We’ve heard all offseason that baseball teams are getting smarter. One of the strategies employed by those smart teams is to wait players out in free agency to get good deals. Todd Frazier signed for two years and $17 million, Eduardo Nunez received only $8 million in guarantees, Carlos Gomez just signed for $4 million, and Logan Morrison only received $6.5 million. Plenty of quality free agents remain, and the market isn’t looking robust. It certainly seems as though teams are winning and that the strategy of waiting has paid off.
Travis Sawchik found that the free agents who signed contracts during the early part of the current offseason ended up receiving about 5% less overall than their FanGraphs crowdsourced estimates predicted. In light of research by Max Rieper at Royals Review, that boded poorly for players. Rieper, who compared actual contract values to those estimated by FanGraphs crowdsource estimates over several years, found that players who sign early in the offseason typically fare much better (relative to the estimates) than those who sign later.
At first glance, it would appear that several prominent, recent free-agent signings seem to fly in the face of Rieper’s findings, though. As Ben Lindbergh mentioned in his recent post on the players’ share of revenue, Yu Darvish, Eric Hosmer, J.D. Martinez, all signed at or above their crowdsourced estimates. I would add the Brewers signing of Lorenzo Cain to that list, as well.
Is it possible that the waiting game hasn’t actually hurt free agents? Or is there something else going on here? With more data available, it might be time to revisit Rieper’s study with the current offseason included.
Rieper found that free agents signing before January 1 in the 2014 offseason through the winter of 2016 received 10% more in guarantees than their crowd estimates. Those who signed after January 1 in those winters received 19% less than the estimates. Last offseason’s crop of free agents fared even worse by this measure. Those who signed early ended up with contracts discounted by 26%, and those who signed after January 1 received roughly half of what the crowd thought they would receive. It’s quite possible this didn’t go unnoticed. With even more teams appearing to take a similar tack this winter, the result has been the slowest offseason ever.
The results this year have not been as extreme as what we saw a season ago. A 5% cut for those signing early is a departure from 2014-2016, but not to the same degree as last year. The players who have signed since January 1 have received 15% less than the estimates from the fall. If we include opt-outs, the percentage cut is probably closer to 5%, mirroring the players who signed before the new year. That number probably understates the effect, though, as 11 of the top-50 free agents remain available. Some of them seem unlikely to receive their crowdsourced predictions, as seen below.
|Name||Crowd Estimates ($/M)|
If the players above end up receiving half of their crowdsourced figure, the New Year’s discount for 2018 would roughly double, to 28% — or approximately what we’ve observed in the previous four years.
Perhaps the Cain, Darvish, Martinez, and Hosmer are all anomalies, then. By this measure they are, at least. But instead of separating players by signing date, what if we separate them by expected contract value? With help from data compiled by Max Rieper, I put players in buckets based on the estimated contract amount. Here’s what I found.
|Crowd ($/M)||Actual ($/M)||Difference %|
|Above $80 M||2408.5||2595.3||7.8%|
|Between $40 M and $80 M||1770.0||1675.0||-5.3%|
|Between $10 M and $40 M||2137.5||1723.6||-19.3%|
|Up to $10 M||182.0||232.5||27.7%|
Generally speaking, the larger the contract, the more likely the crowd has been to miss on the low side. As you see here, contracts estimated for $80 million and up have resulted in actual deals worth 7.8% more than that. If we move the bar up to $100 million and above, players have received 11% over expectations. The crowd tends to underestimate the big deals and overestimate the small- to medium-sized contracts.
And this makes some sense in the context of Rieper’s study: in a typical offseason, the big contracts tend to get signed early, with the lesser players falling in line after the market has been set. By January, we usually have only those lesser players remaining and fewer holes on teams to fill. The crowd tends to overestimate the contracts for those players, and we subsequently view those players as bargains. If we ignore the time aspect, that fits in line with what we’ve seen so far this offseason, especially with the recent, large signings. Here’s what the players with at least $50 million crowdsourced projections have gotten so far this winter.
Of the free agents who have signed so far, it appears as though it’s the ones who signed early that took the discount. Notably, this table omits all the players yet to be signed. Once Jake Arrieta, Alex Cobb, Lance Lynn, and Mike Moustakas finally land with a team, we will likely see these numbers go down. Moustakas will likely take a significant hit, but it is too early to say much about the remaining free-agent pitchers. If Arrieta signs for $80 million and the other three sign for $40 million each, we will see a 10% discount for the top players, which would represent a departure from past trends. Not counted in any of the deals above are opt-outs which Darvish, Hosmer, Martinez, and Hosmer all received. Including the opt-outs would take the estimates — even after the rest of the players sign — close to break-even for the top players.
The free-agent season has been dreadfully slow, and we’ve seen a lot of discounts along with a handful of big contracts at or above the expected market. Even after all the free agents sign, payroll is likely not to increase this season relative to last one. We’ve had to rearrange our expectations this winter because it has been abnormal. Of the top six free agents on Dave Cameron’s list from November, five have signed for significantly more than originally thought when considering opt-outs. Without considering opt-outs — and adding the expected 10% premium from the crowdsourced estimates to the top free agents — if Arrieta signs for $90 million, the top-six free agents will sign for what we might have predicted before the offseason began.
I don’t think we got free agency wrong, but it isn’t really clear that all the waiting depressed prices significantly. This is especially true for the top free agents, and won’t be close to last year’s situation. The middle class of veterans appears more likely to suffer the brunt of any team strategy to delay signing players, but that is the case in most years. We’ll know more in the next month.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.