Dan Epstein of VICE Sports had a fun look back at Reggie Jackson's lost season with the Baltimore Orioles in 1976, his transition year between the Oakland Athletics and New York Yankees. Anticipating Reggie's free agency after the 1976 season -- the first year of free agency -- A's owner Charlie Finley dealt his superstar outfielder, and then saw Jackson sign a five-year, $2.96 million contract with the Yankees, a contract Finley would have never considered.
How have things changed in baseball? Jackson's contract averaged $590,000 per season, or about 48 times the U.S. median household income in 1977. When David Price signed a seven-year, $217 million contract this past offseason with the Boston Red Sox, his average annual salary of $31 million calculates to about 584 times the median household income.
I'm not criticizing the salary inflation; better it go to the players than the owners. But with contracts of that largesse come justifiably outsized expectations. Price entered his start in Kansas City on Wednesday with a 5-1 record in eight starts and an American League-leading 65 strikeouts. But his ERA was 6.00 and he'd allowed five or more runs in half his starts, and there has been much talk about what's wrong with Price.
The easy answer is "nothing." The strikeout rate is fine, he'd allowed only four home runs and his FIP was 2.55, suggesting it has mostly been some bad luck causing the ERA spike. Of course, it's not always quite so simple. ESPN Insider contributor Tony Blengino wrote this on FanGraphs prior to Price's previous start:
The big issue here is his unsightly line-drive rate, way up at 29.1 percent. The only surprise here is that two AL starters actually have higher liner rates allowed. This explains some, but not nearly all, of Price's difficulties to date in 2016. The good news is that liner rates, unlike the other frequencies listed above, are quite variable from year to year for most pitchers. The bad news is that Price's liner-rate percentile rank in 2015 was a similarly high 81. Price's vulnerability to squared-up contact is becoming a thing. ...
Just 7.0 percent of all MLB fly balls have been hit at 105 mph or harder this season. Of the flies allowed by Price, 16.7 percent have exceeded the 105 mph mark.
Price believed some of his issues were related to a flaw in his delivery, in which his hands weren't moving in sync with his legs. Price then went out and allowed one run and struck out 12 in 6⅔ innings against the Houston Astros and followed that up with a solid effort against the Kansas City Royals, allowing two runs in 7⅓ innings, lowering his ERA to 5.53. Assuming his hard-contact rate was related to the mechanical issues, Price should be fine moving forward. His strikeout rate indicates he still has Grade A swing-and-miss stuff.
On a related note, some of the other top free agents have struggled to live up to expectations as well. Check out the top five offseason deals:
Zack Greinke, Arizona Diamondbacks ($206.5 million): He's 4-3 with a 5.08 ERA and leads the majors in hits allowed. Some of this is park-driven, moving from Dodger Stadium to Chase Field, and he had that seven-run debut start when he pitched with the flu. Still, Greinke has allowed one run or none just once in nine starts after doing that 21 times last season. Hitters have teed off on his fastball:
2015: .201/.261/.362, 19.4 percent K rate
2016: .402/.442/.690, 12.6 percent K rate
Seems as if it's all about figuring out what's going on with his fastball, whether it's lack of precision or lack of movement, or some combination along with some bad luck.
Jason Heyward, Chicago Cubs ($184 million): The defense and baserunning have been great, as expected, and his OBP is decent, but he's hitting .234 with one home run. Heyward simply hasn't been able to turn on many pitches. Does this look like the hit chart of a $184 million player?
Jason Heyward: One home run. pic.twitter.com/qOJbSF5Swc— David Schoenfield (@dschoenfield) May 19, 2016
Chris Davis, Baltimore Orioles ($161 million): He has been solid, hitting .250/.370/.500 with nine home runs, putting him on pace for 38 home runs and 107 RBIs. And he hasn't really gone on one of his patented hot streaks.
Justin Upton, Detroit Tigers ($132.75 million): Upton is hitting .225 with two home runs and simply can't make contact, with 63 strikeouts (and just eight walks). The strikeouts are shocking because strikeout and walk rates stabilize pretty early in a season, and it's strange that Upton would deteriorate to this extent in both categories. He's on pace for 255 K's, which would shatter the single-season record. It adds up to a very troubling start.
So that's five players and more than $900 million in salaries. Fans of these teams were overjoyed when they signed; four groups of fans aren't so happy with the production so far. It's obviously too early to call "bust" on any of these seasons (let alone the entire contract), but it's yet another warning: Buyer beware on these megadeals.