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“The logic of the opt-out clauses for the club escapes me.” —Commissioner Rob Manfred

Nothing gets the baseball internet writer hot like a newly popularized contract structure. Rob Neyer has weighed in on the potential benefit to team of a player opt-out, and Dave Cameron* has weighed in on how these cannot be seen as anything but additional costs. Neyer’s point is that giving a player an opt-out is often preferable to giving a player more money. Cameron’s point is that giving a player an opt-out is less preferable than not giving a player an opt-out. Both points are correct. Like most things, if we change the perspective, then we can look at anything as a positive or a negative. More simply, everything is better than a worse scenario and everything is worse than a better scenario.

So why the need for another article? Because unaddressed remains the most curious question about the player option: Why has it become so popular? Put differently, what benefit does the structure provide for each side as an alternative (in most mega-deals) to just agreeing on more money? We will take a look at what is in it for both parties and see what we can find.

Going back to Neyer’s assertion—that teams prefer giving such an option to giving more money—well, that comes with a big ol’ “it depends.” My guess is that teams perform some sort of analysis and put a value on offering a player option for each year of the contract (something similar to what was done by Eno Sarris, probably including the frictional costs mentioned by FanGraphs commenter Josh), and then negotiate with that cost in mind. For example, if a team values an opt-out for a specific player at year three of a six-year contract at $12 million, they would be indifferent to the choice between a six-year, $132 million contract with no opt-out and a six-year, $120 million contract with a player opt-out after year three. All this is to say that teams would prefer giving a player option to giving more money to a point.

So, either contracts with player options are falling more and more on the “more favorable than paying more” side of this cost-benefit analysis, or players value the opt-out more than teams do. First, we'll take a look at this from the players’ perspective.

People are particularly optimistic about their futures. (This is known as the Optimism Bias.) We imagine that the future will not hold unforeseen negative events, particularly if the recent past did not hold those events. We think things will generally work out. Then the company we work for, which has never had layoffs, has layoffs. Then our town, which has only seen property values rise for a half-century or more, sees a downturn in property values. We are generally ill-prepared for these bummers because we never saw them coming.

Additionally, we imagine the best from ourselves. We are going to exercise more, eat healthier, be better listeners, be more available friends and partners, wake up earlier, get more sleep, save more money, spend more time doing what we love, bring lunch more, eat out less, clip our big-toenails more frequently, floss, save more money, withdraw less cash from out of network ATMs, etc. Then the alarm goes off and we hit snooze. Then we walk into work and Sharon from operations finance brings in those unbelievably delicious Danishes from the bakery by wherever she lives and we eat 75 percent of our daily calories before lunch starts.

Combine these ways that we are overly optimistic about the future, and it becomes unsurprising when when a 29-year-old baseball player agrees to sign for $15 million less in order to potentially cash in on another payday at age 32. If he continues to perform as forecasted and if money continues to flow into the game, then his $15 million will most likely pay off fivefold, and we love betting on ourselves. One only needs to look at the divorce rate, or the failure rate for startups. Additionally, the more successful we are (such as being good enough at baseball to be the recipient of $100 million-plus contract) the more ammunition our brains have to convince ourselves that the future holds less risk than it really does.

Intertemporal Choice
George Loewenstein and Richard H. Thaler published “Anomalies: Intertemporal Choice” in The Journal of Economic Perspectives in 1989. As a definition for intertemporal choice, these two use “decisions in which the timing of costs and benefits are spread out over time.” In this article, the authors examine “a number of situations in which people do not appear to discount money flows at the market rate of interest or any other single discount rate.” This is particularly interesting because it might explain why we are seeing opt-outs more frequently with huge contracts than we are with smaller contracts. The article refers to this as “magnitude effects,” and explains,

“People are sensitive not only to relative differences in money amounts, but also to absolute differences (Loewenstein and Prelec, 1989b). The perceptual difference between $100 now and $150 in a year, for example, appears greater than the difference between $10 now and $15 in one year, so that many people are willing to wait for the extra $50 in the first instance, but not for $5 in the second.”

By this logic, players might want to take more money and pass on the opt-out for smaller contracts (instead of potentially deferring a couple million dollars), while preferring to take less money with the opt-out for larger contracts (as to not potentially defer tens of millions of dollars or more).

Mental Accounting
A quote from behavioral economics that we have previously used: “People spontaneously generate their own mental accounts, and where we place these boundaries subtly (but profoundly) influences financial decision making.” Given the amount of money now in the game and now being paid to players, it is not improbable to think that players are now making more than they ever imagined and/or more than they know what to do with. As figurative Joey from Springfield might say, “He already made $110 million. What does the extra $15 million on the next contract matter? I always knew he was me-first guy. No wonder he doesn’t have any rings.” While Joey’s perspective might be entirely derived from his literal rooting interests and thus discredit his analysis, there is something to the idea that at certain thresholds, people might change their valuation mechanisms. In other words, once a certain monetary goal is reached, it is not unreasonable to consider that a player might start to value non-monetary factors more greatly.

Most of us have never been in the position to decide between $170 million over six years and $150 million over six years with opt-outs at years three and five, but we can certainly imagine the benefits (beyond the potential financial upside) that would make the latter more appealing. What if ownership or management changes for the worse? What if I do not love the area and want to play somewhere else? Moreover, if the player values non-monetary factors while the teams only value monetary factors, then this is something we would expect given how negotiation works. Parties generally prefer to concede those things they prioritize lower, in order to get more of what they prioritize highly.

Given the above, there appear to be plenty of reasons why players might be valuing player options more than they did before and more than teams do, particularly for large contracts. Given the influx of money into the game and given the increased sophistication of today’s front offices, these reasons might be all that are needed for an increase in the popularity of player options. There might be, though, reasons that the player option is more of a benefit to the teams as well (which will be covered more briefly).

  • Overconfidence and non-monetary factors: We already mentioned optimism on the player side, but much of that was actually overconfidence. Such overconfidence might cause players to opt out below market value (as we saw Kendrys Morales, Stephen Drew and Nelson Cruz do with the qualifying offer two years ago). They might also choose to opt out for the non-monetary factors discussed previously. Neither scenario is likely, but both outcomes have a greater than zero probability and thus carry some value to the team.
  • Future markets: The more money that flows into the game, the more costly a player option is to teams because it will cost more to replace the player via free agency. That said, if teams expect free agency inflation to slow, then the value of the player option might be less than we think.
  • Insurance: I have no idea how insurance works for teams, but I wonder if teams could get insurance for the instance of a player not opting out. I have no idea if this is possible or financially realistic, but I do imagine that it would be easier to structure this type of insurance if there is an option than if there is not option at all.

Ultimately, the player option, like any other contract structure, has a value (positive or negative) to the player and to the team, just as an extra year or an extra dollar does. Consequently, the rise of the player option is maybe not as unexplainable as Commissioner Manfred thinks. If the assumption is that teams are simply offering $150 million with an opt-out and $150 million without an opt-out, then yes, of course, the opt-out makes no sense. But if we assume that the opt-out comes with less money than would otherwise be offered (and this is a more reasonable assumption), then we cannot know the actual costs of the player options being agreed to in these contracts. Based on the above, though, it appears that the player option might actually be more of boon to teams than we think.

*It should also be noted that Cameron has written pretty exhaustively and excellently about the subject—taking a look at it from multiple angles—looking at many of the different costs and benefits associated with the structure.

Thank you for reading

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From a team's perspective, I haven't heard anyone consider either opportunity cost or the greater fool's theory.

Contracts have historically reduced AAV in exchange for more years which is one reason why the back end typically looks bad.

If Heyward opts out, the Cubs will have acquired presumably his three prime years for 3/78 (inc bonus payouts). If it was just a three year deal it would be universally lauded. The Cubs would benefit from ~$10MM in excess value per year if we assume he continues to put up something near 5 wins a season. If he opts out you can assume the Cubs are losing out on future excess, but given contract structures front-load value realization then the Cubs forsake the opportunity to generate 40% returns (e.g. 36MM on Heyward's 26MM AAV), presumably to earn smaller returns. The team has to assume they can continue to structure contracts similarly in the future in order to reappropriate the Heyward dollars to the next player to replace him.

You look at the the team's who have provided these opt-outs and they are the more forward thinking ones. The argument that a player opting out is always bad for the team assumes perfect information about the future. In reality all it takes is 1 person out of 31 (i.e. player, agent or 29 owners) believing there's more value to be had. If I'm Brian Sabean or Theo Epstein I look around at the inflation rate and the absurd contracts that have been offered and believe that even in the case of injury there will be someone dumber than I willing to tack on more money to the contract.

These owners are chasing something that doesn't have a price. "Wasting" an extra 10, 20, 100MM dollars is irrelevant if it brings home the pennant (e.g. Ilitch, Moreno). And even then the overpay isn't absurd. If the owner believes that one player is the key piece then it's justifiable. Economically, that overpay nets out with the future revenue increases a WS brings.

Option holders should always find more value in the option than those on the other side of the table. But they've prepaid for it as you've mentioned and they are not guaranteed to make a good decision. For Manfred and Cameron to universally decry options seems more dogmatic than logical.
Yes, the forward thinking Yankees gave opt-outs to CC and ARod, then turned around and dumped a greater amount of money on them upon their opting out. Oops.

A place that shall not be named took an early look at opt out results. This early in the opt-out game (I dunno, say 2nd inning?) the players have a pretty nice lead.
If Heyward opts out, the Cubs clear a 40% profit.

Of course they lose him for the next 5 years. But are they making 40% on the next 5 years? Probably not.

So what can they do with that money? Can they give Harper the same deal structure, clear 40% on him, and see him leave in 3 years?
I do like the article, so please take the following critiques with that in mind:

Intertemporal choice - money, like everything else, has personal diminishing rates of return. So of course my own discount rates should change according to absolute amounts. Especially MLB free agent level amounts. You cite this fine, mind you.
Insurance - as the opt out reduces the total outlay for the contract, it'll make insuring it cheaper, too. The effect of the opt out itself? Very little, I'd think. If they opt out and you spend the saved $$$ elsewhere, you'd have just as much incentive to now insure that. And if a player opts out, he's by definition healthy (then), and insurers love insuring healthy people. Especially at rates which when set factored in a possibility of unhealth. Which benefit they now lose. And will factor into their initial price, because man are actuarians razor sharp.

So factoring in that last part, I've little doubt opt-outs raise a club's insurance costs. Just a bit, I'd think.

I could be wrong as I've not asked Jeff about it but it read to me like he was asking about insuring against the option itself. As in, if the player does opt in and stays with the team, the team then receives some fiscal relief from the insurance company, and thus lightens the burden of the player opting in.

My guess is the costs of such an insurance would make it so that it's not worth doing, but I think that was the idea Jeff was going for rather than insuring player-health? Let me know if I'm misunderstanding you here.
No misunderstanding - of me - as I did think Jeff was speculating about insurance in general, Craig.

As to insuring option years, I'd think that'd be 99% similar to insuring a regular contract year. Just a teensy bit cheaper, since if Ralph opts out and then first gets hurt, you're off the hook there.

As to insuring SOLELY in the event a healthy player opts in? Well, insurers will insure anything if they're confident enough that the premium covers perceived risk. But I don't know that I've ever heard of sports teams insuring merely against lousy player performance
More general matters. Behavioral economics can be great fun, but it is far more intellectually problematical than realized. Freakonomics II has a pretty devastating critique of it (book at home rather than here in the office, so I can't cite the actual guy). In short, its empirical foundation is heavily based on experimenting on college students. Which is basically fine really, I mean Pavlov used dogs, Skinner (I think?) pigeons, and those results held up (mostly; Skinner's in general less so) over time. But this guy did figure out ways in which to real-world validate behavioral economics findings, and those findings took a beating. How many behavioral economics findings are just hothouse artifacts? Quite possibly a whole bunch.
The way you maximize a negotiation is get your 'opponent' just about right 'there' (while retaining another option), then doing the Columbo 'oh just one more thing'. Boras of course is fantastic at this, in particular likes to get the owner himself involved so as to play off the guy's (often enormous) ego. "Toss in this opt out, then we'll take this (not all that) much less money".

I wonder if that's what's happening with opt outs? We ought to have enough evidence on that by now to look at it. Given age and production, it just 'seems' to me that these opt out contracts just aren't all that much cheaper than you'd think they should be.
Oh, and one more thing before I forget (again). Does exercising the opt out now result in another money-making opportunity for the agent? Maybe Kusnick could answer that. If so (I can see why it might not be), I think I found one incentive for them.
At first glance, these options do seem very much in favor of the player. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized there is a tangible benefit to the club. Many of today's long term contracts end up really overpriced on the tail, with the tail being longer and more expensive the better that the player has performed historically. As the salary market escalates over time, contracts that were at first considered expensive become less so over time. But for whatever reason, even contracts that were badly overpriced originally end up stigmatized, even when they come to be much more reasonable. For example, look at Cole Hamels. He was difficult to move, even though his contract looked a lot more reasonable a few years after he was signed than it was originally. I believe the Phillies were forced to take back a bad contract in order to move him to the Rangers, even though he was probably $5MM AAV undervalued - at least - for the remainder of his contract. The Phillies still came out ahead, but they still had to functionally offset some of the remaining financial obligation to do so when they really should not have had to. So from the club perspective, in a rising salary climate, the odds of an opt out are pretty good, which would relieve the club of having to work out of that contract if they want to move the player. On the flip side, if the player either underperforms or suffers an injury, you are in the same position as you would have been in without an opt out. You certainly can argue that you suffered the downside of the contract without benefitting from the upside of superior player performance at a relatively bargain salary, but the latter outcome is much less probable than most probably believe. The difference comes from the current market participants being willing to overpay for free agents when there is nothing but a compensatory draft choice to accompany a free agent signing, whereas trading for the back end of a long term contract costs both money and often significant prospects. Whether this will continue to be the case is debatable, but I believe this context underlies the decision to offer these opt outs.