Forecasting Princeby Myron Logan
February 09, 2012
The Detroit Tigers shocked the baseball world by signing Prince Fielder to a nine-year, $214 million contract earlier this offseason. The public opinion on the deal seems to be that: 1) it makes the Tigers really good in the short-term; 2) nine years and $214 million is a lot of money over a long period of time; and 3) that's a particularly large sum of cash to guarantee to a man of Prince Fielder's size and stature.
We've discussed the Fielder signing in detail here at The Hardball Times, but this time around I wanted to specifically focus on item number three listed above; Fielder's size and how it may impact his performance over the length of the deal. I should first note that the Internet is a big place, and naturally this topic has already been explored by Ryan Campbell and Jeff Zimmerman at FanGraphs. Further, I know there have been numerous size/aging studies over the years published at various locations. That said, I still believe it's worth it to continue down this path and see if we can uncover anything new with regards to how productive Fielder will be in his mid-30s.
With that in mind, and with help from my colleagues at THT, I set out to find a group of players similar to Prince Fielder. The specific traits desired in a Prince Fielder comp:
- The player must have been productive through his age-27 season.
- The player must have been really big, preferably not only in weight but also in Body Mass Index.
- The player should have played on the left side of the defensive spectrum, getting most of his value from batting/home runs.
- The player must have turned 27 by 2002, giving at least nine years of performance post age-27.
I figured that, with help from Baseball Reference's Play Index, the task would be easy enough. I was wrong. Great players of Prince's size, somewhere in the neighborhood of 5-foot-11 and 275 pounds, simply don't exist. According to Baseball Reference, only 31 non-pitchers have weighed in at 250+ pounds. Out of that 31, only five posted a career WAR over 15, one of which is Prince Fielder. The other four are Jim Thome, Frank Howard, Adam Dunn, and Carlos Lee. Dunn and Lee are viable comps, but have not logged nine years since age-27. Frank Howard checks in at 6'7'', 255 pounds*, an altogether different body type from Fielder. Thome made the cut.
*Now is probably as good a time as any to mention my concerns with size data, specifically weight. The data I'm using is from Baseball Reference and I'm simply not sure how reliable it is. Further, a player's weight obviously fluctuates throughout his career, and I don't know when these weights were recorded. Some players, like an Andres Galarraga, looked entirely different early in their career as compared to late.
With concerns in mind about a lack of potential comparable players, I attempted to widen the thresholds for inclusion, lowering the weight and performance standards. The subsequent list is larger and includes a number of potential options. Still, putting together a final list of comps isn't easy. For instance, number one on the list in terms of Body Mass Index (32.5), is Miguel Tejada. At age-27 Tejada was playing 162 games at shortstop for the Oakland A's, deriving much of his value out of his ability to (adequately) defend at short. Not exactly Prince Fielder-like. Other guys high on the list are players like Scott Rolen, Hack Wilson, and Bobby Abreu. While these players have similarities to our subject, they gained too much value out of defense/base running to compare directly to Fielder.
I settled on eight players of which to examine, balancing the above-listed traits to best identify good candidates. The players:
On average, the eight players stand at 74.4 inches tall and weigh 231 pounds. They averaged 22.3 WAR through age-27, similar to Prince's 19.6. Over the next nine seasons they averaged 24.7 WAR, highlighted by Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez who aged very gracefully into their mid-30s. I'm using Rally's WAR, located on Baseball Reference in this article. Let's look at a couple of other graphs:
If you can't make too much of that, I don't blame you. Here's the average aging curve of all eight players:
You can see here that the group peaks, perhaps as we'd expect, at age-27. However, they remain productive over their next five seasons, averaging yearly WAR totals of 4, 3.9, 4.3, 3.5, and 3.5. The next four years are more of a struggle. While some players remain productive, a number of guys put up near-replacement level performance or begin to drop out of baseball altogether. Let us just assume, for kicks, that Prince Fielder ages exactly as his comps over the next nine seasons. How much would he be worth?
I came up with $142 million over the next nine seasons, accounting for a five percent increase in dollars per WAR each year. It's a far cry from the $214 million the Tigers paid for Fielder's services, but is it realistic? Our own THT Forecasts, which only project performance six years into the future (how dare they), actually project Fielder to be worth 18.5 WAR over the next six seasons. That's nearly three fewer WAR than the above-listed projection for Prince over six seasons.
Tangotiger looked at 10 first basemen with at least 10 WAR from age-25 through 27 and got a more favorable value projection of nine years, $183 million.
There are likely very few long-term valuations out there that will forecast Fielder to be worth $214 million over the next nine years. There's a reason most of the baseball world was in shock following Fielder's signing in Detroit. That level of years and dollars simply wasn't anticipated. For example, on average, FanGraphs readers expected Prince to sign a 6.5-year, $136 million deal.
Anyway, I don't want to give the impression that the long-term forecast derived here will be (or should be expected to be) accurate over the next nine seasons. Anybody who thinks they can accurately predict player performance over a nine year span should probably be selling their projections on an infomercial for $19.99. While I believe the eight players share similarities with Fielder and can perhaps shed some light on how he'll perform in the future, this method is riddled with any number of potential pitfalls, some of which I've already mentioned. Hopefully, though, you get an idea of how similar players have performed from age-28 through age-36.
For Tigers fans holding their collective breath, there is some reason to be optimistic regarding the signing. First, you get to watch an exciting power hitter play out his near-prime years in Detroit. Second, with Miguel Cabrera and Fielder hitting back-to-back, Detroit will have one of the best one-two punches in all of baseball. Finally, the Tigers are a good team right now and Fielder should put up very productive numbers in the short-term. In a winnable American League Central, the addition of Fielder to the Detroit lineup has a chance to win them a couple of divisions, if not American League pennants. You can make an argument that the Tigers are in prime position to overpay for a superstar caliber player and they made sure to do just that.
Still, there's no reason to sugur-coat the deal from the Tigers perspective. Fielder, a great player, simply isn't great enough to get paid nearly $24 million a year for nine years and earn it, whether he ages like his estimable group of large comparables or like an average player. Even if you consider Fielder to be a five WAR player right now and shave his WAR by a mere .3 WAR per year, he'd still fall $10 million short of his contract. Of course, if he was able to do that you would probably consider the signing a mild success. It would outperform all of his comps performance after age-27, except for Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, and Johnny Mize, all of whom were better than Fielder up to age-27. Considering that Fielder has only posted two seasons above four WAR through his age-27 season, the idea that he'll do it four times over the next nine years is stretching it.
In the 1982 Bill James Baseball Abstract, James discusses the breadth of a player's skill-set and how it may effect aging. Joe Morgan, he mentioned, experienced a particular late-peak and graceful aging period thanks in part to his ability to do a lot of things well. He was a solid contact hitter, possessed good power, was an excellent base runner, and a solid defender at second base. Morgan's peak years were from 28 through 32, where he posted nine WAR or better five straight seasons.
Fielder's skill-set, on the other hand, is more narrow. He's great at hitting for power, drawing walks, and staying on the field. His contact ability appears to be improving. However, he provides no speed, little base running ability, and no positive defensive ability. If Fielder's central skills decline, mostly his propensity to hit home runs, he'll be left with little baseball value. Still, we don't know what is going to happen to Fielder's specific skills. He could remain a productive power source, while hitting between .270 and .300 for the foreseeable future, retaining much of his current value while declining, if only slightly, in his speed and defense. After all, how much further can Fielder's speed and fielding ability decline.
Overall, we're left in a familiar situation when trying to project a player's performance years into the future. We simply don't know what's going to happen and whether Fielder stays productive through age-36 or suddenly falls off a cliff in three or four years is largely a mystery to us. The Tigers will hope for the former, obviously, but perhaps more importantly Dave Dombrowski and company will try to assemble a World Series winner in the short-term. It'll be a lot easier to deal with Fielder's potential albatross contract with flags already flying.
Myron Logan covers the San Diego Padres at Friar Forecast. Feel free to contact him via email.