Examining the Biggest 2023 MLB Position Player Contracts
By Robert Reyes
Every year, contracts handed out to MLB players rise in value. Millions and millions of dollars are thrown at free agents by teams in hopes to sign the biggest names on the market. This year was no different, as Aaron Judge (9 years, $360 million, $40 Annual Average Value), Rafael Devers (11 years, $331 million, $30 Annual Average Value), Trea Turner (11 years, $300 million, $27 Annual Average Value), Xander Bogaerts (11 years, $280 million, $25 Annual Average Value), and Carlos Correa (6 years, $200 million, $33 Annual Average Value) signed the biggest contracts among hitters (note: this article was written before Manny Machado signed his extension). However, these contracts are not guaranteed success. Many great baseball players, such as Albert Pujols, have signed long term contracts that have aged poorly, as injuries and aging start to affect players in the middle of these contracts. Aaron Judge, Trea Turner, and Xander Boagerts, will be 39, 40, and 41 respectively when their contracts expire. Carlos Correa will be 34, but has injury concerns that caused the Giants and Mets to back out of 13 and 12 year deals they had agreed with Correa to. Even Rafael Devers, a relative youngster in the MLB, will be 37 by the end of his contract. Year-to-year variation is a significant factor as well, as some players get lucky one year, unlucky. One would expect a regression to the mean over the life of their contract, which means luck needs to be accounted for as well. We will examine how each of these factors will impact the chosen players, and then make judgements on how these deals might play out in the future.
Effects of Aging
When considering these long term contracts, a check to see how well a player’s skills will age is an important tool to see how successful a contract might be. When a player gets older, they start to swing slightly slower than before. Although it may not seem like much, when facing 95+ mph pitches, it can make a world of difference. Thus, to measure this, we will examine chase rate and whiff%. Chase rate measures how often a player swings at a pitch outside the strike zone, while Whiff% is how often a player misses a pitch that they swing at. Although a younger player can have a high chase rate and still be very productive, it is because they are able to make contact with the ball when it is in the zone more frequently, making up for chasing a higher number of pitches. Also, a younger player’s bat speed is quick enough to make contact on more balls out of the zone, allowing a younger player to maintain good production even on balls out of the zone. This is not a skill that ages well, and when their swing slows, hitters miss a lot more chased pitches and make contact on less pitches in the zone. A low chase rate is good because it means as a hitter ages, their production will not fall when they can no longer reach a pitch out of the zone. A low whiff% is good for a similar reason, as it signifies that the batter is not missing a lot of pitches. As they age, they will only miss more pitches, so a low whiff% means that a batter has a good eye for hittable pitches and is not missing pitches when their bat speed is still elite. Now, let’s see how well our five chosen players compare to other qualified hitters (min. 502 plate appearances) in 2022.
The blue lines represent the average whiff% and chase rate among qualified hitters. Here, the desired area of the graph is the bottom left quadrant, as a batter wants a low chase rate and low whiff%. Of our five players, Carlos Correa is the only one who is above average in both whiff% and chase rate. Aaron Judge has an impressive chase rate, but a poor whiff%. Trea Turner, Rafael Devers, and Xander Bogaerts are all below average in both of these categories. Each player is likely to adjust and swing at less pitches out of the zone as they get older and are forced to make changes, but this is a good indicator as to who might be the most successful.
Another important comparison to make is with walks and strikeouts. As hitters age, they not only lose bat speed, but power as well. Both of these factors make drawing walks more important the older a player gets. Drawing more walks than striking out shows an ability to see the strike zone well and not swing at pitches out of the zone, which we have already said is a crucial skill in the aging process.
The blue line represents the average BB% and average K% for qualified hitters. Here, a batter wants to be in the top left quadrant, as a batter wants a lot of walks but not a lot of strikeouts. Of our five players, only Xander Bogaerts is above average in both categories. Trea Turner and Rafael Devers are both above average in K% but below average in BB%, while Aaron Judge and Carlos Correa are both above average in BB% but below average in K%. All five players have positive signs here as they age, and we would expect them to work on the areas where they could improve in order to preserve their game.
Effects of Luck
As discussed, luck can either inflate or deflate a player’s stats. It is unlikely that a player would continue to be either lucky or unlucky for a long period of time, and over a career you would expect the amount of luck a player has to be pretty low. To measure luck, we will take a look at wOBA vs. expected wOBA (xwOBA) from 2022. wOBA is a sabermetric statistic that replaces the traditional slash line (batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS). It manages to encapsulate all of these measurements into one number that can better be used to compare how often a batter gets on base and how far they get. xwOBA is merely the expected wOBA based on the exit velocity, the launch angle, and many other factors. It is a calculation that measures what we expect would happen on every hit, whether it be a single, double, ground out, or anything else. We can compare these two statistics to get a sense of how much luck impacted a player’s statistics. For example, maybe a player was very unlucky and had three home runs robbed, and fielders made some other great defensive plays against them. Or, a player could benefit from bad defense that was not counted as an error, and get a few extra bases or hits because a fielder misjudged a ball. This comparison of qualified hitters across the league can show how much luck our five players received last year.
Here, the blue line shows how the average xwOBA compared to the average wOBA among qualified hitters. Players above the blue line had a comparatively higher xwOBA than wOBA, meaning that their expected statistics were better than their actual statistics and they must have gotten unlucky during the season. Players below the blue line had a comparatively higher wOBA than xwOBA, meaning they did better than their performance would have expected, meaning they benefited from luck during the season. Aaron Judge, despite having a monster year, should have had an even better year than he did, as both he and Carlos Correa were unlucky this year. Trea Turner and Xander Bogaerts both benefited from luck this year, and their final statistics were inflated a little bit due to luck. Rafael Devers was not affected by luck, and we can assume his year statistics matched his performance. There is one major change coming to the MLB in 2023 that will have an effect on luck: the shift ban. With teams now being required to keep two infielders on each side of second base, those batters who were heavily shifted against in the past should be able to turn more hard hit balls into hits. Turner, Bogaerts, and Correa were all shifted at less than 11%, and should not be majorly impacted by this rule change. Devers, a lefty, was shifted 56% of the time, and should see an uptick in production. Despite producing a wOBA which would have been expected, he might be able to better expectations without the shift. Although lefties are mainly the ones who the shift is deployed against, Judge saw the shift around 50% of the time. This might explain why his xwOBA was somehow higher than his wOBA. Theoretically, he should be able to turn more of his batted balls into hits.
Aaron Judge has several factors that make him well prepared to be productive throughout his contract. He has a good chase rate and also draws a lot of walks. Despite having an MVP year, Judge was actually unlucky at the plate, and could have had an even better season. He will be aided by the ban of the shift, as he was shifted against 50% of the time, which may have contributed to his bad luck. He needs to work on his whiff% and K%, as although he makes good decisions on when to swing, he misses pitches at a higher rate than he would like. This strikeout problem reared its ugly head in the playoffs, and Judge will have to tighten this up if he ever wants to lead the Yankees to the promised land. Although he somehow underperformed this season, it is probably unrealistic to expect him to hit the standards he reached this season. Even with a probable decline in production from this year, Judge will still be the driving force behind the Yankees for years to come.
Contract Projection: 6 more years as a superstar, 2 more productive years, 1 average years (9 year contract)
Carlos Correa has all the tools to continue to be successful in the future years. He has a high walk rate, and does not chase or whiff at pitches very often. He did have a high strikeout rate, but considering he does not chase or whiff he has the ability to fix this. He, like Judge, was unlucky this year, as his expected production was higher than his actual production. He also plays shortstop, an important defensive position, so that has to be factored into his worth. He is also only signed to a six year contract, so his production is less likely to curtail by the end of it. He does come with an injury risk, as a 13 year contract with the Giants and a 12 year contract with the Mets fell through this winter due to long term injury concerns. Correa, on a shorter term contract, will be a productive member for the Twins for the next 6 years.
Contract Projection: 2 more years as a superstar, 3 more productive years, 1 year of injuries (6 year contract)
The youngest player in this group, Devers still has not hit the prime of his career and should be productive for years to come, although he does have several areas to work on. He is below average in both whiff% and chase rate, and will need to refine his approach at the plate to make the back half of his contract worth it. On the same theme, he needs to be able to draw more walks, as his BB% is also below league average. Although he makes some bad choices when swinging, he does not strike out a lot, as he is above league average in K%. He also did not benefit from any luck this year, as his production matched his projections this season. Despite this, with the ban of the shift, he might see his production increase as the defense will not be able to defend the entire right side of the infield. He should be able to eclipse his totals as he enters his prime, and even after that he should be able to be a dominant member of the Red Sox.
Contract Projection: 8 more years as a superstar, 3 more productive years (11 year contract)
While there is no doubt Trea Turner is a superstar and has a good chance at winning an MVP in the next few years, there are some areas for concern. Despite being one of the leaders in batting average this year, Turner is well below average in both whiff% and chase rate. He also does not walk at a high rate, which will compound the problem of whiffing and chasing as he gets older. Similar to Devers, despite all these factors Turner does not strike out at a high rate, mainly due to his elite bat speed. Turner is one of the fastest players in the league, and routinely uses this to better his performance. However, speed is not a skill that translates well the older you get, so unless he makes a change, when his bat speed drops, his production will drop as well. Turner also got lucky this year, as he outperformed his xwOBA. Turner’s physical gifts will ensure he remains an MVP caliber player for a couple years, if he does not make any changes, his contract will end up being a deadweight for the Phillies. This will end up being a lot easier to take if the Phillies are able to win a World Series in the next few years, and they are built to win now.
Contract Projection: 4 more years as a superstar, 3 more productive years, 4 unproductive years (11 year contract)
Xander Bogaerts joined a star studded cast in San Diego, and will slot in as a main contributor in the side. Similar to many other players on this list, Bogaerts will have to adjust his swing zone, as he was below average in both whiff% and chase rate. Despite his poor choice of swings, he was above average in both BB% and K%, a good sign moving forward. His xwOBA was much lower than his wOBA, which suggests that he was decently lucky this year. This could explain why his BB% and K% was so good despite swinging and missing a lot. With Bogaerts, there are several areas of concern moving forward. Despite this, Bogaerts joins a team that is ready to win right now, and so if the Padres are able to win the World Series in the next few years, Bogaerts’s contract’s last few years will be much easier to swallow.
Contract Projection: 3 more years as a superstar, 4 more productive years, 4 unproductive years (11 year contract)