A few years ago, I noticed something which might have seemed odd but really wasn't: When baseball teams signed free agents, the resulting salaries were often exactly what any dime-store sabermetrician would have recommended.
Well, almost exactly. You know, give or take a million dollars or three per season, based on that player's projected Wins Above Replacement. It was weird. Almost as if baseball teams were just going off FanGraphs. Or had their own value metrics that came up with the same answers as FanGraphs does.
Jhonny Peralta is just our latest example. Nobody had him getting $52 million over four years. But guess what. That's roughly what he should be worth. If not more. Thanks, in part, to fielding statistics that are significantly better than his reputation. "But he's a big guy," you're saying. "He should be playing third base!" Maybe. But Honus Wagner was a big guy. Buster Stephens was a big guy. Cal Ripken was a big guy. With the right positioning and a strong arm, a big guy can play shortstop well enough.
Actually, it's not precisely true that free agents are getting what they're "worth", in terms of Wins Above Replacement and the measured value of a Win Above Replacement. Rather, they're getting about the same thing; there seems to be a pretty standard going rate. Or as FanGraphs' Dave Cameron puts it:
$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.
According to FanGraphs, 1 Win Above Replacement has been worth roughly $5 million. Obviously, that depends a great deal upon the team; a win is worth more to the Dodgers than the Astros, at least for the moment. But Peralta figures to be worth around 3 Wins+ next season, or around $15 million. The Cardinals are getting him for $13 million. Granted, his performance will suffer over the course of his four-year deal ... but the cost of a win will rise, so over the course of those four years, we would expect him to be "worth" somewhere between $50 million and $60 million. Actually, more than $60 million if he can avoid significant injury or suspension and his earlier performance wasn't significantly enhanced by the banned sports drugs he was taking.
Cameron doesn't exactly make this point, and maybe he wouldn't agree with me about this, but it seems that some of these "nerd favorites" are still bargains because, while there are obviously teams that want them, there are few enough desirous teams that the price remains unnaturally low. Would Peralta have gotten even more money if all 30 teams bought into the statistics suggesting he's actually a decent fielder? I think so.
But it's going to happen. Or rather, it's just going to keep happening. It's just hard to imagine a world in which modern statistical analysis doesn't become more and more accepted by front offices, which in turn will result in more efficient allocation of financial resources. Today, though, I'll bet John Mozeliak is smiling a lot.