The Philadelphia Phillies will be paying the slugger $22m when hes 39. But its unlikely he will be the same player he is now in a decades time
For some, 13 is an unlucky number. For Bryce Harper, originally from Las Vegas, 13 is anything but unlucky. Thats because the Philadelphia Phillies will be paying the slugger who has been an All-Star in six of his seven seasons in Major League Baseball $330m over the next 13 years, the richest contract in the history of baseball. With a full no-trade clause and no opt-outs, Harper isnt going anywhere and the Phillies will still need to pay him $22m in the final year of his contract, when hes 39 and far from his prime.
Its not really surprising that the Phillies were the team to land the 26-year old Harper. In a move surely regretted in later negotiations, Phillies owner John Middleton clearly stated the teams intent to acquire top level talent in the offseason, no matter the cost. Were going into this expecting to spend money, Middleton told USA Today Sports in November, and maybe even be a little bit stupid about it.
But, for baseball, the concern hasnt been over paying stupid money, but rather for paying stupid money for a stupid amount of time. Risk averse teams are increasingly reluctant to hand out large sums of money to players they dont believe will deliver on the goods years down the line. Why? Well, 13 years is a long-time and life happens, namely injuries. Recent free agent history is full of such cautionary tales.
Miguel Cabrera 10 years, $275m: a herniated disc in his neck forced a premature end to the 2017 season and most of 2018 was lost to a torn biceps tendon.
Albert Pujols 10 years, $240m: given his age at signing, 32, this one might have been doomed from the start. Injuries, particularly foot problems, have diminished his production to the replacement player level over the past several seasons.
Prince Fielder nine years, $214m: signed by the Detroit Tigers, traded to the Texas Rangers. Herniated discs in his neck forced an early retirement.
And for players signed to these long-term deals, the longer the contract, the greater the likelihood that injury will ultimately strike. In baseball, like other sports, injuries are difficult to prevent collisions with other players, being hit by a pitch, or an awkward dive in the outfield, can all put a player on the disabled list (for the 2019 season, its now called the injured list). Or, of course, the result of the repetitive stress of throwing a ball 95mph or swinging a bat hundreds of times a day.
Though he is younger than the average free agent, the 26-year old Harper has had his share of injuries hip, knee, thumb, neck, shoulder most notably a gruesome knee hyperextension in 2017 that was the result of slipping on a wet base.
Since the biggest risk of reinjury is a history of injury, minor problems can quickly turn into bigger ones, robbing a player of power and performance. While not directly related to aging, players then have fewer opportunities to post big numbers on the back side of their careers, because they are more likely to have seasons cut short by injury.
Chris Capuano, a left-handed pitcher with 12 years of Major League experience, believes that one of baseballs greatest challenges is the length of the season. The most difficult thing about baseball is the volume of games 30 in Spring Training, 162 in the regular season, and potentially another 20 or so in the postseason. A ballplayer needs to be incredibly disciplined about the way he takes care of his body and his mind throughout the year.
Maintaining that level of performance gets harder each season. You obviously cant train the same way at 35 or 40 as when you were 25, says Capuano. Tom Brady is probably the best example of that in sports today. As your body ages, you need to refine your training to be more efficient, more recovery based.
Yet, even when not at their physical peak, some players are just better than others. Researcher JC Bradbury, a sports economist at Kennesaw State, believes that the best players follow a different trajectory. It is a mistake to pay too much attention to aging when looking at these players because aging is gradual, he says. Player quality is a much more important variable. A player who is excelling at age 24 is likely to be improving into his late-20s/early-30s and then decline.
Every players skill set ebbs over time, with those requiring less physical ability peaking later, specifies Bradbury, but those of the best players have farther to fall than the average player. Those who start with more skill an All-Star like Harper, for example maintain a better than average level of play longer, making them better candidates for long-term contracts.
Bradburys research determined that performance generally declines after 29, but not every facet. For example, doubles plus triples per-at-bat peaks 4.5 years later for Hall-of-Famers, which indicates that elite hitters continue to improve and maintain hitting skills while other players are in decline. On-base percentage peaks later than hitting ability, presumably as players get better at reading pitches and therefore earning walks.
One reason for decline in performance are changes in hand-eye coordination. Some players can adapt, others cannot. Research shows that some older players can still perform because they are able to compensate with experience. However, older players who cant compensate find themselves out of baseball. Recent increases in average pitching velocity have also likely affected which players can stick around.
Interestingly, a recent analysis of long-term contracts in baseball, presented at last weeks MIT/Sloane Sports Analytics Conference, looked at performance during the other end of long-term contracts, the first several seasons.
The research, presented by Richard Paulsen, compares a scenario in which an athlete plays a shorter, three-year contract with the first three years of a long-term contract. Paulsen summed it up like this, My work would predict that the player would accumulate about one fewer WAR for his team in the true scenario (first three years of a longer-term contract) relative to the three-year contract. Basically, for a variety of possible reasons, players tend to slightly underperform during the initial portion of a long-term contract.
As long as teams are competing for top talent, there will continue to be special players like Harper driving the market. There is certainly risk in long-term contracts, but for teams willing to spend, they believe theres a lot to gain. But know this, the Phillies did not pin their hopes on Bryce Harper producing 13-years from now. Theyre banking on more immediate results.
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