What Can You Find on the Free Agent Market?

Generally, third baseman, such as Pablo Sandoval, are easier to secure on the free agent market. (via Dirk Hansen)

Generally, third baseman, such as Pablo Sandoval, are easier to secure on the free agent market. (via Dirk Hansen)

Every individual baseball fan is different, but I generally like to divide the population into two broad categories. There are people who are most fascinated by the physical acts required to snap off a nasty breaking ball or square up a pitch traveling at 95 miles per hour. They want to watch the best athletes in the world put their talent on display and don’t really care that Josh Donaldson makes $5 million and Miguel Cabrera makes $30 million per season. Cabrera’s the better hitter and they care about who’s better.

On the other side, there are fans who are most interested in the assembly of the team. Call them the “architects.” They’re plenty interested in the action that occurs on the field but they’re the people who are constantly taking about how their team might acquire an even better player or find a similar player who might be cheaper.

It sounds a little like the faux-scouts-stats divide people glean from a Spark Notes reading of Moneyball, but in reality it’s just about how you like to think about sports. One isn’t better than the other. There isn’t a right way to like sports, but there are clearly plenty of people in both camps. The divide likely goes back to the beginning, but it at least extends back to around 1960.

That’s the earliest recollection of something resembling a fantasy baseball competition and about twenty years later we’d see the Daniel Okrent’s first rotisserie league. Fantasy sports would take off, becoming a billion dollar industry with tens of millions of players worldwide. Then Michael Lewis wrote a book about Billy Beane’s A’s and the fascination grew.

The architects used to just sit around in taverns and in the cheap seats discussing their team building ideas, but the fascination with constructing a team has gone mainstream over the last generation and has exploded online during the last decade. Perhaps there’s an echo chamber effect going on, but it’s starting to feel like the lion’s share of baseball analysis these days is the analysis of moves made my general managers and team presidents rather than pitchers and hitters.

We, as baseball fans, are obsessed with the way teams are built. Even people who mock the use of Dollars per WAR or surplus value or any of the other economic metrics conduct an evaluation of team assembly in some way. It’s not the only kind of coverage, but it’s a prominent feature of the modern game.

Teams are built in three ways. There’s amateur and external acquisition (Rule 4 Draft, international free agents), trades, and the free agent market. Particularly, I’d like to explore the latter. We create and consume such a large amount of content surrounding free agent deals asking questions about value, team improvement, and other signings the team could have made.

A lot of that focus is on projecting the future of specific players and whether a team paid the right price for those particular players given the market. And that’s great. There’s a ton of interesting work on the cost of a win on the free agent market from people like Dave Cameron (here, here, and here), Matt Schwartz (here, here and here), and Lewis Pollis (here). And of course you’re likely familiar with the various projection systems like Steamer, ZiPS, Oliver, PECOTA, and others that offer us ideas about how well a player will age.

The questions are often about how good a player is going to be and what the market pays for a player of that caliber. These are great questions, but they haven’t focused on something about the market that I think is worth considering.

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We spend most of our time talking about the overall price of a win on the free agent market or about specific free agents. But I think it’s also worth turning our attention to the availability of players on the market in general. Recent estimates have the cost of a win somewhere in the $6.5 million to $7 million range (likely higher in 2014), but how many wins can you buy if you’re going shopping? Are you able to buy a virtually unlimited supply of three win players or do teams have to scrap and claw to find real difference makers?

The analysis I’m about to show you isn’t revolutionary in nature, it’s just different in focus. Teams pay certain prices based on the laws of supply and demand, augmented for the industry’s quirks, but what kind of supply can you expect year in and year out? Additionally, have things changed much in recent years? Was the market in 2010 fundamentally different than the one in 2013, or are prices just going up because the game is richer than ever.

In the following sections, I’m going to present a number of tables with all kinds of data about the last six offseasons. Before you dig into the data, let’s cover a few basics about sources and definitions. First, the offseasons are named for the season they are flowing into, meaning that the offseason that took place from 2013-2014 is the “2014 Offseason.” Second, the data includes every domestic free agent signing from the beginning of the free agent period to six months after the period began, as drawn from the free agent section of Baseball-Reference. All WAR values listed refer to the FanGraphs version.

Later on, I’ll divide position players up by position. To do so, I will use the position at which they played the most games in the season of interest. For most of the important data points, this isn’t much of an issue. For some players, they split time around at multiple positions and a call had to be made. The rule is games played, rather than innings, to account for designated hitters in the best way possible. Certainly you can disagree, but generally this isn’t a huge problem either way.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

The biggest struggle was deciding how to classify player performance, so I split the difference. I will show everything based on their performance in the year before they went on the market (denoted “pre”) and the year after the went on the market (denoted “post”). Projections make sense if you want to look at what teams think they’re acquiring and what they are willing to pay, but because I’m interested in what was truly available, I’m sticking with actual observed WAR, shown for the year before and the year after the new contract. There’s an inherent post hoc fallacy tied up in all of this in that we can’t know what would have happened if different teams signed different players, but we have to assume that away or we’ll never get anything done.

Starters and relievers aren’t separated from each other, and there are probably a few mistakes in classifying a couple of the minor league free agents, but anyone who actually wound up getting plate appearances should be properly classified by position. I’ve also made every effort to clear up any potential data issues surrounding player names (ahem, the other Ryan Braun), but it’s possible one less famous than Braun, Adam Eaton, etc slipped passed.

The data comes from the 2009-2014 free agent markets. I’ll present the data as position players and pitchers and will then break things down further by position. We’ll look at total WAR, WAR per PA or IP, the number of players with X WAR, and then WAR per 600 PA stratified by position.

The rest of this post is data presentation and discussion about each type, so feel free to skip around and wind up at the conclusion.

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Let’s begin by getting a sense of the total WAR available on the market, the number of players, and the playing time in PA or IP. First we’ll look at position players the year before entering free agency and then the year after signing their deals:

Position Players, One Year Pre- And Post- Free Agency, 2009-2014
Year preWAR prePA postWAR postPA Total #
2009 44.5 30,278 52.2 26,326 227
2010 74.2 38,876 82.9 31,513 233
2011 95.8 39,441 52.7 31,451 228
2012 62.2 37,207 78.9 30,116 227
2013 62.6 31,768 44.2 25,611 215
2014 51.4 29,009 41.3 23,690 207

Now let’s look at pitchers the year before entering free agency and the year after signing their deals:

Pitchers, One Year Pre- And Post- Free Agency, 2009-2014
Year preWAR preIP postWAR postIP Total #
2009 56.8 7,955 44.1 6,782 206
2010 40.6 7,103.2 38.7 5,378.2 210
2011 32.2 7,302 47.4 6,426.1 217
2012 37.3 6,455.2 36.2 5,297.1 190
2013 52.4 7,211 51.5 6,509.2 195
2014 51.8 8,437 46.9 6,552 201

There’s one clear trend in the overall data and that’s that free agents play less the year after their deal than the year before. This is true for hitters and pitchers and it’s universal. There are likely two things going on here. The players are getting a year older and there’s a survivor issue going on with players nearing retirement and in the minors, especially, as you’ll see shortly.

This will be more evident in the next section, but it also appears as if hitters sometimes perform worse as a group after free agency but pitchers don’t. The hurlers throw fewer innings but their per inning performance holds up pretty well.

For pitchers we generally see 35-50 WAR available year to year with no clear temporal pattern and hitters have been in the 40-80 WAR range with two very thin years as of late. It’s hard to be sure about patterns over a six year period spanning two CBAs, but it will be interesting to see if 2015 looks more like 2010-2012 or 2013-2014 in terms of total available WAR.

There are plenty of free agent PA and IP to go around, but we’re talking about dividing up only around 80-100 WAR total per season. Teams have to replace the talent they’re losing into the market and if they then want to use the market to improve, there is only so much production to go around.

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Now let’s carve these numbers up into rate stats that will be a little more manageable to analyze. For hitters, we’ll use WAR per 600 PA and for pitchers we’ll use WAR per 180 IP, again looking at the season before the players hit the market and the season after.

Position Players, One Year Pre- And Post- Free Agency, 2009-2014
Year preWAR/600 PA postWAR/600 PA
2009 0.88 1.19
2010 1.15 1.58
2011 1.46 1.01
2012 1.00 1.57
2013 1.18 1.04
2014 1.06 1.05
Pitchers, One Year Pre- And Post- Free Agency, 2009-2014
Year preWAR/180 IP postWAR/180 IP
2009 1.29 1.17
2010 1.03 1.30
2011 0.79 1.33
2012 1.04 1.23
2013 1.31 1.42
2014 1.11 1.29

For hitters, you’re going to typically get 1.0 to 1.5 WAR per 600 PA but there’s no real pattern over time before versus after. The production bounces around from year to year and it’s not consistently better or worse the year after signing the deal. We know we can count on hitters to get fewer PA, but any given free agent plate appearance isn’t going to be consistently better or worse.

For the pitchers there isn’t much of a pattern over time but there is a clear indication that free agent pitchers perform better inning for inning after signing the contact than before. You’re going to be able to count on 1.2 to 1.4 WAR per 180 innings from a free agent pitcher, but you have to remember that they are almost certainly going to toss fewer innings than they did in their walk year and you’re also dealing with the worst pitchers falling out of the sample.

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Totals and averages are all well and good, but they’re also not that informative if you’re talking about what is actually possible to acquire. Teams don’t go down to the free agent store and purchase a number of PA or IP and get the corresponding WAR until the well runs dry. Instead, teams have to pick out players who come bundled with WAR and PA/IP and a price tag. You can’t decide you want to acquire 10 WAR and get it, you have to sign a player who you think helps you get there. And the other teams have the same idea.

Which means we need to pull back from averages and move into tiering the market. How many 1 WAR players are out there? 3 WAR? 5 WAR? If you’re going to the free agent store, how many of each type are in stock? Again, let’s look at pre- and post- hitters and pre- and post- pitchers:

# Position Players in each preWAR bin, 2009-2014
Year Total No App <0 0-1 1-2 2-3 3-4 4-5 5+
2009 227 75 71 57 11 9 1 1 2
2010 233 72 59 67 18 9 3 3 2
2011 228 72 50 66 19 10 6 2 3
2012 227 67 65 60 22 5 3 4 1
2013 215 75 61 49 11 10 4 3 2
2014 207 74 66 42 13 3 4 1 4
# Position Players in each postWAR bin, 2009-2014
Year Total No App <0 0-1 1-2 2-3 3-4 4-5 5+
2009 227 113 50 39 10 10 3 2  0
2010 233 108 42 52 13 7 6 1 4
2011 228 91 58 45 21 9  0 3 1
2012 227 100 48 47 13 11 3 3 2
2013 215 97 53 41 13 6 3 1 1
2014 207 96 49 41 7 7 5  0 2
# Pitchers in each preWAR bin, 2009-2014
Year Total No App <0 0-1 1-2 2-3 3-4 4-5 5+
2009 206 63 59 62 12 4 1 3 2
2010 210 73 55 62 10 5 4 1 0
2011 217 78 59 60 17 0 1 1 1
2012 190 61 55 56 9 5 3 0 1
2013 195 68 43 62 12 5 4 1 0
2014 201 63 47 69 11 6 4 1 0
# Pitchers in each postWAR bin, 2009-2014
Year Total No App <0 0-1 1-2 2-3 3-4 4-5 5+
2009 206 95 41 53 7 5 4 0 1
2010 210 117 32 42 11 5 3 0 0
2011 217 104 36 60 8 6 1 1 1
2012 190 97 36 37 11 8 1  0 0
2013 195 91 43 39 11 4 5 1 1
2014 201 99 37 42 15 5 2  0 1

These tables are a little busier but the heart of the free agent market is right here. Let’s start with the hitters. There are enough 0-1 WAR players to go around, but as soon as you jump to 1-2 WAR it’s just 10-20 players per season. If you want a 2-3 WAR player there are only about 5-10 to choose from per season, and if you’re after a 3-4 WAR player there are only 3-6 per season. Both 4-5 WAR players and 5+ WAR players are available in quantities of 0-4 per season, but it’s usually just one or two 5+ WAR guys.

For pitchers, there are plenty of 0-1 WAR players, but the talent drops off quickly. There are usually just 7-15 players who will produce 1-2 WAR, 4-8 players who will produce 2-3 WAR, and 1-5 players who will produce 3-4 WAR. Combined, you’re lucky to see one or two players capable of producing 4+ WAR on the market.

No obvious temporal patterns emerge and you’re generally not seeing a drop off from before and after, you’re just seeing far fewer players get major league playing time when you look at that “No Appearance” column.

The results here are pretty stark. If you want to sign an elite player, there’s only going to be a couple available every year. Bench players aren’t hard to find, but even solidly above average players are in short supply each year. If you want to pick up a couple of 3 WAR players to replace departing players or below average performers, you aren’t going to have very many options.

While we talk a lot about teams who don’t seem to spend their money very wisely and pay too much for average players, there often aren’t a lot of ways to acquire really good players on the free agent market. Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval signed in Boston this winter and there just wasn’t a way for the Mariners, for example, to go out and find another 4 WAR player to join their ranks.

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Finally, let’s look at the data from one additional angle; position. Below, I’ve provided WAR per 600 PA by position for the year before and the year after the signing. For the sake of simplicity, the total WAR and PA numbers aren’t shown, but 1) there is no clear pattern for year to year change and 2) there are typically fewer PA in the year after the signing than the year before for all positions. Note: All corner outfielders are considered together.

Position Players by Position, preWAR/600 PA, 2009-2014
Year C 1B 2B SS 3B COF CF DH
2009 0.42 1.18 0.61 0.82 1.07 1.03 0.05 2.26
2010 0.74 0.17 2.23 0.92 1.65 1.37 1.41 1.05
2011 1.90 1.44 1.31 1.12 0.81 1.36 3.23 1.71
2012 0.67 1.30 0.59 1.83 0.81 0.39 1.84 2.22
2013 1.01 -0.34 0.18 -0.23 1.15 1.61 2.98 1.47
2014 1.37 0.52 1.73 0.73 0.65 0.57 2.51 -1.29
Position Players by Position, postWAR/600 PA, 2009-2014
Year C 1B 2B SS 3B COF CF DH
2009 0.97 0.55 1.55 0.61 2.01 1.84 0.90 -0.59
2010 1.66 0.66 2.04 1.23 1.49 1.27 2.78 2.23
2011 1.17 0.94 -0.29 1.99 1.48 1.00 2.39 0.17
2012 0.51 1.56 1.21 1.94 1.93 1.61 1.42 2.47
2013 2.01 0.88 -0.71 0.85 0.47 1.30 1.45 0.68
2014 1.49 0.78 1.25 2.50 2.43 0.16 2.76 0.14

There’s no obvious pattern over time and the before and after split doesn’t offer a ton of insight, but the positional breakdown is interesting. It’s a little bit easier to find center fielders and left side infielders on the market than it is to find right side infielders, corner outfielders, and designated hitters. Yet other than center fielders the numbers aren’t overwhelming and that could always be a matter of one of two good years tilting things.

If you’re shopping for a center fielder or a shortstop, you might be in luck, but if you need a DH or a second baseman you might want to explore the trade market.

*****

Circling back to our two motivating questions, there doesn’t appear to be a big shift in the market in terms of available performance over the last six seasons. The market is surely different than it was 20 years ago, but despite new extension patters, we’re still seeing the same actual production wind up being for sale. If you start factoring in age, projections, and other qualifiers, you’re likely to find a change, but that’s for another day.

Second, the free agent market seems to have a few stable characteristics, at least in this era. The market generally offers 80-100 WAR per season with a ballpark 55-45 split in favor of the hitters. You’re also going to typically get fewer PA or IP from free agents after singing them than you got the year before, but some of that is due to minor league free agents who don’t get any playing time after the new contract.

Typically, hitters will provide 1.0-1.5 WAR per 600 PA and pitchers will be in the 1.2-1.4 WAR per 180 IP range. Additionally, there isn’t a huge divide among individual positions, but center fielders, shortstops, and third baseman have done a little better during this period of time.

Finally, the key piece of data is the availability of players who produce a certain number of wins. The market is pretty flush with 0-1 WAR players and there are a decent number of 1-2 WAR players, but anything above that and the quantity drops off pretty quickly. If you want to acquire a star on the free agent market, there might only be one or two options each year and they might not play a position of need for your team. Here’s one last chart that combines hitter and pitcher postWAR counts per year.

# Players in each postWAR bin, 2009-2014
Year Total No App <0 0-1 1-2 2-3 3-4 4-5 5+
2009 433 208 91 92 17 15 7 2 1
2010 443 225 74 94 24 12 9 1 4
2011 445 195 94 105 29 15 1 4 2
2012 417 197 84 84 24 19 4 3 2
2013 410 188 96 80 24 10 8 2 2
2014 408 195 86 83 22 12 7  0 3
Avg 426 201 88 90 23 14 6 2 2

The free agent market is interesting and it’s important for teams trying to put together a championship roster, but the data here supports the idea that it is expensive and difficult to build the core of a title contender on the open market. A quality team can find good support during the winter months, but it’s awfully hard to find centerpiece type players in this way.

The next time you’re sitting around debating what your favorite team should do during the offseason, remember that there are plenty of supporting players available to sign but rarely many great ones.


Neil Weinberg is the Site Educator at FanGraphs and can be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44.
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Eric
7 years ago

In the aggregate, I like what you have done here. But to me it simply puts more of a spotlight on how valuable player development and a MLB team’s farm system and prospects are. Of the four pieces to build a team with, free agency is nice if you can find add on value, but its just not the main component. I also wouldn’t sell yourself short, there are some patterns to these data. To get the real good values out of free agency, you have to be able to pony up the cash and if MLB was fair, all 30 teams would be able to do so, and only those with deep pockets can. Since you are a Tigers fan, and so am I, what do you think the odds are that Cole Hamels goes there? I would like to see that done, but to me, the Rangers could use him most and have the most to gain in terms of synergies.

Calvin Liu
7 years ago

Nice assembly and presentation of data. The position player data is also complicated by the fact that many of the positions are not interchangeable, thus a need in a given position like SS or CF can be significantly more challenging to replace/upgrade than others.