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Alex Avila is the best value in the MLB

Alex Avila is very valuable
Alex Avila is very valuable

There's been a lot of talk about most valuable players, given the season Justin Verlander is having for the Tigers. Should he be the league's MVP? Can a player who has four days off and one day on be considered the most valuable? The voters have to come up with that answer on their own for now. (Don't fear, there will be posts about that here too before the year ends.)

So in keeping with the Moneyball spirit, today I'm interested in looking at the Tigers players who bring the best value to the team. There's a slight difference between those terms, of course. When you things of most valuable, you think of the best player on the team. But when you think of a player who brings a lot of value to the club, he's probably one of the lower paid ones who performs quite well on the field.

You might know about Cot's Baseball Contracts. It's a great site that keeps track of the contract details between players and teams. That allows you to know not just who is signed where and for how long, but also what requirements are in place for a player to earn a bonus or to have an option automatically vest. It's a valuable tool. However, Baseball Prospectus took it one step further (subscription required) by adding charts, graphs and division. Here's the Tigers' page. (No sub req'd).

Using the Basbeall Prospectus stat WARP -- wins above replacement player -- we find that Justin Verlander is in fact most valuable at at WARP of 6.73. He's followed by catcher Alex Avila (6.25), Miguel Cabrera (5.19), Jhonny Peralta (4.00) and Victor Martinez (2.67). You don't need salary figures to guess that four of those five players are earning a fair amount of money. The Tigers locked up Verlander before he could go to free agency, but it was costly. They did the same with Cabrera a few years ago. Peralta may not be making a huge amount of money, but it's several times higher than league minimum. And of course, Martinez was one of the big names during the 2010 offseason's free agency period.

That leaves us with Avila. How much money is Avila earning? Cot's Contracts tells us it's just $425,000, or about league minimum. That's because he's in just his second full season of major league baseball, so he's not allowed to bargain for his contact. That indentured servitude may seem unfair to the players, but it allows teams without Yankee money to compete with the Yankees. (Think Rays, obviously.)

So if we look back at our those same five players in terms of WAR/$1 million, we find Verlander might not be such a bargain at 0.52. Cabrera is even less so at 0.26. Peralta's lower salary helps him come in at 0.76, while Martinez was the lowest at 0.22.

What about Avila? A whopping 14.70 WARP per million dollars paid.

Obviously looking at things this way is going to favor players who are kept under cost control. That's fine. Unless you're one of about four of five teams in the MLB, you need to have a fair amount of these players to make the playoffs. Another complaint is that WARP may not favor the exact advantages of certain players. For instance, it doesn't give a hoot about closers. Baseball teams and fans, however, do. So Jose Valverde -- of the luck- and skill-enhanced 46 saves of 46 opportunities -- is seen as a rather inefficient way of spending money. Looking at the rest of the Tigers' bullpen, I cannot imagine what the team's record may have looked like without him.

Some might wonder why you don't stock your team full of cost-controlled players. Well, a couple of reasons. First off, if it was that easy everyone would do it. There's only a limited number of players each year who are going to be able to provide that value when they reach the big leagues, and they don't come with a day-glo sign hanging around their neck that screams "Pick Me!" Second off, when paying for a free agent what you're paying for is a known commodity. Avila may never duplicate this season, but you can be pretty certain that Verlander and Cabrera are going to be able to play at a level among the best in the league at their position on a yearly basis. Finally, you're paying for rarity. There aren't a lot of other Verlanders or Cabreras out there. So you want to get them on your team, and doing so assures you're denying them to your opponents.

Don't let people tell you one philosophy is better than the other, either. Simply put, the best philosophy is the one that works for your organization. The Rays aren't going to find success acting like the Yankees, and Yankees fans would not be pleased to see their team trying to win on the cheap. Each team has to find the right formula of established stars, mid-level veterans, role players and cost controlled players that work for them. "Moneyball" didn't make the A's a better organization than the others, it just found the right formula for their unique circumstances. (And honestly as much attention has been paid to don't looking good in jeans, on-base percentage or any of that other stuff, that formula was drafting incredibly good starting pitchers and letting them do their thing.)

But I digress from my main point: Telling you who the Tigers with value are.

Here's the Top 5 list:

Name WARP $ WARP/$1m % of Tigers' total payroll
Alex Avila 6.25 425,000 14.70 0.40%
Brennan Boesch 2.51 430,000 5.83 0.40%
Austin Jackson 2.30 440,000 5.23 0.41%
Phil Coke 1.57 440,000 3.56 0.41%
Max Scherzer 1.69 600,000 2.82 0.56%

As you can imagine, the bottom of the list has several players with negative WARP value, including a couple of high priced veterans. Carlos Guillen of the $13 million contract and negative return in the rare instances he was healthy, should probably be considered the worst value. Magglio Ordonez was not far away.

By the way, just how much value does Avila have? Only 4 position players in the MLB are a 10 WAR/$1 million or greater. Avila, Florida's Michael Stanton (11.82), Colorado's Dexter Fowler (10.63) and Pittsburgh's Andrew McCutchen (10.50). The leading pitchers -- all starters -- are Dodger Clayton Kershaw (12.98), Diamondback Ian Kennedy (10.59), Giant Madison Bumgarner (10.59) and Diamondback Daniel Hudson (10.58). So yes, by this measurement Avila has the most value in the MLB.