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On why the Giants (and the rest of Baseball) are too smart to sign any more free agents

Actually... maybe batting average is the most important statistic?

New York Mets v Washington Nationals Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

It’s late enough that I figured I could get away with posting this without having my methodology studied and (rightfully) criticized too much, just note that I am very bad when it comes to math — but! Understanding or trying to understand math is a crucial part of being a baseball fan in the 21st century.

An interesting discussion cropped up on the awful Twitter platform earlier this afternoon, one that is a couple of steps removed from my total comprehension, but one that got me thinking about the current state of Baseball’s free agency and why the Giants, who aren’t tanking (allegedly) are set to make their new scoreboard the single costliest transaction of the offseason.

First, the exchange in question, between Savvy Internetist and ZiPS creator Dan Szymborski and the accomplished managing editor of SBN’s Lonestar Ball, Adam Morris:

The gist of the conversation — in case it’s not totally clear — is that front offices might be evaluating free agents different from how we’d expect Smart, Progressive, Analytics-minded front offices to do the work.

I’m not one to mess with Wins Above Average, but maybe I (and the rest of us) should start to be. How does it differ from Wins Above Replacement (without getting into calculations)? This straightforward answer from Hall of Stats’ Adam Darowski (via High Heat Stats) says it all:

I do a lot of research related to the Hall of Fame. In my work, I’m not building rosters, I’m trying to figure out who the greatest players of all time were. For this reason, WAA might be a better metric for me to use than WAR. When considering someone for the Hall of Fame, do you say “Wow, he was so much better than the AAA players of his day?” or “Wow, he was so much better than everyone else?” I find WAA is a better way to measure how much a player was better than “everyone else”.

Why? WAR rewards you for just being there. WAA does not.

This kind of WAR-WAA adjustment does the following to some of your favorites:

Mike Trout: 64.3 career bWAR —> 48.7 career WAA

Barry Bonds: 162.8 career bWAR —> 123.9 career WAA

In Darowski’s example, he uses Pete Rose, demonstrating that his 76.7 WAR total is the result of his longevity, but his 29.2 Wins Above Average demonstrates that while he played, he wasn’t remarkably better than the average player over the course of his career.

That’s an important distinction and, perhaps, a Smart GM adjustment that has been made. Certainly, progressive Baseball Ops departments want to believe that they can draft and develop great talent that can be better than “replacement level” and can maybe even be an average major league player at minimum. This gets into Adam’s point about how maybe the first “win” is being lopped off the calculation.

FanGraphs provides a cost per Win Above Replacement, but a lot of that calculation is based retroactively on what the market pays for players and what those players wound up producing. Not exactly an efficient means of calculation, and certainly, the idea that a “win” costs anywhere between $7-$9 million seems a little funky.

But, again, I’m a dummy. Let’s say, though, for the sake of argument, that Dan (who is exceptionally bright) and Adam (who seems to be, too) are on to something and Smart Baseball Men have shifted focus to a different single number to describe a player while simultaneously figuring that the first “win” of a player’s value is “free” — something they can easily replicate in-house for the major league minimum or thereabouts. Again, for the sake of argument, let’s say that “in-house”, Smart Baseball Men are figuring the cost of a real win is closer to $5 million.

[Edited to add: Whoops — I forgot to show my work:]

To get that $5 million number, I let Farhan Zaidi be my guide. Although the Derek Holland contract kinda futzes with the notion (he was worth only 0.8 Wins Above Average in 2018 and is set to earn $6.5 million in 2019), I think that can be explained by a team’s tendency to be a bit more generous with one of their own. On the cold, hard free agent market, it’s different, and to that end, Drew Pomeranz’s convoluted deal goes as high as $5 million. In 2017, his last healthy season, his WAA was 2.3. Again, if the first win is free, and the Giants are building an incentive-laden deal with that 2017 in mind, then that $5 million total means he’s achieved all the goals necessary to reach a projected 2-wins above average.

That affects a lot of the negotiation positions. Bryce Harper’s bWAR the last four seasons: 10.0, 1.5, 4.7, 1.3. Is he a 4.375-WAR player on average, or is he 1.3? His Wins Above Average over that same span (8.0, -0.4, 3.2, -0.8) are even less inspiring. Is he a 2.5-WAA player on average or is he closer to sub-average?

This doesn’t even get into player ages and aging curves, but at least in Harper’s case, it’s pretty clear that the math is working against him, and with Farhan Zaidi running the show, the odds of Harper even getting an accidental Melancon are next to impossible. The Giants aren’t even trying to cover the offseason’s bad PR with a make-good move.

It’s a tough spot for the top of the market free agents, which means it’s even worse for the rest. There’s no doubt that free agent hitters are being evaluated differently than they have been in years past, and that’s mainly because the pitching market has (seemingly) been relatively consistent with previous years. Just look at how the Yankees have splurged on their bullpen or how Washington kicked off the offseason by signing Patrick Corbin.

What really got me thinking in terms of trends beyond just the single-number analytics was how hitting has changed. More pitchers throw harder, so being able to hit a fastball, while always being important, has become imperative. Sure, launch angle and exit velocity matter, but if we just look at last year’s results for batting average against all fastballs and compare that to the list of remaining free agents, the picture crystal clear: “slider speed bats” have no place in Major League Baseball anymore.

That’s bad news if you were a batter already behind the curve in terms of the “launch angle revolution” but it’s catastrophic — like, walk into the ocean with rocks in your pocket awful — if you’re an offensive player who’s thirty or older, or even approaching thirty. Teams feel comfortable with being able to replicate declining veteran performance with young, pre-arb / league minimum guys thanks to the advances in scouting and training.

A whole group of veterans are about to be washed away in this data revolution, which doesn’t necessarily mean that free agency as we know it is totally dead — there’s a good chance some of these young hitters, having adapted to the latest trends, will still be useful players once they hit free agency down the line. After all, for a long time, pitchers were taught to pitch down, work down in the zone, and get batters to chase down around their ankles. Batters finally adapted to that, prompting pitchers to pitch up in the zone more, and now batters are trying to adjust to that. These things are cyclical. At some point, everyone will be able to hit 98 mph fastballs, and we’ll have our next Kirk Rueter dynamo. For now, I suspect that a huge group of players caught between what was and what is (that’s a good chunk of the Giants’ roster, come to think of it) are being forced into early retirement or playing overseas.

Doing damage against the fastball is still the best measure of a hitter’s value.

There are 55 unsigned position players, according to MLB Trade Rumors’ tracker. That group includes Harper and Machado, of course, but also some others you might easily dismiss when you think of “Teams Making A Splash In Free Agency”. There’s 38-year old Jose Bautista and a host of backup catchers, along with Carlos Gonzalez and Gerrardo Parra and Hanley Ramirez... players who were good, but whose best days might be behind them.

40 of these players had at least 100 plate appearances last season, and using that criteria, sorted against Statcast’s batting average against all fastball types (4-seam, 2-seam, and cutter, of all velocities), I found these 12 free agents whose averages placed them in the top 100 last season:

Top FA BA vs All FB types in 2018

PLAYER 2019 AGE POSITION(S) BA vs All FB 2018 MLB rank (min 100 PA)
PLAYER 2019 AGE POSITION(S) BA vs All FB 2018 MLB rank (min 100 PA)
Gerardo Parra 32 LF / RF 0.333 16
Danny Valencia 34 1B / RF / 3B 0.328 22
Melky Cabrera 34 LF / RF 0.323 29
Jose Iglesias 29 SS 0.314 48
Robbie Grossman 29 LF / RF 0.311 53
Carlos Gonzalez 33 LF / RF 0.306 63
Manny Machado 26 SS / 3B 0.305 65
Adeiny Hechavarria 30 SS 0.299 80
Lucas Duda 33 DH / 1B 0.297 86
Derek Dietrich 29 1B / LF / 2B / 3B 0.296 87
Bryce Harper 26 CF / LF / RF 0.295 90
Adam Jones 33 CF / RF 0.294 95

So, this is the group that would, in my mind, still stand out as serviceable in the modern game. Given the slim pickings and the names among said pickings, it’s not hard to imagine why the offseason has been such a drag. Now let’s look at these players’ Wins Above Average from 2018:

Gerrado Parra: -1.0

Danny Valencia: -1.1

Melky Cabrera: -1.0

Jose Iglesias: 0.6

Robbie Grossman: -0.1

Carlos Gonzalez: -1.3

Manny Machado: 2.0 3.5

Adeiny Hechavarria: -0.4

Lucas Duda: -0.9

Derek Dietrich: -1.3

Bryce Harper: -0.8

Adam Jones: -2.0

Ah. That settles it. These aren’t players viewed by front offices as being so remarkably better than what’s available already in the organization that they simply have to have them. Or, at the very least, there are a great many players out there who don’t make the cut in terms of what teams are looking for these days.

Does this mean the front offices aren’t colluding and they’re just being smart? Well, there are plenty of ways to evaluate players. I could’ve gone with BP’s DRC+ or even FanGraphs wRC+ to look a little more closely at the remaining free agents, but I chose fastball batting average because of market trends. Velocity arms aren’t going anywhere — who’s left that can thrive against them? Who has a chance of sustaining that success? And who will cost the least?

There’s going to be plenty of labor discussion in the coming years, especially when teams do their annual service time manipulation for their top prospects, but in the meantime, the unfairness might be a little more about how the game changed overnight and a lot of players are simply stuck — much like what happened to the Giants’ organization when they woke up in 2017 and the game had completely changed — and a little less about unending growth and unsustainably large profit margins.

For now, anyway.

The owners have colluded so many times it’s impossible to assume they’re not, but since Baseball is a lot more about the genius of a few in the front office and less about what the players do on the field anymore, it makes just a little more sense to view it that way, and by doing so, we see that the cruelty that comes with the decline in peak performance seems to be carrying the day more than outright greed.

For now.