The Dodgers are reportedly close to announcing a five-year, $85 million contract extension with outfielder Andre Ethier with a vesting option that could push the deal's total worth to $100 million. Fully healed from a right knee injury that required season-ending surgery last September, Ethier is enjoying a resurgent season at the plate. He sits just one home run shy of his 2011 total (11), and his slugging percentage has climbed from .421 to .509. But while Ethier has bounced back by bashing breaking and off-speed stuff this year, this deal could turn into a boondoggle before long.
Ethier's comeback year has been fueled by a major improvement against "soft" pitches -- curveballs, sliders and changeups. Take a look at his slugging percentage by location against soft stuff during his down 2011, and then this season. Ethier didn't make loud contact against breaking and off-speed pitches last year unless the pitcher left it right down the middle of the plate. This year, he's killing anything in the zone:
Ethier slugged .366 against soft stuff in 2011, well below the .391 average for qualified hitters. In 2012, however, his .560 slugging percentage versus soft stuff ranks in the top 20 among MLB hitters:
Highest slugging percentage against soft stuff, 2012
|A. J. Pierzynski||.571|
While Ethier's power has returned following a tepid 2011 season, recent history suggests that the Dodgers might end up paying their right fielder superstar money for mediocre offensive production.
Ethier has a 129 OPS+ in 1,388 plate appearances from age 28 to 30 so far. Per Baseball-Reference, seven other corner outfielders (Shawn Green, Trot Nixon, Brad Hawpe, Pat Burrell, Ryan Ludwick, Jayson Werth, Luke Scott) put up similar lines to Ethier at the same age over the past decade, with an age 28-30 OPS+ between 125 and 135.
Their collective OPS+ at age 31 was 117. It dropped to 103 at age 32 and 99 at age 33. Green, Nixon and Burrell retired before age 35. And while Hawpe, Ludwick, Werth and Scott are still active, Werth looks like the only guy assured a roster spot by his mid-30s.Considering that Ethier derives all of his value from his bat (he has been five runs below average per 150 defensive games played in the outfield, according to Ultimate Zone Rating), that list of comps is troubling.
L.A. has deeper coffers with Magic and company now in the owner's box, but the Dodgers might have been better served by using the cash infusion to chase other free agent outfielders like B.J. Upton, Michael Bourn or Shane Victorino (if not Josh Hamilton), going after an ace like Cole Hamels or Zack Greinke, or locking up their own ace, Clayton Kershaw, for the long term. Ethier's deal might not preclude such spending, but he'll have to buck history to avoid become a drag on the payroll.