Last week, the Milwaukee Brewers designated Bill Hall for assignment. While it came as a bit of surprise, few fans would argue that Hall deserves better. His OPS is only a hair over 600 for the season, and he last got a hit against a right-hander some time in 2007.
What makes the move more surprising is the amount of money the Brewers have invested in Hall. After he posted a breakout 2006 campaign, hitting .270/.345/.553 while playing a credible shortstop, Doug Melvin signed him to a four-year deal, buying out three years of arbitration and one year of free agency, all for $24 million.
I’d rather be right than smart
Generally speaking, there are two ways to evaluate deals like this in retrospect. They boil down to two related but distinct questions:
- Did it work?
- Was it smart?
In a rational world, the answers to these two questions would always be the same. Alas, it’s not so simple. If the Red Sox signed Sidney Ponson and put him in the starting rotation for the remainder of the season, you’d have a hard time convincing me that it was smart. But if Sir Sidney went 5-0 in September and the Red Sox edged their way into the playoffs, you’d have to say (while holding your nose, perhaps) that the move worked. A flukish performance doesn’t mean the original decision was smart, though enough luck can often give that impression.
The first question—Did it work?—is easy to answer: We tally up the numbers, whether they be home runs, UZR, or playoff appearances, and do the math. In the case of Bill Hall’s $24 million contract, it’s pretty clear that it didn’t work.
The second question—Was it smart?—is trickier. Essentially, we’re trying to evaluate the move based on the information the decision-makers were working with at the time. In that rational world again, the answer to this question would never change: If a move looked smart in February 2007, it should look smart now. Most of the time, this is the case in the real world, too. But a few years after the fact, we can evaluate the move with fewer of the immediate prejudices.
So: Was it smart?
Let’s take a step back and consider the information that the Brewers had at their disposal in the 06/07 offseason.
In 2006, Bill Hall was a stud. There are few better terms for shortstops who can field and give you a .900 OPS. It was his age-26 season, so it was easy to paint a pretty picture of the future in which Hall would keep posting those gaudy offensive numbers for another four or five years.
Even if you took a more skeptical view, Hall still came out looking pretty valuable. In ’05, he posted an OPS of .837 while moving around the infield, logging time at second, third, and short. CHONE projected him for a 2007 OPS of .818. Given Hall’s two solid offensive years, it seemed eminently reasonable to pencil him in for an .800-plus OPS for the forseeable future.
What’s more, Hall was entering his arbitration years. He probably would’ve made around $3.6 million in 2007. Even knowing what we know now, he probably would’ve gotten at least that much in ’08 and ’09. At the time, it seemed possible that his salary would skyrocket, perhaps touching $10 million in 2009.
Had Hall hit even reasonably well in 2008 and 2009 (say, a .750 OPS), he would be looking at a multi-year deal this offseason. The contract included $8.4 million for 2010 and an option for $9.25 million in 2011.
Summing up: Melvin was looking at a bare minimum cost of $12 million or so to keep Hall around through his arby years; if he had hit even a little bit, that number would be more like $15 million. The team’s downside risk, though, was huge. Had Hall kept posting OPS numbers in the .800-.850 range, his combined salaries in 07-09 could’ve topped $20 million. In that better-case scenario, the Brewers probably couldn’t have competed at all for the player this offseason.
Looking back at the information available in February 2007, it still looks to me like Melvin made a smart choice wrapping up Bill Hall. But these types of deals involve some risk, and whenever you take a risk, you might lose.
What went wrong?
With Bill Hall locked up long-term and J.J. Hardy returning from injury, something had to give. Hardy had the better pedigree and defensive reputation, so Hall moved to center field. It’s easy to see that move as the cause of his offensive struggles. A year later, the signing of Mike Cameron and the defensive woes of Ryan Braun at third base meant that Hall headed back to the infield.
We may never know whether the position changes had anything to do with the weaker performance at the plate, but for whatever reason, Hall raced to replacement level with the bat. A third baseman or utility guy who can’t get on base 30 percent of the time may not be worth a roster spot, let alone $7 or $8 million.
But here’s a funny thing: Even now, Hall probably has some value. Just not much to the Brewers. It all depends what you think of his defense.
Fans can argue about Hall’s defense all day, and you’ll hear opinions ranging from “wizard at shortstop” to “butcher.” Defensive metrics are far from unanimous as well. UZR, though, has liked him everywhere he has played, rating him above average at short (especially since that breakthrough ’06 season) and better still at third base and center field.
(If you want to get into an argument next time you visit Miller Park, loudly announce that Bill Hall is an awesome center fielder.)
By moving him around the diamond—especially away from shortstop—the Brewers not only shifted his own focus away from offense, but they also diminished his value in the eyes of other teams. In a parallel universe where Hall was the everyday shortstop in 2007 and beyond, his worst-case scenario would’ve looked something like Jack Wilson: a couple of solid seasons with the bat, good enough defense at a premium position to make up for the lack of offense the rest of the time.
What could’ve gone right
In retrospect, it’s easy to see some better options for Doug Melvin back in the 06/07 offseason. Perhaps he could’ve foreseen Ryan Braun’s iron glove at third and moved him to the outfield a year sooner, opening up third base for J.J. Hardy, at least until Hardy proved he belonged in the major league starting lineup. (There’s another debate for another day.)
Giving Hall a better chance to excel while somehow showcasing Hardy as well would’ve given Melvin two super-premium trading chips. With the strength of the Brewers offense over the last few years (even with Hall swooning most of that time), it would’ve been nice to swap one of those bats for a young pitcher.
It’s even arguable that Melvin should’ve recognized that Hall’s value would never be higher. If it’s better to trade a player a year too early than a year too late, the Brewers GM would’ve been in the driver’s seat, fielding offers from any team looking for a quality bat at second, third, or short.
But we can play what-if games all day. If Hall had maintained even the .740 OPS he posted in 2007, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Instead, we’d be wondering whether Hall’s $9.25 million option was worth picking up for 2011. That modest level of production might have meant Hall would be in another uniform two years from now, but it wouldn’t reflect poorly on Melvin for the long-term deal.