Stephen Strasburgs Contract, in Context

Being a Nationals fan in 2022 involves asking yourself a lot of painful questions. Will Juan Soto get traded? Will Cesar Hernandez go the entire season without a HR? Will Patrick Corbin lead the league in losses...again? There's a lot on Nats fan's minds these days, and honestly, not much of it is positive.

But there’s one depressing question that I ask myself more often than any other. Is Stephen Strasburg's contract the worst in MLB?

There's certainly reason to think so. An AAV of 35M, running through 2026, for a pitcher who's barely pitched since re-signing in 2020. But, let's put aside frustration and look at the actual numbers. Mathematically, is there any team out there paying more money, for less production?

First, some background of how I investigated this:

I pulled 2022 salary data off of Spotrac for all players receiving an MLB salary this year. I understand there is more that goes into evaluating a contract than just one year, but for simplicities sake, let’s focus on 2022. Although the future may look dismal, for now, all we can go on is what's actually occurred. So, for the purposes of this post, I will only be focusing on 2022.

I used 2022 FWAR to get a base level of 2022 performance. I understand that WAR isn’t a perfect stat, but it’s a simple way to compare how good two players might be performing (or, for this post, how bad). I don't have a particularly strong opinion on FWAR vs BWAR, but since FWAR was easier to access online for free, I went with that method. For those unfamiliar, Baseball Reference and Fangraphs calculate WAR separately using different statistics and methodologies, and there can be somewhat significant differences between a player's WAR on each site.

My last assumption is about the monetary value of 1 WAR. Basically, in 2022, how much is a team typically willing to pay in free agency for 1 WAR? I found a few different estimates online, ranging from 7-9M per win. I decided to go with Craig Edwards' estimate from 2020 of 8M per WAR (The link to that article is at the bottom of this post). Although not perfect, this is a generalization of what a single WAR might be worth, so we can compare value across each player and their salary. I felt most comfortable with this particular value, despite it being calculated in 2020, because it was based on data before the effects of the pandemic depressed FA spending. Additionally, the majority of the larger FA contracts in this dataset were signed before 2020.

So, to begin, here are 2022's highest paid players.

Highest AAV contracts, 2022

To begin calculating value, I used the 8M/WAR ratio above to calculate how much positive value a player "should" be generating based on their salary. A player with a 8M salary is expected to produce 1 WAR across the season, a 16M player would be expected to produce 2 WAR, etc.

Highest AAV contracts, with Expected WAR included

However, as we are only about 60 percent of the way through the season (at the time of writing, each team had played between 96 and 100 games), I multiplied each players WAR by (162/98), or 1.65, to find what WAR they are on pace for assuming a full season. This way, a full year's salary can be compared to a full year WAR.

Highest 2022 AAV contracts, with WAR and Prorated WAR

Lastly, I simply found the difference between the players "expected WAR" and the WAR they are on pace to produce in reality, giving us their "WAR Gap". Here is the data, with the largest "underperformers" sorted to the top of our dataset.

Biggest "Underperformers", relative to salary

Strasburg is not first. Or last, depending on how you want to think about it. However, he does have some pretty unfortunate company at the top of this leaderboard.

Our, uhh...leader, Nick Castellanos is being paid 20M this year and has produced –1.4 WAR for the Phillies. Oof. Let's see why:

Nick Castellanos Fwar, 2013-Present

Fangraphs hates Castellanos' defense, which isn't surprising given his reputation - Castellanos has never been an above average defender in any season. The reason why he's such a drag this year is because he's having his worst offensive season of his career, with low power and OBP. Even his baserunning is below average.

Jacob DeGrom and Trevor Bauer come in 2nd and 4th, which isn't exactly surprising given neither has pitched this year. However, DeGrom is nearing a return, so he will likely fall down this list quickly once he begins pitching again. As for Bauer...well, the less said about him, the better.

Miguel Cabrera is in 3rd, as FanGraphs is not a fan of his hitting (despite a .287 average, he is only slugging .356) and negative defensive value. Coupling his negative WAR with his large contract, it's enough to put him in 3rd, and 2nd among players who are actually playing this year.

And in fifth place is Stephen Strasburg. Reasonably, the fact that he is only pitched a handful of innings makes him comparable to DeGrom and Bauer, but is "saved" by a slightly smaller salary then the other two.

So, in conclusion, does Strasburg have the worst contract in MLB? Mathematically, not this year. But it sure is close. Regardless, the future is not looking bright.

I'm sure the Nationals fans reading this are probably wondering where Patrick Corbin and his 6.02 ERA are on this list. Somewhat surprisingly, Fangraphs credits Corbin with .9 WAR, so based on the methods I employed, Corbin actually ends up 44th. Not great, but better than I was expecting. (Note: Between writing/calculating and publishing, Corbin lasted just 2/3 of an inning in his most recent start against the Dodgers, giving up 6 ER, and increasing his ERA to 6.51. This one start alone shaved .2 off of his FWAR. Ouch).

So, is this some super insightful look into MLB contracts? No, of course not. This is just one way of trying to calculate the worst contract in MLB. I could alternatively used BWAR, or taken into account total value across the entire life of a contract, or made a different assumption as to what monetary value a single WAR is. Adjusting any of those parameters might yield a different conclusion, and I totally get that. But I think this analysis is a relatively effective, simple way to go about answering my question.

Since we've come this far, let’s also look at the other end of the leaderboard. Who is generating the most "excess" WAR for their team? I would expect to find a lot of players in their first three years of service here, and although we find some, I was somewhat surprised I didn't see a list almost entirely comprised of players making the MLB minimum.

Instead, we have a pretty good mix of minimum salaries, arbitration eligible players, and extended players. Notably, there aren't any "traditional" FA's here, as Goldschmidt and Ramirez agreed to their extensions while still under contract, and Ohtani was an International FA. What that says about the state of compensation of baseball is troubling, but a question for another day.

So, who's the most valuable player in 2022, relative to their salary? Of course it's Shohei Ohtani. I suppose both hitting and pitching at an all star level does tend to make you pretty valuable. In 2022, no matter what question you start with, there's a pretty good chance one of the answers you'll end up with is Ohtani. Go figure.

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Relevant Links

MLB Player Salaries -

2022 FWAR -

Cost of One War -

Nick Castellanos Fwar -

Miguel Cabrera Fwar -

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