Less than 24 hours after the Randal Grichuk walked off the Cubs on Opening Night, the Cardinals announced they had reached an agreement with right fielder Stephen Piscotty. The contract guarantees Piscotty $33.5 million over six years. If the club exercises their option, the total value could exceed $50 million.
At first, I thought it was a great deal for the Cardinals, as most did. I viewed Piscotty as a rising young player, who was bound to improve and would surely outperform his contract. It wasn’t until I saw a tweet from Zack Gifford that I began to think differently.
I asked Zach why he didn’t like the deal. He pointed out that unless Piscotty outperforms average aging curves, he will be below replacement level by the end of the deal.
Average Aging Curves
I learned of average aging curves only a short time ago, but they make perfect sense. The general idea is that players physically decline at similar rates, and we can draw broad conclusions based on the average rate of decline. Obviously, the method isn’t perfect. Players frequently outperform — or underperform — their average aging curves. In this evaluation, I used a Wins Above Replacement average aging curve, since WAR accounts for both offensive and defensive performance.
The y-value in the graph above is the change in WAR per 600 plate appearances from the previous year. So, although there appears to be increases in certain years, it’s really just a slow down in the rate of decrease. Therefore, you can expect a players WAR to be highest before age 24, stabilize between the ages of 24-26, and decrease thereafter.
Putting a Value on Piscotty
According to Fangraphs research, the current market value for 1 WAR is approximately $8 million. If you start off with Piscotty’s projected 2017 WAR of 2.0 and factor in Piscotty’s new contract and average decline, you end up with this.
The Cardinals end up with a surplus value of about $14 million dollars. However, Piscotty begins to underperform his salary starting in the year 2020, his age 29 season. After that, the Cardinals are paying for a level of production Piscotty is simply unlikely to provide.
Pretend for a second that the Cardinals didn’t extend Piscotty. If they let him play out his six years of team control, his salary would remain $500k for 2017 and ’18, then rise slowly through the arbitration process. His total value would look something like this.
In this scenario, Piscotty’s arbitration salaries are based on the arbitration salaries of similar players in 2017. Regardless, the club gets a better deal by not extending him, since it’s unlikely Piscotty improves going forward.
The contract won’t hamstring the team, but they spent about $23 million they didn’t have to. That’s roughly equivalent to one year of a top tier player, or a couple years of a very good player.
It’s possible I’m wrong, and Piscotty ages better than the average player. Mozeliak could be attempting to create cost-certainty, an idea floated by Derrick Goold on his podcast. It’s also possible the Cardinals know that security will help Piscotty mentally and will translate into a better performance.
While I disagree with Zach’s analysis that the extension will have a net-negative surplus value, but they definitely spent money unnecessarily. It shouldn’t hamstring the organization (which has a $1 billion TV deal coming down the pike), but it sure doesn’t help.
Thanks for reading!