– Bill Annechino
News broke on Tuesday that the Mets had reached a deal to bring Yoenis Cespedes back. The details of this contract are four years and $110 million. The more mathematically-inclined readers will point out that this is an average of $27.5 million dollars per season. If that sounds like a lot, it’s because it is: This represents the second-highest annual average guarantee for a position player, ever. So, the question on everyone’s mind is: Is this a good deal? Let’s find out.
First, let’s look at some other notable high-annual value deals. Since Cespedes represents the second-highest annual salary for a position player ever, it makes sense to start with the player who is number one on that list, right? To do this, we go to Detroit and their future Hall of Fame first baseman, Miguel Cabrera. Cabrera signed an eight year, $248 million contract (average salary of $31 million) in the 2015 offseason, making 2016 the first year of his deal. Per Fangraphs, Cabrera tallied 4.9 wins above replacement (fWAR) last season. This is a fine season, but it would be a lot more useful if there was a genius statistical site that has somehow quantified the monetary value of a win. Luckily for us, there is.
FiveThirtyEight.com is well-known for their prodigious use of statistics to explain everything from the likely outcome of a presidential election (better luck next time, guys! #MAGA) to quantifying sports data. One of the pieces of sports information they quantified was the value of a win in terms of money. The full article can be found here, but the gist of it is that a win is worth about $7.7 million. The most obvious conclusion to be drawn from this is that the clear majority of superstar baseball players are underpaid. The narrative surrounding Cabrera’s contract was that there was no way he could possibly provide a fair return on it by the end of the deal. In 2016, we already know that Cabrera was worth 4.9 fWAR. Using the FiveThirtyEight figure, we can determine that Miguel Cabrera’s 2016 season was worth $37.73 million dollars, or nearly seven million more than he was paid.
To illustrate this concept of value even further, consider the case of Noah Syndergaard. Syndergaard was my pick for the runner-up in the National League Cy Young voting, and undoubtedly one of the best pitchers in baseball. Per Fangraphs, he led all pitchers with 6.5 fWAR last season. Using our calculation, we can determine that this season was worth $50.05 million. The ridiculous part of this equation is that, as a player still on his rookie contract, Syndergaard made $535,375 last season. I’ll do the math for you here and let you know that this means Syndergaard was paid about 93 times less than what he was worth. That isn’t a typo, either: Noah Syndergaard is 93 times more valuable than his annual contract. With our new understanding of value, we can evaluate whether Cespedes’s deal is worth it for the Mets.
In 2016, Yoenis Cespedes was worth 3.2 fWAR in an injury-riddled season. In 2015, at full strength, Cespedes tallied 6.7 fWAR. For argument’s sake, let’s split the difference and say that the “true” Cespedes is about a five fWAR player. At five fWAR, Cespedes would be worth about $38.5 million per season. In fact, he was worth about $25 million last season when he was diminished by injury. Based on these figures, I think it is safe to say that Cespedes is well worth the money that New York is going to be paying him. All Cespedes needs to do is post better than 3.5 fWAR to return more than $27.5 million in real-world value per season. I think that New York made a smart decision to return their most dangerous hitter, and they did so at a price and contract length that makes a ton of sense for both sides.
Continuing our theme of value, I turn my attention to the NFL. This is about the time of the year when you start to hear MVP discussions get serious in the NFL. The end of the regular season is in sight, and every decision a team makes is framed with the all-important “playoff implications”. The NFL, by design, is the most high-variable sport. You knew this already, and you probably know that it’s mostly due to its season being 16 games, or 20% of the NHL and NBA season and a measly 10% of the MLB season. Baseball is the sport where advanced stats reign supreme: Elite position players can notch upwards of 700 plate appearances, with top-end starting pitchers facing over 900 hitters. The NBA also lends itself to advanced statistics, although theirs are more reliant on player tracking data and the insane number of variable situations that can occur during a five-on-five sport where each team averages around 100 possessions per game. Using an innovative camera system, the NBA now possesses data that describes essentially everything a player does on the basketball court, where he does it, who is guarding him, and any other variable that you can think of. Hockey has advanced stats, but they’re even more in the infancy stages than basketball.
Essentially, team sports can be broken down into two categories: Rigid and fluid, which I just came up with. Fluid team sports are basketball, soccer, hockey and other sports in which players shift from offense to defense immediately. The rigid sports are baseball and football, where a team is either playing offense or defense at any given moment, and a significant event must occur to change this status. So, advanced statistics are the quantification of variable situations. To gain accuracy, we try to establish the most number of variables. In fluid sports, we do that by using cameras and player tracking to plot exactly where and when a situation occurs. In the rigid sport of baseball, we will inevitably have a huge sample size of statistics to draw our conclusions from. Football doesn’t exactly follow such a model. The beauty of the game is the magnification of individual events and the high degree of variance caused by a limited sample size. Unfortunately, this beauty doesn’t translate to advanced statistics, where we are greatly limited by the lack of variables. We have already made strides in advanced statistics; Football Outsiders uses a statistic called Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) and Defense-Adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR), explanations of which can be found here.
Ultimately, for the NFL, the definition of “Most Valuable” can be seen in several lights. One way is to pick the best player on the best team; typically, the quarterback. Another method would be to pick the player whose absence you feel would affect their team the most adversely. A third definition would be to pick the absolute best player in the league, regardless of how good their team is (think Adrian Peterson in 2012). A final definition is a player who is the best at his position to such a degree that it makes up for any other external factors. I’m not sure which of these ways is the “right” method, but let’s cover all four of them.
The best player on the best team would be Dak Prescott. Let’s agree that Ezekiel Elliott is a phenomenal talent, but the Dallas offensive line paved the way for more than 1,800 yards for DeMarco Murray two years ago and made Darren McFadden look like a star-level running back last season, so I’m sure you will agree with me when I say that a good deal of Elliott’s success is owed to that line. You might pick the Dallas offensive line as an MVP, and there’s certainly a case to be made for them, but I want to bring your attention back to last season. I’m sure you’ve heard some of your unintelligent NFL-fan friends say something to the effect of “anyone could be having the season Prescott is having behind THAT line”. Well, really? Last season, the Cowboys rolled out seven games of Matt Cassel, four games of Tony Romo, three games of Brandon Weeden, and two of Kellen Moore. That combination is about as close to the metaphorical “anyone” that could be playing behind the Dallas offensive line. You may also remember that those quarterbacks did not combine to have anywhere near the season Prescott is having. Consider that, per Pro-Football-Reference, Dak is averaging 8.3 yards per attempt, completing 67.9% of his passes, has thrown 18 touchdowns against two interceptions, and has posted a QBR of 82.8. This isn’t just the best rookie season ever for a quarterback; it’s a legitimate MVP-caliber season. I’m just not sure that it’s good enough to beat these other two guys.
The player whose absence would most adversely affect his team is Derek Carr. You don’t understand how badly I wanted to put Drew Brees in this slot (and Matt Ryan, for that matter), but it must be Carr. The Raiders are pulling out close game after close game and, if you watched this weekend’s game, you know that it was a harrowing moment for Oakland when Carr briefly left the game with what looked like a dislocated finger. Fortunately for the Raiders (and all of us, really), Carr returned and led his team to yet another close victory. The biggest reason for Oakland being 9-2 is Carr taking a leap this season and joining the ranks of the league’s elite passers. I’m not sure what the Raiders would look like with Matt McGloin, but I know that they sure as hell wouldn’t be 9-2.
When it comes down to the title of the league’s best player, there are two names that come to mind. One should be Aaron Donald, who is rated as a 95.7 by ProFootballFocus, and the best player in the NFL. The other is a guy by the name of Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr., who ProFootballFocus has as a 95.1, and the second-best player in the NFL. If you’re still reading, please indulge me and admit that the position of quarterback is slightly more difficult than that of defensive tackle, or at least more difficult to the point that it can excuse the .6 gap in player rating. What Brady has been doing this season is significant enough that he has most of the talking heads saying that he is the league’s MVP, which is insane because Brady missed the first four games of the season with a suspension (did you hear about this?). I feel bad for Donald because his dominance is so great that he should, at the very least, receive MVP votes. Unfortunately, there’s a little bit of a difference between being a defensive tackle on a 4-7 team and a quarterback on a 9-2 team. If you want to knock Brady here because the Patriots went 3-1 without him, then I can’t talk you out of it. Brady is my pick for the MVP, but if those first four games are a big deal to you, then you should probably have Donald as yours. Those are the traditional picks; my last possibility is a bit of a stretch, but I think it makes sense.
The fourth choice I mentioned is that there could be a player who is outperforming the rest of his position by such a degree that he must be considered for the MVP award. The players mentioned above are all fantastic, but they aren’t blowing out the rest of the guys at their position. There is, however, someone who is: Justin Tucker. Unless you have an in-depth knowledge of NFL history, you probably think this is unprecedented and stupid of me to suggest. I would counter that by telling you that a kicker has won the MVP award before (Mark Moseley, in a strike-shortened 1982 season). Tucker is a perfect 27 for 27 on field goals this season and, on Sunday, he set a record by making three field goals of 50-yards or greater. No other kicker is hitting on more than 93.7% of their kicks, and that kicker (San Francisco’s Phil Dawson) is closer to the tenth-ranked kicker than he is to Tucker. I would consider that to be a level of dominance that bears mention in the MVP vote. In 2016, a kicker will never win the Most Valuable Player award; the system is rigged for quarterbacks. However, the road map to upsetting a quarterback for the MVP is to put together a truly historic season, and Tucker is well on his way.
It has already been called an upset for the ages. If you asked ten of your buddies which football game on Sunday had the most implications, I would assume that most of them would have told you it was the AFC West showdown on Sunday night. They would be wrong, because there was a championship football game played on Sunday. And boy, did that championship game have it all. There was an underdog, playing for their first championship after a below .500 season. On the other side was a formidable foe; a team looking to win their eighth title after finishing the regular season as the best team in the sport. It took overtime to settle it but, in the end, the Ottawa Redblacks beat the Calgary Stampeders 39-33 to win the 104th Grey Cup.
Please note that you can read Bruce Arthur’s fantastic recap of the game for the Toronto Star here.
Calgary came into this game as the clear favorite. They were sporting the league’s MOP (they call it the Most Outstanding Player, which I wish we would do to settle the “what does valuable mean?” argument), a quarterback by the name of Bo Levi Mitchell who looks every bit as awesome as the name would suggest. He played his college ball at Eastern Washington, went undrafted in the 2012 NFL Draft and took his talents to Canada. I’d say it’s worked out well for him, although you never know when he might get the itch to come back down to the States and give it another shot. We’ve seen CFL players have success in the NFL before, most notably Cameron Wake. Mitchell is a good story, but it doesn’t beat the guy on the other side of the field.
Henry Burris is a 41-year old quarterback. He’s a seasoned CFL vet, with a back-and-forth journey. Like many CFL players, Burris is from the United States. He played college football at Temple, and left for the CFL after college. He debuted for the Stampeders in 1997 and promptly won his first Grey Cup in 1998, including the game MVP honors. After a brief layover in Saskatchewan in 2000, Burris found his way to the NFL as a member of the Packers’ practice squad in 2001. He made the Bears’ roster in 2002, but found himself playing in the now-defunct NFL Europe, for the Berlin Thunder, in 2003. He left for the CFL in that same 2003 season, and bounced around the CFL (including a second Grey Cup win for Calgary in 2008), before finding a home in Ottawa in 2014.
I won’t go into all the details, instead referring you back to the Toronto Star article that I linked to at the beginning of this article. Read through that all again, though. This game had it all: A David/Goliath subtext, an underdog featuring an aging gunslinger going out looking for one last ring against the young upstart who had recently taken home the league MVP award (sounds almost like the Peyton Manning/Cam Newton narrative from February, doesn’t it?), a thrilling game that was filled with twists and turns, and it even went into overtime!
My point in referencing this game and the narratives involved is that I know this was a game that flew under the radar for 95% of sports fans in America. I’m personally always telling people to broaden their horizons, and I don’t think that there is much stopping anyone from finding out about the Grey Cup being played or anything similar. There are many people in this country who already follow the English Premiere League soccer matches (and probably, to a lesser extent, a few other European soccer leagues), so I know the idea isn’t crazy. I like to think of myself as a teacher of sorts while I write these columns; my hope is that you learn something every time you read one of my rambling pieces. Continuing my persona as a teacher, I would love to assign my class the homework of picking a foreign sports league and following it. You don’t have to become totally immersed, but go online, read a few stories, pick a team, and follow their games and scores. My suspicion is that, as an American sports fan, you enjoy the narratives surrounding players, teams, coaches, and games just as much as you enjoy the actual gameplay. Why limit your exposure of these to the leagues that play within your own country? If you didn’t watch the Grey Cup, it isn’t something that’s going to affect the rest of your life. You did, however, miss a great football game that was played with some very compelling narratives.
– Bill Annechino (Twitter)