How Bad, Historically Speaking, Is Ryan Howard’s Contract?

Photo credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Photo credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Crosswalk

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It’s not difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when the Phillies saw their future prospects go from perennial contenders to soon-to-be basement dwellers in one of Major League Baseball’s weakest divisions. The hopes and dreams of a city, just two postseasons removed from a second World Series appearance, came crashing down about 10 feet outside of the left-handed batter’s box at Citizens Bank Park.

The St. Louis Cardinals celebrated their 1-0 victory in Game 5 of the 2011 NLDS, jumping around starting pitcher Matt Chris Carpenter, while Ryan Howard lay in a heaping pile, clutching that left Achilles. That moment, compounded with the well-documented managerial failures in the team’s front office, leaves the Phils exactly where everyone predicted they would be just a handful of years later.

Their trouble, however, really started more than a year prior to that fateful October night, when Ruben Amaro Jr. went all-in on a 30-year-old first baseman who was already showing signs of deteriorating. Howard’s five-year, $125 million, highly-toxic extension was a preview of things to come, in terms of just how terrible RAJ is at his job.

Now, give Howard at least a little credit. Three full seasons later, he’s starting to show a few signs of life, or at least a second wind in the latter stages of his career. His 11 homers through the first two months of the season put him on pace to hit 32 by October—a number he hasn’t come close to since before the injury. That obviously won’t matter as long as he continues to take up space on a roster that ranks dead last in the NL in runs scored (175), OPS (.636), and RBIs (166), and second to last in batting average (.236) and on-base percentage (.287). But maybe it’s enough to garner some interest from an AL team looking to add a left-handed bat by the trade deadline.

Again though, even if they can find a team willing to make a deal, the contract is going to bite them. And that got me thinking—with all of the shit we give him, just how bad, historically speaking, is Howard’s contract compared to the other $100 million+ deals that have been put together over the past few years? Of course, in a sport with seemingly endless statistics, there are myriad ways you could look at this. But let’s stick with baseball nerds’ favorite go-to number: WAR. Wins above replacement.

In the chart below, you’ll find a list of every position player signed to a nine-figure contract since 2008 along with their average WAR prior to their big signing, their average WAR since the contract began, and the difference between the two. There are a few names missing (most notably guys like Giancarlo Stanton, Mike Trout, and Miguel Cabrera) but that’s because their contracts haven’t kicked in yet or they don’t have a full season under their belt with their new deal, so their “average WAR since” can’t be tracked/I didn’t think it was fair to go off of two months of a season. This is my table and I’ll construct it however I damn well please! So, have a look:

Player Team Contract Year started Avg WAR prior Avg WAR since Difference
Albert Pujols

LAA

10/$240,000,000

2012

7.9

3.4

-4.5

Alex Rodriguez

NYY

10/$275,000,000

2008

7.9

3.6

-4.3

Shin-Soo Choo

TEX

7/$130,000,000

2014

4.1

0.1

-4.0

Ryan Zimmerman

WAS

6/$100,000,000

2014

4.2

0.4

-3.8

Joey Votto

CIN

10/$225,000,000

2012

5.6

1.9

-3.7

Ryan Howard

PHI

5/$125,000,000

2012

2.7

-0.5

-3.2

Carl Crawford

LAD/BOS

7/$142,000,000

2011

4.3

1.1

-3.2

Josh Hamilton

LAA

5/$125,000,000

2013

4.1

1.5

-2.6

Matt Kemp

LAD/SD

8/$160,000,000

2012

3.5

1.3

-2.2

Joe Mauer

MIN

8/$184,000,000

2011

5.3

3.3

-2.0

Mark Teixeira

NYY

8/$180,000,000

2009

5.2

2.9

-1.3

Troy Tulowitzki

COL

10/$157,750,000

2011

5.2

4.3

-0.9

Dustin Pedroia

BOS

8/$110,000,000

2014

5.6

4.9

-0.7

Jose Reyes

MIA/TOR

6/$106,000,000

2012

3.6

2.9

-0.7

Prince Fielder

DET/TEX

9/$214,000,000

2012

2.8

2.1

-0.7

David Wright

NYM

8/$138,000,000

2013

4.9

4.2

-0.7

Adrian Gonzalez

BOS/LAD

7/$154,000,000

2012

4.5

3.8

-0.7

Jayson Werth

WAS

7/$126,000,000

2011

3.3

2.7

-0.6

Freddie Freeman

ATL

8/$135,000,000

2014

3.2

2.9

-0.3

Jacoby Ellsbury

NYY

7/$153,000,000

2014

3.4

3.3

-0.1

Matt Holliday

STL

7/$120,000,000

2010

3.9

3.9

0.0

Robinson Cano

SEA

10/$240,000,000

2014

5.0

6.4

1.4

Buster Posey

SF

9/$167,000,000

2013

3.1

5.1

2.0

Right away, the obvious point that can be made is, based on WAR alone—which many stat heads consider to be the grandaddy stat of them all—Howard, despite the injuries and plummeting production, has been out-underperformed by five guys, three of whom were signed to longer and twice-as-expensive deals. And then there’s the fact that nearly every name on the list saw at least a slight dip in their production post-big-deal.

To feel good about this is still pointless. It’s like taking a test home from school that you failed, but trying to explain to your parents that everything’s fine because there were a few other kids in the class who failed it so much worse that you did. “Sure, mom, I got a 55/100. I know that’s bad. But remember Johnny? Yeah, well, he only got a 23, so that makes him twice as stupid as I am! See, aren’t you proud? At least I’m not that dumb. And also, like, almost everyone did really bad. I wasn’t the only one. Are you still upset?” Of course mom’s still going to be disappointed—her kid’s an idiot.

But hey, he could always end up in a front office somewhere pulling the strings for a big league ball club.

[Editor’s note: I think this is a great framework for a post, but completely disagree with the analysis. Yeah, Howard is less disappointing than his peers, but he also had the lowest WAR on this list prior to signing his contract, and is the only guy with a NEGATIVE WAR (he’s literally worse than the average bear!) after it. Most of these guys, after their decline, are still better than Howard was before his deal. Sure, injuries have played a part. But the fact that he was signed to the deal in the first place just speaks to Amaro’s idiocy (honest: I didn’t have a problem with it at the time). Without doing any research, I would assume this list confirms that Howard is the worst player in history to sign a $100 million or more deal.]

The lesson learned from all of this has to be that $100-million deals are basically pointless, right? I mean, based on past performance, a player at the top of their game is going to command, in turn, top-dollar. But anyone who knows anything about baseball (or who’s read Nate Silver’s analysis of the game and about his age curve model) knows that by the time a player has done enough to sign that big of a deal, their best days are likely behind them.

Follow @rlstott on Twitter, and visit www.fullycoveredsports.com for more.

 

[pvc_paratheme ]
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7 Responses

  1. Possible silver lining is that Howard’s deal is only five years and will end before almost all of the other deals. A lot of these guys are singed thru 2020.

  2. During these past few winters, I was told something about the Phillies front office that really shocked me: They’re dumb. Not bright, but slow. I first refused to accept stupidity as the reason for the Phillies ineptitude, because there is so much hope invested into a ballclub. It’s inconceivable that the hopes of an entire franchise be entrusted to a bunch of waterheads. Are children allowed to play catch with the holy grail? Why can’t Kyle Scott be given the job?

    But lets continue to let someone who thinks “OBP” was a Naughty By Nature song from 1991 run a multi-million dollar ball club. The same guy who thinks “WAR” was a band that he listened to back in his teenage years in Olney hanging with the essays. This team is getting what it deserves, unless they want to throw Ryan Howard money to make Billy Beane come here (The only way that’s happening is if the Athletics come back to Philly) then there’s going to be some suckage of the highest order.

  3. Great topic. Terrible numbers. Plus, which WAR did you use? (WAR on Fangraphs is different than WAR on Baseball-Reference)

    WAR should be adjusted to 650 PA to adjust the weighting of seasons to accurately weigh Howard’s 2004 September call up and 2005 half season. Doing that and using Baseball-Reference’s WAR gives you:

    – Howard before contract (per 650 PA using baseball-reference’s WAR): 4.0
    – Howard post contract: 0.7

    Ironically, the difference is pretty close but, to the editor’s point, this makes Howard’s post contract WAR positive and that’s a different ball of wax.

    Plus, we’d have to check the others… How would this change, say, Joey Votto.

    Pre-contract: 5.9
    Post-contract: 6.8

    That’s a huge difference! It’s what happens when you properly weigh his contributions (he missed most of 2014 due to injury but when he played he was solid.)

    1. Just to give some context, the numbers I used for each player, from Baseball-Reference, included their first full season in the majors (which I judged as being active in at least 81 games). I didn’t use the adjusted WAR either, but obviously recognize the difference made there, so it’d be interesting to go back and redo the list.

      1. Once you start drawing arbitrary lines and dismissing certain numbers while counting others, you lost me.

        Although, it’s very unlikely anyone gets a contract based on the sum of their work and it’s more likely based on the last season or two. Gets dicey when you look at a guy like A-Rod who had many years under his belt vs. Posey. And Votto gets penalized for playing 60 or so games in 2014 but A-Rod gets a pass for missing all of 2014. That’s a problem.

  4. Also, what does it matter if the contract hasn’t “kicked in” yet? Once the ink is wet, the contract is in place. Not sure why the contract not being “kicked in” would matter.

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