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The Diamondbacks’ Worst Contracts: #1, Matt Williams

Surprised? I was surprised.

Matt Williams #9
  • Date signed: December 1997
  • Length: five years (1999-2003)
  • Cost at time: $45 million
  • Adjusted 2022 cost: $148.10 million
  • Production: 5.7 bWAR
  • Negative value: $102.50 million

How the player got there

You’re probably not going to get the two thousand words for this one, which I was able to write about the Yasmany Tomas signing, simply due to a lack of data. [Update: somehow, I almost got to 1,900!] The Tomas fiasco all took place relatively recently, where information was rapidly and easily available, and typically stuck around thereafter. This one, however? I guess there was Internet in those days: I mean, I registered my first domain name in September 1994 (still own it!). But it was very much a novelty. When this contract was signed, we were over six years from the start of Facebook and more than eight from Twitter starting. Hell, there would not even be a SnakePit for another seven full baseball seasons.

Indeed, the Diamondbacks themselves were still a theoretical concept, not having played their first game at Bank One Ballpark. But Jerry Colangelo wanted a star to anchor the expansion franchise, and worked a trade-and-sign deal with the Cleveland Indians to bring Matt Williams to the desert. It wasn’t the first time the Indians had tried to send Williams to Arizona, having tried to trade him to the D-backs during the expansion draft. But matters took a particularly personal turn for Williams during the 1997 season, even as he led the Indians to the World Series, where they lost to the Marlins in seven. [Future team-mate Craig Counsell scored the winning run in the 11th inning of the deciding game]

“The only situation that would accommodate my professional aspirations and the personal things I need to do for my kids, was to come here”
Matt Williams, November 1997

His first wife, Tracie, had asked for a divorce not long after he had been dealt from SF to Cleveland in November 1996. The Giants had been his only organization since being picked by them 3rd overall in the 1986 draft. She and their three children, Jacob, Rachel and Alysha, continued to live in Scottsdale, while Williams was on the other side of the country. He said, “I learned a lot about myself that year, and how resilient you can be. And I also learned how fragile people can be, too... I think that was a very big moment in my life and my professional career, and it intertwined — which it seems to always intertwine. People try to separate work and family, but oftentimes you can’t. It kind of meshes together.”

Not long after the World Series, Williams came to a decision as he approached his 32nd birthday with a year left on his Indians’ deal. Having won custody of the children, he gave his agent (and future partner in the D-backs) Jeff Moorad, an ultimatum. If Matt could not be traded to the Diamondbacks, to be near them, he would walk away from the game: “I had to come back here, because I had to protect the kids.” A deal was worked out, sending Williams to Arizona for Travis Fryman, Tom Martin and $3 million in cash. Most of the money came from Williams, who agreed to take a pay cut to $4.5 million in 1998, from his contracted $7 million salary.

However, in addition, Williams got a new, five year contract from the D-backs, worth a total of $45 million, covering his age 33-37 seasons. He would receive $8 million in the first year, then an extra half million each season after that to reach $10 million in 2003, along with a full no-trade clause. That was an awful lot of money, even for someone coming off a season where he won both the Gold Glove and the Silver Slugger at 3B. For context, the average MLB salary at the point the deal got signed, was $1,336,609. It would put Williams among the 25 highest-paid players in baseball the first season. and converts into current dollars at an average annual value just shy of $30 million.

I do wonder. When a player has said he is only going to play for you, it feels like you should be able to extract a significant (literal) hometown discount, since you are (again, literally) the only game in town. Williams was clearly willing to play in Arizona for $4.5 million in 1998. Why double that amount for each of the following five years? It feels a bit like the grand, magnanimous gestures of which Colangelo was fond at the time. For example, just a couple of months after signing Williams, the team won its arbitration case against catcher Jorge Fabregas. Colangelo then gave the player more money anyway, and raged against the arbitration system. I’d have been more impressed if 25% of Williams’s deal wasn’t deferred...

What went wrong

The final year of Matt’s existing contract, and the first of the Diamondbacks, was... okay. He had an OPS+ of exactly 100, but helped by decent defense at the hot corner, was still worth 2.6 bWAR. However, that was sharply down from the 4.3 bWAR he had produced during his season with the Indians. After the new deal kicked in though, Williams had close to a career season in 1999 - at least, by traditional metrics. He batted .303 with 35 homers and 142 RBI, although this only converted to a 118 OPS+. It certainly wowed the BBWAA, Williams coming third in league MVP voting, despite being only fifth in bWAR on his own team. His 4.1 bWAR trailed Jay Bell (4.9), Steve Finley (4.9), Luis Gonzalez (6.4) and Randy Johnson (9.1).

It was still the peak of Williams’s time for the contract, as a series of health issues dogged the veteran for much of his remaining time with Arizona. They began when he fouled a ball off his foot in spring training 2000, breaking it and missing the first 43 games of the season, and a strained quadriceps also trouble him later in the year. The high-water mark the rest of the way his 2001 campaign, where he was worth 1.1 bWAR. Though Matt finally won a World Series at the third-attempt, he had a generally lackluster post-season, despite starting every one of the seventeen playoff games for the Diamondbacks. He hit just .217 with one home-run in 60 at-bats, and managed only a .613 OPS.

The home-run came in the seventh inning of Game 2, a three-run shot (above) off Andy Pettitte which blew open a tight one-run contest and gave Arizona a 2-0 lead in the series. Matt had perhaps the best view possible of Gonzo’s game-winner, being in the on-deck circle for the walk-off hit. His 2001 World Series ring was sold in 2019: I was quite surprised it ended up going for less than two thousand dollars. Even that year, a strained hamstring led him to miss 47 games, and the problems got worse. Injury and ineffectiveness dogged Williams for the rest of his career, managing only a total of less than four hundred PA across the final two seasons combined.

Probably the worst injury occurred in spring of 2002. Taking groundballs at Tucson Electric Park, he rolled his ankle so badly, he fractured his fibula, as well as tearing ligaments. Manager Bob Brenly said, “The extent of the damage is shocking considering how quickly it happened and how innocuous it looked.” He finally made it back to the field on July 11 - only for second wife Michelle, whom he had married in January 1999, to file for divorce less than a week later. More significantly, while rehabbing, Williams made a fateful choice to buy $11,600 worth of human growth hormone (HGH), steroids and other drugs from the Palm Beach Rejuvenation Center.

“I know for a fact Matty went out there on that playing field many, many times when he was way less than 100 percent because he expected it of himself and he knew his teammates expected him to do it.”
Bob Brenly

The purchase was uncovered by the San Francisco Chronicle in November 2007, and the following month, Williams was named in the Mitchell Report. He said a doctor told him HGH might help him heal, but “I didn’t like the effects it had on my body,” and told the Chronicle he stopped using the drug that season. However, after he retired as a player, he placed three further orders for additional growth hormone and syringes. He said in 2014, “It was certainly not my finest hour in baseball. I realize that, and everybody else realizes that. But I hope that in 10, 12 years, I’ll be just known as a good manager, and that will be something that’s in the past. I’m going to work hard every day to try to accomplish that goal.”

Williams was healthy in 2003, and the team tried to trade him to the Rockies for Larry Walker, but Williams invoked his no-trade clause to scupper the deal. The final year of the contract was an unmitigated disaster in terms of performance. He was replacement level at the plate, and below replacement level defensively. The writing went up on the wall May 29, when the team dealt Byung-Hyun Kim to the Boston Red Sox for third baseman Shea Hillenbrand, and Williams was designated for assignment a few days later. He didn’t hang about, announcing his retirement on June 12. His agent said, “It was more a matter of his family. He put his family first. He couldn’t find a reason to continue playing.”

Williams stuck around the team, becoming a special assistant to the President, then buying a small part of the team in March 2005 - 0.5% for $3 million (actually, 10 easy annual payments of $300,000). He did occasional color commentary on broadcasts, then got back into the dugout as a D-backs coach in 2010-13. He spent two years managing the Nationals, came back to Arizona as coach in 2016, departing once more at the end of the year, along with fellow coach Mark Grace and manager Chip Hale. He managed the Kia Tigers in Korea for 2020-21, before returning to American as the Padres’ third-base coach this season. I’d not be surprised at all if he was a lifer in the game.

All told, over the five seasons of the contract, Williams was worth a total of 5.7 bWAR. That’s actually the second most productive of the twelve players we have looked at in this series, behind only Zack Greinke. The issue was simply that the contract was a gross overpay. Not least because Williams wasn’t that good to begin with: he never had a six bWAR season, and his last five bWAR one, was well behind him before he came to Arizona, being all the way back in 1993. Based on William’s actual production, a deal of around $15 million for the five years would have been merited. Instead, Colangelo ended up paying Matt like Nolan Arenado, while he played like Todd Frazier.

Biggest lesson to be learned

Veteran presence. It’s vastly over-rated.