Why Does Mike Trout’s Contract Make More Sense Than Bryce Harper’s?

Did you read this headline and click on the link just to see if the answer was “Because Mike Trout is a lot better than Bryce Harper“? If so, you’re in luck, because that’s the short answer! You’re so smart! But there are 1,200 more words, so keep reading the long answer, okay?

A week or two ago, I wrote about Harper’s contract and the risks that come with signing a player of his caliber to such a long deal. Trout’s deal is one year shorter, but he’s 15 months older, so both contracts take the players through their age-38 seasons.

Harper and Trout have been linked together for what seems like forever. Harper had more hype before turning pro, famously appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated when he was 16 and ultimately being drafted first overall by the Washington Nationals at age 17 in 2010, when he should have been finishing his junior year in high school.

Trout was less heralded as an amateur, due mostly to geography — he was dominant in high school, but no one was totally sure how much of that was talent and how much was the relatively poor competition in the area around Millville, New Jersey. Still, the Los Angeles Angels thought highly enough of him to draft him with the 25th pick in the first round of the 2009 draft.

Both players immediately dominated the minor leagues, and each made his big-league debut before turning 20. They were the top two prospects in the minors in 2011, and then they each won the Rookie of the Year Award in 2012. The link strengthened in 2015, when Trout finished second in the American League Most Valuable Player voting and Harper won the National League MVP unanimously. And now, in the 2018-19 offseason, the link has seemingly strengthened once again, with Harper signing the largest contract in baseball history only to be surpassed by Trout just weeks later.

(Photo by Masterpress/Getty Images)

But when you dig a little deeper, the link is tenuous at best. If Harper and Trout had not come up around the same time, they would not be mentioned in the same sentence any more often than Andruw Jones and Barry Bonds are. Actually, that comparison doesn’t quite work, because Jones and Bonds actually had similarly impressive stats as youngsters. Let’s go with Mickey Mantle and Jason Heyward, instead. Because the gap between Trout and Harper is about the same as the gap between Mantle and Heyward, which is to say, real big.

You can click the link above to read my analysis of Harper, but in summary, what I did was look at every player who was within 5.0 WAR of Harper through age 25 and pretended each had received Harper’s contract after his age-25 season. Harper is at 27.4 career WAR, so I looked at a sample of 40 retired players whose WAR through age 25 was between 22.4 and 32.4. Of those 40, I counted 11 who would have been worth the contract and another 10 who were debatable. Only four (Babe Ruth, Derek Jeter, Adrian Beltre, and Frank Thomas) were actually still good at the end of the contract. So I concluded that the odds are not good that a player of Harper’s caliber will live up to this 13-year contract.

(And yes, I addressed the intangibles. If Harper leads the Philadelphia Phillies to multiple World Series titles, that buys some goodwill at the end of the contract, etc. etc.)

When you try to do a similar analysis for Trout, it gets tricky. First of all, the plus-or-minus-5-WAR method doesn’t quite work, because there’s literally no one above Trout through age 26, and there are only two players within 5.0 WAR (Mantle and Ty Cobb). So I kept the 10-WAR range, but it’s all “minus.” That gives us a hefty sample of … four players. In addition to Cobb and Mantle, we throw in Rogers Hornsby and Alex Rodriguez.

Surely you can already see it. These four guys, not one of whom was as good as Trout has been through age 26, are all inner-circle Hall of Fame talents. And believe it or not, that bears out when you make a spreadsheet. We still have a similar dynamic in that almost no one remains great — or even good — through age 38. Mantle was done at age 36, and Hornsby and A-Rod each had their last good seasons at age 35. The difference comes in their production early in the contract. Here is the total WAR for each player from age 27-38:

Cobb: 79.6
Mantle: 49.0
Hornsby: 69.8
Rodriguez: 61.0

If we go with our current rough estimate that each win is worth $8 million, the values provided by these players during those 12 years equivalent to the Trout contract are:

Cobb: $636.8 million
Mantle: $392 million
Hornsby: $558.4 million
Rodriguez: $488 million

Where I come from, we have an old saying that goes something like this: “If your worst-case scenario is an un-inflation-adjusted Mickey Mantle, well, boy howdy, hoo boy, that’s pretty darn okay!”

Of course, that’s not the worst-case scenario — it’s just the worst that has actually happened. You don’t have to go too much further down the WAR leaderboard before you get to Ken Griffey Jr. and Albert Pujols, both of whom have some warning signs. But still, Griffey through age 26 was 14.3 WAR below Trout, or about two wins per season. Simply put, Griffey was amazing when he was young, but he was never quite the player that Trout has been. We don’t have any idea if that will translate to Trout staying healthier and more productive than Griffey did, but it gives some wiggle room, anyway.

And even though Mantle didn’t technically live up to this hypothetical contract we gave him, he did the next best thing: He stopped playing. The biggest risk inherent in these long deals, as I discussed in the Harper article, is that the player will remain healthy enough to play but not play well. Mantle battled injuries throughout his career, but by and large, he was either healthy enough to be very good or not healthy enough to play. From a team standpoint, you’ll take a guy not playing at all for the last three years of his contract over a guy putting up numbers that are barely replacement level.

Rodriguez and Hornsby were similar. While A-Rod stopped being the best player in baseball around age 32, he was generally either good or unable to play through age 39. And Hornsby “played” until he was 41, but the last six years he was a player-manager who rarely put himself in the lineup, with a total of just 305 plate appearances from ages 36-41. For both players, the multiple MVP Awards and regular WARs between 8.0 and 10.0 more than make up for the time spent out of the lineup.

With any contract this long, there is inherent risk. Anyone who is positive that Trout will be excellent for all 12 years is either misguided or trying to sell you something. Trout could, literally, have a career-ending injury today, or this summer, or in three years. There are a lot of scenarios in which the Angels will come to regret this contract.

But all of those scenarios are hypothetical, because the closest thing we can find to comps for Trout all would have worked out just fine. Whereas Harper’s comps had just a 27.5 percent success rate and about one-fifth of that came from literally Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, Trout has no true comps and the closest we can find had basically a 100 percent success rate.

There are no sure things in baseball, but Mike Trout is the closest thing we have.

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