Thursday, June 9, 2016

Is Freddie Freeman worth $20M+ a year?

Freddie Freeman is signed through 2021, this year making around $12M for the 2016 season. His contract is back-loaded for the remaining 5 years to coincide with the opening of SunTrust Park and the subsequent income that such a park provides. But Freddie is currently suffering through his worst season ever in his career, he's had issues with a wrist injury that's never had surgery or been fully explained, and by all media accounts he's never going to volunteer to be a leader on this team. The question we must ask as Braves fan in all fairness is if Freddie Freeman is a $110M+ player going forward over the next 5 years?

Freddie is without a doubt the biggest fan favorite on this team, so I realize when I ask these kinds of questions many of you won't think rationally about the issue. You love Freddie and don't want to hear about the issues. You fully expect that he will bounce back from his downswing this year, and that the writers who bring this up are just ridiculous haters. I totally get that. I'm not here to say Freddie will or won't bounce back. I'm simply asking the question of where he is as a player with the Braves, and what his contract says he should be by comparison to others in the market.

Based on other people's analysis of WAR calculations over at Fangraphs, they would say that in today's market that one point on the WAR scale would be worth about $5-7M a year in contract value. Whether or not you agree with how WAR is calculated can sort of play into this math, I personally think it overrates some defensive statistics, but let's just say that across the board I think the analysis is good to provide a dollar value baseline for looking at contracts. You can find the article here: http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/the-cost-of-a-win-in-the-2014-off-season/

Historically let's also look at some of the highest paid first baseman in history. I'll pick names like Ryan Howard, Albert Pujols, Mark Teixeria, Todd Helton, and Carlos Delgado. These men made ridiculous amounts of money at the time they played, and were considered at the time among the best at their position. I wanted to give you an idea of how they look at a context for the rest of the piece. Here's their numbers according to Baseball Reference:

Albert Pujols - $179M paid, $165M remaining, $344M total. Currently 99.9 WAR w/ 6 seasons left
Ryan Howard - $155M paid, $35M remaining, $190M total. Currently 14.9 WAR, w/ 2 seasons left
Mark Teixeria - $190M paid, $23M remaining, $213M total. Currently 51.8 WAR, w/ 1 season left
Todd Helton - $161M paid, no money remaining as he's retired, 61.2 WAR career
Carlos Delgado - $146M paid, no money remaining as he's retired, 44.3 WAR career

Obviously, all of these guys except for Ryan Howard are in Hall of Fame discussion, with Pujols being an absolute lock. If you looked at them by today's standard of even $5M per WAR, the Pujols career earnings would be a steal, coming out ahead by almost $150M, and that's even if he sucks for the next 6 years. Also by comparison, even if Ryan Howard made $7M per WAR, he'll never come close to what he was paid, as he's short of his career values by almost $85M right now. The rest of these guys all outperformed their contracts, even if they were the highest paid athletes at the time.

It's also a HUGE indication of inflation in contracts because these guys made gigantic money back when they signed these deals. Contracts today are even bigger. By Comparison That's the one of the things I wanted to show you. If you look at the contracts today, total MLB payroll was ~$3.625 billion for the year. Ten years ago in 2006, the total payroll was $2.325 billion. That's an inflation of 56% over the span of a decade.

Another important thing to note with guys like Pujols is timing. He signed most of his huge deal late in his career when he had already produced his best baseball. He was a supreme bargain for years, and now if you took the production for the remainder of his contract, he's a gigantic drag on the team. But over averages, the Cardinals came out WAY ahead on his deal no matter how you slice it up, if you remove the 10-year $10M per year personal services part of his contract he gets when he retires. MLB no longer allows deals like that, and he's the reason why.

Now let's look at the best qualified first basemen from 2011 up to right now. That would encompass all of Freddie Freeman's career except the few ABs he got in 2010, which was almost nothing. Here's a list of the current best in 1B listings by WAR from Fangraphs:

Miguel Cabrera 31.4
Joey Votto 27.2
Paul Goldshmidt 23.6
Adrian Gonzalez 19.3
Edward Encarnacion 17.3
Anthony Rizzo 16.1
Chris Davis 16.0
Carlos Santana 15.7
Freddie Freeman 15.6
Mike Napoli 14.8

Right now Freddie Freeman is 9th on that WAR list by position. He's played 5.5 seasons, and he's at 15.6 WAR, which is about 2.84 WAR per season. Looking at the $5-7M mark he should be worth on average about $14.2M to $19.88M a year depending on highs and lows. He's set to make $20.5M next season and $118.5M total over the next 5 years.

By the current views of his contract (he's making $12M a year and has made $27.6M total at the end of this year) he's a freaking bargain. The question is based on his total contract value of $133.50M until 2021, will he produce enough WAR to provide equal or better value?

With his value at 15.6 WAR right now, if I take an average of $6M a year needed for a per WAR point, Freddie would only need to produce 6.7 WAR over his next 5 seasons to reach the average total career expected for his earnings. But that's not exactly how it looks due to timing right? Because he's due $106.5M over the next 5 years, and to produce under those terms without looking at his prior WAR, Freddie would need to get 17.8 WAR, or almost 3.5 WAR a year. He has only produced 3.5 WAR twice in his career, in 2013-14.

Again, you can see by the timing expectations of when the money actually comes in how fans view the contracts. On the whole for all of the service involved, it may look fine. But when taken on a year by year basis for actual earnings? It may look horrible (like Pujols).

Freddie should also be judged by the contracts of his peers and their performance. After all, the MLB is a pretty small fraternity of players at each position, and the players currently define the contract value not their comparison to players of old. It's simple supply and demand. Take Joey Votto as an example. He's got a contract that's even longer than Freeman's (Joey is due $20M this year and $172M after that for a total of $253M in his career) and since he's older this was his last contract ever.

Freeman will get one more most likely. Looking at Joey's 27.2 WAR, he's already made $163M of his contract before he sets foot on the field today, but he would still have to make 15 WAR more over the rest of his career to make that contract work. Will he do just that? He's 32 and sitting at 0.7 this year on Fangraphs. I'm not sure. I certainly like the odds of Freeman getting to 6.7 WAR over 5 years much better (but fans wouldn't given that's not the production the Braves are hoping for).

The long and short of the question is that yes, I believe Freddie Freeman is worth the contract unless he completely goes into the tank or gets into serious injuries like Ryan Howard. That's what really turned Howard's questionable long term deal into a horrible disaster. But Freeman is only 26 and will still have some earning power ahead of him in 2021 when he's just into his 30s. And in the meantime, I think the Braves will reap some of those rewards from him, as long as he can maintain at least 2.5 average WAR a year pace minimum in my eyes. It all balances out in the end with the money.

GO BRAVES!

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