durability and long contracts

i have an unscientific interest today. 

quite frankly, when somebody starts throwing around eight-year contract figures (however reliable that number may or may not be) i start getting worried. placing bets on how someone will fare in seven or eight years is intimidating to me. 

i have to say, a much better look at this issue was done earlier in the week at our sister SBN site, beyond the boxscore, by periodic contributor steve sommer, who may be known to you for his work at "play a hard nine." my one lingering concern is that slopes, curves, and averages tend to iron out the ups and downs of season by season play - which is what they're supposed to do. still, those ironed-out curves may conceal a two-year period of futility for one player, a nagging injury for another. 

to provide a drastic example - maybe an unfair one - chris carpenter has been worth, on average, 3.7 wins above replacement over the period 2005 to 2009. he had three seasons where he was worth 5 wins or more and two where he barely pitched at all.

i just have a nagging concern in my head about the possibility that we sign matt holliday to a lengthy contract and by may 1st he gets a sports hernia or a shoulder injury that leaves him semi-productive for the next 3+ seasons.  maybe it's irrational. maybe it's just being risk-averse.

we could keep trying to sign guys to short-term contracts; that would probably mean missing out on the top tier of talent, barring that which we develop from our farm. it would also bear its own risks - a player signed to a short-term contract is just as likely to get injured in any given year as a player signed to a long-term one. while you can then get rid of the injured player on a short-term contract, you also then must face the FA market or the trade market again to fill that hole with a new player, who may also get injured. the advantage of the short-term contract is that you won't be stuck with any one injury for a long period of time.

i decided to take advantage of one of the more interesting devices on the many baseball stat sites - the "similar player" feature on baseball-reference.com. honestly, i have no idea what the criteria are for saying that a player is "similar" to another. b-r didn't point me at any left-handed relievers, at least. however, even if there's no reliability to the "similar" player comps, even if these guys are just randomly selected individuals who at one time were also 29, i think that taking a quick look at them provides an interesting snapshot of what happens to any given ballplayer. 

i had done a similar exercise at the time of the polanco and figgins trades because i had concerns about their skill sets surviving past their early thirties. suffice to say, the comps provided by b-r were not very inspiring. a lot of comparable guys didn't make it through a three or four year period without missing a full season, leaving baseball, or suffering a pretty awful offensive decline.

i submit then, the following top 5 comps to Matt Holliday, courtesy of b-r.com.

two caveats:

first, some of the players (the first two, specifically) come from very different eras, including different medical eras. a career ending injury in 1940 might not be one now. you should take all these comps with a grain of salt, since none of them are necessarily similar to Matt Holliday beyond having been 29 once and playing professional baseball. you might take the older

second, no year-by-year defensive value is calculated, just a look at basic offensive stats.

Wally Berger

G

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

Age 30

133

347

.288

.361

.483

Age 31

89

347

.285

.354

.532

Age 32

115

472

.298

.347

.478

Age 33

97

374

.258

.341

.438

Age 34

22

47

.302

.362

.419

By age 35 (1941), Wally Berger was out of baseball.

Chick Hafey

G

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

Age 30

144

612

.303

.351

.421

Age 31

140

596

.293

.359

.471

Age 32

15

66

339

.400

.525

Age 33

0

0

0

0

0

Age 34

89

284

.261

.324

.447

Chick Hafey left baseball after his age 34 season in 1937.

Lance Berkman

G

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

Age 30

152

646

.315

.420

.621

Age 31

153

668

.278

.386

.510

Age 32

159

665

.312

.420

.567

Age 33

136

562

.274

.399

.509

Lance Berkman plays baseball actively and will begin his age 34 season in the spring.

Magglio Ordonez

G

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

Age 30

52

222

.292

.351

.485

Age 31

82

343

.302

.359

.436

Age 32

155

646

.298

.350

.477

Age 33

157

678

.363

.434

.595

Age 34

146

623

.317

.376

.494

Age 35

131

518

.310

.376

.428

Magglio Ordonez will enter his age 36 season in the spring.

Dave Parker

G

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

Age 30

67

254

.258

.287

.454

Age 31

73

270

.270

.330

.447

Age 32

144

586

.279

.311

.411

Age 33

156

655

.285

.328

.410

Age 34

160

694

.312

.365

.551

Age 35

162

700

.273

.330

.477

Age 36

153

647

253

.311

.433

Age 37

101

411

.257

.314

.406

 

two players from a different era who didn't make it into their late 30's in baseball. two current players who are still playing at a reasonably high level. berkman's overall value has run at almost 5 WAR per year over 4 years; ordonez is more like 3 WAR/yr over the last six years - though that is heavily affected by one season in which ordonez was worth 8.8 WAR. last comes one player from the 70's and 80's who played well past age 37 - parker finally retired at age 40 in 1991 - but whose offensive skills diminished to a steady but unimpressive .700+ OPS in his 30's - except for one red letter year.

we get spoiled, i think, by having one marquee player who produces like clockwork (who is, not coincidentally, still in his late 20's) and a bunch of role players who float in and out - we don't often see the long-term aging process (or just the vicissitudes of an eight-year span of baseball life). the other recent long-term commitments of the club have ended badly, with rolen departing injured for toronto and jim edmonds traded to san diego, with enough in him for a single last hurrah in chicago.

i don't mean to quarrel with the projections provided. i don't claim that this is more than a collection of snapshots of other players at a similar age. i just mean to point out that smoothed out into a neat curve is a real possibility that holliday ends up either seriously injured or suddenly ineffective. should that happen sooner rather than later, the effects of carrying a gigantic dud of a contract for five, six, seven years could be truly disastrous for the club. 

as i said, i am probably more risk-averse than the next fellow. i know that fear of a long contract gone bad is no reason to avoid them absolutely. if i were pushed, i'd say an eight-year deal could make sense. i'd just note that there's a reason why a contract longer in years should have a substantial discount in terms of AAV built in. 

* * *

a quick round-up of recent news items:

ex-cardinals sign minor league deals aplenty - barden to the fish, barton to the dodgers, and thurston to the braves.

milton bradley finally gets swapped for human albatross carlos silva (and a net of $6M to the cubs). now the cubs are finally free to sign . . . who exactly? the difference is that the mariners came out of the deal with slightly less money but with a player almost sure to produce, while the cubs have a replacement level pitcher who is a slightly nicer guy. win-win? 

garrett atkins gets signed by the o's, thereby preventing the cards from signing a not particularly good 3b.

in a news item that got little play, jaron madison, asst. scouting director here in the STL, got picked to be the new scouting director in san diego. i have to think that shows that the cards' scouting and minor league staff are well thought of.

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