Nats do another big deal

ESPN reports that the Nationals and Ryan Zimmerman have agreed to a 6-year, $100-million contract extension, with a full no-trade clause. The deal is for the years 2014-19, when he’ll be age 29-34.

That’s right: Zimmerman was already signed through next year for a total of $26 million.

Now, there’s plenty to like about Ryan Zimmerman: good hitter, good fielder, face of the franchise ever since he was the #4 pick of the loaded 2005 draft and was in the majors for good that September. He had 110 RBI as a 21-year-old rookie; only 21 others have had a 100-RBI year that young, and most of them are in the HOF or headed that way. He’s hit better at home, which is no mean feat in the parks he’s played in. He’s been a ROY runner-up and an All-Star, won a Gold Glove and two Silver Sluggers. There’s never been a Washington Nationals season without him.

Still, there are two obvious questions:

  • Will he be worth $100 million over those 6 years?
  • And why sign a new long-term deal two full years before his old deal runs out?

I’m not here to answer those questions, only to start a discussion. Let me raise the easier question first: Why now?

As you’ll see in a moment, I think Zimmerman’s performance during the 6-year deal is unlikely to match his play thus far. But there’s also the question of his durability. Zimmerman has  missed big chunks of time in 2 of the last 4 seasons, including last year, and his performance in both years was not up to his usual standard. Why commit to a full 8 years down the road for a player who missed 2 months last year?

Let’s look at Zimmerman’s value over the past 3 seasons. That’s the timeframe most advantageous to Zimmerman, taking in his 2 best years by far (2009-10). Here’s where he stands among all position players in that time:

  • bWAR, 20th, 12.8.
  • OPS+, 22nd, 132 (min. 1,000 PAs).
  • Games, 98th, 400.

Now here’s something that boosts Zimmerman’s immediate value: Good hitting third basemen are fairly scarce these days. In bWAR and OPS+, Zimmerman is 2nd only to Evan Longoria over the last 3 years.

Well, OK — but does today’s shortage predict what we’ll see 2 to 7 years from now? I think not.

Zimmerman’s two best WAR seasons were 5.3 and 5.2, at ages 24-25. Those were real good years. But this deal isn’t about then, or even now; it’s about ages 29-34. And as the opening chart shows, the number of star seasons by third basemen historically drops sharply through that range. Here’s a similar chart of 3Bs’ high-OPS+ seasons by age:

Now I’ll try to anticipate how Zimmerman might hit during the new contract by looking at groups of hitters similar to him through age 26. Each of these tests covers 1901-2003, stopping there so that all players included will have reached age 34 by now.

First, a conservative approach taking in his full career to date. Zimmerman so far has a 120 career OPS+ in 3,669 PAs. I looked at all hitters through age 26 with an OPS+ from 115-125 and at least 2,500 PAs (from 1901-2003). There were 72 such players; their average OPS+ was (surprise) 120.

  • For age 29-34 combined, this group had an average 109 OPS+ (unweighted), 11 points below the original baseline.

The second approach focuses on Zimmerman’s last 3 years, age 24-26, with a combined 132 OPS+ in 1,737 PAs. So I looked at hitters age 24-26 with OPS+ of 127-137 and at least 1,500 PAs. There were 73 such players, with an average OPS+ of 132.

  • From age 29-34 combined, that group averaged a 121 OPS+, 11 points below the original baseline.

Thirdly, I looked at all 3Bs with at least a 110 OPS+ and 2,000 PAs by age 26. This is the cream of the young 3Bs, a group of 29 with an average OPS+ of 127 — better than Zimmerman’s 120.

  • From age 29-34, they averaged a 117 OPS+, 10 points below the original baseline.

Finally, a WAR-based approach with a defensive piece. Zimmerman so far has 19.8 WAR and a dWAR of 0.2. His defensive reputation is better than that, so I looked at all 3Bs through age 26 with at least 15 WAR and positive dWAR. This group of 23 has 8 HOFers and a few more on the way; their average WAR was 22.7.

  • From age 29-34 combined, they averaged 17.5 WAR, or 2.9 WAR per year. Eight of the 23 had less than 10 WAR in those years.

No matter the method, it seems that most players of Zimmerman’s caliber — as hitters and all-around — have been lesser players from age 29-34 than they were by age 26.

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
68 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Jeff Allen
Jeff Allen
10 years ago

Man, that’s ridiculous. Almost as ridiculous as giving a 32-year-old a 10 year deal. Of course, nobody would be so stupid as to do th– oh, right

Doug
Doug
10 years ago

Nice work, as always, John, although I have to say you’re most likely preaching to the choir here. Don’t think it will be a surprise to many that msot players’ performance declines as they head into their 30s. 🙂 This, though, is how baseball’s economics works now – owners underpay for early career performance and overpay for middle and late career performance. Having said that, hard to see why a team would want to commit themselves in advance like this unless they feel strongly that it will cost significantly more to do this deal in a couple of years because… Read more »

bstar
bstar
10 years ago

Ryan Zimmerman is the most interesting case, period, if you look at how bWAR and fangraphsWAR differently evaluate a player. Zimmerman is credited with a whopping 30.2 fWAR for his career, a stunning 52.5% increase over his bWAR. Obviously, this changes everything when you look at whether this is a good contract or not. Personally, I find fWAR’s reliance on UZR produces very quirky, positive results. His WAR on fangraphs actually makes him the SIXTH BEST PLAYER IN BASEBALL over the last six years, which I think is ridiculous. I do think he’s a lot better than average defensively, though,… Read more »

Person
Person
10 years ago
Reply to  bstar

I was going to bring up a similar point. Total Zone likes Zimmerman’s defense far less than any other defensive metric, which affects his bWAR. I think his bWAR underrates him.

Nevertheless, the Nationals paid a premium to keep the face of their franchise, likely for the rest of his career. And also, frankly, the Lerners are loaded even by MLB owner standards.

Lawrence Azrin
Lawrence Azrin
10 years ago
Reply to  Person

I live in the DC area and have watched Zimmerman many times, and I sinply cannot accept that he is an average defensive third baseman, as a +2 career Rfield (from B-R) would imply. My gut-reaction is that he is one of the best defensive third baseman I have ever seen. Maybe I’m a little too impressed by his flashiness, but he makes all the routine plays, and a lot of the difficult ones. He is not another Brooks but, at the least, well above-average defensively. My main concern is his lack of durability (2008, 2010) as others have mentioned.… Read more »

Ed
Ed
10 years ago

What do you want to bet that John just did a more sophisticated analysis than anything the Nationals did before they made the signing?

bstar
bstar
10 years ago
Reply to  Ed

Ed, I would like to think the Nationals are employing some people who do this sort of sophisticated analysis, although the signing of Werth to a 7-year deal at his age makes you wonder a bit.

bstar
bstar
10 years ago
Reply to  bstar

Oops, you beat me to it.

Ed
Ed
10 years ago
Reply to  bstar

Bstar – Obviously as outsiders we can never know for sure, but personally I’d be surprised if there’s much sophisticated analysis going on in most GM offices.

bstar
bstar
10 years ago
Reply to  Ed

Well, I guess we will just have to disagree a little on the competency in GM offices around the league. The question is: how much WAR does Ryan Zimmerman need to produce over his age 29-34 seasons to justify this contract? If we use the standard $5M per win in 2012/5% annual inflation assumptions, Zimmerman needs to produce 16+ WAR to live up to the contract. As John showed above, the average WAR production aged 29-34 for elite defensive third basemen with similar production to Ryan’s is 17.5 WAR. Zimmerman certainly seems capable of 16 WAR or at least coming… Read more »

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
10 years ago
Reply to  bstar

Aha! There’s the question. Tom Tango posted about this yesterday. Basically, he think that, if Zimmerman doesn’t get hurt, it’s a good deal. Of course, he ALWAYS gets hurt, so maybe it’s not a great deal, but it’s not a train wreck, either.

http://www.insidethebook.com/ee/index.php/site/article/ryan_zimmerman1/

bstar
bstar
10 years ago
Reply to  bstar

That seems to be the general consensus on Fangraphs as well. They may have overpaid a tad, but the deal should work out.

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
10 years ago
Reply to  bstar

Agreed, bstar. And that doesn’t even take into account the value of more wins/player. For example, 15 4-WAR players are much more valuable than 30 2-WAR players, because you can’t hold 30 on your roster. By the same token, then, one 4-WAR player is worth more than two 2-WAR players. We don’t have a sophisticated way of measuring that yet (that I’ve seen), but it’s definitely true. So it’s actually possible that a lot of these contracts that people have been blasting (Pujols, Fielder, Zimmerman, etc.) are actually better than we initially thought. Except Ryan Howard. That was just stupid.

Michael E Sullivan
Michael E Sullivan
10 years ago
Reply to  bstar

It goes much tighter than roster sizes. You can only play 9 or 10 players at any one time. It’s hard to produce 4 WAR (or even 2 WAR) from the bench. but it also means that WAR/PA is pretty important. A guy who is really good, but less durable is risky of course. But one consequence is that his expected WAR happens in fewer PAs, which means that if you have a solid bench backup (above replacement) the who misses 40 games but puts up 4 WAR anyway, is more valuable than a player who puts up 4 WAR… Read more »

Ed
Ed
10 years ago
Reply to  bstar

Re: Tom Tango…he seems to think the Nats overpaid. From Dr. Doom’s link:

“I love Ryan Zimmerman, and I think he’s terribly underrated, or at least underappreciated and underdiscussed. But 100MM$ for 6 years, two years out? I think the most you can possibly argue is that he’s 4.5 WAR entering 2012. That would mean 6 years / 82MM$. I think the Nats overestimated a player who is underappreciated.”

Ed
Ed
10 years ago

BTW, I would have thought that the Nationals would have learned something from the Jayson Werth contract but I guess not.

Ed
Ed
10 years ago

Last year the Nationals had the #6 pick in the draft. They used it to select Anthony Rendon and they gave him the 9th largest major league contract in draft history. Rendon plays….are you ready for this….3rd base!!! And he’ll be 22 in June so he’s not some 18 year old that they’re planning on stashing in the minors for 4-6 years. Yeah, this is a franchise that knows what it’s doing!

Mike L
Mike L
10 years ago

I agree with the performance aspect of John A’s piece, but I think the business side of baseball is adjusting faster than we are as fans. Team owners are learning to monetize everything, with the biggest bucks coming from the regional tv networks deals and the subsidized stadiums and infrastructure. Ryan Zimmerman is a home grown star-he’s marketable at a number of levels. Steinbrenner used to talk about “putting fannies in seats” and he was right for his era. But the revenue streams are so much greater now than just gate reciepts, and a sports contract is critical for networks… Read more »

MikeD
MikeD
10 years ago
Reply to  Mike L

GMS was right about putting fannies in the seats. He also took it another step further by creating the YES Network. He was right up to the very end.

Tmckelv
Tmckelv
10 years ago

I don’t mind this deal only because it was made by a team to keep a fan-favorite. It obviously would not be a great deal if another team signed him as a free agent.

Voomo Zanzibar
Voomo Zanzibar
10 years ago

Great analysis.
JA, if you ever get offered the Mets GM job I would actually root for them.
Just please install a ticker on the tittytron counting how many planes fly overhead during the games.
__________________

Zim’s closest comp through age 26 (945) was a nifty player whom I’d never heard of:

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/c/cliftha01.shtml

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
10 years ago
Reply to  Voomo Zanzibar

Harlond Clift had a good year in 1937. He set two seasonal records for third-basemen which have since been broken: most HRs with 29 and most assists with 405.

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
10 years ago
Reply to  John Autin

But Ott only played 113 of his 150 games at 3B that year.

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
10 years ago

John: I prefer the latter also but suppose Ott played 75 games in the outfield and 75 at third, then what?

birtelcom
birtelcom
10 years ago

Harlond Clift’s homer logs for 1937 and 1938 show he hit 29 as a third baseman in 1937 (breaking Ned Willimason’s record of 24 set back in 1884) and 31 as a third baseman in 1938. The home run log shows Clift also hit two homers in 1938 while in the game as a first baseman, although the box scores as b-ref do not show Clift as having played first base in either of the games in question (August 3 and June 25). The box score and the homer log agree that he hit a homer on August 6 as… Read more »

birtelcom
birtelcom
10 years ago

The progress of the record, since 1876, for most homers in a major league season by a third baseman (doesn’t include homers hit as a pinch hitter or when in the game at another position): 1876 Cap Anson, 2 homers tied by Carl McVey, 2 homers in 1878 1880 Roger Connor, 3 homers 1882, Mike Muldoon, 5 homers 1883, Jerry Denny, 8 homers 1884, Ned Williamson, 24 homers 1937, Harlond Clift, 29 homers 1938, Harlond Clift, 31 homers tied by Ken Keltner, 31 homers in 1948 1950, Al Rosen, 37 homers 1953, Eddie Mathews, 48 homers tied by Adrian Beltre,… Read more »

bstar
bstar
10 years ago

Almost certainly Matt Williams would have been on that list had the season not ended prematurely in 1994. He had 43 HR in 112 games when the shutdown happened. He’d played in 112 out of 115 games, so what would his projected total have been for, say, 158 games? 61 HR. 150 games? 58 HR.

Tmckelv
Tmckelv
10 years ago
Reply to  Voomo Zanzibar

Poor Harlan suffered for years as one of the top players for the horrendous Browns until he got traded in 1943…The Browns went to the World Series in 1944.

bstar
bstar
10 years ago
Reply to  John Autin

As I stated earlier, Zimmerman really is the poster boy for the differences in bWAR and fWAR. His case personally prompted me to take a real long look at which players historically had the greatest difference between the two metrics. What I found is, for the most part, the differences are very marginal for most great players except for one class…….elite defensive players who get a good portion of their value from their defense. These are the biggest discrepancies between fWAR and bWAR that I found: fWAR/bWAR Difference 94.6/69.1 25.5 Brooks Robinson 108.7/88.7 20.0 Carl Yastrzemski 63.6/49.9 13.7 Luis Aparicio… Read more »

bstar
bstar
10 years ago
Reply to  bstar

What really makes my head spin is that, pre-2002, fWAR used the same TZ defensive totals that bWAR did, so where are the differences from historical players pre-2002 coming from?? I didn’t get that far, but just eyeballing it, it looks like positional adjustments and replacement level numbers are where the differences likely lie.

kds
kds
10 years ago
Reply to  bstar

Not position adjustments. They are very similar. 1) Replacement level. 2) Different things included in offensive value. fWAR has no base running except SB/CS before 2002, so things like Jim Rice hitting into many more DP than average are not included, inflating Rice’s value. 3) Not so sure, but they may do park effects differently.

bstar
bstar
10 years ago
Reply to  kds

Very interesting, kds. I still need to take a closer look and suss out what the differences are being caused by. Your info should help. I admit I didn’t look a lot at pre-1950 Hall of Famers but I think I covered everyone after that. What’s weird is even though the dWAR from TZ is exactly the same(pre-2002), the differences only show up in elite defender’s OFFENSIVE skills. This is mesmerizing to me as to why.

bstar
bstar
10 years ago
Reply to  John Autin

Sweet find. I’m sure there are many others out there. I guess Rodriguez’s glove had to pretty good for him to last 17 seasons in the bigs and produce 1.8 oWAR. I only have vague memories of him.

bstar
bstar
10 years ago
Reply to  John Autin

Sweet catch. I’m sure there are plenty more out there. I have only vague memories of Rodriguez, but I guess his glove had to be pretty good for him to last 17 seasons and produce 1.8 oWAR.

bstar
bstar
10 years ago
Reply to  John Autin

Sweet find, John. I’m sure there are many more out there. I only have vague memories of Rodriguez, but his glove must have been pretty good for him to last 17 seasons and produce 1.8 oWAR.

Andy
Admin
10 years ago
Reply to  bstar

bstar your comments were getting caught in spam. I have restored all the ones you submitted today (they are now on the site) and hopefully your new ones do not go to spam.

bstar
bstar
10 years ago
Reply to  bstar

sorry guys for posting a similar post three straight times….i was just troubleshooting a problem.

bstar
bstar
10 years ago
Reply to  bstar

seems to be workin now, Andy, thnx.

Andy
Admin
10 years ago

JA, I love the look of those graphs. What software did you use?

Andy
Admin
10 years ago
Reply to  John Autin

Nice. I’ve never seen numbers put right on there instead of a Y-axis…pretty neat and a nice presentation.

kds
kds
10 years ago

JA, The first graph is the number of 3B who reached a certain rWAR level at a certain age? What time period does this cover? That is, how rare are these seasons? If Zim has averaged say, the 40th best season by a 3B at each age, what value will he produce in the future if he keeps at his relative level? (Relative level as in he keeps having the 40th best season for each age.)

bstar
bstar
10 years ago
Reply to  John Autin

As I said earlier, Dave Cameron at Fgraphs estimated Zimmerman need only produce 16+ WAR age 29-34, and these projections here have him at 18.1. I’m starting to like this contract more and more.

Ed
Ed
10 years ago
Reply to  bstar

But there’s a major flaw in Dave’s analysis. Contracts can never be evaluated in isolation because they have impacts on other parts of the roster. All teams (even the Yankees!) have a finite number of dollars that they can invest in players. By choosing to invest heavily in Ryan Zimmerman, the Nationals are choosing NOT to invest in other parts of their roster. Let’s just say that, per John’s prediction in comment #42, that Zimmerman produces 3.7 WAR in 2014. But because of Zimmerman (and Werth’s contract), the Nationals have to accept having less than ideal production at 2nd base… Read more »

birtelcom
birtelcom
10 years ago
Reply to  Ed

“Contracts can never be evaluated in isolation because they have impacts on other parts of the roster.” I’m not sure that’s true in the sense you mean it. Even if a player may be much more valuable to Team X than he would be to other teams, based on the nature of Team X’s other players and roster decisions, that is still not an excuse to pay much more than the market value of a player determined in isolation, if paying just a bit more than market value would have gotten that player anyway.

bstar
bstar
10 years ago
Reply to  Ed

Ed, they are also choosing NOT to spend more money on a free agent third baseman in two years if Zimmerman left. As Matt Swartz(Baseball Prospectus, Fangraphs) said yesterday: “The deal’s critics already pointed out Ryan Howard’s questionable extension in April 2010 — also two years before he became free-agent eligible — but there are a number of recent contracts that may be better comparisons for Zimmerman’s. While Howard’s deal appears that it will be a major overpay, it turns out these contracts generall work out quite well for teams. Instead of being unnecessary risks, they are usually hedges against… Read more »

Ed
Ed
10 years ago
Reply to  Ed

Bstar – A few comments: 1) As I noted earlier, the Nats drafted a 3rd baseman with their first pick last year. He should be MLB ready by 2014 so it’s not clear the Nats would need to sign a free agent 3rd baseman or trade for one had they not extended Zimmerman. 2) That being said I’m not sure we’re necessarily disagreeing. As I said, there is some security in locking up a player and not having to continually fill a position every few years. But that does obviously limit the Nats flexibility in coming years. And even if… Read more »

bstar
bstar
10 years ago
Reply to  Ed

Thoughtful reply. I’m happy with the “maybe we’re not disagreeing so much” part and we’ll leave it at that.

Perhaps it wasn’t Swartz’ best work; his stuff is usually exemplary, and often, like you, parts of his stuff go way over my head. But I do think he’s an authority on the subject, more for his work on B Prospectus, but I don’t subscribe anymore.

Ed
Ed
10 years ago
Reply to  Ed

Britelcom – My point had nothing to do with market value. It was about opportunity cost. Because of finite resources, teams have to pick and choose where they invest their money. Spending money improving one part of the roster means you can’t spend it elsewhere. Even if you pay below market value for a particular player it may not be the best use of your resources.

bstar
bstar
10 years ago
Reply to  Ed

Well, Ed, I said I would leave it at that but here I go again. Doesn’t baseball, a lot more so than football, draft more based on the talent level of the player available as opposed to filling positional needs? It’s not like the Nationals should have zero quality third basemen in their system. If Rendon does turn out to be really good, it’s still a win for the Nats even if Zim is producing well. They can find another spot in the lineup for him, or he becomes a really valuable trade chip.

Ed
Ed
10 years ago
Reply to  Ed

Yes, I agree re: Rendon. Did I say something to make you think otherwise? Anyway, I’ve done some more reading on him and it sounds like he might be the rare 3rd base prospect who has the glove to handle 2nd or short or the bat to handle 1st.

Anyway, I DO hope these moves work out for the Nats. I think it’s good for baseball to have a team in the Nation’s capital and it would be a shame if a 3rd team left DC sometime in the future.

bstar
bstar
10 years ago
Reply to  Ed

Yes, I read that too just a few hours ago. The Nats are pleased that he’s looked good at both short and second and think his glove will play “anywhere in the infield”. Apparently he played SS in high school and 2B some in the minors already.

Timmy Pea
Timmy Pea
10 years ago

I love those graphs! When I first heard about this deal I thought the Nats overpaid. If someone hasn’t said it already, isn’t it poetic that a team from Washington wastes money?

Timmy Pea
Timmy Pea
10 years ago
Reply to  Timmy Pea

I’m Newt Gingrich and I approve this message! Not really, but I am strangly attracted to Mrs. Newt! She is so beautiful with her perfect hair and ’50s look.

MikeD
MikeD
10 years ago

The length and dollars on the deal doesn’t bother me much. The timing of it does slightly. I would have waited one more season to make Zimm show he can be healthy again for a full season. Of course, the danger of that (and perhaps something the Nats considered) and waiting to 2013 is he will only be one year away from free agency, so he might ask for a higher annual average as well as seven years. In that scenario, if they intended to sign him, they were better off doing the deal now.

bstar
bstar
10 years ago
Reply to  MikeD

That would be one approach, MikeD, but think of it this way: The Nationals signed Zimmerman at a time when he was coming off one of his worst, injury-plagued years. They signed him when he was cheaper than if they’d done this last year; if he has a good year this year, his price goes back up and they have to spend that much more to keep him. So I like the timing of this contract also.

Lawrence Azrin
Lawrence Azrin
10 years ago
Reply to  bstar

Agree with you bstar – if Zimmerman has a typical full-time Zimmerman-like performance this year, his free agent price would have gone up some before next year, but if he had a serious MVP-type year, his price would go WAAAAAY up. So it’s a gamble, but a decent one.

yaz deaths
10 years ago

Perfectly pent written content, regards for selective information. “No human thing is of serious importance.” by Plato.