Tuesday November 25th, 2014

Joe DiMaggio would have turned 100 years old today — at that age, and against today’s pitching, he’d probably hit a little better than Ruben Tejada — and there is nothing he would have enjoyed more for a birthday gift than a new contract. DiMaggio was a determined negotiator, staging annual holdouts in the 1930s and 40s and using, in that era long before free agency, all the limited leverage he had to get the best deal possible. In 1949 he signed the major league’s first $100,000 contract. (The tale of a silver-haired DiMaggio emerging from his San Francisco home clutching bags of cash during the 1989 earthquake may be apocryphal, but it is in keeping with his priorities.)

Along with all that DiMaggio is known for — his all-around intensity and excellence on the field, his 10 World Series titles in 13 seasons, his marriage to Marilyn Monroe, his indomitable hitting streak—he’s also known, in SABR circles anyway, for putting together arguably the most impressive six-year start to a career for any position player of his time or since. Better than those of Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle or Hank Aaron, kind of like that of Albert Pujols, and better, by a long shot, than what the MarlinsGiancarlo Stanton has done in his first five years.

After those six seasons, DiMaggio would have been, by 2014 rules, eligible for free agency. Given the current big-league shopping season, and the unprecedented, unearthly $325-million, 13-year contract landed by Stanton last week, we wondered, as Joe himself may be wondering up there in the vast Yankee outfield in the sky, what price a 26-year-old newly unrestricted Joe D would deserve today. Sing it, Paul Simon: “What are you worth Joe Di-Mag-gi-o?”

Let’s look at DiMaggio’s numbers in his first five years against Stanton’s. (The shorter comparison deprives DiMaggio of his 1941 MVP season in which he hit .357, slugged .643 with league-best 125 RBIs and had that 56-game hitting streak. But, hey, maybe Stanton will do those things this year.)

From 1936 through '40, DiMaggio batted .343 with a .404 on-base percentage while slugging .623. He averaged 29 home runs, 138 RBIs, 123 runs scored and 6.7 Wins Above Replacement.

MLB
Giancarlo Stanton may actually prove to be worth reported $325M contract

Stanton has a slash line of .271/.364/.540, averaging  31 home runs, 80 RBIs, 70 runs scored and 4.3 WAR.

DiMaggio made five All-Star teams, won one MVP, finished in the top three in two other years and was never lower than eighth. Among the categories of batting average, home runs, RBI, slugging percentage and on base percentage he had 17 top-five finishes. He averaged a 158 OPS+ (which shows a player’s production against a derived league average of 100, and adjusts for certain environmental variables).

Stanton has made two All-Star teams and finished in the top 20 of the MVP voting once, when he was second in 2014. He has had seven top-five finishes in the categories listed above and has averaged an OPS+ of 129.

In the eyes of a 2014 Major League team owner such as the Marlins’ Jeffrey Loria, DiMaggio might have looked like a whole lot more than a $325 million man.

*****

Yet it was a different game back in the 1930s and 40s: fewer teams, fewer players, a shallower, whites-only talent-pool and some higher league-wide offensive production. As one example, the American League overall hit .279 and slugged .407 in 1939; the Major League’s numbers were .251 and .386 in 2014. So, I sought to adjust DiMaggio’s stats to today’s game. Knowing how way leads onto way in such endeavors (especially when mining the infinite treasure trove of sites such as baseball-reference.com) and knowing the high level of subjectivity and guesswork involved in so many statistical metrics* I enlisted the help of a few graduate students at NYU’s Tisch School of Sports Management, Media and Business, Chris Bitetto, Jesse Lin and Ethan Root—all of whom starred in SABR’s recent Diamond Dollars player-value analytics competition—to help do some figuring.

[*An example of subjectivity: While I truly admire and value the much-beloved WAR metric, plumbing it inevitably leads me to regard it as 33% empirical truth, 33% illuminating and 33% scented hogwash. As Bill James recently observed to nbcsports.com’s Joe Posnanski about the systems for computing WAR: “They haven’t made a convincing effort to address many of the inherent difficulties that the undertaking presents. They tend to get so far into the data, throw up their arms and make a wild guess.” ]

Weighing several differences in league-wide offensive production and in ERA levels, as well as ballpark factors* —and yes, despite our honest and diligent efforts I am keen to the presence of scented hogwash in our own calculations—we came up with a statistical measure of how the young DiMaggio would have hit today: Over his first six seasons now, we got a slash line of .304/.359/.592 with 37 home runs, 128 RBIs, 117 runs scored and 7.1 WAR. Still a lot better than Stanton's stats.

[*Several modern sluggers, Stanton included, have played in ballparks not particularly conducive to hitting. But perhaps no elite righthanded power hitter has been punished more by his home stadium than was DiMaggio. The distance from home plate to the left-centerfield wall at Yankee Stadium during his years was briefly 490 feet and then, after a renovation, 457. Dead center went from 487 to 461.  How far is that? Only 25 of the 4,200 home runs hit in the majors in 2014 traveled farther than 457 feet. The old Stadium dimensions help explain why DiMaggio hit nearly 60% of his 361 career homers on the road.*]

Now, Stanton is not the only premier hitter to have gotten well-minted in recent years. So we also put DiMaggio’s adjusted numbers up against the first six seasons of other recent offensive superstars -- Miguel Cabrera (2004-09), Albert Pujols (2001-06), Manny Ramirez (1995-2000) and Alex Rodriguez (1996-2001) -- and adjusted those players' statistics to a time of frame of 2009-14:

 
player BA HR RBI R SLG OPS WAR
DiMaggio .304 37 128 117 .592 .951 7.10
Cabrera .285 30 104 89 .497 .858 4.23
Pujols .302 39 114 115 .574 .957 7.66
Ramirez .289 32 108 89 .530 .893 4.83
Rodriguez .275 34 103 108 .510 .845 7.82

Next let’s look at the first major multi-year contracts each of those players signed:

 
player contract Average annual value
Miguel Cabrera 8 years, $152 million $19 million
Albert Pujols 7 years, $100 million $14.29 million
Manny Ramirez 8 years, $160 million $20 million
Alex Rodriguez 10 years, $252 million $25.2 million

*****

Before we arrive at our jackpot number, consider a few other factors that might have served DiMaggio well as the market turned its hungry eyes to him.

• He was regarded as the best defensive centerfielder in baseball. This was long before the fielding metrics of today and before even the existence of the Gold Glove Award, but among those who played and watched the game, DiMaggio won the eye-test 10 times out of 10. To this end, we factored in some of the contracts landed by top defensive outfielders in recent years, including Jacoby Ellsbury, who got $153 million over seven years, and Matt Kemp, who got $160 million over eight years. These are players whose offensive numbers, while excellent, are not at the level of DiMaggio’s or the sluggers listed above.

• His 56-game hitting streak in what would have been his walk year had turned DiMaggio from a mere baseball superstar into a popular sensation, the subject of a No. 1 jukebox hit and a player who impacted game-day attendance more than anyone since Babe Ruth.

• He had led the Yankees to five World Series titles in six seasons. Yes, the Yankees had other All-Stars, but this was not at all the elite New York teams of the 1920s. Before DiMaggio’s arrival the Yankees had not even been to the World Series in four years, and had gone only once in the previous seven. DiMaggio came along and the team won four straight championships. As his teammates said, it was Joltin’ Joe who made the difference.

My cohorts and I weighed all of these statistics and the current market values. We considered the intangibles. We took a page from superb player-value analyst and SI.com baseball writer Jay Jaffe, establishing an adjusted WAR projection for DiMaggio and assigning a price-per WAR. In one model we considered the average WAR of 11 comparable players, which was 5.23. Those players earned an average of $21.61 million over long-term deals. DiMaggio's WAR of 7.1 is 26.33% higher than that. Translated to salary, that would give him an annual worth of $27.28 million. Adding his marquee value and any additional marginal revenue he might bring to the Yankees, we assigned him a 10-year, $290 million deal as fair market value

We did a number of other calculations, including stepping out of the WAR room and evaluating DiMaggio head-to-head with Stanton in terms of Runs Created, a key metric for player value. Stanton creates an average of 7.0 runs per game. DiMaggio, at his time of free agency, was creating 10.2 runs per game. That 46% increase would make DiMaggio, versus Stanton’s $25 million per year, worth $35.6 million a season. There are, of course, many ways to figure this. (DiMaggio, incidentally, had his own method. Asked in 1981, after the Yankees had signed Dave Winfield to a then-record 10-year, $23 million deal, what he thought he would be worth as a free agent, DiMaggio said: "If I were sitting down with [Yankees owner] George Steinbrenner and based on what Dave Winfield got for his statistics, I'd have to say, 'George, you and I are about to become partners.'")

But finally, I’m comfortable with that $290 million over 10 years as a fair market price.  Even in that somewhat conservative scenario, DiMaggio would have become the highest-paid twenty-something player in baseball history.  You can buy a lot of packs of Camels with that kind of scratch. And you can buy a lot of red roses for Marilyn.

Happy Birthday, Joe.

Kostya Kennedy is the author of two best-selling books, 56: Joe DiMaggio And The Last Magic Number In Sports; and Pete Rose: An American Dilemma.

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