What an MLB Star Must Produce to Provide Real Value at $20 Million Per Year

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterFebruary 4, 2013

Mark Teixeira isn't as grossly overpaid as he thinks he is.
Mark Teixeira isn't as grossly overpaid as he thinks he is.Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Mark Teixeira shouldn't be so hard on himself and his fellow $20 million-per-year ballplayers. Contrary to what he told the Wall Street Journal, it is possible for high-priced players to justify their contracts.

But hey, Teixeira at least deserves points for being honest. In case you missed it, here's what the New York Yankees star first baseman had to say about his big contract and big baseball contracts in general:

Agents are probably going to hate me for saying it. You're not very valuable when you're making $20 million. When you're Mike Trout, making the minimum, you are crazy valuable. My first six years, before I was a free agent, I was very valuable. But there's nothing you can do that can justify a $20 million contract.

Teixeira has an eight-year, $160 million contract with the Yankees that paid him $22.5 million in 2012 and will continue to pay him $22.5 million through 2016, according to Cot's Baseball Contracts. He's coming off a down year in which he played in only 123 games and hit only 24 homers, so he can be forgiven for feeling like he had to apologize.

But he didn't have to. Not for himself, and not for all of his fellow $20 million-per-year players. So long as they look at things in the proper context, they'll realize that they can indeed live up to the money they're being paid.

Exactly what defines "proper context," however, is complicated.

Perspective: It's All About the Team

Ballplayers with big salaries get a bad rap because they're always being compared to other players who are providing similar or better production for a much lower wage. Any player who is doing worse than a similar player who is making less is overpaid.

Fans and writers are never going to stop judging high-paid players like this, but the players themselves shouldn't worry about how their production measures up against peers from other teams.

They need to keep in mind that they play for a specific team, not for the league. They should only worry about how they're performing in relation to their teammates, and that's a matter of keeping their percentage of the payroll in perspective.

Take Teixeira, for example. According to BizofBaseball.com, the Yankees ended up spending about $223 million in 2012. Teixeira's $22.5 million salary accounted for about 10.1 percent of that, so logic says that he was a valuable player if he accounted for at least 10.1 percent of the team's production.

In this context, all high-paid players aren't the same. Joe Mauer stands out as being an obvious example, as his $23 million salary accounted for roughly 22.8 percent of the Minnesota Twins' final $101 million payroll in 2012. They made roughly the same amount of money, but there was more pressure on Mauer to perform for the Twins than there was on Teixeira to perform for the Yankees.

That doesn't sound fair at first, but think about it. There should be more pressure on Mauer to perform for the Twins, as the organization is paying him to be far and away its best player. The Yankees are paying Teixeira to be just another star.

Deciding that player value should be determined in light of how much a player is costing his team is the easy part. Now for the hard part of determining how what kind of production should be considered...

For Position Players

Teams spend money to win games, so the easy way to determine the value of a high-priced position player is to weigh how much they're being paid for the wins they're providing.

This is what BaseballPlayerSalaries.com does, as the site evaluates players by looking at their salaries and their Wins Above Replacement. The formula is simple: Player's Percent of Team WAR divided by Player's Percent of Total Team Payroll.

Teixeira and Mauer are two good examples to use. Using Baseball-Reference.com's version of WAR, Teixeira accounted for 3.6 of the 47.9 total WAR the Yankees got from their hitters and pitches. 

That's 7.5 percent, which isn't good enough seeing as how Teixeira accounted for 10.1 percent of the Yankees' payroll.

Mauer, meanwhile, accounted for 4.1 of the Twins' total 18.8 WAR. That's 21.8 percent, which is pretty good for a guy eating up about 23 percent of the team's total payroll.

However, this formula manages to both oversimplify things and make them more complicated. The WAR stat itself is imperfect and its formula varies depending on who you ask. Second, lumping pitchers and hitters in together isn't fair, as WAR for hitters and pitchers is very, very different.

Position players like Teixeira and Mauer are being paid for what they do at the plate and in the field, not for what they do on the mound. The value of position players should therefore be determined in light of how many runs they provide and how many they take away.

Measuring offensive production requires a stat that can give power hitters and speedsters equal footing. For that, the Runs Created formula is as good as it gets, as it's designed to quantify a player's contribution to his team's run total.

Teixeira's Runs Created in 2012 was 73, about 9.1 percent of the Yankees' 804 runs scored. To this end, he underachieved as an offensive producer in light of his contract.

Mauer finished with an RC of 101, 14.4 percent of the Twins' 701 total runs. He, too, underachieved as an offensive producer in light of his contract.

Determining defensive value is harder, but the Defensive Runs Saved metric can be used. It determines how many runs above or below average a player is worth on defense (see FanGraphs).

Teixeira had one of his best defensive seasons in 2012, fintishing with a DRS of plus-17. Conceivably, that means the Yankees could have allowed a total of 685 runs instead of 668 runs if they'd had an average defensive player in Teixeira's place.

That's a 2.5 percent swing in the right direction. Combine that with the value Teixeira provided on offense, and you get a crude portrait of a player who, while certainly not underpaid, wasn't a total waste of time and money for the Yankees.

Mauer didn't do so well on defense in 2012, finishing with a minus-six DRS at catcher and a minus-one DRS at first base. Conceivably, he was the difference between the Twins allowing the 832 runs they actually allowed and the 825 runs they may have allowed otherwise.

Combine that with Mauer's percentage of Minnesota's offensive production, and you're still left with a portrait of a player who didn't do enough to justify the organization's huge commitment to him in 2012.

In light of how much money the Twins paid their other players, they asked Mauer to do too much in 2012. Even if he'd duplicated his 2009 numbers—138 Runs Created and a plus-two DRS—he would have fallen short of providing good production for his 22.8 percent corner of Minnesota's payroll.

Mauer's case is a cautionary tale for other teams looking to build an otherwise low-priced team around one $20 million player. If you're not going to get off-the-charts production on offense and defense, take that money and spend it on several good players rather than one great player.

Now, as for pitchers...

For Pitchers

Any pitcher who makes upwards of $20 million per year is going to have a hard time providing a good return on his salary, as there's only so much value that can be provided in 30 or so starts.

But it can be done. Teams pay for wins, and great pitchers can play a huge role in determining their teams' final win totals, even if they're not the ones winning the games.

Consider CC Sabathia. The Yankees paid him a $23 million salary in 2012, or about 10 percent of their final payroll. They won 18 of his 28 starts, meaning they won about 19 percent of their games on days that Sabathia pitched. By this measure, they got what they wanted out of him.

Now consider Johan Santana. The New York Mets paid him $24 million in 2012, about 23.1 percent of their roughly $104 million final payroll. They won only nine of the 21 starts he made, and those nine wins accounted for 12.2 percent of their final win total. He was not valuable, to put it lightly.

Sort of like using WAR to determine the value of high-priced position players, this is by far the simplest way to determine whether a high-priced pitcher is valuable. It's also not entirely fair, as wins and losses are largely out of a pitcher's hands.

Starting pitchers have more of a say in determining two hugely important things: innings and earned runs allowed.

Sabathia, for example, worked 200 of the 1,445.1 innings pitched by Yankees hurlers in 2012. That's 13.8 percent, a fairly high number in light of his contract percentage. However, he allowed 75 of the 618 earned runs allowed by Yankees pitchers. That's 12.1 percent, too high a number for the salary he was being paid.

To these ends, Sabathia was something of a tweener in 2012. But because he didn't stray greatly from the magic 10 percent figure in the earned runs department, and because he gave the Yankees innings and they won more often than not when he pitched, his salary was not a waste of money.

Now consider Cliff Lee, whose $21.5 million salary accounted for 12.6 percent of the Philadelphia Phillies' roughly $170 million final payroll. His 211 innings accounted for 14.5 percent of the 1,451.1 innings worked by Phillies pitchers, a good percentage. He allowed 74 of the 618 earned runs allowed by Phillies pitchers, or about 12 percent of them.

Since Lee did reasonably well on both of those fronts. he gave the Phillies their money's worth even though he won only six games and saw the Phillies go 12-18 in his 30 starts.

As disappointing as Lee's record was in 2012, he was no less of a quality investment than Sabathia. Sabathia's Yankees capitalized more than Lee's Phillies did, but both pitchers gave their teams chances to win by logging innings and keeping runs off the board on a consistent basis.

There's nothing more that can be asked of starting pitchers.

Final Thoughts

Next time you want to mock a $20 million player for being overpaid, just remember that it's all relative.

All $20 million-per-year players would be overpaid if they were being paid by the league, but that's not the case. They just need to pull their own weight on their own teams, and it's not that hard for a high-priced player to do that so long as his team isn't trusting him to do the impossible.

The Yankees aren't the only team that can afford to ask something more down to earth than the impossible from their high-priced stars. The Dodgers are in the same boat as them now, and teams like the Phillies, Angels, Giants, Tigers, Rangers and Red Sox can also afford to lessen the burden on their high-priced stars by spending on other productive players.

The list should keep growing, as the forthcoming influx of national TV money and the rising values of local TV deals should result in more $20 million-per-year players and more teams that can afford to sign them and other talented players to put around them.

Teams shouldn't be afraid of spending money. They just need to make smart investments, and they need to understand that they can't stop at one star player.

They also need to accept that no high-priced star can ever be underpaid. They can only be worth it.

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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