The concept of sunk costs gets mentioned from time to time in the game of baseball. It always involves baseball teams that cannot move on from an aging, expensive player because of all the money they have yet to pay him. If there are no better options, then that’s fine. If there are, however, then that is a textbook example of the sunk cost fallacy. It is illogical to continue playing somebody who is not the best option for the team, regardless of how much money he makes. This is done for emotional reasons, which is always the case with the sunk cost fallacy. There is less cognitive dissonance for owners to pay a baseball player to work than to cut him and pay him to do nothing. To take a quote from the link above:
"Your decisions are tainted by the emotional investments you accumulate, and the more you invest in something the harder it becomes to abandon it."
Put another way, owners will continue playing these sunk cost players because it hurts less than the alternative, even though it is illogical to do so.
Until this season, I cannot remember one time when a team parted with a player with a significant amount of years and dollars left on his contract. I am not surprised that the Los Angeles Dodgers became one of the firsts to do it. If there is one team that understands the sunk cost fallacy, it's them. As of August of last year, they were paying a whopping $87.5 million to players who were not even on the team anymore. To be fair, not all of those players represent sunk costs. Some do, such as Brian Wilson and Brandon League. But others, such as Dee Gordon and Héctor Olivera, were involved in trades to make the team better.
Not too long ago, the Dodgers designated Carl Crawford for assignment. He still had approximately $35 million left on his contract through the end of 2017. Crawford has just not been the same player since the Red Sox first signed him in 2011. He went from being one of the best baserunners in baseball to a mediocre one. His elite defense sharply declined to that of a fringe average defender. His offense declined too, if not as much as people might believe. Outside of his career year in 2010, Crawford was never much more than an above-average hitter. Since starting his current deal, he has hit .271/.310/.407, which adds up to a 97 wRC+. That is not exactly the kind of production for which he was getting paid, but it's by no means terrible.
The biggest problem with Crawford is that he was never healthy. Since 2012, he has only played over 100 games twice, the most of which was 116 games in 2013. He only played 31 games in 2012 and 69 games last season. This season he had only played in 30 games before he got cut. When he was healthy he was surprisingly passable. From 2013 through 2014 he hit .290/.333/.416, which was good for a 113 wRC+. He combined that with above average fielding and baserunning, which made him worth 3.9 WAR over that time period. Again, he was being paid to do better than that, but that is a respectable amount of production.
Albeit in only 87 PA, Crawford crashed and burned this year. With the Dodgers already having struggled with a logjam of outfielders for a couple of years, cutting Crawford was definitely the right move. At the time, the team already had Joc Pederson, Trayce Thompson, Yasiel Puig, Howie Kendrick, and Scott Van Slyke. Andre Ethier should come back eventually. All these players are better and/or cheaper options than Crawford. With teams shortening their benches as a result of believing that they need 190,823,750 relievers, there is just no room for a Carl Crawford.
Given what we knew at the time -- which is the only fair way to judge free agent signings -- Crawford's deal was defensible. The same cannot be said for Omar Infante. When the Royals signed him, he was coming off a career year where he hit .318/.345/.450, which was worth a 118 wRC+. However, that came partially as a result of a .333 BABIP and a flukishly low strikeout rate. He was a plus-defender at second base, but he was also going into his age-32 season. Even at the low AAV, four years was excessive, and now the Royals understand that.
Infante's wOBA dropped a whopping 66 points in 2014. Since 2015, he has hit rock bottom. He has hit an abysmal .225/.245/.319, good for a paltry 47 wRC+. For that to play everyday, Infante would have to defend like Roberto Alomar and run the bases like Tim Raines. The Royals will be eating about $15 million on the rest of Infante's deal. With all the money that they are swimming in from having won the World Series, they can live with that.
Whit Merrifield has been better than Infante, though that isn’t saying much. He is hitting .271/.305/.381, which adds up to a 82 wRC+. But even that is the result of a .348 BABIP, and he is only walking in 4.5 percent of his plate appearances. Merrifield does have a high line drive rate, so he might be a naturally high BABIP hitter, but still, .348 is pretty high. All the projections systems have him as a candidate for some regression, and I agree. The good news is that, while Merrifield’s offense has been below average, he’s been a good defender at second base and an above-average baserunner. That makes him worth 1.1 WAR so far, which is likely at least 1.1 WAR more than Infante would have contributed. It’s not unreasonable to project that Merrifield will have been a 2-win upgrade over Infante by season’s end. This was smart decision-making by the Royals.
That brings us to the Rangers. Last season, it looked like vintage Prince Fielder was back. In the first half, he hit .339/.403/.521 while only striking out 10.3 percent of the time. He did have a .350 BABIP, but he was hitting the ball hard, as evidenced by his 36.7 percent hard-hit rate. Since last year's All-Star break, his offense has plummeted, having hit .235/.318/.362 from the day after the break to now. This season's numbers are even worse, with Fielder hitting .212/.292/.334. That’s a 63 wRC+, which is terrifying coming from a DH.
It's not just a small sample size with Fielder. Scouts have reported that he has lost his bat speed, which is a damning criticism of a hitter. Fielder has recently hit the DL with a herniated disk in his neck. If he opts for surgery, he’ll miss the rest of the season. Sadly, this could be addition by subtraction for the Rangers.
Fielder was on pace to have one of the worst seasons that a position player has ever had. I'm talking 2011 Adam Dunn, here. The Rangers’ lead in the AL West has shrunk to 2.5 games at the time of this writing. If the team loses the division by one or two games, their insistence on continuing to play Fielder for as long as they did is going to look exceptionally bad.
It’s not like they didn’t have upgrades available; there was little excuse for Fielder to take plate appearances away from Jurickson Profar. Furthermore, Joey Gallo would almost certainly have been an upgrade over Fielder, especially since he has made good progress in cutting down his strikeouts in Triple A.
The problem, of course, is that Fielder is still owed approximately $90 million through 2020. He was originally signed to a 9-year, $214 million deal in a panic move by Tigers owner Mike Illitch when Víctor Martínez was going to miss 2012 with a torn ACL. As healthy as he had been to that point in his career, the track record of big, superficially unathletic players entering their thirties is quite poor. Fielder is also one of the worst baserunners and defenders of his generation. He would have to rake to justify his salary, and while he had raked before signing this deal, it didn’t take a ton of foresight to think it might end poorly. He is only on the fifth year of his contract and hasn’t truly excelled offensively since his first year with the Tigers.
A DH who can't hit making that kind of money has zero trade value. If the Rangers choose to cut their losses, they will be on the hook for a ton of money through 2020, with no chance of getting anything in return. That would hurt. A lot. But it would be the right thing to do. Even keeping him as a bench option just to make the owners happy would be a bad idea. Similar to what I mentioned with regards to Crawford, there is no room in today's shortened benches for a back-up player who can’t really hit, and can’t play any position other than first base. Even if you minimize Fielder's playing time, he would still be eating up a roster spot.
Of course, this has not been a comprehensive list of players who are sunk costs at this point. Other players worth mentioning are Ubaldo Jiménez, Anibal Sánchez, Pablo Sandoval, Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, and Rusney Castillo. Ryan Howard might be the poster child for sunk costs, but I don’t want to add to his criticisms any further. One could probably write a book on players who have been sunk costs throughout the history of the game!
I understand that it is completely against human nature to be comfortable with walking away from sunk costs, especially when that sunk cost is $90 million. Here is the thing to keep in mind when it comes to cutting ties with expensive, ineffective players: You have to pay them no matter what. Their contracts are fully guaranteed. That leaves teams with only two options:
- Keep the player and continue to pay him to hurt the team.
- Cut the player and pay him to NOT hurt the team.
Given those options, the logical decision becomes pretty clear.
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Luis Torres is a Contributing Writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.