The last thing you probably want to read right now is another summary of the slow-moving pace of free agency. And it wasn’t just that the market moved slowly — for so many players, the contracts they’ve signed have fallen well short of expectations. It’s still too soon to know whether this will be an aberration, but it does feel as if something has shifted. One explanation would be that the free-agent market, from the team perspective, worked rationally. The player perspective would be less charitable. Teams are certainly behaving as if they’re not thrilled to pay players much money as they get deeper into their 30s.
If we take it to be true that free agency is changing, well, there would be several contributors to that. And if we take it to be true that free agency is changing, that should raise the level of urgency to shift more money to players earlier in their careers. That’s the real issue for baseball to deal with. But let’s go back for a second. I want to talk about one single contributor to a depressed market. I don’t think it’s something that’s been happening intentionally, for teams to try to save money. I think the impact on the market is one arguably unfortunate side effect. This is an exciting time for baseball — the age of information. What that can mean has probably been under-discussed.
Last week, Alex Speier wrote a great article about the market in the Boston Globe. The whole thing is worth your five or ten minutes, but I want to share one excerpt, from Brian Bannister.
“What teams think they can do with players is as important as what the player has already done,” said Red Sox vice president of pitching analysis Brian Bannister. “It’s armies of very knowledgeable baseball people, analysts, and disruptive technology all combining to have a more complete approach to developing players. I think you’re seeing that around the game.”
Baseball teams have always been concerned with what a player *can* do. For a while, however, the idea of what a player can do has been informed by what a player has done. Even before projection systems, there were projection systems. If a guy has been good for a few years, he’ll probably be roughly as good again. If a guy has been volatile, you might expect him to be somewhere in the middle. The strongest predictor of the future has always been thought to be the recent past.
In general, that remains true. I imagine it will always remain true. But teams have recently been collecting information they never had. And, now — look, there have been players with potential forever. Players with obvious sky-high ceilings. Players who might be on the verge of a breakout. Teams have always worked to try to make those players better. But now, there’s data. There’s data for everything. Which means, just as we’ve gotten into the era of big data, we’ve gotten into the era of data-driven adjustments. Which teams hope will be data-driven improvements.
Every single player in baseball could be better. Every single player in baseball has tried to get better. That’s been true, more or less, from the beginning. But with Statcast having been around for a number of years, now, and with pitch-tracking having been around for even longer, there’s an increasing belief among teams that they can be smarter and more effective with this. If I could express this in the simplest possible way, more and more teams believe they can turn players into more optimized versions of themselves. They can make the changes through data, now that they’ve had time to get comfortable with it, time to more fully understand it. The players themselves are also increasingly receptive to these ideas, since it’s 2018, and the player pool is fairly young.
Yonder Alonso didn’t get a huge contract, even though he just had by far his best season. Logan Morrison got an even smaller contract, even though he also just had by far his best season. There are a number of reasons for this, but if you look at it, Alonso and Morrison benefited from hitting more balls in the air. That takes hard work, absolutely, but if those players can improve by making the changes, why couldn’t other players? Why couldn’t players already within an organization? Why invest a lot in one breakout, if you think you might be able to develop one of your own?
Hitters and teams are talking about launch angles all the time. The Rays recently implemented a drill where they put screens around the infield, to encourage hitters to aim up. That’s only one thing, though. Launch angles are one aspect of this. You’ll remember how the Pirates tried to improve the center-field defense of Andrew McCutchen by changing his pre-pitch positioning. In need of a center fielder, the Mariners this past offseason went out and got a second baseman, because they felt like the data suggested he could handle the change. Tony Cingrani looked like a different pitcher last year after being traded to the Dodgers, because they had him change how he pitches. Part of the Cubs’ recent pitch to Yu Darvish was that they had data that could help him improve. Deeper down, here’s an intriguing story about the Yankees.
Dillon Tate is working on a new pitch — that’s not the story. It’s a two-seamer — that’s not really story either. It’s how he started throwing it. Tate said the Yankees’ analytics department sized up his arm angle and spin rate and told him he’d be a “good candidate” to throw the pitch, so he’s been working on it. Interested by the chain of events, I asked Cale Coshow if the front office ever suggested a new pitcher for him. It did. When he was at Low-A Charleston, Coshow was told the organization would like to see him work on a cutter, which he’s since turned into a slider. That’s something I’d like to ask more about: the process of the front office giving pitchers new pitches and what they use to determine them.
Pitchers try to fold in new pitches all the time. We hear about it every spring training. Far less often do we hear about teams instructing pitchers to learn specific new pitches, because of their throwing motions. It’s all a part of the greater, big-picture pattern: Teams think they can make their own players better. That could be wonderful news, for their own players. It would also have a negative effect on players who are looking for work.
I imagine it wouldn’t have a negative effect on the best players out there. The stars are the stars. Darvish signed for a lot of money. Even Eric Hosmer signed for a lot of money. But you can see how this could take a bite out of the middle class. Let’s say there’s a veteran free agent who projects for 2 WAR. Now, there’s real value in having a 2-win player. But what if a team with a perceived opening has a young guy who projects for 0.5 or 1 WAR? That player, by the numbers, is worse. Yet the projections might now be fuzzier than ever. That player might be a swing change away from 30 home runs. He might be a defensive adjustment from +10 DRS. There’s already a general preference to stick with what you have, instead of getting something new. Teams have invested in the players they’ve got, and they’ve worked with them for months or years. Now teams believe improvements are more achievable. So it’s easier than it’s been to pass on paying for a marginal upgrade. Worse comes to worse, you can trade for a half-decent player in July.
There’s trouble here. Teams might take this too far. It’s possible some teams already have. Not every player is going to improve. Most replacement-level players are going to remain replacement-level players. I suspect that, in time, teams might somewhat circle back to proven veterans, as they find out that a lot of their suggested adjustments didn’t pan out. But that would still be years away, because for now, so much of this feels fresh, and so much of this feels exciting. More than at any point in baseball’s past, teams think they can analyze their way to player upside. Even if that’s bad for certain free agents, it’s good for the players for whom it works. Teams might be less willing to cast a skilled player aside. Some players would be hurt, and some players would benefit. Some players might reach a level they never could’ve gotten to if they played in a different era. The pool of baseball players is far larger than the pool of veteran free agents.
This isn’t something that’s the same for every club. As always, some teams lean more traditional, and some teams lean more progressive. There are teams that haven’t yet implemented many data-driven tweaks, beyond the ordinary stuff. And there are teams that are presently experimenting with nearly every single pitcher. It’s pervasive enough you could consider it a league-wide trend, and the effect is that, for players who might benefit from making changes, the projections are, I don’t know, squishier. A 1-win player might still have the track record of looking like a 1-win player, but teams might see him as a potential 2-win player, or 3-win player. As the upside is weighed more than the downside, the difference narrows between that guy and a proven, older 2-win player. I’m not saying it’s always going to work out. It’s not always going to work out. But you can understand why teams are where they are. Everybody wants a bargain, and with internal options or cheaper free agents, it feels easier to see potential bargains everywhere.
This is good, and this is bad. It all depends on who you ask. For the decent veteran free agent who doesn’t think of himself as a bench player, this is, at best, obnoxious, and, at worst, insulting. For the 26-year-old who suddenly starts hitting balls over the fence, or getting opponents to swing and miss, this changes an entire career. That same 26-year-old might one day turn into the decent veteran free agent just looking for work. Few things, I suppose, can be good news for everyone. Baseball’s working to find its new balance.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.