Cognitive Dissonance is a theory in Psychology stating that humans tend to strive for internal consistency. That is, when people are confronted with evidence to contradict their previously held beliefs, they tend to dismiss the new information to reduce anxiety and avoid the psychological discomfort of holding two simultaneous conflicting ideas.
The most classic example of this phenomenon can be found in Aesop’s fable “The Fox and the Grapes”. In Aesop’s tale, when a hungry fox is unable to reach grapes hanging from a tree, he later concludes that the grapes are sour and not worth eating. This fable gave birth the term “Sour Grapes” (which would later be heavily misused throughout popular culture).
Nowhere is this phenomenon better demonstrated, however, than in the case of Jayson Werth and his $126 million, 7-year contract. When Werth signed with the Nationals before the 2011 season, his contract was almost universally panned–seen as a desperate overpay to a non-elite player by a team nowhere near contention. Of course, quite a bit has changed since then, yet many people in the baseball world find themselves suspended in a permanent state of cognitive dissonance.
I was one of the people against the Jayson Werth contract in 2011. But three things have happened since then to lead me to the inescapable conclusion that his contract is now a great deal for the Nationals.
1. Jayson Werth had a better season in 2013 than anybody thought was possible.
Werth was the best player on the 2013 Nationals, and it wasn’t even close. He hit 25 home runs (2nd on the team behind Ryan Zimmerman’s 26). He drove in 82 runs (1st on the team), while slugging .532 (3rd in the league) and getting on base at a .398 clip (5th in the league). According to Fangraphs, Werth contributed 4.6 Wins Above Replacement Player (WAR). The 4.6 WAR is likely underselling Werth’s value, as the Nationals had nobody near replacement level ready to take his place (Steve Lombardozzi, Tyler Moore, and Roger Bernadina were a disaster in 2013). Considering the value of one win above replacement on the open market in 2014 is somewhere between 5 and 6 million dollars, Werth generated up to $27 million worth of value for the 2013 Nationals. Werth’s production will of course decline as he gets older, but his primary skill set–getting on base–will depreciate at a slower rate than the skill sets of power hitters his own age.
2. The Nationals contended far sooner than anyone expected.
When Werth signed his contract in 2010, the Nationals were still running under the reputation as one of the worst teams in baseball. Had the Red Sox or Phillies (re)signed Werth for the same price, nobody would have said anything. The thought was: if the Nats aren’t ready to contend, why are they spending this kind of money? However, since the Nationals quickly turned into contenders in 2012, and remain contenders now, Werth provides a disproportionate value to his ballclub. As noted above, the Nationals have no outfielders in their system capable of playing at replacement level—much less Werth’s MVP level. Contending teams need to spend money—and yes, sometimes overpay–to fill in the holes on their roster. Otherwise, a team turns into the Baltimore Orioles, wasting championship-caliber players because ownership is too cheap to pay for the players necessary to complete the team.
3. Baseball salaries have risen higher than anyone predicted.
The influx of Cable TV money has made MLB revenues explode, and the value of baseball contracts have exploded along with them. Werth’s $126 million deal may sound big to some folks who never look outside the DC sports landscape, but it’s only the 32nd largest contract in baseball history. In fact, Werth is tied with Vernon Wells and Barry Zito, two terrible contracts far worse the Jayson Werth contract. This offseason alone, there were five contracts signed larger than the Werth contract, including Mashahiro Tanaka, who has never even thrown a pitch in the major leagues. Robinson Cano signed a contract three years longer and almost twice as big as the Jayson Werth contract.
People still using Jayson Werth as the example for an oversized MLB contract need to pick up a newspaper.
Here is the most fascinating thing. The player the Phillies chose to sign instead of Jayson Werth, Ryan Howard, is now the industry poster boy for terrible contracts. Howard signed a contract extension worth roughly the same amount of money ($125 million) while giving the Phillies two fewer years of service (5) than the Nationals are getting from Werth. Respected baseball writer Jonah Keri wrote last month that Howard’s contract is the third-worst in baseball right now behind the contracts for Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez. It’s worth noting that in the list of 22 terrible contracts listed by Keri, Jayson Werth’s name is nowhere to found (except to say he was removed from the list).
Despite all available evidence, people will argue against Jayson Werth and his contract. They’ll say things like “yeah, he’s doing well, but he’s still overpaid” or “it might be worth it now, but wait until the last year of his contract.” You can argue with these people, and you can bombard them with facts and statistics. The one thing you can’t do is get mad at them. It’s just human nature. Those grapes are sour, and they didn’t want to eat them anyway.