Well, another outfielder has signed a rather large extension; this time, it’s Andre Ethier. And, just like I did last time, I figured this was a good time to review it and predict how it would go, because what good is a contract if we don’t know how he’s going to do ahead of time?*
*Yes, that was a little sarcastic.
So, first, the details. The contract officially starts next season, and runs through 2017. There’s a vesting option worth $17.5 million and a $2.5 million buyout, meaning that the Dodgers are more or less only going to pay an additional $15 million to drop him if the contract vests.
Let’s just work with the basic contract though for now. $85 million translates to about 17 wins above replacement over the contract (the current value of 1 WAR on the open market is approximately $5 million), or 3.4 per season. And this is the first curiosity of the contract: going by Fangraphs, Ethier has only once surpassed that mark, back in 2008 when he was 26. Actually, that’s the second curiosity; Ethier was 26 four years ago. This contract runs through his age 31 through 35 seasons, never a great sign. Essentially, Ethier will likely be declining at these ages. Add in his similar players and the age factor looks rather worrisome.
The similar players aren’t really a deal-killer, for me though. It doesn’t help my view on the contract, but Ethier is his own player. What does give me some pause, though, is the ballplayer that Ethier is currently. As mentioned, he’s only passed 3.4 WAR in a season once (and Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR, or bWAR, is even less favorable, only giving Ethier a peak of 2.7). However, Ethier is set to pass that mark again this year. He’s already at 2.1 fWAR and 2.2 bWAR on the year already, and Fangraphs is predicting a 4.3 Win season when 2012 is over. Is this a sign of a new Ethier?
Well, the usual indicators of luck (Batting Average on Balls in Play and Home Run/Fly Ball rates) are a little high, but nothing too outrageous. He has a slash line this season of .287/.348/.509 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage), compared to his career line of .291/.363/.481. The batting averages are pretty close, but the .015 drop in OBP is a little worrisome. Looking deeper, his walk rate (7.4%) would represent a career low, and his strikeout rate (23.0%) would be a career high, neither of which is a good sign.
His slugging did jump a little, but it’s nothing too out-of-line with his past seasons (he posted a .367 mark in 2010, and a .370 mark in 2009). So where is all the extra value coming from? It would appear his fielding. From 2008 through 2010, Ethier was a similar hitter to now. However, his fielding those years cost him 8.3, 13.5, and 16.5 runs those seasons (10 runs equal 1 win). This year, Ethier doesn’t have any fielding data (likely due to a lack of data so far). He posted a slight positive last year in the field (+5.3 runs), but fielding data can be inconsistent from year to year; it’s more likely a random jump than a sign that he suddenly became a much better fielder. Even if he did, it’s unlikely it holds up as his body ages. Speaking of a body holding up, Ethier hasn’t played more than 140 games in a season since 2009, and has only played in more than 150 games twice in his career (2007 and 2009). This also does not bode well.
And really, that’s more or less a summary of the Ethier deal. He can hit at an above average rate and he can’t field well, historically. He’s an above average part on a good team, but not a franchise centerpiece or anything. At his best, this is a slight overpay. However, the Dodgers also paid for his age 31 through 35 season, which are firmly in the “decline” phase for most players, not a good sign for a player already showing signs of decline in less plate discipline. Andre Ethier will probably be useful for the next few years, but it’s not clear he’ll even be worth the contract then. I’m not really seeing whatever inspired the Dodgers to jump at this deal.