What’s the Number?

By: Ryan Thoms

Reading Time: 5 minutes

After one of the most peculiar and slow progressing Major League Baseball free agency periods in recent memory, the free agent class of 2018 is set to be stacked, especially with one of baseball’s most dynamic players, Bryce Harper, set to hit the open market for the first time. After Harper’s monstrous 2015, which saw him win the NL MVP, he dropped off significantly in 2016. Despite his 2017 freak injury in the season’s final months, Harper was able to bounce back nicely in every statistical category. However, 2018 was a mixed bag for Harper as he struggled with consistency and had trouble reaching his full potential with the bat.  Below is a table of Harper’s four most recent seasons and his career accolades:

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Accolades: 6-time All-Star, NL MVP, NL MVP 12th, NL MVP 30th, Silver Slugger, Rookie of the Year

The 25-year-old, seven-year veteran is set to earn a monster contract due to his once in a generation offensive capabilities. While baseball will occasionally see a premium defender with average offensive output get a major payday – looking at you Jason Heyward – the massive contracts that have historically been given out are as a result of MVP-caliber production with the bat. To dig deeper into this,I took the eleven highest contracts rewarded to offensive players in Major League Baseball and charted them below with the player’s fWAR and wRC+ in their contract year.  I decided to stick with the smaller sample size, because Harper is extremely likely to become a member of this list and potentially top it, so I wanted to focus on the players that were in the most similar situation to Harper. Next to the salary each player received, I documented what figure they would have received based on inflation in 2018.

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Let’s start with WAR. WAR is a statistic that attempt to encompass the holistic value of a player. It takes into account defense, base running, and offense, and the outputted value represents how many more wins that player is worth than the average minor league player. Taking the contract year fWAR (Fangraphs’ version of the statistic) of each of the eleven players and putting it up against the 2018 value of their received contract creates the following relationship:

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There is a moderately positive correlation in a player’s fWAR and the contract they offered the for the following season, the R-squared value of .4404 depicts that fWAR from the player’s contract year is a middle-of-the-pack predictor. Now, if you compare this to the correlation and R-squared value of wRC+, there is not a drastic difference:

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wRC+ is a measurement of a player’s total offensive output that takes into account the effects of a player’s home field. It shows how many runs a player is worth compared to other players, which is important to teams, because scoring runs, wins baseball games, and this is reflected in the relationship above. wRC+ is only slightly more of an explanation to overall contract value than WAR. While it is obvious that wRC+ is not a perfect predictor of contract and that wRC+ cannot be assumed to be the causation of high contracts, these two charts do demonstrate that teams rely heavily on offense production when giving out contracts. Looking at a player’s production over the past four years as more of a long-term performance factor actually has a more negative relationship than the results from contract years as depicted by the two plots below.

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So, using the equation for the line of best fit presented in the second chart for wRC+ (it was the closest predictor for past contracts), we can make an educated guess on what kind of contract Harper could potentially demand based on his offensive production.

Using his wRC+ for the 2018 season, Harper would be projected to command a contract of approximately 248 million dollars. While this is a hefty payday, it is not representative of the amount Harper will likely end up getting on the open market, due to his age and potential impact for the team that signs him. However, if we take a look at it his best season in the majors, there is a different story.

In 2015, Harper had one of the greatest offensive seasons since the infamous Steroid Era, and he garnered the National League MVP award. 2015 was a career year, and many baseball minds, believe he is capable of reproducing that offensive output given the right situation. However, he has not been able to prove that the 2015 season he had is truly representative of his talents. His 197 wRC+ from 2015 is four runs better than Miguel Cabrera’s legendary 2013 season, which saw him earn 292-million dollars, or an adjusted amount of 316-million dollars, which is in line with what many people believe Harper may receive this offseason. Using the linear equation from earlier, if Harper’s ceiling is being evaluated based on his success from 2015, he would be projected to earn a contract north of 316-million dollars.

c6374c5b-48c2-486d-80b6-a4e62964db21-large16x9_AP_18198100163865The next step is determining the length of the contract. To solve for this, we can use the same relationship illustrated in the second graph, but use the adjusted average annual values for the players in the table instead of the adjusted total contract value. Once Harper’s projected adjusted AAV is determined, his total projected contract value can be divided by it in order to get an approximation of the length of the deal. Here is the linear trend line for AAV:

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Using the equation of the line and Harper’s MVP-season stats, Harper’s AAV would project to be 32.8 million dollars. Dividing this from his 319-million-dollar deal gives us approximately a ten-year deal, which would keep Harper under contract until after his age-35 season. If teams decide his market-value should be based more on what he displayed statistically in 2017, then his contract value would be significantly lower. The projected contract would be along the lines of 9-10 years and 250-million dollars.

 

Harper is due for a major payday, regardless if his agent is able to convince teams he is a perennial MVP or just one of the better offensive players in the majors. Now, only time can tell whether or not he will break the record for the largest contract in the sport’s history. If teams are sold on his elite potential, expect to see a contract in double-digit years and north of 300-million. However, if his other years of lackluster play (to his standards), including 2018, are more of an indicator of his play for the long-term, expect teams to wait until his 300-million-dolar asking price drops.

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