NOTE: This article has now been featured in The New York Times "Bats" blog (see Kevin Brown’s Contract: Another View)
Uncle Moneybags has busted open the purse-strings this off-season. Be it Jayson Werth, Carl Crawford, or Cliff Lee, lucrative multi-year deals far in excess of $100 million have been inked as if money were going out of style.
Be it the Yankees losing the ALCS. Be it the Rangers looking to keep what was already there, the bidding war that was occurring between the two clubs for Cliff Lee’s services had offers on the table that could have ranged as long as seven years and $150 million.
As I said during the time leading up to Lee’s decision, which landed him not in New York or Arlington, but Philadelphia, it was all reminiscent of Kevin Brown’s contract.
On Monday, Dan Rosenheck wrote a piece in The New York Times’ "Keeping Score" column (see For Critics of Lee’s Contract, Brown Deal Is Not Supporting Evidence). In it, Rosenheck opines:
As the dollars and years mounted in the offers to Cliff Lee this off-season, many pessimistic observers invoked the specter of the game’s most infamous pitching contract: the seven-year, $105 million deal signed in 1998 by the surly sinkerballer Kevin Brown. His name has become synonymous with free-agent excess, and serves as a cautionary tale for any general manager contemplating a long-term contract with a pitcher.
“All I could think of was Kevin Brown,” Maury Brown, who runs the Web site The Biz of Baseball, wrote at the height of the bidding war for Lee. He warned that Lee’s suitors were “setting themselves up for a bad contract” and risked losing “all sense of common sense.”
There’s no doubting that seven-year deals for pitchers in their 30s are often bad bets. However, the choice of Brown to personify this is mystifying...
Rosenheck may not be singling me out for the piece (I am, however, the only one quoted in the article). Dan is someone that I have been interviewed by prior through The NY Times, as well as The Economist. It’s likely that he was just using me as a straw man for his position. Be that as it may, here’s some numbers that “demystifies” my position on the Kevin Brown deal.
In fairness, the contract that former Dodgers GM Kevin Malone brokered with Brown may not be the worst long-term deal ever offered a pitcher, but it’s remembered as the beginning of them. Mike Hampton... Barry Zito... there have been others. The point is, any GM worth their salt wouldn’t engage in contracts of such length unless that was an exit plan, or at the very least options that include the bullpen.
The Brown deal with the Dodgers was for 7-years with $105 million as the base salary, an eye-popper at the time, and for good reason. When accounting for inflation, that would translate to $141 million in 2010 dollars. But that was just the base. There was also a $10 million bonus, 8 premium season tickets; 12 private jet round trip, and ground transportation to his home in Macon, GA or selected games in season, plus private jet round trips with ground transportation to post-season away games. He also was afforded a suite on the road. In terms of perks, the Brown deal is consider one of -- if not the – granddaddy of them all.
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Scott Boras represented Brown when he signed in the 1998 off-season at the age of 33. Boras had represented Greg Maddux in his 5-year deal that had exceeded its value, and that likely played into talks with Malone. While Brown was coming off a spectacular season in 1997 with the Padres, by the time the long-term deal with the Dodgers would end, he would be 40, which posed risk in terms of performance decline and possible injury.
While the market in terms of dollars and years for position players were running extraordinarily high, pitchers are not position players. In salary arbitration, MLB’s method for assigning salary value to players in a certain service time level, you compare apples to apples. Comparing pitchers to position players would be a non-starter. Comparables to Brown might be Randy Johnson in 1997 ($6,325,000), but that had been the year he had come in second in Cy Young voting and two years after he won the AL Cy Young. Johnson would not earn more than Brown in the deal’s yearly salary (minus the 1999 salary that was $10 million, plus) until 2004 with the Diamondbacks. By then, he had won four Cy Young awards and was a World Series co-MVP. Another comp would be Pedro Martinez. For Martinez, who won 3 Cy Youngs and came in second in the voting twice, he only had one season (2004) when he earned more than all but the first year of the Brown contract ($17,500,000).
In 1999, the first year of the deal, Brown made $10,714,286, ranked 3rd in strikeouts (221) behind Johnson, and Pedro; 2nd in IP (252.1) over 35 games behind only Johnson; 5th in ERA (3.00) behind Pedro Martinez, Johnson, Kevin Millwood, and Mike Hampton. He landed 3rd in Cy Young voting, was an All-Star, and garnered 16th in MVP voting. His Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) was 71.6, ranking him 5th in the league, while his Wins Above Replacement (WAR) was 5.8, down from 8.4 the year prior. It was one of Brown’s best years under the Dodgers’ deal, and one that surely had the club thinking that they made a great deal. He goes 18-9, while the Dodgers finish third in the NL West, going 77-85 (.475)
He followed up 1999 with another strong season in 2000, garnering 6th in NL Cy Young voting and an All-Star selection, his WAR jumped to 6.5, and his VORP moved up to 82.6 behind only Johnson, and Pedro’s season that is considered one of the best all-time.
But it’s here that the wheels fall off, and why looking at long-term pitcher contracts from selected years often runs into a wall.
In 2001, Brown injures his neck and then in July tears his flexor muscle in his right elbow. Because of it, he winds up throwing almost half the innings pitched from the year prior (115.2) over 19 games. His salary, locked in at $15,714,286 over the remainder of the seven year deal hangs with Brown through 2002 where he musters just 63.2 IP over 10 games where his WAR drops into negative numbers (-0.4).
Brown bounces back in 2003, landing an All-Star selection, goes 14-9 with a 2.39 ERA, which lands him 3rd best in the league over 211 IP, not as great as he was early on in the contract, but still 26th overall in Innings Pitched.
In the off-season, the Dodgers, wisely seeing that Brown has gained at least some value back after his elbow injury, trade him to the Yankees who are looking for someone to fill-in for the departed Andy Pettitte. The trade saved Malone from not being the only one smitten with a career spike. The Bombers give the Dodgers Jeff Weaver and two minor league prospects. To add, the Yankees throw in $3 million cash in the deal and agree to pay $1.5 million a year on the remainder of Weaver’s $9.25 million contract.
It turns into a disappointment for the Yankees. At 39, Brown goes 10-6 with a 4.09 ERA in 122 IP, 79 fewer than he threw the year prior in his final year with the Yankees. It wasn’t terrible but far from worth close to $16 million. His WAR is now 2.5.
His final year in the Majors, he has 13 game starts, goes 4-7 with a 6.50 ERA and a -0.9 WAR.
Breaking it down, what you get with Kevin Brown is really 3.5 exceptional years (1999 thru July of ’01 and 2003) and 3.5 years of injury and decline. His 7-year, $105 million deal winds up looking like this:
72-45 (.585) with a 3.72 ERA over 172 games and 1076.2 IP.
To wrap this up…
There’s a reason the Phillies had only given 3-year deals to pitchers… Until Cliff Lee’s 5-year contract this off-season. It was due to risk.
The Dodgers didn’t ink the deal with Brown thinking about only getting half of the years in value. And remember, this is during the steroid era. While Brown never tested positive, he was linked to the Mitchell Report (see page 263 – PDF) through Kirk Radomski who said Brown contacted him after the injuries in 2001 asking about hGH. According to Radomski, over the next two or three years he sold performance-enhancing substances to Brown five or six times.
Maybe the best person to speak about whether the Kevin Brown deal was good or bad was the man who made the deal for Kevin Brown in the first place.
“Did it make sense?” Kevin Malone said to The New York Times in early Dec. “No. Seven years for a pitcher is a lifetime. It’s just scary, and any general manager who tells you it isn’t, well, I’m not sure what calculations they are going by.”
When you want to talk bad pitcher contracts, you start with the Kevin Brown deal with the Dodgers due to it being a shining example of the risks (and high salary) associated with it. That shouldn’t be mystifying.
NOTE: Kevin Brown should never be considered a bad pitcher by any stretch due to the Dodgers signing him to a long contract. Indeed, Brown is on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time this year. The announcement of who is elected to the HOF will take place Weds. at 2pm ET.
Maury Brown is the Founder and President of the Business of Sports Network, which includes The Biz of Baseball, The Biz of Football, The Biz of Basketball and The Biz of Hockey, as well as a contributor to FanGraphs and Forbes SportsMoney. He is available for hire or freelance. Brown's full bio is here. He looks forward to your comments via email and can be contacted through the Business of Sports Network.
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