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Projecting Giancarlo Stanton’s surplus value

Stanton’s historical comps point to a promising future in New York.

MLB: Winter Meetings
How many sheep do you think need to be shorn to make one of his suits?
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Unless you’ve been living under a rock or recently returned from volunteering in war-torn Cordovia, you know Giancarlo Stanton is a Yankee. You also know that he is attached to the richest contract in baseball. You are a very attentive reader, and that’s why we love you.

Stanton’s offensive potential makes the 2018 Yankees a favorite to reach the World Series, but his actual value is more complicated than simply hitting home runs. Due to the size of his deal, he has to be among the best players in the game to justify his spot on a team. He also needs to stretch out that top-level performance over multiple years early in the contract to validate the down years at the end of the agreement.

With this in mind, it’s useful to look at where one can expect Stanton to head in the next few years. He has a 2020 opt-out clause, the exercise of which I think depends greatly on the final results of the 2019 free agent class. Either way, the Yankees have three guaranteed years of Stanton, though his age 28 - 30 seasons. Those are regarded as the traditional prime years of a hitter’s career. What can we expect him to do in those seasons? First, let’s look at a few Stanton comparisons.

To start, I pulled offensive and total value stats for all outfielders since 1994 that played between their age 25 and 29 seasons. This keeps the positional demands consistent, a roughly similar time period and an age in line with Giancarlo’s last couple of seasons. That returned 295 outfielders, of which Stanton ranked 76th in fWAR.

So right off the bat there’s a problem. That’s because fWAR is a counting stat, and with Stanton’s injury history it’s not really fair to compare him to players along those lines. This is especially true because freakish injuries that you don’t expect to be degenerative resulted in the lost time.

The next step is pro-rating fWAR over a full season, using fWAR/650PAs. Here, Stanton lands 14th in the group, worth just over 5.5 wins in a full season:

With the pro-rated value number, we can also grab our best comps from this group. Vladimir Guerrero, Bobby Abreu, Lance Berkman and Andrew McCutchen all come within 10 points of wRC+ and a couple hundreths of a win of what Stanton’s done since turning 25. That’s the starting point for projecting future value.

These four statistical comps then put up these cumulative numbers in their next three seasons, which is the same length of time the Yankees are guaranteed to have Stanton under contract:

Three of the four stayed very good, consistently productive hitters. As I’ve said before, McCutchen’s fall from one of the best players in baseball to simply average-or-so is one of the saddest things in the modern game, but even he has managed to post positive value for the Pirates. That would suggest a pretty high floor for players of this talent level.

Overall though, there’s an average of about four wins per season, which would translate to between $36-40 million in value depending on how much a win is worth on the open market. To split the difference between the $9 million and $10 million/win crowds, let’s say four wins translates to $38 million in value per year. If Stanton can do that, he’d see $152 million in value against $77 million in guaranteed cost. That’d make him a pretty good buy for any team. It’d also help him build up the surplus value needed to hedge against the inevitable decline that will happen at the end of his deal.

I think there are reasons to be more optimistic than this, though. First of all, the sample of four is skewed by McCutchen’s sudden decline. Although players do get worse once they hit 30, you generally see a somewhat more graceful decline, rather than a Wile E Coyote-like smash into a wall. If Stanton avoids that sudden drop in productivity, he’s likely to outperform this class of comps.

The second source of optimism is that Stanton does one thing better than almost anyone in the history of baseball: hit the ball really, really hard. His 2017 average exit velocity topped the National League at 91.9 mph, and insofar as we have StatCast data, it appears as though hard hit rates stay relatively stable as a hitter ages. Nelson Cruz, Miguel Cabrera and Kendrys Morales have all been able to maintain exceptional exit velocity numbers as they’ve gotten older, again reinforcing that Stanton may have an edge over the four comps from above.

Of course, Stanton could completely flop, and it wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen a superstar disappear from baseball without much effort. The best historical comparisons, though, include some pretty talented players. There’s a pair of eventual Hall of Famers, on the list, and they all provide significant surplus value. For the Yankees, and Stanton, a conservative estimate of $75 million for three years is a heck of a deal.