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Player performance in a free agent year: an analysis

Is the phenomenon of increased production in a player's free agent year real? Read the surprising conclusions here.

How will this turn out? Read to see what recent history suggests.
How will this turn out? Read to see what recent history suggests.
Otto Greule Jr

A number of high-profile players changed teams this offseason in free agency, headed by Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury and Shin-Soo Choo. When players sign big contracts like these, the obvious question is whether they can play well enough to deserve the big money thrown their way.

Using the ESPN Free Agent Tracker, I made a list of every free agent since after the 2006 season, using three criteria:

  1. Performance in year prior to free agency (Y-1)
  2. Performance in free agency year (Y)
  3. Performance in first year of new contract (Y+1)

I'll use a player near and dear to my heart, former Cub Aramis Ramirez, a player widely (and incorrectly) accused in Chicago of amassing stats when they didn't matter. Ramirez had two different free agent periods:

Status Year Age fWAR
Y-1 2005 27 3.2
Y 2006 28 3.9
Y+1 2007 29 4.7
Status Year Age fWAR
Y-1 2010 32 0.1
Y 2011 33 3.3
Y+1 2012 34 5.7

In his first free agency period, Ramirez had a FanGraphs WAR (fWAR) value of 3.2 in the year prior to his free agent year (Y-1). It improved to 3.9 in his walk year (Y) and improved to 4.7 in the year after he signed his new deal with the Cubs after the 2006 season (Y+1). A similar story played out after 2011, with the Brewers being the beneficiary in this case.

With this background, how well did free agents perform using this analysis? My pool of players covered seasons from 2006 to 2012 and looked only at players with significant deals, a pool of 90 position players and 66 pitchers, some of whom (like Ramirez) had two periods of free agency. This is how the players performed:

Position Players (n=90)
Year Prior to Free Agency Year (Y-1) 216.7
Free Agency Year (Y) 261.1
First Year of New Contract (Y+1) 178.7
Pitchers (n=66)
Year Prior to Free Agency Year (Y-1) 110.1
Free Agency Year (Y) 131.5
First Year of New Contract (Y+1) 94.6

I began questioning my methods immediately upon seeing these results, since I assumed the exact opposite would be the case. In the aggregate, both position players and pitchers improved production in their free agent year which subsequently decreased in the first year of their new contracts.

There are caveats. Most players have their peak productive years somewhere around ages 28-32, which is when most players enter free agency. It's very possible players are about to enter the decline phase of their careers as they sign free agent deals. This helps explain why younger talent like Evan Longoria, Freddie Freeman, Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo are locked up earlier in their careers—teams are willing to risk more money on upside potential than pay big money for past performance. Injuries can also occur, but they didn't appear to play a major role with the players I selected.

I was curious if really big contracts or tremendous drops in value overwhelmed the data—it wasn't the case:

Position Players Higher fWAR Lower fWAR
Y 57 35
Y+1 30 63
Pitchers Higher fWAR Lower fWAR
Y 37 30
Y+1 22 44

The vast majority of players had fWAR improvements in their free agent year and fWAR declines in the first year of their new contracts. It's difficult to explain declines of this magnitude without considering the possibility that walk-year improvements are real.

My definitions could be too narrow—the best way to measure a player's contract is over its entire life. As well as Aramis Ramirez performed in 2012, injuries shortened his 2013 to 351 plate appearances. He'll turn 36 in June, is owed $30 million through 2015, and there's no guarantee he won't completely fall apart.

This isn't necessarily predictive for players like Brian McCann, Curtis Granderson or Matt Garza, and they're all in different places. McCann is quickly approaching that age where catchers become ex-catchers, Granderson will turn 33 and is coming off injuries and Garza is...well, he's Matt Garza, about to pitch for his fifth team and the man who didn't look at a contract offer from the Angels this past offseason because he was on vacation. The data suggests performance improvement in a player's free agency year may not persist after a new deal is signed. Every player is different, of course, but the odds don't appear to be in their favor.

All data courtesy of ESPN Free Agent Tracker and FanGraphs

Scott Lindholm is a web columnist for 670 The Score in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @ScottLindholm.