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March 10, 2010

One-Hoppers

Battle of the Bad Contracts

by Jay Jaffe

Last Thursday's Brewers-Giants exhibition was notable mostly because Barry Zito plunked Prince Fielder in the back with a pitch. The dust-up was apparently in retaliation for Fielder's elaborate celebration of a 12th-inning walk-off home run last September 6, one culminating in his teammates collapsing in jubilation as he jumped on home plate. A wee bit excessive, though entertaining nonetheless.

The pitch that hit Fielder wasn't exactly a heater; Zito's fastball only averaged 86.5 miles an hour last year, and he certainly wasn't throwing that fast in his spring debut. The unfazed Fielder actually picked the ball up and tossed it back. Brewers starter Jeff Suppan didn't retaliate, probably a good thing given that his fastball only averaged 87.3 MPH last year. A beanball war between those two hurlers would be like watching a pair of elderly men spar with sporks.

The pairing of Zito and Suppan sets up a comparison between two of the game's worst pitching contracts. Zito is in the fourth year of a seven-year, $126 million deal, one which represented the largest contract ever signed by a pitcher at the time (it's since been surpassed by Johan Santana and CC Sabathia). Suppan is in the fourth and final year of a $42 million deal. Check the tale of the tape across the first three years of their deals (all dollar amounts in millions):

Pitcher   IP     K/9    ERA   WARP     Sal    MORP     Net
Zito     568.2   6.4   4.56    3.1   $43.0   $14.0   -$29.0
Suppan   546.0   5.0   4.93    0.5   $26.5    $1.5   -$25.0


MORP is Marginal value Over Replacement Player, a measure which was originally introduced by Nate Silver back in 2005, and is currently under revision by our own Matt Swartz. What MORP does is place a dollar value on a marginal win (i.e., a Win Above Replacement-level Player) which is based upon the actual behavior of recent free agent markets. That dollar value changes from year to year as baseball's economy expands and contracts, but for this back-of-the-envelope calculation, I've substituted a 2007 value of $4.5 million per win, and increased it by five percent in each of the past years. Using that, here's the breakdown of each pitcher's contract thus far (again, all dollar amounts in millions):

Zito
Year   WARP  $M/WARP   MORP     Sal
2007    1.3   $4.50    $5.9   $10.0
2008   -0.7   $4.73   -$3.3   $14.5
2009    2.5   $4.96   $12.4   $18.5
Total   3.1           $14.9   $43.0

Suppan
Year   WARP  $M/WARP   MORP     Sal
2007    2.6   $4.50   $11.7    $6.0
2008   -0.8   $4.73   -$3.8    $8.0
2009   -1.3   $4.96   -$6.4   $12.5
Total   0.5            $1.5   $26.5

Over the life of the two deals thus far, only Suppan's 2007 performance has exceeded the value of his salary. Nonetheless, it's Zito who has produced about 10 times the total MORP as Suppan has. Another way of looking at it is that Zito has provided the Giants with about $1 worth of value for every $3 spent, while Suppan has given the Brewers $1 worth of value for every $18 spent.

As if those figures aren't bad enough, think about the opportunity costs. Zito's contract prevented the Giants from seriously bidding on free agents like Sabathia and Matt Holliday who could have helped the Giants get over the top in the NL West. Suppan's deal prevented the Brewers from substantially upgrading their rotation upon the departures of Sabathia and Sheets last winter, and even with the additions of Randy Wolf and Doug Davis this winter, they're dark horses in the NL Central this year—not the best situation to be in as Fielder's contractual reckoning nears.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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