The Slow Market Has Developed Quickly

Here’s your daily reminder that a lot of free agents remain available. A lot!

There are probably a number of reasons behind the slowly developing market, and we’ve documented a number of them here at FanGraphs dot com.

Teams have devalued free agency more and more. Players are trending younger. The average age of a position player was 28.3 years last season, compared to 29.1 in 2007. As I noted in a piece for The Athletic over the weekend, pitchers and position players aged 30 and older accounted for 41.8% of WAR production from 2001 to -03 but just 30.6% over the most recent three seasons (2015 to -17). While Craig Edwards noted yesterday that hitters in their early 30s are generally still pretty good, hundreds of age-30 seasons — almost always free-agent seasons — have disappeared.

Teams have perhaps also learned to wait on free agents, driving prices down. The data supports that hypothesis: February free-agent signings have increased for three straight years and are likely to far exceed last year’s mark of 65 signings, the most in a decade.

Moreover, large-market teams are trying to stay under the tax threshold and reset their tax status, while more and more clubs are following Astros- and Cubs-like rebuilds and tearing rosters down NBA-style while collecting premium picks and clearing payroll space in the process.

What ties a lot of these factors together is that, more than ever before, clubs are thinking the same way and with the same information. While the wealth of data is deeper than ever, much of it — by way of Statcast and PITCHf/x data, for example — is equally accessible to all organizations. While a number of us have proposed theories here and elsewhere in the media world about what is going on, it was interesting to learn that at least one executive, Mets general manager Sandy Alderson, has come to the same conclusion, verifying what some of us believe on the outside.

It’s your move, MLBPA. (Although, to that point, Nathaniel Grow believes the union has little leverage at the moment.)

In the short term, next year’s offseason might cause us to forget this ever happened, as Bryce Harper and Manny Machado sign $400-million-plus deals. But next year’s class might also just be an outlier; the middle class of free agents is likely to continue seeing the value of the open market evaporate.

And it’s not just how every club seems to be thinking the same way, and with the same information, but the speed at which it has happened and continues to happen. Copy-catting occurs as fast as bandwidth will allow. A year ago to the day, I wrote about baseball’s shrinking middle class. The situation has only worsened for such free agents this offseason.

Consider that, as of Jan. 23, 2017, a year ago to the day, Dave Cameron’s top-19 free agents had signed. All 19 of them. A total of 36 of Dave’s top 50 had signed.

This offseason, just eight of Cameron’s top 20-ranked free agents have signed and only 21 of his top 50. There are eight days remaining in January. We’re just over three weeks away from the opening of spring training camps. There will be many February signings and perhaps even some notables deals in March.

One could argue Alderson has been one of the aggressors this offseason, signing Jay Bruce to a three-year, $39-million deal earlier this month. The deal was two years and $40 million less than the amount for which Bruce was originally asking this offseason. Yet it is also a perhaps a win for Bruce, given the volume of similar bats available on the market.

No free agent has yet signed a deal that guarantees more than three years of employment.

Said Bruce to reporters last Wednesday:

“The way the offseason kind of went and the slowness of it kind of maybe changed my outlook on it a little bit.”

Even after last year’s relatively slow winter, players and agents seem to be caught off guard by the glacial pace of this one. Anxiety is probably now creeping in for many free agents.

But with much of the industry zigging, it’s perhaps prudent for teams to consider zagging. Maybe that’s why we’ve recently seen the Brewers and Twins linked to Yu Darvish. Milwaukee and Minnesota are not the two clubs most likely to pursue the No. 1 arm and No. 1 free-agent available.

Free agency is thought to have become a losing bet for clubs, but at some point — perhaps next month, perhaps right now — there will be value present there.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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6 years ago

It’s sort of fascinating to me that the OOTP game I have going on predicted this. I thought it was unrealistic how many young prospects were being given prominent roles and top free agents were available cheap (I got Hosmer and Martinez on cheap one year deals, because no other teams would sign them). Aside from the NL additional the DH, its been eerily accurate – even on who goes where.

I say all this not to bore you, but to point out that the real MLB is behaving very similarly to how a computer thinks it should.

6 years ago
Reply to  lostatlimbo

Interesting example! Your last sentences works well to summarize this article…

6 years ago
Reply to  phealy48

Front offices operating how the computers think they should… maybe they’re all just running OOTP simulations

Dave T
6 years ago
Reply to  lostatlimbo

“I got Hosmer and Martinez on cheap one year deals, because no other teams would sign them.”

Going by reported offers that those two players haven’t accepted because each thinks he can get more, that’s not “eerily accurate”.

Martinez would reportedly be signed now for 5 years at an AAV somewhere north of $20 million (likely 5/$125) if he found that offer acceptable.

Hosmer would be signed now if he’d accept a 7 year deal that is reportedly not quite $140 million but not far from it, probably something on the order of $125 to $130 million over 7 years.

I don’t begrudge either player negotiating for more, nor do I begrudge teams holding the line at those reported offers because I don’t think there’s a particularly deep market for either player this year.

6 years ago
Reply to  Dave T

I’m going to guess since he’s playing a simulation that both Martinez and Hosmer performed way less in the simulation than what they actually performed in 2017. Martinez may have had an injury and is expected just to be a DH, while Hosmer could’ve just been typical pre-2017 Hosmer.

Baller McCheesemember
6 years ago
Reply to  lostatlimbo

Gotta play with the NL DH.