What's He Really Worth: Chris Davis shouldn't get $100 million-plus deal
Among this winter’s top available players, Jason Heyward, David Price, Zack Greinke, Jordan Zimmermann and Ben Zobrist have all signed, but that doesn’t mean that the free-agent class is depleted or that we’ve seen the last nine-digit contract of the off-season. According to CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman, the Orioles offered first baseman Chris Davis $154 million over seven years to return to Baltimore—a contract reportedly rescinded when Davis let it linger. The O’s reportedly remain open to further negotiations, but Davis and his agent, Scott Boras, are seeking something closer to $200 million; they are citing the contracts of fellow first basemen Mark Teixeira ($180 million over eight years) and Prince Fielder ($214 million over nine years), both negotiated by Boras, and Joey Votto ($225 million over 10 years) as comparison points.
Davis is a fascinating case for our What’s He Really Worth formula: He is a player entering his age-30 season who has had just two above-average seasons in his eight-year career. Both of those seasons were outstanding, however (.286/.370/.634, 168 OPS+, 53 HR, 138 RBIs in 2013; .262/.361/.562, 146 OPS+, 47 HR, 117 RBIs in '15, leading the majors in home runs both seasons), and came within the last three years, the period on which we base performance projections. As a result, the formula sees Davis as a star player and yields a favorable and financially valuable projection.
Again, our calculations begin with the established market value of a marginal win (that is, a Win Above Replacement, or one point of WAR), estimated by ESPN’s Dan Szymborski at $6.5 million for 2015. We then factor in 5.4% annual inflation to give us the projected value of a marginal win for future seasons (starting at $6.851 million for 2016) and multiply the player’s projected WAR in each individual future season by the estimated value of a marginal win in that year to get his total dollar value. Add up those dollar values, and you get an estimate of his total value over a period of time.
As for those WAR values, we derive the 2016 figure from a 5/4/3 weighting of the player’s last three seasons, using baseball-reference.com’s Wins Above Replacement. In Davis’s case, that means an average of five times his 5.2 bWAR from this past season, four times his 1.8 bWAR from '14 and three times his 6.5 bWAR from his breakout '13 campaign. That gives us a projection of 4.4 bWAR for the 2016 season, from which we will then subtract 0.5 bWAR annually to simulate a typical decline for an everyday player in his thirties. That gives us following eight-year value projection:
That evaluation suggests Davis will be worth $157.8 million over the next seven years and that the Orioles' offer was a good one, but it does not motivate the sort of investment Davis and Boras are reportedly seeking via the comparisons to Teixeira, Fielder and Votto.
This, it should be noted, is the most optimistic view of the remainder of Davis’s career. Davis, who reached the major leagues at the age of 22, compiled 14.7 bWAR in his twenties; the above projects him to produce 14.6 bWAR from the age of 30 to 33. What’s even more difficult to buy into, however, is that gradual decline into his late thirties.
The biggest concern about Davis for prospective buyers is how infrequently he makes contact when he swings at a pitch. Davis led the majors with 208 strikeouts in 2015, the fifth-highest single-season total in major league history, and his 199 whiffs in '13 are tied for the eighth most in a single season. In his career, he has made contact with just 66% of the pitches at which he has swung; the league average over the course of his career has been 78.5%. That figure includes hitters of all profiles, including high-contact leadoff types, but even a comparison to the game’s top sluggers casts Davis in negative light with regard to his contact skills or lack thereof. Just look at the five men directly behind Davis on the list of this past season’s major league home run leaders: Nelson Cruz has made contact with 71.2% of the pitches at which he has swung in his career, Bryce Harper 73.6%, Nolan Arenado 80.6%, Josh Donaldson 75.6% and Mike Trout 79.1%.
This one of several areas in which the comparison to Teixeira, Fielder and Votto breaks down, as well. Beyond the fact that all three had much longer track records of success and, with the exception of Fielder, better defensive reputations, all three made much better contract. Just taking their career rates through their age-29 seasons, Teixeira made contact with 79.2% of the pitches at which he swung, Fielder made contact with 76.6%, and Votto made contact with 77.0%.
Davis increased his walk rate every year he spent with Orioles, but his contact rates have actually gotten worse—from 69.1% in 2012 to 67.1 in '13 to 63.6 in his disappointing '14 campaign and an only slightly better 64.4 this past season. The question then becomes: If Davis is struggling to make contact now, when his bat speed is near its peak, what happens when his bat inevitably slows down with age? The answer is unlikely to be a gradual decline and more likely to be a quick collapse in his value akin to what we’ve seen from Ryan Howard, another poor defensive first baseman who has made contact with just 66% of the pitches at which he has swung in his career; Howard has been below replacement level since his age-32 season. Looking back at Davis’s projection above: The 4.4 bWAR for the 2016 season seems fair relative to the 5.2 bWAR he put up this past season, but the 2.4 bWAR at age 34 seems incredibly optimistic.
There are several ways we, and Davis’s suitors, can attempt to adjust for what is likely to be a sudden and dramatic collapse in his value. The first and most obvious is to limit the term of his contract. Davis is unlikely to be worth $157.8 million over the next seven years, but he might be worth the $127.7 million over the next five years projected above given the chance that he could wind up surpassing some of his bWAR projections in the next three seasons. Such a contract would be comparable to the one the Angels gave Josh Hamilton after the 2012 season ($125 million over years). Hamilton’s contract has not been a good one, but Davis does not share Hamilton’s struggles with injuries and substance abuse—the major factors in his failure to play up to his contract. Then again, Davis did receive a 25-game suspension for unapproved amphetamine use in 2014, and while he appeared to have resolved the issues with his therapeutic-use exemption this past season, he would trigger an 80-game suspension with another positive test for amphetamines.
Another way to adjust for Davis’s expected collapse is to project a steeper decline—subtracting 0.8 bWAR per season, as we do for pitchers, rather than 0.5 bWAR. That has an even greater impact on Davis’s projected value, putting him below replacement by the age of 36 and resulting in this projection:
That projection finds Davis failing to double his current career total in bWAR and seems far more realistic to me than any portion of the first table above. Yes, Davis may well exceed any or all of those bWAR totals in the next three years, but he could just as easily collapse to replacement level or below by his age-34 season. Given that, I see Davis as most realistically worth little more than $100 million over the next five years; any contract that greatly exceeds either that term or total value as a bad investment. Davis might be well advised to take whatever the Orioles are offering.