Jim Dey: Free agents struggle as data dominates contracts

Jim Dey: Free agents struggle as data dominates contracts

Two months from now, the summer game — although it won't be close to summer — will be under way. The Cardinals, Cubs and White Sox all will be playing regular season games in a season that won't be over until late October.

But with spring training beginning next week for Major League Baseball's 30 teams, a handful of top free agents are getting itchy. Free agent Cubs ace Jake Arrieta, Eric Hosmer, Yu Darvish, J.D. Martinez, Mike Moustakas and Jay Bruce, among others, are unsigned and unhappy.

They expected the heavens to part and huge piles of money to come floating down. But it hasn't happened, to the point that last week, player agent Brodie Van Wagenen suggested owners have entered an illegal conspiracy not to sign free agents, like Arrieta, to huge, long-term contracts. He urged players on every team to boycott spring training.

There is a reason teams and free agents are having problems reaching contract agreements. But it's not one agents want to acknowledge.

It's the same reason teams are using defensive shifts against batters with obvious hitting tendencies, more managers are moving sluggers into the No. 2 slot in the batting order, catchers with "pitch framing" skills are highly sought-after commodities and the stolen base has become much less of a feature of the modern-day game.

Sabermetrics, the empirical use of baseball statistics that measure in-game activity, have not only changed the way the game is played, but the manner in which business is conducted.

Starting with Michael Lewis' 2003 book "Moneyball" and continuing with such works as Tom Tango's "The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball" (2006) and Keith Law's "Smart Baseball" (2017), fans slowly have been brought into the loop on this math-based science of understanding the game.

Here's the deal as it relates to the way free agency is going in 2018.

With every team in MLB now armed with its own sabermetrics department, management has the ability to determine, based on statistical performance, what players are worth in the open market.

They have learned two big lessons:

— teams are unwilling to reward older players with huge sums of money based on past performance,

— they're leery of long-term deals, like five years, unless the players are young enough to warrant them. (Watch the Nationals' Bryce Harper, who's 25, break the bank next year.)

Although the mathematics behind sabermetrics is intensely complicated — it's the kind of thing in which Ph.D.s excel — the idea behind it is simple. It generates intensely valuable information.

Like all businesses, the one with the best and most information often wins.

Sports Illustrated baseball writer Tom Verducci writes that a "rise in intellect and information has fundamentally changed the economics of baseball" because the bloodless art of measuring value through mathematics has "taken emotions out of the buying side of baseball."

Team owners still want to win as much as ever, but management has discovered that overpaying for talent not only doesn't help teams win but makes it more difficult because it saddles them with long-term costs.

Here's a good example of the too-long-and-too-much phenomenon.

Five years ago, the Cardinals signed All-Star shortstop Jhonny Peralta, now on the verge of turning 36, to a four-year, $53 million contact. He was hitting .204 last June when they released him on waivers.

One of the top unsigned free agents, at least until this week, was 32-year-old former White Sox and Yankees third baseman Tod Frazier. He signed a two-year deal for $17 million with the Mets, a contract characterized by news reports as a "steep discount that many other mid-market free agents may settle for as spring training approaches."

It was less than what Frazier wanted, but certainly not a discount. He can still play defense and hit for power (27 home runs). Frazier had a good on-base percentage (.344), but he hit just .213 as his skills diminish.

Verducci reports that six years ago, a player comparable to Frazier, Michael Cuddyer, got a three-year deal for $31.5 million.

The numbers, of course, are still startling. Thanks to television contracts, professional sports is awash in dollars. But baseball teams like the Cardinals, Cubs and White Sox understand that having money available doesn't justify squandering it on excessively long and generous contracts for older players with declining skills when younger ones just entering their prime are available.

Arrieta, the Cubs' ace, will turn 32 on March 6. Does anyone really want to give him a five-year contract at $20 million a year? Not so far. The numbers teams have come up with showing what he'll do in the future, compared to what he's done in the past, don't justify such largesse.

Teams are still paying funny money to these young athletes. But the players aren't laughing as long and loud as they did before teams started doing their mathematics homework.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or by phone at 217-351-5369.

Sections (2):Columns, Opinion
Topics (1):Employment