A common refrain heard this offseason is that you just rarely see free agents as good and as young as Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. This is undeniably true. But when the subtext is “… so we have no idea how to value them as free agents,” it seems to overlook the fact that there have been plenty of players as good and as young as Harper and Machado — they just happened to play before free agency or debuted at a slightly later age and therefore didn’t reach free agency as young. So there is a huge sample of players to look at for guidance on how a guy like Harper or Machado might perform for the next decade or two.
I’m going to focus on Harper for today, because he signed the longer contract and has possibly been the lesser player thus far. When Harper signed with the Philadelphia Phillies for 13 years, I immediately began to wonder how other players with similar starts to their careers would have fared over the course of an age-26-to-38 contract. My gut instinct was that very few players who have amassed this much value through age 25 remain productive through 38, but I think it’s silly to rely on gut instinct when data is available.
Perhaps even more importantly, though, the Phillies don’t necessarily need Harper to remain great throughout the entirety of the contract; the average salary of $25.4 million is a relative bargain, and the inflation-adjusted value of $25.4 million in 2031 will be closer to $18 million. With baseball salaries generally outstripping inflation by quite a bit, you could conceivably have star players making $70 million while Harper is making $25.4. So they don’t need a superstar for the whole contract, but it’s still useful to see how players have performed.
Through 2018, his age-25 season, Harper has accumulated 27.4 WAR according to Baseball-Reference. He’s at 30.7 according to Fangraphs, which a) is a somewhat trivial difference equal to about half a win per season, and b) is a good reminder that WAR in any form is an approximation. So I did a quick search for players who had between 22.4 and 32.4 WAR through their age-25 seasons — basically a plus-or-minus-5 on Harper’s WAR. You can see the results here or see the entire table at the end of this article, or just keep reading and I’ll tell you all about it.
There are some big names on this list. Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth top the list, and other Hall of Famers include Roberto Alomar, George Brett, Robin Yount, Tim Raines, Ivan Rodriguez, Frank Thomas, and Reggie Jackson, among others, plus future Hall of Famers Derek Jeter and Adrian Beltre and maybeshouldabeen Hall of Famers Bobby Grich and Willie Randolph. There are also a lot of big names who aren’t on this list, like Ted Williams, Alex Rodriguez, Mike Trout, Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, Barry Bonds, Joe DiMaggio, and 23 others whose through-25 WAR was higher than our 32.4 threshold. You can quibble about whether Willie Mays‘s 32.5 is a good comp for Harper’s 27.4, but Ty Cobb‘s 56.0 clearly isn’t. (And if we want to quibble about Mays, I’ll point out that he had just 66.5 percent as many plate appearances as Harper through age 25.)
But where the list is really interesting is some of the lesser names that are on it. Jim Fregosi had a great start to his career, but he had his last great season at age 28 and today is best known as the guy the California Angels sent to the New York Mets in December 1970 for a package of four players that included 24-year-old fireballer Nolan Ryan. Freddie Lindstrom is in the Hall of Fame, but he shouldn’t be, and the few qualifications he does have all came before age 26. And guys like David Wright, Grady Sizemore, Ron Santo, and even Shoeless Joe Jackson show how unpredictable the future can be.
For purposes of this exercise, we are going to remove the six active players from the comparison: Jason Heyward, Evan Longoria, Giancarlo Stanton, Ryan Zimmerman, Francisco Lindor, and Hanley Ramirez. The jury is still on these players, although I think the answer to “Would you want this guy under contract through age 38?” is pretty clear for at least a few of them. We’ll just look at the 40 players who had 22.4-32.4 WAR through age 25 and are now retired.
As mentioned before, the Phillies don’t need Harper to be a star through age 38. But they’ll want star-level production for several years, and they’ll want him to be at least good enough to play every day for most of the contract. So let’s look at some benchmarks:
40 Bryce Harper Comps and their WARs
(The asterisk next to the second “Best” column simply means “Best in the non-Ruth/Gehrig division.”)
On average, these 40 players were All-Stars at age 26, starters from 27 to 33, and bench players from 34 on. Of course, any list with Ruth and Gehrig is going to have skewed averages (hence the “Best*”), so maybe the median is more useful. In this case, it basically just bumps everything up by a year — no All-Star years, and bench-worthy by age 33. The mode is also interesting — for seven of the 13 years, including each year from age 33 to 38, the most common WAR figure on the list is 0.0 — at least in part because a huge number of these players are out of the game by then.
Also interesting to me was the number of players, out of the 40, who were still good enough to start each year. By age 33, only half of our sample group was still good enough to start. By age 38, the final year of Harper’s contract, only Ruth, Jeter, Beltre, and Thomas were starter-quality.
When you look at the numbers, age 33 is a pretty steep drop. The players went from a median 3.8 WAR to 1.75 — or, to put it in 2018 terms, from Ozzie Albies to Jake Marisnick. Among the players who had a steep decline from 33 to 33 and never really regained form, you have Thomas, Santo, Raines, Joe Medwick, Dick Allen, Joe Kelley, and Jimmy Sheckard. (Shoeless Joe also fits the bill, but he had extenuating circumstances.) Several others had a similar drop that came even earlier: Wright (31), Fregosi (29), Travis Jackson (28), Orlando Cepeda (multiple drops, really, but never great after 29), Fred Dunlap (27), Johnny Callison (27), Donie Bush (30), Denny Lyons (28), Harlond Clift (30), and Lindstrom (25).
Harper could play like Ruth for the next 13 years, in which case the Phillies have gotten the bargain of the millennium. He could play like Sizemore, who had 25.7 WAR through age 25 … and just 1.6 after. More likely, he will fall somewhere in between. Based on the current rough assumption that 1.0 WAR is worth $8 million, that means that Harper would need to be worth about 41.3 WAR over the course of his contract to be “worth” the money. Out of our sample of 40, 15 have reached that threshold. On the other hand, a quarter of our sample failed to even reach 20 WAR after age 25. (Of course, the $/WAR number can and will fluctuate over the years, so keep in mind that we’re ballparking here.)
One other factor to consider: Not all WAR totals are alike. You could make a pretty compelling argument that a guy with three straight 5.0-WAR seasons is more valuable than a guy with 12.0 one year and 1.5 each of the next two years, even if the second player has a higher ceiling and more potential. A full 36.5 percent of Harper’s career WAR came in his historic 2015 season. That means that it’s entirely possible that the Phillies will enjoy another 10-WAR season from Harper; it also means they might have signed the guy who has averaged 2.9 WAR per year in his other seasons. Similarly, Lou Boudreau put up 39.3 WAR after age 25, which gets him very close to our rough threshold, but 10.4 came in his age-30 season and he was never good after age 31. Would he have been worth eating seven years of contract to get three great seasons and three decent seasons?
There are, of course, intangibles to consider. If the Phillies win the World Series three times in the next five years, maybe no one will care if Harper struggles badly in the second half of the contract. That’s a big “if,” of course, as no one player can guarantee a World Series title. And imagine if the Phillies play well but then Harper struggles in a losing effort in the postseason — there’s some reason to believe that Philadelphia fans might not be totally enamored of him in that situation. (For comparison, Harper has a career .801 OPS in the postseason; noted postseason “choker” A-Rod’s career postseason OPS: .822.)
So in our best-case scenario, Harper plays like Ruth and leads the Phillies to multiple World Series titles. Worst-case, he’s Sizemore or Fregosi or John McGraw. If each of our 40 sample players had signed Harper’s equivalent contract after age 25, here’s how they would have worked out:
Not worth it: 19 (Medwick, Fregosi, Allen, Travis Jackson, Kelley, McGraw, Sheckard, Wright, Joe Torre, Cepeda, Sizemore, Mike Tiernan, Dunlap, Callison, Charlie Keller, Bush, Lyons, Lindstrom, and Clift)
This analysis doesn’t even touch on my biggest concern about a 13-year contract: the commitment to playing a guy who isn’t worth playing anymore. Much of Harper’s “worth-it-ness” might boil down to whether the Phillies are willing to bench or cut him later in the contract. Alomar had his last good season at age 33 — if Harper is bad at age 34, will the Phillies cut ties and eat the last five years of the deal? The only thing worse than a guy who can’t play when he’s getting paid a ton of money is that same guy who can play but not well.
There are no sure things in baseball, and that goes both ways. Harper being worth his contract is no more sure than Harper not being worth his contract. There are likelihoods, and on average they turn out accurate. Baseball history tells us that the likelihood of Harper being “worth” his contract is somewhere between 28 and 53 percent. None of that takes into account Harper as an individual, with his individual strengths and flaws. If his defense hadn’t been so bad in 2018, his overall WAR would be higher and our margin-of-error window might include guys like Mays and Williams and DiMaggio. Of course, it would also include Sherry Magee and Vada Pinson and Cesar Cedeno, so it remains a mixed bag. (And no matter what reasons might exist, we can’t just ignore how bad his defense was in 2018 any more than we can ignore how good his offense was in 2015. “He took it easy on defense to avoid injury in a contract year” can easily be restated as “He worried that playing good defense might injure him,” which isn’t exactly a glowing endorsement of his future defensive value.)
Will Bryce Harper be worth his 13-year, $330 million contract? Only time will tell. But it seems like there’s a good chance that this is exactly what Phillies owner John Middleton was talking about when he suggested doing something “a little bit stupid” with his money this offseason.
Yearly WAR totals for our sample of 40
|Player||WAR through 25||26||27||28||29||30||31||32||33||34||35||36||37||38||39||40||41||42||WAR after 25|
|Shoeless Joe Jackson||27.1||4.6||3.5||7.0||5.8||0.9||5.8||7.6||0.0||0.0||0.0||0.0||0.0||0.0||0.0||0.0||0.0||0.0||35.2|