Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Future of First Base

I've been doing some pretty major number crunching during the All-Star break, and I noticed something so striking that I'm convinced it's a clear change in baseball conventional wisdom. I was tweeting out charts comparing a player's 2013 salary with  FanGraphs estimates of their worth by position. Having already written a recent post on the state of first base in 2013, I was in no hurry to run those numbers. Here's the chart:


The horizontal axis is the player's 2013 salary and the vertical the FanGraphs Player Value, a neat feature which turns arcane WAR numbers into something easy to understand--dollars. Any player above the line is outplaying his contract and any player below isn't earning his pay. It's easy to understand the group centered around Anthony Rizzo, Eric Hosmer, Mike Carp, etc.--these are young guys playing on first contracts having success. Several of the folks below the line but still pretty cheap are Carlos Pena, Mark Reynolds, Greg Dobbs and other journeymen that have glove, will travel. Since this was the seventh chart I'd made like this, it was starting to blur together until I saw that clump in the lower right-hand corner, where a player absolutely does NOT want to be--that means the player makes a lot of money but isn't producing. These folks are among the highest-paid players in the game, and all very one-dimensional--none are noted for their athleticism, speed or any other attribute except hitting. When the one attribute starts to fail, it's a problem.

This chart shows these players' contract status:

The way the Collective Bargaining Agreement is structured, this is completely logical--these players (for the most part) were successful early in their careers, received generous arbitration awards in the years they were eligible and hit the jackpot when they reached free agency. In certain cases, teams signed them to early lucrative contracts to delay free agency, with Evan Longoria's 2008 contract being the prime example. Conventional baseball wisdom believed a new-found fountain of youth delayed the degradation of hitting skills to the extent that an extra two or three years could be added to the productive phase of a player's career and extend a player's productivity from around 34-35 to perhaps 36-37. Consider these numbers:
1916-1989  There were 39 seasons where a player 35 or older hit 30+ home runs
1990-2008  There were 45. More teams, yes. More games, yes. More players, yes. And 55 fewer years.

People began noticing the offensive dropoff in 2008, but baseball thinking doesn't turn on a dime. The idea that a player's offensive production could be extended into his late 30s still existed, leading to these types of contracts. All of these players have hit a wall this year of one sort or another:
--Adam Dunn has hit home runs and little else. He's actually increased his percentage of hits that are home runs, but in the wrong way--same number of homers, fewer hits.
--Prince Fielder at first glance appears OK. His numbers are decent, but his average is down and he wasn't given a $214 million contract for an .820 OPS.
--Adrian Gonzalez was my pick for AL MVP going into September 2011. He, along with the rest of the Red Sox, took a slide in that final month from which he apparently hasn't recovered. He is playing in a pitcher's park, but he put up impressive numbers in San Diego, a park even more difficult to produce in.
--Ryan Howard has nagging injuries. The Phillies better hope that he heals, because he's their albatross through 2017.
--Paul Konerko finally reached the breakdown phase that people have been waiting (but not hoping) for. As baseball returns to historical norms, it's the rare productive 37-year-old, and it's a very real possibility that Konerko is simply done. He's certainly reached the end of the 8-digit paycheck line.
--Adam LaRoche is relatively cheap and won't kill the Nationals with his contract, but he's a liability in the field.
--Justin Morneau has been a shadow of his former self since 2010 with concussion issues, and he shouldn't ask for whom the bells tolls at the end of this season. We can effectively remove him from this list, as he'll join the list of roving vagabonds.
--Albert Pujols had the entire baseball world shaking their heads when he signed his contract. As long as Arte Moreno has money to wave at players like Pujols and Josh Hamilton (who is having as bad a year in right as Pujols is having at 1st), the possibility of large contracts exists. If you read my post on first base, you'll find a comparison of Pujols with the baseball greats, and he's right up there. I'm not ready to just say he's done, but big and slow has a hard time reversing itself.
 --Joey Votto probably doesn't belong on this list, but I needed to check his contract--WOW! $257 million through 2024 when he'll be 41 and probably taking a walker up to the plate with him. All is not lost, however--the Reds have a $7 million buyout in 2024, so they have THAT going for them. He's still relatively young, but that contract was for 7-8 years of 2010 Joey Votto, and 2010 Joey Votto hasn't been seen since...2010. The chart clearly shows that he's still productive, but he's not being paid to be productive, but to be one of the best hitters in baseball.

As I was looking at these contracts and playing the "What were they THINKING?" game, I wondered about the young bucks playing first today and what their status is:
These are the up and comers, and how they're treated gives us a peek into the new realities of baseball contracts.
--Allen Craig is locked up through 2018 when he'll be 33--and gone, ala Pujols and Kyle Lohse. The Cardinals are the vanguard of the new type of organization that grooms talent to replace players as they get older and more expensive. EVERY TEAM IN ORGANIZED SPORTS states they want to operate in this manner, but the Cardinals (and to a lesser extent, the Rays and Pirates) are one of the few to actually accomplish this. Take a look at their roster and see how it's constructed--home-grown with the exception of select free agent signings or trades like Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran. And they caught lightning in a bottle with Beltran--who thought anything of that acquisition when it was made?
--Chris Davis got a salary bump after his 2012 season and is arbitration-eligible after this season unless the Orioles lock him up. Apparently they're in no hurry to do that.
--Edwin Encarnacion I included because I thought he might be the next mid-career guy to get a look. I was wrong since he's locked up through 2016, and I strongly suspect this contract will be his high-water mark. Since 2012 he has the 3rd-most home runs (after Miguel Cabrera and Davis), and come 2017 it won't do him any good.
--Freddie Freeman is one person I'll be watching closely. There's no reason why the Braves wouldn't want to lock him up, and an Anthony Rizzo-like contract seems very reasonable for a player with three years of solid production. I tweeted Atlanta's 92.9 The Game evening co-host Jason Goff (@Jason1Goff) to ask if the Braves wanted to do this, and he was kind enough respond back "very much so," and his station mate Grant McAuley (@grantmcauley) added "That deal should be the blueprint for Atlanta." Thanks to both Jason and Grant for the quick and informative answers.
--Paul Goldschmidt is locked up through 2019 when he'll be 31. I strongly suspect he'll join the long line of vagabond first basemen after that contract, but he could be the one exception of this group if he continues to develop. Having said that, come 2020 I don't see anything longer than a three or four-year contract.
--Eric Hosmer is another one I thought would get the Rizzo treatment. The Royals are very high on him, but his numbers this year have been pedestrian and more Mark Grace-like. Perhaps they'll use the arbitration years to get a better feel for what kind of player he'll be.
--Anthony Rizzo is locked up for the highest amount of these players and has the most to prove. At 23 he has room for growth but needs to be more consistent. He had a rough April, an all-right May and another bad stretch in June and July. His power appears to be for real, but a .770 OPS isn't what the Cubs had in mind when they signed him to that contract.
--Justin Smoak I really don't know anything about. Nothing about his production screams out at me a player to build around. He's Brandon Belt 800 miles to the north.

I think this is the new normal--take a chance and potentially overpay on someone GMs think is on the way up vs. OVERPAY for a free agent that in all likelihood has peaked. There's little financial downside for any teams locking in their young talent, even the Cubs, if their bets don't pay off. The shift is moving to paying for future production instead of rewarding the past--every general manager has said that for time immemorial, but it appears that they're actually acting on it as advances in analysis and player evaluation occur. It won't be perfect and there will be moments of regret. Think back on  big-name signings of players over 30 in ANY sport, and then think of how many were key, integral parts of championship teams--I'm drawing a blank other than role players who weren't paid All-Galaxy money. Albert Pujols very well could have a monster season or two ahead of him that will cause the Cardinals regret, but I strongly suspect that $250 million can generate anywhere from 10-12 players that can replace that production. THAT'S the change in thinking, diversifying the allocation of assets instead of sinking everything into one or two stars. Everything else being equal, a team of solids will have more success than one of two stars and a bunch of "ehh"--how many World Series did Barry Bonds win?

"Moneyball" is one of the most derided baseball terms of the past 15 years, and it isn't Billy Beane's fault that Michael Lewis chose it as the title of his book despite anything you'll ever hear White Sox announcers Ken Harrelson and Steve Stone say, but it's a very simple concept to understand--tenaciously seek and exploit market inefficiencies. In the case for future first basemen, it's executing four disparate parts:
1. Work the 6-year clock that begins ticking with the first major league at-bat
2. Judicious use of lucrative contracts to delay free agency until a player is in his early 30s
3. Using the three-year arbitration window to get a more complete picture of a player
4. Accept cutting loose players in their early 30s and reload with younger and cheaper talent
It won't work perfectly every time, but if done correctly (one of the biggest "ifs" in sports) it will produce strong, consistent teams. It's predicated on solid drafting, outstanding teaching in the minors, and as the Rays and Pirates have shown, a willingness to be monumentally BAD for a period of years in order to stockpile talent through the draft. The Cubs are currently in this process and the White Sox would be well-advised to consider it--their major league roster is old and bad with nothing in the minors to replace it. It's not an easy sell for a team already drawing just over half of their stadium capacity (around 21,000 in 2013), but mediocre wasn't drawing much better. 

Baseball has NEVER been kind to big players much over 32--this is the list of players over 225 pounds and the number of home runs from 32 on:
Rk Player HR Wt From To Age G PA AB R H 2B 3B RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
1 Andres Galarraga 283 235 1993 2004 32-43 1315 5203 4689 763 1424 262 16 953 348 1144 .304 .365 .547 .912
2 Jim Thome 278 250 2003 2012 32-41 1166 4590 3782 666 996 192 6 772 750 1171 .263 .386 .538 .924
3 Raul Ibanez 226 225 2004 2013 32-41 1391 5753 5186 748 1439 303 30 867 500 963 .277 .341 .478 .819
4 Frank Thomas 220 240 2000 2008 32-40 951 3983 3307 526 904 178 2 664 591 656 .273 .387 .528 .915
5 Manny Ramirez 208 225 2004 2011 32-39 919 3862 3240 585 989 210 6 691 537 707 .305 .408 .566 .974
6 Jason Giambi 207 250 2003 2013 32-42 1096 3986 3178 498 767 139 1 631 655 823 .241 .386 .481 .867
7 Dave Parker 185 230 1983 1991 32-40 1309 5503 5062 612 1387 259 17 804 365 849 .274 .322 .442 .764
8 David Ortiz 154 250 2008 2013 32-37 717 3043 2611 435 735 189 6 511 402 530 .282 .377 .535 .912
9 Frank Howard 140 255 1969 1973 32-36 669 2660 2254 316 624 76 6 387 381 433 .277 .382 .502 .884
10 Jose Canseco 134 240 1997 2001 32-36 546 2313 1986 322 498 89 1 374 283 593 .251 .347 .499 .846
11 Alex Rodriguez 129 225 2008 2012 32-36 620 2681 2312 397 651 117 4 447 302 508 .282 .370 .503 .873
12 Jason Varitek 114 230 2004 2011 32-39 851 3290 2854 368 711 154 8 412 378 766 .249 .342 .429 .771
13 Torii Hunter 112 225 2008 2013 32-37 797 3378 3045 452 880 171 9 476 275 627 .289 .352 .461 .814
14 Vladimir Guerrero 111 235 2007 2011 32-36 690 2900 2653 376 804 149 7 444 193 311 .303 .355 .490 .845
15 Carlos Lee 105 255 2008 2012 32-36 734 3060 2786 312 775 156 7 462 232 268 .278 .333 .452 .786
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 7/17/2013.
15 players of this type hit more than 100 home runs after 32--going further down the list, only 31 hit at least 50, and that's in ALL OF BASEBALL HISTORY. I'll list the first basemen discussed in this post that DO NOT weigh 225 or more:
Brandon Belt, Todd Helton, Paul Konerko, Eric Hosmer, Justin Morneau (220), Allen Craig (215), Adam LaRoche (200)
Big lumbering first basemen aren't a dying breed as much as an anomaly of the past 15 years that won't be replicated. We'll have fond memories of their deeds but fairly brief discussion of their success, since only Ryan Howard and Albert Pujols were World Series champs. It's a new era in baseball and the longer teams take to make that adjustment, the longer it will take for them to win.

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