Bryce Harper, Jose Altuve, and new contract norms

The article has been splashed all over my Android news feed for a couple days now: “Real or not? Bryce Harper is off to a $400 million start” by ESPN.

I have thoughts about this. First the trite ones:

  1. I hate that Google has a default-installed news feed on the home screen of my phone (left swipe!) by selecting what sites and what topics it thinks I want to read. No, clicking on one Parkland shooting news article the day after it happened does not mean that I want to be inundated by the political blathering of both sides in the form of dozens of daily articles from news sources that I would never consider trustworthy, but that lean towards Google’s on brand of corporopolitical feelings. And does it matter how many times I have opted out of cookie tracking or told them “not interested” on certain topics or sites? Not one bit, apparently.
  2. I am glad that ESPN is helping cause the demise of the idea that article headlines need to have a capital letter at the beginning of every word.
  3. ESPN’s premise is really silly here.

Let’s get the obvious go-to of statisticians out of the way first.

Bryce Harper is batting .417/.550/1.167 with zero strikeouts and a 30% walk rate. In four games. That’s not even Top 8 among hitters right now. Mitch Haniger (.625/.727/1.500) and Adam Eaton (.615/.643/1.231) scoff at the scrub who is Harper. Let’s not talk about poor Carlos Correa of the Astros, who is only hitting .412/.474/.765. What a loser.

So pump the breaks on reading anything into the first four games of the season.

Key Point #1: Clubs are being more careful with their money.

Are we really predicting a $400 million contract for Harper after the 2017/18 offseason during which it was proclaimed that free agent contracts were so unfair to players that it indicated collusion among owners?

The Astros’ Jose Altuve is an example of what a real market value for a superstar might be. At age 27, Altuve signed a 7-year $163.5M contract extension that will keep him in Houston through 2024.

Altuve is one year older than Harper will be when he reaches Free Agency, and Altuve accepted a team extension, meaning he may have received more on the open market – but that’s far from a fait accompli. Obviously, Altuve, with the (perhaps grudging?) agreement of his agent Scott Boras, determined that the Astros were not significantly lowballing him.

Altuve has accomplished more in his young career than Harper has. Seven full seasons, posting a WAR of 4.6 or higher for the last four, an MVP award, five All-Star selections, a Gold Glove, a World Series ring, and four Silver Slugger awards.

Given that, how can any reasonable baseball fan suggest (without laughing) that Harper (5 All Star, 1 Silver Slugger, 1 Rookie of the Year award, and a well-deserved MVP award) is worth a contract that is two and a half times what Jose Altuve just earned?

Current MLB owners have better data for evaluating player performance based on aging, opportunity costs of one player versus several, payroll management, etc.

And the penalty for exceeding the MLB luxury tax threshold is harsher than ever.

Key Point #2: Comparisons to recent mega contracts aren’t predictive

Hilarious contract du jour is that which was given to Giancarlo Stanton, then of the Miami Marlins, prior to the 2015 season.  That contract awarded the beefy slugger $325 million over thirteen seasons, plus a $25 million team option with a $10 million buyout for the 2028 season.

But the giver of that contract was former Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, who ran not only one, but two major league franchises into the ground. Most recently, after the sale of the Marlins, the new ownership group has drawn the ire of…everybody…with their slash-and-burn approach towards the payroll when they revealed that the organization was losing money.

The result is a club that, after trading Stanton for basically nothing just to get rid of his contract, will remain noncompetitive probably through the early 2020’s.

Loria was a terrible owner (twice over) when it comes to running a stable sports business, and facts can’t dispute that.

Even with the occasional questionable contract being thrown around, such as the Orioles’ agreement with Chris Davis, bidding against themselves to award him $161 million over seven years, for a player entering his 30’s and with no value beyond the power he provides….

That was about to be a run-on sentence, so let me regather my thoughts.

Even with the occasional questionable contract being thrown around, there’s no historical basis to claim that any current MLB owner is going to top Stanton’s contract by another $75 million or more.

Key Point #3: Harper isn’t worth it. Maybe not even by half.

Harper is really good at baseball. He was unarguably the most-hyped prospect of the past twenty years.

But hold on. He hasn’t really been a special player.

SAY WHAT?

Harper had that one monster year, in 2015. .330/.460/.649 with 42 home runs, posting 9.5 WAR and 197 wRC+. It is undeniably one of the greatest hitting seasons in MLB history.

But beyond that, he has been a very good, but not franchise-changing player.

  • He has never reached 30 home runs during any other of his six full major league seasons.
  • He provides little baserunning value.
  • He is an average to below-average outfield defender by every reliable public defensive metric, during the most athletic years of his life, and it is reasonable to predict he will become worse as he ages…like every baseball player.
  • He has only stayed healthy for a full season once.

This isn’t to take away from what Harper does well, which is get on base a lot and represent a significant power threat. But Mike Trout, Harper is not.

Beyond performance that doesn’t merit the largest contract of all time, he doesn’t even compare favorably to Stanton, who as we established above, was awarded a contract by a fiscally-incompetent owner.

From 2010 through 2014, Stanton batted .266/.354/.586 (145 wRC+), while batting 34 home runs or more three times, also without playing more than one season that can be considered a full one (2011). He was one year younger at the time of his mega deal than Harper will be when he reaches free agency, too.

Harper is batting .285/.387/.518 (142 wRC+) leading up to his free agency, having only reached 30 home runs once, and while suffering from the same failings that Stanton has (baserunning and defense).

It can’t even be reasonably argued that Harper can make more because Free Agency will create a bidding war, whereas Stanton signed a team extension without allowing other teams to get in on the deal. Because, as stated, Stanton’s deal had no precedent, and there is no precedent to suggest that he would have been given that deal from any other non-nuts owner.