The last two off seasons in Major League Baseball have been full of a lot of waiting. Like a lot of waiting. Spring training is upon us and the most noteworthy free agents are still unsigned. Manny Machado and Bryce Harper have been the talk of the off season and the only talk we’ve had so far is rampant speculation.
What the hell is going on? You would think two of the games biggest names would have homes by the time teams reported to spring training, but here we are. There are a lot of opinions as to why free agency has swung in this direction, so we’re gonna try to take a nuanced look at what is happening and what might be causing this.
There are seemingly two groups that have been looked at as responsible for the not-so-hot stove: Ownership and the players. I think this is a good place to start.
The reality in baseball today is that revenue continues to grow for teams while player salaries have not increased at the same rate. This is problematic. Players are the lifeblood of baseball and deserve to be paid. Period. I have had many discussions about player salaries with not only other baseball fans and front office staff, but with players themselves. From a player’s perspective, they are the reason those revenues continue to increase and because of that they should be seeing more of that money. I fully agree with that. Players put butts in seats and without them there would be no professional baseball.
Now let’s talk about ownership. There is a growing and validated frustration from players that fans are pro-ownership and think the players are being greedy. I think fans and players both have some legitimate gripes here. There are two absolute truths about fans that I don’t think players take into account when discussing this. The first is that of course fans are pro-ownership. Fans root for the fucking team, not individual players. The only place where fans root for players over teams is in the NBA with LeBron. Of course fans have their favorite players, but these players change teams all the time and fan’s allegiance will always lie with the team over the player. The second is that you are really going to struggle to get the sympathy of people who can only dream about making the kind of money players do. I am all for players getting paid, but even I don’t give a shit about someone being upset that they will only make $25 million instead of $30 million. At a certain point, it’s so much money that I think you and your family will be just fine with either amount.
To be fair, the players do have a reason for arguing over that extra 5 million. In an industry where people are paid for a skill that a microscopic percentage of the population can supply, you should be paid accordingly. And as a player, when someone who isn’t as good as you is making more money, you have every reason to fight to be paid in line with your performance.
The issue now is that things have changed. Free agency today has been shaped by the errors of yesterday. Teams like the Tigers and Angels can tell you all about how well massive, 10 year mega deals work out. These moves have made front offices a little gun-shy, and rightfully so.
The use of analytics and sabermetrics has transformed the game of baseball. Teams have so much data at their disposal that it seems hard to imagine that teams haven’t put that information to use in free agency.
At this point we know that every team is using this data to determine a player’s worth. Team’s are going into a given off season knowing exactly what a player’s production commands in dollar value. This is a new development. Free agency of yesteryear involved bidding wars and paying for hype and name recognition. Not anymore. Every team knows exactly what a player is worth before negotiations even start. This has become a huge issue for agents like Scott Boras.
Scott Boras is THE agent in Major League Baseball. He only represents baseball players and is damn good at what he does. He is responsible for almost every massive contract we have seen given away in the last 20 years or so. But Scott has gotten his ass handed to him recently. Last year, the Red Sox signed J.D. Martinez to a five year, $110 million dollar contract. This is after Boras originally was seeking a deal in the $200 million dollar range. Last off season, Bryce Harper had been vocal about wanting to be the first person to get a $400 million dollar deal. Where we sit now, Harper would be incredibly lucky to get $300 million in total value.
Things haven’t been going well for Scott and there are a few things we should point to. The first is the aforementioned analytics. Team’s are much more aware now about the value of players in terms of production and what that translates to in dollars. That is undeniable. The other is the CBA. When the luxury tax threshold was introduced, it was talked about as a soft salary cap and everyone believed teams would continue to spend over the threshold in order to win. This hasn’t been the case. Even the most wealthy teams in baseball have worked overtime to get below the luxury tax in order to generate more revenue. The last thing I would point to is the alarming rate in which teams are now more concerned with their margins than the product on the field. Baseball organizations are now run like Wall Street businesses trying to maximize profits while cutting back on spending.
This has led us to where we are now; A stagnant free agent market where players seem to be getting screwed so teams can maximize profits. This is somewhat obvious on the surface and I agree that something needs to change. But I believe we also need to look at the way players are being compensated for their production and be brutally honest.
Player salaries should continue to rise as revenue continues to rise for clubs. There are a few ways we could go about fixing that but we’ll get to that in a minute. Let’s take a good hard look at where we stand with current free agents. Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are the undisputed best players available in free agency this off season. It really isn’t up for discussion. But what can be disputed is what these players are actually worth.
We’ll start with Machado. Machado in six seasons has compiled a 33.8 bWAR. His career offensive WAR is 25.7 and his defensive WAR is 11.3. He has a career .282/.335/.487 slash line and has won two gold gloves while receiving MVP votes in three of his six seasons. Bryce Harper has compiled 27.4 bWAR in parts of seven seasons. His career offensive WAR is 27.4 while his defensive career WAR is -3. He has a career slash line of .279/.388/.512 while winning the 2015 MVP award.
As you can see, both of these players have similar stats at this point in their respective careers. One thing you should be aware of though, Harper’s 2015 MVP season was an anomaly. His numbers that year are way above his career numbers and 1/3 of his career WAR was collected that season. I bring this up because I think it is important to put some context into those numbers. I think one can make a safe and statistically driven argument that Machado is a noticeably better player and far more consistent.
This brings us back to the free agent market. These two should be the highest paid players in this free agent class no question, and looking strictly at numbers, Machado should be set to make more than Harper. But this isn’t the perception. Harper wants to be the highest paid player in the game and his agent (Boras) thinks he should be. I have a huge issue with this though. While many view Harper as the face of MLB, the reality is that he is nowhere close to actually being the best player. He isn’t even top three at his position. I want to continue to see players salaries increase but the right people have to set the market. Both Harper and Machado have legitimate red flags, inconsistency and character respectively, and their market is reflecting that.
If Mike Trout is the unquestioned best and highest paid player in the sport, why the hell would anyone want to pay someone more money for less production? While it is a different sport, Kirk Cousins in the NFL is a prime example of this. Last year he signed a monster contract with the Vikings. We all laughed because we knew he didn’t deserve that kind of money, but the Vikings were willing to throw that kind of money at him so he took it. In baseball I doubt you will see desperation moves like this in the future. Teams are entirely too smart to overpay like that.
Again, I want to see player salaries increase but I understand exercising caution when locking up a player for record setting contracts. Agents like Scott Boras have been filling players heads with absolutely unrealistic dollar amounts for years now and teams have become weary of signing these deals (What up, Chris Davis). But I think there are solutions that can benefit players and organizations. If teams don’t want to sign 10 year deals anymore then so be it. But let’s pump up the average annual value so these players can continue to make money. Front offices have devalued the labor in baseball and it is hurting players. Teams no longer are willing to pay for past production and only want to pay for what they project your production to be over the length of the deal. Let’s start to reward players sooner for lighting it up. Let players reach free agency after four years. This way players have the opportunity to sign longer term deals that allow them to produce at peak levels for longer duration’s of those deals, and cash in on that production. Free agency may be broken, but the fixes are right in front of us.