The Internet was buzzing yesterday with news of the latest baseball mega-deal: Centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury agreed to a seven-year $153 million deal with the New York Yankees.
The numbers are staggering. The contract is among the largest of all time. Ellsbury, who just completed his age-30 season, bears some resemblance to a speedy outfielder that the Indians signed last offseason: Michael Bourn. Yet the two contracts couldn’t be any more different.
Cleveland was a somewhat surprise entrant to the Bourn sweepstakes, winning the then-30-year-old’s services with a contract worth up to five years and $60 million1. What makes the two players so much different?
In actuality, they had fairly similar career value leading up to their free agent contracts. They accumulated said value in different ways, of course. But it’s fascinating to see how this could lead to two more years and over $90 million.
The above chart shares the value for Bourn and Ellsbury at the time of their contracts. Both were entering their age-31 seasons with their new deals. Although Bourn had played nearly a season’s worth of more games, they actually had a shockingly similar total of plate appearances. That makes analysis pretty easy in an apples-to-apples way.
Ellsbury had about 22.5 jWAR2, Bourn had about 20. The major difference is how they got to those values. The basic WAR calculation is a sum of runs above average for batting, baserunning and fielding, then adding in positional scarcity and replacement level bonuses. Thus, Wins Above Replacement, not just average.
We’ll note the biggest difference immediately: Bourn is a below-average with the bat as Ellsbury is above-average. That’s crazy. A general rule of thumb is that 10 runs is equal to 1 win. So Ellsbury had about a 7 win advance on Bourn with just his bat. He’s actually a really good hitter, unlike Bourn.
But in baserunning and fielding, Bourn is one of the best … of all-time. He far exceeded the value from Ellsbury, generally regarded as one of baseball’s speediest players and best fielders. That’s how amazing Michael Bourn was in his prime.
Now that we have the career values in place for their pre-free agency years, let’s take a look at their basic career statistics, per 150 games, to see where they differed.
Again, the basic box score statistics tell the story of how Ellsbury is far superior hitter than Bourn. That can again be seen in OPS+. Perhaps that irrefutable fact is why Ellsbury is valued much more on the open market, where doubles and home runs catch the eye a bit more than beating out a double play or cutting off a single? Certainly that’s logical. But in 2013, it’s hard to imagine teams aren’t paying attention to these advanced numbers.
One will note that Ellsbury actually had more steals and a better stolen-base rate than Bourn. And then in 2013, Bourn fell off his career pace entirely, stealing successfully on only 23/35 attempts. So it must be that Bourn’s lead in the advanced baserunning category is more from beating out double plays, extending hits and advancing extra bases than steals alone.
Ellsbury is far more adept as a leadoff hitter … mostly because he’s a far superior batter overall. He strikes out less frequently, and although he actually walks a bit less, he has a far better average.
Looking at the circumstances for their signings, many teams likely shied away from Bourn because of the draft pick compensation. Atlanta gave Bourn a qualifying offer, which he denied like every ever has. One team in particular, the New York Mets, would have lost their No. 11 overall pick because a team failed to sign a 2012 pick, bumping them down from the top-10 restricted zone. Any team that signs a qualifying-offer free agent loses their highest unrestricted draft pick.
Cleveland owned the No. 5 pick, which was restricted from being lost by a free agency acquisition. They also had already signed Nick Swisher, losing their second round pick. Thus, signing Bourn only cost them their competitive balance selection – between the second and third rounds – a much lower cost than what the Mets would have faced.
For the Ellsbury deal, the economics favor a team on the precipice of the playoffs. A marginal win is far more valuable to an 86-win team contending for the postseason than a 76-win team. Who cares if you only win 77 and still miss the playoffs? No one knew what the Indians could have been entering 2013. But the Yankees certainly are gearing up for another playoff run next year, per usual, thus meaning that Ellsbury’s added value could bring them over the hump. The draft pick discussion doesn’t matter as much to them.
Bourn’s team-friendly deal made him an immediate possible trade candidate. With the Indians recently signing another outfielder in David Murphy and tendering a deal to Drew Stubbs, that possibility becomes even more likely.
In the end, the debate boils down to how well speedy outfielders age historically in baseball. Initially, as I wrote in The Diff and the Josh Hamilton stats post last February, I was quite optimistic. Over time, I soured about that idea, learning more about examples like Chone Figgins and Carl Crawford. Michael Bourn’s disappointing 2013 season certainly didn’t make me feel any better.
But lo and behold, evidence shows that speedy players like Ellsbury and Bourn do age quite well. FanGraphs’ David Cameron dove into the numbers again on Tuesday night. Here were his results:
Those decent amounts of data suggest that players like Ellsbury age well, even if Carl Crawford did not. That data does not support the idea that speed-and-defense players fall apart after they turn 30. If anything, the data suggests just the opposite, and says that big boned first baseman are the ones you should be really afraid of.
I know the Carl Crawford comparison is the easy one, especially because Boston is tied to both players. That doesn’t make the conclusion about Ellsbury’s future value based on Crawford’s failure any more true, however.
Runs are runs, and wins are wins, regardless of whether created by speed and defense or power and contact. Undoubtedly, both Jacoby Ellsbury and Michael Bourn are valuable players. The reason for the two starkly different contracts is perhaps solely tied to the nature of the signing team’s budget than anything. Cleveland loves Michael Bourn at $12 million a year, while New York can stand Jacoby Ellsbury at $22 million a year.
I wouldn’t put too much weight just yet in Ellsbury’s contract changing the entire free agent landscape for remaining available players like Robinson Cano or Shin-Soo Choo. It certainly won’t hurt their case, but there aren’t too many other teams like the Yankees still fetching for major talent. It’s a fascinating comparison to see how 10 months changed so much for two very similar players, but perhaps nothing really changed at all.
Photos: Tony Dejak/Associated Press and Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Bourn has a vesting option for 2017 at $12 million based on accumulating 550 plate appearances the previous season. He’s averaged 657 plate appearances the last five years, so the option seems inevitable. [↩]
again, for the unfamiliar, jWAR is a simple average of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference. For more information, read Jon’s post from last winter. [↩]
Jacob Rosen is a long-time contributor to WaitingForNextYear. He's also a writer online at SportsAnalyticsBlog and Nylon Calculus . An Akron native, Jacob is a current MBA student at the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. You can follow him on Twitter @WFNYJacob or e-mail him at udjrosen(at)gmail(dot)com.