A $320 Million Extension for Giancarlo Stanton Is a Bet Against History

By: Brian Mangan

Everyone knows that signing a superstar to a mega contract in his 30’s is usually folly.  But there appears to be a prevailing notion around baseball right now that signing a younger player to a mega contract is wise.  I’m not so sure about that.

This idea has been in the news recently as it has been reported that the Miami Marlins are in negotiations to sign superstar outfielder Giancarlo Stanton to a 10 year contract, valued at a whopping $320 million.  I’m not sure of the veracity of these rumors, but good sources are calling the rumors extremely credible.

$320 million is a lot of money to guarantee to one player, and 10 years is a long time to do it for (especially when you consider that the extension doesn’t kick in until Stanton’s present deal expires in 2017).

There is a lot of money kicking around in baseball right now, and by the time that all is said and done, the Stanton deal may turn out to have been justified, or may even have been a bargain.  However, if it is, it’s because of of luck and factors external to the contract, because in terms of WAR, dollars, and cents, it’s not a smart gamble for the Marlins to take.

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Let’s find some historical comps for Giancarlo Stanton.  To begin, I cast a wide new, running a search on Baseball-Reference for outfielders in the first five years of their careers who put up a single season of 5 WAR or more between 1990 and 2009.  There were 73 results.  Several of those players did it on more than one occasion, and that’s the narrower cohort we should use to compare to Giancarlo Stanton.  Here are the names:

Albert Pujols, Andruw Jones, Bobby Abreu, Brian Jordan, Grady Sizemore, Ken Griffey, Jr., Kenny Lofton, Lance Berkman, Marquis Grissom, Matt Holliday, Steve Finley, Tim Salmon, Vladimir Guerrero.(Ichiro did it too, but his first five years were mid-career).

Some of these guys did it primarily with speed and defense, so they are not good comps for Stanton.  Sorted by home runs, here are the guys who hit 30 or more in one of those seasons:

Griffey, Guerrero, Jones, Salmon, Sizemore.  Griffey isn’t a great comp either, since he’s clearly better than Stanton, but let’s use him anyway as a cautionary tale.

stanton simIf we wanted to get additional comps who might also have come close to doing what Stanton has done, here are the other guys who hit 37+ home runs in that same sample of their first five years:  Juan Gonzalez, Richard Hidalgo, David Justice, Brian Giles, Carlos Quentin.

We can also take a look at Baseball-Reference’s most similar batters through age 24 for Stanton, which you see on the left.  Many of the same names we’ve come up with appear again, along with some more historical comparisons.

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Fangraphs did an excellent job at breaking down the proposed Stanton extension, as they always do.  They’re great over there. In this case, it was Dave Cameron who figured that Stanton would put up 46 WAR over the ten years covered by his extension, from 2017 to 2026, his ages 27 through 36 seasons.  This number was arrived at by using Steamer projections for Stanton and chopping off .5 WAR per year, starting at age 30, to cover a standard aging curve.

But how many stars, even well-estabished ones, can put up 46 WAR from ages 27 through 36? Not many.

Here’s a quick look at four of the greatest stars this game has seen in the last quarter century, Larry Walker, Derek Jeter, Albert Pujols, and Manny Ramirez.  All of these players are, or should be, bound for Cooperstown.  Next to their names you’ll see the year, their ages, and their actual fWAR.  In the box, next to the actual WAR values, find an analysis of what their projected WAR values would have been should a Steamer analysis have been done on them to project their age-27 seasons, and regressed from there in the same manner in which Fangraphs projected Stanton.

walker jeter war
(click to enlarge)

There are mixed lessons here, even in a sample of four of the most successful outliers of our era. These are literally the best case scenario that the Marlins could aspire to – and only two of the four reached their WAR projections.

Larry Walker and Derek Jeter both would have “justified” their huge extensions, while Manny Ramirez fell short and Albert Pujols is in the process of disappointing on an even longer, dumber contract.  But even in the case of Walker, is it not feasible that a team who owned the rights to Walker would have done better on multiple, shorter term contracts with him?  Walker in 1996 played only 83 games, hitting 18 home runs and batting .276 at age 30.

Let’s take a look at the other players that we could concievably compare to Stanton to see how they performed from 27 to 36. These aren’t cherry-picked, these are the top three comps from my list, and the top four comps from Baseball-Reference:

  • Griffey Jr.: 41.7 WAR
  • Vlad Guerrero: 32.8 WAR
  • Tim Salmon: 22.8 WAR
  • Juan Gonzalez: 22.8 WAR
  • Jose Canseco: 20.8 WAR
  • Tony Conigliaro: 0 WAR
  • Boog Powell: 29.1 WAR

In fact, there have only been 22 outfielders in the Expansion Era begin in 1961 to put up 46 WAR or more from the 6th year of their career through the end: Bonds, Sosa, Aaron, Griffey, Sheffield, Ramirez, Jackson, F. Robinson, Winfield, Mays, Yastrzemski, B. Williams, D. Evans, Walker, Beltran, Henderson, Kaline, Yount, Clemente, Raines, J. Cruz and Gwynn.

That might sound like a lot, but that’s essentially one player for every two years.  And most of these players were better than Stanton has been to this point in his career — 21 players over that same time period posted 20 WAR or more in the first five seasons of their careers, including Bonds, Griffey, Henderson, Jones, Sizemore, Lofton, Puckett, and Gwynn.  Stanton has 21.1 bWAR and only 19.9 fWAR, behind all except Gwynn.  Ryan Braun is another who compares favorably to Stanton through his first five years (26.2 bWAR) and he has only been good for 7.4, 1.6, and 1.2 WAR over the last three seasons.

So many more, including the majority of the players that are the best comparisons for Giancarlo Stanton, have fallen short of providing that value.

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Yes, Giancarlo Stanton is a physical specimen unlike we’ve seen in a while, and yes he’s been fantastic when he plays.  But even before his terrible end to his 2014 season (hit in the face by a fastball), he has not been the picture of health.  Stanton was on the DL in 2012 to have arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, and again in 2013 due to a strained right hamstring.  Stanton has averaged 134 games played per year from 2011 to present, tallying 123, 115, and 145 over the last three.

Taking a projected WAR value, extrapolating it for age, and multiplying it by $/WAR is fascinating, but it’s not very useful.  A discount of half a win sounds nice, but I don’t think it has any basis in reality (feel free to comment below with a source if there is a reason that’s the discount they use).

Essentially, in order to offer $320 million to Giancarlo Stanton, you’re betting he is going to end his career as a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame alongside Aaron, Mays, Yasztremski and guys who should be, like Beltran, Ramirez, and Bonds.  If he falls short of that, you’ve lost on your bet.

Could there be a chance that Stanton is on his way to the Hall of Fame?  Of course there is.  But for every Derek Jeter, who earns the contract, there’s a Ken Griffey Jr. derailed by injuries.  For every Larry Walker, there’s three Jose Cansecos who simply don’t live up.  For every Manny Ramirez who comes close, there’s a Vlad Guerrero who doesn’t.

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Brian Mangan is an attorney who lives in New York City.  He also writes for Metsblog.com.