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The Red Sox Spent too Much on Pablo Sandoval

Some players in professional major sports are so undervalued that their teams are considered lucky to be using with such a surplus value. The Ohio Sports Analytics Team covered this topic last year, and it was a great success in starting a thought-provoking conversation about what constitutes an undervalued player throughout the team. Due to this, we decided to take a look at the flip side of this conversation this year: What makes a player overvalued? Almost every player suggested by the team last year was on their entry-level deal, making it harder to argue for any other type of player being undervalued. When it comes to overvalued players, it is easy enough to look at former great players who were signed to monster deals in their prime who have simply aged and lost value. Thus, a parameter was set for who could be overvalued: the player must be 30 years old or younger, to make sure that there would be diversity in the players the teams looked at. 

Throughout major sports, there are many examples of overvalued athletes far past the age of 30, and the most pronounced in baseball is Ryan Howard. With a salary of $25 million, Ryan Howard is tied for the 3rd highest paid MLB player. At 35, Howard posted a career low -1.4 WAR this past season. Howard has been paid $20 million and up for the past five seasons, posting negative WAR values in three of those five seasons. When the contract initially took effect, though, he was an MVP candidate and perennial All-Star on a World Series contender. Howard is currently the most pronounced example of an aging star losing value, but he is far from the only one. More analysis of Howard will come later to prove our case further.

So, who was our choice for the most overvalued athlete in major sports? It was 29 year old third baseman of the Boston Red Sox, Pablo Sandoval. To his credit, Sandoval was a statistical monster early in his career with the San Francisco Giants. He is a two-time All-Star (2011-12), including a 6.1 WAR in 2011 and finishing 17th for the NL MVP award. Averaging a .502 SLG% in his first four seasons was another consideration when he got an extension from the Giants starting in 2012.

 

During the 2014 offseason, Sandoval decided to leave San Francisco for the Boston Red Sox with an AAV of $20 million and a salary of $17 million for 2015. So how did he fare in the past season? Not well. His WAR of -2.0 was the first negative amount he's accrued during a season in the MLB. Part of this may have been the change of scenery not working out for either party, and part might be that the Red Sox signed Sandoval at the end of his prime to a massive deal. The MLB aging curve shows that the peak of most player's careers, based on WAR, is between ages 24-26. Even with outliers, Sandoval was fitting the curve well early in his career, and was beginning the downhill slope of his career at age 28, making the deal questionable for the Red Sox. Alas, the deal was signed and the Sox had to approach the season hoping for the best. Then, Sandoval played one of the worst value-based seasons in the league this past year.

So far, we've focused a lot on WAR, and that is because WAR is the easiest single metric to look at for Sandoval's early career success. When it comes to the 2015 season, we looked more in depth at how Sandoval's contract reflected his performance. We chose to break down games played (GP), strikeout percentage (K%), batting average (AVG), on-base percentage (OBP), slugging percentage (SLG), weighted runs created (wRC+) and, again, WAR. These stats were assumed to be relevant for third basemen, but running a validity test was necessary to prove this theory. By running a regression on the total z-score (a stat we will get to soon) and the WAR of the players, we saw a .7139 R-squared, meaning that the statistics are relevant for our study, and thus we could stay on this path. We took the z-scores of all of these stats to see how players performed during the past season (sample of 141 players provided by Fangraphs), and combined them at the end to form a "Total Z-Score of Chosen Stats" statistic to broadly compare all selected players. This led to rather large numbers, so we took another z-score to give us workable numbers. At this point, we had enough data to calculate the assumed value added (or lost) by each player. By taking the second z-score value multiplied by the player's salary, we saw the final total value. Some of the key players are shown below. 

As you can see, Pablo Sandoval had the highest deficit value of all of these key players. His value was calculated at -$30,608,905.50, which is the amount he cost the Red Sox in the past season. Also seen on the chart are Bryce Harper, Joey Votto, Paul Goldschmidt, Mike Trout and Josh Donaldson, who are the top five z-score values, but that didn't always translate to value. Ben Zobrist showed another above average player; Jhonny Peralta was an exactly average player, and Yadier Moina was another below average player. Sandoval was the fifth lowest z-score, and second lowest value behind the aforementioned great, Ryan Howard. Also shown on this chart is the $ spent for one WAR during the 2015 season for each player, as this also can show some of their value. As compared to other third basemen, Sandoval ranked last out of 22 applicable players, with a z-score of -49.55 (second lowest was -28.62: Brett Lawrie), and had a value of -$181,995,601.98, which was due to a smaller sample size as compared to the 141.

Pablo Sandoval's backup is Brock Holt, who is one of the league's best "utility players," which means he plays several positions around the field. Due to this, the Red Sox tried to play Holt as often as possible as he is young and multi-talented. Holt played 129 games for the Sox this past year, while Sandoval played only 126, which already shows that they value him higher than the newer Sandoval. Holt's z-score of -0.61, albeit negative, was far better than Sandoval's, as was his value of -$327,610.13. Holt still has room to grow, and he does play several positions, but he is already a better player at third base than Sandoval who has a much higher contract. 

Pablo Sandoval is paid more than most players in the MLB, and at that price should produce at an all-star level. Despite this, Sandoval produces at a huge deficit value to the Boston Red Sox. He also produces at the lowest level of any third baseman out of our study based on a Fangraphs data set. And out of 141 players in a larger study, Sandoval was the fifth worst, with only Ryan Howard being significant below him. Due to Howard's age, his overvaluation is warranted and even expected, so he produces a smaller negative effect to his team. Sandoval, however, is only 29, so he should be in his prime. While in his "prime" during 2015, he posted a negative WAR of -2.0, a z-score of -8.75 (based on GP, K%, AVG, OBP, SLG, wRC+ and WAR), and an overall deficit value of -$30,608,905.50.

Other groups presented players from the other major sports leagues, giving us a broad spectrum of players to look at. After comparing and contrasting as a group, we decided that Pablo Sandoval is the most overrated player in professional sports.