Baseball's Free Agency System Is Seriously, Seriously Screwed Up

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It's hot stove season, and the annual release of Elias' free agent rankings is upon us. It speaks to the volume of the CBA's absurdities that we rarely appreciate just how awful this system is.


A quick recap for that majority of you who couldn't give a toss about baseball until springtime: as part of the collective bargaining agreement, MLB and the Players Association agree to let the Elias Sports Bureau use a formula to rank the free agents as either Type A, Type B and unclassified. If a team fails to re-sign a Type A player, they receive the first round pick of the team who does, and a supplemental pick on top of that. A Type B player is worth only a supplemental pick.

It's simple, but that's the only part of this sordid business that is. Elias defines a Type A player as within the top 20 percent at his position, and a Type B as within the next 20 percent. But where does this formula come from?

It's a tightly guarded secret, but much of it has leaked out over the years (Here's a good rundown). There's a ton of things wrong with the stats, but we'll highlight a few.

•Stolen bases aren't taken into account. That's the most glaring, since a player who can single, then steal second 95 percent of the time, is unquestionably valuable. That extra base is akin to a huge jump in slugging percentage. Which reminds us...
•Slugging percentage isn't taken into account either. If two players have identical averages, and one is a slap singles hitter and the other consistently doubles and triples, which is more valuable? According to Elias, they're equal.
•Defense doesn't matter for half the players. Fielding percentage doesn't factor in to the valuations for outfielders and first basemen. As if a cannon arm and great first step for a center fielder don't save as many runs as they do for a third baseman.
•Control doesn't matter for starting pitchers. While relievers have their hits per inning, and K/BB ratios factored in, there's nothing similar for starters.

It's ludicrous that Elias, home to more obscure stats than anyone else, doesn't even use now-common measures like OPS and WHIP in their valuations. (Though it's impossible to blame them; this was the formula agreed upon by baseball and the MLBPA.) This gives us major inconsistencies, like these chronicled at Lookout Landing:

Among the potential free agents, there are 26 Type A's, 52 Type B's, and 102 unranked. The average 08/09 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) of the Type A's is 4.6. The average 08/09 WAR of the top 26 Type B's is 4.9.

The average 08/09 WAR of the bottom 26 Type B's is 1.5. The average 08/09 WAR of the top 26 unranked is 2.9.

21 unranked potential free agents posted a combined 08/09 WAR of 2+. Nine Type A's and 16 Type B's were below 2.

Guillermo Mota and David Weathers are Type B's despite posting WARs below zero.

Garret Anderson is a Type B despite being one of the least valuable players in the Major Leagues last year.


But the most egregious variable in the ratings is that they are determined by performance over the past two years. This minimizes breakout players, and ignores those who have broken down completely and suddenly.

Billy Wagner is a Type A; Joel Piniero is a Type B. Bengie Molina is a Type A; Carl Crawford is a Type B. Jason Kendall is worth compensation; Hideki Matsui is not. You get the idea.


Do I have a better plan? I do not. I am a blogger, and my job is to complain and not to be constructive. But something needs to be done, because this is a system that is good for no one.

The players lose because the added cost of losing a pick scares some bidders off, keeping offers lower. Half the teams lose because in order to qualify for compensatory picks, they have to offer arbitration to players they'd otherwise let go without a fuss. The other half lose because they have to surrender draft picks to sign players. So who does win?


Just like with the luxury tax, it's the teams that can't or won't spend money. Too cheap to hang on to your home grown superstars? No worries, they're a Type A and you'll receive another potential star just for being stingy. It's an incentive to break your fanbase's heart. You can almost picture Robert Nutting counting the draft picks for when he inevitably lets Andrew McCutchen go.

But, hey, once all the problems with steroids, TV revenue sharing, a salary cap, a salary floor, stadium financing, the USA's poor showings in the WBC, the lack of African-Americans in the game, verifying the ages of Latin American players, the MLB Network, and instant replay get sorted out, I'm sure baseball will get right on fixing this one.