Just as Bryce Harper broke his record, we remember why he got the money he did.
When Bryce Harper set his record for the largest North American sports contract in history, he had to beat someone first. That player was Giancarlo Stanton, who signed a 13-year, $325 million deal with the Marlins and former owner Jeffrey Loria back in 2014.
Matthew Trueblood at Baseball Prospectus did make this point that I agree with, though, that this deal was unique in that Loria was using this deal to maximize the value of the franchise even though he had every intention of selling the team and not paying it out; still, a valuation at that number isn’t outlandish considering he just had a 6.8 fWAR season, his third 30-home run season, and his fourth consecutive season with a wRC+ above 130 heading into that contract.
That was when he was after his age-24 season. In totality, he has 305 home runs through his age-28 season, and since 1920, only six players had more home runs through that age: Mel Ott, Albert Pujols, Mickey Mantle, Eddie Mathews, Jimmie Foxx, Ken Griffey Jr., and Alex Rodriguez. Of those players, not a single one finished their career with fewer than 500 home runs, and one could argue Stanton is on a higher trajectory.
It’s fair that people soured a bit, especially in New York. Despite putting up a four-win season with 38 home runs and an even 100 RBIs, largely carrying the Yankees offseason through an Aaron Judge-less summer, there were reasons to be skeptical about the slugger hitting the top of his aging curve in a new city.
For one, his walk rate slumped, going from an unreal (considering the power) .376 OBP to just .343 last season, largely because of an issue in mechanics and plate discipline. Whether it was a new city, league, or whatever the anecdotal factors were, he swung at more pitches out of the zone, got fewer pitches in the zone, and subsequently swung and missed at more pitches:
But as can be easily seen, there were earlier low points in his career, and I think a lot of the public perception drop-off had nothing to do with the long-term projection with Stanton, and by-and-large were related to the rising stock of other players; the breakout performance of Mookie Betts; the continuing dominance of Francisco Lindor, Max Scherzer, and obviously Mike Trout, means that the slightly-lesser-performer loses ground.
Yet I think that’s probably unwise to consider him outside the top-ten in the sport due to the fact that most indicators think that he will rebound in 2019. By ZiPS, the projection yields a full win better than 2018 at 5.1 fWAR, owing to a bounce back in walk rate and even power. PECOTA, which uses a different replacement level entirely, thinks he’s in line for a 4.1 WARP season, up from 2.6 the year prior. That adjustment is a DRC+-based one, thinking he’ll gain something like 17 points.
The other factor in valuation is defense, where both FRAA and UZR find him a few runs below average, when Statcast, which probably has a grade more accuracy, thinks him a bit better. Stanton was worth 2 Outs Above Average in 2018, 0 in 2017, and 4 in 2016. He’s likely to be a league-average defender in 2019, which would make him more like a six-win player in the FanGraphs analysis.
Which is why it’d be odd to discount someone who is the preeminent power hitter of his time from continuing to do what he has always done in the past. When he’s on pace to hit as many home runs as exclusively more-than-500-home-runs hitters, and he continues to be projected for 40-plus home runs, there’s no conclusion to be had that he will be fantastic.
I think taking the forest-for-the-trees approach crossed with Occam’s Razor makes a lot more sense. There’s a slight mechanics change here, a little plate discipline change there, but this is the best home run hitter of the generation, and odds are a closed stance isn’t going to entirely tank his value. He is a four-or-five-win player by any metric, and he’ll likely be a top-ten player in 2019. If he is at all overshadowed again, it’ll be because another top-ten position player is hitting right in front of him in the lineup.