Differentiating Between Value and Production

Looking back at the 2011 season, it’s easy to forget about Cameron Maybin. As the centerfielder of the hapless 71-91 San Diego Padres, Maybin graded out surprisingly well. At the young age of 24, in his first full season, he posted a .325 wOBA with 40 stolen bases and played above-average defense according to most metrics. That’s not to say the young outfielder didn’t have his flaws. His contract skills leave a lot to be desired (.264 batting average despite a .331 BABIP) and he needs to improve his plate discipline (he strikes about three times as often as he walks).

Ben Nicholson-Smith of MLB Trade Rumors wrote a good piece about the Padres offering him a modest contract extension that buys out most or all of his arbitration years through 2015. Nicholson-Smith notes that arbitration tends to reward sluggers, rather than players with speed and defense, making Maybin rather underrated and perhaps willing to agree to a more team-friendly deal.

I think this situation is great to highlight the differences between value and production. If you poll 100 Phillies fans, asking them who would provide better value between Maybin and Shane Victorino, I’d bet the overwhelming majority would vote for the Flyin’ Hawaiian. It’s hard to blame them for picking the player worth at least 3 WAR (per FanGraphs) in each of the past five seasons over the player who just completed his first full season, despite being worth nearly 5 fWAR.

However, in 2011, the Padres paid Maybin $429,000. FanGraphs values Maybin’s 4.7 fWAR at $21.2 million, leaving the Padres with just under $21 million net value. Meanwhile, the Phillies paid Victorino $7.5 million while his 5.9 fWAR was worth $26.6 million, leaving them with about $19 million net value.

Nicholson-Smith cites Franklin Gutierrez, Jose Tabata, and Denard Span as players that could be used in comparison with Maybin when structuring a multi-year contract extension. Gutierrez and the Seattle Mariners agreed to a four-year, $20.25 million contract, for example. The yearly salary escalates from $2 million in the first year to $7.5 million in the final year, with an overall average annual value of $5 million. Over the last five years, the average value of one win above replacement has ranged between $4-4.5 million. Assuming that holds true and assuming a contract with a $5 million AAV, Maybin would only need to be worth 1.11-1.25 fWAR per season.

On the other hand, Victorino is entering the final year of his three-year, $22 million contract. He earns $9.5 million this season before heading off into free agency if the Phillies do not sign him to an extension. As a 32-year-old center fielder with a history of consistency in all aspects of his game, he would rank among the elite free agents, even in a potentially-crowded market for center fielders. It is unlikely that Victorino would provide anywhere near as much bang-for-the-buck with his contract as Maybin, even though he is a better bet to be more productive. For instance, if Victorino signs a contract similar to the one the Phillies and Raul Ibanez agreed to several years ago (three years, $31.5 million; AAV $10.5 million), he would need to be worth between 2-2.5 fWAR per season over the life of the contract. While I would feel comfortable Victorino would live up to that, it isn’t as easy to live up to as a realistic contract for Maybin.

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This is not to say the Phillies should go out and try to acquire Maybin at any cost. They should completely ignore him, in fact. Market size does play a role in this: Maybin is significantly more valuable to the Padres (a small-market, rebuilding team) than to the Phillies (a large-market, win-now team). However, it is a great illustration of the type of thinking that goes into structuring every contract. It isn’t just a matter of “can this player be productive?”; it is a matter of determining how productive he needs to be and the likelihood of that player meeting the criteria, among a plethora of other factors.

(h/t to @Slap_Bet for inspiring this topic)