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November 21, 2014

Pebble Hunting

Hank Aaron's Hypothetical Fortune

by Sam Miller

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The other day, as in not today, but any other day from the storage of prior human existence, Jeff Sullivan did a simple thing that turned out interesting: He took a bunch of guys like Giancarlo Stanton to see how much they would have been worth in the 13 years following their age-24 season. This was interesting for reasons having to do with Giancarlo Stanton’s outlook, which is why Jeff wrote it that day, but it was also interesting for sweet, sweet Fun Fact reasons. At the very, very top of the list was this:

Name Value, $6M/WAR Value, $7M/WAR
Hank Aaron 776 905

Million. Nine hundred and five million. Remember: That’s only his ages 25 through 37 seasons. Aaron was a top-three MVP finisher in the three years before that. He was a down-ballot MVP guy the two years after that. He was still a league-average hitter five years before and five years after. A billion dollars! Imagine, a billion-dollar ballplayer.

So that got me wondering something. Aaron made… well, let’s just see what the first Google result turns up… okay, Aaron made $30,000 in 1959. How much would have have made in 1959 if 1959 was 2014? How much would he have made in his career if he had been born the same year as Giancarlo Stanton (and been exactly as good in this generation as he was in his own)? These are great questions that I thought up all by myself.

(Actually, the origin story is a lie. A man named Joseph told me to do this, so I am.)

Player 1: Hank Aaron
The goal here is going to be to find a comparable modern situation, adjust the contract as necessary to fit the player in question, and generate a career salary box. So we start with Hank Aaron, and we start by trying to find a comparable modern situation.

Aaron debuted at age 20. He played on Opening Day that year, so without any service time manipulations he would have hit free agency after his sixth year, at age 25. In those six years he won two batting titles, led the league in home runs, won an MVP award, finished third three times, won two Gold Gloves (it had existed for only three years at that point). He had 39 career WAR, and in the five years leading up to his hypothetical free agency he had 38 WAR.

There’s basically one player who fits snugly over all those details—Albert Pujols, who in his age 21-25 seasons won a batting title, had five top-five MVP finishes, won one, had an excellent defensive reputation (would win the Gold Glove at 26), averaged 40 homers per season, and produced, in those five years, 37.5 WAR.

The problem with Pujols is that he signed an extension after his third season, which a) we don’t want to have Hank do, for this premise and b) is just a little too early to start saying represents market value, rather than a discount that the player accepts for security. The problem with everybody else recent is that they weren’t as good, or they played a different position. Manny Ramirez hit free agency at 28 and had produced only 30 WAR (in almost 100 more games). Prince Fielder hit free agency at 27 and had produced only 17 WAR. Vernon Wells was 27 with 20 career WAR when he signed his extension. So on. And A-Rod, who you’re waiting for me to mention, was a shortstop. Prefer not to go that route.

So we have three options. One is to bring Barry Bonds into this.

Bonds—27 years old with 50 WAR at free agency, but with about one more full season’s worth of games—set a record with a seven year, $43 million contract to play for the Giants. A record, but not any sort of industry-shattering deal. Bonds was never the highest paid player in the game, for instance; even in 1993 and 1994, Bobby Bonilla earned more than he did, then Cecil Fielder, then Albert Belle. So if Aaron today got a deal like Bonds did, he would be near the top of the salary boards, but it’s unlikely he’d get the $50 million or whatever that he might deserve. An equivalent would be something like seven years, $210 million. Of course, Aaron was younger than Bonds. Ten years, $300 million?

That’ll make you think of Stanton, our option no. 2. Stanton signed the extension instead of seeing what he was really worth on the open market, but got a deal that we could say is comparable to ten years and $300 million—13 and $325 million. (Devalued by backloading, and by having to be a Marlin.) How does Stanton compare to Aaron:

  • Aaron, 20-24: 145 OPS+, 1.74 MVP shares, 22 black ink points, above-average defense, 29.9 WAR, 732 games
  • Stanton, 20-24: 144 OPS+, 0.73 MVP shares, 10 black ink points, above-average defense, 21.2 WAR, 634 games

He compares pretty well, though the MVP and black ink stuff suggests Aaron would have been perceived to be considerably better. His service time clock was one year faster, too. Stanton’s extension would be the floor.

Option no. 3: Miguel Cabrera. Like Stanton, Cabrera signed an extension after his age-24 season with the Marlins, and with four years of service time. His was for eight years and $153 million, though that was in 2008 dollars. Cabrera seems like a better comp for Hank. Is he?

  • Aaron, 20-24: 145 OPS+, 1.74 MVP shares, 22 black ink points, above-average defense, 29.9 WAR, 732 games
  • Cabrera, 20-24: 143 OPS+, 0.77 MVP shares, 0 black ink points, below-average defense, 18.2 WAR, 720 games

No. He’s not. So back to options 1 and 2, a combination of Bonds (but younger) and Stanton (but better). I think that gets us to a 10-year, $320 million contract, topping Miguel Cabrera’s MLB-best $31 million AAV (but not obliterating it) while leveraging his youth for a long-term deal. Call it!

But that only takes us through age 35. What would he get for his ages 36-and-onward years? He finished third in MVP voting at age 35, and his lowest finish in the previous five years was 12th. Here we land back at Bonds, right down to—well, to everything. Near identical defensive ratings, similar stolen base totals, similar MVP finishes, similar WAR totals. Bonds didn’t sign a contract after that year, though; he signed it the following year, which was (to that point) perhaps the greatest offensive season in history. Our comp is lost. We could take Bonds’ five year, $90 million deal and downgrade it a little, scale it to present-day salaries, and come up with something like five and $125 million.

Or we could use Gary Sheffield, who finished third in MVP voting at age 34 and signed with the Yankees as a free agent immediately afterward:

  • Aaron, 32-35: 159 OPS+, 1.11 MVP shares, above-average defense, 31.1 WAR, 620 games
  • Sheffield, 31-34: 160 OPS+, 0.72 MVP shares, below-average defense, 21.2 WAR, 574 games

Sheffield was clearly worse, but also a year younger; Bonds was clearly better, but also a year older. The contracts the two signed are actually very, very different:

  • Bonds 5 years, $90M
  • Sheffield 3 years, $39M

Guess that means teams care more about the better and less about the older. If Aaron is somewhere in the middle, but a bit closer to Bonds than Sheffield, then we’re looking at four years and around six or seven times the MLB average salary—four and $80 million? Victor Martinez just got four and $68 million, with only one year performing at a mid-30s Aaron level, so 4/$80M looks too low in comparison. Let’s double Manny Ramirez’ two year, $45 million contract with the Dodgers and say four years and $90M. You could talk me into $100M.

Which takes him through age 39, and leaves his ages 40-42 seasons. He was still getting MVP votes at age 39—who does that? Jim Thome, as it turns out, who was, like Aaron, still killing baseballs but in increasingly limited duties. Thome can’t match Aaron’s age 39 season (40 homers, 120 games) but gives a pretty good guide to the ages 41 and 42 salaries: Around $3 million for DH work. In between, Bonds’ one-year, $15.8 million contract for his age-42 season works. Bonds was better, but age and inflation adjustments.

So. How much would Hank Aaron have made in his career?

Year Age WAR "Worth" Born Too Soon Born on Time
1954 20 1.3 $8,450,000 $6,000 $500,000
1955 21 6.2 $40,300,000 $10,000 $500,000
1956 22 7.1 $46,150,000 $17,500 $1,000,000
1957 23 8 $52,000,000 $22,500 $8,000,000
1958 24 7.3 $47,450,000 $35,000 $15,000,000
1959 25 8.6 $55,900,000 $35,000 $23,000,000
1960 26 8 $52,000,000 $45,000 $32,000,000
1961 27 9.4 $61,100,000 $45,000 $32,000,000
1962 28 8.5 $55,250,000 $47,500 $32,000,000
1963 29 9.1 $59,150,000 $53,000 $32,000,000
1964 30 6.8 $44,200,000 $61,000 $32,000,000
1965 31 7.8 $50,700,000 $63,500 $32,000,000
1966 32 7.8 $50,700,000 $70,000 $32,000,000
1967 33 8.5 $55,250,000 $92,500 $32,000,000
1968 34 6.8 $44,200,000 $92,500 $32,000,000
1969 35 8 $52,000,000 $92,500 $32,000,000
1970 36 5 $32,500,000 $125,000 $22,500,000
1971 37 7.2 $46,800,000 $125,000 $22,500,000
1972 38 3.9 $25,350,000 $200,000 $22,500,000
1973 39 4.7 $30,550,000 $200,000 $22,500,000
1974 40 2.1 $13,650,000 $200,000 $15,000,000
1975 41 0 $0 $240,000 $4,000,000
1976 42 0.4 $2,600,000 $240,000 $2,500,000
Total N/A 142.5 $926,250,000 $2,118,500 $479,500,000

I think it’s a fair guess based on similar-player contracts that, were Hank Aaron playing today, he would have lower career earnings than Alex Rodriguez, not because Rodriguez has been overpaid (he hasn’t) but because doing better than your aging curve suggests is a great way to get paid a lot but a lousy way to get paid what you’re worth.

I want to do a couple others but I don’t want to make you see my work, so lightning round:

Player 2: Ted Williams
So far as I can tell from reading the current CBA, Williams’ service time clock would have kept ticking for two of the three years of his military service, had they had things like service time clocks back then. It’s less clear whether the club would have had to pay him while he was deployed—players are paid for “regularly scheduled” encampments for the Reserve or National Guard. I think the answer is no; this article about Williams’ second tour of duty notes that “the Red Sox agreed to pay him his full 1952 salary of $85,000,” which implies they had the choice. But, of course, back then the clubs could do just about whatever they wanted.

So Williams, who debuted at the same age as Aaron, would have hit free agency after his age-27 season, coming off an MVP season.

Year Age WAR "Worth" Born Too Soon Born on Time
1939 20 6.7 $43,550,000 $4,500 $500,000
1940 21 6.3 $40,950,000 $12,000 $500,000
1941 22 10.6 $68,900,000 $18,000 $1,000,000
1942 23 10.6 $68,900,000 $30,000 $15,000,000
1943 24 - - - -
1944 25 - - - -
1945 26 - - - -
1946 27 10.9 $70,850,000 $40,000 $25,000,000
1947 28 9.9 $64,350,000 $65,000 $35,000,000
1948 29 8.4 $54,600,000 $65,000 $35,000,000
1949 30 9.1 $59,150,000 $75,000 $35,000,000
1950 31 3.9 $25,350,000 $90,000 $35,000,000
1951 32 7.2 $46,800,000 $90,000 $40,000,000
1952 33 0.3 $1,950,000 $85,000 $40,000,000
1953 34 2 $13,000,000 $85,000 $40,000,000
1954 35 7.8 $50,700,000 $85,000 $40,000,000
1955 36 6.9 $44,850,000 $67,500 $22,500,000
1956 37 6 $39,000,000 $50,000 $22,500,000
1957 38 9.7 $63,050,000 $50,000 $22,500,000
1958 39 4 $26,000,000 $60,000 $22,500,000
1959 40 -0.2 ($1,300,000) $60,000 $18,000,000
1960 41 3 $19,500,000 $60,000 $3,000,000
Total N/A 123.1 $800,150,000 $1,092,000 $453,000,000

Comps: Ryan Howard, Barry Bonds, Hypothetical Hank Aaron, David Ortiz, Jim Thome

Player 3: Sandy Koufax

Year Age WAR "Worth" Born Too Soon Born on Time
1955 19 0.9 $5,850,000 $6,000 $0
1956 20 -0.3 ($1,950,000) $6,000 $0
1957 21 1.3 $8,450,000 $10,000 $500,000
1958 22 1.1 $7,150,000 $10,000 $500,000
1959 23 2.1 $13,650,000 $14,000 $1,000,000
1960 24 1.5 $9,750,000 $19,000 $2,250,000
1961 25 5.7 $37,050,000 $18,500 $3,500,000
1962 26 4.4 $28,600,000 $27,500 $9,000,000
1963 27 10.7 $69,550,000 $35,000 $18,000,000
1964 28 7.4 $48,100,000 $70,000 $18,000,000
1965 29 8.1 $52,650,000 $110,000 $18,000,000
1966 30 10.3 $66,950,000 $125,000 $18,000,000
1967 31 0 $0 $0 $18,000,000
1968 32 0 $0 $0 $18,000,000
Total N/A 53.2 $345,800,000 $451,000 $124,750,000

Comps: A little Oliver Perez (really!), a little CC Sabathia, a lot of Mike Hampton. By the time he gets to the really, really good comps—the Pedros and Randy Johnsons—he’s probably already under a contract that will outlast his career.

Note also that I’m pushing his career back two years. No way Koufax spends his age 19 and 20 seasons in the majors if he’s born at the right time.

Player 4: Vada Pinson

Year Age WAR "Worth" Born Too Soon Born on Time
1958 19 0.2 1300000 N/A $500,000
1959 20 6.5 42250000 N/A $500,000
1960 21 5.6 36400000 N/A $500,000
1961 22 7.5 48750000 N/A $1,000,000
1962 23 4.7 30550000 N/A $5,250,000
1963 24 6.4 41600000 N/A $15,250,000
1964 25 3.9 25350000 N/A $19,250,000
1965 26 5.4 35100000 N/A $33,250,000
1966 27 2.7 17550000 N/A $33,250,000
1967 28 3.5 22750000 N/A $33,250,000
1968 29 1.3 8450000 N/A $18,000,000
1969 30 0.6 3900000 $60,500 $18,000,000
1970 31 2.3 14950000 $60,500 $18,000,000
1971 32 0.6 3900000 $61,500 $18,000,000
1972 33 2.4 15600000 N/A $18,000,000
1973 34 0.4 2600000 N/A $10,000,000
1974 35 0.8 5200000 $66,000 $10,000,000
1975 36 -0.7 -4550000 $68,000 $10,000,000

Comps: Mike Trout; B.J. Upton; Curtis Granderson. Pinson is basically the worst-case Mike Trout scenario. He was still “worth” the extension Mike Trout signed. That’s why he’s here, and because Vada Pinson means SEO dollar$.

Notes: Used $6,500,000 per win; used B-Ref’s WAR because it goes back further than WARP; all salaries listed for old players are via B-Ref; italicized means I filled it in with a reasonable guess.

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

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