Every now and again here — and especially now with a lockout going on — we like to reference FanGraphs money. If you go to the bottom of a FanGraphs player page, you will see a section called “Value.” It looks like this:
That’s Mookie Betts, by the way. People often ask me to explain WAR and some of these advanced stats, and so even though I’m mathematically challenged, I’ll try to do it here because I like you.
Going quickly row by row, you can see Mookie’s season, his team and his level. Then you see his batting runs against average, his base running runs against average, and his fielding against average. There’s a positional adjustment there, you probably know what that means, players at high-value positions like shortstop, second base, third base and catcher get a positional boost, while players at lower-value positions like corner outfield or first base get a little decrease.
You will ask: Why did Betts get a positional increase in 2015 and a decrease every other year?
It’s because in 2015, he played almost every game in centerfield, while in other years he was mostly a rightfielder (with some centerfield sprinkled in, which is why each year’s value is different).
OK, you add batting and baserunning, and you get your offense total.
Add up fielding and positional adjustment, and you get your defense total.
Then there’s a small adjustment made for league quality and “replacement” runs are added for WAR — remember, the offense and fielding runs are against the AVERAGE player not the REPLACEMENT player.
Hope all that makes at least a little bit of sense.
Finally you have RAR (Runs Above Replacement), WAR (Wins Above Replacement) and finally the column that we’re here talking about today: DOLLARS.
Now, how are dollars figured? Pretty simple: They are based on giving a dollar value per win. As you can see pretty simply with Betts, that dollar value is $8 million or so per win. The value per win actually went slightly down in 2021 because real salaries went down after the pandemic, but Betts’ FanGraphs value was still $7.9 million per win, so it’s pretty close to the same thing.
Now, here’s the question: How did they come up with $8 million per win?
Well, this is an estimation, based on how much free agents get paid. FanGraphs’ Craig Edwards has done some great work around this, and he estimated a free agent’s likely WAR projection over the life of a contract (using FanGraphs projections) and then divided that into total dollars paid.
So … some examples. The Giants just paid Kevin Gausman $110 million over five years. Using FanGraphs dollars, they are expecting to get roughly 14 wins over replacement over those five years, which I guess is pretty reasonable as he was worth roughly that amount over the last five seasons (if you adjust for the COVID season).
OK, let’s try Javier Baez. He signed a six-year, $140 million deal with the Tigers. By FanGraphs, the Tigers are expecting 17.5 WAR from Baez over those six years. Based on his last six years (23.7 WAR), they might believe they got a bargain if you could maintain that level.
It pretty much adds up no matter who you use — Alex Cobb signed a two-year, $20 million deal. That FanGraphs expectation would be 2.5 WAR over two years — and he was worth 2.9 WAR the last two years (more, again, if you adjust for COVID).
So the numbers really do make sense. Here I will list a few free agents who signed in the lazy, hazy days of December and what the FanGraphs expectations would be:
Corey Seager, Rangers, 10 years, $325 million
FanGraphs expectation: 40.6 WAR over 10 years
Career value: 23.7 WAR over 7 seasons
(This one does look like an overpay but the Rangers probably felt like they had to overpay).
Marcus Semien, Rangers, 7 years, $175 million
FanGraphs expectation: 21.9 WAR over seven years
Last seven years: 24.6 WAR
Max Scherzer, Mets, 3 years, $130 million
FanGraphs expectation: 16.3 WAR over three years
Last three years (not including COVID): 19.3 WAR
Robbie Ray, Mariners, 5 years, $115 million
FanGraphs expectation: 14.3 WAR over five years
Last five years: 13.3 WAR, BUT, won Cy Young in 2021, suggesting that he’s peaking
Eduardo Rodriguez, Tigers, 5 years, $77 million
FanGraphs expectation: 9.6 WAR over five years
Last five years: 12.8 WAR (sat out 2020 season)
Marcus Stroman, Cubs, 3 years, $71 million
FanGraphs expectation: 8.9 WAR over three years
Last three years (sat out COVID year): 8.7 WAR
Steven Matz, Cardinals, 4 years, $44 million.
FanGraphs expectation: 5.5 WAR over four years.
Last four years: 4.5 WAR (but this includes some negative WAR in COVID season)
OK, we could keep going but I think you get the point — the question I want you to ask is this: Is the FanGraphs expectation of $8 million or so per win above replacement REASONABLE? That is to say, the Dodgers just signed James Paxton to a one-year deal for $10 million. Is it reasonable for them to expect him to put up a 1.3-WAR season? Probably so, right? The Mets signed Starling Marte for $78 million over four years. Is it reasonable for them to expect 9.8 WAR from him over those four seasons? Probably so, right? Marte put up 13.4 WAR the last four seasons.
I think that $8 million or so per win over replacement is a reasonable estimate of value on the free-agent market.
And that, based on my best understanding, is what the FanGraphs DOLLARS column represents — what that player’s season would be worth on the open market.
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So now you say: Well, wait, some of these numbers are outrageous. According to the Mookie Betts value section, his 2018 season was worth $83.3 million. That’s lunacy. Nobody has ever been paid close to that amount.
And that’s true. But that’s because baseball doesn’t pay per season. Baseball grossly underpays its younger players and, at least in the past, grossly overpaid some of its older players. Albert Pujols is a good example. The St. Louis Cardinals paid Pujols $104 million from 2001 through 2011. By FanGraphs value, he was worth more than $400 million.
OK, but from 2012 through 2021, the Los Angeles Angels paid Pujols $240 million. And by FanGraphs value, he was worth less than $70 million. So even though he didn’t get QUITE his true open market value over the length of his career, that is still one of baseball’s more equitable careers*.
*I’m sure Angels fans wouldn’t see it that way, but so it goes.
In other words, Betts may have made only roughly 13% of his value in 2018, but that year was a big reason why two years later, he got a 12-year, $365 million deal.
This is how the system has worked for a long time. But there are cracks in it, as you well know. Players get hurt. Players have bad seasons before they become free agents. Great players who sign these long-term deals often underperform them and their careers end unhappily for everyone.
And, even more to the point, teams are ever more aware of baseball’s true aging curve and are less willing than ever to give out long-term, big-money deals to players who are in their 30s.
All of which brings us back to the beginning: What is it to say that Trea Turner was worth $54.9 million in 2021 (while getting paid about $13 million) or that Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was worth $53.5 million (while getting paid $605,000) or that Corbin Burnes was worth $59.8 million (while getting paid $608,000)?
Well, it is to say that if baseball players were allowed on the open market with no limitations, this is a pretty good estimation of what they would be worth. If you add up all of the players in baseball, there’s about $8 billion in FanGraphs value. That’s roughly double what actual salaries were — the total baseball payroll was just over $4 billion.
Could MLB teams afford an $8 billion payroll? That would be a $267 million payroll for each of the 30 teams … and the answer that seems to make the most sense is that most teams could not come close to affording that, though some teams probably could.*
*No team has ever had a $267 million payroll, but the Red Sox, Dodgers, Yankees, Giants and Tigers have all had $200 million payrolls in the past.
But what matters more than the theoretical value of a player, I think, is the amount of money MLB teams save because there isn’t free movement and a completely open market. I mentioned Corbin Burnes — let’s say that he were a free agent, and he were only allowed to sign for one year. How much would he get paid? How much would he be worth to a team like, say, the Red Sox, who made it all the way to the ALCS without anything resembling a No. 1 starter? Would they pay $30 million for him? Sure they would. How about $35 million? How about $40 million? How about $50 million?
How much would the Red Sox pay for one season of a 27-year-old, in-his-prime Corbin Burnes and a real shot at the World Series?
We will never know, but I imagine it’s more than anyone has ever been paid for one season of baseball.
And that’s the fun of looking at FanGraphs Money.
OK, so now — here were the 10 most valuable players by FanGraphs Money in 2021 and their actual salaries:
Corbin Burnes, $59.8 million ($608,000)
Zack Wheeler, $58.1 million ($22.5 million)
Trea Turner, $54.9 million ($13 million)
Vladimir Guerrero Jr., $53.5 million ($605,000)
Bryce Harper, $53.0 million ($26 million)
Marcus Semien, $53.0 million ($18 million)
Juan Soto, $53.0 million ($8.5 million)
Jose Ramirez, $50.4 million ($9 million)
Fernando Tatis Jr., $49.1 million ($1 million — but it’s just the first year of 14-year, $340 million deal)
Carlos Correa, $46.2 million ($11.7 million)
And then, for fun, here were the highest-paid players of 2021, and their FanGraphs Money value.
Trevor Bauer, Dodgers, $40 million ($14 million FG)
Mike Trout, Angels, $37.1 million ($18.2 million FG)
Gerrit Cole, Yankees, $36 million ($42.1 million FG)
Jacob deGrom, Mets, $36 million ($39 million FG)
Nolan Arenado, Cardinals, $35 million ($32.1 million FG)
Stephen Strasburg, Nationals, $35 million (minus-$0.2 million, FG)
Max Scherzer, Dodgers, $34.5 million ($42.9 million FG)
Manny Machado, Padres, $34 million ($35.2 million FG)
Justin Verlander, Astros, $33 million (DNP)
Zack Greinke, Astros, $32.9 million ($10.3 million FG)
I would say the surprising part to me is that most of the highest-paid players are worth their salaries (or are injured or, in the case of Bauer, problematic). The only player who was relatively healthy but underperformed was Greinke. There’s more to say about Greinke and money … but I’m going to save that for what I hope will be a really exciting special bonus for subscribers coming later this year. More to say on that in the weeks ahead!