Which Types of Teams Are Signing Free Agents?

Here’s a narrative you’ve probably heard this offseason: free agency is back because non-playoff teams are trying to make a splash. On its face, it makes a lot of sense; the Angels, White Sox, Rangers, Reds, and Diamondbacks have all made meaningful additions to their rosters this year. Star players are headed to non-playoff teams, hoping to tip the scales of 2020 in their favor.

And yet, that narrative leaves out some inconvenient truths. Of the top three free agents this offseason in our Top 50, two signed with playoff teams. Sixteen free agents who were worth 2 or more WAR last year have signed so far; of those 16, 10 are headed to teams who played in October this year.

Only last year, all three of the top free agents (Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, and Patrick Corbin) signed with teams who hadn’t made the playoffs the previous year. Is the 2019-2020 offseason truly the year of non-playoff teams getting fancy, or are we merely falling victim to narrative?

I decided to look at this question a few different ways, because it’s a complicated issue. First, I painted with a broad brush. I took every offseason free agent signing since the end of the 2001 season. I looked at their previous season’s WAR, as well as whether the team signing them made the playoffs the previous season. From there, I simply calculated a ratio; what percentage of free agency WAR was added by playoff teams?

Free Agent Acquisitions Since 2001
Offseason Total Free Agent WAR % Acquired By Playoff Teams
2002 124.4 44.8%
2003 150.6 37.8%
2004 197.2 28.4%
2005 178.1 40.9%
2006 122.8 25.1%
2007 126.4 38.1%
2008 88.2 41.3%
2009 124.6 39.9%
2010 128.7 44.8%
2011 137 40.5%
2012 107.4 29.1%
2013 116.6 37.7%
2014 116.7 28.0%
2015 87.3 26.6%
2016 120.4 47.0%
2017 80.1 45.6%
2018 114 39.6%
2019 122 35.9%
2020 84.5 56.6%

Hmmm. That’s not what you would expect to see. This offseason, so far, has been the most playoff-team-biased free agency period since the start of our sample. And it’s not even particularly close — this year is the strongest winner-take-all free agency market by more than 10 percentage points.

Okay, so that’s not what we expected. No need to get discouraged just yet — let’s try it another way. What if we only looked at above-average players signing? Maybe the flood of mediocre free agents signing with mediocre teams distracts from the key narrative, a hundred hangers-on overcoming the few bright stars of free agency. Let’s do this analysis again, only this time we’ll only look at players who accrued 2 or more WAR in their last year before free agency.

Good Free Agent Acquisitions Since 2001
Offseason Total Free Agent WAR % Acquired By Playoff Teams
2002 81.2 45.7%
2003 102.5 40.0%
2004 145.2 31.5%
2005 122.1 46.9%
2006 74.8 22.6%
2007 75.6 41.1%
2008 59.2 53.2%
2009 83 44.1%
2010 78.8 56.1%
2011 94.2 44.9%
2012 70.1 34.7%
2013 85.9 37.5%
2014 83.6 27.2%
2015 56 22.7%
2016 86.6 51.0%
2017 52.7 49.5%
2018 67.8 32.7%
2019 69.3 33.9%
2020 61.5 58.6%

Well gosh darnit, still nothing. Stripping away the chaff goes in the general direction we would expect (playoff teams sign a higher weight of stars than of overall players), but 2019 still looks extremely top heavy.

Let’s double back. A binary distinction between playoff and non-playoff teams is crude. Let’s replace it with winning percentage, an elegant metric for a more civilized age. I took each team’s winning percentage and weighted it by their share of the free agent market in each year to get a weighted winning percentage for the teams signing free agents. For example, if a .750 team and a .250 team each signed a 3 WAR player and that was the entire free agency period, the weighted winning percentage would be .500. If instead the .750 team signed a 3 WAR player and the .250 team signed a 1 WAR player, the weighted winning percentage would be .625.

Winning Percentage of FA Acquirers
Offseason Weighted Winning Percentage
2002 0.541
2003 0.534
2004 0.497
2005 0.521
2006 0.491
2007 0.509
2008 0.524
2009 0.522
2010 0.520
2011 0.525
2012 0.509
2013 0.507
2014 0.505
2015 0.494
2016 0.524
2017 0.508
2018 0.500
2019 0.509
2020 0.545

Nothing, huh? Okay, let’s do it again, but add in our “only good players” filter from before. Here’s the weighted winning percentage of the teams good free agents are joining — only signings of players worth 2 WAR or more count:

Winning Percentage of Good FA Acquirers
Offseason Weighted Winning Percentage
2002 0.557
2003 0.545
2004 0.501
2005 0.531
2006 0.497
2007 0.511
2008 0.537
2009 0.532
2010 0.533
2011 0.530
2012 0.516
2013 0.508
2014 0.506
2015 0.500
2016 0.529
2017 0.513
2018 0.494
2019 0.511
2020 0.548

Sigh. Looks like we’re not getting to the answer I want in any obvious way. But wait! What if what my brain is really telling me is that more teams like the Diamondbacks and Reds are getting involved? Let’s set their 2019 records — 85 and 75 wins, respectively — as our boundaries and see whether teams in that range are more aggressive this year than before:

Free Agent Acquisition On The Cusp
Offseason Cuspy Team Acquisition %
2002 13.9%
2003 28.0%
2004 24.1%
2005 15.1%
2006 37.9%
2007 37.7%
2008 21.2%
2009 19.7%
2010 27.5%
2011 29.0%
2012 17.9%
2013 17.0%
2014 21.2%
2015 27.7%
2016 40.2%
2017 24.8%
2018 31.9%
2019 33.0%
2020 23.5%

Alright, I give. There’s surprisingly little in the data to tell the story of more free agents heading to teams striving for the playoffs. Some of this is a game of endpoints and definitions, of course: the Angels won 72 games last year, so they count as a bad team in this analysis, but their signing of Rendon probably fits the spirit of a team on the cusp.

Similarly, the Brewers made the playoffs last year, but any signings they make probably belong in the same breath as the Diamondbacks, who were all of four wins worse last year but had better underlying numbers. My outlined system puts them in the same bucket as the Yankees, which sounds weird. There are bound to be bright lines somewhere, and that could certainly goof with the analysis.

For the most part, however, the real story is that nothing much has changed. Teams in the middle always sign free agents, and this year seems mainly notable for how early everyone has signed, not where they’ve signed. Take a look at the proportion of free agents joining teams who fit into the broad categories of Bad (fewer than 75 wins), Cuspy (75-85 wins), and good (more than 85 wins) since after the 2001 season:

The more things change, the more they stay the same. This offseason doesn’t look markedly different than the past; if anything, we appear to be in a cyclical high of free agents joining already-good teams, potentially a consequence of the tanking-or-great stratification of baseball.

One caveat to this analysis: not all the free agents have signed yet! 21 of our top 50 free agents remain unsigned, and there’s nearly 50 WAR worth of unsigned free agents kicking around all told. Where those players go can still tilt this analysis in one direction or the other.

But based on what’s happened so far, my intuition isn’t in agreement with the data. Major league baseball might well be getting more competitive. The cycle of boom and bust team-building and juggernauts hoovering up all the talent may be coming to an end. But if it is, it hasn’t yet shown up in free agency this year. The good teams are acquiring as many free agents as they ever have, even if a few notable exceptions to the rule have made this offseason exciting.

This article has been updated to reflect minor changes in data collection involving Wild Card teams, multiple players with the same name signing in the same offseason, and individual players signing more than once in the same offseason. The changes don’t affect any of the text; only the first three tables have been updated.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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4 years ago

Ben, more great work. I love the way you manipulated statistics in search of narrative support- a real lesson for all of us. Sometimes the data are what the data are…