Giants Bring Back Aubrey Huff
I’ve gotten a bit sidetracked by life, and have fallen behind in my awards process. That said, I doubt I’ll be finishing my awards selections this year- especially with signings and transactions beginning to take place.
When the Giants signed Aubrey Huff to a one-year, $3 million contract way back in January, I didn’t care much for the signing. As a Giants fan, I’ve grown accustomed to Brian Sabean’s affinity for handing out hefty contracts to players that used to be good. The only difference, I thought, was that Huff didn’t come with the same price tag as the others. Most people—not just the saberists, but Major League executives as well—thought that Huff was basically done; a shell of his former self, a man that had little left to give.
But then something unexpected happened. Rather than following the trend of other aging Giants signings, Huff performed better than anyone could have anticipated. He posted a solid .360 wOBA in April and March, a phenomenal .396 and .392 in May and June, respectively, only to follow that up with a Bondsian .487 in July. Huff simmered down a bit in August (.329) before ending his spectacular season on a good note (.365 in September and October). Huff had an overall wOBA of .389, 43% greater than the league average. He has never reached that mark in his career, although he came close in 2008. And according to FanGraphs’ Win Values, they estimated Huff to be the 10th most valuable position player in the National League. Baseball-Reference had him 4th.
Talk about one heck of a season.
The Giants promptly handed Huff a two-year, $20 million extension with a third year option for another $10 million, with a $2 million buyout—bringing back the first baseman/corner outfielder before another team could up the ante. As a baseball fan interested in player value and team investments—particularly, a Giants fan interested in his team’s investments—did Brian Sabean find himself another bargain, or did he fall back into his old habit of paying aging players more than they are truly worth?
Obviously, we won’t know for a while. But we can try and forecast Huff’s 2011 season, which will hopefully shed some light on his “true market value.” Organizations are, after all, handing out contracts based on expected future production (unless you’re attempting to sign Derek Jeter, of course). Unfortunately, the major forecasting systems—like CHONE, ZiPS, PECOTA, Oliver, etc., haven’t released their figures for our pleasure just yet (Dan Szymborski is releasing ZiPS team by team; honestly, I’m too impatient to wait for his Giants projections—also, I’m always a bit cautious around the Bill James projections, which have already been released). So I’ll just stick with the simplest of them all, the Marcels. The Marcels do a few things, as described by its developer, Tom Tango:
1. Look at the performance of the player over the last three years, giving more weight to the most recent seasons.
2. Regress the player’s performance toward the league mean, based on the number of plate appearances or innings pitched. The more data, the less you regress.
3. Apply an age adjustment.
And that’s all there is to it. I’m regressing to the positional mean, though—that’s the only difference, and I doubt it makes a substantial change. Huff’s projected 2011 line:
That’s a mighty step down from his 2010, but this is more or less what we would expect from a player that’s shown some heavy decline amidst some brilliance. It might be a bit too pessimistic, but I’d rather err on the side of caution. We simply don’t know if 2009 was a complete outlier and his 2008 and 2010 seasons are a better reflection of his true talent level, and we don’t know if he’s going to crash and burn as he did in ’09. This is a pretty darn good middle ground, I think. This crude projection has Huff at +11 runs above average, and +31 Runs Above Replacement.
Solid. Now to guesstimate everything else.
Huff is primarily a first baseman, although he’s played some corner outfield in his career—in fact, of his 1,323 innings afield in 2010, Huff spent about 38% in the outfield. So he’s been out there pretty recently, and while I wouldn’t call him a fantastic defender, he’s certainly not horrendous. I bring up Huff’s versatility, of course, because of the emergence of Brandon Belt as an elite first base prospect. Belt is likely to get the Buster Posey treatment—i.e. a midseason callup—and I assume Huff will be moved to left field. My current estimates have Huff playing about 1,316 innings. If Huff were to play first base the entire time, his positional adjustment would dock him -11.4 runs. But I’m working under the assumption that he’ll split half his time at first and in left, which would give him -5.7 runs for playing at first and -3.4 runs for left field, giving him an overall positional adjustment of around -9.1. It’s hard to gauge what his defense will be like, but his Fan Scouting Report runs have him as -5 defender in 2009 and -1 in 2010. So let’s call him a -3 between the two positions. His overall fielding value is then -12.1, which brings his overall value to 19 RAR.
That translates into 2 WAR. It’s hard to estimate how much free agents as a whole will be paid this season—it’s still too early to tell—so I’ll use a standard $4.5MM per win rate. Multiply this by his WAR, and I have Huff projected to be worth roughly $9.1MM in 2011. Huff is going to make $10MM in 2011, so it looks like the Giants and I are essentially in agreement here. I’m happy so far. Now, let’s take a look at 2012.
It’s a crapshoot to project one season into the future; it’s another thing entirely to project beyond that—but Huff is signed for two years, so I feel obligated to at least give it a shot. Running the numbers again, we get this batting line:
This translates into +26 Batting Runs Above Replacement. I now have Huff as an everyday left fielder and a -5 defender, and this translates into 1.6 WAR, worth about $7.1MM. It wouldn’t surprise me if he were overpaid by quite a bit in 2012.
With some simple addition, we’ll see that his forecasted performance equates to about $16.3MM. That’s right in line with what most people have suggested, and that sounds about right to me. The average annual value would be around $8MM, which seems reasonable for a player of Huff’s skillset. The Giants gave Huff a third year option for $10MM or a $2MM buyout, but I really can’t see that happening—he’ll be entering his age 36 season, and I highly doubt that he’ll be worth that much by then. The Giants are essentially paying him $11MM for the two years if we include the buyout—either way, I’m estimating the Giants to be overpaying Huff between $4-6MM. That’s not a horrendous deal by any means, and it sounds like Brian Sabean had to step up his offer to match or beat a competitor in order to bring back Huff, who will provide the Giants with a pretty solid left-handed bat and some versatility. The amount Huff will make in his second year makes me cringe, but I can’t blame Sabean for making the deal he did.
Huff proved the projections wrong once; let’s hope he proves them wrong again.
Update, 11/26: Dan Szymborski has been kind enough to provide the ZiPS forecast for Huff’s next six seasons:
2011: 273/348/465, 20 HR, 83 RBI
2012: 271/344/467, 19 HR, 79 RBI
2013: 263/336/450, 17 HR, 72 RBI
2014: 257/318/430, 13 HR, 56 RBI
2015: 252/307/400, 9 HR, 42 RBI
2016: 243/295/373, 4 HR, 22 RBI
2 years looks like just the right length, too. At least according to ZiPS.