A Baseball Blog - Scientific and Speculative Thoughts from Third Base

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Ryan Zimmerman: The Contract Extension, and Other Thoughts

So, there are a lot of things that I’ve wanted to write about as of late, but general, all-around business has kept me busy (go figure). So, I’ll try and condense some of them into a single meandering post.

One of the two stories I really want to address is the big extension that Ryan Zimmerman just signed with the Nationals. I really care about both the Nationals and Ryan Zimmerman, for some reason. Neither is on par with my actual fandom for the Cardinals or Orioles, but if I had to construct a hierarchy of favorite teams, the Nationals would probably be a solid bronze medal winner. I really don’t have any clear explanations for this. Part of it might be that I used to live in the D.C. area (granted, it was before the Nationals were a thing, which is why I’m an Orioles fan instead; but maybe some residual feelings for the area?). Part of it might have been sympathy for the Expos that carried over and multiplied when they were moved. Part of it might be because Peter Angelos didn’t like them. But I think Ryan Zimmerman is also a large part of it.

As you may have guessed, I have a somewhat inexplicable fascination with third base. (Although I have absolutely no idea how you would have guessed it. Maybe psychic powers?) In any case, playing third base is always worth bonus points with me, and Zimmerman has been one of the faces of the position for the past five years or so (together with Evan Longoria, David Wright, Adrian Beltre, and maybe Pablo Sandoval, with another good season)*. Maybe it was because he was a young, rising star for a new team. Maybe it was the fact that he seems to be underrated consistently (Fangraphs has him twelfth in WAR for the past five years, yet he has just 1 All-Star Game to show for it), and I inexplicably cling to underrated players.

*Maybe I just need to do a post on third basemen sometime? I feel like I could go on for hours about this. Anyway, I was looking down his list of comparable players just now on Baseball-Reference, and through his current age, Zimmerman’s most comparable player is a tie between Harlond Clift** and Scott Rolen. Rolen is one of my favorite players ever, which I think is interesting. Also on this list are Eric Chavez (3) and Wright (5), both of whom I’ve loved watching. This is also interesting.

**A divergence from my divergence; Clift is sometimes credited with creating the perception that third base is one of the manly mashing corner positions, despite recent evidence proving that it is much more difficult than any of the other three corner spots. He’s been largely forgotten since then, despite a solid career. Also, he played for the Browns, which have since become the Orioles. I have a feeling that if Clift played today, I would be a pretty big fan of his as well.

In any case, all of this meant that I was very excited to hear that the Nats had locked him up long term, giving him an extension (he wasn’t set to be a free agent until after 2013) that pays him $100 million over six years (plus an option year). Together with his current contract, it means that Zimmerman will get $142 million through 2020 (assuming the option is picked up; otherwise, it’s $126 through 2019).*

*An interesting side note of this contract is that $10 million of it is scheduled to be paid over five years after Zimmerman retires, whenever that ends up being. So for all we know, that last tenth of the contract might not be paid out until another five years or so after it technically ends, depending on how long he keeps playing. It may have a slight effect when I go into inflation later.

I actually think this is a great move by the Nationals, and I saw some echo the sentiment (notably, Fangraphs). However, the feelings were not unanimous, and there were some very smart people (in particular, Keith Law and John Autin) who felt the move was risky. So, I want to take a closer look at it.

There is the question of why they offered the contract when they did. Zimmerman was already signed through 2013, so why the rush? All they’re doing is adding risk, in theory. Ryan could get hurt in between now and the start of the contract, thereby making the deal awful before it even starts. However, I think it may have been to get a lower price. As stated, Zimmerman has been twelfth most valuable player as per WAR for the past half-decade, and he’s still not quite to his peak. This is in spite of missing 61 games last year; so, if the Nationals feel confident that he can rebound from injury (and we have no reason to think this won’t be the case), then they signed him before he can put up another MVP-caliber season to drive his price up further.

There’s also the question of value. As of right now, Fangraphs estimates a win as $5 million on the open market. So, for the contract without the option year, Zimmerman will need to provide about 25.2 WAR through 2019. The option year will mean he has to be worth 28.4 WAR over the life of the contract. So, that comes out to roughly 3.15 WAR per season for eight or nine years. Going by Fangraphs, Ryan was worth 2.5 WAR last year in only 101 games. The two years before that, he was worth 7.2 and 7.3 WAR. Seeing as he’s about to enter his peak, age-27 season, I see no reason he can’t be worth much more than this.

Also, this doesn’t account for any inflation in the value of a Win, which will almost certainly occur between now and then. So, in reality, he won’t even have to be worth 3.15 Wins per year. If the value of a Win starts to skyrocket for some reason (say, because of the new TV contracts that might soon flood the market and give teams a ton of money, for example), this deal begins to look very, very good. I can’t guarantee rapid cost inflation, but I can guarantee some inflation. So Zimmerman will probably have to be closer to 3 WAR per year, from the ages of 27 through 34 or 35. That doesn’t seem half bad, in my opinion.

I won’t go into fuzzier aspects, such as what money Zimmerman causes in merchandise, gate receipts, and so on, because I have absolutely no idea how it would affect the deal. It may help, it may not, so there’s no sense in making a huge deal about it. Also, the Nationals did just draft Anthony Rendon, a third baseman. But he seems about 2 years away, and he can always be moved (either to another position, like second base, or to another team for useful parts). And there’s always the chance that Rendon just doesn’t pan out; he is only a prospect, after all.

The one other thing I wanted to address was Zimmerman’s fielding, because a lot of his value comes from it. Baseball-Reference apparently isn’t too thrilled with his defense; they credit him with a career 5 Total Zone Runs Saved, which gives him only .2 defensive WAR for his career. Consequently, his bWAR for the past three seasons are 2.3, 5.3, and 5.2. More or less, it says he’s been average. Zimmerman is one of the biggest disparities as far as fielding evaluation goes, though. Most other measures rate him as an elite defender, though. UZR credits him with 54.1 runs saved since he started his career. Dewan Plus/Minus is even higher on his fielding, crediting him with 76 runs saved since he started in 2006. These contribute over 5 wins to his career fWAR. In the end, I would say majority wins (and these are just of the fielding stats that I have access to; most others seem to favor Zimmerman, too). So, even though his career bWAR seems a little low at 19.8, it appears that his 30.2 career fWAR is much closer to his actual value.

Anyway, here I am two pages later, and I still only covered about half of the things I hoped to touch on. Oh well. Anyway, the point of this post is multi-faceted:

1) Ryan Zimmerman is pretty great.
2) The Nationals locked him up long term for a reasonable amount.
3) They may actually come out pretty far ahead
4) I should write about third basemen more often.
5) I can apparently sense players that are similar to my current favorites.
6) Harlond Clift probably should be better remembered.
7) The Nationals apparently rank a solid third on my list of rooting interests, and are the highest ranked team that I don’t truly consider “one of my teams”.
8) I really should just write long, meandering posts more often. This has been fun.
9) And, to get it to a good finishing number of points, Scott Rolen is also pretty awesome. I really wanted that ninth point for all the baseball connotations, and I mentioned him earlier, so I feel like this is a valid thing to bring up.

So, here’s to the National’s face of the franchise, and possible first number retiree in Washington. Hopefully, this year, he returns in force to his MVP ways.

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