clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Jose Bautista is waiting, and it’s costing him money

It’s January, and Jose Bautista is still without a team. How have past late signees fared? Spoiler: not great.

New York Yankees v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

It feels like the offseason has gone on for eons, and in fact, it’s been more than two months. (The fact that we aren’t even halfway to opening day is horrifying, and testifies to just how long spring training drags on.) It’s been plenty long enough for teams to do whatever they need to do for 2017; if the season began next week, all the free agents would be signed, all the trades would have been made, and no one would have felt rushed. And indeed, almost all of the substantive offseason content is behind us; of the top twenty free agents on FanGraphs’ list, eighteen have signed.

That means that the two who haven’t signed stick out like a sore thumb, particularly #5: Jose Bautista, formerly of the Blue Jays, and also formerly one of MLB’s premier offensive forces. But after a 2016 sapped by injuries and routine aging, he’s looking like much less of a sure thing than he would have if he had hit the market a season or two earlier. Thanks to that decline, plus a market heavy on one-dimensional sluggers and some questionable tactics by his agent, Bautista is still without a team.

I don’t want to prognosticate about what Bautista will eventually get, or cast judgment on whether he and his agent mishandled this offseason. What I want to do is look at other players who have been without a contract signed at the beginning of the year, and see if they got more or less than expected, using two very valuable tools: MLBTR’s Transaction Tracker, and FanGraphs’ contract crowdsourcings, which run back through the 2011–12 offseason.

I used the former to identify all players who signed during January, February, or March of a given offseason, and compared the actual dollar amount of their contract to the projected dollar amount from the latter. The fan projections tend to exhibit a fairly predictable bias; a comparison of the 2013–14 projected and actual contract values saw the crowd err on the high side by an average of 11% across the whole sample, but for players who were projected to sign or actually signed for more than $50m, the crowd was low by 24%, on average. That’s worth keeping in mind, but this is less about identifying a precise margin between the prediction and the reality, and more about looking for a consistent, substantial difference (if one exists).

January–March Free Agent Signings, 2012–16

Name Date of signing Projected contract (millions) Actual contract (millions) Differential
Name Date of signing Projected contract (millions) Actual contract (millions) Differential
Prince Fielder 1/24/12 $136 $214 57%
Max Scherzer 1/19/15 $168 $210 25%
Chris Davis 1/16/16 $100 $161 61%
Justin Upton 1/18/16 $120 $133 11%
Wei-Yin Chen 1/12/16 $52 $80 54%
Yoenis Cespedes 1/22/16 $132 $75 -43%
James Shields 2/9/15 $90 $75 -17%
Alex Gordon 1/6/16 $90 $72 -20%
Ian Kennedy 1/16/16 $36 $70 94%
Nick Swisher 1/3/13 $56 $56 0%
Edwin Jackson 1/2/13 $36 $52 44%
Matt Garza 1/26/14 $65 $50 -22%
Ubaldo Jimenez 2/19/14 $44 $50 14%
Michael Bourn 2/11/13 $70 $48 -31%
Kyle Lohse 3/25/13 $52 $33 -37%
Denard Span 1/7/16 $36 $31 -14%
Rafael Soriano 1/15/13 $30 $28 -7%
Gerardo Parra 1/12/16 $24 $28 15%
Adam LaRoche 1/8/13 $36 $24 -33%
Bronson Arroyo 2/12/14 $17 $24 41%
Yovani Gallardo 2/24/16 $56 $22 -61%
James Loney 1/3/14 $18 $21 17%
Howie Kendrick 1/29/16 $52 $20 -62%
A.J. Burnett 2/12/14 $27 $16 -42%
Ervin Santana 3/12/14 $46 $14 -69%
Dexter Fowler 2/25/16 $56 $13 -77%
Francisco Rodriguez 2/26/15 $5 $13 160%
Grant Balfour 1/23/14 $17 $12 -29%
Antonio Bastardo 1/20/16 $8 $12 50%
Edwin Jackson 2/2/12 $34 $11 -68%
Hiroki Kuroda 1/14/12 $23 $10 -57%
Lance Berkman 1/7/13 $8 $10 25%
Carlos Villanueva 1/26/13 $12 $10 -17%
Ryan Madson 1/11/12 $25 $9 -66%
Colby Rasmus 1/20/15 $30 $8 -73%
Ian Desmond 2/28/16 $60 $8 -87%
Nelson Cruz 2/24/14 $27 $8 -70%
Carlos Pena 1/20/12 $14 $7 -50%
Doug Fister 1/28/16 $20 $7 -65%
Joe Saunders 2/8/13 $16 $7 -56%
Jason Hammel 2/13/14 $16 $6 -61%
Mike Napoli 1/22/13 $36 $5 -86%
Stephen Drew 1/7/15 $7 $5 -29%
Aaron Harang 1/5/15 $6 $5 -17%
Steve Pearce 1/21/16 $12 $5 -60%
Austin Jackson 3/6/16 $30 $5 -83%
Shaun Marcum 1/30/13 $20 $4 -80%
Emilio Bonifacio 1/5/15 $10 $4 -60%
Ryan Vogelsong 1/23/15 $7 $4 -43%
Alexei Ramirez 1/14/16 $16 $4 -75%
Joe Blanton 1/19/16 $4 $4 0%
Juan Uribe 2/19/16 $16 $4 -75%
Jesse Crain 1/3/14 $12 $3 -73%
Luke Scott 2/6/13 $4 $3 -31%
Mat Latos 2/9/16 $22 $3 -86%
David Freese 3/11/16 $18 $3 -83%
Chad Billingsley 1/29/15 $5 $2 -70%
Ichiro Suzuki 1/23/15 $5 $2 -60%
Kelly Johnson 1/6/16 $3 $2 -33%
Travis Hafner 2/2/13 $5 $2 -60%
Kelly Johnson 2/5/13 $12 $2 -80%
Alex Gonzalez 2/6/13 $4 $2 -63%
Kelly Shoppach 2/7/13 $3 $2 -50%
Paul Maholm 2/8/14 $15 $2 -90%
Rickie Weeks 2/11/15 $12 $2 -83%
Tommy Hunter 2/12/16 $10 $2 -80%
Alfredo Simon 3/17/16 $7 $2 -71%
Delmon Young 1/22/13 $16 $1 -95%
Josh Johnson 1/7/15 $5 $1 -80%
Francisco Liriano 2/8/13 $14 $1 -93%
Chris Young 3/28/14 $14 $1 -91%
Chris Young 3/7/15 $5 $1 -87%

Summary

Category Average Differential
Category Average Differential
Total -20%
High-end -2%
January -3%
February -49%
March -66%

The results fit the narrative, largely. In sum, this group signed for 20% less than projected, a bigger negative gap than the crowd has tended to display on all free agents collectively. The crowd did a remarkably good job of predicting the high-end free agents in the aggregate, with some big misses in both directions balancing each other out. When compared to the pool of free agents as a whole, where the high-end free agents beat their projected values by about 25% on average, the late-signers seem to take a big hit, failing to beat their projected values altogether.

The conclusion that suggests – that late signees make less money than their fast-moving counterparts – is supported by the monthly trend. While there are only seven March signers in the sample, the steady progression of less and less money than originally expected as the months turn over suggests that the longer a player remains unsigned, the worse their prognosis.

Late-signing free agents
Late-signing free agents (high end only)

It’s possible this indicates that players who wait to sign lose leverage, as the list of potential destinations grows shorter and shorter. I suspect, however, the causation arrow points in the other direction; that players don’t make less money than expected because they sign late, but they sign late because the rest of MLB values them at less than expected. These players (and their agents) presumably have expectations of their own; we know Bautista did. If they’re unsigned in January, February, or March, it’s probably because they’re slowly adjusting to the harsh reality that the market they expected never materialized.

And that would seem to fit Bautista’s offseason, too. I suspect this isn’t a strategic choice; I imagine he probably would have been much happier signing with a team back in December or November, but he’s been waiting for a satisfactory offer, an offer that still hasn’t come. He could always buck the trend, and snag a massive contract tomorrow, or on March 1st. But history suggests he’s heading toward disappointment.

. . .

Henry Druschel is the Managing Editor of Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.