Are the Best Years for Harper and Machado Still Ahead?

photo: Bryce Harper and Manny Machado (Evan Habeeb/USA TODAY Sports)

Recent results indicate that hitters who received long-term contracts while in their 20’s performed better prior to free agency.


With stars Bryce Harper and Manny Machado currently free agents  at the age of 26, it is an exciting time for Major League Baseball. We all know it is a rare occurrence for prime young hitters to be on the open market, but exactly how unique is it?

To try to answer that, I pulled the list of all free agent hitters 26 or younger since 2012 to receive a contract of five or more years in duration.

Jason Heyward (USA TODAY Sports)

They are a rare breed, indeed. In fact, there has been only one other – Jason Heyward, who signed an eight-year contract with the Chicago Cubs prior to the 2016 season. The then-26-year old was coming off his career to-date best performance, 5.6 fWAR, in his only year with the St. Louis Cardinals.

As most know, that $184 million deal with Chicago has not been team-friendly. Heyward had the first of two annual opt-outs this fall. Since he has been performing far below expectations, he knew he could not secure a better contract elsewhere, so he wisely declined to opt out. This commitment has five years remaining.

However, there is no conclusion to be drawn from a sample size of just one.

While we do not have projections for the two marquee free agents over the upcoming seasons, we can look at how others have fared.

Bryce Harper (Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports)

To gain a broader look at the market, I expanded the aperture a bit to include all free agent hitters in their 20’s who signed deals of five years or more since 2012.

One key justification of the large contracts often cited is that these youngsters are expected to have their best career years still ahead of them. The cynic, however, worries that with a big contract comes complacency, or at least a lower hunger level, or maybe injury or misfortune or just a natural decline in performance.

To gauge how this has actually come out, I included each player’s average annual fWAR in his pre-free agency years and his average fWAR under his multi-year contract. (Initial partial years when the players debuted, less than 100 games, were excluded.)

Because only three of the contract terms have finished, I designated how many years have been completed on the long-term deals. At the far right is their top performing year to date and their age when that occurred.

Six then-age-20-somethings join Heyward on this list. Harper and Machado are included for reference. Their details follow in the sequence of most recent to oldest.

Avg fWAR Avg fWAR Best Top
Year Free agent hitter Age Yrs/$MM prior contract # yrs since year fWAR Age
2019 Bryce Harper 26 4.4 2015 9.3 22
2019 Manny Machado 26 4.8 2015 6.6 22
2018 Eric Hosmer 28 8/$144 1.5 -0.1 1 2017 4.1 27
2017 none
2016 Jason Heyward 26 8/$184 4.2 1.3 3 2015 5.6 26
2016 Justin Upton 28 6/$132.75 3.4 3.4 3 2011 6.3 22
2015 Pablo Sandoval 28 5/$95 3.2 -0.5 4 2011 5.3 24
2014 none
2013 Melvin Upton Jr. 28 5/$72.5 3.7 0.5 done after 4 2008 4.8 23
2012 Prince Fielder 28 9/$214 3.3 1.5 done after 5 2009 5.9 24
2012 Jose Reyes 29 6/$106 4.0 2.4 6 2008 5.9 24

One can quickly see that Eric Hosmer is an anomaly. Not only is he the worst player of this group by a considerable margin, he is only one year into his current contract, albeit with a very bad start. Let’s put him aside.


Observations

Of the six 20-something players in our group:

  • On an average fWAR basis, not a one of the six performed better after signing his big contract compared to his years prior to free agency. (Justin Upton is the only one to stay even.)
  • On a peak season fWAR basis, every one of the six had his best year in the range of ages 22 to 26.
  • In every case, the player’s career-best season was prior to his free agency.
  • Harper and Machado had their best seasons to date at the age of 22, back in 2015.

Arguments

Point: The data only goes back to 2012. There must be contrary examples before that.

Counterpoint: The sortable data base with full contract and age details published by Spotrac only goes back that far. It is very likely some earlier cases could look differently, but the quantity of data that is here should be cause for concern – or at least pause.


Point: Some of these  comparison players could still have their best years ahead.

Counterpoint: Yes, Heyward has five years remaining on his deal, Justin Upton has three and Pablo Sandoval has one. However, given the time that has transpired since their best year to date, what odds would you give that they haven’t already peaked? The key takeaway is that they are being paid for their past performance and future hopes that have not panned out, not for their recent results.


Point: But these other players are broken down, lesser talents.

Counterpoint: That is the point. They may be now, but they weren’t then. You have the benefit of hindsight. At the time their contracts were signed, they were among the top free agents in the market, especially given their youth. Again, look at their career fWAR numbers prior to free agency. They were all very good players, averaging 3.2 to 4.2 fWAR annually.


Manny Machado (Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports)

Point: Harper and Machado are just plain better than these other 20-somethings.

Counterpoints: True, but by how much? Harper and Machado have been 4.4 to 4.8 win players on the average. Though Harper had an exceptional peak in 2015, he dropped considerably in the three years since. Machado has been more consistent and slightly better overall.

As noted, the others were 3.2 to 4.2 win players prior to free agency. Is that a big enough difference to assume Harper and/or Machado will break the mold and be consistently better in their post-free agency years? Why? And even if so, how much better and for how long? It is going to be a very expensive proposition for two teams (or maybe one!) to find out the real answer.


Point: Harper and Machado are generational, transformational talents.

Counterpoint: Put aside the Boras B.S. and get real. This generation’s talent is neither of these guys. It is Mike Trout, who has a career 9.1 fWAR average. That is just about the same annual impact as Harper and Machado combined (9.2). (The Angels superstar is two years away from free agency.)


Point: Whatever. Harper’s and Machado’s peak years are still coming.

Counterpoint: It is possible, but the data suggests it is far from assured. If you want real generational talents, Albert Pujols’ peak fWAR of 10.0 was at age 23. Trout’s best season to date is 10.1 fWAR, at age 22. Ken Griffey Jr. was 26 in his 9.7 fWAR year. Alex Rodriguez was relatively “late” at 27 when he had his only 10 fWAR season.


In closing

This is not intended to suggest that Harper and Machado are not attractive players with potentially many productive years ahead. However, if the data presented does not at least cause pause regarding the height of their future performance expectations, you missed the obvious caution signs.

If a team seeks four to five additional wins annually, they should be able to secure those wins in a more efficient manner than via a record-setting contract in dollars and years. On the other hand, if the buyer would be getting a consistent eight-to-10 win player like Trout, breaking the bank would be another matter entirely.


Acknowledgments

Contract information is provided by Spotrac.  fWAR data is from Fangraphs.


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Brian Walton can be reached via email at brian@thecardinalnation.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.

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