Club-Friendly Contracts: The Best Players Who Aren’t Cashing In (MVP Series Part I: American League East)

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(Mike Stobe / Getty Images)

by Duncan Wallis

Last week, the MLB named Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Altuve as National and American League Most Valuable Player, respectively. Have you ever wondered who the true “Most Valuable Player” is in the MLB?

Sure, we give an award each year to a player from each league that we define as the MVP for that year. However, that’s using the word “valuable” as a noun, an object, person, or idea that is of great worth. What if we examine the MVP with the adjective definition of the word “valuable”? That is, something worth a great deal of money. Despite some players being extremely valuable to a team, maybe even their “most valuable player”, some of these athletes are earning insignificant amounts of money.

This is an article series about a GM’s dream. This is an article series about an agent’s poor extension advice. This is an article series about a player’s costly security insurance. This is an article series about club-friendly contracts.

Club-friendly contracts are hard to define. Some clubs may define club-friendly contracts differently than others because of the way they value money versus talent. For example, the Yankees, Red Sox, Tigers, and Dodgers – all big money teams – will look at a medium to hefty sized contract without blinking. Teams such as the Athletics, Indians, Padres, Rays – small money teams – will have to think much more carefully about blockbuster, record-setting deals.

I’m going to explore who the true Most Valuable Player is in the MLB by comparing WAR (Wins Above Replacement*) and that player’s annual average salary for their contract**. This will result in a number, millions of dollars per Win Above Replacement, which I will abbreviate using M/WAR. Using this number, at the end of the series, I will try to define what a club-friendly contract looks like, which teams take advantage of them, and any other insightful information I learned as I was making this series.

However, because this is an article about club-friendly contracts, this means that players who are pre-arbitration or arbitration eligible are not going to qualify for this article. Sorry to Aaron Judge, Cody Bellinger, Andrew Benintendi, Kris Bryant, and many more ultra-talented young players. We want to look at who’s had the option of signing, has signed, and still isn’t making their money’s worth.

It would take far too much time to read an article comparing every MLB player, their contract, and their WAR. Instead, I’m presenting a look at the top three club-friendly contracts for each team and a choice for team MVP based on those finalists.

Today, we’re looking at the American League East. Here it goes:

American League East

Boston Red Sox

Red Sox Finalists

Chris Sale: $12.5M, 5.4 WAR= 1.623 M/WAR

Craig Kimbrel: $13M, 2.3 WAR= 3.939 M/WAR

Dustin Pedroia: $14.16M, 3.1 WAR= 7.453 M/WAR

Red Sox 2017 MVP: Chris Sale- 1.623 M/WAR

Well, it’s no surprise here. Chris Sale is an underpriced superstar. He is the clear face and ace of the Red Sox pitching staff with David Price turning in an underwhelming, injury-laden, ridiculously high-priced season. Pitching to the tune of a 2.90 ERA, an even better 2.45 FIP, and leading the MLB with 214.1 IP with 308 strikeouts, Sale was the ultimate MVP of this Sox squad, carrying them to the playoffs for a showdown with the Astros. (We won’t talk about Sale’s postseason performances…yikes.)


New York Yankees

Yankees Finalists

Starlin Castro: $7.57M, 1.9 WAR= 3.985 M/WAR

Brett Gardner: $13M, 3.8 WAR= 3.421 M/WAR

David Robertson: $11.5M, 1.9 WAR= 6.053 M/WAR

Yankees 2017 MVP: Brett Gardner- 3.421 M/WAR

Here we are, folks: the first example of a surprising MVP candidate. Who would’ve guessed that Brett Gardner would be the Yankees most valuable player signed to a free agent contract? I sure wouldn’t have. I would’ve bet on Robertson or Castro, signed to relatively cheap deals, over him. Yet, Gardner, sporting a .264/.350/.428 slash line for a 3.8 WAR value, is the Yankees MVP this year. We can attribute a lot of that to his, still stellar, defense in the outfield.


Baltimore Orioles

Orioles Finalists

Adam Jones: $14.25M, 1.7 WAR= 8.382 M/WAR

Chris Davis: $23M, 0.2 WAR= 115.000 M/WAR

Darren O’Day: $7.25M, 0.8 WAR= 9.063 M/WAR

Orioles 2017 MVP: Adam Jones- 8.382 M/WAR

Adam Jones signed a 6 year, $85.5 million-dollar contract with the Orioles in 2013. Despite an Orioles team that was underwhelming as a whole, Jones stood out. I would argue that Darren O’Day, because of his less than daily usage, could be considered more valuable in a casual discussion, but Jones beats him out in M/WAR.


Toronto Blue Jays

Blue Jays Finalists:

J.A. Happ, $12M, 2.9 WAR= 4.138 M/WAR

Marco Estrada, $13M, 2.6 WAR= 5.000 M/WAR

Justin Smoak, $4.25M, 3.4 WAR= 1.250 M/WAR

Blue Jays 2017 MVP: Justin Smoak- 1.250 M/WAR

I think this is another MVP you could see coming. When Smoak’s market collapsed last offseason, he signed with the Blue Jays to be a backup and platoon player with the Jays’ other options like Kendrys Morales. With a breakout season, this year, however, he has gone to the next level. And isn’t being paid for it. Look for him to repeat this in 2018 as he’s remaining with the Jays for another $4.12M this upcoming season.


Tampa Bay Rays

Rays Finalists:

Chris Archer, $4.25M, 4.6 WAR= 0.924 M/WAR

Evan Longoria, $9.63M, 2.5 WAR= 3.852 M/WAR

Kevin Kiermaier, $8.83M, 3.0 WAR= 2.943 M/WAR

Rays 2017 MVP: Chris Archer- 0.924 M/WAR

Well, should we really be surprised that the Rays, the kings of pouncing on club-friendly contracts for high-upside players, would have the division leader in M/WAR? Chris Archer is the only player so far to have an M/WAR of under 1 and is almost 0.7 better than the next closest player, Chris Sale. What is with these Chris guys?


Conclusions

I would’ve thought Chris Sale would be the MVP of the American League East. He is on an extremely cheap contract for the caliber pitcher he is and he had an amazing first year with the Red Sox.

However, Chris Archer’s contract is a third of Sale’s and his WAR isn’t even one less than Sale’s. Enough on Sale, though, let’s take a closer look at Archer’s year. Ranked 10th overall in WAR by pitchers in the 2017 MLB season, he is a great example of the outdated use of old statistics. He had a 10-12 W-L record and a 4.07 ERA, both ugly by MLB standards. Take a closer look at his statistics, though, and you’ll find this: an AL-leading 34 games started for 201.0 IP and 249 strikeouts. Looking into his sabermetrics, we find a 3.40 FIP, .246 BA against, and a top ten in the MLB K/9 rate of 11.15.

Archer is an elite pitcher on a contract where he makes just over $4M as an average annual salary. Like I said earlier, the Rays are excellent at developing prospects into stars and signing them to inexpensive contracts because they can’t afford more marquee players. The Rays will be in the discussion as the best team at signing to club-friendly contracts when I take a look at that at the end of the series.

That’s all for today. Look for the MVP Series Part II on the AL Central coming soon!

 

*All player statistics from Fan Graphs.

**All contract data from Baseball Reference.

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