Raise your hand if you paid a high premium on draft day for one of the most-hyped free agents after they signed. Personally, Kris Bryant’s “flare up” in his back has me reliving the moments I thought it was a good idea to take him around pick 60 after he moved to mile-high.
The biggest names in free agency rightfully receive the most media coverage in the off-season, and the fantasy baseball community feverishly reviews rumors to evaluate new landing spots. Home park and lineup upgrades or downgrades, along with a team’s coaching staff or reputation for development, can attribute to a player’s rise or fall in their average draft position (ADP).
More Money, More Problems
Even the best players are affected by off-the-field factors like where they live, who their teammates are, and how much money they’re being paid. Because of the risk associated with free agents, there’s a common practice in fantasy baseball to avoid drafting players who are going to play in their first season of a new contract.
Is this a profitable strategy, or are there some premiums that are worth paying?
Let’s take a look at how recently-signed free agents have performed in their first season under their new contracts.
The Francisco Lindor Effect
If a free agent signs with the same team, it’s seen by most as the best-case scenario for fantasy value. They don’t have to make any major life changes and they’ve already produced in the same lineup and in the same stadium before. You should be able to look at their previous statistics and be more confident in their consistency moving forward.
On the flip side, the most uncertainty comes when a free agent changes teams. They usually have to sell their home, move themselves and their families to a new city, and get acclimated to a new franchise and a locker room of new teammates. And if a player moves to a large market like Los Angeles, Chicago, or New York, they also have to deal with increased media scrutiny and even higher expectations than usual.
Public opinion on free agents is swayed most heavily when these high-profile players underperform in their first season on a new contract. Enter Francisco Lindor.
He was a superstar from 2016-2020 with Cleveland, slashing .285/.346/.488 with 138 HR and 99 SB over 777 games. After a lackluster 2020 campaign during the pandemic, he signed a $341 million mega deal with the New York Mets during the 2020-2021 offseason.
“Mr. Smile” went from being the face of the small-market Cleveland baseball team to the prophetical hero destined to return one of the league’s most prominent franchises to glory. He took the field for the first time in 2021 while wearing a Mets uniform with a $341,000,000 price tag hanging off the sleeve.
As you can see in the table above, the switch hitter performed even worse in 2021 with his new team than he did in the shortened and unpredictable 2020 season. To make matters worse, at the beginning of the season when the expectations were at their highest, he reached the lowest performance output of his career. In April and May, Lindor slashed .194/.295/.294 with four HR and four SB over 46 games.
Prior to the 2021 season, his ADP was 16 and he was the fourth shortstop off the board. The managers who drafted him at that price must have been severely disappointed with the results.
According to Razzball’s Player Rater, Lindor finished the season as the 218th-most valuable player in MLB and the 25th-most valuable shortstop.
One of the largest contracts in baseball history was signed by a team in baseball’s largest market and initially, it looked to be a bust.
Whether it was because he dealt with much worse traffic to get to the stadium, because he was asked tougher questions in interviews, or just because of bad luck (he did have a .248 batting average on balls in play- by far the worst mark in his career), the most expensive Met did perform much worse than expected in the first season of his 10-year deal.
So here’s the league-winning question: Do other players in Lindor’s situation perform much worse than expected as well?
First-Season Return on Investment
Let’s take a look at all the free agents who have signed free agent contracts of at least two years since 2013.
These players are divided into the ones who signed with new teams and ones who signed with the same teams. Then we separated those groups into three categories: Small contracts have an average annual value (AAV) of less than $10M, mid-size contracts have an AAV between $10M and $20M, and large contracts have an AAV of more than $20M.
We used ZiPS pre-season WAR projections for each of these players and compared that number to the actual WAR for their first season. Due to the shortened 2020 season, we broke down WAR on a per-game basis to ensure each season was evaluated properly.
Because of this, players who spent time on the injured list might not be penalized heavily, but it doesn’t mean their absence didn’t hurt their actual teams or their fantasy ones. Players who missed their first full season due to injury were omitted.
Using WAR when discussing fantasy baseball value can be a little misleading because it factors defense in as well. However, WAR is the most reliable and holistic stat that’s available for each of the last 10 seasons. Plus, since we’re discussing a matter of public opinion and contract valuations here, the overall impact on a team that WAR provides is a solid measurement.
Even though it feels like projections seem to be conservative before the season starts, this visualization tell us players usually perform right at or near their projections. It’s also more common for these players to underperform their pre-season WAR projection than it is for them to overperform it.
The big thing to take away here is that players who sign large contracts for a new team perform more than four times worse against projections than those who sign medium and small contracts for new teams.
It looks like there’s some real validity to the thought that the most expensive players are a large liability if they change teams. Lindor is not alone.
Here are the results broken down in a chart that also includes the set’s standard deviation.
For some context on the minuscule numbers, .0005 WAR/Game is worth .06 WAR in 120 games. And .0089 WAR/Game is worth 1.07 WAR in 120 games.
In each of the two data sets, players who sign the smallest contracts see the largest standard deviation in their first-year WAR. This means these players are slightly more volatile and there’s a larger gap between the biggest underperformers and the biggest overperformers.
One unexpected thing to note here is players who stay with their previous team see more volatility in their outcomes than players who switch teams. This goes against the common thought that when a free agent signs with their previous team, it significantly reduces the risk. As it turns out, these players are slightly riskier than those who switch teams.
Even though these players may be a bit riskier, the actual results speak for themselves. Players who sign with the same team do outperform projections at a higher rate overall than those players who change teams.
The one exception is that players who sign mid-size contracts with the same team perform worse than those who sign mid-size contracts with a different team. They also perform significantly worse than players with small and large contracts who also stayed with their previous team.
Free Agency in The 2021-2022 Offseason
This past offseason provided one of the most unique free agency periods MLB and its fans have ever seen. Due to MLB’s lockout, two periods of frenzied free agency book-ended 3 long months of radio silence.
We also saw a mass exodus of free agents leaving their previous teams for greener pastures. Since 2013, 183 of the 326 players (56%) who signed a free agent deal of at least two years in length signed with the same team they had previously played for. This year, only 8 of the 49 players (16%) who signed two+ year deals stayed with the same team.
Of the players who signed the 15 largest contracts by total value, none of them signed with their previous team.
It’s too early to draw any conclusions about the success any teams have had in free agency, but it’s been interesting to see how the teams who spent the most on new players have fared so far.
According to Spotrac, the Rangers spent by far the most money on free agents this offseason, more than doubling the next highest team in total dollars committed. The Tigers, Mets, Dodgers, and Phillies are the only other teams who spent more than $200 million.
Of those five teams, only the Mets and Dodgers currently have a winning percentage greater than .500. However, due to the roster youth of the Rangers and Tigers, it might take a few more years to know what to think about their spending sprees.
The individual players will likely stay consistent with what we’ve seen in the past. But there will of course still be outliers.
We’ll see who those outliers are by the end of the season, and if the Mets can avoid those landmines this year then people in New York might really start to believe in the power of Steve Cohen’s wallet.
How Free Agent Signings Affected 2022 ADP
To draft early or not to draft early. That’s the onus we face as our baseball fandom fights with our fantasy baseball logic. On the one hand, drafting in December scratches the persistent winter baseball itch. On the other hand, who on Earth knows anything about anything four months before the season starts?
Well, I guess that’s part of the fun, too.
If you drafted Carlos Rodón and his glass arm after pick 130 and before the Renaissance Giants gave him $44 million, you might’ve done some fist pumping. And if you drafted Bryant after pick 100 and before he signed up to play 81 games at 5,280 feet… Bravo.
In hindsight, some may be frustrated with the goose egg next to Bryant’s HR total and the persistent back issues. But the season is long and it’s impossible to ignore that huge bump in ADP post-signing. At the time, it looked like an incredible bargain.
These kinds of bargains developed this offseason because it’s impossible to know what kinds of situations free agents will find themselves in by Opening Day. The jackpots feel great, but man, the Michael Conforto’s really hurt.
Here’s a look at a variety of FA contracts signed this offseason and what their ADP looked like before and after the signing. You can also see where they stand in Razzball’s Player Rater for standard 12-team leagues as of today, May 25.
Will they play in the vast expanses of The Coliseum, Comerica, or Oracle? How about the launchpads in Colorado, Cincinnati, or Milwaukee? What does the lineup around them look like? Will they pitch for the gurus in San Francisco or Tampa Bay?
This line of thinking caused the massive jump for Bryant and sizable leaps forward for Rodón, Schwarber, and Story. It also caused significant drops for Seager, Semien, and Gausman.
During draft season, it’s easy to get caught up in the ebbs and flows of ADP. But it’s really fun to look back now and see which premiums might actually have been worth it.
Of course, it’s only been one month. But Gausman and Rodón sure do look great. They currently rank first and third respectively in FIP, and they each have a CSW% north of 30%.
Semien and Báez, on the other hand, will have to really heat up along with the weather to make their numbers look palatable.
It’s hard to truly know the return on taking these players until the season is over. It’s natural to be on the lookout for buying opportunities that pop up when some of the most-hyped players in the preseason don’t return on their high investment costs from the get-go.
However, we’ve seen over the last decade that those players who sign the huge contracts and change teams can’t be relied on to consistently return value. It’s probably more profitable to look for buying opportunities elsewhere.
Photo By Dustin Bradford/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)