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Best Value Players At Each Position: 1992-2011, Part I

Last week, I wrote about what it would take for the Nationals to sign Ryan Zimmerman to a long-term contract, perhaps making him a National for life.  Along the way, I looked at other long-term deals to see which, if any, made sense as a model for a new Nationals-Zimmerman agreement. One such contract was Evan Longoria‘s 6-year/$17.5 million deal with the Tampa Bay Rays. I quickly decided that Longoria’s contract — which covers all six of his pre-free agency years, with club options for the first three years of free agency — didn’t make sense as a model for Zimmerman, who’s in the midst of a 5-year/$45 million contract and will become a free agent in 2013.

But, oh, that Evan Longoria contract.

Seventeen-and-a-half million dollars for six years of the 2008 American League Rookie of the Year, perennial MVP candidate, three-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glove winner. I kept thinking and thinking and thinking about that Evan Longoria contract. Oh, that Evan Longoria contract. And I wondered, is that the best value contract in the last twenty years?

First, a definition. By “best value contract,” I mean a contract in which the player delivered (or is still delivering) the most value for the money. Not necessarily the longest-least expensive deal — there are plenty of those where the player simply didn’t produce any value at all — but the most team-friendly deal. Could be a deal for many, many millions of dollars where the player simply outperformed everyone around him at the time.

Second, a word about measuring value. The Wizards of FanGraphs (not to be confused with The Wizard of Oz or The Wizards of Waverly Place) have done some nifty dollars-per-WAR calculations dating back to the 2002 season. That is, the value in dollar terms for each WAR compiled by a particular player in a particular season. The numbers look something like this:


You’ll notice, however, that I’m looking at contracts over the last twenty years and the Wizards of FanGraphs haven’t performed their nifty calculations for the 1992-2001 seasons. So, when comparing contracts from the 1990’s to the ones in the 2000’s, we’re going to have to make some judgment calls. Well, I will make the judgment calls, and you will tell me why I’m right or wrong in the comments.

Third, instead of focusing just on the Best Value Contract or the Top 5 Best Value Contracts, I’ve selected the best value contract for each position over the last 20 years. Well, every fielding position. Because I’m a National League gal and don’t know much about the designated hitter. Okay, that’s not true. I do know something about the designated hitter, but it’s my post and I’m leaving it out. Take it up in the comments.

This is Part I of a two-part series. Part I will discuss the best value contract for pitcher, catcher, first baseman, and second baseman.

Part II, to be published next week, will discuss the best value contract for third baseman, shortstop and the three outfield positions.


Greg Maddux-Atlanta Braves: 5 years/$28 million (1993-1997)

This was Maddux’s first free-agent contract, when he signed with the Braves after six seasons with the Chicago Cubs. When the contract was inked, the $6.5 million AAV was the highest for any major league contract ever. Maddux had done some very good pitching for the Cubs, particularly in his final four seasons there, and had won the National League Cy Young Award in 1992. But that was nothing compared to his first five years with the Braves.

Over the course of that 5-year deal, Maddux posted a 3.38 BB%, a .948 WHIP, and a 2.08 ERA. He won three consecutive National League Cy Young Awards (1993-1995), five consecutive Gold Glove Awards and accumulated 39.1 WAR. Maddux’s five-year WAR total is not the highest in a five-year period between 1992-2011; Randy Johnson posted a 41.6 WAR and Pedro Martinez posted a 44.2 WAR, both in the 1999-2003 seasons.

But Johnson’s contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks over that time was for five years and $65.4 million. Martinez’s deal with the Red Sox was for six years and $75 million. Even accounting for inflation, Maddux’s 5-year/$28 million deal from 1993-1997 is a better value than either Johnson’s and Martinez’s contracts, despite their higher WAR totals.


Mike Piazza-Los Angeles Dodgers: 3 years/$4.2 million + 2 years/$15 million (1994-1998)

This was a tough one, in part because it wasn’t that easy to track down salary information for Piazza during his Dodgers years and in part because it involves comparing players at either end of the 20-year period at issue.

1993-1998 cover the last five years of Piazza’s arbitration eligibility. After his spectacular rookie season, the Dodgers signed Piazza to what was then a record-breaking deal for a second-year player: 3 years/$4.2 million. When that contract expired, Piazza got a significant raise: a 2-year deal for $15 million. In total, 5 years for $19.2 million. And what did Piazza give the Dodgers in return (well, at least until the Dodgers traded Piazza just before he became a free agent)? A slash of .338/.402/.584, a 160.6 wRC+, and 164 home runs for a 32.8 in total WAR.

Joe Mauer‘s numbers for his second-through-sixth years in the majors look similar: .328/.409/.478, wRC+ 135, and 75 home runs for a 32.7 in total WAR. Piazza clearly had more power, as seen in the slugging and home run numbers. On the other hand, Mauer is considered the much better defender. Hence, the near exact WAR totals.

Mauer made the league minimum in his second year ($400,000) but then signed a 4-year/$33 million contract with the Twins to cover the final four years of his arbitration-eligibility. Using the FanGraphs $/WAR figures, Mauer was worth $122.4 million but paid only $33.4 million for a ration of 3.66-to-1.

But if you account for inflation, Piazza’s 1994 and 1997 deals, combined, would be worth $26.4 million in 2010 dollars. That’s $7 million less than Mauer made for essentially the same production. For that reason, I chose Piazza’s combined contracts covering 1994-1998 as the best deal for a catcher in the last 20 years.

First Base

If catcher was tough, first base is just the opposite. That’s because we’ve had the pleasure of watching one of the best first baseman of all time since 2001. Albert Pujols, of course. And while there is some question whether Pujols will be worth $240 million to the Los Angeles Angels over the next ten years, there is no question that he was worth much, much more than the 7-year/$100 million contract he signed with the St. Louis Cardinals before the 2004 season. That contract covered the last three years of Pujols’ arbitration eligibility and the first four years of free agency.

Over that seven year period, Pujols posted a godly slash of .330/.432/.630, a .437 wOBA, and a 171 wRC+. He also hit 294 home runs and compiled a total of  59 WAR.  No other player — first baseman or otherwise — came close to Pujols’ production in those seven years or in any seven-year period between 1992-2011. FanGraphs’ $/WAR figures estimates that Pujols provided more than $230 million in value to the Cardinals over the life of the contract.

It’s worth noting, however, that Jeff Bagwell comes in a strong second for best value contract for a first baseman. The Houston Astros signed Bagwell to a 5-year/$27.5 million dollar deal before the 1995 season and extended him for an additional two years for $13 million, covering 2000-2001. That’s a total of $40.5 million for the seven years from 1995-2001. And while Bagwell didn’t post Pujols-like numbers, he wasn’t that far off: .300/.426/.573, a .424 wOBA, and a 158 wRC+. He hit 257 home runs and accumulated a total of 47.7 WAR. Close, but not quite as valuable as Pujols for the money.

Second Base

Chase Utley-Philadelphia Phillies: 7 years/$85 million (2007-2013)

This was a tough one for me, because I really want to go with Jeff Kent and his 4-year/$23.7 million deal with the Giants (1999-2002). Kent’s contract reminds me of the time when the Giants actually entered into team-friendly free-agent contracts. Those were the days.

Over that four-year period, Kent posted a slash of .309/.383/.546, a .394 wOBA, and a 139 wRC+. He hit 115 home runs and accumulated 24.1 WAR. He was the most productive second baseman in those years, outperforming Hall-of-Famer Roberto Alomar, who was paid nearly $10 million more over the same time period.

But Utley is special. From 2007-2011 — the first five years of his contract with the Phillies — Utley was the second-most valuable player in baseball, behind only Pujols. He posted a slash of .290/.386/.503, a .389 wOBA, and a 137 wRC+. He hit 113 home runs, stole 73 bases, and played excellent defense (as rated by UZR and DRS), all for a combined five-year total of 33.8 WAR. Using FanGraphs’ $/WAR calculation, Utley’s provided $146.2 million of value for the Phillies in the first five years of his contract. That’s nearly double the contract value, with two more years remaining. And remember that Utley missed nearly half the 2011 season with a knee injury, cutting into his WAR total for the season.

Even if Utley is only a 5 WAR player over the next two seasons — a conservative estimate — he’d end the contract having produced a total of 43.8 WAR, valued close to $190 million, more than double the $85 million he received.

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That concludes Part I. Next week I’ll tackle Part II, covering the best value contracts for shortstop, third base, and the three outfield positions.