (he is the guru after all). The fact that 1B/corner OFers tend to accumulate the right stats for arb raises (Ryan Howard is the poster boy, along with Fielder) causes those 40-60-80 arb years to protend big FA contracts. GMs can also sleep better at night knowing they have the guy’s decline years at an easy defensive position (no worries about moving him down the spectrum later) and can often use him at DH too. This is different than a SS or 2B who is more likely to be beat up by the demands of their position, but if they are above average will be locked up prior to FA since it will keep their cost down and they won’t have to worry about locking up too many decline years (see Kinsler, Utley, possibly Cano, Pedroia, etc.) This is great analysis, but to overlook how they BECOME expensive FAs is not putting all the cards on the table.

Richard
Guest
3 years 11 months ago

excellent excellent point, especially with regard to Howard… (looking back, the Phillies big mistake was in NOT extending him either during or after his 2006 season… something like Utley’s deal would be over after next season, after which, assuming everything else remained the same [big assumption, I know], he simply wouldn’t command any kind of enormous deal, no matter how deluded the GM; I have no idea whether such an early extension was even discussed, or would have been accepted, but it was clearly the correct move in retrospect)

Rob
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Rob
3 years 11 months ago

This needs a new title. I’ll be searching for it a few times over the next half dozen years and it needs to be easier to find.

Colin
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Colin
3 years 11 months ago

My next question would be related to the other people’s players vs your own players point. How many OTP at premium positions who are of star caliber are reaching FA? If none of the select group of stars reach FA wouldn’t that depress the $/war since the remaining group probably bundles close together in quality?

Don’t we think it’s possible that this is just a highlight of GM’s preferring an exponential $/war preference? If higher quality FA at certain positions (1b, OF) vs (2b, 3b) we would expect the 2b, 3b, SS group to be depressed if they preferred a sliding $/war scale based on more exponential growth?

I mean lets take a look at the guys getting locked up at those positions: Tulo, Longo, Zimmerman, Hanley, Kinsler, Pedroia, ect. That would skew the data if it wasn’t a perfectly linear scale no?

Calvin
Guest
Calvin
3 years 11 months ago

How much could this be biased by the ass-end of long contracts? Where the front end of the contract has a younger player capable of playing a tougher defensive position (ss/2b/3b and to a lesser degree cf) and then in the later years gets shifted to RF/LF/1B because he’s old now? When they’re 4/5/6, they’re underpaid, and then when they’re 3/7/9, they’re overpaid. And that’s just the way a fair long-term contract plays out and produces disparity in the direction mentioned with no misevaluation.

Looking at 1 or 2 year FA deals exclusively might be more telling since it should mostly remove the position-shifting bias.

chel
Guest
chel
3 years 11 months ago

Maybe teams measure offense different than we do. Try RBI totals per position, or change the way you measure offensive WAR using OPS, although I believe RBIs are the main culript.

Awesome series of articles by the way, I appreciate how you stay discussing in the comment section.

adohaj
Guest
adohaj
3 years 11 months ago

Am I getting this right? The difference between a good 1b and a replacement 1b is far greater than the difference between a good C and a replacement C?

Robbie G.
Guest
Robbie G.
3 years 11 months ago

I don’t know about the rest of you guys, but here are some things that I just can’t get past:

1) Tampa Bay’s success during the Andrew Friedman era relative to their peers (surely the Rays are top five in MLB in wins/year over the past 4-5 years) despite not allocating many dollars to 1B;

2) The contracts of Ryan Howard, Mark Teixeira, Albert Pujols, etc.;

3) The run differential of St. Louis (#1 in MLB this season) after letting some other idiot grossly overpay for Pujols;

4) The fact that 1B is surely the easiest position to play in the field;

5) The fact that so many of the teams legitimately competing for playoff spots (Baltimore, Tampa Bay, Texas, Oakland, Washington, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Arizona) are committing minimal payroll to the 1B position.

I appreciate the analysis by the author here but it just never seems like a good idea to commit $100+ mil to any 1B, period. I mean, my god, Albert Pujols may wind up challenging Lou Gehrig for the title of best 1B in the history of MLB, and he’s got some extremely good years left in him yet, but there is close to a 0% chance that he will live up to that contract.

Calvin
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Calvin
3 years 11 months ago

I was looking at league stats and I noticed something odd- 1b and corner OF have huge negative defensive value every year. How is this possible, since it should be reasonably normalized to position averages? SS and CF have huge positive values (C and 3b somewhat -, 2b neutralish from eye test), which also shouldn’t be possible.

Calvin
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Calvin
3 years 11 months ago

Ahh, makes sense. Didn’t realize FG added by normal position instead of where they started each game.

Joebrady
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3 years 11 months ago

One of things I haven’t seen mentioned is name recognition. I don’t think that even LA thinks that Pujols was a smart BB move. But you have to consider offsetting cash flows. Signing a slick-fielding 2B with a good OBP is usually a nice move, but will doesn’t register much with the casual fan.

Roy S
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Roy S
3 years 11 months ago

Could they measure offensive production based partially on WPA? Over the past 3 calendar years, 6 first baseman are in the top 10 for WPA (Votto, Cabrera, Pujols, Fielder, Gonzalez and Howard).

Baltar
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Baltar
3 years 11 months ago

Sorry for the double post. I got an error screen when posting the first, so thought it didn’t get in.

Ruki Motomiya
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Ruki Motomiya
3 years 11 months ago

I’m not really good at all these numbers, but I thought I would propose something: Could the massive disparity in team salary’s be to blame for this?

Really superb SS/2Bs, especially hitting-wise, are almost always signed by big name teams for huge bucks, for example Jeter in his prime years, A-Rod when he played SS, you get the idea. Because of this, they are almost always set at these positions, with the backup usually being a prospect or a replacement level guy, with exceptions. What I would think would logically follow, then, is that the price for people who put up good WARs, but not enough to match with the elites the Yankee/Red Sox/etc-level teams sign, would logically get paid less due to the decreasing salary of a team: Although a guy who puts up great defensive WAR and decent offensive WAR might be worth as much or only slightly less than bigger named players or otherwise be more useful, because they will not get any looks from the much higher priced teams, teams with smaller salaries will get them for a cheaper price than their expected market value might be.

How this related to 1B/OF payment is a bit simple and that is that there are not very many great 1B, but there are many OF who sit just above replacement level, but not to the undervalued extent of 2B/SS, possibly due to their nature: Most OF of this type, to my knowledge, hit well but with some issue(High strikeout rate/low walk rate, for example), with poor defense, but which is slightly more forgivable due to there being three outfield positions and the fact that defense is less needed in RF/LF than 2B/SS. Because of the need to sign OFs and, perhaps importantly, the ability for them to be pinch hitters and DHs, means that more higher level and mid tier teams will give them looks, which causes competition and thus drives up the price. Because of this, outfielders who may not be worth the value are overpaid, due to the view on offense and perhaps the percieved value they bring in other aspects. In addition, while I may be wrong as I do not have the numbers, I imagined more backup outfielders are on a team then backup infielders, as a good utility man can often play multiple roles in the infield, while few good RF/LFs can also play CF while still being a backup.

Bringing it into 1B, the big gap is likely simply there being so few good 1B, as the defense from the position is often not seen as quite as critical and, perhaps importantly, is also much harder to measure than other positions, leading to less hard numbers to use to get undervalued talent. Thus, market value on 1B is very competitive and driven up, while the talent level for lower 1B is not as good and thus not as much of a deal for their value, dropping their usefulness in WAR terms compared to an undervalued 2B/SS. This is probably pretty shaky, I lack numbers.

Something I think might be interesting is to run the numbers on the gulf between replacement level and the top half or so of players at each position for their price: Are the highest end OFs still overpriced or are they more of a fair market value and are highest tier 2B/SS paid appropriately? I’m thinking OFs may be less overpaid when looking solely at the top end, but I could be wrong.

In short, apologies for a long rambling thought process from a guy who doesn’t know his stuff, but he figured he’d put it out there: The worst it can do is not be useful, right?

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