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January 11, 2010

Ahead in the Count

Part 2 of Service-time Contracts and Wins

by Matt Swartz

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Last week, we looked at the 2009 season by breaking down WARP3 totals of players with different levels of service time. This week, I'll use more data from Jeff Euston's Cot's Contracts-the latest free agency acquisition by the Prospectus team-and gathered the same information for 2007 and 2008. At this stage, Jeff does not have reliable data for service time prior to this, but this was enough to get a much clearer picture of how to build and afford a winning team, and how the market has changed even over the last few years.

To recap last week's work, I considered how many wins teams were able to generate from players who had not yet reached arbitration eligibility (and thus were paid the major-league minimum), how many wins teams were able to generate from players who were arbitration-eligible (but not yet eligible for free agency), and how many wins teams were able to generate from free agency-eligible players. I separated these categories further by combining players who would not yet be free agency-eligible if they were unsigned at the end of the season, and players who would. The former group mostly consisted of all players who had less than six years of service time, and the latter group mostly consisted of all players who had more than six years of service time. The one exception is players from Japan and other Asian countries who can be free agents without reaching six years of major-league service or who have their contracts posted, in which case they are still bid for like free agents, with the primary difference being that their former team recovers value via auction.

Looking through the 2009 data, we found that it was nearly impossible to put together a playoff team by simply going for broke on free agency-eligible (i.e. "auction market" or AM) talent. The exception was the Yankees, who were able to generate 46 WARP3 from players with six years of service time or more, which would have been enough to put even the worst talent-developing teams into the playoffs. Other playoff teams needed to have some cost-controlled, or "non-market," talent.

This is an important finding, because we can identify what teams are realistically able to accomplish with free-agent talent, how much talent teams can develop on their own, and how they can build a winner. In the last several articles, I've asked the question of how a bad team can become a good team. The first question from a few weeks ago was to ask whether they should bid for free-agent talent. Free agents are bid for in an auction format, which means that to sign a free agent, you pretty much need to bid more than everyone else most of the time. In cases where teams have outside shots at the playoffs, and when the player in question is also someone who can be traded easily at the trade deadline, a short-term contract for a free agent can be worth the money. Long-term contracts can be crippling, as I pointed out subsequently; the best value comes early in these deals, as players get less productive as the contract wears on. Thus, it is not wise to bid for most free agents in the expectation that you'll be counting on them in later years, because the price isn't worth it-it's better to spend money on such talent in a few years when you're competitive.

Which brings us to this week's article and its expansion upon last week's argument. How much talent you can realistically bring in on the free-agent market, and how much you need to develop on your own? The answers give us a rough blueprint for how to build a winner and when to strike on the free-agent market.

Last week, I found that the Astros spent on free-agent talent like a competitive team, but were simply unable to put together enough young, cost-controlled, non-market (NM) talent to make that a worthwhile exercise; after finishing dead last in NM WARP3 in 2009 but seventh in auction-market (AM) WARP3 in 2009, it would certainly seem that way. By moving back further, we realize that in 2008 the Astros finished last in NM WARP3 and fourth in AM WARP3. However, in 2007, the Astros were 18th in both NM and AM WARP3. What happened between 2007 and 2008? That's when the Astros brought in Ed Wade as general manager; Wade decided that the 73-89 team he inherited from 2007 was ready to compete if he signed a bunch of free agents. Wade's tack got them all the way up to 86-75 in 2008-not enough to make the playoffs-and then they fell to 74-88 in 2009 as those players aged.

Let's first review the 2009 listing of WARP3 in various categories, with the playoff teams in bold in the subsequent table:

  • M: Minimum-Salary players' WARP3 (who have fewer than approximately three years of service time)
  • A: Arbitration-Eligible players' WARP3 (who have approximately three to six years of service time)
  • F: Free Agent-Eligible WARP3 (who have more than six years of service time)
  • J: Japanese and other players WARP3 (who were bid for in Auction markets)
  • NM: Non-Market players' WARP3 (M+A)
  • AM: Auction-Market players' WARP3 (F+J)
  • T: Total WARP3 (F+A+F+J)


Rk by 2009 WARP3    M    A    F    J   NM   AM    T
1  Yankees         7.8 10.8 46.3  0.0 18.6 46.3 64.9
2  Dodgers        15.8 13.6 31.5  0.2 29.4 31.7 61.1
3  Cardinals       9.0 15.1 32.2  0.0 24.1 32.2 56.3
4  Braves         19.1 19.3 15.5  2.1 38.4 17.6 56.0
5  Red Sox        19.2 16.5 14.1  4.5 35.7 18.6 54.3
6  Rockies        25.4 12.5 12.4  0.0 37.9 12.4 50.3
7  Phillies        8.0 32.2  9.5  0.0 40.2  9.5 49.7
8  Angels         19.2 12.7 16.2  0.0 31.9 16.2 48.1
9  Rays           28.8 10.3  7.9  0.8 39.1  8.7 47.8
10 Twins          13.7 23.6  9.9  0.0 37.3  9.9 47.2
11 Cubs           20.9  0.3 19.0  5.0 21.2 24.0 45.2
12 Blue Jays       5.7 25.2 14.1  0.0 30.9 14.1 45.0
13 Giants         19.3  7.4 16.0  0.0 26.7 16.0 42.7
14 Rangers        20.8 13.5  8.3  0.0 34.3  8.3 42.6
15 White Sox      18.1  2.7 19.4  0.0 20.8 19.4 40.2
16 Brewers        10.9 17.0 11.9  0.0 27.9 11.9 39.8
17 Marlins        10.6 29.0  0.1  0.0 39.6  0.1 39.7
18 Mariners       15.5  7.5 14.0  2.4 23.0 16.4 39.4
19 Tigers          7.8 22.1  9.1  0.0 29.9  9.1 39.0
20 Athletics      26.4  6.4  4.2  0.0 32.8  4.2 37.0
21 Reds           19.5  7.1 10.0  0.0 26.6 10.0 36.6
22 Mets            5.4 13.0 16.9  0.0 18.4 16.9 35.3
23 Diamondbacks   19.5  9.3  6.1  0.0 28.8  6.1 34.9
24 Indians        13.8 13.1  5.5 -0.1 26.9  5.4 32.3
25 Astros          5.0  8.9 16.5  1.5 13.9 18.0 31.9
26 Orioles        16.3  4.8  6.7  1.1 21.1  7.8 28.9
27 Padres         14.5 13.8 -0.1  0.0 28.3 -0.1 28.2
28 Royals          9.4 16.1  1.5  0.0 25.5  1.5 27.0
29 Nationals       9.1  8.7  7.3  0.0 17.8  7.3 25.1
30 Pirates        10.5 10.3  2.6  0.0 20.8  2.6 23.4

MLB Average       14.8 13.4 12.8  0.6 28.3 13.4 41.7

For comparison, let's also list 2008 by Total WARP3, again with the playoff teams in bold:


Rk by 2008 WARP3   M     A   F     J   NM   AM   T
1  Red Sox        24.4  8.3 21.7  7.1 32.7 28.8 61.5
2  Cubs           14.5  4.3 38.4  1.6 18.8 40.0 58.8
3  Rays           32.0 16.9  4.2  2.3 48.9  6.5 55.4
4  Yankees         9.1  4.5 38.7  0.9 13.6 39.6 53.2
5  Brewers        20.9 11.8 20.4  0.0 32.7 20.4 53.1
6  Phillies       11.9 24.7 16.0  0.0 36.6 16.0 52.6
7  Blue Jays      13.1 18.6 19.7  0.0 31.7 19.7 51.4
8  Cardinals      12.5 11.3 26.9  0.0 23.8 26.9 50.7
9  White Sox      20.0  6.5 22.3  0.0 26.5 22.3 48.8
10 Angels         18.3 19.1 11.0  0.0 37.4 11.0 48.4
11 Mets            5.9 17.2 25.1  0.0 23.1 25.1 48.2
12 Dodgers        25.4  2.8 11.4  8.1 28.2 19.5 47.7
13 Twins          23.3 16.8  4.8  0.0 40.1  4.8 44.9
14 Indians        13.8 22.5  3.3  3.2 36.3  6.5 42.8
15 Marlins        34.1  6.0  0.0  0.0 40.1  0.0 40.1
16 Diamondbacks    9.9 24.5  5.7  0.0 34.4  5.7 40.1
17 Braves         16.2  6.7 15.7  0.0 22.9 15.7 38.6
18 Rockies        19.6 17.3  0.9  0.0 36.9  0.9 37.8
19 Tigers         19.0  5.8 13.0  0.0 24.8 13.0 37.8
20 Rangers        13.4  7.3 16.2  0.1 20.7 16.3 37.0
21 Astros          4.3  5.1 25.7  1.7  9.4 27.4 36.8
22 Athletics      18.7 15.5  1.4  0.0 34.2  1.4 35.6
23 Royals         16.1 10.6  7.6  0.0 26.7  7.6 34.3
24 Orioles        15.8  6.6  9.9  0.0 22.4  9.9 32.3
25 Reds           14.1  7.5  8.8  0.0 21.6  8.8 30.4
26 Giants         17.4 -3.0 12.9  1.2 14.4 14.1 28.5
27 Padres         18.6  4.4  4.4  0.0 23.0  4.4 27.4
28 Mariners       12.4  3.8  8.3  0.1 16.2  8.4 24.6
29 Nationals       9.3  4.5  7.5  0.0 13.8  7.5 21.3
30 Pirates         5.5 12.9  1.5  0.0 17.5  1.5 19.0
MLB Average       16.3 10.7 13.4  0.9 27.0 14.3 41.3

Looking at 2008, we see that the Rays made the playoffs with nearly no free-agent talent. No team in 2009 had fewer than the Phillies' 9.5 Auction Market (AM) WARP3, but the Rays managed to win the 2008 AL East with only 6.5 AM WARP3. The Yankees also had an extremely large AM WARP3 in 2008, but failed to make the playoffs; it's clear looking at this table that the problem was that the Yankees were so far behind in developing their own talent, as they were 29th in the league in Non-Market (NM) WARP3. However, their 39.6 AM WARP3 wasn't the MLB-leading mark-it was lower than the Cubs' 40.0 total. The Cubs had a very high AM WARP3 in each year from 2007-2009, but struggled to put up decent NM WARP3 tally, and were ultimately overtaken by the Cardinals this year in AM WARP3 as their collection of free-market talent started getting older and less effective. Like the Yankees, the Cubs' pair of division titles came not just from any auction market talent, but specifically by signing or re-signing their own players, either those they developed themselves (such as Carlos Zambrano) or those they'd traded for (Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez).

Both 2008 and 2009's tables show the limits of how much AM WARP3 a team can manage to add. The average team gets two-thirds of its wins from players with six years of service time or less. There are outliers, however: Red Sox led the league in WARP3 by finishing 10th in NM WARP3 and third of AM WARP3-they were in the top third in two categories that generally show a negative correlation. (Looking at all teams over 2007-09, the NM WARP3 and AM WARP3 total have a -0.41 correlation.) They successfully developed more than the average amount of talent, and then supplemented it on the free-agent market-an obvious way to win. The Phillies, one of just three teams to make the playoffs in 2007, 2008, and 2009, were successful again in 2008 by being sixth in NM WARP3 and 12th in AM WARP3.

Moving on to 2007, we get the following list:


Rk by 2007 WARP3   M    A    F    J   NM   AM    T
1  Red Sox       20.6  9.6 26.4  4.2 30.2 30.6 60.8
2  Yankees       13.1  5.8 36.7  0.0 18.9 36.7 55.6
3  Mets          17.2 11.4 26.5  0.0 28.6 26.5 55.1
4  Rockies       25.8 19.6  4.8  3.9 45.4  8.7 54.1
5  Phillies      20.1 19.6 14.3  0.0 39.7 14.3 54.0
6  Padres        21.5 18.6 13.4  0.0 40.1 13.4 53.5
7  Braves        19.4  8.0 24.2  0.0 27.4 24.2 51.6
8  Dodgers       31.5  1.6 17.2 -0.5 33.1 16.7 49.8
9  Cubs          15.3  3.9 30.1  0.0 19.2 30.1 49.3
10 Indians       25.0 17.2  6.2  0.1 42.2  6.3 48.5
11 Brewers       29.3  4.7 12.9  0.0 34.0 12.9 46.9
12 Tigers        17.8  5.8 23.1  0.0 23.6 23.1 46.7
13 Angels        15.3 13.4 17.1  0.0 28.7 17.1 45.8
14 Diamondbacks  14.1 26.3  3.4  0.0 40.4  3.4 43.8
15 Blue Jays     19.9  6.9 15.3  0.0 26.8 15.3 42.1
16 Athletics     20.9 16.2  3.4  0.0 37.1  3.4 40.5
17 Giants        16.8  2.7 21.0  0.0 19.5 21.0 40.5
18 Reds          15.7 15.3  8.7  0.0 31.0  8.7 39.7
19 Marlins       28.2 11.6 -0.4  0.0 39.8 -0.4 39.4
20 Mariners      10.3  4.1 19.6  5.2 14.4 24.8 39.2
21 Astros        14.6 12.5 11.8  0.0 27.1 11.8 38.9
22 Twins          8.7 19.5 10.7  0.0 28.2 10.7 38.9
23 Cardinals     14.6 -0.2 22.5  0.0 14.4 22.5 36.9
24 Nationals     14.8 13.3  5.5  0.0 28.1  5.5 33.6
25 Pirates       17.6 15.7 -0.8 -0.4 33.3 -1.2 32.1
26 Rangers        9.8 13.9  5.9  1.7 23.7  7.6 31.3
27 Orioles        4.9 12.2 12.2  0.0 17.1 12.2 29.3
28 Royals        15.7  3.6  8.2  0.0 19.3  8.2 27.5
29 White Sox      6.5 -3.0 23.3  0.0  3.5 23.3 26.8
30 Rays          13.2 10.5 -0.2  0.7 23.7  0.5 24.2
MLB Average      17.3 10.7 14.1  0.5 28.0 14.6 42.5

In 2007, we see that multiple teams were able to make the playoffs with little contribution from auction market talent. The Rockies got 45.4 wins from non-market WARP3 to only 8.7 from auction-market WARP3. The Indians got 42.2 NM WARP3 with only 6.3 AM WARP3, and the Diamondbacks got 40.4 NM WARP3 against just 3.4 AM WARP3.

It appears that this became harder to do over the last few years: the correlation between the percentage of WARP3 from auction-market talent jumped from .16 to .33 to .52 from 2007-2009. I suspect teams are starting to learn more about developing non-market talent from successful teams, making it harder to get a competitive edge; this would explain the fall in standard deviation 9.7 to 9.6 to 7.4 for NM WARP3 among teams over the last three years. On the other hand, it could be just a random blip in the data; I would love to hear people's ideas about what the market is doing here. Why is it getting harder to win with non-market talent? If market inefficiencies are disappearing, why is this effect more pronounced among younger players?

Looking at all three years combined, we can get the following list:


Rk by 07-09 WARP3  M    A     F     J    NM    AM    T
1  Red Sox        64.2 34.4  62.2 15.8  98.6  78.0 176.6
2  Yankees        30.0 21.1 121.7  0.9  51.1 122.6 173.7
3  Dodgers        72.7 18.0  60.1  7.8  90.7  67.9 158.6
4  Phillies       40.0 76.5  39.8  0.0 116.5  39.8 156.3
5  Cubs           50.7  8.5  87.5  6.6  59.2  94.1 153.3
6  Braves         54.7 34.0  55.4  2.1  88.7  57.5 146.2
7  Cardinals      36.1 26.2  81.6  0.0  62.3  81.6 143.9
8  Angels         52.8 45.2  44.3  0.0  98.0  44.3 142.3
9  Rockies        70.8 49.4  18.1  3.9 120.2  22.0 142.2
10 Brewers        61.1 33.5  45.2  0.0  94.6  45.2 139.8
11 Mets           28.5 41.6  68.5  0.0  70.1  68.5 138.6
12 Blue Jays      38.7 50.7  49.1  0.0  89.4  49.1 138.5
13 Twins          45.7 59.9  25.4  0.0 105.6  25.4 131.0
14 Rays           74.0 37.7  11.9  3.8 111.7  15.7 127.4
15 Indians        52.6 52.8  15.0  3.2 105.4  18.2 123.6
16 Tigers         44.6 33.7  45.2  0.0  78.3  45.2 123.5
17 Marlins        72.9 46.6  -0.3  0.0 119.5  -0.3 119.2
18 Diamondbacks   43.5 60.1  15.2  0.0 103.6  15.2 118.8
19 White Sox      44.6  6.2  65.0  0.0  50.8  65.0 115.8
20 Athletics      66.0 38.1   9.0  0.0 104.1   9.0 113.1
21 Giants         53.5  7.1  49.9  1.2  60.6  51.1 111.7
22 Rangers        44.0 34.7  30.4  1.8  78.7  32.2 110.9
23 Padres         54.6 36.8  17.7  0.0  91.4  17.7 109.1
24 Astros         23.9 26.5  54.0  3.2  50.4  57.2 107.6
25 Reds           49.3 29.9  27.5  0.0  79.2  27.5 106.7
26 Mariners       38.2 15.4  41.9  7.7  53.6  49.6 103.2
27 Orioles        37.0 23.6  28.8  1.1  60.6  29.9  90.5
28 Royals         41.2 30.3  17.3  0.0  71.5  17.3  88.8
29 Nationals      33.2 26.5  20.3  0.0  59.7  20.3  80.0
30 Pirates        33.6 38.0   3.3 -0.4  71.6   2.9  74.5
MLB Average       48.4 34.8  40.4  2.0  83.2  42.3 125.5

The Red Sox certainly appear to be the class of the league over the past three years, having made the playoffs all three years, finishing ninth in NM WARP3 and fourth in AM WARP3. Few teams have been able to develop talent as well as the Red Sox have while still being in a large market and drafting near the end of the first round. The Phillies are another team that has done this-they were fourth overall in WARP3 for 2007-2009, while finishing third in NM WARP3 and 16th in AM WARP3. The Angels managed three playoff appearances as well-this feat came despite being only eighth in overall WARP3, being 10th in NM WARP3 and 15th in AM WARP3. The Angels have been steady and playing in what was a weak division until now, and thus have matched the Red Sox and Phillies with three playoff appearances in as many years.

Surprising nobody, the Pirates were the worst team over the last three years. This was a mixture of their not developing talent while not spending money, either. In non-market WARP3, they finished ninth in 2007, but 25th and 26th in 2008 and 2009; they were 30th, 27th, and 27th in after-market WARP3 from 2007-2009. Clearly, the Pirates are reworking their system, purging some talent under new management so as to bring in different talent, and they hope to get their overall non-market talent cadre back up. Once they do, they will be able to strike on the free-agent market to put them over the top if they choose, and if they're that much closer. However, it does seem like they will need to be willing to spend at least some money by the time they have a chance to be competitive.

In a mild surprise, the team that led the league over the last three years in NM WARP3 was the Rockies. However, they were 21st in AM WARP3. This was enough to win a couple of wild cards, but if the Rockies spent more on free agents, they could put together a very formidable, reliable contender for the NL pennant. The Marlins certainly could, but they managed the remarkable feat of accumulating a negative AM WARP3 (-0.3) combined over 2007-2009, falling below even the Pirates' 2.9.

There are definitely some key lessons to glean from this. Using WARP3 and the approximate 40-win baseline for replacement-level talent, we know that it is nearly impossible to make the playoffs for non-Yankees teams without getting at least 30 wins from non-market talent. The slight exceptions are teams like the Cubs and Cardinals, who have former non-market talent signed at very team-friendly deals. (In other words, Albert Pujols breaks these rules.)

Getting at least as many wins from non-market talent to reach .500 also makes teams shoo-ins for the playoffs. In fact, among teams that were even close to this level of non-market talent, only the cheapest team failed to buy the few wins that it would have taken to play October baseball. Of course, the 2007 Padres, the 2008 Twins, and the 2008 Marlins fit this description-each with 40.1 wins of non-market talent. The Padres did get 13.4 wins from after-market talent, but fell to the Rockies in the 163rd game of the season.

Generating 30 wins from auction-market talent should be enough to get teams over the hump as well, as the remaining 20 wins or so required from non-market talent shouldn't be hard to get (the average team gets nearly 30). Of course, the 2008 Yankees were an exception with 39.6 AM WARP3 but 13.6 NM WARP3-half the league average-did them in. The 2008 Astros only got 9.4 wins from non-market talent, failing to supplement their 27.4 wins from auction-market talent. Although some of this large AM WARP3 total was Lance Berkman's monster season, a lot of the problem was Wade thinking that shoring up his middle infield with Miguel Tejada and Kaz Matsui would be enough to turn the team into a winner after a 73-89 finish, rather than reinvesting in the minor leagues and by trading away useful parts (other than Brad Lidge, who he sold low on anyway).

Within these tables, there a million other little stories. Each of these teams has a unique market to deal with, and a unique talent distribution to consider. I have highlighted some of the ones that have taught me something about how GMs build winners in today's game, but there are other stories here that I encourage people to discuss in the comments-and please let me know if anybody wants further breakdowns of this data. There are a lot of different ways to splice it.

Of course, once we get Cot's data further integrated with Baseball Prospectus, we'll be able to take a better look at spending on each of these categories and be able to see what else can be gleaned from this information. For now, I think it's safer to say that to build a contender it is becoming more and more necessary to both develop and spend well. Given the difficulty in maintaining production out of free agents in later years of their multi-year deals, the Astros become a prime example of what not to do in building a team. Instead, start with developing talent, and then supplement with free-agent talent once you reach a point where you could at least reach .500 without it. Then you can get solid value on early years of your free-agent deals, and push yourself over the edge. Bidding on free agents before your team has even a long shot at making the playoffs will only waste resources.

Matt Swartz is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Matt's other articles. You can contact Matt by clicking here

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