In 1927, Babe Ruth played hardball, demanding a contract that would pay him at least six figures. New York’s Daily Mirror speculated that any such deal would only stretch over a single season, because “the Yanks found out from past experience that Babe doesn’t do his best stuff when protected by a long-term contract.” The paper got it wrong—on two counts: Ruth got his money, inking with the Yankees for $210,000 over three years; and the team got production, to the tune of 60 home runs the first year and eye-popping slugging for many seasons thereafter.
But as with almost every number associated with his name, Ruth’s statistical spike following his record-setting contract is something of an anomaly. Throughout Major League history, teams bargaining for big money to produce big results have often seen just the opposite. Most of the largest contracts on record have correlated with a marked swoon in player production.
The Seattle Mariners are hoping for a Ruth-like exception. They made hard-throwing ace Felix Hernandez the highest-paid pitcher ever Feb. 12 with a seven-year deal worth $175 million. Hernandez is a three-time All-Star and the 2010 AL Cy Young Award winner. And he is just 26 years old. But history suggests the signing is a major gamble.
Consider Alex Rodriguez, whose 10-year, $275 million deal set an all-time record in 2008. The Yankees third baseman produced no such records on the field, dipping sharply from the MVP numbers he’d posted a year before and beginning a downward slide into grossly overpaid mediocrity. Albert Pujols seemed headed for a similar decline last year in the first season of his 10-year, $240 million contract with the Dodgers. He batted just .217 with no home runs in April. Pujols pulled out of that slump but posted the worst season totals of his 12-year career.
Here’s a look at some of the biggest post-contract busts in baseball’s history:
• In 2011, Joe Mauer of the Minnesota Twins landed an eight-year, $184 million contract only to battle a knee injury throughout the first year of his deal. He has yet to recover the form that earned him MVP honors in 2009.
• In 2005, the Seattle Mariners rewarded Adrian Beltre for the 48 home runs and .334 batting average he’d posted the year before with the Dodgers. The Mariners signed the slugging third baseman to a five-year, $64 million deal only to see his homers dip to 19 and his average plummet to .255. Beltre never recaptured the magic of 2004.
• In 2001, the Colorado Rockies made Mike Hampton the highest-paid pitcher in history with an eight-year deal worth $121 million. Over the next two seasons, his ERA ballooned to more than double what it had been over the previous two-year stretch.
• In 2000, Cincinnati Reds outfielder Ken Griffey Jr. began his nine-year, $116.5 million deal with significant statistical drops in every major offensive category. He would battle injuries and inconsistency for the next decade, never once recapturing the dominance he exhibited in the late 1990s.
• In 1992, the New York Mets signed Bobby Bonilla for five years and $29 million. The slugger was coming off back-to-back seasons as a legitimate MVP candidate for the Pirates, but saw his batting average fall for the Mets by more than 50 points to .249.
• In 1977, Wayne Garland parlayed an exceptional season the year before with the Baltimore Orioles into a new job and 1,200 percent raise with the Cleveland Indians. His 10-year, $2.3 million contract was big money for the time but produced dreadful results that are timeless. He pitched only half-way through the deal, amassing a record of 28-48 in those five years.