Hits and misses in a bid for big-league money

The Washington Post Sunday - - TAKING STOCK - CASE IN POINT Fisher is a se­nior con­sul­tant with CGI. Gold­berg is a co-founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive of Ver­sa­volt. Weiss is a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia Dar­den School of Busi­ness. — Robert Fisher, Re­becca Gold­berg and El­liott Weiss

The big idea: Big-league base­ball is cen­tral to the spirit, cul­ture and his­tory of the United States. So is the con­cept of free agency in a free mar­ket.

And when it comes time for a player to move on from his first years un­der a team con­tract by ei­ther ac­cept­ing a con­tract ex­ten­sion (or qual­i­fy­ing of­fer) or be­com­ing a free agent, th­ese two Amer­i­can in­sti­tu­tions col­lide. (Base­ball wouldn’t be much fun if the wealth­i­est teams could buy all the best play­ers!) Ma­jor League Base­ball has poli­cies in­tended to bal­ance the com­pet­ing Amer­i­can in­sti­tu­tions of base­ball and in­de­pen­dence.

The sce­nario: Ian Des­mond played his first six years in the big leagues as a short­stop for the Washington Na­tion­als, who drafted him. In the spring be­fore his fifth sea­son, his per­for­mance was solid and ris­ing. The Na­tion­als of­fered him a seven-year, $107 mil­lion con­tract ex­ten­sion ($15.3 mil­lion av­er­age an­nual value). He turned it down. In­stead of lock­ing in a cer­tain thing for the long term, he ne­go­ti­ated an $8.75 mil­lion av­er­age an­nual value two-year con­tract. If his stats stayed high, he might have ex­pected a free-agent of­fer of seven years, $150 mil­lion — a 40 per­cent in­crease.

Un­for­tu­nately, his stats be­gan to fall, and so did his chances of nab­bing a free-agent con­tract bet­ter than the one he re­jected. The Na­tion­als came through in 2016 with a one-year qual­i­fy­ing of­fer of $15.8 mil­lion — nearly dou­ble his pack­age of the pre­vi­ous two sea­sons — and once again, Des­mond said no. He en­tered free agency, but months elapsed with no of­fers. He even­tu­ally ac­cepted an $8 mil­lion one-year con­tract from the Texas Rangers, which re­quired him to play the less valu­able po­si­tion of left fielder.

The re­newed op­por­tu­nity re­vived Des­mond’s per­for­mance. He had a ter­rific 2016 sea­son, be­com­ing an All-Star for the first time in four years. The Rangers of­fered him his best one-year salary yet, $17.2 mil­lion. Con­sid­er­ing his past re­sults, should he take it?

The les­son: Statis­ti­cians at­tempt­ing to more ac­cu­rately put a dol­lar amount on a player’s worth to his team have come up with the Wins Above Re­place­ment met­ric, which mea­sures the num­ber of in­cre­men­tal wins each player pro­duces over that of a the­o­ret­i­cal av­er­age re­place­ment player. It’s com­plex and at­tempts to ac­count for the holis­tic im­pact of a player’s statis­tics as well as his ar­eas of ex­cep­tional per­for­mance. Al­though Des­mond’s tra­di­tional stats (bat­ting av­er­age, home runs, etc.) re­cov­ered in 2016, his more holis­tic per­for­mance didn’t re­bound so com­pletely — that mea­sure was 3.3 in 2016 com­pared with 3.9 in 2014.

Des­mond turned down the $17.2 mil­lion qual­i­fy­ing of­fer from the Rangers and en­tered free agency. On Dec. 7, 2016, he signed a five-year, $70 mil­lion con­tract with the Colorado Rock­ies. Al­though it’s $3.2 mil­lion less than he might have made play­ing for the Rangers in 2017, it’s a sure thing for a longer time. And after so many un­prof­itable tosses of the “free agency” coin, Des­mond might be ex­cited to just . . . play ball!


For­mer Na­tion­als short­stop Ian Des­mond took a gam­ble when he re­jected sev­eral salary of­fers in fa­vor of free-agent sta­tus.

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