Long Term Deals - How Risky Are They

Wednesday, December 13 2023 @ 05:35 PM EST

Contributed by: John Northey

With not just free agents, but some of our own home grown stars this is becoming a big question for the Jays - do you lock in a player for a decade or do you say 'screw it'?

Let's dig into some data - I downloaded all the raw data I could from FanGraphs (surprised how easy they made it). So all WAR figures are fWAR. Baseball Reference didn't have a simple method to do this without paying (and even then I don't think they have it without doing lots of stuff that would give me headaches). This is all for hitters only first.

Going by age, there are a handful of players who played pre-18 (109 player seasons, youngest was 14) but none had 502 PA, nor did any get 2 WAR (expectation of a full time player) so we'll ignore those children. 2,677 player seasons had no age, just 13 were full-time, 76 had 2+ WAR, peak of 6.97 for George Shafer in 1884 - the most recent player was from 1948 with the majority (including all 1948 players) being Negro Leaguers (thus never 500+ PA), with all 500+ PA players being pre 1890 (IE: when MLB was more like fast pitch softball). Thus eliminating that data shouldn't affect anything. The oldest full-timer was 43 (Cap Anson) with Carlton Fisk 1 PA shy in his age 43 season (how the heck did a catcher do that?). The oldest to get 2+ WAR was 45 (John Henry Lloyd in the Negro Leagues in 59 games - 365/416/525, WOW, sadly no stats pre age 37 for him as stats are only there for 1921-1929 when he started in 1905). From age 46 on only 11 player seasons exist, with none getting 2+ WAR, so we'll just ignore the post-age 43 data for this exercise (fun, but not really useful).

So of all players playing - what percent are worth 2+ WAR (ie: enough to be worth playing everyday)? It goes from 0% at age 18 to 17.2% at age 31, then dropping to 2.2% by age 43. Limit it to 5+ WAR guys (stars) and compare to full time (as few can do that in under 502 PA) and you go from 0% at 18/19, peaks at 26.4% at 20 (if you get a ML job at 20 you obviously are damn good and forced the issue), and hovers in the 10-20% range until age 36 and hits 0 at 43. At 42 Luke Appling cracked 5 WAR and Carlton Fisk nearly did (4.96) while PED Bonds was at 3.2 for 3rd place. So it is possible, but highly unlikely to be a star at 42. Note: If I compare 5+ WAR seasons to all players it drops to a peak of 3.2% (age 29 - no shock as that generally is seen as the core of a players peak years, with 3.1% at 28 and 30, sub 1% at 39 and beyond).

How many 5+ WAR seasons have occurred? 2331 for hitters all time (2 by Ohtani with just his bat). To be worth $70 mil via bat only that is what he needs to produce - well, actually he'd need to be up to 7 WAR but that ain't happening as a DH. 601 seasons of 7+ hitter WAR seasons have happened, but most had a lot of defensive value. For pure offense you'd need 70+ runs created - only 84 of those have happened ever, fewer than 1 per year of ML history with many being by Bonds, Gehrig (7 each) and Ruth (10). 6 times each for Ted Williams and Rogers Hornsby, 4 for Cobb. Basically only Bonds* has more than 3 of these since integration in '47 (3 of Williams were pre, 3 post inc '47). So yeah, his odds of being worth his deal by just his bat is very, very low.

So, for star level players (5 WAR at least once before age 30 - 766 players) how long do they last after each age and what do they produce? Obviously with each year we get more players added in. FYI: only 26 players have 10+ 5+ WAR seasons with Hank Aaron and Ty Cobb leading the way at 18 each. Bonds the most for guys who played at least 1 game in the 2000's at 17, Rickey Henderson at 12, Ken Griffey Jr.-Miguel Cabrera-Alex Rodriguez-Albert Pujols at 10 each covers all 10+ 5+ WAR season guys who played at least 1 game in the 2000's. All the rest who reached 5+ WAR 10 times played the final game of their career in the 1900-1999 era. This table is all guys with 5 WAR seasons by age, who started in 2013 or earlier (so we have 10+ years of data for them). Bust post 30 is under 10 WAR at 30+, Wow 30+ is 20+ WAR from 30 on up.

AgePlayersWAR Pre AgeWAR after ageYears of 5+ WAR leftWAR Age 30+Bust 30+Wow 30+Example Player
20131.279.89.729.148Mike Trout
21221.964.36.720.9128Ronald Acuña Jr.
22482. Guerrero Jr.
23813.638.23.115.04026Bo Bichette
24804.332.82.615.03424Fred McGriff
251155.324.41.612.56427Matt Chapman
261186.022.01.313.45534Shohei Ohtani
27907.915.20.712.04419Vernon Wells
28768.617.10.913.93920Marcus Semien
29679.013.20.615.12520José Bautista
304611.310.60.516.91315Aaron Hill
312716.311.20.420.2412Moises Alou

By 31 we are seeing more and more retired, so not much point in pushing it further. Just 40 guys had their first season of 5+ WAR post 31 (Jeff Kent an example). Only an idiot would sign a 10+ year deal for a 32 year old anyways (outside of trying to game the luxury tax of course).

So what do we see? When a guy has his first big year it is critical in deciding how many more he'll have. A 20 year old having a 5+ WAR season is a miracle - sign that guy for life, as you likely have 10 more of those coming and a HOF career with a with a 30% chance of a bust - but 2 of the 4 sub 30's are Mike Trout and Manny Machado who both are still young (Trout has 9 WAR and is entering age 32, Machado is entering age 31 season and has 3.5 WAR in his 30's so far) The other 2 were Griffey Jr (injury issues after a great age 30 season) and Vada Pinson. At 21 you have a very good player who might be a HOF'er. Age 22 you have a HOVG player (this is Vlad's slot), age 23 is Bo's spot and not much different than Vlad's, Age 24 still is likely to be solid, but by 25 things start dropping fast. For example players I tired to use guys with either a Jays connection or who everyone knows. From age 21-29 if a guy has his first 5 WAR season he is less likely to be 'wow' in his 30s than a bust in his 30s.

Now for pitchers

AgePlayersWAR Pre AgeWAR after ageYears of 5+ WAR leftWAR Age 30+Bust 30+Wow 30+Example Player
1977.422.71.31.170Dwight Gooden
20112. Blyleven
21183. Valenzuela
22203.425.91.72.8181Lary Sorensen
23434.727.62.06.5335Roger Clemens
24375.629.52.111.3228Pedro Martinez
25577. Stieb
26546. Buehrle
27457.516.61.07.9298Pat Hentgen
28409.413.40.68.02310A.J. Burnett
29309.719.11.215.01010Randy Johnson
302211.819.10.819.1312Chris Carpenter
312013.19.60.315.127Kevin Gausman

Note: there was a 16 and an 18 year old who had 5+ WAR but they were Jim Britt & Larry McKeon (both done by 1886 when Louisville had a ML team and running starts were still a thing with the mound still just 50' away...imagine modern baseball that way). At 19 you get Dwight Gooden who many here have heard of, and many saw pitch live, plus Gary Nolan who some saw live too (he retired the year the Jays started) and a few guys who pitched in the majors before the AL existed. Gooden was almost a Blue Jay but Gillick liked Augie Schmidt more. Sigh.

One thing that jumped out at me was how pitchers were less likely to have a 'WOW' career than hitters by having a 5 WAR season young. The best average outcome was at age 20 with 42.6 WAR left, but no other age had 30+ left vs hitters at 20 having nearly 80 left, 64 at 21, and 3 more years in the 30's (22/23/24). My quick thought from this is pitching greatness for a single season is more likely fluke than it is for hitters, plus pitchers are also FAR more likely to blow their arm out and thus end or shorten their career (see Ohtani for an example of hitter and pitcher at once and how that injury can stop a pitcher but a hitter just keeps going).

Also of note: 783 hitters who had a 5+ WAR season vs 404 pitchers. Much harder for a pitcher to do it than a hitter, but starting at age 26 the pitchers are likely to have a slightly better career than the hitters who first have that type of year then.

FYI: at 25 you get a LOT of Jays - Dave Stieb, Roy Halladay, Mark Eichhorn, Juan Guzman, Bill Singer, Erik Hanson, Mat Latos, Josh Johnson.

So what does this all tell us? If the Jays sign Vlad & Bo for ages 26-35 they have a good shot at getting value. Guys who had a 5 WAR season by age 26 averaged over 20 WAR for those ages - so $200+ mil of value (after this winter I have to think a WAR is worth about $10 mil). Vlad's year (age 22) average 24.0 WAR, Bo's (age 23) average 27.1 for that window. So even a $300 mil over 10 years deal might work out, but I'd be more comfortable with a $250 mil deal. Someone like Soto (age 20) averages 45.2 over those years, thus a $400-500 mil deal should be coming his way next winter. Gives us a ballpark to start from at least. As a rule ages 36 and beyond are write offs - only Barry Bonds from 36 on had over 40 WAR (54), with 4 others in the 30's (Ted Williams the most recent), most recent with 20+ WAR was Carlton Fisk (20.1) with Edgar Martinez at 19.8 next. For all 5+ WAR guys, the average is sub 10 WAR for age 36 up. Bottom line, don't count on any player being worth much post 35 unless PED fueled.

Looking at pitchers post 36 you get a different story - #1 is Randy Johnson at 52.9, with 40's by Cy Young, Nolan Ryan, and Phil Niekro (talk about 3 very different pitchers!). 5 guys in the 30's, 17 more in the 20's (Verlander is still shy of 20). Wow. Pitchers can do it late on, especially today with the modern surgery and the like. Despite that I'd still not sign pitchers to 10+ year deals even if they established themselves as aces since their WAR Age 30+ is not that impressive for any group outside of those who first do it at age 29 (age 29 averages are goosed by Randy Johnson, a unique talent).

Future questions I think worth asking are how does multiple 5+ WAR seasons affect things? What about position for batters? I'm sure many other factors exist to be dug into. Hopefully everyone here found this fun to look at as I did digging into it. Next challenge is getting all the draft data (no one seems to have an easily downloadable list of all draft picks for all years) and IFA data (when signed by whom).