I liked the way the previous post showed what you should expect from Jaso, so while I had the data sitting in a spreadsheet, I decided to apply the same analysis to another guy on the M’s roster – Mike Carp. Given his power spike at the end of last year, I know a lot of people want to see the M’s give Carp a full season to show what he can do, while I’m a bit more skeptical about whether he can sustain success using the approach he showed last year. This is where the “family of hitters” analysis is helpful, as we can see what history shows to expect from this skillset.
Same deal as with Jaso, though with Carp, the filters are obviously different. This time, I set contact rate to be between 70% and 75%, swing rate to be between 46.5% and 51.5%, and Isolated Slugging to be between .165 and .215 – essentially, taking 25 points on both sides of Carp’s average in those categories in 2011. The overall group produced a total line in these categories that is nearly an identical match (72.5% contact rate, 48.4% swing rate, and .192 ISO) to what Carp put up last year. This skillset is a little more common, so going back to 2002 like before, we’ve got 51 players accumulating 21,223 plate appearances in the seasons in which they showed similar skills to Carp. Here is the list.
The list of performances is pretty darn similar to Jaso’s comparables, and you’ll probably notice immediately that the wRC+ for this group is actually slightly worse than it was for Jaso’s group, though both collections could both be described as essentially average hitters. There’s a bit larger of a spread in results here, though once again, results are basically driven by a player’s BABIP – Matt Kemp’s crazy good 2007 was driven by a .411, while David Ross’ disastrous 2007 was thanks to a .225 BABIP, and obviously, neither of those marks were anything close to sustainable.
In terms of Carp, his 117 wRC+ from last year was the ninth highest posted by anyone in this “family”, and his .343 BABIP was the fifth highest anyone posted. Like with Jaso, this group suggests there’s significant regression coming if the same package of skills is maintained, but unfortunately with Carp, it’s regression in the other direction.
The conclusion here is hard to avoid. If Mike Carp takes the same approach at the plate in 2012 that he did in 2011, the results are going to be worse, and probably by a good amount. It’s one thing to have a league average hitting catcher (that’s a very good thing), but it’s entirely another to have a league average hitting 1B/DH with no defensive value. If Carp regresses back to the normal production level for a hitter with his 2011 contact rate, swing rate, and power levels, he’ll essentially be a replacement level player.
Of course, Carp has shown better contact rates in prior years, and there are some guys on the list – Matt Kemp, Jay Bruce, Miguel Cabrera, and Carlos Pena aren’t bad names to be associated with, after all – who offer some hope that this kind of skillset can be improved upon. The problem is that most of those guys were a lot younger than Carp was when they showed these skills in the big leagues, and so improvement with experience and natural growth was to be expected. At 25-years-old, Carp is getting close to the point where he should be in his physical prime, so there probably isn’t a ton of room for development left.
If there’s one guy who you could point to as perhaps the blueprint for what you’d hope for from Carp, it’s probably Pena, who didn’t really break out as a big leaguer until he was 29. Of course, a significant part of his improvement can be directly tied to his decision to drastically cut down on how often he swung the bat, as he set a career low 43.1% mark in his swing rate during his monster 2007 season. If Carp is going to follow the Pena path to being a productive slugger while striking out a lot, he’s simply going to have to stop chasing so many pitches out of the strike zone, get himself in better hitter’s counts, and be willing to take more walks.
More likely, though, he pretty much is what he is, and his future looks a lot like Eric Hinske’s career. It’s possible that Carp adds a bit more patience to his game and is able to maintain the power he showed last year, which would make him a useful player. He’ll never be any kind of star with his contact problems, and we probably shouldn’t expect Carp to be more than an average-ish hitter going forward, but there are some reasons to give him additional playing time in 2012. I just don’t agree that he’s shown enough to be handed the full-time starting DH job, however, and I wouldn’t suggest that the organization go into next season with Carp in a starting role and no legitimate alternative in the organization.
As a part-time player or a guy who doesn’t have to be counted on, he’s a decent piece to have around. Given how these types of hitters have generally performed, however, the Mariners better not count on getting a repeat performance from Carp, because odds are pretty good that the 2012 version won’t be as good as the 2011 version.
Since Jaso’s value is primarily tied to how well he hits – and he didn’t hit very well last year – I decided to look and see how players with similar skillsets have fared over the last 10 years in order to give us a better understanding of what kind of results should be expected given this particular blend of abilities. To create a list of comparable player seasons, I isolated players who had shown similar skills in approach, contact rate, and power. More specifically, the list includes 34 players who had at least 250 plate appearances in a season, made contact at least 87% of the time they swung the bat, swung at 40% or fewer of the pitches they were thrown, and had an Isolated Slugging mark between .100 and .140.
This gives us 34 guys who match up with Jaso’s offensive profile very well – they’re patient hitters who lack big time power but offset some of that with an ability to put the bat on the ball with frequency. Overall, these guys compiled 16,866 plate appearances in the season in which they showed similar skills as Jaso, so we’re dealing with a pretty good sample of similar players.
Here’s the table of their performances, sorted by wRC+, which shows how far their offensive performance was above or below the league average (which is 100 by definition).
You’ll note Jaso’s 2011 is at the very bottom of the list. Because we’ve essentially controlled for approach, contact abilities, and power, the variable that drives the differences in results is almost entirely the player’s BABIP in that season. Jaso’s .244 mark is by far the worst posted by any of these players, and so naturally, his overall production comes out worse than the rest as well.
The good news? The weighted average BABIP for players showing this skillset was .306, so there’s simply no evidence that these type of hitters are prone to posting lower than average BABIPs as a group. And, while you might point out that Jaso is a slow-footed catcher who should be prone to low BABIPs due to his lack of speed, the comparable player list is peppered with the likes of similar sloths, including Joe Mauer, John Olerud, Daric Barton, Scott Hatteberg, and Mark Grace. There are some fast guys on the list who were able to inflate their BABIPs by bunting and getting infield singles, but this is certainly not just Jaso and a bunch of speed merchants – this offensive skillset is shared by fast and slow players alike.
The weighted average wRC+ of the group, by the way, was 105 – this is a selection of players that are generally slightly above average Major League hitters. The fact that we capped power production at an ISO of .140 means that there’s almost no chance of a hitter having a great offensive season – Joe Mauer’s 132 wRC+ in 2008 is the closest we come, and he’s obviously the very best version of this type of hitter in the sport – but this skillset also has a pretty high floor. Only three of the 34 player seasons resulted in a wRC+ of 90 or below, which shows how hard it is to be an offensive sinkhole when you make contact this often and don’t chase pitches out of the strike zone.
As long as Jaso is able to maintain his contact rates and the level of power he’s shown to date, history suggests that he’s going to be something close to a league average hitter going forward. His 2011 performance is the absolute floor for a player with his skills, and given some natural bounce in his BABIP, he should easily be expected to be a positive offensive contributor next year.
Jaso is exactly the kind of hitter who shows why looking at process instead of results is important. If you just focus on his slash line from last year, he looks like a bad hitter. If you dig a little deeper, however, you’ll realize that Jaso belongs to a group of players who are almost always productive at the plate, and you should expect Jaso to produce at a similar level again next year.
The M’s have made their first move of the off-season, and my initial reaction is that I love this one. They’ve traded RHP Josh Lueke and a PTBNL (or cash, indicating that it’s probably not a very important secondary player) to the Tampa Bay Rays for C John Jaso. Lueke you know about, so here’s the lowdown on Jaso.
He’s a 28-year-old left-handed catcher who worked his way up through Tampa Bay’s system despite not being a scout’s favorite. He displayed a fantastic approach at the plate (career 299/309 BB/K in 2,550 minor league plate appearances) all the way up through the minors, and used his on base skills to compensate for just average power.
After tiring of Dioner Navarro, the Rays turned their catching job over to Jaso in 2010, and he responded by having a fantastic season, hitting .263/.378/.372 in his rookie year. His terrific approach at the plate continued, as he drew 59 walks and struck out just 39 times, and while he still didn’t show a ton of power, his on base skills more than made up for it. Overall, Jaso was a +2.7 win player in 404 plate appearances, and he looked like he had established himself as the Rays primary catcher for 2011.
His follow-up effort didn’t go as well, however, as he ended up hitting just .224/.298/.354 in 273 PA in 2011. His walk rate fell and his strikeout rate increased, cutting his production in the process. However, the main cause of Jaso’s regression came from his BABIP, which dropped from .283 in 2010 to .244 last year. Among the 306 players who got 250+ PA last year, that BABIP ranked 294th, and while he could have just not hit the ball as well, it also suggests that his overall batting line is worse than it should have been, and he could be a pretty good bounce back candidate.
Overall, Jaso’s career line in the Majors is still a decent .245/.340/.365, and that’s with a .266 BABIP, so it’s not like those numbers have been inflated by balls falling in. His exceptional contact abilities and solid approach at the plate give him the ability to get on base, and while he’s not any kind of thumper, he has enough gap power to at least keep pitchers honest.
Defensively, Jaso doesn’t bring as much to the table. He’s thrown out just 22 of 113 attempted base stealers during his career (19% CS%), and his throwing arm can only be described as not great. However, he can actually catch the ball, and while he won’t shut down a running game, he’s a good enough receiver to be able to handle the position. The Mariners will have to put up with the opposing team taking second base a bit more often, but given the offensive upgrade they’ll get from having his bat in the line-up, it’s an easy trade-off to make.
The M’s essentially just acquired Miguel Olivo‘s polar opposite, which considering all of his flaws, is a really good idea. Jaso won’t even be arbitration eligible for the first time until next winter, so he’s going to make something close to the league minimum, and they also control his rights through 2015.
Even if Jaso’s actual talent level is closer to his 2011 skills than his 2010 numbers, he projects as a +1 to +2 win player, and the Mariners got him for a middle reliever with a lot of baggage. If his BABIP bounces back to 2010 levels, he could be an above average catcher, and a guy they could run out there as the starter on a regular basis.
It’s hard not to see this as a steal for the M’s. With Jaso in the fold, the M’s can run a potentially effective platoon behind the plate, and they now have a solid catching option for the future who won’t cost any money for the next few years. If the M’s can make a few more moves like this, 2012 will start to look a lot better in a hurry.
Added point: Just for fun, here’s Jaso’s career line compared with the guy who has been catching for the Phillies for the last five years. They’re almost the exact same player, and Carlos Ruiz has been a vital cog on one of the best teams in baseball. Ruiz is the template for this kind of player, and shows that this skill set can do quite well.
Dan Szymborski is rolling out his ZIPS projections for next year on a team by team basis, and today, he made the Mariners projections public. If you want optimism and hope, you’ve come to the wrong place. In fact, the system believes that there are three people currently in the organization that will be at least average Major League hitters next year – Dustin Ackley (.261/.348/.410), Mike Carp (.252/.317/.414), and Vinny Catricala (.259/.321/.401).
In fact, the system is extremely bearish on most of the guys that the team is counting on improvements from in 2012. It thinks Justin Smoak is going to get worse (.231/.326/.376, 95 OPS+), Ichiro is going to be nearly as bad as he was last year (.278/.317/.354, 87 OPS+), Franklin Gutierrez will still suck (.248/.299/.358, 82 OPS+), and that of the young kids who got their feet wet last year, only Kyle Seager (.267/.323/.372, 93 OPS+) is worthy of any kind of playing time.
Honestly, if you take these projections at face value, this is a 100 loss team. Basically, ZIPS thinks that Dustin Ackley is the only position player who is likely to be an above average player, and while it loves Felix (131 ERA+) and likes Pineda (112 ERA+), it’s not a huge fan of the rest of the pitching staff either.
Like any projection system, ZIPS isn’t perfect, but it has historically done as well as any projection system out there in forecasting future performance. In this case, the Mariners simply have to hope it’s missing the mark on most of it’s young position players, because if these guys perform as badly as the system projects, 2012 will be a miserable year that ends with everyone getting fired.
That said, this is a roster full of players with limited Major League experience, and the error bars on projections for young guys is quite a bit wider than with veterans. If these projections were based on thousands of Major League plate appearances, you could essentially bet that the 2012 Mariners will be a miserable failure. Projecting guys like Ackley, Smoak, Seager, Wells, and Carp is less certain, and these guys have a better chance of besting these numbers than a veteran with similar projections.
If you want a reason to not buy into these projections, you could argue that the lack of Major League experience for most of the position players makes these less reliable, and you’d have a decent case. Still, the fact that the projections are almost unanimously negative mean that the Mariners need the system to be nearly completely broken when it comes to their young players, or else this is still pretty bad news.
Over the past 10 years, the Mariners have had one major competitive advantage over almost every other team in baseball – their international scouting department. Led by Bob Engle, the group has covered the globe looking for young talent, and created a pipeline of prospects that have fed into the system on an annual basis. The Mariners are consistently one of the most aggressive teams in pursuing top amateur talent from other countries, and they’ve invested heavily in international infrastructure that allows them to reap the rewards of signing quality young players.
Well, the new CBA just eliminated most of those advantages. According to Jeff Passan, each Major League team will now be allowed to spend $2.9 million total on international free agents next year – less than what many top prospects have been signing for by themselves – and then in future years, a team’s total international budget will be determined based on their Major League win-loss record. If the organization begins to win at the Major League level, they’ll have even less to spend on international talent going forward.
Major League Baseball essentially just eliminated the value of international scouting. By drastically depressing bonuses and taking away teams ability to invest in amateur talent, the most talented players are now simply going to be weighing similar offers from every team.
This is an absolutely awful decision by Major League Baseball, as they’ve decided to prioritize the lowering of total costs over the ability for teams to compete through different player acquisition strategies. The Mariners just lost one of their best assets, and now are going to have to come up with some way to offset their loss of a low-cost talent pipeline established through years of hard work.
Congratulations, MLB, you just screwed over teams who had worked extremely hard to find alternate ways to win beyond “spend on free agents”. The new rules are so awful that the only way they would make any sense was if they were written by a Steinbrenner.
In 2007, I went to the Netherlands, and I found myself with a day to waste between trips to Schiphol airport. My wife asked me what we were going to do for 10 hours or so, and without hesitation, I said: “We’re going to Haarlem.” When she asked why, I blurted out something about a Mariners prospect who was from the town, and how he’d come back from a broken hand and was having a great year for short-season Everett, and somewhere in the middle of it, I realized how silly it sounded. “What do you expect to see there? Random baseball games breaking out in the streets?” she asked incredulously. “No, no, I don’t know. It’ll just….it’ll be fun. It’ll make sense when we get there.”
He showed up in Tacoma at a meet and greet with fans and the media in April 2010 in a suit that looked like it came from Miami Vice’s costume department. The Rainiers were unveiling a new logo, but many of the press questions focused on the team’s new uber-talented but mercurial center fielder. Alonzo Powell talked about working with Halman on his approach, how willing to listen and learn he was, and about his prodigious natural talents. In his first game at Cheney, he looked foolish against Jhoulys Chacin for a few ABs, but made a great play in the field. Then, when he made real contact (I think it may have been against his future teammate Chaz Roe) – the bat sounded unnaturally loud, like an over-the-top Hollywood special effect. In April, he looked exactly like you might expect, given his scouting report: like a collection of amazing tools that hadn’t quite coalesced into a great player. He had an up-and-down year, but he showed enough freakish ability that I knew he’d have some sort of MLB career. He wanted it so much (the contrast with the incumbent M’s LF at the time, Milton Bradley, couldn’t have been starker), he had speed, power, defense… yes, his K:BB was bad, but he’d have a week here and there where he’d hit 4-5 HRs with another 4 2Bs. The A’s drafted Michael Choice, George Springer was racking up HRs (and whiffs) in college – who cared about strikeouts? Seriously, just LOOK at this kid. It’ll make sense.
This morning, I woke up to see the photos on Geoff Baker’s blog of Halman smiling and talking with kids in the Czech Republic. All day, I’ve been thinking about what Halman meant to these kids, a guy who grew up in the baseball backwater of Europe who’d made it to the Major Leagues. I imagine he told them how hard he worked to be where he was, and about always getting advice from coaches and teammates. I like to think that he learned something about how to approach the game, and about preparation, from Ichiro – and that he passed along this wisdom to the Czech youth earlier this month. The scene seems completely surreal to me – a young Dutchman, trying to impart the synthesis of Ken Griffey Jr (thesis) and Ichiro (antithesis) to Czech teenagers. Here was a guy just like them who, having fought the curveball to a draw, got to play with his hero, and got to learn from this crazy, monomaniacal Japanese guy who seemingly never struck out. Somehow, I think it must’ve made sense.
My heart goes out to Halman’s parents. I can’t imagine anything about this situation will ever make sense to them, or to any of us. We’ll miss you, Greg.
Terrible news to wake up to this morning – Greg Halman was murdered last night. Even with my own bout with mortality, this isn’t the kind of thing I know how to write about. A 24-year-old killed, and apparently by his own brother? Just horrible.
My thoughts and prayers are with the Halman family.
This probably doesn’t deserve a response, honestly, but for whatever reason, I can’t resist picking this low hanging fruit.
Years from now, if somebody can be bothered, they might write a treatise on how a franchise like the Mariners — flush with enough cash to fund payrolls in the game’s top tier for several years — could remain so mediocre for so long.
And if they get around to it, they might try reading some of the arguments against bringing in top players that permeate the Mariners blogosphere.
The rest of the piece – drivel is too strong of a word, but the right word is probably at least in that family – is your garden variety “those nerds don’t really want to win” argument. Good teams “man up” and “do what it takes” and “scratch their nuts” and all that crap. It’s bad baseball philosophy mixed with Type A machoism, and facts will not get in its way.
Over here, we deal in facts. So, let’s just set the record straight and tell whatever aspiring author is thinking about writing a book about why the Mariners have been mediocre for so long that the subject doesn’t need a book. In fact, it doesn’t even need an overly long blog post. You want to know why the Mariners have been bad for most of the last decade? It’s really easy.
November 7th, 2003 – The Seattle Mariners hired Bill Bavasi as General Manager.
November 15th, 2004 – The Seattle Mariners signed Richie Sexson to a 4 year, $50 million contract.
December 22nd, 2005 – The Seattle Mariners signed Jarrod Washburn to a 4 year, $37 million contract.
December 20th, 2007 – The Seattle Mariners signed Carlos Silva to a four year, $48 million contract.
For the sake of brevity, we’re skipping over other winning decisions such as signing Scott Spiezio to be the third baseman in 2004, deciding on Carl Everett to serve as the team’s DH in 2006, or bringing in Jeff Weaver to fix the rotation in 2007. These aren’t all the disastrous decisions that were made during Bavasi’s time at the helm, but they get the point across well enough.
From the winter of 2003 until the end of the 2008 season, the Mariners were the worst run baseball operations department in the sport. They did stupid thing on top of stupid thing, often justifying these bewildering moves with reasons like “he’s a clutch hitter” or “we think he’s a winner.” Talented young players were shipped off to succeed elsewhere, while the team threw money at “proven veterans” who were simply overrated by a group of people who were evaluating players the way it was done in the 1980s.
It had nothing to do with settling for mediocrity or accepting defeat. The Mariners tried to win, but they just sucked at it because the people in charge were unable to identify good players from bad ones. They threw money at free agents to try and cover up for the fact that they didn’t have enough homegrown talent on hand, often because they’d already traded away a kid who turned out to be exactly what they needed down the line. The rosters consisted of overrated, overpaid, and just downright crappy players who had jobs simply because they had experience and some athleticism.
The Mariners failures over the last 10 years have absolutely nothing to do with desire to win, commitment to doing what it takes, or any other emotional appeal that people who don’t understand how to construct winning baseball teams like to try and sell to the masses. The Mariners have spent a long time losing baseball games because they hired a bad General Manager and watched him systematically dismantle the overall organizational talent level. They lost because they thought it would be a good idea to spend big on aging mediocre talents and bet the farm on a high risk pitcher with significant red flags. They lost because they traded away good young talent for bad old talent in an effort to win in the present, and because the front office simply didn’t understand how to build a baseball team in the modern era.
The only book necessary on the failures of the Mariners over the last 10 years is a transaction log. Simply trying to paint it any other way is revisionist history, and in this case, it’s just agenda-pushing revisionist history. I guess when the facts are against you, make emotional appeals.
Don’t buy into any of that crap. Good teams win because they understand how to value player contributions on the field and figure out how to build a roster full of players who can produce beyond what they cost. Bad teams do things like sign a big name free agent to prove that they want to win to their fan bases and beat writers.
This afternoon, Ryan Doumit – part of my Off-season Plan B – signed a one year, $3 million deal with the Twins. First off, I wouldn’t suggest losing much sleep over this, as Doumit was more of an example of a low cost, average-to-just-above average hitter who could bat from the left side and share some time at 1B/LF/DH with Smoak, Carp, and Wells. It’s not that Doumit is any kind of great player or that not signing him was a big miss by the team – there are a decent amount of guys out there with a similar skillset that the team could pursue. So, there’s no reason to be all that upset that he signed with the Twins – he could have been a decent fit here, but he’s not the only option from that pool of players.
But, since he did sign for $3 million, I figured I’d use him as a stand-in to make one last point about the relative value of signing Fielder versus pursuing a more balanced approach to this winter.
If you look at the career offensive numbers for Doumit and Fielder side by side, you’ll see that Fielder has posted a wOBA of .391 compared to Doumit’s .336 mark. Because of how wOBA was designed, converting it to runs per plate appearance is actually quite easy (it’s just ((.391-.336)/1.2), which shows us that Fielder’s career offensive advantage has been worth an additional .045 runs per trip to the plate. Multiplied out over a full-season (600 PA), the gap is 27.5 runs – this is essentially how many more runs you’d expect Fielder to produce at the plate than Doumit given the same number of opportunities.
Now, you could argue that career numbers understate the difference a bit since Fielder is three years younger and has been substantially better recently than he was earlier in his career, but it’s even adjusting for age, the gap isn’t going to be more than about 30-35 runs over 600 plate appearances. Over the course of a year, a team will gain one win for about every 10 runs they add, so the offensive difference is between +3 and +3.5 wins.
Now, Doumit signed for $3 million plus incentives, but it’s fair to assume that he’ll hit every trigger in the contract if he actually gets 600 PA next year. So, let’s assume he negotiated in $2 million worth of incentives, and say his expected contract for 2012 is $5 million if he stays healthy and plays everyday. If his injuries limited him to less playing time, you’d have to weight the difference in expected performance by shifting some of those PA to a guy like Casper Wells, but you’d also save on the incentives not kicking in, so the two outcomes are pretty close to a wash – we’ll just compare using a healthy Doumit for ease of math, but realize that an injured/cheaper Doumit (with playing time being distributed elsewhere) isn’t that much worse of an option, really.
If Fielder signs for something in the $25 million per year range, that means that the marginal cost of adding Fielder just in 2012 salary (and not accounting for the extra risk associated with a long term contract) is $20 million, or right around $6-$7 million per extra win added. Besides the Yankees, there’s not a team in baseball that can afford to use a significant part of their budget to pay $6 to $7 million per marginal win.
Doumit wasn’t any kind of savior, but his contract shows exactly why the team can do better by pursuing value at the lower end of the talent spectrum than they can by throwing money at Fielder. Not just in terms of long term risk, but in making the 2012 team better. If Fielder is only +3 to +4 wins better than guys who you could get for $5 million or less, then it just wouldn’t be hard to come up with two or three players that would provide equal value to acquiring just Fielder by himself.
Once you factor in the long term risk, the risk/reward scales tip far in favor of the spread-it-around theory. Fielder just doesn’t provide anywhere near enough value over what the team could get by signing a Doumit-type of player and upgrading other places on the roster as well to justify the risks associated with giving him a huge contract.
During yesterday’s radio spot with Brock and Salk, Mike brought up the team’s lagging attendance as a point in favor of splurging on a star player like Fielder who could serve as a gate attraction. After all, the team’s revenues are tied to how many people they can get to the park on a nightly basis, and the organization can’t continue to lose fans at the rate they have been over the past few years. If bringing in a star player could actually have a substantial effect on attendance, there’s a case to be made that a guy like Fielder could pay his own freight in some ways, and reduce the overall total cost of acquiring him to begin with.
So, just because I’m curious and like evidence, I decided to look at the attendance of teams from one year to the next after they imported a star player – one with enough cache that you would think that fans would be incentivized to come to the park to see the new guy. Not all situations are the same, of course, and some acquisitions don’t really help answer the question we’re asking, as teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, and Cubs aren’t likely to see attendance boosts from star players because they’re already near their peak attendance levels to begin with. So, let’s focus just on situations where the fan base could use a shot in the arm, and where the park or the history wasn’t enough to draw fans itself.
2011: Washington Nationals sign Jayson Werth.
2010 attendance: 1.83 million
2011 attendance: 1.94 million
Net Gain: +110,000
2008: Detroit Tigers acquire Miguel Cabrera from Florida.
2007 attendance: 3.07 million
2008 attendance: 3.20 million
Net Gain: +130,000
2007: San Francisco Giants sign Barry Zito.
2006 attendance: 3.13 million
2007 attendance: 3.22 million
Net Gain: +90,000
2007: Houston Astros sign Carlos Lee.
2006 attendance: 3.02 million
2007 attendance: 3.02 million
Net Gain: +0
2001: Colorado Rockies sign Mike Hampton.
2000 attendance: 3.29 million
2001 attendance: 3.17 million
Net Gain: -122,000
2001: Texas Rangers sign Alex Rodriguez.
2000 attendance: 2.59 million
2001 attendance: 2.83 million
Net Gain: +240,000
2000: Cincinnati Reds acquire Ken Griffey Jr.
1999 attendance: 2.06 million
2000 attendance: 2.58 million
Net Gain: +522,000
There’s seven examples of mid-market teams making big financial outlays (in each case, the player signed $100+ million contract, even the ones getting acquired by trade) and seeing a rather mixed bag in terms of attendance increase.
The Reds got the biggest boost after acquiring Junior, but that was basically the perfect storm of a situation – he was a local hero whose Dad had starred for the franchise, and was the most marketable baseball player on the planet at the time. Perhaps no team could ever pitch their fans a more attractive acquisition than Griffey “coming home” to play in Cincinnati and follow in his father’s footsteps. The pitch worked, and they drew an additional half million fans in his first year with the Reds.
It’s worth noting, however, that the burst was extremely short lived. The Reds won 85 games in Griffey’s first year, but the fans didn’t stick around in 2001, and their attendance dropped back to 1.88 million, lower than it was the year before they acquired him.
The other big splash was the A-Rod contract, as the Rangers gave him the largest deal of any athlete in the sport’s history, and Tom Hicks sold the signing as the beginning of a new era in Texas baseball. They got about half the spike of what the Reds got, but still saw a pretty decent increase in Rodriguez’s first year with the team. However, just like with Junior, the shine quickly wore off once the fans realized the team still wasn’t very good. In Rodriguez’s second year with the Rangers, attendance shrunk back to 2.35 million – once again, a number lower than what the team drew in their final year before signing him.
The other acquisitions were followed by much smaller attendance gains to begin with. The Tigers got 100,000 extra fans in the year after they acquired Miguel Cabrera, but the story was the same there, as the team was still lousy and they saw a massive drop in attendance (-700,000 fans) in year two. The economy in Detroit is obviously a complicating factor, but it’s worth noting that the Tigers got a +500,000 fan boost in attendance last year compared to 2010, which coincides with the team actually being good again. There are clearly people in Detroit willing to spend money to watch baseball, but they weren’t willing to pay that money to watch Miguel Cabrera play on a losing team. They were willing to pay money to watch the Tigers play once they got good again, however.
Werth and Zito’s arrivals coincided with small attendance spikes (though Zito’s first year in SF was also the year Barry Bonds became the all-time HR champ, so how much of the spike was due to Zito is debatable), but nothing of the sort that would justify those contracts. Houston and Colorado saw no attendance benefit after bringing in Hampton and Lee, and of course, those contracts have been disasters as well.
Overall, the story over the last decade is pretty clear – when a mid-market team “shows that they’re serious about winning” by throwing a lot of money at a marquee free agent, it is usually followed by a small attendance boost in the first year of the deal. If the team doesn’t actually win in that first year, however, those fans flee very quickly, and the bad will fostered by a huge contract gone bad may actually have a negative effect on attendance.
These results jive with just about every study ever done on the effects of what drive attendance to Major League ballparks. Fans come to see winning teams, not individual players. If the Mariners want to get fans back in Safeco Field, the formula is easy – put a winning team on the field. Trying to buy yourself out of declining attendance by throwing money at one big name free agent just doesn’t work.