As major league teams prepare for the amateur draft tomorrow, the name on everyone’s mind (especially those leading the Washington Nationals) is San Diego State righty and uber-prospect Stephen Strasburg. One look at his mind-blowing college numbers – hello 9.65 K/BB ratio in 87.1 IP this year! – and it is not hard to see why. It is the contract numbers of approximately $50 million over six years that Strasburg’s agent Scott Boras might seek, however, which are currently in the limelight.
Instead of speculating if the Nationals will select Strasburg (remember they failed to sign their first round pick last year, Aaron Crow, so a repeat with a talent like Strasburg would be rubbing salt into Nationals fans’ numerous wounds), or if he is worth that kind of money, or what kind of numbers he’ll put up and the year he’s inducted into the Hall of Fame, I’d like to first figure out the major league numbers Strasburg would have to produce to be worth such a revolutionary deal. I say revolutionary in the sense that, if such a deal were to take place, it would break the slotting system MLB employs to keep signing bonuses down for draftees.
To do this I will use a stat called Wins Above Replacement or WAR, which means exactly that: how many wins above replacement level a player is. By finding the combined win total of a given year’s free agent class and dividing their combined salaries by that win total we can figure out how much a win is worth. Here are the dollar per win totals for 2002-08, courtesy of FanGraphs, who also created the stat:
2002 – $2.6m / win
2003 – $2.8m / win
2004 – $3.1m / win
2005 – $3.4m / win
2006 – $3.7m / win
2007 – $4.1m / win
2008 – $4.5m / win
To calculate a pitcher’s WAR I would normally start with his FIP and end up with his WAR value and consequent salary worth. In Strasburg’s case I must work backwards, starting with his presumed salary. I think it is safe to assume at this point he will spend one year at most of his contract in the minors, which leaves him with five years of major league service to produce $50 million worth of wins.
You might have noticed that the dollar amount per win increased by about 10% each year from ’02-’08, so we can expect the dollar per win amount numbers for ’10-’14 to be roughly as follows:
2010 – $5.45m / win
2011 – $5.99m / win
2012 – $7.25m / win
2013 – $7.97m / win
2014 – $8.77m / win
Because of the increase each year Strasburg will be rewarded for improving, as the later into his contract he goes the more each win is worth towards making up for the contract amount. But for these purposes we will average the dollar per win amount to $7.09m, which means Strasburg must generate about seven wins over the course of his contract.
For comparison here are some of the league’s top pitchers’ first five year WAR totals. Josh Beckett: 14.7; Jake Peavy: 14.6; Felix Hernandez (including this year): 16.4. We quickly see that if Strasburg can live up to even half the hype surrounding him he will justify the contract; unfortunately, injuries and a multitude of other problems are often cause for the derailment of a young player’s career.
No matter the amount of build-up around a draftee, no one is immune – just ask Mark Prior. And I don’t think it is unfair to say that despite all of his other-wordly talent, history is against Strasburg becoming an elite pitcher. Nevertheless, living up to his first contract is much more reasonable; after all, the pitcher closest to accumulating seven WAR over the past five years is Jeff Suppan. If Strasburg pitches well enough to propel himself through the minors I would not at all be surprised to see him at least justify this potential contract.
I would like to thank FanGraphs for their work with WAR. Go here if you would like to read all the articles explaining how WAR is computed. I did not delve much into the whole process in this article as I would have had to assume too many numbers to continue backtracking the salary->WAR-> FIP process.