Braves: Anthopoulos, the Greek God of Economics

Braves trade deadline

About twenty years ago, the Oakland Athletics front office sought to answer the following question: how can small-market teams hope to compete against large-market teams that have payrolls two or three times the size? The answer they discovered—thanks in large part to baseball statistics demigod Bill James—was that the objective of a general manager is not to acquire “five-tool guys,” “solid ball players,” or “confident hitters”; rather, the goal is to purchase wins as cheaply as possible. Since there is an incredibly high correlation between runs and wins, and between bases attained and runs, what this really translates to is signing players who get on base frequently but command relatively low salaries.

Braves’ general manager Alex Anthopoulos clearly understands how to play moneyball, and the Atlanta front office has spent the past week putting on an absolute masterclass in contract negotiation. The selection of players Anthopoulos has acquired, and the deals he’s inked on their contracts, have been nothing short of spectacular this offseason. In fact, the current core Braves group that Anthopoulos has assembled is one of the best balances of cost-effectiveness and run production in recent baseball history. In order to understand just how good Anthopoulos is at his job, let’s talk about one of the best ways to quantify the value of players—the Wins Above Replacement statistic.

Abbreviated WAR, this stat provides a way to quantify a player’s net contributions to their team as a number of wins they’ve added or subtracted throughout a season. Various baseball statistics sources differ in how they choose to define WAR mathematically, but it’s always an incredibly intricate calculation. However, the exact formulas don’t matter so much as understanding what WAR actually means: it is a number that indicates how many extra wins a given player has created for a team compared to a generic “replacement” player at that position. A player’s WAR stat is expressed as a positive number if they contributed to the team’s success, and a negative number if the team would’ve been better off starting John Doe from Triple-A. 

Additionally, Wins Above Replacement is a cumulative stat like home runs or RBI, not a percentage-based stat like batting average. So a player who appeared in 81 games with a +4 WAR is better than someone who tallied +4 WAR in 162 games, because the first player “caused” the same number of wins in half the games played.

Regardless of how you feel about the role of analytics in baseball, it’s an undeniable fact that WAR is an accurate way to specify which players are good, and which players aren’t. ESPN’s 2021 offensive WAR leaderboard has the following players listed as the most valuable in terms of wins added: Fernando Tatís Jr., Juan Soto, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bryan Reynolds, and Bryce Harper. All are MVP-caliber players, or former MVPs in Harper’s case; clearly, the statistic has merit in determining whether or not a player is valuable to their organization. 

In terms of player contracts, the current market rate for expected full-season WAR is anywhere between $3-6 million per win; that is, a player who notches +4 WAR in a full season should expect to earn around $12-24 million in salary. Listed below are a few star players and what they cost in 2021 per Win Above Replacement, extrapolating to a full 162-game season to account for injuries: 

With those figures in mind, paying anything less than $3 million per WAR in salary is generally a good deal for a team. Examining the contracts of the Braves’ six best hitters—Ronald Acuña Jr., Ozzie Albies, Austin Riley, Adam Duvall, Eddie Rosario, and Matt Olson—reveals just how astute Alex Anthopoulos’s signings throughout the years have been. Adding up all six of these players’ WAR per 162 games yields 28.7 wins added, yet combined, they command only $57.5 million in salary (with Riley’s based on a pre-arbitration estimate). Consequently, the Braves will be paying about $2 million per WAR for their core six hitters in 2022—fifty percent below the market rate!

Riley’s contract in particular is even more astonishing; while his 2022 salary has yet to be determined via the arbitration process, it’s projected to be in the $4 million range. If Riley earns that much in 2022, and repeats last year’s +6.1 WAR performance, the Braves will pay around $660k for each of Riley’s WAR—about one-fifth of what would normally be required for a player of that caliber. 

To top it all off, Anthopoulos has had the foresight and decisiveness to lock these players into long-term contracts, ensuring that the team’s core hitters stay in Atlanta for the foreseeable future. Including club option years, there’s a chance that Albies won’t hit free agency until after the 2027 season, Acuña the year after, and finally Olson after the 2030 season. With the sheer genius to acquire high-value, low-budget players, and the competence to sign them to long-term deals, Alex Anthopoulos has ensured that the Braves have a legitimate chance to make another World Series run at any time during the next 7 years. 



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