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December 4, 2013

Transaction Analysis

Yankees Add Ellsbury, Overpay Only By Other Teams' Standards

by Ben Lindbergh


NEW YORK YANKEES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed CF-L Jacoby Ellsbury to a seven-year, $153 million contract with an option for an eighth year. [12/3]

When the Ellsbury contract is over, it’s not going to look good, dollars-per-win-wise. Let’s just note that up front, accept it, and move on, because you can bet than Brian Cashman already has.

When we rank general managers by how well they’ve deployed their dollars, the Yankees’ GM consistently ranks near the bottom. But even if Cashman cares that his “Payroll Efficiency Rating” places him alongside front-office failures like Bill Bavasi and Steve Phillips, the sight of his five World Series rings (four earned as GM) probably eases the sting. For all we know, he daydreams about giving it all up for a team with an eight-figure payroll and making shrewd moves that people write books about, but he likes life as a Yankee enough to have suckled at the Steinbrenner teat for close to 30 years. In New York, there’s no need to, say, sign a 38-year-old Jose Molina to catch because he offers the best bang for the buck, or to trade for Craig Gentry because he’s more valuable than his traditional stats would suggest, and perhaps could even start someday. Cashman knows these things, but he doesn’t have to settle for players with warts. He can throw money at the players who do all the positive things the ones with warts do, but also have perfect complexions.

That’s not to say that Cashman hasn’t made smart decisions—he’s made many of them. It’s just that there was no way that Cashman could rescue the Yankees from their 2013 morass merely by pitting his wits against opposing GMs and acquiring more undervalued assets over the offseason. (And really, why try, if you’re always a day away from being forced to sign Rafael Soriano after a phone call from Randy Levine?) To quote myself (from the Brian McCann TA), quoting myself (from the podcast):

When Sam Miller asked me a few weeks ago how the Yankees—who were old, injured, and outscored by their opponents in 2013—could put themselves in a position to compete next season, I offered a simple solution: “Sign all the good players.”

In other words, the winter is proceeding as planned. The Yankees have now signed two of the top four free agents on R.J. Anderson’s Top 50 list from last month. They’ll probably add a third—the one R.J. (and everyone else) predicted they’d sign—before the offseason is over. There’s nothing subtle about this strategy—it’s the Veruca Salt approach to team-building. The Yankees end up with a golden ticket to the playoffs so often not because they’re luckier or smarter than everyone else, but because they can afford to buy more Wonka Bars.

Unfortunately for the 29 other teams, the Yankees' "win at all costs" (except the 2014 luxury tax) approach isn't necessarily a losing financial proposition. We know that teams stand to gain lesser or greater returns from each additional win based on where they are on the competitive curve, with a sweet spot around 90 wins. Here’s what that relationship looked like in 2005; adjust those dollar values upwards by 60 percent or so to account for inflation since.

It’s likely that when the offseason dust settles, the Yankees will have a roster whose true talent lies somewhere near that sweet spot, another reason why their “overpay” for Ellsbury isn’t an issue. But what we sometimes overlook is that the shape of the win curve varies by team. According to Diamond Dollars, Vince Gennaro’s book on baseball economics, the Yankees—because of their market size and the fact that their attendance figures are unusually sensitive to on-field performance—have “the steepest and richest win $ revenue curve (the amount of incremental value generated from improving regular season wins).” Here (reprinted with permission) is what their win curve looked like in 2006, compared to Atlanta's, whose corresponding curve was relatively flat.

That incline has only increased since the Yankees opened their new park:

And here’s the additional revenue the Yankees stand to gain from their first postseason appearance after an absence from October, as well as the smaller (but still enormous) windfalls awaiting them should they make it a streak:

Those dollar values are slightly outdated, so the potential payoffs are even greater for 2014. And there’s one more factor to consider: brand value. While this element is closely related to market size and marketing efforts, it’s not independent of win totals. As Gennaro writes, a team that sustains success at a high level “should experience a rise in their baseline revenues and, hence, their brand value. Another way to think of this effect is to visualize the win-curve shifting upward, maintaining its shape and slope but with a higher starting point, or baseline revenues.” Increased brand value, while somewhat abstract, still essentially adds money to the Steinbrothers’ pockets, offsetting what Ellsbury’s paychecks subtract. And again, we see that the Yankees’ brand value is more sensitive than the typical team’s:

Because much of the Yankee brand is built on two pillars—winning and tradition—even the mighty Yankee brand has its fragile points. Our analysis shows that few teams’ fans are as punishing as Yankee fans if the team fails to play competitive baseball. … Partly through their own marketing efforts and hype, the Yankees have inadvertently increased their financial penalty for not winning.

Last year, the Yankees saw their ratings decline by roughly a third, and their average attendance fall by over 3,000 fans per game, the sixth-largest drop of any team. A second consecutive season out of the playoffs would likely cost the Yankees more than they’d have saved by signing someone less expensive—and less productive—than Ellsbury. None of this is to say that we should waste any time worrying about the Steinbrenner bottom line, but it’s important to remember that because of these franchise-specific factors, a contract that fails the generic dollars-per-win test won’t necessarily cost them calzones. Committing “too much” money now might make them more later.

To stay competitive and enjoy all that marginal moolah, the Yankees have to stick to a couple of codes. First, when they do spend big, they must be sure to buy a great player. Even the great ones aren’t worth much by the end of near-decade-long deals, but they earn every penny of what they’re paid for the first few years, and—if they start from a high enough peak—won’t become completely sunk costs by the back end of their contracts. Second, they must make sure that their highly paid stars’ declines don’t coincide. The signings should be staggered such that the planned obsolescence of the older players overlaps with the productive portions of the deals inked by subsequent free-agent imports, so that when one loses a step or some bat speed, another arrives to pick up the slack.

It helps, of course, to supplement the mercenaries with some productive pre-arb players, since not even the Yankees can afford to sign a superstar at every position. But the Yankees won their last World Series with any vestige of the homegrown core that powered the 1996 championship team long since retired or signed to megadeals indistinguishable from those of the players of outside origin. For them (and perhaps for the Dodgers), winning with old, expensive teams is a sustainable model, so long as the money tap is never turned off.

The last time the Yankees missed the playoffs, in 2008, with Jason Giambi and Mike Mussina in the last legs of their long-term deals, they responded by signing CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, and A.J. Burnett. Those three players combined for 12 WARP in 2009, and the Yankees added 14 wins and won a title. Five years later, Burnett has received a dishonorable discharge and Sabathia and Teixeira have entered the “uh-oh” phase, but that flag is still flying. That’s the blueprint for this winter, and it might work just as well.

Over the next few years, Ellsbury (and McCann, and maybe Cano) will remain productive, covering for the increasing infirmity of Sabathia, Teixeira, and Alex Rodriguez. And then they, too, will go the way of all free-agent flesh, which will be the Yankees’ cue to sign David Price, Stephen Strasburg, Chris Davis, Carlos Gonzalez, Eric Hosmer, or some other star who decides not to sign an extension. It’s the pinstriped circle of life.

For now, the 30-year-old Ellsbury will breathe back some life into a flatlining lineup. He’s a good-but-not-great hitter who’s averaged 4.3 WARP over the past three seasons (despite a lost year in 2012), thanks largely to his legs. One of the game’s most prolific (and highest-percentage) basestealers, he’s added 12 runs on the bases since 2011, and he plays a strong center field.

Ellsbury hit about half of his career homers in 2011 alone. That season increasingly looks like an outlier, but the move to Yankee Stadium should provide a power boost, just as it did for the last lefty-swinging center fielder who left Boston for New York. A few months ago, Sam and I predicted how many homers Ellsbury would hit over the next five years—I said 50, and Sam said 66. That short porch should decide the contest in Sam's favor, but it won't bring back that outlier power.

So Ellsbury doesn’t fit the mold of some sluggers the Yankees have signed to similarly long deals, like Giambi and Teixeira, and it’s easy to talk yourself into the idea that he’s susceptible to an even steeper decline. We know that speed and defense peak earlier than skills like patience and power; therefore, the thinking goes, when a player like Ellsbury loses a step, he’ll be hamstrung on both sides of the ball and fade into irrelevance earlier. Yet study after study suggests that the opposite is the case: players whose value is derived disproportionately from defense and steals tend to suffer a more moderate decline in production, largely because they retain more of their playing time (perhaps due to better conditioning).

Over the course of seven or eight seasons, the difference in decline rate could amount to an additional 4-5 wins and over $30 million in value, which would make the Yankees’ acceptable losses much lighter. Given that Ellsbury has surrendered large chunks of two of the past four seasons to injury, it might be a stretch to say that he’ll prove durable into baseball old age, but tell that to his historical comps. The contract includes a no-trade clause, so the Yankees are probably tied to him for the long haul regardless, though Ellsbury would have received a NTC from his five-and-10-status anyway by the time he headed into his late-30s.

In the short term, Ellsbury, Brett Gardner, and Alfonso Soriano (with Ichiro Suzuki in a fourth outfielder/pinch runner role) should combine for a fine defensive outfield, and with full seasons expected from from Teixeira, McCann, and Brendan Ryan, the Yankees have the makings of their best fielding unit since their 2009-10 teams. The lineup looks more than a bit unbalanced—if Cano re-signs, the Yankees’ three best batters will hit left-handed—but that’s less of a problem for a team that plays half its games in the Bronx than it would be almost anywhere else. If you’re a Yankees fan, Ellsbury’s arrival is reason to celebrate, despite the dismaying dollar value. If you root for anyone else, this signing calls for a familiar, frustrated sigh.

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

Related Content:  Jacoby Ellsbury

23 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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Dave from Pittsburgh

The Yankees have spent $240M so far this offseason, if they spend ~$180M on Cano and ~$100M on Tanaka (contract + posting fee), then they'll have spent more than the entire net worth of the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball club (whose biggest FA signing ever totaled $17M.)

Hooray for parity.

Dec 04, 2013 06:05 AM
rating: 1
 
amazin_mess

Exactly.

Dec 04, 2013 08:41 AM
rating: 0
 
map2history

The Yankees' player expenses amounts to around 50% of total team revenues. If it wasn't spent on player salaries, how would you like it to be spent?

Pittsburgh is a really bad comparison point though. Their owners and front office are notoriously inept.

A better point of comparison would be the Tampa Bay Rays, who owned the Yankees this year and last, and who's payroll this past year was just south of $50 million. The problem with that comparison point is that the Rays seem to continually disprove the author's Willy Wonka analogy.

Dec 05, 2013 08:58 AM
rating: 0
 
Shaun P.
(676)

Ben, are we sure that this move was Cashman's? We know that my Levine/Trost went over Cashman's head to sign Rafael Soriano. Isn't possible that they did the same thing here? Cashman seems to prefer acquiring guys without big injury track records - Soriano being the one exception - which makes me think this wasn't his move.

I guess we'll have to wait for the tell-all book to know for sure.

Dec 04, 2013 08:06 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

Nope, not sure. Never sure unless he says so, which he (surprisingly) sometimes does.

Dec 04, 2013 08:11 AM
 
Justice

I don't see the Ellsbury signing working out for the Yankees in the long term or even in the short term. But the Bombers are stuck in a cycle where they never rebuild and, ultimately, just keep bringing in players on the wrong side of 30. Here, New York brought in a veteran catcher (with a lot of miles and some injuries) and an outfielder with no arm and no power (and lots of injuries). That does not sound like the cornerstone of a championship team.

The whole enterprise reminds me of a person spending money on labor and parts to keep an old car going but never really succeeding.

As of today, the Yanks have forfeited their 1st and 2nd round draft picks. That may change, however, if Curtis Granderson signs with another club.

Dec 04, 2013 14:20 PM
rating: 1
 
jonjacoby

add Kelly Johnson to the mix. Wondering if hes Cano insurance or the Yankees might actually have a usable bench player this year. Also maybe instead of signing Cano they package Gardner and a blocked prospect to the Reds for Phillips.

Dec 04, 2013 08:12 AM
rating: 0
 
Tony B

Great article

Dec 04, 2013 10:12 AM
rating: 1
 
timber

Am I the only one who finds it EXTREMELY strange that Scott Boras would sign his premium FA of the winter so early in the offseason? We haven't even made it to the winter meetings yet. It makes me very suspicious of Ellsbury - Boras knows way more about him than we do. I have a strong feeling that this is going to turn out very badly for the Yankees.

Dec 04, 2013 10:30 AM
rating: 1
 
tonytouch

I would argue it is more likely the Yankees just made them an offer they couldn't refuse. They might have even outbid what Boras' initial inflated demand was going to be, or just asked what he wanted and then given them that.

They were duped in the Pineda deal so who really knows

Dec 04, 2013 10:57 AM
rating: 0
 
hyprvypr

Seems likely the Yankees also pressured them into accepting the deal with a deadline kind of offer, three days to accept or we'll pull it, kind of thing.

Otherwise, the acceptance of the offer is a little strange. Even if the Yankees did offer than(with no time limit), why accept just more than you asked for when you can get MORE+more than you asked for?

Dec 04, 2013 18:06 PM
rating: 0
 
RossBukouricz7

I don't simply because this feels like the best contract that he was going to be able to get for Ellsbury. It seems to me that Boras waits longer when the market for a client is soft relative to the contract they are seeking, like Lohse last year and Fielder two years ago, because he needs to drum up more interest in the player or work some specific owners/GMs.

Dec 04, 2013 10:57 AM
rating: 2
 
SGreenwell

I agree completely with this. Boras often gets flack for waiting and what not, but consistently, his clients get both above-market contracts and also contracts that more accurately reflect their value. He has also done extensions from time to time when the player asks him to - I think he was Weaver's agent, IIRC.

Dec 05, 2013 11:53 AM
rating: -1
 
RossBukouricz7

Yup. Also Carlos Gomez's agent and he took 3 yrs, $24M between 2012 and 2013.

Dec 05, 2013 12:43 PM
rating: 0
 
John Carter

What a lexicon of Boston stars signing as free agents with their richer rivals in the Bronx: Luis Tiant, Wade Boggs, Roger Clemens, Johnny Damon, Kevin Youkilis, and, now, Jacoby Ellsbury. What Red Sox stars since free agency began haven’t signed with the Yankees? Three cheers for Yaz, a native Long Islander, who remained loyal to the Bay Staters to the north. Pudge Fisk only changed the color of his Sox. Neither of the ’73-’74 rookie OF stars (Evans, Rice, and Lynn) played for New York, nor did Ellis Burks who came along near the end of Dewey’s career. Were Bruce Hurst, Mike Greenwell, or Trot Nixon stars? They never played for New York. Mo Vaughn and John Valentin - teammates in college - both ended up as free agents in New York - but with the Mets - and they are both New York metropolitan area native sons. Dominican Pedro Martinez also left to play in Queens, although Dominican Manny Ramirez never played for either New York team - and he grew up in Manhattan. Nomar is not Dominican, he is Californian (of Mexican descent) - and he never played for New York. Tek and Wake - like Yaz, Rice, and Dewey before them - retired in their Red Sox uniforms.

Dec 04, 2013 13:23 PM
rating: 2
 
sbnirish77

Most in New York are NOT lauding this trade.

Even if you accept the need to go out and make a big splash this off season to bring fans back and improve TV ratings (with which I would agree), this signing was just an awful one.

First exactly who were the Yankees bidding against that they couldn't have gotten Ellsbury for 7 years / $ 140 and still grossly overpaid ?

Secondly Ellsbury is simply just a good ballplayer not a great one. He's a sub .800 OPS outfielder last year and over his career. About the same OPS as Soriano over the last 5 years.

His glove isn't as valuable to the Yankees since Gardner is an even better fielder. His health record is worse than many of the Yankees that were injured this year and last (Arod, Jeter, Tex, Granderson, Gardner).

Beltran for 2-3 years is a better player (.840 OPS last 5 years) and would have been a better deal at any price.

Just hold off on the tombstones for CC and TEX.

I'm aware that no long term contract is viewed as good here at BP, but its not like the Yankees haven't got any value from them for their contracts.

They probably got as much value from those two (Sabathia 4 years of 19-7 3.25 ERA, Tex 4 years of 33 HR /105 RBI .860 OPS ++ fielding) as any of the longer term contracts out there. If John Lackey can come back from the dead, I gotta believe CC can figure some things out.

With respect to AJ, I guess you could fault their psych evaluation for not knowing he was a headcase for the bright lights.



Dec 04, 2013 19:36 PM
rating: -2
 
Behemoth

Yeah, cos Beltran can run and defend like Ellsbury.

Dec 05, 2013 04:40 AM
rating: 3
 
thejimmyc

I'm a Yankees fan and I am completely happy with the deal. I understand Ellsbury might drop off in the last two years. I don't think his injuries in the last two years are of much consequence (broken rib, non throwing shoulder, basically bad luck), it's not like he had major knee or hip surgery.

Why is everyone so cynical? I think Ellsbury could manage to have just as long of a career as Ichiro (who didn't start dropping off until he was in his late 30's) or Jeter (same thing). The assumption nowadays is if you sign a guy to more than five years (no matter how old he is) you're automatically getting boned.

As for the money and the years, it's the Yankees they have the money, sign all of the best guys then reload again in another four years. Enough of this signing fading superstars to one year deals as fixes.

Dec 05, 2013 07:32 AM
rating: 0
 
John Carter

Moving Gardner over to left for Ellsbury reminds me of when the Yankees moved the reining gold glove winning shortstop Alex Rodriguez to third base to respect the all mighty Jeter.

Dec 05, 2013 13:23 PM
rating: 0
 
Synchronik

This is a really great article -- informative, clever, well-written. I know this sounds like ass-kissing, but hey, when the ass deserves it...

Dec 05, 2013 08:05 AM
rating: 0
 
godfather

i've found cashman to be bright, but hamstrung by his "baseball people," who only last year sent him shopping with no wallet; i like the cash-girardi relationship and wish the levines, etc., would stay the hell out of the way...damn good piece here

Dec 05, 2013 09:58 AM
rating: 0
 
jssharo

Anyone know the amateur draft ramifications of this deal? From what I understand, since the Yankees don't have a top 11 pick, and Ellsbury rejected a qualifying offer, this means the Sox get the Yank's pick, which I think is in the lower teens, right?

As a Sox fan, I would prefer to have had Ellsbury for a few more years (it's not MY money!) but that's not a bad little piece of compensation.

Dec 05, 2013 16:25 PM
rating: 0
 
R.A.Wagman

The Sox get a supplemental round pick, and the Yankees lose their top two picks (one for signing McCann, one for signing Ellsbury). The picks forfeited by NYY are not given to Boston/Atlanta - they just disappear.

Dec 05, 2013 17:51 PM
rating: 0
 
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