Monday, June 24, 2024

Hoornstra: Making peace with the slow pace of MLB’s offseason

Must read

The Winter Meetings are not a recent tradition in Major League Baseball.

Neither are the Winter Groanings, the annual chorus of complaints about the pace of offseason player movement. Each November, inevitably, teams and fans wait for the biggest of the big-name free agents to find a new home – a process that sometimes takes months, not days or weeks. Just as inevitably, grumbles arise whenever someone compares the process to the NBA’s annual free agent frenzy. Why hasn’t (insert big free agent) signed yet?

The short answer is always the same: Every offseason has its own pace. Sometimes a player’s market develops slowly, like a low-scoring nine-inning game. Sometimes players and teams want to strike quickly and end the suspense.

More than any answer, I’m fascinated by the question – mainly because I think it’s bogus.

I was recently alerted to a list of the top position players from 2018-22 ranked by their FanGraphs WAR. The list was shared to highlight the dominance of the Angels’ Mike Trout and the New York Yankees’ Aaron Judge, who rank second and third, respectively, despite appearing in fewer than 80 percent of their team’s games over the last five years.

The list intrigued me for a different reason: Only eight of the top 24 players have remained with the same team for all five seasons. Good players, or good hitters at least, seem to switch teams a lot these days.

So why doesn’t it feel like it? Do the labor agreements in other leagues – specifically the NBA, the gold standard for free-agent intrigue – actually do more to promote player movement than MLB?

To attempt an answer, I took a quick look at whether the same list would show the same degree of player movement in the NBA, followed by a deep look at which baseball players are actually switching teams (and when).

Take the top 21 players by WAR (baseball) and PIE (basketball) going back to the beginning of 2021. In the NBA, this will capture all of last season and roughly a month’s worth of games this season. We can quibble about which players should have made the top-21 cut, but it’s a useful snapshot of the game’s elite. Why 21? There was a two-way tie for 20th in MLB.

Of the top 21 players in the NBA, nine have switched teams once in the past five years.

Of the top 21 players in MLB, eight have switched teams once in the past five years.

Hmm. Not much difference there, or so it would seem. If those are the 21 best players in each league right now, you could say the best baseball players are almost as likely to move as the best players in basketball. And guess what? The eight baseball players who changed addresses all did so in the offseason; there were no in-season trades among them.

There are two obvious problems with this logic.

For one, hundreds more players appear in MLB games each season than appear in the NBA. Roster sizes are bigger. There’s more movement among players between the majors and the minors than the NBA and the G League. As a percentage of each league’s total population, you would expect more baseball players to change teams.

Two, look at Sandy Alcantara. He was one of the 21 best players in baseball in 2022 (the third-best, actually, according to Baseball Reference). He changed teams in the last five years, but you’d be forgiven for missing it. He was still a minor league prospect in the 2017-18 offseason when the St. Louis Cardinals traded him (and pitcher Zac Gallen, among others – whoops!) to Miami for Marcell Ozuna.

Lots of prospects get traded every year, too many for the average baseball fan to keep tabs on. Some of them pan out. Most don’t.

Is this why we clamor for more movement every offseason? Or is it something else?

One reason there isn’t more player movement in MLB is because long-term contract extensions recently came into vogue. Ten of the 18 longest contracts in MLB history are extensions signed with the player’s original team. Of the other eight, only three have come in the last five years. In other words, if you’re one of the few players signing a 10-year contract these days, chances are it is with the team you already play for.

That list doesn’t even include the long-term extensions signed by Ronald Acuña, Ozzie Albies, Christian Yelich, Miguel Cabrera, Luis Robert and Tim Anderson, to name a few. There’s at least one future Hall of Famer on that list. All of them are still earning that extension money, denying them a recent chance at free agency.

Most fans are in favor of teams re-signing their core players – count me in that group – so maybe the Winter Grumblings are caused by something else.

Another recent phenomenon: Claims of poverty by small-market teams crying poor over having to pay eight-figure salaries to their arbitration-eligible players, then trading them away. So let’s look at a specific kind of player movement: elite players with fewer than six years of service time.

To get a sense of this trend, I looked at the top 20 player-seasons by hitters and pitchers who had not yet reached free agency from 2018-22. Then I looked at the same groups from 1998-2002. Why 1998? It was the first year of the 30-team era.

Sure enough, among this subset of players, there actually used to be less player movement 20 years ago. From 2018-22, 15 of the top 20 player-seasons were by hitters playing for their original organization. Of the other five, two were traded as prospects; Yelich, Ketel Marte and Mitch Hainger are the exceptions.

From 2018-22, only 12 of the top 20 player-seasons were by pitchers playing for their original organizations. Three of the remaining eight players were traded as prospects, including current Seattle Mariner Luis Castillo, who was traded four times before reaching the major leagues!

From 1998-2002, 18 of the top 20 player-seasons were by hitters on their first team. And 14 of the top 20 player-seasons were by hitters on their first team.

The short takeaway: not only is there less player movement among the MLB population in general, what little movement exists increasingly is among relatively anonymous youngsters and prospects – not big-name stars. When an NBA player is traded in the offseason, he is by rule one of the 20 best players in the organization. When an MLB player is traded in the offseason, he only has to be one of the 40 best players in the organization, generally speaking.

There’s also this: Generally speaking, NBA fans are a less provincial lot. They’re more likely to know the best player on all 30 teams than the average MLB fan. Put differently, there are few MLB fans, but lots of fans of MLB teams. This doesn’t help the optics when your team acquires a seemingly unknown major leaguer in the offseason; even if he’s among the 40 best players in the organization he left.

MLB could generate more player movement by shrinking 40-man rosters, though this would likely create more problems than it solves. It could also institute an offseason trading deadline. I suspect this would not change the number of players who change teams, however. If anything, executives might become more conservative, reducing the number of players who change teams every offseason.

The real solution? Re-frame how we think about offseason player movement. It’s slow in baseball, just like the game itself. If you can be a fan of one, it’s not hard to be a fan of the other.

More articles

Latest article