$500 Million Man

A few days ago, Joe Posnanski wrote about the possibility of Bryce Harper getting the first $500m contract ever. I agree with him on how both amazing and ridiculous it would have sounded 2 or 3 years ago. I also agree it is possible, almost likely, to happen. I might not be a Bryce Harper fan but he is so young that is he is on track to accomplish big things. He is not Mike ‘King’ Trout but he is very good.

Harper’s current contract runs through the end of 2018, which is when I assume he would get the big fat check. The Nationals will try to extend his contract before he is a free agent, just like the Marlins and the Angels did with Giancarlo Stanton and Mike Trout. However, in this post we will assume Harper will not pursue that path, making him a highly-coveted free agent in 2018. I will also exclude the possibility of 9- or 10-year contracts, which would make the mark easily achievable. Let’s run the numbers for Harper’s future:

Year Open market ($m/WAR) Age WAR Projected Value ($m) Cumulative value ($m)
2016 8.4 23 6.8 54.4
2017 8.8 24 7.1 59.2
2018 9.3 25 7.3 64.4
2019 9.7 26 7.6 69.9 73.4
2020 10.2 27 7.8 75.8 153.1
2021 10.7 28 7.8 79.6 236.7
2022 11.3 29 7.8 83.6 324.5
2023 11.8 30 7.8 87.8 416.7
2024 12.4 31 7.3 86.3 507.3
2025 13.0 32 6.8 84.4 595.9
2026 13.7 33 6.3 82.1 682.1
2027 14.4 34 5.8 79.4 765.4

We have here Harper’s projected value profile. As usual, I am using FanGraphs’ model, which has a player’s aging curve that follows +0.25 WAR/year (Age 18-27), 0 WAR/year (Age 28-30),-0.5 WAR/year (Age 31-37),-0.75 WAR/year (38 and older). It also assumes that open-market WAR sits at $8.4m in 2016 and grows at 5% per year. The starting point is Steamer’s 2016 projection: 6.8 WAR.

Three years from now, in the winter of 2018, he will be negotiating his new contract that includes his theoretical peak 27-30 years at ~7.8 WAR/year. The truth is that a 7-year / $500m+ contract would only be likely if by 2018 he can position himself as a player who consistently accounts for almost 8 wins per year. That is the only reason a team would be eager to invest half a billion dollars in a single player, marketing-related reasons aside.

Now, the question comes down to what he needs to do by 2018 in order to cement that positioning. The model needs him to be a 21.2-win player during the next 3 seasons. While Harper might have taken a significant step up performance-wise, we need to remind ourselves that before 2015 he was “just” a ~4-5 WAR guy. In order to meet the model’s expectations he needs to double those numbers, and remain at that level  for 3 years in a row (i.e.: Between 8-9 WAR for that 3-year period). If he meets those marks, Harper would have accrued 40 WAR during his career by 2018. While that is entirely possible, it is not easy. This is the list of highest cumulative WAR by age-25:

Player Cumulative WAR by age 25
Ty Cobb 56.3
Mickey Mantle 52.5
Jimmie Foxx 47.3
Rogers Hornsby 46.9
Mel Ott 45.9
Alex Rodriguez 42.8
Eddie Mathews 39.4
Arky Vaughan 39.4
Tris Speaker 38.7
Mike Trout 38.5

So, two conclusions can be quickly drawn. First, Mike Trout is not human. He is only 24 years old and is already on this list with guys like Cobb, Mantle, Foxx and company. Second, no, it is not an easy task for Harper. I know that you are thinking that he just put up a 9.5 WAR season, why can’t he do it again? Another season like that and he should get to his target easily but, truth be told, those Trout-esque seasons are unlikely to happen. I say this for three main reasons. First, Harper is not an elite defender and has gotten worse every year. For the last 3 seasons (2013-2015), he ranks 37th in UZR/150 out of 60 qualified OF. In 2015, he compiled -8.5 on Defense (Def) metric, per FanGraphs, which is position-adjusted, in his case for RF. Out of the 69 individual seasons with 8 or higher WAR from players 25 or younger, only 5 players (Hank Aaron, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Mike Trout (!) and Bryce Harper) had -8 or worse Defense. No, it is not impossible but it is hard.

Second, he is an above-average baserunner, but not an awesome one. Lastly, Harper has not exhibited good health over his career. He has had injuries in 2 out of 4 seasons, which may not seem many but in 2013 and 2014 he only played 67% of Nationals games. Predicting health is tough, especially because there are unforeseeable events. You cannot control a hit by pitch at your wrists or a concussion sliding in second base but your health track record is your best bet on your future injury report. Those three things are vital to get to 21.2 WAR during the next 3 years. Harper needs those factors to come in play in order to get to the 7yr/$500m contract. Harper’s advantage is his age – just like Jason Heyward this offseason.

We have implicitly talked about Mike Trout. He is arguably the best player in baseball right now and was on track to smash the contract record, until he negotiated a 6yr/$144.5m contract extension. That will keep him locked up from ages 24 to 29 at LAA. Now, the question is what type of contract will he command in 2020? Mind you, it is hard enough to try to predict what a Free Agent might get in 2016, but still we took a stab a it.

Year Open market ($m/WAR) Age WAR Projected Value ($m) Cumulative value ($m)
2016 8.4 24 9.2 73.6
2017 8.8 25 9.5 79.4
2018 9.3 26 9.7 85.6
2019 9.7 27 10.0 92.1
2020 10.2 28 10.0 96.8
2021 10.7 29 10.0 101.6 101.6
2022 11.3 30 10.0 106.7 208.3
2023 11.8 31 9.5 106.4 314.6
2024 12.4 32 9.0 105.8 420.4
2025 13.0 33 8.5 104.9 525.3
2026 13.7 34 8.0 103.6 628.9
2027 14.4 35 7.5 101.9 730.8

Here is Trout’s projection. Again, 2016 WAR is courtesy of Steamer. We might think the aging curve slightly benefits Trout because it forecasts a ~10% increase in WAR, and he has not posted those 10 WAR seasons since 2 years ago. Then again, let’s toy with the idea. The $500m contract here seems more feasible for three reasons. First, in MLB, you get paid for what you did and not for what you will do.  By 2020, Trout could have ~85 WAR under his belt –he would be 28 years old. That is just ridiculous and will not happen, right? No one, ever, has done that by age 28 (Ty Cobb is the leader with 78.6 WAR). But what if he does? What if Trout is around the 70 WAR mark with 8 or 9 great seasons on his resume? Second, he needs to do what he has already done e.g. Trout has posted two +10 WAR already. The other two seasons were 8 and 9. This guy runs well and plays above-average defense. Trout does it all and will not stop. Third, unlike Harper, Trout has been very much healthy. During the 2013-2015 period, he played 157, 157 and 159 games, respectively. Again, injuries are hard to predict but we will take what he has shown so far as a given, which is good health. Fourth, fair to say, time value of money. A dollar today is not worth the same as a dollar tomorrow. Therefore, getting a $500m contract in 2020 should be easier than in 2018.

In summary, I think Harper can do it but I would not bet on it. From my perspective this is a long shot. If you ask me today on who is more likely to become baseball’s first 500-million-dollar man, I would put my money on Mike Trout to beat Bryce Harper on this as well.

Note: This analysis is also featured in our emerging blog www.theimperfectgame.com

Oswaldo is a management consultant by day and a baseball blogger by night at www.theimperfectgame.com

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8 years ago

I think Harper will be 1B in the next 5 years to help with his health. If he was smart, he would be requesting this now in order to stay healthy and to accumulate stats before he signs a big contract.

8 years ago

In your first paragraph you argue “it is possible, almost likely” that Bryce Harper will be “getting the first $500m contract ever.” Then you piece together an article arguing that Trout is the more valuable player by WAR, and quite possibly, not to mention deservedly, will get a larger contract than Harper in Free Agency. In your final paragraph you conclude the exact opposite opposite of what you said in the first paragraph, changing your tune to “Harper can do it but I would not bet on it. From my perspective this is a long shot” in effort to rationalize your previous 500 words arguing that Trout is “more likely to become baseball’s first 500-million-dollar man”.

Basically you have just argued both sides of an argument. Admirably so, given the analytical dissection of which player is actually more deserving of such an uber-contract.

Obviously Trout is the rare player useful for on-field comparison with Harper. But that’s where the comparison ends, on the field. Trout’s abilities (athletically or contractually) have absolutely nothing to do with the Harper contract discussion as Trout will not hit the Free Agent market until years later.

I understand & appreciate the analysis. Well-reasoned, and well-laid out. But failure to account for Psycho-social reasoning of the major actors of MLB & off-field phenomenon present in the MLB “environment” (i.e. your statements like “marketing-related reasons aside…”; as well as not considering the economic effect Harper’s agent has had on the sport; etc.) contribute to the very reasons the “Old Guard” continue to disregard the “New Guard” emphasis on analytics. You are using an analytical model [WAR; cost/value of WAR] to examine the likelihood of an event that has myriad inputs that are not accounted for in your model (i.e. “marketing-related reasons”, new TV money, etc.).

The excellent writing notwithstanding, this type of analysis does a disservice to the entire analytic community. When we try to apply analytics to phenomena that the data we choose to use do not fully speak to many people will continue to refuse to accept our [analytic] models & perspectives. Real-world inputs like Sott (Freaking) Boras’s involvement, [or have you not been paying attention to the economic effects of Boras’s career the last 31 years?] and the effects of decision-making personalities, as well as off-field constraints like “marketing-related reasons” have always been, & will continue to be considerable, if not the dominant factors in ground-breaking contracts. They are present. They are real. Unfortunately your piece doesn’t just marginalize these effect, it dismisses them outright.

The Yankees unlimited money-making abilities, their resultant budget, & their need to rebuild their brand after several years of being an MLB afterthought, combined with Boras just being Boras will conspire to drive Harper’s market to the Half-billion with a capital “B” stratosphere. Period.

Furthermore your argument fails to mention the oodles-and-oodles of TV money that is cascading into the MLB economy right now to unseen-before economic affect. Have you seen what just happened this off season!? Two 30+ y.o. pitchers signed very long term contracts north of $200 MM. Another turned down $120 MM contract!! Successfully holding out for $130 MM!! A borderline 30-ish slugger turned down $150 MM!! Presumably because there’s more money out there somewhere else! And the younger stars like Upton & Cespedis are as yet unsigned less than a month before Pitchers & Catchers report. Presumably because their agents are unsatisfied with the hundred-million++ dollar offers they’ve received thus far, fearful to set the contract bar too low given the waterfall of TV money about to flow into the MLB economy.

Whether the Yankees actually get Harper or not I do not presume to predict. But Boras will set the market at .5 BILLION…Barring injury, the Yankees, Dodgers, Chicagos, Red Soxes [and I suspect Rangers] of the baseball world, who just print money in the back office, will get on that train.

What I do presume to predict is that Harper will get his $500 Billion with a B, and Trout’s WAR & earning potential will have absolutely nothing to do with it because he won’t be a free agent until later.

8 years ago

I understand that the argument uses WAR as it’s backing but I cannot see this plausible in the near future for Harper or Trout. A 7 year 500 million contract?! 71 million AAV? Maybe by the time this generation retires and a new generation begins playing we will see that sort of inflation. Even a 50 AAV would be unlikely. Not to mention that I would believe it is much harder for a peak player to consistently play at a peak level like the WAR models suggest than a above average player to consistently be above average. I see Harper north of 300 million but that’s it.

8 years ago

It won’t be a seven year contract, it will be 10. Or whatever is convenient for Boras to break the .5 Billion mark. This is not only about Harper. It will be about Boras breaking new ground, going places with contracts that people think are impossible. He has been doing this for 31 years, some of you act like this will be a surprise. It won’t. That’s why the everyone in baseball knows the Nats have already given up on keeping Harper. The writing has been on the wall since the first time Harper stepped in the batter’s box in a MLB uni.

8 years ago

I don’t agree with Trout’s fangraphs-method WAR projections. He’s been fairly consistent with offense, adding between 58 and 70 runs per year (60 last year). But he’s only had one standout season (13 runs) on defense, that being his first full season. Same story with his baserunning. Maybe he is able to improve further on offense in order to get back to the 10 WAR range – it wouldn’t be shocking, but it would likely require offense at levels that Pujols only reached 3 times in his career and that bonds only reached twice before he became babe ruth in his late 30’s. I’m more comfortable predicting 8-9 WAR for the next 4 years than a return to 10+.

I also don’t like Harper’s WAR projection. Doesn’t steamer base its projection on the last 3-4 years? Assuming last year was a breakout and not a career year (at 23 years old), that projection looks low.

I’d expect these two to have similar overall value. Harper gets the advantage of a contract at an earlier age. Trout gets the advantage of salary inflation with a contract 3 years later. If Trout can keep it up, I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets the larger contract.

Enjoyed reading, either way.