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January 27, 2012
The BP Broadside
Who Cares if the Tigers Got Fat?
I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket
I've been a roaming Romeo
That Berlin chestnut (the Yankees can feel free to use it—or anything else—in place of Berlin’s “God Bless America” at the first available seventh-inning stretch) came to mind when the news of Prince Fielder’s nine-year, $214 million contract poked its way through the hairy fabric of my reality. The Tigers were an easy pick to repeat as American League Central champions even before signing Fielder due to the strength of their pitching staff and the bland quality of the competition. Having compensated for the loss of Martinez plus something extra, they can contemplate rampaging through the division and then blasting their way deeper into the postseason than they did last year.
Flags fly forever, of course, but so does Todd Helton’s contract, the one that started out as a nine-year deal worth $141.5 million lasting from 2003 to 2011 and then had to be renegotiated so that it extended through 2013 (with money deferred until 2023), when the first baseman will be 39. Back problems permanently altered Helton’s ability to hit a couple of seasons after the deal was signed. He has often been a very good player since, but hardly the player the Rockies thought they were paying for, and Helton is—to put it delicately—not the unique physical specimen that Fielder is.
Helton’s deal is just one example in a long line of extended-play contracts that didn’t work out as planned, and given his level of production, one of the more benign. There are other good ones—not all LP contracts are doomed to explode—the Yankees got very good on-field value out of the 1981-1991 deal they signed with Dave Winfield (an automatic cost of living adjustment in the contract was a different matter) beginning with his age-30 season, though even there the future Hall of Famer missed all of 1989 due to a herniated disc. It should also be remarked that Winfield was, as body types go, the polar opposite of Fielder.
The deal has been dissected in countless ways, from the high price tag to the likelihood that Fielder will age well enough to make the deal pay given his unique physique. The latter is a red herring, because as we’ve observed from Wayne Garland to Helton to A-Rod, these deals almost always come up short in one way or another. It’s not an “if,” it’s a “when,” and we might as well stop kicking it around and accept it.
As for the high price tag, we can also stop pretending that are less capable of reading the market than we are, or can’t value a player appropriately in the context of their own budget and needs. Yes, Fielder is being overpaid relative to his abilities, the market, the likelihood of his justifying the contract, sanity, or the European debt crisis, but assuming that any person or organization will always, or even often, act according to rational self-interest is spectacularly naïve. If Mike Ilitch wants to spend the money on Fielder because he thinks that will allow him to take a championship ring with him to Duat, then we’re barking up the wrong tree by trying to analyze the deal in terms of rationality. The only analysis that really matters is:
Ilitch has to be all in because going halfway makes even less sense than splurging on the big man in the first place. That means that we need to stop looking at the Tigers as if they were a business and treat them as if they were a rich man’s plaything. We’re not in the realm of sabermetric practice, we’re with Porky in Wackyland and should respond accordingly. You can chide Father William all you want for not playing by the rules you want him to, but there is a word for people who insist that things must be a certain way or they’re wrong: killjoy pedants.
Parenthetically, it is all too easy to analyze a deal in terms of hypothetical alternatives and say, “Instead of spending $20 million a year on a five-win player, they should have spent $10 million on two 2.5-win players,” because that assumes that you can just order the players you want, as if off a menu, and the players have no choice but to cooperate—perhaps one of the 2.5-win guys doesn’t want to go to Detroit, thank you. Additionally, this completely ignores the value of packing more wins into one roster spot.
Whatever Fielder does in the long term, it is going to be tremendous fun to see him and Miguel Cabrera hitting back to back all season, and, if he hits behind them, watching Delmon Young ground into 30 double plays. If Illitch is treating the Tigers that way, it’s okay for us to treat them that way as well. And they all lived happily ever after.
Before you get overly upset by those numbers, remember that (A) being able to take advantage of your home field to that degree is a skill, and (B) a center fielder who hits .291/.331/.430 while playing the kind of defense Kirby did in his prime is still quite valuable. Think of Devon White, playing in some of those same years but with even less offensive consistency, and you’ll get the idea.
The comment piqued my curiosity, so I did a little survey that probably doesn’t prove much of anything but seemed like it could be both fun and give us a hint about those two players and peak consistency. I took the top 200 seasons by a center fielder since 1950, ranked them by WARP, and then asked which players claimed the highest number of seasons. Williams finished in the top ten, one of only nine players to have five or more seasons in the top 200. Puckett did not.
Given that Williams did not get into the Hall but Barry Larkin did, I thought I would try the same trick with shortstops. Similar to the center fielders, the top 18 players contributed over half of the top 200. Here are all players to have three or more seasons in the top 200:
As I said when looking at Williams and Puckett, I don’t think this is an argument that actually proves anything except that, in terms of peak value, Trammell was an important and dominant shortstop, something too often lost when his place in history is assessed.