Never underestimate the contract year.
Players work for years to get to the point of being a coveted free-agent. Once the calendar flips to the contract year, players go all-in, for what usually amounts to massive pay.
Jayson Werth in a contract year, had an AVG 31 points higher than his career average, and had an OPS over 100 points above his career high, and his career high in WAR was this year as well at 5.2, which is one full win above his second best season. Werth finished his best season with an 8th place finish in the NL MVP voting.
Werth was handsomely rewarded by the Washington Nationals with a $122.5 million contract over 7 years.
In the memorable 2006 campaign for Gary Matthews Jr., Little Sarge rose his AVG nearly 50 points and his OPS 130 points. He set career highs in every category but SB, and BB, and those only fell short by small margins. GMJ’s WAR that year accounts for over 1/3 of his career total. In that glorious year he made the All-Star game, and tied the Face of the Franchise (Michael Young) in MVP voting, with a 30th place finish.
The ill-advised $50 million contract given to GMJ over 5 years by The The Angels Angels (LAAA) was signed months after the season came to a conclusion. Matthews played his last MLB game a good year and a half before his contract expired. Also, the Angels payed him nearly half of this contract ($22.5M) to play for the Mets in the last two years of this deal. But at least we got one of the coolest catches ever.
Ok, I’ll do one more.
Contract years make you do crazy things, like change positions. Alfonso Soriano defiantly stood his ground about moving from 2B to LF for the Rangers. One year later, he’s playing LF for the Washington Nationals, Ian Kinsler was the Rangers 2B, and the Rangers were left with a basket full of strike-outs in Brad Wilkerson.
Soriano was a very talented player to begin with, so for him to raise his game even higher would be a tall order. As a 26 year-old, in 2002, Sori led the AL in H, R, and SB, hit 39 HRs and finished 3rd in MVP voting.
But in his contract year, he topped it, hitting 46 HRs (!) and swiping 41 bases, Soriano also suddenly learned patience at the plate, just about doubling his BB total. He had a career high in WAR at 5.7 that season, which is a full win above his ’02 season.
The Chicago Cubs put 133 million eggs in the “Alfonso Soriano Basket”, to get to the World Series.
UPDATE:The Cubs have yet to win a World Series in the “Soriano-Era”.
The contract year should not be underestimated. A team would be wise to load up on contract year spares, then set them loose year after year. Likewise, the year after the contract should never be overestimated.
Adrian Beltre had to shake the contract-year label after smashing 48 HRs, and finishing 2nd to Barry Lamar Bonds in the 2004 NL MVP voting. Beltre earned this label by not hitting his 48th HR with Seattle until his third year. When his Seattle contract, turned over to contract year status, Beltre flopped and hit just 8 HRs in 111 games, and posting his second lowest WAR in his career.
Mr. Contract-Year had his work cut-out for him. His agent, Scott Boras, shrewdly negotiated a one-year deal with the Red Sox, where Beltre raked and earned his next deal with Texas, and he regained his title-belt as the contract year player.
Rangers studied Beltre hard, and found that in a hitter’s park, with good hitters surrounding him, Beltre could succeed for several years. And having his gold-glove defense at 3B surely helped ease the cautious attitude towards signing Beltre long-term. Beltre came through, he won a gold-glove, a silver slugger award, and All-Star invite.
This all concerns Josh Hamilton, the man who is already exhibiting contract year-like symptoms.
Eager to get a big deal: Check.
Have a great season: (.390 AVG, 1.137 OPS and a league leading 4 HRs.) Big Check.
Accentuate value however possible: (Amazing CF diving catches) Check.
There are two formulas at work here:
Contract Year + Big Statistical Season = Huge Payday
Huge Payday + Unmet Expectations = Unhappy Fans
And no one wants to be unhappy, so therefore, we should neither have high expectations or huge contracts given to players, who are fresh off an outlier, contract year. This is unrealistic, but it would be a good business model.
Hamilton is in a contract year, he is already starting the ‘Big Statistical Season’, so therefore heading towards a “Huge Payday”. If you don’t think he’ll get a huge payday, you’re delusional, and you need to be reminded that Werth’s ($122.5/7 years) deal is the likely barometer for Hamilton’s deal.
Josh is beloved at $13 million with MVP numbers, does he still have the fanatics’ admiration if he puts up league average numbers at $22 million?
Werth, Matthews, Soriano and Beltre do not have the extra baggage that Hamilton carries. Josh is unpredictable, no one’s pendulum swings wider than Josh’s. Erratic behavior and results are not typically something you want to saddle a large dollar figure on.
The best outcome is for Hamilton to play at this level all season, win a World Series MVP and get that ‘Huge Payday’ elsewhere. I want to like Josh, but I don’t think I can do that if he signs long-term with the Rangers, unmet expectations will be unavoidable. I can enjoy his play if it’s for another team regardless of how his pendulum swings.