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Why Ryan Howard’s Contract Extension is So Bad

by Eric on April 28th, 2010

So, in this day and age of statistical analysis in baseball, it’s refreshing to see a major league team being proud to say they have no “stat-heads” in their front office. This team just managed to make a splash with what’s being called the the worst contract in baseball.

The Phillies signed Ryan Howard to a five-year, $125 million contract extension. The extension doesn’t kick in until 2012, and will pay him $20, $20, $25, $25, $25, and an option for $23 million (or a $10 million buyout) in years 2012 through 2017.

Ryan Howard will turn 30 this year. This option year is when he’s 37.

When you offer a contract like this to someone, you’re looking at what you might get for your money. It’s really hard to tell with individual players, but you can try to look back at players who put up similar numbers at similar ages to try to guess what may happen. If the pattern looks good, then maybe it’s a good risk. If the pattern is bad, it’s probably not a good offer to make.

And, to make this easier, I’m not going to get into advanced statistics like WAR or similar. Nothing more advanced than OPS and the similarity scores used to determine similar players.

So, who ARE those similar players through their age 29 season? Here’s the top five (All stats courtesy of baseball-reference.com):

  • Richie Sexson
  • Cecil Fielder
  • Mo Vaughn
  • Willie McCovey
  • David Ortiz

Hey, there’s a hall-of-famer in there (McCovey). And all those guys mashed the ball. That’s not so bad, eh? Well, let’s look a closer look at what happens over the next five years to those guys.

I took the average of each player’s stats weighted by plate appearances to come up with a composite picture.

In their age 29 seasons, the composite numbers (scaled to the Ryan Howard’s 703 plate appearances he had in his age 29 season, as Sexson only had 100-and-changed plate appearances that season) are:

(Avg/OBP/Slg/OPS – HR/RBI):
.288/.383/.543/926 – 40/126

Howard’s numbers were:

.279/.360/.571/931 – 45/141

So, everything’s relatively close together. Howard had lower avg/obp, and more HRs/RBIs, but Philadelphia’s park is very conducive to home runs, and the Phillies have on-base machines batting in front of Howard. So I’m comfortable with the comparisons. Particularly that OPS number.

So, what happens over the next five years? Here’s the composite comparison:

Age Avg OBP SLG OPS PA/HR
30 .290 .377 .568 945 15.8
31 .289 .389 .554 943 17.5
32 .259 .368 .504 872 19.1
33 .249 .345 .439 784 25.1
34 .239 .333 .424 757 23.5

After age 31, there’s some pretty sharp declining going on. By age 34, home runs are 50% less frequent than at 30, and the OPS is descending to league average. (For reference, the 2009 NL league average OPS was 739.) Within this data are monster seasons from McCovey at ages 30-32 and Ortiz at age 30.

So, let’s apply that pattern to Ryan Howard’s numbers. Same percentage increases and decreases, and I’ll add a new column. Howard’s salary given his new contract extension.

Age Avg OBP SLG OPS PA/HR Salary
30 .281 .354 .597 951 14.1 $19m
31 .280 .366 .583 949 15.7 $20m
32 .251 .346 .530 876 17.1 $20m*
33 .241 .324 .461 785 22.4 $20m
34 .232 .313 .446 759 21.0 $25m

That asterisk marks the season where the new contract extension begins.

So, why’d I stop at age 34? I can’t effectively go any further. Why?

  • David Ortiz is currently in his age 34 season, so there’s less than one month of data. (And it’s not good data, either.)
  • Richie Sexson was out of baseball at 34.
  • Cecil Fielder was out of baseball at 35.
  • Mo Vaughn missed his age 33 season and was out of baseball at 35.

The only remaining player in the study playing at age 35 or later is Willie McCovey. And while he’s a hall-of-famer, he:

  • never made an all-star team after age 33
  • never hit more than 29 HRs in a season after age 32
  • only received MVP votes in one season after age 33
  • only played more than 130 games in a season once after age 33

He was sporadically good after age 34, and a force in the lineup, but nothing more. Certainly not 2nd-highest-paid-player good.

So, according to the five most comparable players we’ve seen before, there’s a 20% chance Howard will even be playing at age 35. And the Phillies will still be on the hook for at least $60 million at that point.

Frankly, I think they were going to get the best they could out of Howard by letting his contract run out and letting him walk.

By the way, if you’re curious about who the NEXT five comparisons are, here’s your list: Tony Clark, Mark McGwire, Carlos Delgado, Fred McGriff, Norm Cash.

  • Clark played two seasons of bad baseball after age 34.
  • McGwire had two steriod-enhanced seasons after age 34 and dropped off a cliff after 36.
  • McGriff, Delgado, and Cash are probably your realistic best-case scenarios. And, conversely, the three weakest comparisons. They were productive through ages 38, 36, and 38 respectively.

Will Carroll tweeted “They just paid A-Rod money to Fred McGriff.” Given that McGriff is in those best-case scenarios, that sentiment is right on the money.

Oh, and we didn’t even talk about Howard’s defense. Which by all measurements is, at best, average. If he was a wunderkind with the glove, there would be some benefit there. But the NL doesn’t have the designated hitter, and defensive skills don’t improve with age.

This contract will have far-reaching effects both inside and outside Philadelphia. The Phillies are going to have real trouble keeping other good players as they won’t have budget room. And better players are going to be cashing in. I can’t even imagine what Albert Pujols’ next contract is going to look like.

Good luck, Philadelphia. It might be okay for the next couple seasons, but as soon as that extension kicks in, you’re going to regret it.

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