Was A-Rod worth all that money, Yankees?

Alex Rodriguez has had an interesting few years. Ok, so that’s a big understatement. Besides the controversies, the 3,000 hits, and the various arguments with management and professional baseball catchers, we’re now witnessing something most people didn’t expect: a 39-year-old A-Rod putting together an incredible offensive year. As he heads toward the final two years of his contract in New York, two questions arise: has Rodriguez been worth the incredible amount of money he’s received over the span of his current contract? And has he been worth the money he’s getting this year?

First, it’s important to establish just how great and anomalous Rodriguez has been this season for, well, how old he is. It is pretty well known that most offensive categories should have taken a serious hit by the time a slugger approaches 40, but A-Rod has bucked that trend — in fact, he’s been close to his former greatness, at least offensively.

We can measure his success this year in a number of ways: by simple numbers (his current 152 wRC+ is in line with some of his better previous seasons — he posted the same wRC+ in his stellar 2008 campaign), average batted-ball velocity (he’s top five in the league), and fly ball/home run distance. The short story: A-Rod is hitting the ball really hard, really far, and he’s even being pitched to like he’s a slugger in his prime.

Now that we’ve established how great he’s been this season, let’s talk about the contract, and free agent deals. We often hear about teams backending contracts. They do so because inflation will devalue the later years of a deal, and they might be able to deal the player to a team who will eat some of the contract later on. It’s the free agent version of kicking the can down the road: sign the player now, get the production, and deal with the hard decisions later.

While that situation isn’t precisely the case with A-Rod — his contract was actually weighted so as to pay him the greatest amount of money during the 2009 to 2011 seasons — he’s still owed a ton of money, not even taking into account the home run bonuses New York doesn’t want to pay him. For the Yankees, the hard decisions concerning A-Rod surfaced years ago. Unfortunately for them, nothing short of hyper inflation can effectively devalue $25-30 million a year, and no other team wants to take on Rodriguez’ whopping contract.

With that primer on his contract, let’s figure out whether A-Rod has been worth the money. The best way to do that: figure out a way to directly value on-field performance with salary.

Fortunately, we have a way to do that! It’s simple: we’ll find out how much teams paid free agents for overall production (in terms of millions of dollars per Win Above Replacement) during each year of A-Rod’s contract, and see if he met that figure with his WAR total for that year. In other words, did A-Rod provide the amount of value on the field (in terms of wins) in a season given the amount of money the Yankees paid him?

Let’s look at how much money the Yankees have paid Rodriguez so far (2015 has been adjusted to take into account how much of the season we’ve played so far):

A-Rod_Salary

That’s a lot of money. I’ve also gone ahead and removed 2014, but the Yankees did pay him just under $3 million last year. For our purposes, we’re going to leave that year out — the season was a wash for Rodriguez, after all. Now let’s look at how many Wins Above Replacement Rodriguez was worth during those same years we just highlighted:

A-Rod_WAR

There are some really good seasons in there — 2005, for instance, when he led all of baseball in WAR, hitting 48 homers with a .421 OBP. He bested that mark in 2007, and it’s a good reminder that A-Rod was heads and tails above anyone else in the game at one point in time. His talent has never been in question. Against many odds, it still isn’t.

Now that we’ve seen both how much money he was making during those years, as well as how he was performing, let’s put those two figures together to see if we can ascertain whether the Yankees have gotten their money worth. I’m using a figure called "Dollars per Wins Above Replacement" (i.e. the average cost of a win to a team in each year). The specific yearly values come from this great article, and while they aren’t going to be perfect, they’re going to provide us with a great tool for answering our question.

Basically, we’re comparing how many wins (or how much production, in other words) the Yankees paid for with each year of A-Rod’s contract, and how many wins he actually produced. Values lower than zero mean the Yankees overpaid for that year; values above zero mean that they got more wins than they paid for, given the average cost of a win for that season. Let’s take a look!

A-Rod_Surplus_WAR

On this chart, we can see the general idea of what most teams are thinking when they sign players to these gigantic free agent deals: hope for great production in the early years of the deal, and figure out a way to cope later on. A-Rod is actually providing good value for the money the Yankees are paying him this year, but he had five (or six, if you count the off year) straight years in which he provided a negative return on investment. Aging and huge contracts usually don’t mix, and this is another reminder of that.

Doing a production-to-dollar comparison like this can be problematic, as there are a ton of different reasons and strategies for teams signing players to long contracts. This is just one way of looking at the value of the contract. Regardless, it’s interesting to see when A-Rod has been worth the money and when he hasn’t, given the analysis system we’re using.

Finally, in case you were wondering about the total return on investment (as in, all of the years combined on this graph above), we see that A-Rod has, in absolute terms, held up his end of the bargain: he has provided +3.3 wins over the life of his contract with the Yankees. That’s obviously skewed by his incredible seasons in 2005 & 2007, so take it for what it is.

Whether A-Rod continues to provide the sort of production we’re seeing this season is anyone’s guess. The sorts of skills he’s continuing to display don’t age well, and the odds are probably against him continuing to hit like Andrew McCutchen for very long. Still, we know two things for sure — one, he’s getting paid a lot of money. Two, he’s worth it at this moment.