As Mets fans who have had to deal with the angst of the past few years, it wasn’t enough that the clubs play during the season was sub .500 for five straight years, we also have had to deal with the last three offseasons of no money to go out and buy the big ticket free agent that might have helped us get closer to the promised land. In fact, the only $100M+ plus investment we made was in Captain David Wright. There has been a smattering of opinion that suggests we could have done better by trading him for prospects and starting over, but what cannot be denied is that he is easily one of the best third baggers in baseball (apologies to Miguel Cabrera). And lets not forget that the organization was put into shock with previous large contracts that blew up in the teams face. Throw in a good old fashion Ponzi scheme, and then you can start to hear shoes squeak over at Willets Point.
So, with all that as a backdrop, the question I wanted to pose and try to answer in this article is this; Could we have done any better spending big on free agents?
And by big, I am referring only to those contracts where the total value was over $100 million-plus and added during the Sandy Alderson era. Clearly, one player does not make a team, but when you sink that much dough, not to mention years, into some of the players that have received these deals over the past three years, teams like the Mets cannot afford to have duds, they need All-Star caliber players. As an aside, I follow the European soccer scene very closely and have watched as teams in small English towns spent heavily to try and compete with the powerhouses in London and Manchester, only to find themselves bankrupt, with no trophies to show for their efforts, and fans in despair (sound familiar?).
Since Sandy Alderson and Co. joined the Metropolitans in October 2010, there have been 14 players who have signed deals with a total value of over $100M in his first three years (I have not included anyone who signed this offseason as there is no data to evaluate their performance yet). These players have signed deals that total over $2.1 billion over an average length of seven years. The annual average value of these contracts is approximately $21 million. Now it bears noting that of these 14 deals, five have to be excluded as those deals were actually extensions (Troy Tulowitzki, Joe Mauer, Matt Kemp, Matt Cain, and Cole Hamels). They are included in the statistical analysis.
In order to determine the relative worth of these ballplayers and if they could have helped the Mets to a title, I used WAR values provided by Baseball Reference. One can debate the relative merits of WAR as a statistic but it is really the only way to look at position players and pitchers together and determine worth. Again, I am only focusing on those nine players who signed their deals since Sandy Alderson and his band took over the Mets front office.
Per Baseball Reference, an All-Star is defined as one with a WAR of 5.0 or better. A Major League class starter is one with a WAR of 2.0 or higher. Now, it can be expected that once a team drops over $100M on a player they should expect All-Star caliber play for the majority of that contact. Sadly, the figures do not bear this out. Of the three seasons analyzed (30 total “seasons” for the 14 players who signed mega-deals), only 20% of all those seasons produced a WAR of 5.0 or higher. Of these six seasons, two were in 2011 (Tulowitzki, Lee), one was in 2012 (Pujols), and three were in 2013 (Tulowitzki, Joe Mauer and Lee again!). Of these players, only Cliff Lee has helped his team to at least one playoff appearance.
It gets worse. From the 30 seasons produced by the 14 players signed to mega deals, a whopping 40% of those seasons produced a WAR of 2.0 or less. That means that players signed to play for over $20 million a season could not even produce a WAR capable of an average major league starter, never mind an All-Star. With a failure rate as high as this, teams with little or no flexibility in their budget simply cannot afford to be part of such a crapshoot. I’m surprised that the Angels aren’t taking more heat for their bad spending over the past two years, as Pujols and Hamilton have contributed very little to delivering a .500 season for their team, let alone a championship, for Los Angeles.
Previously I had discussed the high WAR value of players such as Cliff Lee and Troy Tulowitzki. I also found that Joe Mauer had also produced over a fairly high level since signing his mega extension. Lee, specifically, is a phenomenon, over the three years since he signed his 5 year, $120 million contract in the 2010 offseason, the man has produced over 20 WAR! That accounts for one fifth of the total WAR of all the mega free agents signed since 2010. It’s an incredible statistic. Add in the total WAR for just these three players, they accounted for 52% of the total WAR of all players signed to $100M+ deals.
While this may not be a complete apples to apples comparison, it is a fairly compelling piece of information when you consider that even when their average WAR per year is compiled, these three still rank at the top of the list of 14. Only Adrian Gonzalez comes close with 7.5 WAR over two years.
Okay, maybe WAR shouldn’t be the measurement we use to measure success against a mega contract, maybe its just too sabermetric for you, and doesn’t beat what is really important to Mets and baseball fans everywhere, and that is winning the World Series. And to some extent I heartily agree, a player signed to a huge $100M contract should help his team into the playoffs and World Series. Surely, on this scale, we should see success, right?
Unfortunately, even by this measurement, these players do not provide proof that big spending buys championships. Over the past three years only one player has signed a $100M deal and won a World Series. Bad news again, is that this player signed an extension with his current team and wasn’t even allowed to hit the free agent market (Matt Cain of the 2012 Giants had a 3.9 WAR in the Giants run to the title in 2012, but slipped to an injury plagued 0.5 WAR in 2013). There is only one free agent who signed a mega deal that has at least made a World Series appearance (Prince Fielder with the Tigers in 2012). Seven of the 14 players have at least had the privilege of playing in the playoffs (thanks to three different Dodgers who made it in the last post-season: Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Zack Greinke. Matt Kemp was not counted as he was injured and did not play).
What conclusions can be drawn by this? Well, it seems that signing a player to such a humongous contract over an equally long period of time is a very, very, very risky proposition, as more of these contracts fail then succeed. Mets fans have been close to the bone on this with the Johan Santana and Jason Bay contracts (though the latter was only for $64M). A mixture of free agents on shorter term deals with home grown talent would seem to be the way to success, just ask the Cardinals, Rays, and Pirates. So, whether or not we believe that the plan as stated by our GM is working, he is working to a script that at least has had proven success with other teams.