There are certain club options we just take for granted. Andrew McCutchen has only one guaranteed year remaining on his deal, but it’s almost unimaginable that his employer might turn down his $14.5-million club option for 2018. Similarly, Chris Sale has only one guaranteed year remaining, but then he has consecutive club options, worth $12.5 million and $15 million, respectively. These are very good players, so for all intents and purposes, McCutchen’s locked up two years, and Sale’s locked up three.
I was wondering last night just how bad McCutchen would have to be in 2017 for his option to be declined. I then quickly one-upped myself. The McCutchen answer was maybe somewhat interesting. But what about an even more team-favorable option? Enter Jose Altuve. Altuve is under guaranteed contract for 2017. Then he has a club option, worth $6 million. And, for the sake of being thorough, that’s followed by another club option, worth $6.5 million. The question to be addressed: How bad would Altuve have to be this year for the Astros to not want to pay him $6 million the year after?
This hypothetical is exceptionally stupid. Let’s get on with it, then.
You can come up with various reasons why the Astros might elect to let Altuve go. Maybe he snaps and attacks the whole coaching staff. Maybe he loses a leg. Maybe he loses an arm! Maybe he switches a leg and an arm. Maybe he develops an affinity for clubhouse beekeeping. Altuve could go crazy or become disabled, and then, sure, it’s obvious how the Astros would proceed. I don’t want to entertain those ideas, though. Those feel like taking the easy way out. I want to concentrate on only on-field performance.
To begin, what’s $6 million? Under what circumstances would the Astros not want to pick up that option? They’d decline if Altuve didn’t project to be worth $6 million. We’ll use that as a strict threshold. Based on the usual assumptions, a year from now a win on the market will go for about $8.4 million. So Altuve would have to project to be worth less than 0.71 WAR.
For simplicity, I’ll use 0.7 WAR as the target. Look — this is a post full of assumptions and simplifications. They’re being used to answer one of the stupidest baseball questions you could possibly ask. Forgive me for rounding. To get to a number, I need to work out a basic projection. We know we want Altuve to project to be worth 0.7 WAR. Let’s say that’s over a full season. For a typical projection, the calculations consider about four years of historical data. A table:
Time to solve for 2017’s WAR per 600 plate appearances. I’ve decided to use weights of 4, 3, 2, and 1, to assign significance to each year. The 2017 numbers would matter the most. I’ll spare you the middle-school math. Here’s the answer I got.
Altuve played a full season in 2014. He was great! He played full seasons in 2015 and 2016, and in each year, he was great. Let’s think about a full season in 2017, and a projected full season in 2018. To get to our number — for the Astros to want to decline Altuve’s club option — he’d have to be about five and a half wins worse than the accepted replacement-level.
I think he’d have to play like that for quite a while. If Altuve were worth -1 WAR or whatever over 100 plate appearances, the Astros wouldn’t really flinch. If he were worth -2.75 WAR over 300 plate appearances, even then, I think the Astros pick up the option. You’d need a full year, or close to it. I know it’s hard to imagine, but, imagine it. This whole post is for the imagination.
Problem: The lowest position-player WAR ever is -4.0, achieved by Jim Levey in 1933. Since 1900, there have been 35,011 player-seasons with at least 100 plate appearances. Of those, 120, or 0.34%, finished at a pace no better than -5.5 WAR/600. Picking from that group, 113 of the player-seasons ended with fewer than 200 plate appearances. The highest plate-appearance total in the group is 251. Very understandably, when a player has been this horrible, he hasn’t been able to play very much. Altuve would have to make some history to make some history.
One name of certain significance: Ben Zobrist. Zobrist turned into something really good, right? He’s still really good to this day. Earlier in his career, though, he sputtered in the majors, and he was dreadful in 2007, when he batted 105 times. His WAR/600 that year was -6.3. Worse than the calculated Altuve mark! But without enough playing time to really matter.
How could one even get to -5.5 WAR? Let’s preserve Altuve’s league adjustment, which gives him a slight benefit for playing in the AL. And we’re going to preserve the replacement-level boost that just goes into every WAR calculation. On a per-600-PA basis, we need Altuve’s offense + defense to work out to -74.1 runs. That’s compared to average. Offense includes hitting and baserunning. Defense includes performance and position.
Here’s the so-called Altuve line, against every other player-season since 1900 with at least 600 plate appearances.
The closest player is 1930 Tommy Thevenow, around -49 offense and -10 defense. Still 15 runs too good. So let’s construct a performance line, using 2016 player comparisons, for the benefit of familiarity!
First, we’ll plug in Yan Gomes as a hitter. In his first season as a semi-regular, Gomes posted a 128 wRC+! Last year he finished at 33. His bat was worth -48.4 runs per 600 PA. Horrible year for Yan Gomes.
Now, baserunning. Hello there, Billy Butler. He’s always been bad. His baserunning has literally cost his teams about nine wins since his debut. Nine wins! Last year, his baserunning value per 600 worked out to -12.7 runs. Already, this hypothetical Altuve wouldn’t be reaching base very often. When he would reach base, he’d have to be super difficult to move around. He’d also have to run into some stupid outs. He’d just really have to suck.
At last, defense. I’m going to use Trevor Plouffe here. Plouffe’s Def/600 last year was -14.7. In both 2014 and 2015, Plouffe rated as a positive defender. Last year he just came undone. I know Plouffe has been mostly a third baseman, and not a second baseman, but I don’t care. They’re similar positions. This is what Altuve would have to achieve, on top of everything else.
Put the numbers together: -75.8 runs. Say Jose Altuve plays something like a full season in the year ahead. If he hits like 2016 Yan Gomes, runs like 2016 Billy Butler, and defends like 2016 Trevor Plouffe, he’d end up with a WAR/600 of -5.7. At that point, factoring that performance into Altuve’s projection, the Astros might be disinclined to pick up Altuve’s $6-million option for 2018. He’d project to be worth a little bit less than that, and the Astros are all about financial efficiency.
Still, Altuve would be looking ahead to his age-28 season. There’d be that other club option, so maybe the Astros would pick it up anyway. If they didn’t, someone would sign Altuve and give him a job. Bounce-back candidate, and everything. What does $6 million even mean anymore? Teams are throwing this money around like it’s nothing.
But there’s always a limit. Following the math laid out in this post, if Altuve had his 2018 club option declined, all it would take would be by far the worst season in major-league history. That season, incidentally, would still be better than any season you could have, given the chance. Remember that in case Altuve really does just go completely off the rails.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.