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Byron Buxton contract extension, thinking through what it could look like
Today we're using comps to think like an economist.
I shared this post with Members yesterday, and after the good feedback it received I want to share it with the whole group here!
I set out yesterday to find contract comparisons for Byron Buxton, should the Twins continue their considerable effort to get their best player signed on for the long term.
Derek Falvey is an economist. And since it will ultimately be his decision where this thing goes -- at which point he’ll recommend to ownership the course of action and get a thumbs up or thumbs down -- it should pay here to think in terms of markets.
It’s one thing to write down all the stats, appeal to your emotion, and then make the case for what the Twins should do. It’s quite another to try to discern what they will do. This column presents my latest thinking on the matter.
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Before I start diving into a list of comparable players, I feel compelled to spell out a couple of points.
The reason that I bring up Falvey’s economics bent or markets in general is that often the best-run teams have to think of everything in terms of opportunity cost. At least, the ones who don’t have seemingly unending financial resources (i.e. the ones who feel the need to use words like “sustainable” or “responsible,” just in case their ownership group is listening).
If you’re the Yankees and you know the payroll resources will be there for the next 10 years, it feels less risky to sign Gerrit Cole for $324 million. If you’re the Royals, you might be able to come up with the same capital in theory but it’s a much higher leverage risk, in my opinion. So where do a lot of teams turn to value players? They all have their metrics, and all or most use their own internal projections and in turn use those as a starting point. The other starting point for discussions is what other similar players have received in the past.
Now, the second point I want to get across is:
What do you mean similar players?
Put simply, there is nobody quite like Buxton. We’ll get to that. What I mean here is a similar caliber of player, at a similar stage of his career -- in terms of experience and contract status -- and of a similar age, considering how much those internal projections care about the difference a few years can make when it comes to projecting future performance.
That actually brings the third and final preface into view, and then finally we can be done with the extensive preamble and get to the good stuff. A friend of mine and Editor, Writer and Podcast Extraordinaire Mike Rand brought up the comparison between Buxton and Josh Donaldson, around the time the Twins and Buxton hit their most recent contract impasse. Rand argued quite articulately that the Twins have already set their market for injury-prone stars: they signed Josh Donaldson. JD was coming off a few years of calf injuries and open questions about whether his ferocious swing and playing style had caught up to him in his mid-30’s. The Blue Jays traded their former AL MVP to Cleveland midyear, and that winter, he eventually settled on a 1-year deal in Atlanta for $23 million, as he looked to re-establish his value to the open market and then seek a longer-term agreement. (Not bad for a “pillow” contract.)
Donaldson did exactly that and the star third baseman was again on the market, at the very same moment in time that the Twins had hoped to spend a truckload of money on starting pitcher Zack Wheeler, only to get turned down for other reasons. The Twins pivoted and gave Donaldson, the injury-checked star, a $92 million contract over four seasons, which includes a team option on a 5th year that would escalate the total value of the deal to $100 million, before incentives.
So, Rand noted at the time, that’s your market comfort. Call it 5 years and $100 million -- despite injury concerns -- and feel free to offset some risk with a buyout or team option or something at the end of the deal.
I’m not even saying that I disagree with this line of argument. I’ll just point out that markets don’t always agree with it. And people who think like economists are not likely to think this way, never mind what you and I think. The rest of that fact set is that Donaldson had been more accomplished to that point of his career, and while acute in its recency, his injury track record was not as elaborate as Buxton’s.
(Besides, if we’re sticking with franchise comps we should mention Joe Mauer, who you’ll remember got $184 million over 8 years a decade ago. Adjust that for inflation and then knock off half because you can successfully argue that Buxton has played in less than 40% of the team’s games since the start of 2018 … How does 8 years and $112 million sound?)
But There Is No One Quite Like Buxton
On the point of There Is No One Quite Like Buxton, I’ve written about the topic at length before. Read old posts from the archive if you’d like, and for anyone looking to save time, let’s cut to the chase.
Buxton is a star whose value no longer hinges on “potential.” He just closed the book on his third consecutive season of massive gains in slugging percentage, and with that he also just set a career-high by far with a .358 on-base percentage. Basically, start with Robbie Grossman’s on-base skills and then add Bryce Harper’s slugging, and you’re almost to the year Buxton had in his partial 2021 season. Sprinkle in elite speed, range, arm strength and accuracy to net you Gold Glove-caliber center field defense; add in an amazing 88% career stolen base success rate; plus a personality that everyone around him seems to like, and you can quickly see why the Twins should be spending long hours trying to figure out the Contract Extension conversation. If you want to look beneath the hood at metrics to see if he really did “earn” that great season at the plate: Buxton finished third in Barrel Rate -- tied with Ronald Acuña Jr. and Shohei Ohtani this season -- all while running the lowest Chase Rate of his career (29.9%). In plain English, Buxton was a truly excellent hitter and sensational player when he was available to the Twins. And of course, we must note, there’s the Injury Concerns to deal with.
Byron Buxton extension comps, a list
I set out to look for contract extensions during the past decade. I wanted to find star-caliber players with at least 5 years of service in the big leagues, and no more than 6 years. Free agents are a different market. We can go back and forth on whether that’s fair or even the best practice, but it’s the plain truth in the current format, and an Economist is not likely to throw out that fact to begin free-wheeling negotiations. Lastly, in a perfect world, I hope to find a player that has one big unanswered question, despite being unambiguously a star -- just like Buxton.
So, who can we find?
When I used this search query, the contracts that came back totaled 221 years and more than $3.43 billion. Let’s slice and dice that list.
First, I’m removing all pitchers. So gone are the big-money deals given to guys like Clayton Kershaw, Cole Hamels, Steven Strasburg and Homer Bailey. Pitchers are just different for these purposes. I hope you’ll understand. Next, I’m cutting away guys whom I personally don’t consider to be a star, unless of course I considered them a star in the moment they signed that contract.
Here’s what I found. Consider this subset of star extension the Comp Market for a Buxton Deal. We’ll briefly touch on any lessons to be learned, if applicable.
Mookie Betts, July 2020 (spring training #2)
12 years, $365 million — Dodgers
Francisco Lindor, March 2021
10 years, $341 million — Mets
Nolan Arenado, February 2019
7 years, $234 million — Rockies
Matt Kemp, November 2011
8 years, $160M — Dodgers
Adrián González, April 2011
7 years, $154M — Red Sox
Xander Bogaerts, April 2019
6 years, $120 million — Red Sox
Charlie Blackmon, April 2018
5 years, $94 million — Rockies
Andre Ethier, June 2012
5 years, $85 million — Dodgers
Ian Kinsler, April 2012
5 years, $75 million — Rangers
Aaron Hicks, February 2019
7 years, $70 million — Yankees
Brett Gardner, February 2014
4 years, $52 million — Yankees
Of these 11 qualifying contracts from my objective and subjective measures, 7 of of them (64%) were signed by the Yankees, Dodgers or Red Sox. I will argue that it’s coincidence that the Rockies have 2 of them. And then the other two belong to a Mets team that had just been purchased by a hedge-fund billionaire, and also Thad Levine’s Texas Rangers.
Let’s cut 3 off the top. For that group of Betts, Lindor and Arenado, the outstanding “question” is more like, “Will he be a Hall of Famer?”
That leaves us with 8 deals to look at.
Later that week, The Athletic reported that the Twins had indeed offered $70 million to Buxton, using Hicks’ deal with the Yankees as a primary comp. Buxton and his camp turned that down, and the impasse was revealed publicly, although Buxton did his very best to make sure that people knew it does not mean “No Deal” forever -- it just wasn’t agreeable at that time for that price.
Before we move off the Hicks deal because we already know it’s not enough, I want to mention Brett Gardner, one of the most underrated outfielders of the past 10 years. Buxton will turn 28 this December, having racked up almost 13 Wins Above Replacement as a standout centerfielder and more recently as a breakout hitter. Despite all the missed time, 2021 was his best season to date, eclipsing 4.0 WAR for the first time in his career. And of course it goes without saying that were it not for injuries, he might well have emerged as a star earlier in his career and certainly he would have picked up more individual Wins along the way.
Gardner was 30 when he inked that contract to stay in New York. But in one fewer season than Buxton has played, the Yankees protagonist already had created 18.4 WAR, including two separate star-caliber seasons -- one of 6 Wins and one of 5 -- and three years as a clear plus bat for the Yankees.
Anyway, we’re chucking out Gardner and Hicks here, because of what we already know, but I just wanted to point out as we move to more expensive extensions that those two comparisons aren’t without merit from a Twins perspective.
So we’re down to 6 deals.
Dodgers and Red Sox
Gonzalez, Kemp and Bogaerts all were $20+ million per year. Factoring for inflation, let’s just use the most recent of those 3, when Bogaerts opened the season with a new deal in New England. As it turned out, the Red Sox were less than 12 months from trading Mookie Betts to the Dodgers. Bogaerts was 26 at the time, and already an established star, with nearly 18 WAR to his name, including 3 separate 4-Win seasons, a plus-plus bat for Boston and a good glove to boot. (It also bears noting that 3 of his best seasons have come since the extension, so whatever you think of Xander the Great now, we have to remember that it’s more than we knew about him when they got that deal done.)
That contract also was pre-pandemic, to whatever extent you think that’s important.
I’m going to say for these purposes, that an economist might look coolly on the Bogaerts-Buxton comparison, adjust for long-term risks, and conclude that $20 million over 6 years is more than Buxton would warrant right now. That also tracks logically, if the Twins used Hicks’ 7 years/$70 million deal as a starting point the last round of negotiations.
And then there were 3.
The best fits for Buxton contract comps
That leaves us with Ian Kinsler, Andre Ethier and Chuck Nasty dba Charlie Blackmon.
Ethier made $17 million per year over 5. He was a very good hitter who never was considered great with the glove, and the Dodgers of late are not hurting for financial resources. He got paid on the strength of his bat, I’m assuming, and we’ll note here that he was not in the same league as Buxton in the outfield. If he had a Question following him around it would be that. Let’s consider that inflation over those 9 years, which would bump him into the Present Value $20 million range. We’ve already thrown out $20 million at the top end, so let’s focus on Kinsler and Blackmon.
Kinsler, who signed with Thad Levine’s Rangers in 2012, made $15 million per year over the 5 seasons of that contract. Again, inflation would make that more like a $90 million deal today ($18M per year).
Kinsler was about to turn 30 years, already a star for that great Rangers club at the turn of the decade. They were stocked with star hitters -- Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, Adrian Beltre, Michael Young -- and one year removed from reaching the World Series. Their star second baseman had already made 2 all-star games, got MVP votes in 3 separate seasons, and twice hit 30 homers in a year as part of the powerful transformation of second basemen happening at the time.
We can say now only with the benefit of hindsight that Kinsler was coming off the best year of his career in 2011, when he hit .255/.355/.477 and a career-best 32 homers for a Rangers team that could and maybe should have won the World Series.
He played two of those 5 years on the deal as a Ranger, at which point he was traded to Detroit for Prince Fielder, and that version of the Rangers was gone for good, eventually helping pave the path for manager Ron Washington’s dismissal in 2014.
Blackmon’s deal is much more recent. And just for fun here let’s do some back-of-the-napkin math and say that the forces of inflation and the economic challenges wrought by a global pandemic are equal and opposite for MLB teams, cancelling each other out and leaving us with an up-to-date contract comparison. That’s $18.8 million per year for 5 seasons of a star centerfielder. Blackmon was coming off the best season of his career, as was Kinsler and as is Buxton. Blackmon for the Rockies in 2017 hit .331/.399/.601 for an even 1.000 OPS, for those who like the stat and/or round numbers.
Buxton’s big Question, to reiterate, is health and availability. If Blackmon had a Question, it might be, ‘Do we trust this breakout?’ From 2013-15, Blackmon combined to hit .291/.340/.449 with Coors Field serving as his home park those 3 seasons. Then in 2016, he unlocked the power, and those numbers jumped over the next two years to a combined .327/.390/.578, averaging 35 homers per 162 games. That spike in homers, plus 14 triples the year before and 35 doubles a year for a centerfielder are numbers that will make you rich.
He cashed in at $18.8 million per year, and without putting too fine a point on it, the current version of the Rockies, who are bad, probably would undo that deal if they could.
Finally, what comps say Buxton should ask for
None of this is to say Buxton should not or will not get paid. Given the nature of risk and variance in pro sports, you’ll find it’s pretty easy to pull examples of deals that look bad for the team in hindsight. We’d have just as easy of a time finding deals that were struck at different stages of a player’s career that right now look like a rip-off in favor of the organization. Such is life, and so go pro sports markets.
This post was just an exercise. And in conclusion it looks like the market would suggest a player value of $18 or $19 million per year for Buxton, and then discount or incentive-load that however you think is fair to reflect his unusually high recurrence of injury.
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