Jhonny Peralta and the Price of Nerd Favorites

Over the weekend, the Cardinals signed Jhonny Peralta to a four year, $53 million contract. I think it’s fair to say that, heading into the off-season, he was expected to sign for much less. The Tigers didn’t bother making him a qualifying offer. He was coming off a 50 game suspension for using PEDs. Some teams that expressed interest in him saw him as an outfielder, not a shortstop, and his offensive production levels aren’t that fantastic for a corner OF. He was so overlooked that Carson Cistulli even forgot to include him in the Contract Crowdsourcing series, but the general consensus from other contract prognosticators was something in the range of $20 million over two years.

But Peralta landed a deal for twice as long and more than twice as much money, as the Cardinals spent aggressively for the right to fill their shortstop hole without trading from their base of young talent. They could have acquired a cheaper shortstop from a financial perspective, but the cost of talent would have been substantial, so they chose to spend their monetary resources rather than their physical ones. Eno’s already talked about some of the risks and rewards of signing Peralta, so rather than rehash that post, I wanted to talk about Peralta’s price, and perhaps how we should have seen this coming.

I think it’s fair to say that Peralta is a guy that nerds like us generally think more highly of than the mainstream. Specifically, there’s a big perception gap surrounding his defensive value, as the commonly accepted belief about Peralta is that he’s a bat-first shortstop who is a liability in the field and probably should be playing second base, third base, or even the outfield. He has a thick lower half and doesn’t seem to be particularly athletic, and in fact, the Indians already moved him off shortstop a few years ago when they decided he was a better fit for third base in 2009.

However, the defensive metrics used by sites like this one happen to think Peralta is just fine at shortstop. For his career, in nearly 10,000 innings at shortstop, he has a UZR/150 of almost exactly zero, and it’s actually been positive for three straight seasons. DRS isn’t quite as big of a fan, grading him out at roughly average the last few years and a little below average overall, but it doesn’t paint the picture of a guy who can’t play the position either. In general, the publicly available advanced defensive metrics think Peralta is an average-ish defender at shortstop, and in no need of moving to an easier position any time soon.

That means that those of us who put some stock in these metrics take a more favorable view of Peralta than the general consensus. And it seems like the past few winters have solidified $13 million per year on a multi-year deal as the going rate for players that grade out more favorably by our metrics than they do by traditional evaluations.

For instance, let’s put Peralta’s performance over the last three years up against a group of similar free agents from last winter.

Name PA wRC+ BsR Off Def WAR WAR/600
Michael Bourn 2030 100 28.7 27.8 43.5 14.2 4.2
Shane Victorino 1900 108 18.6 37.1 14.5 11.8 3.7
Nick Swisher 1894 129 -8.8 54.9 -8.0 11.4 3.6
Jhonny Peralta 1609 109 -8.5 8.0 43.0 11.0 4.1

The data for the first three players on the list is 2010-2012, so it captured their final three years heading into free agency, and then 2011-2013 for Peralta, so again, his last three years before landing a big contract. In each case, these guys graded out as pretty excellent players by our metrics, averaging between +3.6 and +4.2 WAR per 600 plate appearances over that three year period. One can quibble with the specifics of each player’s value, but I think it’s fair to say that these players have graded out as roughly similar players heading into their free agent seasons.

And now, look at the contracts they’ve signed over the last 12 months:

Bourn: 4 years, $12 million AAV
Swisher: 4 years, $14 million AAV
Victorino: 3 years, $13 million AAV
Peralta: 4 years, $13 million AAV

I think we could actually even take this a step further, and expand it to the pitching side of things. Again, 2010 to 2012 data for pitchers than our metrics liked more than the general perception.

Ryan Dempster 590.2 4.04 3.87 3.74 8.5 7.3
Edwin Jackson 598.2 4.10 3.75 3.74 9.2 7.4

Jackson and Dempster both graded out as roughly +3 WAR pitchers (by FIP-based WAR) over three seasons worth of innings, though their ERAs put them more around average. And here’s what they signed for last winter.

Edwin Jackson: 4 years, $13 million AAV
Ryan Dempster: 2 years, $13 million AAV

$13 million per year seems to be the going rate for established, durable players who grade out better by nerdy metrics than by traditional ones. Granted, there are certainly other players who we like more than the general consensus who aren’t signing for 3/39 or 4/52 or something in those ranges — see Dan Haren for $10 million on a one year deal, for instance — but this still looks like a pretty decent rule of thumb.

And look at the teams that have signed these contracts. Two of them went to the Red Sox, two to the Indians, one to the Cubs, and one to the Cardinals. I think it’s fair to say that these four organizations are generally regarded as four of the most statistically inclined front offices in baseball. Or, at least, these are the teams that still put an emphasis on value signings while also having some money to throw around. The A’s and Rays aren’t making these kinds of signings because $13 million per year would account for 25% of their budget, but the teams that have some financial resources and still put a strong value on efficient spending have been the ones leading the pace in signing players of this ilk.

It used to be that we’d expect guys like this, guys that were favorites of the FanGraphs metrics, to be plucked up by low revenue teams looking to exploit market inefficiencies. Now, there are mid-to-high revenue teams also looking for value, and these teams are pushing the prices up for players that grade out well from a statistical profile.

We should probably stop expecting guys like Victorino and Peralta to be undervalued simply because they’ve historically been undervalued. There are teams who value their performances and can put their money where their mouth is. The days of seeing guys like this sign for peanuts is probably over. There are just too many statistically inclined front offices with money to spend for these types of players to keep being underpriced any longer.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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10 years ago

Dave, I just wanted to say thank you for all the great articles you post and how much I really enjoy getting this great baseball analysis day-in and day-out. You have really made Fangraphs the number one place I go to to catch up to up to the minute baseball happenings and analysis.

10 years ago
Reply to  +279

Not saying this does or doesn’t deserve the up votes, but this seems like a fairly derivative comment that will likely be found in every pursuant article from now on if it gets a ton of up votes.

Jason B
10 years ago
Reply to  Samuel

I don’t think most commenters’ well-being is tied to the number of up-votes on their FG comments. (At least I hope; we seem to be a fairly well-adjusted lot. For internet commenters anyway. I know that’s damning with faint praise.)