I would imagine that this is not an uncommon reactionary sentiment among Phillies fans when they saw “fat man to be paid $214 million for the next 9 years” pop up in their Twitter feeds. That’s nearly twice as long as Ryan Howard‘s 5 year contract that kicks in this season, and Fielder’s $23.78 average annual value rivals Howard’s $25 million per year.
This is certainly not another saber-based argument as to why Ryan Howard’s production doesn’t merit such a contract—that is a topic that has been magnificently covered in great detail at places such as Crashburn Alley. Likewise, this is not a defense of Prince Fielder’s mega-deal. Rather, I would like to point out a few things about these two slugging first baseman, and about how teams make decisions about investing in players.
Ryan Howard and Prince Fielder are both well-known baseball players. Each hits 30+ home runs and knocks in 100+ RBIs every year, appealing to those who dig baseball-card statistics and long balls. Moving beyond these superficial metrics, however, reveals that Fielder is an immensely more valuable player than Howard. Even without using unfamiliar acronyms and mentioning the oh-so-controversial WAR statistic, it’s not so difficult to see that Fielder significantly outperforms Howard in areas such as plate discipline, hitting for average, hitting for consistent power, and being able to stay healthy. At one point in his career, Howard was good at all of these, and that made him an elite talent. Those days are likely behind him though, as he is a shell of his old self when it comes to the numbers.
That being said, Prince Fielder is 27—an age in which most ballplayers experience their most productive years. It is reasonable to expect Fielder to perform at a top-notch level for at least the first half of his contract. Beyond that, things become foggy. It is difficult to accurately forecast a player’s value for a single year, let alone the next decade. This is a basic trade-off that teams make when inking long-term deals: they undertake the risk associated with the later years of a given contract in order to receive the current benefits of having a bona-fide star now. The Tigers are in a spot in which they believe that Fielder’s 5ish wins of annual production will help them reach the postseason over the next few years. They are willing to accept the uncertainty of the back end of the deal in order to take advantage of an opportunity to win now.
Meanwhile, Ryan Howard is 32. Ruben Amaro extended Howard during his age-30 season, two years before he was to hit free agency. Rather than sit back and see what the market had to say about valuing first basemen, the Phillies front office seemingly decided their own market value and acted accordingly. Had Amaro let Howard walk, it is unlikely that any rational GM would have paid $25 million for him, and this is where the frustration begins: the Phillies are stuck with an injured 32-year-old on the wrong side of his peak who is making a salary above market value.
Prince Fielder is better than Ryan Howard, and his contract reflects that. With our presently available information, it is reasonable to expect that Ryan Howard will not produce at a level to justify his wages. And if Fielder maintains his superstar production over the course of his contract, it can certainly make Howard’s contract look worse. But even if the Tigers made a colossal mistake and Fielder ends up being the offensive equivalent of Barry Zito, the Phillies will continue to pay Ryan Howard $25 million every year. Being the lesser of two evils is not a logical validation for bad business.