The Worst Contract in MLB History

Through the history of our great game, teams have been lulled into many bad contracts by rewarding players with massive contracts to make up for the years prior to their first taste of free agency. Players in the major leagues (regardless of talent level) make the league minimum, or close to it, for the first three or four years in the majors then spend the next three seasons finally starting to get paid back some of the money they’ve earned for the club. After his reaching eligibility for free agency in 2016, the Orioles rewarded superstar slugger Chris Davis with a massive seven-year contract worth $161 million. It’s come to a point, in the fourth year of that contract, that this is proving to be the worst investment in the league’s history.

After acquiring Davis from the Rangers in 2011, the O’s saw Davis blossom into the lynch-pin of their increasingly dominant lineup. Davis’ first season in Baltimore bore witness to a different player from his time in Arlington. Davis spent three-and-a-half seasons floating back and fourth between the majors and Triple-A. He played a total of 266 games, and built a decent stat line featuring a .248/.300/.455 slash line with 42 homers and a half-way decent 94 OPS+ (a stat that describes a players offensive production with 100 as league average – each point above/below 100 is roughly a one percent difference in production). In 2012, Davis’ first full year in Baltimore, he jumped those numbers up dramatically, and that was only the beginning. His 2013 proved to be the best year of his career as he posted a 1.004 OPS and an MLB-leading 53 HR, 138 RBI, and 370 Total Bases to build a resume worthy of a third-place finish in the AL MVP voting and a Silver Slugger for AL first-basemen.

His 2013 season started to seem like par-for-the-course for Davis as he continued to show he could play at a dominant level. Injuries de-railed him a bit in 2014, but he came back with a vengeance in 2015, his contract year, to lead the league once again in home runs with another 47 bombs added to his tally. From 2012 to 2015, Davis had given the Orioles an impressive 15.4 fWAR, and showed little sign of slowing down. Wanting to reward Davis for his contributions to the recent success of the team, Baltimore made the risky decision of granting a seven-year contract to a player entering his age 30 season in the hopes it would continue.

In the first season after his extension, Davis slowed down a bit, but it wasn’t enough to cause serious concern in the organization. The team managed a second-place finish in the AL East, but fell short in the Wild Card game. While it was a step backwards, a 113 wRC+ to go along with a .332 OBP and a .459 SLG wasn’t enough to start second guessing themselves.

Then the 2017 season happened.

The team found themselves with 14 fewer wins than the season before with effectively the same roster. Their rotations showed signs of slowing down with exception of young-stud Dylan Bundy and their bullpen disappeared as closer Zack Britton couldn’t follow-up his insane 2016. The lineup had a couple good pieces, but they got over-shadowed as veteran leaders J.J. Hardy and Mark Trumbo got smacked by the aging curve. And then there was Chris Davis.

The season started for Davis just like the last few: he went out and he hit the ball hard. In May of 2017, Davis posted a .824 OPS with eight homers over 27 games. Injury problems caused him to miss about half of June and July, each. When Davis came back, it was only downhill. He managed about league-average production in August immediately before going ice cold. Through 26 games in August and September, Davis slashed just .159/.260/.330 with four homers and three doubles. His OPS+ through that stretch dipped down to a measly 60. An even worse realization for the Orioles was that the team seemed to go as Davis did. In wins, Davis maintained a solid .850 OPS while he posted a .618 OPS in games that the team lost.

Things only proved to get worse as the 2018 season went by. Davis was forced to play 128 games despite miserable numbers and posting an almost-incomprehensible -3.1 fWAR to go along with a slash line of .168/.243/.296, 16 homers, and an OPS+ of just 50. The only reason Davis was so apathetically pushed into the lineup day after day was because of the $23 million price tag on his paycheck for that season. The worse news is that (including 2019) there are still four full seasons left on this contract.

So why is this contract the worst of all time? Surely, as bad as Davis played in 2017 and 2018, there must be some sort of redemption (or at least a chance of redemption) to his contract. Here are a few of the worst contracts in baseball’s long history and why they are still better than what the O’s are stuck paying.

  • Pablo Sandoval (28 years old, 5/$95M) – he accumulated -1.5 fWAR after signing with the Red Sox. While this contract was a huge mistake, it has neither the financial implications or the competitive downside of Davis’ deal.
  • Alex Rodriguez (32 years old, 10/$275M) – This was bad, and that’s not being argued. That being said, the Yankees have more money than they know what to do with and he still played well for a decent part of the contract as he posted 22.7 fWAR after signing the record-breaking deal.
  • Barry Zito (29 years old, 7/$126M) – Zito was a shut-down ace for the A’s and the Giants lured him across the bay to come pitch for the soon-to-be World Series champs. While Zito was never able to re-capture the magic he had in Oakland, he was at least a serviceable starter for a majority of the contract.
  • Prince Fielder (28 years old, 9/$214M) – If Fielder’s career-ending injury doesn’t disqualify this contract from contention, the fact that Fielder still had two or three really good years before retiring does.
  • Albert Pujols (32 years old, 10/$240M) – This is a tough case to make, but Pujols has been somewhat productive after being ripped away from St. Louis. He’s managed to accrue 6.8 fWAR since moving to LA in 2012.

The one thing all of these (excluding Sandoval) contracts have in common: the players maintained a positive fWAR over the duration of the contract. In 2018, the Orioles payed Davis to be worth -3.1 fWAR. For reference, the current valuation of fWAR places that at a value of -$24.9M. Davis has not only cost his organization a massive amount of money, but is a considerable detriment to the team as the first three years of his contract have resulted in a negative WAR, and that’s going to continue dropping as he plays. Through six games in 2019, he already has dropped to -0.3 fWAR faster than should actually be possible. At this rate, he will have cost his own team a full win by the end of April.

Here are a few notable stats and streaks that Davis is currently sitting on:

  • 57 consecutive PA without a hit (has reached base six times in that span) – last hit was on Sept. 14, 2018
  • .000/.121/.000 slash line in 2019
  • 14 batted balls in 2019 on 145 pitches faced
  • 45.5% K-rate

When all is said and done, Davis’ struggles can be attributed mostly toward an exceptional example of the aging curve. Even when he makes contact, the numbers just aren’t there as he has displayed drops in Barrel%, exit velocity, and launch angle in each season since Statcast has been used (since 2015). The problems are rooted in a single pitch-type, as his numbers against all pitches have dropped significantly, even against the cutter which he used to destroy.

Truthfully, there is no bright side to this contract for the Orioles. Davis is essentially guaranteed a roster spot through the end of the 2022 season, when his agreement with the Orioles ends. There’s no way for the Orioles to get out of the contract being that Davis has a no-trade clause in his contract, even if another team was willing to take him for some reason. The worst part of it all is that even when the contract is over, it’s not really over. The team and Davis came to an agreement to defer part of the contract beyond it’s conclusion. The Orioles have been paying Davis $6 million less than the average annual value of the deal because the rest of the contract will be dulled out in a yearly payment of $3.5 million from 2023 until 2037 (two years after the Mets make their final payment to Bobby Bonilla).

Unfortunately for Baltimore (and fortunately for twitter memes), it appears as if the Orioles are forced to chose one of two options: eat the rest of this money and throw in the towel, or keep trotting him out in the batter’s box where he will inevitably wind up turning around and walking back to the dugout. There are no other alternatives, and the O’s seem content with letting him wither away on the walk to home plate with jeers pouring down. The team has seemingly come to a single conclusion: “If we have to suffer through four more years of this, so does he.”

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Mick Callahan

Hi, I'm Mick Callahan. I'm a native of St. Louis, MO, and a lifelong Cardinals fan. Most of the time, I'm a software engineer, which has left me to be one of the resident Stat Nerds here at Diamond Digest. If you need an example, check out my aRBI+ article.

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