Last winter was darker and colder than ever in the baseball universe. Free agent signings were rare and mostly underwhelming. Fans and players alike emerged in the spring a little more bitter and calloused. Having no baseball for five months is hard enough, but when there’s so little news of interest it just seems to go that much slower.
We arrive at the precipice of another five month tunnel, but this one is supposed to be more well lit.
Last year’s biggest contracts went to Eric Hosmer and Yu Darvish, who were not major contributors to their teams. This year, we’ve got Manny Machado and Bryce Harper to follow. The Yankees and Dodgers each accomplished their goal of resetting the luxury tax, and should be willing to spend at the normal Yankee/Dodger levels. A few other emerging contenders, like the Phillies, ought to open their wallets as well.
So here we are. This offseason promises much more juicy, lucrative transactions than a year ago, although hopefully we’re not setting ourselves up for Lucy teeing up the football. We’re all Charlie Brown, and we have no choice but to try and kick it. Before we approach the ball, let’s take a look back at last year’s free agent class to see how they fared.
To analyze each free agent contract, I created a spreadsheet (which you can view) of all major league free agent signings from the 2017-18 free agent class (huge assist from the MLB Trade Rumors Free Agent Tracker). Then, I added in the fWAR from 2017 and 2018 for all players that signed for at least $2 million average annual value (AAV). The exceptions were players that didn’t play in MLB either this year or last: Miles Mikolas, Michael Pineda, Drew Smyly, and Kazuhisa Makita. With this information on 81 total free agents, we can learn a lot from averages and correlations.
|Average 2017 fWAR||1.5|
|Average 2018 fWAR||0.7|
|Avg Difference of 2018 fWAR-2017 fWAR||-0.8|
The first thing to notice is that, on average, free agents were less than half as good in 2018 as they were in 2017. Their average fWAR decreased from 1.5 to 0.7. The decrease was particularly dramatic at the top of the class. The two richest contracts in total value belonged to Hosmer and Darvish, who were also sixth and fourth in AAV. They dropped from 3.7 and 4.1 fWAR in 2017 to just 0.2 and -0.1 in 2018. Injuries were a big factor in Darvish’s case, as he was limited to just 40 innings. However, they’re just the most conspicuous examples of a larger trend.
Of the 28 players who signed for at least $8 million AAV, only four outperformed their 2017 seasons: J.D. Martinez (+2.1 fWAR), Lorenzo Cain (+1.4), Lance Lynn (+1.5), and CC Sabathia (+0.6). One other player broke even— Mike Minor amassed 2.2 fWAR in 2017 as a reliever and 2.2 as a starter in 2018. Even with those five included, the top 28 averaged a decline of 1.2 fWAR.
Interestingly, the bottom of the list outperformed the top... sort of.
There were 16 players who signed for an AAV between $2-2.5 million. These players averaged the exact same fWAR in 2017 and 2018. Overall, they weren’t nearly as good as the top of the list, but apparently they’re more likely to repeat their performance. Most of these players are relief pitchers, who are notoriously volatile, but there were some big gains by guys like Craig Stammen (+2.2 fWAR) and Anibal Sanchez (+2.0). These offset the huge losses from Jose Reyes (-2.9) and Matt Albers (-1.7).
Looking at the entire group of 81 again, they lost 0.8 fWAR from last year to this one, with a standard deviation of 1.1. That means the majority of the free agent class ranged from +0.3 to -1.9 fWAR. Even a modest increase of a half a win’s worth of production is more than a full standard deviation away from the mean.
|Correlation AAV to 2017 fWAR||0.7|
|Correlation AAV to 2018 fWAR||0.4|
|Correlation Amount to 2017 fWAR||0.7|
|Correlation Amount to 2018 fWAR||0.4|
|Correlation 2017 fWAR to 2018 fWAR||0.3|
Unsurprisingly, there’s a pretty strong correlation between contract size and 2017 performance. Both total contract amount and AAV correlated with 2017 fWAR at 0.7. This makes sense because immediate past performance should be one of the biggest factors in how much money teams are willing to offer a player.
The correlation between contract size (either total amount or AAV) and 2018 fWAR was only 0.4, which is moderate-to-weak. In other words, contract size is only a so-so predictor of fWAR the year after the player signs. Still, the teams did a little better predicting 2018 performance than the players themselves. The fairly weak 0.3 correlation between 2017 fWAR and 2018 fWAR shows that teams at least know a little about who their signing. It also illustrates just how much players vary from year to year.
To be honest, I don’t know if there is a takeaway here. On average, all players are expected to regress a little bit each season— regardless of whether or not they were a free agent. This is especially true for older players, and with rare Harper/Machado exceptions, there are no young free agents. The data above only describes the change from one year to another, and not trends over multiple seasons, but it probably just reflects what naturally happens anyway.
If there is a lesson here, it’s ‘buyer beware’. Player value can fluctuate a lot year-to-year, and bad contracts can cripple a franchise. Teams wading into the deep end of the free agent pool had better know which ones can really swim and which are in over their heads. Even then, the human body is so fragile and prone to change that anything can happen over a long contract. Just ask the Padres how exited they are for seven more years of Eric Hosmer.