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Service time manipulation is as blatant as ever

Tracking MLB debuts exposes how teams are messing around with top prospects’ service time.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Chicago White Sox Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

From a labor perspective, it’s inconvenient that free agency has to occur in the offseason. If every player became a free agent the very moment they accrue exactly six years in the majors, there would be no need to manipulate service time.

From a baseball perspective, this is all but impossible. Anthony Rendon would’ve become a free agent last week, while Gerrit Cole would hit the market in early June. Imagine if a great player reached free agency in mid-September, then signed with a division rival immediately! No, it’s too impractical to have midyear free agents, and it would be catastrophic to competitive integrity.

The necessity of offseason free agency has the negative consequence of service time manipulation. There must always be a defined point at which a player can earn the right to free agency. As such, teams will always be able to play games to ensure as much bonus-service as possible after the player passes the free agency threshold. ESPN’s Christina Kahrl explains the importance of this in detail.

Some teams truly disregard service time when building their rosters. Both Fernando Tatís and Chris Paddack made the Padres’ Opening Day team. Kudos to them. Most other teams blatantly flaunt the idea that the best players should be in the majors. This was most conspicuous when Toronto kept Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. in Triple-A until April 26. The Blue Jays are far from the only culprit.

Debut Data

By tracking MLB debuts, we can see how rampant service time manipulation has become in the league. Through May 18th, 88 players have made their major league debuts. Some have been more heralded than others, to be sure. Of those 88 players, 15 were ranked a top 100 prospect before the season by at least one of Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, or MLB Pipeline. We can see some patterns based on when these players were called up.

Before we get into that data, we need to clean it up a bit. Two players must be excluded for our purposes: Yusei Kikuchi and Eloy Jiménez. They signed major league contracts prior to the start of the season, so their service time is irrelevant. Both are top 100 prospects (Baseball America considers Kikuchi prospect-eligible), leaving us with a data set of 86 debutants and 13 top prospects.

We can split the 2019 season into three periods:

  1. Opening Week, 3/20-4/1. With rare exceptions, anyone who debuts by April 1 made the Opening Day roster. This period covers 13 calendar days, but only seven days of baseball thanks to the mid-March Japan games. The Opening Week period needs to cover one full turn through the pitching rotation to capture everyone. Paddack, for example, first pitched on March 31.
  2. Pre-Cutoff, 4/2-4/19. This could just as easily be named “The Dead Zone.” To accrue a full year of service time, players need to spend at least 172 days of the 187 day regular season on the major league roster or IL. If the team withholds the player in the minors through mid-April, they can spend the rest of the year in the big leagues without accruing a full year of service.
  3. Post-Cutoff, 4/20-present. After the service time cutoff, teams can promote top prospects having successfully delayed their free agency by a full year. (There’s another important cutoff date in June: Super Two eligibility. That’s a different matter entirely, but it absolutely impacts promotion decisions.)

Here’s how the 2019 debuts have broken down into these three periods:

Debuts Per Period

Period Period Length (days) Debuts Top 100 Dubuts per day Top 100 % of debuts
Period Period Length (days) Debuts Top 100 Dubuts per day Top 100 % of debuts
Opening Week 7 25 4 3.6 16%
Pre-Cutoff 18 16 0 0.9 0%
Post-Cutoff 29 45 10 1.6 22%

Opening Week had the highest amount of debuts per day, with 25 in a seven-day period. Every player changes relative to the rest of the league over the offseason. This is most perceptible when someone like Marlins reliever Nick Anderson finally reaches the majors at age-28. A lot of relievers and bench players made the roster for the first time.

Really, a lot of these debuts came from out-of-options players or Rule V picks who the franchise would lose altogether if they didn’t put them on the 25-man. In that light, it’s unsurprising that only four of these debuts were top 100 players: Tatís, Paddack, Mets first baseman Pete Alonso, and Diamondbacks right-hander Jon Duplantier.

The Pre-Cutoff data is the most damning of all. Fewer than one player per day made a debut. Not one single top prospect surfaced during this period. It’s hard to believe that there wasn’t a need for talent due to injuries and ineffectiveness on the major league level. Nevertheless, a lot of the minor league replacements from this period already had previous major league experience.

That’s not to say that all of these players have a bleak future. Erik Swanson and Mike Ford were called up on April 11th and 18th, respectively. Using top 100 prospects is an imperfect measurement of talent, but it most likely shows that the teams didn’t promote anyone during this 18 day stretch who they expect to stick around all year (or six years, for that matter).

The dam broke during the Post-Cutoff period. While 1.6 debuts per day doesn’t match Opening Week levels, a much higher percentage of them were top prospects. Starting with Boston’s Michael Chavis on April 20, ten of them paraded through MLB over this 29 day period.

At the least, it’s highly suspect that zero top prospects were MLB-ready before April 20, but ten of them have “developed” since then. It’s true that some failed to carve a permanent place in the majors just yet, such as Carter Kieboom, and others are injury replacements, such as Austin Riley for Ender Inciarte. However, this data makes the delays of future stars like Guerrero that much more glaring.

Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at Tweets @depstein1983