Sharing The Wins
If you’ve ever been to the gigantic Opryland Hotel in Nashville, you wonder how all those baseball executives and agents could even find each other to consummate a deal during the Winter Meetings. But consummate they did, and in a sport awash with money, old-school fans are having difficulty wrapping their heads around the new budgetary guidelines. These days, even the 7th or 8th pitcher on a major league staff is commanding $6 Million a season and more.
The real question under the surface, however, is if these acquisitions can really make a difference in the standings? In other words, what is their contribution to winning games? We’ve discussed WAR (Wins Above Replacement) numerous times in this space and that statistical outcome does impact decisions made by writers voting on awards and General Managers making deals. It has become a mainstream analysis over the last decade and can help clarify and justify some contract amounts. For example, if you believe in the WAR calculations, it appears that the Diamondbacks got a slightly better deal on Zack Greinke (5.8 WAR average the last three years, $32M per year x 6) than the Red Sox did on David Price (4.4 WAR average the last three years, $31M per year x 6). Most baseball stat-heads believe a free agent is worth about $7-8M per win, so that makes Greinke’s contract a relative bargain while Price comes in right on the money. Of course, that’s just a snapshot valuation based on past performance and all of these deals require projecting into the future.
This time, we’ll turn to another statistical measure in an attempt to gauge the free agent market. The other stat that is team-result based is WS (Win Shares) as developed by the godfather of modern statistical analysis, Bill James. While trying to describe the formula is impossible (James wrote an entire book on the topic in 2002), it comes down to a system where each game a team wins during the season is meticulously analyzed and the three players most responsible for that win get a “win share”. So, if a team wins 80 games, there will be 240 win shares distributed on the roster. Position players will have a tendency to accumulate higher totals than pitchers, but it’s all about comparisons between players among positions. Less than ten position players had a number over 30 in 2015 and it’s difficult to take exception with the results- both MVP’s are on the list with Josh Donaldson at 32 and Bryce Harper at 38. Other impressive performances belonged to Matt Carpenter (30), Kris Bryant (30), Anthony Rizzo (32), Joey Votto (33), Andrew McCutchen (35) & Paul Goldschmidt (35). The leader, however, was a repeat from last season…Mike Trout with 42! In fact, Trout has averaged 40 Wins Shares over the last four years. The pitching leaders were Jake Arrietta (27), Greinke (26), Dallas Keuchel (22) & Clayton Kershaw (21).
Let’s look at the free agent class through the prism of “Win Shares” and analyze the results…
> David Price, P – 7 Years, $217M (Red Sox). A durable, left-handed ace was exactly what the BoSox needed to bolster their mediocre rotation. At age 30, his Win Share average for the last four seasons is 16.5, so maybe he’s slightly overpriced…but big market teams roll the dice.
> Jason Heyward, OF – Available. At age 26, his free agent timing couldn’t be better. Productive hitting and superior defensive skills give him huge WAR numbers and his Win Share four-year average of 20 is solid. The question remains if some team thinks that translates to $200M. Just to keep things in perspective, the last mid-20’s free agent OF with great skills was B.J. Upton.
> Zack Greinke, P – 6 Years, $206.5M (Diamondbacks). A bold move by the Snakes, but it makes them an immediate contender because their run-scoring ability and defense are already first-rate. His four-year Win Share average of 18.5 is elite.
> Justin Upton, OF – Available. Another guy in his prime at age 28, but his opportunity to be a real star has already passed. Has had 21 Win Shares each of the last three seasons, so despite his in-season “streakiness”, the overall production is consistent. Probably looking for 7 years, $140M+.
> Chris Davis, 1B – Available. The poster boy for HR’s & Strikeouts, his power is unquestioned. Led all of baseball with 47 Homers in 2015 and set a record by having five (5) others robbed by OF making over-the-fence catches. Leaving out 2014 (when he had legal issues regarding medication availability), his Win Shares in 2013 & 2015 were 33 & 27. Six years and $150M+ should be waiting somewhere.
> Yoenis Cespedes, OF – Available. Another streaky, power-hitting OF, his Win Share average after four big league seasons is 21. At age 30, he’s looking for a similar payoff as Upton & Davis.
> Jordan Zimmerman, P – 5 Years, $110M (Tigers). Not in the same category with Price and Greinke and his Win Shares tell the tale…an average of 14 over the last four seasons.
> Johnny Cueto, P – Available. Likely did the D’Backs a favor by turning down 6 years and $120M. Had only 12 Win Shares in 2015 and has only exceeded 20 twice in his career. The market will force some team to pay $20M+ per year, but he’s the least reliable of the big name starting pitchers.
> Alex Gordon, OF – Available. An injury limited his Win Share total to 16 this past season, but it was over 20 each of the previous four years. Even at 32, he’s under-rated and a team might be smart to pay $100M over five years for him as opposed to $200 over 10 years for Heyward. How many GM’s expect to be in their job ten years from now?
> Ian Desmond, SS – Available. He’s fortunate to be on the market right now because the SS position is going to be loaded with great young players for years to come. We already have Correa, Lindor, Seager, Turner, Simmons, Russell, B. Crawford & Bogaerts and on the horizon…J.P. Crawford, O. Arcia, Albies, Rodgers & Swanson. At age 30, coming off a career-worst 12 Win Share season, he better grab a deal quickly from one of the few “have-not” teams
> Jeff Samardzija, P – 5 years, $90M (Giants). You may wonder how a pitcher with a 4.96 ERA could command such a contract. The rationalization from the Bay Area must include that he pitched in a terrible park (and in the AL), he hasn’t missed a start in the last three seasons (647 IP), his fastball velocity has been at 94 MPH each of those three seasons and he’s a great athlete who should age well. Win Shares say be careful…his highest total was just 11 (in ’14).
> Mike Leake, P – Available. Still in his 20’s, it was amazing how successful he was in Cincinnati’s ballpark despite a low strikeout rate. His Win Shares the last three seasons have been 12,10 & 10 so this is not an ace…more of a complimentary piece.
> Wei-Yin Chen, P – Available. If a LH starter had 14 Win Shares, 190+ IP and a 3.34 ERA in Boston or New York, everyone would be talking about him. Instead, he seems like an afterthought in this market.
> Dexter Fowler, OF – Available. Did a good enough job for the Cubs that they gave him a $15.8M qualifying offer. He chose to test the market with his 22 Win Share season, which was the best of his career.
> Daniel Murphy, 2B – Available – This post-season hero made a name for himself and we’ll see how it pays off in free agency. Even before becoming a household name, he’s averaged 20 Win Shares for the last four seasons.
> Scott Kazmir, P – Available. Came off the baseball scrap heap to post 10 & 11 Win Shares the last two years. Realistically, he’s a #3 SP at best.
> Ian Kennedy, P – Available. If you had a 4 Win Share season along with 4.28 ERA in a Pitcher’s park, maybe that $15.8M qualifying offer wasn’t a bad deal. His name hasn’t even been mentioned during coverage of the Winter Meetings.
> Yovani Gallardo, P – Available. His 14 Win Share season in Texas was his best since ’12 and convinced him to turn down the Rangers $15.8M offer. If you look closely at his numbers, however, 2015 seems to have been somewhat of a “smoke & mirrors” campaign. Could be a risky investment on a 3-4 year contract.
> Ben Zobrist, 2B – 4 Years, $56M (Cubs). Any deal of this length for a player in his mid-30’s is risky, but he’s a consistent and versatile player. Over the last seven seasons, his average Win Share number is 23+.
> Howie Kendrick, 2B – Available. Another player who turned down $15.8M, he doesn’t seem to be aging well at 32…especially defensively. Still had a 18 Win Share, so he’ll get a multi-year deal somewhere.
> John Lackey, P – 2 Years, $32M (Cubs). Even though he’s 37, this is a smart short-term commitment from Chicago. His 17 Win Share season was his best since 2007, so he’s not on the downside…yet.
> Hisashi Iwakuma, P – 3Years, $45M (Dodgers) . Will be 35 on opening day, but his numbers have been solid the last three seasons. Warning sign – his Win Shares have gone from 20 to 11 to 8.
> J.A Happ, P – 3 Years, $36M (Blue Jays). These dollars tell you all you need to know about the financial status of the game. A 10 Win Share in 2015 (his best since ’09) makes him a fixture in Toronto’s rotation.
> Gerardo Parra, OF – Available. Reportedly looking for a 4-year deal, this outstanding defensive OF has only had one Win Share season over 15 in his career…last year it was 14.
> Joakim Soria, P – 3 Years, $25M (Royals). This explains how valuable bullpen pieces have become in today’s game. $8+M per season and he’s not being asked to pitch the 9th inning…and maybe not even the 8th inning.
> Asdrubal Cabrera, 2B/33 – 2 Years, $18.5M (Mets). At first glance, it looks like he resurrected his career somewhat in Tampa this past season. A look at Win Shares tells a different story at age 30…the player who averaged 22 in ’11 & ’12 had only 11 in 2015. The Mets were concerned about the defense of Wilmer Flores, but Cabrera’s “Runs Saved” total over the last three seasons is -(minus) 31. Of course, one of the ex-ballplayers on the MLB Network panel described him as a “defensive wizard”?
> Ryan Madson, P – 3 Years, $22M (Athletics). His first healthy season since 2011 with a Win Share of 9 gets this kind of contract at age 35. As Yakov Smirnoff once said, “America is a wonderful country”.
> Rich Hill, P – 1 Year, $6M (Athletics). Might not seem like much, but this was based on four (4) great starts at the end of 2015. He’s 36 years old and has a lifetime ERA of 4.54.
And, of course we’ll have all those LOOGY’s (Left-Handed One Out Guys) like Antonio Bastardo, Tony Sipp & Randy Choate still to sign.
Hope all your free agents signings win their share of games.