As we head into the off-season, there are a lot of different plans being made. Some teams are preparing to spend big on free agents, looking to upgrade their roster for 2018 without surrendering any talent. Others are looking to make win-now trades, eyeing upgrades currently on other teams. And a few teams are planning on being sellers, turning some big leaguers into players who might be more helpful when the team is ready to win.
But regardless of where a team is on the success cycle, every team is going to have answer the same question this winter. This question hangs over the evaluation of nearly every player in the big leagues, and will impact both what kinds of players a team will acquire, how they value them, or whether they feel their internal options are as good as what they can bring in from the outside. And this question has little to do with each player’s own abilities, yet might have a big impact on their expected performance.
In all 30 front offices, the off-season plan will be significantly impacted by one big variable: what kind of baseball should they expect to play with in 2018 and beyond?
While Major League Baseball continues to officially deny that the huge spike in home runs the last few years was primarily driven by changes in the manufacturing of the baseballs, the preponderance of the evidence suggests that the ball is the most likely factor.
I’m not one who buys into the idea that MLB changed the ball on purpose, but as has been shown, the allowed variance in ball specifications is so large that balls can still be within the allowable range and still behave very differently. My best guess is that some manufacturing change occurred during the 2015 season without anyone suspecting it would change the ball in a dramatic way, and to this point, MLB hasn’t yet told Rawlings to revert back to whatever the previous process was, so the league has been playing with a livelier ball for the last few years.
But as Ben Lindbergh noted last week, the issue has gotten enough publicity, with MLB players calling out the ball as a significant factor on World Series performance, that there’s no way the league can just continue a hands-off approach. There are too many players who believe the changes in the ball are messing with their livelihoods, and too many multi-million dollar decisions that depend on being able to accurately forecast the future, which can be undermined if the ball is constantly changing.
As Rob Arthur concluded this summer:
If the changes that made the ball bouncier and slicker are truly random, then baseball’s home run era could end just as suddenly as it began. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has said that fans like home runs and strikeouts. As the numbers of both whiffs and long balls are close to all-time highs, this must be baseball’s golden era. But to keep it that way, Manfred will likely have to impose tighter control over the ball’s construction than has been used in the last three years. The same random manufacturing changes that might have made it bouncier and slicker could just as easily make it stiff and air resistant — bringing back the year of the pitcher, and rendering all our juiced-ball detective work for naught.
Regardless of whether this happened accidentally or not, the league is likely capable of reducing the variation in manufacturing specifications to either ensure that this livelier ball is here to stay, or reverting back to something closer to what we had a couple of years ago. And what a team thinks the league might do about the ball could have a tremendous impact on what kinds of players they want to build their team around.
For instance, there are some free agents this winter that were pretty clear beneficiaries of the new ball. How a team evaluates Zack Cozart, for instance, depends almost entirely on what kind of ball one thinks the league might play with next year.
Up through the All-Star break at the 2015 season, which is when league home run rates really took off, Cozart had a career .245/.284/.375 line, good for a 77 wRC+. His career ISO was .130, as he’d hit just 42 home runs in a little over 2,000 plate appearances. But since the mid-point of the 2015 season, Cozart has hit .274/.346/.484 and put up a 116 wRC+. His ISO has spiked to .211, and he’s hit 40 home runs in just over 1,000 plate appearances. Half of his career +15 WAR have come in the past two seasons, at ages 30 and 31.
And while Cozart has made some changes to increase the number of fly balls he’s hit, the reality is that his results don’t really line up with how hard he’s hit the ball, and the best explanation for Cozart’s power spike is that he lives at the exact point at which the ball flying 5-10 feet further makes the most difference.
In a world where you don’t have to hit the ball that hard to get it over the fence, Zack Cozart is a star, a good defensive shortstop who makes contact and hits it just hard enough to rack up some extra base hits. But if the ball stops flying as far as it has the last few years, and Cozart loses a little bit of bat speed as he ages, he could very easily revert back to being a guy who is in the line-up solely for his defense. And how much does a team want to pay Cozart if they think a significant part of his success is dependent on MLB continuing to use a livelier baseball going forward?
The Reds’ decision to not extend Cozart a qualifying offer gives us a bit of a window into what they think the market will do with this information. If Cozart was going to sign for more than $50 million, extending him a QO would have been an easy choice, but the Reds are guessing that teams will be more conservative with power-spike guys, and that the market for Cozart’s services won’t be as strong as his results would suggest.
But if the Reds are right, and MLB ends up codifying standards that keep the ball lively, then Cozart could be a huge bargain for whoever bets on his warning track power continuing to play up in the future. And it’s not just Cozart. How much do you want to pay for Eric Hosmer’s offensive breakout if you’re not sure how much the ball contributed? What about Logan Morrison and Yonder Alonso, who were near-replacement-level players up until this year? Or even on the pitching side of things, Yu Darvish’s home run rate spiked this year; if the ball is going to change, is he a better buy than one might think based on his 2017 results?
The ball looms over the whole off-season. Before any decision is made, every front office is going to have to ask themselves just how much the new offensive environment of the 2016-2017 seasons had to do with the results the player put up, and the rewards weren’t evenly distributed, so it’s not as simple as adjusting the results for those league averages. And how well teams predict what the ball might do in the next few years could determine many of the winners and losers of this winter.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.