Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Is Barry Zito the Biggest Contract Bust of All Time?

After putting up my post on Barry Zito being left of the Giants' World Series roster, I started thinking.  Is Barry Zito the biggest contract bust of all time?  There have been a lot of contracts signed over the past twenty years (particularly during the 2000-2001 offseason), but rarely has a player with such a high salary been purposely omitted from a postseason roster.  In fact, it's so rare, I can't think of a any other instance.

Being the inquisitive guy that I am, I decided to do a little research to see who was the owner of the all time worst contract.  For this exercise, Barry Zito will be our player of comparison.  Since he's only completed four years of his 7 year $126M contract, I've decided that it's only fair to compare Zito to other players through the first four years of the contract in question.*  As a result, contracts that lasted shorter than four seasons were not included in this sample.  To determine the worst contracts, I researched fifteen contracts that were considered to be epically bad, and analyzed each player's performance versus salary earned.  The metric I used to make my final determination was Salary Dollars per Wins Above Replacement ($/WAR).

*  Now, I should say that I don't believe in judging any contract (no matter how good or bad it might look at the time) until the contract expires.   Too  many things can change from year-to-year that can make a generalized judgment on a contract look foolish.  For example, after the 2007 season, all statistical and anecdotal measures made the J.D. Drew contract look like a total bust.  After the 2010 season, the contract appears to be dead on.

One of the strangest things I noticed in researching this subject was that the contract that was widely considered to be the worst of all time (Mike Hampton's 8 year $121M deal with Colorado) actually wasn't even close.  It wouldn't even be in the top ten of my list.  (Again, I'm only looking at the first four years of the contract).  Without further adieu, here's my list:

15.  Jason Giambi - 7 year $120M contract; 17.5 WAR; $2.72M/WAR.  Giambi gets a bad rap for this contract because he was a highly visible player on the most visible team in baseball.  Oh yeah, and he "admitted" to using steroids part way through the contract.  Steroids or not, Giambi was a productive player throughout his deal.  He put up an MVP quality season in 2002, and three All-Star quality seasons in 2003, 2005, and 2006.  If he hadn't missed most of 2004 due to a strange pituitary gland issue, he probably wouldn't even be on this list.

14.  Kevin Brown - 7 year $105M contract; 16.1 WAR; $3.59M/WAR.  Kevin Brown is such an easy target because he cashed in on his big contract at the age of 32.  There was no way he could've ever lived up to this contract, yet somehow managed to put up three Cy Young quality (6.0+ WAR) seasons over the course of his tenure in Hollywood.  Brown gets slammed for two injury riddled seasons in L.A. combined with two average to forgettable seasons with the Yankees.  While Brown may not have been the most efficient (or smartest) signing, he provided enough big seasons to make it acceptable.

13.  Mike Hampton - 8 year $121M contract; 9.4 WAR; $5.13M/WAR.  Mike Hampton was doomed from the start.  Never blessed with tremendous control, Hampton signed with the Colorado Rockies at the height of the offensive era.  After a solid start in 2001, it all went down hill from there.  After a classic Leo Mazzone reclamation project, injuries derailed his career (making only 25 starts between 2005-2008).  This contract is frequently considered to be the worst all time.  Trust me when I say this...there are far worse.

12.  Juan Pierre - 5 year $45M contract; 6.1 WAR; $5.33M/WAR.  You mean players that have little on-base abilities, no power, and poor defensive skills at a defensive position shouldn't be signed to big, multi-year contracts?  This one went so poorly for the Dodgers that they started to find a way to bury him on the bench in year two of the deal.

11.  Denny Neagle - 5 year $55M contract; 4.7 WAR; $6.85M/WAR.  Ah, yes.  Mike Hampton's partner in highway robbery.  Neagle was never quite as good as Hampton, but his performance under Leo Mazzone in Atlanta had propped up his reputation.  As a result, Neagle, an above average pitcher, signed a big deal with the Rockies to be their number two starter.  Unlike with Hampton, Neagle got off to a horrible start, and never got better.  Injuries hit him hard in year three of the contract.  He never threw another pitch after 2003.

10.  Carl Pavano - 4 year $38M contract; 4.8 WAR; $7.92M/WAR.  It should be noted that 3.7 of  Pavano's 4.8 WAR was accumulated in 2009 when he was with the Twins and Indians--not the Yankees.  Yet another pitcher that was perpetually injured.  Starting to see a pattern?

9.  Barry Zito - 7 year $126M contract; 7.4 WAR; $8.31M/WAR.  His contract was a mistake from the start.  Everyone seemed to know it except Brian Sabean.  Zito had been living off his undeserved 2002 Cy Young Award for years.  Zito was a league average pitcher worthy of an $8M contract.  Instead, because of his age, handedness, and pedigree (and Sabean's stupidity), Zito got a monster deal, he'll never live up to.

8.  Mo Vaughn - 6 year $80M contract; 4.4 WAR; $9.95M/WAR.  Mo Vaughn is the quintessential poster child for why you can't trust players with "old man skills" once they turn 30.  Vaughn's career crashed and burned after leaving Beantowne.  Perhaps it was because of steroids.  Perhaps not.  There wasn't testing back then, so we'll never know.  I'm not going to speculate.  His bat speed disappeared.  His batting eye declined.  His defense went from awful to atrocious. 

7.  Albert Belle - 5 year $65M contract; 4.7 WAR; $10.47M/WAR.  Belle was great offensively in his first season as an Oriole (.404 wOBA), but a back injury derailed his career in late 2000.  After two seasons with the O's, his career was over.  This contract has wreaked havoc on the organization ever since.  They haven't had a winning season since before he signed the contract.  That was 13 seasons ago.

6.  Chan Ho Park - 5 year $65M contract; 3.8 WAR; $12.87M/WAR.  Chan Ho Park went from the soft, cushy, pitcher friendly confines of Dodger Stadium, and took his talents to the pinball machine known as the Ballpark at Arlington.  Yeah, that was a smart choice.  Between injuries and awful performance, Park had fallen out of favor by the All-Star break of his first season in Texas.

5.  Darren Dreifort - 5 year $55M contract; 2.6 WAR; $16.77M/WAR.  This has to be one of the least deserved contracts of all time.  Early in his pro career, Dreifort underwent Tommy John surgery, which set back his career a little.  When he returned, he was always decent, but he didn't live up to the promise he flashed every so often.  In hopes of not losing him, the Dodgers (noticing a pattern here?) grossly overpaid for him to return.  What did they get in return?  An inconsistent pitcher with serious shoulder issues.  All in all, they got 16 starts and 60 relief appearances.  Hardly money well spent.

4.  Bobby Higginson - 4 year $36M contract; 1.9 WAR; $18.74M/WAR.   He was a good player, but the Tigers grossly overestimated his abilities based on his ability to drive in runs.  Signing a contract to player with high RBI totals and nothing else is a bad idea.  Driving in runs, contrary to popular belief is NOT a repeatable skill.  The Tigers didn't know this.  The last season of his contract, not so coincidentally, expired after one of the all time terrible seasons--a 43-119 record for the Tigers.

3.  Julio Lugo - 4 year $36M contract; 0.4 WAR; $90.0M/WAR.  The bane of my existence.  Lugo was the fourth shortstop for the Red Sox in four years, and he was easily the worst--and most costly.  He exhibited absolutely none of the characteristics he'd shown prior to signing with the Sox.  He had no plate discipline, no power, and no defensive abilities.  He was absolutely brutal.

2.  Russ Ortiz - 4 years $32M contract; -0.6 WAR; Negative Value.  Another Leo Mazzone reclamation project that turned bad (very bad) once he left Atlanta.  Like with Hampton, Ortiz was blessed neither with the ability to avoid walks, nor long balls.  So taking his skills to Arizona was a bad idea.  The D'Backs eventually ended up releasing Ortiz and eating most of his contract.  Smart move.  A smarter move would've been avoiding Ortiz entirely.

1.  Gary Matthews Jr.  - 5 years $50M contract; -1.1 WAR; Negative Value.  Do you want to talk about undeserved contracts?  Look no further than this one.  Matthews "earned" this contract based on one catch.   That catch is what his entire defensive reputation is based on.  Oddly enough, advanced metrics say he's an atrocious OFer--especially in CF.  Matthews was also coming off of a good offensive season after being decidedly average for his career.  The Angels desperate for offense and an outfielder overpaid for a player that was average at best.  Little did they know his performance would regress at a far faster rate than anyone had expected.  This contract is so bad that Matthews should be ashamed every time he gets paid.

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