In perhaps the most extreme case of overreaction in baseball history, the Tigers signed Prince Fielder to a nine-year, $214M contract two weeks ago after learning that Victor Martinez would miss the season with a knee problem. It’s the fourth largest contract in baseball history, and like many of you, I couldn’t help but think that Mark Teixeira eight-year, $180M contract suddenly looked a whole lot better by comparison. Fielder is the better player at the moment, but Teixeira didn’t get his contract at the moment. He signed it three years ago.
Given the enormous outlays, let’s compare the two players and their contracts. To do this, we’re going to go back in time a bit and look at the player Teixeira was when he signed his contract, because that’s more applicable when comparing these massive deals. He was 28 years old when the Yankees signed him prior to 2009, a year older than Fielder is right now. Both guys are Scott Boras clients, so that makes the comparison a little easier. With all due respect, no agent is as successful as Boras when it comes to getting top dollar.
We’re going to break the comparison into four sections: offense, baserunning, defense, and durability. The first three are self-explanatory, and durability is quite underappreciated in my opinion. If you’re giving out contracts like these, you want to be damn sure the player can stay on the field. Let’s start with the money-makers, the bats…
Both players are well above average offensively, both in terms of getting on-base and launched baseballs into orbit. Teixeira was approximately 40% better than league average back in the day while Fielder is roughly 50% better than league average today, so Prince is the better hitter by a not small margin. It is worth noting that Teixeira is a switch-hitter, and back then he had a relatively small platoon split (134 wRC+ vs. RHP and 148 vs. LHP from ’06-’08). Fielder is a lefty and has shown a somewhat significant split throughout over the last three years (168 wRC vs. RHP but 119 vs. LHP). He’s the better hitter, but the switch-hitting thing is a definite plus for Tex.
Baserunning is an important part of the game, but it really doesn’t have as much impact as you might think. The different between the best and worst baserunners in a given season will be something like 30 runs, and we’re talking Michael Bourn vs. Jorge Posada type of stuff. Most players are within five runs of league average (one way or the other) with few outliers.
He’s slow and he makes funny faces when he runs, but Teixeira was a pretty good baserunner once upon a time. He took the extra base 40% of the time from 2006-2008 (meaning he went first-to-third on a single, first-to-home on a double, etc.), ever so slightly above the league average (39%). Fielder is well below average on the bases, taking the extra roughly half as often as the average player (league average is 41% these days). In terms of runs created on the bases (that’s BsR), Tex was essentially league average again while Fielder was well below. We’re talking a 15 or so run difference between the two players over a three-year span, or five runs a year. None a huge difference, but a difference nonetheless.
Just ignore the stolen base stuff, neither of these guys are asked to do much of that.
Advanced fielding metrics aren’t perfect, especially for first baseman. They are useful over large samples though, especially in conjunction with the ol’ eye test. Teixeira is a great fielder and always has been by reputation, and the numbers back that up. Fielder is the opposite, a poor defender with the reputation to match. You can quibble with the exact numbers if you want, but they pass the sniff test. A 30 or so run gap is significant, even when talking about a three-year stretch.
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Durability is a skill to a certain extent, and like I said earlier, I think it’s underappreciated. Fielder is arguably the most durable position player in the sport right now, appearing in all but one game over the last three years and starting all but five of them. That’s pretty amazing. Teixeira missed more than five weeks with a quad strain in 2007, but otherwise he appeared in 162 and 157 games in 2006 and 2008, respectively.
This is a pretty good spot to talk about the body types, because they are important. Teixeira’s got the prototypical robot baseball player build, meaning 6-foot-3 and 220 lbs., with less body fat than I have in my left thigh. Fielder’s a portly little guy, listed on the Tigers official site at 5-foot-11 and 275 lbs. That doesn’t mean he’s out of shape — there’s a difference between being fat and being out of shape — but his body is absolutely a concern going forward. All that extra weight can lead to knee and back problems later in his career. Three years ago (and even today), no one had any reason to be concerned about Teixeira physically.
Adding up the WARs
As far as I’m concerned, there’s no difference between 14.5 and 14.1 WAR. The various WAR models just aren’t accurate enough to get worked up over a four run difference. All this tells us is that Teixeira’s fielding and baserunning closed the gap between his offense and Fielder’s, nothing more. This is how each player performed in the three years leading up to their free agency, not an indication of how they’re likely to perform going forward. It might give you an idea of what to expect in the future, but make that assumption at your own risk.
At the end of the day, we have two very similar players in 2006-2008 Teixeira and 2009-2011 Fielder. Both guys were top ten draft picks once upon a time, both play the same position, both are young and very much in the primes of their careers, and both have provided the same amount of value in the three years leading up to their free agency. They’re both $100M+ players, no doubt about that. Going forward though, wouldn’t you rather have the switch-hitter than provides better defense and has the better body? I know I would.
In many ways, Fielder’s contract is one of Boras’ best. He got Teixeira 8/180 when both the Yankees and Red Sox were heavily involved in the bidding, but then three years later he got Fielder 9/214 with almost no big money teams in the market for the first baseman. Convincing the Tigers to sign Prince to that contract when they already had a better player with his own nine-figure contract at the same position is nothing short of player representation genius in my book.