Flash back to mid-2011. The Financial Crisis was less than three years in the past. Occupy Wall Street had yet to take over the Financial District. And, in Flushing, words like “Madoff” and “emergency loan”—instead of “World Series”—were being bandied about.
The newly budget-conscious Mets were faced with a momentous decision about signing one, both, or neither of their homegrown stars to contract extensions.
David Wright and Jose Reyes weren’t going to come cheap. The Mets eventually gave Wright a seven-year, $122 million extension. The Marlins signed Reyes for six years and $102 million, with a $4 million buyout for the seventh year. This occurred after the Mets declined to make a competitive offer, according to Reyes. The price for the Mets was that they created a huge hole at shortstop and leadoff hitter that they have yet to fill four years later.
Did the Mets made the right decision in signing Wright over Reyes, and how has that decision has panned out so far?
Three notes before I start: First, I’m going to assume that ownership was only able and willing to take on the salary for one of the two stars. Whether this was actually the case is debatable. In my opinion, the Mets could have generated substantially more revenue through ticket sales, ad revenue, product sales, etc., by spending the money to field a more competitive team. They also would have better protected their brand and therefore the long-term financial health of the organization. However, whether this would have been enough to cover the cost of a Reyes-sized contract would require more analysis.
Second, I’m going to grant that the Mets chose to pursue a strategy of attempting to retain some fan interest by not completely tanking and therefore wanted to sign at least one of their two homegrown stars. It’s of course possible that the Mets were open to trading Wright for prospects before his 2011 injury or that the team was prepared to let him walk. But given that GM Sandy Alderson repeatedly said he was trying to keep the team marginally competitive, and that the Mets eventually chose to sign Wright to a contract extension, it seems that the Mets were committed to bringing either Reyes or Wright back.
Finally, I’m also going to assume that the decision between Wright and Reyes had been made by the end of 2011, when Reyes’s contract expired. This ties in with the second assumption in that, if the Mets were going to sign one of their stars, they would have had to decide by the time Reyes was set to walk.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s look at the situation as it existed at the time:
Through the end of the 2011 season, Reyes had played about eight and a half seasons, while Wright had played about seven and a half. Wright had a higher bWAR (34.1) over his career up to that point than did Reyes (28.0). This was true despite Reyes having had an entire season on Wright. Wright averaged 4.6 bWAR per year, compared to Reyes’s 3.3. The gap closes slightly if we look at bWAR/162 games, with Wright at 5.0 and Reyes at 4.3.
FanGraphs gave each a higher WAR total, but the difference was exactly the same: Wright’s 36.8 fWAR was 6.1 fWAR more than Reyes’s 30.7. Accounting for Reyes’s extra year, the averages are still significantly distant, with 4.9 fWAR per year for Wright and 3.6 per year for Reyes. The gap again closes if we look at fWAR per 162 games, with Wright at 5.4 fWAR per 162 compared to Reyes’s 4.7.
The reason these gaps close a bit when looking at the per-162 stats is that Reyes had missed more time due to injuries. Wright played an average of 138 games over his first seven and a half years, compared to 117 games for Reyes over his first eight and a half. Obviously, injury history is an especially significant factor in considering a long-term contract extension for a cornerstone player, something I’ll come back to later in light of Wright’s recent diagnosis of spinal stenosis.
The last piece of our initial analysis is the money. Remember that people were asking if the Mets had any money at the time. The modified Moneyball strategy that Alderson pursues means that players’ economic value matters. Wright produced 1.0 bWAR per $1,156,788.86 he was paid over his first seven-plus seasons. Reyes, on the other hand, produced 1.0 bWAR per $1,242,535.71 he received over his first eight-plus years. So the stats say that Wright packed more bang for the buck.
The revenue side is a lot trickier. How do we measure whether Reyes or Wright was the bigger draw for fans and dollars? It would be interesting to attempt to measure the revenue a player produces in terms of excitement generated, viewers attracted, and tickets sold, but I haven’t been able to come up with a proxy for which data are available. (I tried finding jersey sales figures for 2011, for instance, but the numbers weren’t made public). To avoid speculation, I will simply stick to what we know and leave out the revenue piece for now.
Summing up, then, Wright provided more value than did Reyes, and did so for less money per WAR.
This doesn’t tell the whole story, but it gives us a decent overall assessment that backs up the decision the Mets made, which was to keep Wright and let Reyes walk. And I say that as someone who started this analysis on Team Reyes.
Next, we’re going to look at how the two players have actually fared since the decision was made.
Wright has produced 15.9 bWAR from 2012 through 2015. Reyes, on the other hand, has produced only 9.4 bWAR. Wright has averaged roughly 3.5 bWAR per year over three and a half seasons, while Reyes has averaged only 2.69 over the same period. By FanGraphs, Wright has had total 15.5 fWAR, compared to Reyes’s 10.6, a slightly smaller difference.
Wright has also provided more value, producing at a rate of $4,150,943 per bWAR, compared to Reyes’s rate of $6,170,213 per bWAR. Moreover, while Wright has missed more time, the two players have played a comparable number of games since the winter of 2011: Wright has averaged about 117 games per season, while Reyes has averaged 133. This is a significant difference, but not make-or-break in my eyes.
Wright’s issue lies in the trend. In his three-plus seasons since 2011, the third baseman’s production has followed a downward trajectory, by bWAR: 7.0, 5.9, 2.7, and 0.3, respectively. This is obviously not good. Meanwhile, Reyes has held steady at around 3.0 bWAR per season.
If the worst happens and Wright never recovers from his injury—producing virtually nothing for the remainder of his contract—while Reyes continues to produce at his current pace, Reyes will begin to have more WAR over the duration of their respective contracts by the 2017 season at the latest.
If, however, Wright’s scary downward trajectory is just ephemeral or if he returns to even half of his former self (say, 2014 David Wright), then the Mets can rest easy knowing that the results bear out their choice of Wright over Reyes.
With Wright set to return to the Mets next week against the Phillies, we’ll soon get to start seeing how his post-diagnosis production looks.