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November 7, 2012


Let Me Qualify That

by Adam Sobsey

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If you are wise, you will dread a prosperity which only loads you with more.           
Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Compensation”

We now know which of the players who qualified for… um, a qualifying offer, received one. They were:

Michael Bourn
Josh Hamilton
Hiroki Kuroda
Adam LaRoche
Kyle Lohse
David Ortiz
Rafael Soriano
Nick Swisher
B.J. Upton

Should offers have been made to these players? On the flip side, should offers have been made to some of the players who didn’t receive one? How do we estimate what $13.3 million is worth, or should be worth, in terms of production?

These offers were not made in a vacuum, of course. In some cases, the team extending the offer was fairly certain that the player in question would sign a multiyear contract elsewhere. Knowing that they couldn’t or wouldn’t match that offer because of financial constraints (Upton/Rays) or for other reasons (Hamilton/Rangers), they reasoned that they might as well score a compensation pick. The Red Sox had every reason to bring Ortiz back after he managed a 3.0 WARP despite missing almost half the season. He was already making roughly the amount of the qualifying offer, and he signed a two-year deal worth approximately the same annual value ($13 million per season, plus incentives).

Similarly, the Yankees would like to retain Hiroki Kuroda, who gave them superior workhorse production (he threw the sixth-most innings in baseball last year) for $10 million. As Matthew Pouliot points out, somewhat irritably, while arguing that Zack Greinke may be overvalued, Kuroda is probably worth a good deal more than that:

Kuroda has outpitched Greinke three straight seasons. How is he not worth more than $20 million on a one-year deal? It’s pretty crazy that a few teams are going to be willing to guarantee Greinke at least $20 million-$22 million six years out, yet Kuroda might end up settling for $13 million-$15 million on a one-year deal.

The Yankees know that another season like the one Kuroda just gave them is worth $13.3 million, and it was an easy decision to make the QO. And of course these are the Yankees, who can afford to overpay. It’s no surprise that three of the nine QOs made were theirs; no other team made more than one. They were going to pay Rafael Soriano $14 million anyway in 2013, so after he opted out in search of multiyear riches (and a closer role) it would have been stupid not to make the offer. As for Nick Swisher, he is a versatile, durable player whose 3.7 WARP tied him for 31st among position players last year. Another 3.7-WARP player was Albert Pujols.

Look at some of the other players clustered near Swisher on the WARP list. Michael Bourn also produced 3.7 WARP. Josh Hamilton, 3.9. Adam LaRoche, 3.6. It may be a coincidence that all of these similarly productive players received qualifying offers, but it may also be a suggestion of what sort of benchmark merits a $13.3 million valuation.

Two other notable free agent outfielders did not receive QO’s. Torii Hunter and his 3.3 WARP (42nd among position players) did not draw one from the Angels. Hunter is a good deal older than the other outfielders who received offers (he’ll turn 38 next July); perhaps he, like Kuroda, won’t draw multiyear interest. It was understandable that a QO was not made.

Arguably less defensible was San Francisco’s decision not to extend a QO to Pagan, whose 4.7 WARP was 18th among position players last season (higher than Adrian Beltre and Bryce Harper), and who upped his value with fine play in the postseason as well. But the Giants seem to be operating more tactically here. They’d like to resign Pagan, evidently, along with Marco Scutaro and Jeremy Affeldt (whose values are nowhere near the $13.3 million league). They’re taking the gamble, perhaps, that the availability of Bourn, Hamilton, Swisher, Upton and other outfielders (e.g. Ryan Ludwick, Cody Ross, Shane Victorino) will dilute Pagan’s value on the open market, making him easier to bring back for reasonable money.

Two other tough calls, both pitchers: Kyle Lohse got a QO from St. Louis; Edwin Jackson did not get one from Washington. The internet has generally disdained Lohse of late, and Jackson has for years seemed like an underachiever with his aceworthy stuff. Yet Lohse’s 1.9 WARP was 49th among pitchers last year (just 0.3 lower than Hiroki Kuroda’s, for what that’s worth), and Jackson’s 0.9 was 140th—oddly, identical to that of everybody’s favorite comeback kid, Ryan Vogelsong. Jackson is a singular case, almost literally a trailblazer. As Cee Angi pointed out yesterday, Jackson isn’t yet 30 years old but has already started games for more teams (7) than any other active pitcher. I always thought his history of mostly one-year contracts spoke to a hedging tendency toward Jackson on the part of GM’s; and in the Nationals’ case, if Jackson has never been quite good enough to resign, why would you make him any kind of offer now, let alone a $13.3 million one? But Angi reminded me that Jackson turned down a three-year offer last year. Okay, it was from the Pirates, but $27 million is a lot of money to leave on the table. That is, it seems like Jackson is the one who’s hedging. In any case, it does appear, once again, that the market overvalues starting pitching, which is still the rarest of commodities.  It’s probably unfair to compare starters’ WARP with position players’, but Lohse’s WARP is the lowest among QO recipients. Context is always all. The numbers alone can’t explain the QOs.

Just for fun, though, I decided to try anyway. I used some blunt-object measurements to see if there was a way to determine whether a QO ought to be made or not, while freely admitting that there any number of far less scientifically compelling methods of figuring this. A GM could ask a top free agent about his house. If it’s a big nine-bedroom villa with an indoor pool, full-length basketball court, and 50-seat movie theater, he’s going to have trouble finding a buyer in this still-shaky market, so he’d probably thank you for the extra year. You make him a QO. He accepts, plays hard for you in gratitude, puts up 3.3 WARP, and gifts you his Loire-heavy wine cellar when he leaves after 2013.

Here’s another way, though, a bit more scientific. The qualifying offer amount, $13.3 million, is derived from the average of the top 125 players’ salaries in 2012. Let’s say, than, that the player to whom you make your QO ought to be ranked No. 62.5 on the list of Best Players of 2012, exactly in the middle of the top-125 pack.

Among position players, at No. 62 and No. 63 by WARP, we find a pair of second basemen who were worth 2.7 wins in 2012. No. 62 is Chase Utley. As it happens, Utley is on a seven-year contract that pays him an average annual salary of $12.14 million, not much below the QO amount.

Another second baseman on a multiyear contract with an annual value near the QO amount is Dan Uggla, who takes home an average of $12.4 million. Uggla’s WARP last year was 3.3, 40th-best in baseball among position players.

So the takeaway is very clear here: the QO amount is worth something close to a veteran second baseman who nets you around three wins per season. Thanks for reading.

Oh, but wait, Utley played only half the season in 2012. And also—right—what about that no. 63 second baseman who matched Utley’s 2.7 WARP in 2012? Ah, that would be Marco Scutaro. Well, that’s okay, because Scutaro’s most recent deal was for right around the same amount, $12.5 million.

Whoops, that was $12.5 million for two years, with a third option year, which the Red Sox exercised in 2012 for $6 million. Would you pay Marco Scutaro $13.3 million to play second base and/or shortstop for you next year? No. Of course not.

Maybe we should look at pitchers, too. Pitchers No. 62 and 63 by WARP (1.6) in 2012 were Jake McGee and Kelvin Herrera. I’ve seen a lot of Jake McGee because he used to pitch for the Durham Bulls, so I feel I know this pitcher quite well. He just had a wonderful season for the Tampa Bay Rays, with the second-highest pitching WARP of any non-closing and non-starting reliever (i.e. Kris Medlen doesn’t count) in all of baseball.

My first thought about Kelvin Herrera was: Who is Kelvin Herrera? No, seriously. I had never heard of Kelvin Herrera when I started this article. I divulge this embarrassing secret to you, reader, because BP casts a sharp and clinical eye on the naked frankness of player strengths and weaknesses, and that should include the stats of writers, as well. We have holes in our swings, too.

Now, a good part of the reason I had never heard of Kelvin Herrera is: Kansas City Royals. Still, shame on me for my ignorance, for multiple reasons, one of which is that Herrera pitched for the Class-A Burlington (N.C.) Royals in parts of three seasons from 2008-10. Burlington is about half an hour from my house by car. I could have seen the kid as a raw prospect. When I peer at the internet for information about him, I don’t get much. Herrera’s Wikipedia page is five sentences long. One of those sentences is the one that goes: “Kelvin DeJesus Herrera Mercado (born December 31, 1989) is a Dominican Major League Baseball pitcher for the Kansas City Royals.” Not even Rany Jazayerli has written much of anything about him on his blog, that I can detect.

PITCHf/x tells me that Herrera throws hard, really hard, with a fastball that averages more than 98 mph. He used to be a starter who lost a lot of time to elbow injuries and was converted to a flame-throwing setup man. You know who else that describes? Jake McGee.

Okay, so the QO benchmark pitcher has been definitively established. And you might as well throw in David Hernandez, who ranks No. 61 on the pitcher WARP list (also 1.6) and is also a very good poet who seems to have a penchant for violence in his verse (see “Mosul” and “Lisa” and “Chess Match Ends in Fight”), which uses repetition and anaphora to great effect in generating musical rhythm and dramatic momentum. But there’s no such thing as momentum in baseball, and no such thing as scouting in poetry. The pitcher David Hernandez doesn’t throw quite as hard as Herrera and McGee, but he’s up there above 94 mph, and he helps solidify the meaning of the average value of the 125 top pitchers in baseball: you should make a QO to a tough eighth-inning reliever who pitches for a low-budget team.

But there’s a problem, a huge problem: Who in their right mind would pay $13.3 million for an eighth-inning reliever? There’s a reason I had never heard of Kelvin Herrera, and I bet it’s the same reason that a whole lot of baseball-loving people in Kansas City have probably never heard of Jake McGee: non-closing relievers are the offensive linemen of baseball, essential but unknown and, probably, replaceable in nearly every case. Their reliability tends to be volatile from year to year, they get injured, they don’t throw that many innings, they are not where you spend $13 million, not even close. And the Giants didn’t make a QO to Jeremy Affeldt, either.

What about starters? Is Kyle Lohse a $13.3 million value? I found three starters averaging near the QO amount on multiyear deals: John Danks, Ryan Dempster and Roy Halladay. Well, now, Dempster is a free agent, but he was ineligible for a QO because he was involved in a midseason trade. Danks and Halladay were injured, the former majorly, so what can you conclude, other than that—to revisit the way we overvalue starters—it seems almost crazy to pay pitchers a lot of money for a lot of years?

Still, Dempster was the 27th-best pitcher in baseball last year, with 2.5 WARP. The Rangers couldn’t make him a qualifying offer, but if they could have, they would have, you can bet $13.3 million on that.

So, since we’re already beginning to do it, let’s move completely away from the 62 ½-best player and look at other $13 million players.

Designated hitter. There was one of those, David Ortiz, and he resigned with the Red Sox for… $13 million. Even though he’s no longer the mighty Ortiz of 2005-07, he’s still a very good player. His WARP totals for the last three years: 3.0, 2.7, 3.1. Those figures placed him no. 2, no. 1, and no. 3, in sequence, among designated hitters. There is something kind of singularly universal and automatic about David Ortiz. He does one thing, for one team, and it is worth $13 million. Like if he did it for Seattle he’d only get $7 million or something. Somehow it seems as though the Red Sox have absolutely no say in whether or not they employ Ortiz. He makes them a QO, and they have to accept. He shows up at Ben Cherington’s door (Theo Epstein’s previously) with a contract, and Cherington has to sign it. On Monday, he told ESPN Deportes, “In the 10 years I have played in Boston, I have been the heart and soul of the organization.” This seems truer than ever, now that the team has been mostly blown up and the Bobby Valentine Experiment ended with the equivalent of acid spilling all over the floor and melting a couple of sophomore cheerleaders’ Uggs. Tim Wakefield was essentially put out to pasture, you hear occasional talk of trading Jacoby Ellsbury, but there’s never any doubt that David Ortiz is the Red Sox’ DH and heart-and-soul for $13 million per season until he decides he doesn’t feel like playing anymore.

Catcher. Miguel Montero is pretty close, at $12 million per year through 2017. His 3.9 WARP was fourth-highest among catchers in 2012. Mike Napoli’s WARP was 10th, at 2.0, although he missed time (he played in only 108 games), and the steep decline from 2011’s superb 5.1 led to the general regard for him darkening. Texas didn’t make Napoli a QO, but he might turn out to be worth, say $10 million next year. He made $9.4 million in 2012. The Rangers’ choice to let him walk seemed tied, perhaps, to their hopes for Geovany Soto. You could argue, though, that Soto, like Napoli, is a declining asset, too, albeit a cheaper and slightly younger one.

First Base. Justin Morneau’s contract averages $13.3 million per year, exactly the amount of the QO. It seems like a healthy Justin Morneau is worth more than that but: A) looking over his numbers, for the three years after his 2006 MVP season until injuries took much of 2010 and 2011 away from him, his average WARP was roughly equal to Ortiz’s; and unlike Ortiz, who is kept off the field for sanitary reasons, Morneau appears to make quite a mess at first base if FRAA is to be believed. And B) “a healthy Justin Morneau” is an ideal yet seldom maintained condition, like “sleeping regular hours” is for most of us. Were he a free agent, would you make the QO? How much of Morneau’s esteem relies, at this point, on his MVP season? He turns 32 on May 15. He’ll be an interesting case when he reaches free agency after 2013.

Second Base. Covered, yes? Best to be a guy whose last name starts with U.

Third Base. Chipper Jones made $14 million last year. His WARP was 2.3. Mike Lowell got $12.8 million per year from 2008-10, a contract he earned with stellar numbers in the two years before that—consecutive career-high WARPs of 4.9 and 5.1 in 2006-07. Over the three years after that, the $12.8-AAV  years, he amassed a total of 3.0 WARP. Whoops. Third base seems to have a lot of clay-footed heroes in the upper pay echelon: Alex Rodriguez, Michael Young, Aramis Ramirez (three less-impressive final years at $15 million per with the Cubs), Eric Chavez (wrecked by injuries two years into a six-year, $66 million contract). Seems like a danger position where big money is concerned. Something seductive about the hot corner.

Shortstop. Nobody gets $13.3 million at this position. You have guys like Derek Jeter, Jose Reyes, and Troy Tulowitzki going well over that amount—we love our superstar shortstops—and then a dropoff to Hanley Ramirez at $11.7 million. Would you make Ramirez a qualifying offer if he were a free agent? His awful FRAA (-16.1) drove his WARP down to 1.4 last year, the same as Mike Leake. Mike Leake as a hitter. What about J. J. Hardy, who was the 65th-best position player in the majors last year with his 2.6 WARP, right below our old pals Chase Utley and Marco Scutaro?

Outfield. As with shortstop, no one makes right about $13.3 million as an outfielder. Adam Jones gets an average of $14.25 million. I’d make him a QO. But then: Aaron Rowand made $13.6 million each season from 2010-12. Angel Pagan is really mad at him, and Rowand is no longer employed by a GM who can ask him about his house. He and his contract have been the subject of much scorn, some of it from right here at BP, but let’s qualify that. The guy played as hard as he could for the money he got. He had bones in his face broken twice, most recently by the villainous headhunter Vicente Padilla, who beaned him in 2010. Back in 2006, Rowand showed his willingness to run almost literally through the wall to make a catch, crashing into the unprotected fence at Citizens Bank Park in a now-legendary play. He had surgery but returned to action just two weeks later. Three months after that, he went down for the year when he collided with a teammate going after a shallow pop-up to center field, fracturing his ankle. The teammate he ran into was none other than Chase Utley.

It’s not Rowand’s fault that Brian Sabean offered him $60 million after the 2007 season, and from a distance it’s not even Sabean’s fault, really: Rowand was good for 4.4 WARP and an 889 OPS that year. I suppose you could say that it was Rowand’s “fault” that he was completely broken down by the end of 2011, at age 34, but it was entirely because of the way he played the game. Look at this injury history:

As Quad-A veteran Chris Richard put it just after he retired in 2011, “They say athletes die twice.” Or, in the words of Emerson in “Compensation”: “He may soon come to see that he had better broken his own bones than have ridden in his neighbor’s coach, and that ‘the highest price he can pay for a thing is to ask for it.’ … You must pay at last your own debt.”

Adam Sobsey is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Adam's other articles. You can contact Adam by clicking here

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