Carl Crawford’s Brother From Another Mother
Update 3-15-17: It looks as though the Rays have followed the template I created, and the wise decision I recommended as they have a tentative agreement with Kevin Kiermaier to keep the dynamic superstar in a Rays uniform for an additional two seasons. He would have been a free agent in four years. Now he will be one in six. The tradeoff is that the Rays had to guarantee the ensuing years instead of potentially grinding through the ugly arbitration process. This is always a great outcome. The Rays have shown that even when the player fails to break out or avoid breaking down they can still get good value with the now better financial terms. The following post came towards the very end of 2015, but the methodology and template created proved to be pretty close to reality. Additionally, I updated the terms I would offer back around this beginning of this past January, which can be found in this image:
Terms for the final agreement have not yet been released, but it looks like six guaranteed years for around a total of $53.5M. Once terms are finalized we will feature a more robust post, but for now, bask in my awesomeness.
When Carl Crawford was selected by the then Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 1999 as the first pick of the second round he signed for a good amount of money. While he signed for just shy of $1.25M that same value in current dollars is more like a whisker away from $1.8M. Certainly not chump change, but it was a far cry from the $4M that number one overall pick Josh Hamilton signed with the same team. Pretty good draft, by the way, but the point here is that Carl Crawford wasn’t at the point where he was financially secure for the rest of his life, which left him amenable to signing a long term deal that guaranteed his first fortune, while giving the team something to offset that risk.
In fact, prior to signing his deal that began in 2005 Crawford had compiled a line of .283/.315/.400, which sounds pretty great, but compared to his peers at the time it left him around 14 points shy of league average by wRC+. Of course if you were lucky enough to watch the skinny pony in left field for the Rays you realized that it didn’t really matter if he hit. After the conclusion of his third season Crawford had shown that his defense was worth around 15.6 runs per 1,000 innings in LF according to UZR. That is an elite level of defense, albeit, at a position he shared with guys like Adam Dunn or Pat Burrell. Folks, thought that the Rays did ok in signing a player that looked like a glove-first guy with no power and a hacky approach playing a position traditionally held by guys that could mash and not move. Looking back, the Rays did better than ok.
I broke down the methodology of this framework in a recent article looking at Evan Longoria’s contract so please familiarize yourself there. I’m going to use the same derived discount/inflation rate and we know the dollars and actual production since this is a look at something that already happened. The tricky part here is how to define Lg$/WAR. In that Evan Longoria piece I looked at the top 50 guys by salary for each year so sticking with that theme I looked at the 5oth-best batter in 2005 and over the years since. That player is generally worth around 3 WAR. Doing the math I pegged the value of a win in free agency at a little over $3M. We can apply our inflation rate going forward based on that initial figure.
Crawford went on to pair his electric glove with a newfound ability to hit that improved year over year. He was able to put up better numbers by ever-so-slightly raising his walk percentage while mostly lowering his strikeout percentage, again, very slightly. Over what would have been the remainder of his years of control he became a borderline perennial All Star and then really went crazy in the last two years which would have been his initial free agency years if not for the contract.
However, this did not seem to be driven by any sort of new approach or adjustment. He started a hacker and stayed a hacker. He increased his ability to do things on balls that he did put in play by leveraging his speed, but this wasn’t a guy that transformed into a patient player that worked to get good pitches to hit and then did something with them.
Back to the contract. Craw would go on to provide 29 WAR for a little over $30M in what amounted to his last year of service time, all of his arbitration, and two years of free agency. Discounting the dollars and the wins this means he was worth something like $59M in surplus value for the Rays. The thing is, though, we’re seeing the powerful force of inflation so logic dictates that that $59M could have bought a whole heck of a lot back then. Let’s translate his deal to what a similar one would look like today and going forward:
You’ll notice that our Lg$/WAR has increased to over $7M per win, but we can’t just inflate the league. We also need to inflate the player’s contract to reflect this. To do this I again compared what Crawford was paid to the average of the top of the top-50 players for each year of his contract and inflated:
This allows us to estimate what the top-50 average guy will look like in future years and then apply what Crawford made as a percentage of that group yielding the above Future Values (FV). The takeaway is the incredible return he provided to the team in the form of surplus value. If the team had another Crawford signed to a scaled-to-today deal that went out and performed like the previous version then they would be looking at something like $157M in surplus value, which would be one of the best deals in baseball. Think about paying Evan Longoria and Chris Archer everything they’re owed and not even being out of house money. Well maybe the Rays do have that guy.
Looking at the first 825 PA for Crawford, and for transparency I used the first 826 PA for Kiermaier, we see players that share quite a bit in common. Kiermaier doesn’t walk much, strikes out a little more than league average and leverages his wheels to post a sneaky Isolated Power despite not being thought of as a powerful hitter.
Kiermaier carries the same OBP, but trades a few hits for a few walks to get there. He shows more power and his peers are much worse hitters than during Carl Crawford’s era with the Rays leading to an above average wRC+.
Kiermaier swings slightly less overall than Crawford did during his first few seasons, but he does chase out of the zone slightly more and he does make a lot more contact on those pitches out of the zone, but less within, leading to the exact same contact percentage. Kiermaier is seeing many fewer pitches in the zone, relatively, including first pitch, but shows a similar whiff rate.
The difference between the two is Kiermaier’s power, but it’s easy to narrate that his power is due to his speed and that maybe that is something that took Crawford a little longer to translate. One reason for Crawford’s slower start to his career is that he was turning 22 years old in a couple of months when first called up by the Devil Rays. It’s natural to think that Kiermaier would be off to a better start since he is closer to, or well within, his prime. This cannot be hand-waved away as Kiermaier is far more likely to be settled into what to expect, while Crawford was still a puppy with big paws.
The great thing is that even if Kiermaier does not improve as a hitter and goes through a normal loss of value over time then he is STILL a tremendous value at the contract listed above. Let’s run a couple of different scenarios using the assumptions above for Crawford, but tailor them to Kiermaier. The money stays the same, because we’re assuming that Kiermaier would sign for those particular percentages of his peers, but we do have an extra year of league minimum to deal with. Let’s start off by looking at what I feel is a realistic projection going forward:
Kiermaier is likely to finish 2015 with between 5.0 and 5.5 wins above replacement according to Fangraphs. Let’s say that next year he is a 5.0 WAR player and he loses half a win each year to account for age-related decline, potential injuries, and other unknowable things that could happen in the future. You can see that this contract would represent an absolute and enormous win for the Rays front office. A deal like this would give the team the financial flexibility to go out and acquire other wins at other positions leaving the team stronger throughout. I feel this is realistic, but maybe you’re more of a pessimist. If signed to this deal how well would he need to play for the team to do the unthinkable and pay market rate for his talent?
Kiermaier would need to provide something like 5 WAR over this contract to be worth the money. That’s how little Crawford was making relative to his peers, and by extension, might be something that Kiermaier would accept after collecting $75,000 as a bonus after being selected in the 31st round. That’s it, and in all likelihood if the contract was structured the same the Rays would probably buy out the last two years that would have represented free agency leaving the surplus a bit higher. The money that free agents will be earning in the future is just so difficult to imagine, but that money will be there and that means that even average players on good deals will be worth it. Lastly, let’s look at what Kiermaier might look like if he goes full Crawford and eventually pairs his ridiculously good glove in center field with a bat that grows to become one of the best in the league:
The savings from that sort of deal offset any and all downside. Carl Crawford was one of the best players in franchise history and is certainly not the norm. Most guys get worse. He got better. Kiermaier may have plateaued, and that’s fine, because if he were willing to sign a Crawford-esque deal then he doesn’t need to get any better. The team would still be a big winner, but IF he can further develop as a hitter then he becomes the nucleus of the next great Rays team and with the dollar savings from his deal the team would be able to go get some complementary players to help build a dynasty. Unlikely, but Kiermaier is exactly the type of player that should be locked in longterm. Even if it is a slight overpay in arbitration a team wants to have the chance to really reap the rewards of a player that becomes a perfect storm later in their career.