Worrying About Contract Incentives

Performance incentives in players’ contracts are becoming more and more common, particularly for old and/or injury-prone players. Players may get some a bonus for making the All-Star team or nabbing a few MVP votes while others get extra cash for reaching certain thresholds, usually based on plate appearances, innings pitched, or the more general games played.

J.C. Romero recently signed a one-year contract with the Phillies worth $1.35 million. As Randy Miller reported on Twitter, Romero can earn an extra $150,000 if he spends 25 or fewer days on the disabled list. On the surface, there doesn’t appear to be anything wrong with that. No one — Romero, his teammates, the Phillies’ brass, or the fans — wants to see the DL days pile up, so if this clause can motivate Romero to put in a little extra time in the weight room or do some additional stretching every day, what’s the harm?

Sports have a clear macho factor, as is illustrated in this article on Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers by ESPN’s Tim Keown. Rodgers was shaken up on a hit but clearly wanted to go back into the game, but his teammate Donald Driver urged him to stay on the sidelines.

This is what progress looks like: On Dec. 12 against Detroit, in a game vital to the Packers’ playoff hopes, Driver walked behind his team’s bench after Rodgers had taken hard shots on consecutive plays, and leaned down to tell his quarterback, “This is just a game. Your life is more important than a game.”

Rodgers stayed out. The Packers lost. There’s a good chance they would have won if Rodgers had been able to continue. The next week, Rodgers wasn’t cleared to play against the Patriots on Sunday night, and the Packers lost again. Matt Flynn played well, but he missed on a few passes and threw a costly pick near the end. It’s not a stretch to say the Packers would have won that game had Rodgers played.

[...]

What Driver did was bad for the team but good for the person. You know how much easier it would have been for him to sit back and hope Rodgers could clear his head fast enough to get back into the game? That’s what Rodgers wanted to do, and it seems as if the Packers’ trainers were either unaware of the situation or otherwise occupied immediately after the injury. Rodgers didn’t want to hear what Driver was telling him, so he stood up and stared back at him.

What Rodgers saw — legitimate concern from a respected veteran who cares about him — was enough to make him realize Driver was right.

Keown cites Jason Witten of the Dallas Cowboys and Hines Ward of the Pittsburgh Steelers as opponents of “playing it safe”, two clear adherents of the macho zeitgeist in professional sports. Players like Driver — and now, Rodgers — are clearly in the minority.

Baseball players are just as likely to play it stoic. Chase Utley, for one, is well-known for playing while injured, never saying a word about how he’s feeling, and ignoring the Phillies’ training staff. As much as we like to think otherwise, Utley admitting that he is hurting is good for the team. Giving Utley, for example, a contract incentive to keep his mouth shut just exacerbates the problem.

Romero started the 2010 season on the disabled list due to elbow surgery. He has pitched a grand total of 53 and one-third innings in the past two seasons combined. He thinks he needs to prove himself to earn a longer contract after the season. This contract incentive may actually cause Romero to hide any problems in an effort to earn his paychecks in 2012 and beyond. Not only could this be detrimental to the team, but it could be detrimental to Romero’s career.

Incentives based on games played, innings pitched, and plate appearances — anything based on staying on the field more often — are not in the players’ best interest. They are good for the owners and general managers, who will be less likely to be embarrassed by a flop signing. And they are good for managers and coaches, who will be less likely to be accused of improper player usage. They are not good for the players. Any movement aimed at removing these incentives is a step in the right direction.