keyboard_arrow_uptop

As the market for positional free agents has (finally) begun to dry up, it’s the time of year to start redefining the top tier of available guys. A fortnight ago, it felt like there were three big names left on the board: Chris Davis, Justin Upton, and Yoenis Cespedes. With the first two having signed, though, it feels less like Cespedes is the last hope for would-be buyers and more like Dexter Fowler, Howie Kendrick, and Ian Desmond have crept into the company (loosely speaking) of Cespedes. A tier below them, but more interesting as free agents than they were a month ago, are Pedro Alvarez, David Freese, and Austin Jackson.

Since 2006, 272 players have taken at least 2,400 plate appearances in the big leagues. If you sort that group of 272 by BABIP, players named in the paragraph above show up fifth (Jackson), 11th (Fowler), 12th (Kendrick), 19th (Freese), and 55th (Desmond). That’s not to mention free-agent outfielder Drew Stubbs (28th on the list). Cespedes has a fairly pedestrian .304 career BABIP, but since he ceased calling Oakland home in mid-2014, that number is .324, which (if it were his career mark) would slide him in several spots ahead of Desmond on the list. In other words, if you’re looking for the thing the guys stranded on the market right now have most closely in common, look no further than BABIP.

It makes good sense for teams to discount the value of players with that kind of profile. BABIP is a skill that starts declining the day you cash your first big-league paycheck. Jeff Zimmerman did some fascinating and very important work on aging curves about two years ago, and you should go read it. To sum it up for you quickly and visually, though, I offer this graph, drawn from this piece on component changes within the changing overall aging curve.

In other words, the fact that Freese and Jackson were among the best BABIP guys ever over their first several seasons in the league does nothing for their free-agent stock. Even Fowler and Kendrick, who have sustained their BABIP success fairly consistently, and who are more well-rounded offensive players, can’t cash in on the numbers they’ve put up, because the main mechanism by which they’ve done so is one that teams regard with tremendous suspicion.

Several things might help explain all of this. With pitchers’ velocity only and always rising, it might take younger, quicker wrists than ever to consistently square up the ball. The radical and hugely successful changes teams have made in the way they defend players, up to and including shifting, might make it harder for guys to get their licks in once the book is out on them. In any event, BABIP declines earlier and more steeply than it used to, so teams aren’t crazy for being gun-shy when it comes to guys who depend on it to generate their offensive value.

Here’s what does surprise me about this group: Statcast hasn’t saved anyone. Of course, there could still be happy endings to the free-agent sagas of most of these players, as there were for Davis and Upton, but for now it looks like at least two or three among this group will be left to settle for an underwhelming deal. It’s even too early to rule out the possibility that someone could get stuck in the unhappy purgatory that swallowed Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales two years ago. And Statcast, for all the quantitative data it provides about hitters and their tendencies, for all the money teams are surely investing in having their analysts break it all down, hasn’t led anyone to believe that any of these players have an honest-to-God BABIP skill that the surface-level numbers might underestimate. We’ll see what the final word from the marketplace is for each of these guys, but it sure seems like exit velocities and launch angles and increasingly accurate plotting of batted balls are failing to shed any new light (from a utilitarian standpoint, anyway) on this interesting subset of players.

It’s worth pondering what this implies about the drop in scoring over the past several years, and what it might foretell about the free agents of the future. For one thing: Baseball isn’t unique in the way it has changed over the last decade or so. In all of the major professional team sports, analytics have somewhat changed the way the game has been played. In all of them, the sheer speed of the action has increased noticeably. In all of them, youth has gradually become more and more an asset, and age has become a greater and greater liability.

For football and basketball teams, though, it’s been a bit easier to adapt both the on-field product and the off-field decision-making to the new realities they face. Those games involve free substitution, so lighter usage has become a popular way of both slowing the wear and tear on bodies, and maximizing the performance of every player while they are on the field or court. In baseball, we’ve seen how shortening pitchers’ outings has increased the intensity of their stuff and made it harder for hitters to find the range against them, but it’s much harder to make similar changes in the usage of position players (and, more to the point, teams haven’t shown much interest in doing so). Healthy players are still expected to play most or all of the games on the schedule, and stay in most of those games for the full nine (or 10, or 13) innings. Even if some team did innovate, by rotating their bench players into the lineup more often or pinch-hitting more aggressively, it’s not clear that hitters would benefit in the same way that, for instance, Julius Peppers and Dwight Freeney benefit from getting many more snaps off, and being shifted into specialized pass-rushing roles, or the way Stephen Curry benefits from a deep bench that allows him to watch large chunks of blowout games from the bench. Someone should try it, and maybe soon they will, but what we know of baseball suggests that it might not work.

Those leagues also have different financial structures than MLB: There are hard salary caps (and specific, veteran-friendly exemptions thereto), rookie wage scales, and maximum contracts. Some lighter versions of those superstructures exist in baseball, but they don’t have the same effect. Increasingly, the best and most valuable players in baseball are also the youngest and lowest-paid. The owners’ victories in recent CBA negotiations have ensured that there aren’t a lot of good places to spend money except on big-league payroll, and yet, it’s not efficient to allocate that payroll to even late-20s players like Fowler or Jackson. Teams have shown a slight increase in the willingness to carry dead money and/or deferred obligations to players no longer on their rosters in recent years, but there’s an obvious and logical limit to that phenomenon, and we might be fast approaching it.

In the short term, what most obviously needs to happen is an adjustment by players who fit this BABIP-heavy (we won’t say BABIP-reliant, because that would unfairly dismiss Fowler’s patience, Cespedes’ power, and Kendrick’s contact skills, among other things) profile. Guys who live and die by shooting the gaps, who can’t hit 30 home runs or carry .370 OBPs but can hit .285 with 35 doubles, need to be aggressive about early-career contract extensions. If and when they do hit free agency, they need to look for shorter contracts at the highest annual average values they can find, because that’s what teams working with this information about them are going to be willing to do. Some should more strongly consider taking the qualifying offer, if (God forbid, what a mess) that mechanism for dampening the market remains in place under the new CBA.

Looking further into the future, MLB might need to change its salary structure a bit, so that if the future really is young players being better and old players being worse, young players can get paid better, or at least have greater agency during the years when their earning power is highest. Free agency might need to come sooner; arbitration might need to come after one season. There are plenty of ways the owners can counterbalance the market, if that’s the case. Veterans like Kendrick would still find it hard (maybe harder even than now) to get good work at a good price when they’re 32, but they’d be 20 percent richer by that point.

This isn’t just about treating free agents fairly, either. It’s about incentivizing optimization. It seems perfectly possible that teams aren’t being nearly aggressive enough about putting good young hitters into their lineups and letting them thrive, and that that reticence to commit to youth has contributed to the drop in scoring since the late 2000s. Pitching (and run prevention in general, really) has evolved a lot over the last eight years or so. Hitting has been unable to respond, and the ongoing presence of too many burnt-out, BABIP-fueled veterans in lineups across the league might be a big reason for that. Maybe a change in the payment structure for position players would allow teams to field more efficient, higher-scoring groups (and maybe even to stop holding good hitters back in the high minors, to manipulate their service time).

Hopefully (because it’s more interesting, honestly, when we can watch players grow into their full greatness, than when they simply burst forth from Buffalo or Des Moines or Salt Lake City as fully-formed superstars), the game will experience some counter-evolution, some innovation or modulation that allows players to thrive a little more a little later, and a little less when they’re rookies. In the meantime, the market is treating high-BABIP veterans rationally—but this rationality is cruel.