Posted November 25, 2013

What is he really worth?: Mike Napoli

Free agency, Mike Napoli, What's he really worth?
Mike Napoli, Red Sox

Mike Napoli had 23 home runs and a career-high 92 RBIs in his first season in Boston. (Paul Sancya/AP)

Over the next few days, SI.com will provide an analysis of some of the top free agents to explore just how much they are really worth on the open market. Next up: Mike Napoli, fresh off a big year in which he helped the Red Sox win a world championship.

Mike Napoli wasn’t supposed to be a free agent this winter. Last December, he agreed to a three-year, $39 million contract with the Red Sox, but when he took his physical to finalize the deal, team doctors discovered that he had avascular necrosis in both hips, a degenerative condition that kills bone tissue but can be treated with medication. After more than a month of back-and-forth negotiation, in mid-January he finally signed a one-year, $5 million contract that included additional incentives for days on the roster and/or plate appearances. Fortunately for his cause and that of the Red Sox, he didn’t spend any time on the disabled list, thus earning a full bonus of $8 million to match the average annual value of his initial deal.

In all, Napoli hit .259/.360/.482 with 23 homers in a career high 578 plate appearances. He also made an impressive transition from splitting time at catcher, first base and DH to playing first every day — so much so that he led AL first basemen in Defensive Run Saved (+10) and those in both leagues in Ultimate Zone Rating (+8.7). His 4.1 Wins Above Replacement (Baseball-Reference.com version) ranks as the second-best season of his eight-year major league career. It’s safe to say that the 32-year-old slugger is hitting the market at a good time.

What kind of deal can he expect, and what kind of value can he provide? This series is my attempt to grapple with the astronomical price tags attached to this winter’s top free agents. It uses a simple model that incorporates a player’s past performance, a projection of his future performance, the market cost of a marginal win, inflation and aging, and it builds on top research done in those areas. Rather than pin a single value to a player, I’ve shown how the changes in our assumptions with regards to any of those parameters can affect that estimate, thus producing a range of dollar values that may or may not be in line with the rumors that are floating around.

So far, I’ve tackled the top three hitters in The Reiter 50 – the ranking of the offseason’s top 50 free agents as compiled by SI.com’s Ben Reiter – namely Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury and Shin-Soo Choo. I couldn’t get to Brian McCann (fourth on the list) before he signed with the Yankees, but suffice it to say, I’m not bullish on high-mileage catchers over 30, particularly those with a recent history of injuries. The next ranked hitter is Napoli at number six.

Due to his position switch, figuring out what Napoli’s baseline projection should be is a bit of a challenge. Typically, I’d use a 5/4/3 or 5/4/3/2 weighing of his past three or four seasons, but his 2010-12 workload was limited by the demands of part-time catching, which no longer applies because he’s not a catcher anymore. Thus, I’d be inclined to prorate his offensive contributions for those seasons at least somewhat. On the other hand, I’d also apply a significant downward adjustment for his defense, as I did in the case of Joe Mauer. The positional adjustments built into B-R’s version of WAR show that a defensively average catcher is worth an additional 10 runs to his team per year over a full season — the equivalent of an additional win beyond his offensive contribution — while a defensively average first baseman costs his team 10 runs over that same span. Based on the data we have, Napoli was a mediocre defensive catcher (-6 DRS per a 1,200 inning “year”) and is an above-average first baseman (+5 DRS per “year”), so his drop in value may be considerably less.

In the end, I did a whole lot of boring spreadsheet-based math that didn’t move the needle very much; my rough projection for 3.5 WAR for 2014 is 0.1 wins lower — one run less — than his weighted three-year average. So we’ll start there, accompanied by a five percent rate of inflation and a cost per win of $5.276 million. Instead of my typical starting point of a 0.4 wins per year decline due to age, I’m going to bump that up to 0.5 to account for Napoli being a couple of years older than the other players I’ve examined so far, and more likely to wind up DHing at least part of the time. I’m also going to stick to a four-year projection since there hasn’t been any noise about a deal as long as the ones Ellsbury or Choo may be seeking. Given all of that, here’s what 2013 and his next four years might look like:

Year  Age  WAR  Market $/W Prod $
2013 31 4.1 5.28 21.6
2014 32 3.5 5.54 19.4
2015 33 3.0 5.82 17.5
2016 34 2.5 6.11 15.3
2017 35 2.0 6.41 12.8

That last column is an estimate of the free-market value of Napoli’s annual production in dollars, simply his WAR multiplied by the estimated cost per win. For the four-year period, that’s a total of 11.0 WAR valued at $64.9 million. If I’m more generous with his decline, limiting the decay to 0.4 WAR per year, the values rise to 11.6 WAR and $68.7 million, while if I move the same distance in the other direction, to 0.6 WAR lost per year, the numbers drop to 10.4 WAR and $61.2 million. Relative to the previous entries in this series, the shorter timespan in question leads to considerably less divergence when it comes to assumptions regarding how he’ll age.

Previously, I’ve made the case that the dollars per win figure is likely higher for a contender whose playoff chances increase exponentially with each additional win, since reaching the playoffs allows them to tap into an additional revenue stream. Solid research on the topic has provided estimates in the $6-7 million range. If I instead use $6 million per win while going back to my initial estimate (0.5 WAR decline per year), those 11.0 WAR are instead worth $73.8 million; bracketing the decline 0.1 WAR in either direction as I did above yields values of $78.1 million and $69.6 million.

If I’m particularly generous at every turn, starting with 3.8 WAR for 2014 — the highest value yielded by my attempts to adjust for playing time and position-shifting — with a decline of 0.4 per year, and $6 million per win, that bumps the yield to 12.8 WAR and $86.2 million. At a decline of 0.5 WAR per year, that’s 12.2 WAR and $82.0 million; at a decline of 0.6 WAR, it’s 11.6 WAR and $77.8 million, and even a decline of 0.7 WAR per year yields 11.0 WAR and $73.5 million.

All of these estimates are above $60 million over four years, and most of them are below $80 million, for a range of annual salary between $15-20 million. By comparison, McCann received $17 million per year as a catcher who’s two years younger than Napoli and is expected to transition to first base or DH by the end of his contract. Moreover, he did so coming off a season in which he set a career low for playing time and didn’t quite recover to his pre-injury level with the bat. Like Napoli, he also carried the cost of a lost first-round pick as a player who had received a qualifying offer.

Thus, I think it’s reasonable to expect Napoli to match that annual value and bring home something in the neighborhood of four years and $68 million. In the unlikely event he finds a taker for five years, I’d expect to see a drop in average annual value, but I expect his hip condition, dormant as it may be, will prevent that from happening. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be surprised if he returns to Boston on a three-year deal at a slight premium above $17 million, with some kind of vesting option to go to a fourth year. Like any bopper in this limited market, he’s going to get paid.

18 comments
rbeane1956
rbeane1956

looks like he got ripped off by the Red Sox only 2 years $32 million! go figure that!

ineedataxi
ineedataxi

Just once I would like to read a baseball article without all the stats geek sabermetric WAR nonsense

Brian K1
Brian K1

You can't treat avascular necrosis (AVN) with medication, I have it in most of my joints and it's degenerative and untreatable. If Mike Napoli found some magic cure it would be pretty great to share it with the world.

HF4th
HF4th

This guy is a winner wherever he goes, so he's long overdue for a fat payday. But why would his hip condition be a factor if he's no longer catching? And aside from WAR which is a crap shoot in the post season, how much is a guy worth who gets at least 2 or 3 clutch hits in the playoffs that you can't win without? Wake me up when you come up with a stat for heart. Until then, WAR gets a fail for incomplete.

EnashWaca
EnashWaca

Did Napoli's agent write this?

oasis1994
oasis1994

I said I would never read another Jaffe article, but I lied; it would be ignorant of me not to read one.

Again, Jaffe you are the worst of the worst of the sports writers out there. You are as bad as Brian Kenney. You think athletes are worth a ton of money and you even said Cano was worth 300 million???

You know a lot about sports, but at the same time you know nothing. There is NO stat out there on age and health. One cannot predict WAR for any player. Even Mike Trout is unpredictable in terms of health. One never knows what can or could happen.

Napoli struck out way too much for my liking, but he did come through when the Sox needed him throughout the season. He won some very important games for the Sox, but he also went through stretches where he looked lost. He reminds me of Brian Daugback (I forget how to spell his last name). He is a streaky hitter and when he is on, he is on.

I personally hate sabermetrics and WAR and all that. I do not discard it and I think there is some value in it, but I like watching a player and seeing how they play. There is no stat for that and there is many more factors than just stats.

WestcoastMD
WestcoastMD

What a ridiculous article. All the hypotheticals, twists and turns, to come up with a pie-in-the-sky contract number for a player. What garbage. This is the same approach that exclaimed Teixeira signing with the Yankees at $180 was totally worth getting a player in his prime. Same approach that heralded Rodriguez getting 2 x $250+ contracts. Same ideology that said Kemp was worth that $160 extension. Same thinking that has recently projected Cano to be deserving of a $200+ contract. The same reasoning that deemed Fielder to be worth that $200+ contract. 

What a joke of an article, and what a joke of an author. Besides, of all the sports in the world, a bunch of juiced up tobacco chewing cheaters are overpaid to begin with.

If I wanted to read/listen to some awkward sports personality with no logic use the media-machine to hype up a player, I would tune in to Kurkjian on ESPN for is fawning at every home run he witnesses being among the best in the history of the game. Please.

ss492
ss492

This article is must skip at this point. To assume a gradual decline flies in the face of any reason. Elite athletes do not decay slowly, they fall of a cliff at some point. The assume that he loses .5 WAR per season is an odd concept and most likely has no basis in reality. 

It would be more valuable to find corollary players (even if an exact duplicate is not available) to deduce potential future production. 

This is a bigger problem in the case of Robinson Cano, but still applies here. Oversized sluggers  like Napoli do not age well. And to pretend him (or more likely Cano) will be a replacement level player at 35 or older seems to fly in the face of reason, especially at a position like First Base. Yes it is a possibility , but to assume he will still be a 2 WAR player at 35 is a lofty expectation.

lenbiz68
lenbiz68

Okay...all this bragging for a streaky hitter who, in his first and only year in a Sox uniform, set the all-time team record for strikeouts!  

How many men did he leave in scoring position with those strikeouts, especially with less than 2 outs?  How many games did he cost the Red Sox from June to August?

And, yes, his hip condition will worsen as he ages.  It will NOT get better.

Yes, he got a few big hits.  But if that equates to a McCann deal, then some reporter or the owner who signs him to a multi-year deal is a complete idiot!

Offer him the same deal he got last year before he was found to be damaged goods...3/39.  If he balks, let him walk! 

William27
William27

a fool and his money is soon parted

he is a financial time bomb waiting to go off

what a bunch of fools with too much money (team management)

WestcoastMD
WestcoastMD

@oasis1994 I absolutely despise articles like this. These writers just keep hyping up players, getting them more lucrative and ludicrous contracts. How in the world anyone can put together hypothetical statistics to justify 300 million for Cano is beyond me. How that type of article is attached to a reputable entity like SI is beyond me. How any of us continue to read that garbage despite the insane premises is beyond me.

oasis1994
oasis1994

Also, how do you put a value on someone and say they are worth 15 - 30 million? I know that is the going rate now, but seriously where does this end? 

I predict in the next 10 years baseball will become way too much for the average person to attend a game and families will no longer be able to go (Not just baseball, but all the major sports). WIth that, just wait.... owners will see the drop in attendance and I would not be shocked if we all have to start paying to watch games on TV.

lazaro
lazaro

@WestcoastMD At least Mr. Jaffee has stats to back his positions. Unlike you.

DaveT1000
DaveT1000

@ss492 I agree, and Napoli's hip condition highlights something that Jaffe doesn't really take into account: the longer a contract, the greater the risk that at some point an injury (or series of injuries) impacts the player, both in terms of lost time and a steeper decline curve.

I also wonder if the 0.5 WAR per season is skewed by a couple of factors.  First, the PED era.  Second, the simple fact that players who age really badly will end up dropping out of the sample because they end up out of the game, so the sample set is biased toward players who aged relatively well. 


HF4th
HF4th

@oasis1994 @HF4th The major flaw with WAR is that it treats all performance the same and makes no differentiation between regular season exhibition stats and the heart it takes for clutch play in October. These data gurus act like the game is played by arbitrary numbers instead of hot players with the right stuff.  

CamThomas
CamThomas

@oasis1994 @HF4th so you build your team of gomes victorino and the like and I'll build mine with the top WAR producer at each position and we'll see whose wins more baseball games, sound good?

oasis1994
oasis1994

@HF4th @oasis1994 

Great point. Take a look at Victorino and Gomes. I could care less what their WAR was; they showed up to play everyday and played with heart. Again, there is no stat for heart. If these writers ran a team they would be below .500 and have a team filled with All Stars.