You can see it in the extreme defensive shifts that have become routine during a game. It’s evident in the evolution of bullpen usage, and in the decline of the sacrifice bunt. And now the determination of baseball executives to make evidence-based decisions, to trust research over routine, has become just as conspicuous in January as in July.
Wade Davis and Carlos Santana have signed multiyear free-agent contracts with new teams in the three months since the 2018 regular season ended, but the remaining dozen or so most marketable talents, players who were expecting to ignite bidding wars and choose among multiple eager suitors waving nine-figure contracts, remain unemployed. Even the trafficking of rumors and speculation has slowed to a crawl.
Normally, most expensive free agents are off the market before Christmas, and January is mostly for minor moves; this year, notable players such as Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta, Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer still are shopping for contracts.
The reason? Bill James, who helped trigger baseball’s analytics revolution and has been in the Red Sox front office for more than a decade, says it’s because virtually every team has researched the effectiveness — or lack thereof — of signing expensive long-term contracts, and is acting on that information.
“We’ve reached a point at which 28 or 29 teams believe what 20 teams believed two or three years ago — that the long-term contracts, with the big numbers that they carry, they catch up with you before you want them to,” James said on MLB Network last week. The change is abrupt, he said, because the game may have reached a tipping point in the past few seasons, as more teams hire Ivy League graduates, predisposed to utilize data to make decisions, to run their baseball operations.
“Suppose that 20 people in a market of 30 teams believe something. And then that number goes to 25 — there are still five people that can move the market,” James said. “But it might happen that that 25 goes to 30, and then that’s a big change.”
So it seems. This crop of free agents isn’t particularly strong, it’s true, but there are plenty of useful players available. In fact, more than 100 free agents are still on the market. But teams have come to value payroll flexibility (and avoiding baseball’s new luxury tax, which kicks in at $194 million) more than high-priced players. That’s why the Dodgers, who came one win from a World Series championship, have spent the winter shedding payroll rather than adding players, and why the Diamondbacks, just two seasons after signing Zack Grienke to a $205 million contract, are rumored to be shopping him, despite his strong season and their improvement into a playoff team.
And it’s why Hosmer’s preference for an eight-year contract appears to be unfulfilled so far, and why teams that are hungry to add a high-end starting pitcher — the Twins among them, of course — have yet to meet the asking price of Darvish and Arrieta, or even Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb. It’s a free-agent marketplace that baseball analyst Joe Sheehan describes as “hyper-rational.”
The intriguing question is, where does the market go from here? It’s evident that nobody wants to be the first to sign, at least not at anything resembling a discount price, so the logjam remains. But training camps open in less than five weeks, so there’s going to be a rush of signings at some point. Will teams panic as their targets go elsewhere, and overbid for whoever remains? Will players (and their agents) begin lowering their demands in order to draw more interest?
Twins chief baseball officer Derek Falvey doesn’t believe either will happen — though he and General Manager Thad Levine will be watching for bargains.
“There are enough people who have been doing this a long time, both on the player-rep side and the team side, to keep from overreacting,” Falvey said recently. “At some point, contracts are going to get done, and I’m sure they’ll get done at what we all view as fair value.”
But “fair value” may be different from it used to be.