This week the New York Yankees signed Jacoby Ellsbury to a 7 year $153 million dollar contract, even though some would argue that at 30 years old Ellsbury may have already seen his best days on the field. Even if Ellsbury is still in his prime, he has a history of injuries, making him an high risk signing for the Yankees.
Similar to other recent long-term deals given to veteran players (Albert Pujols immediately comes to mind, and this year Prince Fielder may be added to the list), it seems as though these deals rarely, if ever, pan out. Still, free-spending teams like the Yankees regularly over-pay for veteran players at the top (or back end) of their careers – my question is why?
Rarely does a sport GM ever admit to making bad signings (the confirmation bias in psychology often prohibits us from viewing things objectively). Regardless of how the Yankees spin the signing (or how they will respond to it years from now if it doesn’t work), the bigger question I have is why so many seemingly talented players in sports tend to flop following a big contract signing? As I thought about this I came up with one reason that kept coming to mind — that is, the pressure athletes often feel living up to big contracts, especially in big sports markets.
In baseball, it’s tough enough for a player in his prime to play his best for 162 games over the course of a season. Many have said that hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in sports, so even without the pressure of living up to a contract things are tough enough. The problem becomes exacerbated when players feel the need to live up to hundreds of millions of dollars — even though the contract amount has nothing to do with hitting a baseball, it’s nearly impossible for players to not think about how lofty the expectations are for a guy making that kind of money. And baseball is a game of inches, making even the slightest loss of focus a big detriment to being able to successfully hit a baseball.
Social media doesn’t help, either. For most big contract players they are constantly under the microscope, especially in the big markets. In sports, the only play that is important is the next play, but for players who constantly feel as though they are not living up to their enormous salaries the focus often becomes very wide and distorted. Thinking about being the lead story on last night’s news (and not for good reasons) is just enough to take away the focus on the next pitch. In these instances, the player flubs an AB, sees a dip in his batting average, then succumbs to more media and fan pressure and the cycle continues. As the player ages, his natural skills erode in addition to battling the pressures of living up to a monster contract.
I fully understand there is an economic supply/demand angle to player signings from the club’s perspectives, but as far as players go when it comes to veterans signing long-term, super lucrative deals you can almost be guaranteed they won’t pan out.