The 100 Million Dollar Contract Over Time

All this recent talk about the contract status of Barry Zito caused me to visit the Cot’s Baseball Contracts page on the most expensive players of all time. Any FanGraphs reader worth their salt already knows this, but there are only 26 players in all of baseball history that have ever been given total contracts worth more than $100M. The first player to break the $100M barrier was Kevin Brown, signing a 7-year, $105M deal before the 1999 season. Since then the barrier has been utterly destroyed, culminating so far in Alex Rodriguez’s recent 10 year, $275M deal (although of course, that could be passed this upcoming offseason by Albert Pujols).

But 1999 is a long time ago (as scary as that may be). Seven of the $100M contracts have already finished, and another three of them are finishing this season. Although $100M is an arbitrary cut-off, can these completed contracts tell us anything about the wisdom or folly of large, long-term contracts?  Let’s take a peek, shall we?

First of all, the 10 completed (or near complete) contracts are as follows:

Alex Rodriguez – 10 years, $252M
Derek Jeter – 10 years, $189M
Manny Ramirez – 8 years, $160M
Todd Helton – 9 years, $141M
Mike Hampton – 8 years, $121M
Jason Giambi – 7 years, $120M
Carlos Beltran – 7 years, $119M
Ken Griffey Jr. – 9 years, $116M
Kevin Brown – 7 years, $105M
Albert Pujols –  7 years, $100M

That doesn’t tell us much all by itself, though, so let’s break these guys up into semi-arbitrary groups and see how their production fared over the course of their contracts. For this, I’m using charts loosely based off the concept of Weighted WAR (wWAR), which was introduced by Adam Darowski over at Beyond the Boxscore:

(Click to em-biggen)

I call this the “Day-um” group, since they all managed to be pretty remarkably productive over the course of their contracts. Pujols and Rodriguez are both absolute monsters, but the most surprising thing to me is Jeter’s production; through this lens, his contract doesn’t seem so bad. Of course, he was paid an incredibly hefty sum, but he’s fared much, much better than many of the other $100M contracts. Like, um, these:

This would be the “Injuries Suck” group, with Mike Hampton, Ken Griffey Jr., and Kevin Brown all getting hit hard by injuries during their $100M contracts. To be fair, even though he suffered injures as well, Kevin Brown was much better than both Griffey and Hampton. He had three seasons where (by WAR) he was a legitimate Cy Young contender, and he had two other seasons that weren’t spectacular but were better than average. They fall into the “Meh” category because you hope for better for a $100M contract, but it’s not as if Brown was ineffective those years.

Griffy and Hampton, though – those two contracts were pretty rough. Mike Hampton’s contract was particularly bad: even at his best, he never produced more than 3 WAR in a season over those eight years. At least Griffey produced when he was healthy, getting two seasons that cracked into the “Excellent” level.

And finally, we hit the “We Got Injured, But Were Still Awesome” crew:

Beltran still has one year left on his contract, so he could theoretically have a bounce-back year. Even if he flames out this season, though, his peak production in the first few seasons of his contract was unreal – the highest three year peak out of anyone given a $100M contract not named Pujols or A-Rod. As for the other two in this graph, Todd Helton’s career has slowly gone downhill due to injuries and age, but he produced above the “Excellence” level for five out of the eight years of his contract. And Giambi’s production arc looks similar to Kevin Brown’s, but without quite as big a bounce-back.

So that was fun, but does looking at contracts in this light tell us anything? It’s nothing radical or earth-shattering, but one thing stands out to me: injuries are the real wild card. All of these players were elite talents and produced as such when healthy, yet only four of them managed to stay relatively healthy through the length of their contracts. These four players were also the four that were the most consistent with their production over the course of their contracts, and probably provided their original teams with the best return on investment.

In light of the Pujols contract talks a week or so ago, this is a point worth remembering. Long-term contracts are a huge risk. People can hypothesize all they want, but who knows exactly how a specific player will age? Who can predict if a player will suffer a debilitating injury five years from now? Elite players are rare; elite players that will stay healthy and productive over the course of seven seasons are rarer still.

Piper was the editor-in-chief of DRaysBay and the keeper of the FanGraphs Library.

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It does seem suggest that health is the #1 concern. If they stay healthy, they’ll earn the contract. Amazing that teams are spending more to keep players healthy.