What was going to be a two-part look at giving a "King's Ransom" for a soon-to-be 30-year-old outfielder has been blown away by VEB's response to my initial King's Ransom: Are Left Fielders Worth It? Fanpost. What was meant as a cautionary tale for throwing contracts long in years and high in dollars at players who are entering their decline years by showcasing two free agent conquests still under contract with our division rivals, the Cubs and Astros, quickly exploded, and I saw the error of my ways. Matt Holliday is not Alfonso Soriano. But, it's much more than that. The two aren't even really all that similar types of players, despite the fact that they both play left field. In my opinion, Holliday is a bit more similar to El Caballo, but that doesn't say much, does it? The comparisons between Holliday, Lee, and Soriano aren't really all that apt (even if the duo's albatross contracts and Holliday's forthcoming deal might make the three all too similar come 2013, at least for the winner of the Holliday sweepstakes).
Bill James introduced them nearly 15 years ago, and I lifted his methodology from his book The Politics of Glory (p. 86-106). To compare one player to another, start at 1000 points and then you subtract points based on the statistical differences of each player.
For batters, you subtract a point based on the following:
One point for each difference of 20 games played. One point for each difference of 75 at bats. One point for each difference of 10 runs scored. One point for each difference of 15 hits. One point for each difference of 5 doubles. One point for each difference of 4 triples. One point for each difference of 2 home runs. One point for each difference of 10 RBI. One point for each difference of 25 walks. One point for each difference of 150 strikeouts. One point for each difference of 20 stolen bases. One point for each difference of .001 in batting average. One point for each difference of .002 in slugging percentage.
There is also a positional adjustment involved, but I won't dally on that. (Baseball-Reference.com has everything you would want to know.) What I will point out is that there is a Career Sim Score, and that this score can then be broken down with a "career to age" function and then one showing players with similar career numbers from an age of your choosing to age 40. (So, you can't compare anyone to Barry Bonds, Julio Franco, or Roger Clemens, because, ya know, they played into their 40s.)
Matt Holliday's Career Similars, starting with most similar, are as follows:
1) David Wright
2) Jason Bay
4) Johnny Frederick
6) Chase Utley
8) Lefty O'Doul
9) George Selkirk
10) Hank Leiber
First of all, let me just say, "Wow." Look at the Similars amongst Holliday's contemporaries. Wright, Bay, Matsui, Miggy, Utley, and Sizemore. That's quite a list. Of course, getting the production Wright's club is getting from him at third and Utley's from second, what with their defense and all, makes those two much more valuable, in my opinion, but, nonetheless, that's impressive company to be keeping for one's offensive production. If you doubt that Matt Holliday is worth a top dollar contract, this should give you cause to reassess your valuation of him. That said, it's not surprising that when we do a Career Sim, we get a fair number of contemporaries, roughly the same age, as these players have all been offensive forces through the primes of their respective careers. Lets look at Holliday's top comparables through Age 28 (the oldest sortable age for him) and then see how those Similars performed moving forward, from Age 30 through Age 36 (a ballpark for the length of Holliday's forthcoming contract).
SIMILARS THROUGH AGE 28
Here is the list of the top 10 players with offensive numbers most similar to Matt Holliday's through their Age 28 season:
1) Wally Berger
4) Chick Hafey
5) Dave Parker
6) Fred Lynn
7) Larry Walker
8) Tim Salmon
9) Bobby Abreu
10) Mike Sweeney
A very helpful feature on Baseball-Reference.com allows us to take this group of Similars and then compare their offensive cummulative production from, say, Age 30 (Holliday's 2010 seasonal age) to the end of their respective careers. But, for our purposes, I'm going to break the players down for each season of production from Age 30 on, since that is the age Holliday will be in the first year of his gigantic new contract.
We will begin by looking at Runs Created, partly inspired by Michael Jong's wonderful post, "Runs Created: A First Step," over at Into Sabermetrics 101 (and further inspired by Baseball-Reference.com providing Runs Created on its "More Stats" page). I think it is a post worth reading for anyone, but especially for folks who are a little fuzzy, or, completely ignorant, as to "Runs Created" as a stat. It also has some must-read links to other pieces on Runs Created within the post itself. Jong describes "the advantage" of Runs Created as a stat:
Runs Created is derived from a fairly simple formula that is also dynamic rather than linear, which better reflects how baseball runs are scored, and it boasts low acceptable errors across the span of MLB talent and the course of a full season at the team level.
Jong also discusses the problems. An excerpt:
...the critical problem with RC: it is not an intuitive model on how baseball works, but rather a model that reflects the context and environment of a normal MLB season. In other words, RC does a fine job predicting "normal" major league teams, but struggles at the extremes because its basic formula is not actually grounded in baseball realism, but rather modeled based on MLB results.
The excerpts of the post which I have chosen by no means do the post or the stat justice. Let me repeat my recommendation that you read up on the stat, if it is new to you.
Here is a chart (thank you, Flim) showing the Runs Created for Holliday's top 10 Similars, beginning with their Age 30 and through their Age 36 seasons respectively. If the player is a currently active player who has not yet played a season, that is denoted by a question mark. If the player retired, or, did not play a season due to injury, there is a dash.
|Player||Age 30||Age 31||Age 32||Age 33||Age 34||Age 35||Age 36|
Now, here is a table (thank you, Braken) demonstrating the average Runs Created by Seasonal Age for the Top 10 Holliday Similars. A large grain of salt to consider is the fact that, as the top 10 ages, fewer of them contribute to the average. Some retired before Age 36 and others have not played their Age 36 Season just yet. So, that "average" is of three players.
A fitting graph, since skiing season is upon us (I think, but am not sure, because I'm from Iowa, where we don't really have hills, let alone mountains). Because the Age 36 average comes from three players, I'm certainly not using it as a basis to demand that the Cardinals give Holliday that seventh year because his production is certain to increase after Age 34 and 35 seasons which are worth nowhere near the $20MM salary he will command. Nonetheless, we'll take a look at the downward slope of offensive production after we take a glance at his Similars' OPS+ by seasonal age.
Quite conveniently, Yahoo! Sports' Big League Stew blog just did a primer on OPS+ this week, when this Fanpost was half-done on my SBN Dashboard. I highly recommend reading this post, as I think it does a good job of exploring the OPS+ pros and cons (undervaluing OBP as compared to SLG, for example).
If you have access to baseball-reference.com, which automatically calculates OPS+, it gets rid of your need for OPS. OPS+ does share the core weakness of OPS — namely, it gives equal value to both OBP and SLG, though sabermetricians agree that, point by point, OBP is a more valuable stat than slugging.
But because OPS+ incorporates league average and park factors into the calculation, it makes comparing one player to another much easier, both for a single year and across leagues and different eras. For example, Mickey Mantle and Albert Pujols have the same career OPS+ (172) while Babe Ruth is the career leader with a whopping 207 mark.
I chose this excerpt because we all have access to Baseball-Reference, which already has OPS+ and Runs Created calculated. I'm just utilizing the ready-made stats that they have over at their wonderful site. I also included it because it shows how great Albert Pujols is, and how good Matt Holliday is as a hitter. However, even his 168 OPS+ during his torrid time as a Cardinal does not stack up to Albert Pujols's career average (El Hombre had an OPS+ 188 this season. Just give him $300MM already...)
Again, my plucking of this portion of the post in no way does it justice. If you need to butch up on OPS+, give it a read.
Here are the Top 10's OPS+ by Seasonable Age:
|Player||Age 30||Age 31||Age 32||Age 33||Age 34||Age 35||Age 36|
Most of the players had their best season at Age 30. (Look at Hack Wilson, for example.) The average of the group is 140 for their Age 30 season. Matt Holliday had an OPS+ of 139 for the 2009 season as a whole, and of 158 during his time playing with the birds on the bat adorning his chest. His career best is 151, during the magical '07 run into "Rocktober," but he has generally been in the 130s, often just below 140. In fact, he'll probably be right around his Top 10 Similars Age 30 seasonal average in his Age 30 season. Here is how the Top 10's OPS+ has averaged through their Age 36 seasons. (The large grain of salt mentioned before the Runs Created graph against applies.)
The average of the Top 10 (or, Top 3, by the Age 36 season) is above average throughout, but not so far above average as to merit Mark Teixeira money, no matter how slickly the stats roll off of Scott Boras's allegedly forked tongue. Would you want to pay $40MM for two years of a 110 OPS+? I would not, but, the Top 10's decline doesn't necessarily mean that Holliday's will be so precipitous.
PAYING TOP DOLLAR FOR THE DECLINE YEARS
Not surprisingly, the trend in offensive production--whether we look at Runs Created or OPS+--is a downward one. Whether a MLB player's peak is at Age 29 or Age 27, that late-20s peak is inevitably followed by a decline as the player's career heads into the seasons of his thirties. The question is whether the rate of decline is more analogous to the slope of a central Iowa "hill" or the Grand Canyon. For the vast majority of MLB players, the decline phase of one's career, sans PEDs, is in his thirties. While the sample size for the above Top 10 analysis is tiny, it is fairly representative of what happens to the offensive production of the MLB player population as a whole when they leave their twenties and age into their mid-thirties. That said, J.C. Bradbury, who has looked far more extensively into this than I ever will, states the following:
Age is often used as a reason to chastise GMs for picking up players past their prime. Though old players may not be what they once were, the evidence indicates they can still be valuable. According to my estimates, a hitter who has a .900 OPS at his peak would be expected to post around an .850 OPS at 35...
Matt Holliday's 2009 OPS? .909. So, how does that 6-year deal sound to you folks now?
Note: I'm also going to look at the big contract outfielders from the last fifteen years or so to give this a contemporary view, as well, that takes into account (hopefully) the advancements of the 21st century. That will be Part III...