Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, and The Price of WAR

Manny Machado and Bryce Harper on 3rd

Nationals at Orioles 7/10/15

During the 2020 season, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado will make a combined $59,538,461. That is a lot of money between two people. In fact, that amount of money divided by the amount of regular season games and then split down the middle is nearly $200,000 for each player. Obviously these two all-stars have completely different contracts (Manny makes roughly $5 million more a year/Bryce is locked for 3 additional years). But either way, Harper and Machado both are making well into the 6-figure range every single game they put on a uniform. Plus, I’m not so much worried about the amount of these guys’ contract. I’m more concerned about the value of each of them and how it has played out so far now that we’re 50+ games into the season.

Even though the photo I put with this post is nearly 4 years old, (damn you copyright laws) it goes to show these guys have been baseball icons for the greater part of this decade. Harper and Machado are some of the most fun players to watch in the MLB. That statement has been true ever since their debuts in 2011 and 2013, and today they’re easily some of the most household names in baseball.

Being in the same free agent class during this past offseason ensued constant talk about the two of them. When Harper signed with the Phillies and Machado with the Padres, the whole baseball world was flabbergasted with just how much money these two were offered.

Just for the sake of timeliness, I am choosing to ignore that number by Trout’s name even though I am very aware that is some stupid cash.

What I will say about Trout though is that you and I both know he is easily the best player in baseball, and there is little refuting that. Trout has the 85th highest WAR of all-time and highest out of every player literally ever who played at least 9 seasons. The next highest WAR leaders who have only played 9 seasons are Ray Chapman (558th at 29.1) and Josh Hamilton (583rd at 28.3). But I digress. This blog is about the $660 million dollars being given to the 2nd and 3rd place athletes on that list.

“WAR! What Is It Good For?”

I frequently will drop players current or historical WAR’s in my posts because I think it is one of the most intuitive stats baseball has to offer. WAR stands for Wins Above Replacement and the general agreement is that a “0” WAR means you have not supplied any wins for your team and are therefore, replaceable. But a WAR north of 5 will deem you all-star worthy and correlates to you being responsible for 5 of the wins your team has gotten this season. Being able to determine how many wins a player can get you in a given season is a pretty good judgement for how much production they can give you, how to stack a fantasy team, or even how much they should be paid.

That last statement actually has a “broken down” version of WAR known simply as $/WAR, and Fangraphs has an awesome article about it if you would like to know more here.

$/WAR is basically a measurement of how much teams are paying for players on the free agent market according to how many wins they will add over replacement level players. Right now, we think teams are paying about $8 million per every WAR they add to their roster…

– Neil Weinberg

Courtesy of Fangraphs article linked above by Neil Weinberg

After reading that, you might be thinking that $8 million is a crazy amount of money for someone just to guarantee you a single win each baseball season. I think if that is what’s going through your mind, you have a definite right to be thinking that and I would go as far as to agree with you. But if that’s our baseline, then let’s go with it.

Let’s take Harper’s $330 million split for each year he plays as well as Machado’s $300 million as well. For the sake of simplicity, I am going to average out their total contract amounts in to the amount of years they are tenured for. I’m also going to use that $8 million $/WAR we have as a baseline to determine the expected value these two players should bring.

Here is what I came up with:
Bryce Harper:

  • Contract Total – $330 million/13 years
  • Avg. Salary/Year – $25.38 million
  • Total Expected WAR – 41.25 Wins Above Replacement
  • Expected WAR/Year – ~3.173 WAR/Year

Manny Machado:

  • Contract Total – $300 million/10 years
  • Avg. Salary/Year – $30 million
  • Total Expected WAR – 37.5 Wins Above Replacement
  • Expected WAR/Year – 3.75 WAR/Year

If you take those final averages at face value, it seems like both of these teams are not asking for much from either players. But remember, these expected WAR values don’t have to be exact each year. We should not be assuming 26 year old Harper should be swinging the bat as well as 36 year old Harper; and therefore, most of those expected WAR points will come on the earlier side of their contracts.

There’s just one problem with that though. Bryce Harper isn’t hitting his expected WAR/Year in the very first season of his brand new contract.

Bryce currently has a 0.5 WAR on the season while Manny Machado is hanging at a 1.4. Multiply both of those figures by three (since we are roughly through a third of the season) and Harper is sitting at a 1.5 WAR while Machado cruises into a 4.2 WAR when 2019 is all said and done.

This should be mildly concerning for the Phillies front office as their newly acquired superstar isn’t fulfilling the expectations set when he signed his multi-million dollar contract. Yes, WAR can be easily influenced if you play extremely poorly or come up clutch in game-winning situations. However, Bryce’s slash line is currently at a .227/.355/.438 and the longer he keeps playing under his usual production, the more he will have to do later in the season to showcase his value in his first season with the Phillies.

How Does This Affect Bryce?

Short answer, it really doesn’t. A .355 OBP, 9 HR, and 34 RBI’s is not bad at all for Harper. The 2018 Home run Derby Champ is likely to ramp-up his production sooner than later too, and the fully-loaded Phil’s have one of the meanest lineups in baseball. The big takeaway with these monster contracts and how they relate to winning, is that it gives us a different perspective on how much the league values naturally “winning” ballplayers.

Since teams across the majors are willing to drop roughly $8 million dollars on average for a 1.0 WAR, it makes sense why some players have to wait for extended amounts of time just to get a deal coming their way. It’s pretty impossible to say there is a direct correlation between the amount a free agent is offered compared to their career WAR/Year. But it is fair to assume that it has likely played a big part in recent years.

Superstars like Machado and Harper are both clearly gifted at playing baseball, and so part of their massive contracts definitely has to do with their general star power and higher performance floors. For the players that have been scraping for just single-year contracts though, being able to overcome WAR’s telling nature has been dropping salaries pretty consistently i.e. Justin Bour, Clay Buchholz, Shelby Miller, (all took a cut in salary and had a sub 1.0 WAR in 2018.)

It’s a fascinating thing going into the sabermetrics, business, and the psychology of million dollar baseball contracts. But the more fun thing to do, is root for these guys that are playing for said contracts. Harper and Machado deserve their respective millions, 100%. Both of these guys bring so much to the game and are insanely exciting to watch cause you know they are capable of doing something incredible every single day. I really do hope both of them continue to mash baseballs into their late 30’s and that they both eventually bring titles to their cities as well.

Calculating $/WAR is great from an analytical standpoint, but the entertainment value these players all bring to the game of baseball is what is truly priceless.

Image courtesy of Keith Allison licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0

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