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    Monday, September 13, 2021

    Can a Contract Still Be "Bad" if You Win the World Series? Examining Some High-Profile Cases

    I saw an interesting discussion the other day that got me thinking about things; in this case, it was people wondering if Patrick Corbin is the worst contract in the Majors at this point.

    For those who haven’t followed the Nationals outside of their trade deadline sell-off, Corbin has had an extremely rough 2021, with 14 losses and a league-worst (among qualified pitchers) 5.98 ERA in 155.0 innings. If you go by Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Replacement, Corbin has cost his team 1.5 Wins this season, the fourth-worst mark for a pitcher behind only Jake Arrieta, J.A. Happ, and Matt Shoemaker. Of course, Arrieta, Happ, and Shoemaker are only making a combined $16 million this year; Corbin, meanwhile, is signed through 2024 and will make roughly $108 million from 2021 through then.

    Of course, position players Eugenio Suarez (-2.7 WAR) and Hunter Dozier (-2.9) have been even worse, and both are signed to longer term deals, albeit still for less than Corbin (and Cody Bellinger and Jarred Kelenic have also been slightly worse, although neither made it beyond arbitration). And another complicating factor is that it’s debatable if Corbin is even that bad, as Fangraphs’ version of WAR places Corbin at a much better 0.0 WAR, thanks in part to a much better FIP (5.47) and xFIP (4.34) rates. And none of this is getting into whether Corbin can rebound, as it wasn’t that long ago that he was making All-Star Teams and picking up Cy Young votes.

    Of course, I think the single biggest argument against Corbin being the worst contract is his key role in winning the 2019 World Series. He finished eleventh in Cy Young voting that year, finishing with 202 innings of 135 ERA+ (or a 77 FIP-*, if you prefer) before becoming a key cog on the eventual champs as they leaned heavily on their rotation to avoid exposing a weakened bullpen. Even if he never returns to that form, Corbin played a key role in bringing home a flag that will fly forever (and for a franchise and a city that were both in long World Series droughts, at that).

    *A reminder, since I don’t always use it; FIP- works like ERA+, but inverted; so a 77 mark would mean a FIP 23% better than league average, since 77 is 23 points lower than the 100-average.

    I’m not sure if there’s a set quantity of “value” that a World Series championship brings in evaluating how good a contract is, but my gut says that if a player played a crucial role in bringing home a title, at the very least, any “WAR shortfall” over the course of their contract should be forgiven. For a long time, my test case for this idea was Barry Zito and his seven-year, $126 million deal* with the Giants, which ran from 2007 to 2013.

    *This was, for a time, the largest contract for a pitcher ever. I had actually forgotten that until browsing his Wikipedia page.

    For those who have already forgotten, Zito’s time across the Bay was not as strong as his first few years in Oakland. In seven seasons and nearly 1150 innings, the southpaw finished up with a 63-80 record and a 4.62 ERA (an ERA+ of 87). Baseball-Reference places his pitching WAR in that time at just 2.4. Fangraphs, meanwhile, puts him at 6.5 WAR, which they translate to a dollar value of $37.5 million. That’s… not great.

    And yet… in his time with the team, the Giants won two titles, their first two since arriving in California at that. Zito wasn’t on the 2010 postseason roster, but he was a competent back-end starter worth about 2 fWAR. Given that the Giants only won the NL West that year by 2 games, and that the sixth starter who would have probably picked up some of those starts was Todd Wellemeyer in his final season (-0.8 fWAR), and it’s not hard to make a case that Zito being on the team was a part of their success.

    And maybe the team could have used his salary more effectively, but you also have to consider that the butterfly effect is in play; maybe the guy they bring in instead winds up needing Tommy John surgery, or pitches even worse, or something. In short, a decent Zito (plus a title) in hand is worth several potential replacements (plus their uncertainty) in the bush leagues.*

    *I really like this pun, and I’m wondering if I can work it into my normal description of WAR.

    The case for his contributions toward the 2012 World Series quest is even more straightforward. Zito was more replaceable in the regular season (he was worth only 1.0 fWAR, while the Giants cruised to the division crown by 8 games), but his postseason performance was not. Zito started Game 5 of the NLCS with the Giants trailing the Cardinals three games to one and threw 7.2 shutout innings, starting the team’s comeback. He then went on to start Game 1 of the World Series and outduel Justin Verlander, picking up the win.

    If you go by Win Probability Added, Zito was worth 0.18 in the World Series and 0.29 in the NLCS, the latter of which was even more crucial given the thin margins of the series. Given the small sample size here, speculating about a potential replacement is much dicier than it was in 2010, where all you needed was a 1.5-to-2-Win starter who can stay healthy for most of the regular season. Anything can happen in one game in October; you absolutely stick with the known quantity for 2012.

    So for a while, I figured Zito’s case would be the main example for how big an overpay can be overlooked for a title. There are some things about his case that make it a less-than-ideal test, like the Giants quantity of titles, and Zito’s centrality to at least one of them. Ideally, I think you’d want someone who wasn’t as obviously irreplaceable.*

    *For that reason, I had also considered the Nats’ Jayson Werth, for a bit; I saw some in the game credit his 2011 contract as the turning point that signalled to other players that the team was serious about competing, and he had a major part in shaping the team’s 2010s successes while not actually factoring into the 2019 title (since his deal only ran through 2017).

    But looking back at his deal, it was better than I recalled anyway, regardless of trying to determine his impact on the 2019 team. Over seven years, Fangraphs credited him with 14.2 WAR, or about $105 million in free agent value. Not quite the $126 million he was paid, but he was only falling about $3 million short per season, not at all disastrous for most modern teams. Factor in some bonuses for things like getting the team to the postseason four times, or strong performances in some of those playoffs (namely 2012 and 2016)... it’s still probably an overpay on the whole, but not a huge one at all, certainly nothing like Zito’s deal.

    But looking it over, there might be an even better option now: Jason Heyward. I was looking over his stats again, following the Cubs’ trade deadline teardown, and his numbers since signing in Chicago are… not great. Currently in his sixth season out of eight on the $184 million deal, to date, Heyward has slashed .247/.326/.383, an OPS 13% worse than a league average hitter. That looks even worse from a corner outfield slot, although he makes up for it a bit with solid defense; just not enough to totally cancel it out. In total, Baseball-Reference credits him with just 9.4 WAR since 2016, while Fangraphs has him at 8.3 (which they convert into $65.5 million in value). With two years to go, Heyward has basically no chance to produce the kind of value that would make up the shortfall from the last few years.

    So what about 2016 in particular, was he instrumental to that season and the Cubs’ championship? Well… not especially. Both sites calculate him as a 1-WAR player that year over 142 games, thanks largely to an atrocious .230/.306/.325 batting line that would stand as the worst of his career prior to this season, and he went from batting second at the start of the year to spending the end of the postseason largely in the bottom third of the order if not on the bench.

    What about marginal cases then? Well, going back to what we discussed with Barry Zito, finding a 1-Win player is even easier than finding a 2-Win one, and especially so when we’re dealing with position players rather than pitchers (like Zito) who carry a greater risk of injury at any moment. For hitters though? In 2016, there were 131 2-WAR position players (as per Frangraphs), compared to a full 213 1-WAR ones. Even if Heyward had magically vanished right before the 2016 season began, finding a last-minute replacement for his 2016 performance wouldn’t have been unthinkable. Numerous ~1 WAR players changed teams over the season, many of them low-profile moves.

    Nor would it have sunk the Cubs’ regular season if they took a while to find someone. They went 103-58 and took the NL Central with a 17.5 game lead on the second-place Cardinals. They also finished with 8 more wins than the Nationals and 12 more than the Dodgers, so they were guaranteed home field advantage up through the NLCS either way. And once in the playoffs, things didn’t improve much for him, with Heyward going 5 for 48 at the plate with one double, triple, walk, and hit by pitch each. If you don’t have a calculator on hand, that’s a batting line of .104/.140/.167. He was hardly the only batter on the team struggling, but still… Cubs pitchers in the 2016 postseason collectively notched the same number of extra-base hits as Heyward (thanks to homers from Jake Arrieta and Travis Wood) and only totaled one fewer hit overall. Jon Lester even provided two walks, to match Heyward’s walk and HBP.

    So is that it, then? Signing Jason Heyward did nothing for the 2016 Cubs, and the team would have benefitted without him? Well… I still actually don’t know that I’d go that far. On the one hand, there are hypothetically other things he could bring to the table, like leadership or a positive influence on a teammate. I don’t know that I agree with those being enough to cause a difference, but on the other hand, I don’t know that I can disprove it either. More convincingly, I think we could argue that his defense contributed to the win, although we can’t really measure it effectively in sample sizes this small and I can’t offhandedly recall all of his exploits with the glove from that October. Given his normally-strong defense, though, I wouldn’t be shocked if he saved his team a run or two in the playoffs.

    But I think the strongest argument here is a more general version of the butterfly effect I mentioned earlier, the idea that the 2016 Cubs already came out on top, and replacing any part of them might get rid of that. Because it turns out, as rough as Heyward looked at times, he still brought something to the eventual champs, and losing it might prove to be an issue.

    Yes, his overall numbers for the postseason look rough, but as it turns out, not all bad statlines are created equal. If we look at Win Probability Added instead (which, for those who aren’t familiar, awards value based on how much each event changed their team’s chance of winning the game), we get a slightly different result. For the total postseason, Heyward accumulated -0.33 WPA, but that was concentrated mostly within the NLDS and NLCS, both of which the Cubs won with relative ease (3-1 against the Giants, then 4-2 against the Dodgers).

    For the World Series itself, Heyward was actually a positive, thanks in part to going 4-4 in stolen base attempts over the seven games (his steal in Game 7 even provided the fourth-biggest swing in Win Probability in the game). Sure, in total, it was just +0.03, but as we just saw, WPA can and often does go negative, so this isn’t as bad as it might appear. In fact, only four position players on the Cubs totaled more for the series (Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Kyle Schwarber, and David Ross). Kris Bryant, who had a much better line (.269/.376/.500) only wound up at +0.01. Six batters on the team even ended up in the negatives.

    And in a World Series that went the full seven games, including ten innings in the finale, I don’t think you risk giving up any positive force on offense, especially one with strong defensive value. Even if the risk isn’t all that high, it’s still way too much to take on compared to the sure thing that’s already happened. And that goes extra if you’re a Cubs fan, who should be well aware at this point of the cost of missed opportunities. Especially seeing how the years since then have gone wrong; I have to imagine any sort of gambling with a championship like 2016 looks even crazier when there wasn’t another especially close miss that might make up the difference. Heyward’s deal is rough right now, but there’s a real chance it led in some part to 2016, so I don’t know that I would trade it away to try signing anyone else at this point.

    Really, I think the only big question mark I have would be if the Cubs are a unique case because of their extreme drought. But really, I think just about every team’s fans (except for maybe the Yankees, Red Sox, and Dodgers?) would be perfectly fine with a bad eight-to-ten year deal that came with a championship. Even for some franchises that have had recent success, a single World Series might seem to some like a disappointment rather than a potential dynasty, but just look at how many recent potential dynasties have fallen apart with one title or less. The Tigers and their four-ace rotation couldn’t close the deal. The Orioles won more games from 2012 to 2016 than any other AL team, and they busted hard. Or look at the Indians and how far they’ve fallen since 2016 (not to even mention their failure to close the gap during their runs in the 2000s and again in the 1990s). I really think a vast majority of fans take the sure thing in this question.

    And honestly, I think that it’s going to be difficult to find a better test case than the Heyward one, at least for a little while. There are only so many mega-deals and World Series titles to go around, and we’re asking for a lot of specific cases in the confluence of those two things. Of course, this is baseball, and I’m sure one day the Baseball Gods will conspire to give us those exact conditions, but until that day, the Heyward deal seems to cover a pretty far extreme of the spectrum. And obviously this is going to vary from person to person, but at least for me, I think that contributing to a World Series win sure feels like it negates any sort of bad contract.

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