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Aaron Judge and the Illogic of Baseball Salaries

The Yankees remain in the thick of the pursuit of Bryce Harper, the slugging former National who is now a free agent. Harper’s lefty bat would slot in nicely on an already powerful Yankee team that is currently much stronger from the right side of the plate. Harper’s free agency also raises several issues about the illogic of how compensation for baseball players works. One to see this is to imagine four outfielders described in below.

Player A: DOB 11/8/89, OPS+ 2017-8 147, WAR 2017-8 11.6

Player B: DOB 8/7/91, OPS+ 2017-8 193, WAR 2017-8 16.8

Player C: DOB 4/26/92, OPS+ 2017-8 160, WAR 2017-8 13.6

Player D: DOB 10/16/92, OPS+ 2017-8 143, WAR 2017-8 8.5

The data above incomplete as it only provides broad measures of value, does not specify position and only includes the last two years. In general terms, player B is strong defensive centerfielder, player C a strong corner outfielder, while the other two are corner outfielders with no significant defensive value. Player C was rookie in 2017, but the other three were all very good players before that.

If you had to pick one of these players to have for the next five or even ten years, the choice would be easy. Player B is by far the best of the bunch. He is the second oldest, but he is only fourteen months younger than player D who is the youngest. After that, the choice is a bit more difficult. Player D has not had a great two years, but was pretty good before that. Player A is a bit older so in five years will be 33, and 43 in ten years. Player C has been excellent over the last two years but is a little unproven and slightly older than player D. If I had to rank them, I would say B,C,D,A, but most would agree that after player B it is pretty close.

The compensation these players are likely to make over the next years tells a slightly different story. Player B is signed for two more years during which he will make $68 million. After that he will be a free agent and, barring injury, will get a huge contract. A conservative estimate would be something like 8/240. Over the next ten years, he is poised to make at least $308 million. Player D is a free agent now and will probably get at least $280 million over the next ten years. Player A is set to make $260 million over the next nine years with a team option for $25 million in the tenth year, so will probably make $285 million over the next ten years. These numbers are estimates, players B and D could easily get even larger contracts than the ones mentioned here.

Player C is in a different situation entirely. He will probably get a sizable but not massive raise in 2019 from the $622,000 he made last year, be eligible for arbitration in 2020 and free agency after the 2022 season when he will be 30 and in the decline phase of his career. It is hard to estimate with any certainty, particularly as his team may offer him a longer term contract at any time, but if that does not happen we could make $2 million next years, ten million in each of the three years following that and perhaps sign a long term contract that gets him $28 million or so per year when he becomes a free agent. If that happens, then over the next ten years he will make $200 million over the next ten years.

This is not about the money as all of these players, barring injury, will make life changing money, but it seems odd that because the Yankees were a contending team who did not want to rush Aaron Judge (player C) into the big leagues, his total earnings over the next ten years when he will likely be a better player, will be less than those of Bryce Harper (player D) or Giancarlo Stanton (player A). Judge was not ready for the big leagues in his early twenties so the Yankees cannot be entirely blamed for this, but the point remains. Judge will be under team control for all of his most productive years while all of the other three comparable players either signed massive contracts so their teams could avoid losing them to free agency, like Trout (player B) and Stanton, or were able to test the free agent waters while still in their prime.

The problem here is not one confronted only by Judge, but speaks to both the way the system of baseball compensation can seem arbitrary, but also to a problem that will grow as teams, particularly those that are do not need a particular player right away, begin to hold players back more frequently so that they don’t reach free agency before their 30th birthday. Players who reach free agency after their 30th birthday miss out on the big money that younger free agents are offered. Given how aging patterns work in baseball, that is reasonable but as teams become more aware of this-and they all know this now-it creates challenges for baseball’s financial structures. If older free agents don’t get big contracts and players can be kept from reaching free agency in their twenties by being kept in the minors even after they may be ready to play at a big league level, then how will players get their share of the wealth generated by MLB? This is an issue that will not go away and to which newly extended head of the MLBPA Tony Clark must begin to pay some attention.

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