Chase Headley has agreed to re-sign with the Yankees, reportedly for about $52 million over four years. We’ve written pretty extensively about Headley over the last month or so, so before I continue, I’ll just direct you to a few links for further reading about his abilities.
Headley is a polarizing guy, with those of us who put a decent amount of value on the defensive side of the game seeing him as an above average regular, while many others see him as an underpowered corner guy whose best days are behind him. The Yankees used that diminished perception of Headley’s value to sign him to a deal for slightly less than what our crowdsourcing project suggested, which is pretty rare, given that the crowd is generally low on free agent contracts.
But that shouldn’t be a huge surprise, since people reading FanGraphs and contributing to the crowdsourcing project are more likely to use the metrics found here on the site, which suggest that Headley is still a pretty good player. While the Yankees and a few other teams — there was a reported $65 million offer on the table that he turned down, though we may never know if it was actually made or not — may agree with that assessment, there are enough Major League teams who think there are better ways to spend $10 to $15 million per year on a four year deal. So, as a point of comparison, let’s look at how Headley stacks up with other hitters who have signed similar contracts over the last couple of winters.
The following position players signed free agent contracts this winter or last winter for between $40 and $60 million on a four year deal. Here are their totals for the three years prior to signing their free agent contract:
Here are those same five players, only with the two prior years leading up to their free agency.
And here are those same five hitters, with only their final season before free agency.
The most obvious takeaway? The Curtis Granderson signing was just a debacle. Not only did the Mets pay the highest price of the five players, they also surrendered a draft choice because Granderson had rejected a qualifying offer. Oh, and he was coming off the worst season of the group, and even including his past track record doesn’t make the deal look much better.
I wonder, in fact, if the Granderson mistake ended up hurting Headley this winter. After all, Granderson’s case was somewhat similar, in that he had a monster +6.7 WAR season in 2011, then regressed into being just a solid player rather than a great one in the following two seasons. In fact, if you look at their three year wRC+ trends, they were quite similar in their runs up to the free agent market.
And yet, despite being two years younger at the time of the contract signing, offering more defensive value, and not having the qualifying offer as a deterrent, Headley settled for less than what Granderson got from the Mets last winter. Even if you’re skeptical of Headley’s defensive value as measured by UZR or DRS, I find it difficult to see how one could strongly prefer Granderson as a free agent, given their age and recent performances. While the market pays a premium for power hitting, Granderson should serve as a nice reminder that it isn’t exactly a rational premium.
My guess is we’ll be saying the same thing about the Nelson Cruz contract in relation to the Headley deal next winter. Cruz is certainly coming off a much stronger season than Granderson was last year, but he’s essentially the same kind of bet as an aging one-dimensional slugger. And if you begin to look at the larger samples of data, the offensive gap between Cruz and Headley shrinks by a significant margin, to the point that the 2012-2014 numbers actually show that Headley has been the better hitter over the last three years when park factors are included in the calculations.
And since Cruz was signed to DH in Seattle, you don’t have make any grand claims about Headley’s defense at third base to suggest he provides more value on defense. As long as Headley isn’t the worst defensive third baseman the game has ever seen, that is true by default. And yet, like with Granderson, Cruz got the slightly larger contract. The game really likes to pay for one-dimensional sluggers. But we knew that already.
The other two guys on the list are perhaps the more interesting comparisons. Peralta, particularly, seems to be a similar case, where the statistical community saw value in a player who was not seen as a big asset by traditional measures. Both players were good-not-great hitters who accumulated a good amount of defensive value, even though neither one is traditionally looked at as an elite defender. In Headley’s case, his position is held against him; in Peralta’s case, his body type causes many to assume that he’s poor defensively despite regularly proving skeptics incorrect. And perhaps not surprisingly, both players signed almost exactly the same deal, and in both cases, signed with teams who have some significant leanings towards statistical analysis.
And then there’s Nick Markakis, who is by reputation what Headley is by performance. As Mike Petriello noted after the Braves gave Markakis his four year contract, there was clearly a disconnect between what the market saw and what we saw when looking at the right fielder. But I think it’s fairly clear that the teams that pursued Markakis think he’s a better defender than our metrics suggest, and their 2014 offensive performances were pretty similar as well. If you think Headley is an average hitter with a little bit of defensive value in a corner spot, then seeing Markakis as a similar value isn’t that far fetched.
Of course, besides ignoring the defensive metrics, you also have to pretend that the huge gap in offensive value between them in 2012-2013 didn’t exist, which isn’t a great idea. That said, both players have roughly the same wRC+ over their career — 114 for Headley, 112 for Markakis — and one could construct an argument that if we’re going to include track record in the argument, that the longer one suggests that the two might not be that dissimilar at the plate. And if you buy into Markakis as an above average defender, then having him sign for something not that far off the Headley/Peralta deals looks a little less crazy.
It’s pretty clear that this price range gets you a flawed, aging hitter, though you can choose what kinds of flaws you want. For this price, you can buy a bat-only slugger who might not slug as well you as you hope as he gets older. Or, you can buy an average-ish hitter with some defensive value, both supported and not supported by our defensive metrics.
But just as Peralta was clearly a better option than Granderson last winter, I’d expect that the Headley deal will very quickly look like a better deal than the Cruz contract. Teams can keep paying a premium for aging sluggers if they want, but that doesn’t make aging power hitters worth the contracts they keep receiving. If you’re going to spend $50 million to buy a hitter these days, aiming for a guy like Peralta or Headley seems like the best way to do it.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.