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MLB’s free agent snoozefest: Don’t call it collusion; call it smart business

Free agent pitcher Yu Darvish finished 2017 striking out 209 batters in 186 2/3 innings. (Tim Bradbury/Getty Images)
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This offseason in Major League Baseball has been a snoozefest.

According to ESPN Stats and Information, only nine players have signed contracts of three or more years, compared with 27 a year ago, while total spending on free agents this offseason sums up to $780 million, nearly half of the contracts signed last winter ($1.45 billion) and less than a third of the contracts handed out a year before that ($2.53 billion).

Outfielder Lorenzo Cain is the big winner so far, signing a five-year, $80 million contract with the Milwaukee Brewers. Meanwhile, star players such as Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta, J.D. Martinez, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas are among 94 (out of 166) free agents still looking for work.

Tony Clark, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, called the dearth of deals “a fundamental breach of the trust between a team and its fans” that threatened “the very integrity of our game.” Agent Brodie Van Wagenen of CAA released a statement saying the behavior among owners “feels coordinated,” and even raised the possibility of a spring training boycott. The league fired back, stating “[i]t is the responsibility of player’s agents to value their clients in a constantly changing free agent market based on factors such as positional demand, advanced analytics and the impact of the new Basic Agreement.”

MLB’s dead winter has union and teams at each other’s throats as free agents sit unsigned

The league has a point. Teams should be wary of extending long-term deals to players in their 30s, and analytically driven front offices are correct in taking an approach that limits that kind of risk. According to research done in 2009 by Mitchel Lichtman, co-author with Tom Tango and Andrew Dolphin of “The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball,” hitters peak between 27 and 28 years old before declining after the age of 30. This research was updated in 2016, which found a hitter’s weighted on-base average — which accounts for how a player reached base, instead of simply considering whether a player reached base — plateaus between ages 24 and 28 and then declines by an average of nine points a year from age 28 to 41. Bill Petti of FanGraphs found “pitchers see their velocity peak in their early 20s and steadily decline by a full mile per hour by age 26. After that, velocity drops more sharply and continues a steep decline into a pitcher’s 30s.”

Weighted on-base average could be a bit intimidating for some, but we can also create a simple aging curve using wins above replacement, keeping projected production steady until age 30, then subtracting 0.25 fWAR each year from ages 31 to 35 and 0.5 fWAR after that, with a win costing $8 million per season. Age is based as of July 1, 2018. Note: I used to inflate the cost of a win each year when using this method, however, that does not yet seem to be a reflection of reality.

Cain, as an example, is projected to be worth 2.8 wins above replacement in 2018, his age-32 season, carrying a value of $22.4 million. Using the parameters above, that would drop his projected fWAR in 2019 to 2.3, 2.1 in 2020 and so on. Add them up and you get a valuation of $82 million over five years, extremely close to the actual $80 million contract he signed in January.

Lorenzo Cain Age of July 1 Projected fWAR Cost of a win (millions) Value (millions)
2018 32 2.8  $8.0  $  22.4
2019 33 2.3  $8.0  $  18.4
2020 34 2.1  $ 8.0  $  16.4
2021 35 1.8  $8.0  $  14.4
2022 36 1.3  $8.0  $  10.4
 $  82.0

It won’t always work out that way, but the method does at least pass the smell test. With that in mind, here are some reasonable contract amounts for other high-profile pending free agents.

Yu Darvish, SP, 31 years old
3.6 projected fWAR in 2018; five-year value of $124 million

Darvish, only two years removed from having Tommy John surgery, finished 2017 striking out 209 batters in 186 2/3 innings. His strikeout rate (27 percent) was the lowest of his career but he does possess a nasty slider that held opposing batters to a .174 average against last season with 82 strikeouts in 213 at-bats ending on the pitch.

Eric Hosmer, 1B, 28 years old
2.6 projected fWAR in 2018; five-year value of $98 million

Hosmer set career highs in batting average (.318) and OPS (.882) with the Kansas City Royals last year, hitting 25 home runs for the second straight season. However, he also set a career high in batting average on balls in play (.351), an indication he may have gotten a little lucky in 2017, especially for a batter with the fourth-highest groundball rate in the majors last season (56 percent).

Mike Moustakas, 3B, 29 years old
2.6 projected fWAR in 2018; five-year value of $92 million

Moustakas, a two-time all-star with a World Series championship ring, is coming off a career-high 38 homers in 2017. But his exit velocity dipped, going from 91.1 mph in 2016 to 87.2 mph last year, and his propensity to chase balls out of the strike zone skyrocketed, raising all sorts of red flags about his ability to duplicate the power surge in future years.

Jake Arrieta, SP, 32 years old
2.8 projected fWAR in 2018; five-year value of $90 million

The 2015 Cy Young Award winner lost almost two miles per hour on his fastball last year and saw his swinging strike rate drop from 10.5 percent in 2016 to 8.5 percent a year later. That’s enough to lower anyone’s expectations going in to the 2018 season.

Jonathan Lucroy, C, 32 years old
2.4 projected fWAR in 2018; five-year value of $74 million

Lucroy batted .265 with a .716 OPS in 2017, but most of that production was as a member of the Colorado Rockies rather than during his stint with the Texas Rangers, a happy side-effect of playing at the friendly confines of Coors Field.

Jonathan Lucroy, 2017 G PA BA OBP SLG OPS
Rangers 77 306 0.242 0.297 0.338 0.635
Rockies 46 175 0.310 0.429 0.437 0.865

After accounting for league and park effects Lucroy produced runs at a rate that was 18 percent below the league average (82 wRC+) in 2017.

Here’s how the rest of the top free agents stack up in terms of five-year value heading into 2018.

Free Agent Age as of July 1 Position Projected fWAR in 2018 Estimated five-year value (million)
J.D. Martinez 30 OF 2.3  $72.0
Jaime Garcia 31 P 2.3  $ 72.0
Neil Walker 32 2B 1.9  $54.0
Alex Cobb 30 P 1.7  $48.0
Brett Anderson 30 P 1.5  $40.0
Henderson Alvarez 28 P 1.0  $34.0
Lance Lynn 31 P 1.3  $32.0
Ubaldo Jimenez 34 P 1.5  $28.0
Eduardo Nunez 31 2B/SS/3B 1.2  $28.0

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