MLB Free Agents Who Will Get Better Contracts Due to Sabermetrics

Zachary D. RymerMLB Lead WriterNovember 20, 2012

MLB Free Agents Who Will Get Better Contracts Due to Sabermetrics

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    Many agents are out there trying to secure contracts for their clients at the moment, and you can rest assured that many of them are leaning heavily on sabermetric stats to squeeze as many dollars as they can out of prospective employers.

    How do I know this for certain, you ask?

    I don't, but I assume it's true because agents will lean on whatever they can in order to get their clients the best possible contract, and sabermetrics offer many places to lean on.

    When agents talk sabermetrics, they're talking a language that all front offices know well. Sabermetrics aren't king in every front office, but there's not a front office in baseball that flat-out ignores what all the fancy stats have to say.

    So if we can take it for granted that plenty of agents out there are leaning on sabermetrics in negotiations, the question then becomes: Which free agents stand to benefit most from all of the advanced stats?

    Read on to find out. 

     

    Note: The traditional stats are courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com. The sabermetric stats and their definitions are from FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.

Brandon McCarthy (FIP)

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    It's all too appropriate that we should start this discussion off by talking about a guy who is a known sabermetrics fanboy.

    As Eddie Matz once wrote for ESPN the Magazine, "What Billy Beane was to GMs, Brandon McCarthy is now to players." He's one of the few who knows sabermetrics well, and he used advanced sabermetric stats to help jump-start his career a few years ago.

    McCarthy's biggest claim to fame is that he led the American League in Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) in 2011. His 2.86 FIP was good enough to top aces like CC Sabathia, Dan Haren and even Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander.

    The basic idea of FIP is that it's a measure of what a pitcher's ERA would look like if you were to assume that fielding and other things he can't control were league average. It's a stat that relies on things a pitcher can control, namely strikeouts, walks, hit by pitches, and home runs.

    McCarthy rated so well in FIP in 2011 because he ranked second in the AL with a 4.92 K/BB ratio, had a 6.4 HR/FB ratio and didn't hit any batters. Efficiency was the name of his game.

    McCarthy did slide back to earth in 2012, as his FIP dropped from 2.86 to 3.76. But a 3.76 FIP is still very good, and would have been good for 12th in the AL had McCarthy finished with enough innings to qualify.

    Combined, McCarthy has a 3.22 FIP over the last two seasons. That's good enough to rank him 15th among all pitchers with at least 250 innings pitched.

    So if I'm McCarthy's agent, I'm telling teams to look past McCarthy's 37-39 career record and 4.02 ERA. Instead, they should focus solely on his FIP.

Ryan Dempster (FIP and xFIP)

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    There haven't been many Ryan Dempster rumors out there this offseason. I presume this has something to do with how he posted a 5.09 ERA with the Texas Rangers after coming over in a July trade from the Chicago Cubs, with whom Dempster had a 2.25 ERA.

    Because Dempster didn't take to the American League quite like Anibal Sanchez, and because he's going to be 36 in early May, he doesn't stand to earn a huge contract.

    However, his agent may get a team to pony up an extra million bucks or two by highlighting both Dempster's FIP and his xFIP from the 2012 season.

    You already know what FIP is, and xFIP really isn't all that different. It's the same thing as FIP, except modified in a way that replaces a pitcher's home run total with how many homers he should have allowed. The idea is to account for the instability of HR/FB rates.

    This year, Dempster did well in terms of both FIP and xFIP. His 3.69 FIP ranked him ahead of standouts like Ryan Vogelsong, Jake Peavy, Jered Weaver, Tim Hudson, Mat Latos and Hiroki Kuroda. His 3.77 xFIP ranked him ahead of guys like Weaver, Latos, Peavy, Vogelsong, Kyle Lohse, Matt Cain and Jordan Zimmermann.

    Once again, we're not exactly talking about mad science that doesn't add up here. Dempster posted respectable walk and strikeout numbers, he hit only two batters all year, and his HR/FB rate wasn't absurdly high. 

    My guess is that American League clubs aren't going to be swayed by all this, but National League clubs could be. And that's probably fine with Dempster, as he spent almost his whole career in the Senior Circuit and it's treated him quite well.

    If Dempster returns to the NL in 2013, his FIP and xFIP totals suggest he'll be just fine.

Joe Blanton (E-F)

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    There are a lot of free agents out there who are going to lean on sabermetrics as part of an attempt to get more money.

    Joe Blanton is in a different boat. After the season he just had, he needs to lean on whatever he can in order to avoid a massive pay cut from the $8.5 million he made in 2012.

    Thankfully for Blanton, sabermetrics will help.

    The first thing teams are going to notice about Blanton's 2012 season is that he went 10-13 with a 4.71 ERA. If I'm Blanton's agent, the first thing I'm trying to convince teams is that his ERA was a fluke.

    And this argument actually has some legs. Blanton's ERA may have been 4.71, but his FIP came in at 3.91. The 80-point difference between his ERA and FIP was good for the fourth-highest E-F in baseball this season.

    The specifics back Blanton's case up. His 4.88 K/BB ratio was the highest of his career and he only hit three batters all year. He did have a high 15.3 HR/FB rate, but it can be argued that Citizens Bank Park didn't do him any favors. He gave up 14 homers there in 66.2 innings, and only three at Dodger Stadium in 38 innings.

    Stuff like this will appeal to any team that has a pitcher-friendly ballpark, especially if said team is looking for a proven starting pitcher who can be had for relatively cheap.

    For such teams, Blanton represents a good fit.

Jon Rauch (BABIP)

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    Jon Rauch hasn't had a good run of things in the last couple years. He had a 4.85 ERA and actually posted a negative WAR in 2011, and he lost seven games in 2012 despite having a decent 3.59 ERA.

    Rauch needs as many legs to stand on as he can get if he wants to max out on his next contract, and the first thing I'm pointing to if I'm Ruach's agent is a non-sabermetric stat.

    Rauch tied for 14th in the league among relievers in WHIP this season at 0.99. He was right there with Joel Peralta, who just got a two-year deal with three club options from the Tampa Bay Rays.

    Elsewhere, I'm pointing to the fact that Rauch had one of the best BABIPs in baseball this year. His .222 BABIP was good for seventh among relievers, ranking Rauch ahead of standout relievers like Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman.

    BABIP is a rare sabermetric stat that has actually been widely accepted among baseball fans. But if you're just now hearing of it, it stands for "Batting Average on Balls In Play." It's just what it sounds like, as it keeps track of how well hitters do when they put the ball in play against the pitcher in question.

    Granted, a BABIP too low is generally a sign of a fluke. In this case, a pitcher with a .273 career BABIP suddenly posting a .222 BABIP looks awfully suspicious.

    But if I'm Rauch's agent, I'm rationalizing his low BABIP in 2012 by pointing to the fact that his K/BB was the highest it's been in four years and that he upped his ground ball rate and lowered his HR/FB rate from where they were in 2011.

Jonathan Broxton (fWAR)

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    By all accounts, Rafael Soriano is the top relief pitcher on the free-agent market this year. He's a "proven closer," after all, and he entered the market fresh off a year in which he saved 42 games despite not taking over as the Yankees' closer until May.

    But if I'm Jonathan Broxton's agent, I'm saying, "Not so fast, guys."

    Using WAR to evaluate relievers is a tricky idea, but Broxton's agent shouldn't hesitate to point out the fact that Broxton actually had a higher fWAR (FanGraphs' version of WAR) in 2012 than Soriano. Statistically, that says he was a better pitcher.

    There's a huge divide among both baseball fans and writers over the validity of WAR, in no small part because few know the specifics of how it's calculated and because of all the different versions of it. Generally speaking, front offices seem to be on the fence about it too, so any agent selling WAR may not necessarily get what he wants.

    However, this is a case where the specifics of Broxton's high WAR are pretty clear. Soriano may have had more saves than Broxton in 2012, but Broxton had a lower walk rate, a much lower HR/FB rate, and he topped Soriano in both FIP and xFIP.

    All these things considered, it's conceivable that Broxton could have also saved 42 games had he been in Soriano's shoes in 2012. Shoot, he may have actually done better.

    Maybe he's the one who deserves the four-year, $60 million contract Soriano is supposedly looking for.

Michael Bourn (UZR and DRS)

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    All right, enough pitchers. Let's turn our attention to fielders, shall we?

    In regards to free-agent center fielder Michael Bourn, you get the sense that a lot of people see him as a leadoff hitter first and a great fielder second. He's going to be paid because he's going to give his next team a .350 OBP, a little power and around 50 stolen bases a year. The leather he's going to flash will be a bonus.

    However, I'm not letting teams accept the notion that Bourn's glove will be a mere bonus if I'm the speedster's agent. It's very much worth paying a little extra for.

    Bourn did not walk away with a Gold Glove to show for his work in center field this season, but the advanced metrics agree that he was easily the best defensive center fielder in the business. He led all qualified center fielders with a 22.4 UZR and in DRS at plus-24.

    UZR stands for Ultimate Zone Rating. It's a stat that uses recorded play-by-play data to quantify a player's defensive contributions in runs. Any player with a UZR above zero is above-average. Any player with a UZR below zero is below-average.

    DRS stands for Defensive Runs Saved, and it works pretty much the same way. Like UZR, it rates players as above- or below-average by assigning run values to a player's defense. 

    Bourn's defense was absurdly good in 2012 as far as these two stats are concerned, and it wasn't the first time he lit up the board. He also rated as a brilliant defensive center fielder in 2010 when he won his second Gold Glove.

    Defense is more important at some positions than it is at others, and center field is one of the most important defensive positions in baseball. Any team that has an elite defender in center field has a big advantage.

    And if I'm selling Bourn, I'm telling teams that he's clearly the best of the best of the best, and that the offer on the table isn't good enough.

Angel Pagan (UBR)

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    If Bourn is this year's free-agent poster boy for defense, than Angel Pagan is this year's free-agent poster boy for baserunning.

    The term "baserunning" is pretty loosely defined. A lot of people are quick to equate it with a given player's ability to steal bases, but there's obviously more to baserunning than that. In addition to stealing bases, great baserunners go first to third on a single, score from first on a double, and they generally know when to take risks and when not to take risks.

    There is, thankfully, a stat called Ultimate Base Running (UBR) that is used to quantify the various elements of baserunning. It's a stat that credits players for good baserunning plays and punishes them for bad baserunning plays. Players who like to push the envelope on the bases while doing so in a smart manner tend to do very well in the eyes of UBR.

    And in 2012, Pagan did very, very well in the eyes of UBR. He ended the season with a UBR of 5.9, second in baseball behind only Jason Heyward.

    If I'm Pagan's agent, though, I'm not pointing at Heyward. I'm pointing to the name directly below Pagan on the list: Mike Trout.

    Baserunning is a rather huge part of Trout's 2012 legend, yet it's something that Pagan was technically better at. We're not talking about a fluke either, as Pagan also finished among the league leaders in UBR back in 2010 when he was with the New York Mets.

    Pagan is billed as a scrappy player who can make things happen on offense despite a relative lack of power and mediocre on-base skills. His UBR totals are numerical proof of his scrappiness, which is very much worth ponying up for.

Marco Scutaro (TAv and RE24)

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    Pagan isn't the only San Francisco Giants hero who can use sabermetrics to cash in this winter. Marco Scutaro can too, and he actually has a couple of sabermetric legs to stand on.

    There's no question that Scutaro overachieved with the Giants down the stretch in 2012, as he's not going to hit .362 with an .859 OPS throughout an entire season.

    And if I'm his agent, I know it's useless arguing that Scutaro can hit like that again throughout an entire season. Scutaro's agent is better of selling him as a perfect No. 2 hitter who can make things happen for an offense, as he did for the Giants.

    A good No. 2 hitter is, of course, more than just a good hitter. Guys who hit second are also very good situational hitters, and there's a stat that we can turn to that takes situational hitting into account.

    Baseball Prospectus has a stat called True Average (TAv), which is defined as a "measure of total offensive value scaled to batting average." It includes adjustments for park and league quality, and it encapsulates things like reaching via errors and, of course, situational hitting. Strikeouts are very damaging, bunts are less damaging, and so on.

    Scutaro posted a TAv of .313 during his time with the Giants in 2012. That's not so great compared to his .362 average, but a .313 TAv is better than you think. Great hitters like David Wright, Matt Holliday and Albert Pujols didn't even manage to get their TAvs that high in 2012.

    Also working in Scutaro's favor is a stat called RE24. It's a hard one to explain, but the basic idea is that it's a stat that quantifies run expectancies between the start and end of a play.

    Every situation a hitter faces comes with a certain probability of a run being scored. A hitter can boost the probability by doing something productive (a hit, walk, etc.), and decrease the probability by doing something unproductive (a strikeout, a GIDP, etc.)

    Scutaro's RE24 in his 61 games with the Giants was 23.32, which is very good. It goes to show how much he meant to the offense, as he was always either driving in runs, putting the Giants in position to score more runs, or both.

    To put this in perspective, Miguel Cabrera's RE24 in his final 61 games was 22.79. He had a brilliant finish to his season, but Scutaro was a more valuable offensive cog.

    As Scutaro's agent, that's where I rest my case and ask for more money.

Ryan Ludwick (wOBA)

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    The best hitting outfielder on the free-agent market is Josh Hamilton. There's not much of a debate there.

    After him, though, it's pretty wide open. Pretty much every free-agent outfielder can make an argument that he's the best hitter after Hamilton.

    One guy who can make a better argument than most is Ryan Ludwick. His numbers are impressive enough at first glance, as he clubbed 26 homers with an .877 OPS in only 125 games with the Cincinnati Reds in 2012. 

    The sabermetric stat that will serve as Ludwick's best friend this offseason is Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA). It's a little like OPS in that it's designed to say more about hitters than just what their batting averages have to say about them, but it's a little more complicated than just adding OBP and slugging together.

    The idea behind wOBA is that things like walks, singles, doubles, home runs and so on all come with specific run values, and wOBA takes these run values into account to produce a tell-all offensive stat.

    The top wOBA in the league this year belonged to Joey Votto. Among players with at least 400 plate appearances, Ludwick ranked a little lower on the list: 28th with a wOBA of .373.

    However, that was good enough to rank him ahead of standout hitters like Austin Jackson, Paul Konerko, and Yoenis Cespedes. It was also good enough to rank him ahead of fellow free-agent outfielders Nick Swisher and Cody Ross.

    You heard it here first. Pay the man. 

Jonny Gomes (wRC+)

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    Jonny Gomes was a perfect pickup for the Oakland A's last offseason. They've always liked good on-base guys, and Gomes has always been the type to hide a high OBP behind an unspectacular batting average.

    He did it again for the A's in 2012, hitting only .262 while posting an OBP of .377. He also slugged .491 and gave the A's 18 home runs in only 99 games. Not a bad season at all. 

    But it was better than these numbers suggest. As far as Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) is concerned, Gomes was one of baseball's most productive hitters in 2012.

    For the record, wRC+ is indeed a variation of Bill James' old Runs Created formula, which was designed to capture a player's total offensive value in terms of runs. Weighted Runs Created Plus is a version of Runs Created based off wOBA, adjusted to account for league average. Similar to OPS+, it measures a player's offensive quality in relation to his peers.

    Gomes finished the season with a wRC+ of 142 this season, which was good for a tie for 21st in baseball with Aramis Ramirez among players with at least 300 plate appearances. Below Gomes on the list are names like Josh Hamilton, Joe Mauer, Billy Butler and Yadier Molina.

    Hey, when you combine a high walk rate and a high on-base percentage with good power, this is what happens.

    Gomes' next contract obviously won't rival Hamilton's, but he should do well for a right-handed platoon player.

Adam LaRoche (ISO)

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    Hamilton is the best hitting outfielder on the market, and he's also undoubtedly the best slugger of any kind on the market. His bat doesn't always make contact, but it's a live wire when it does.

    The best slugger on the market after Hamilton is a subject for debate, but my vote goes to Adam LaRoche. Not exactly a surprise, considering he hit 33 home runs and tacked on a strong .510 slugging percentage.

    Nonetheless, you won't fine LaRoche's slugging percentage near the top of the charts. He also doesn't rate very well in terms of wOBA or wRC+.

    Where he does rate well is in Isolated Power (ISO). It's a measure of a hitter's raw power, and it's calculated relatively simply. All you have to do is subtract a hitter's batting average from his slugging percentage.

    If you do that with LaRoche, you get an ISO of .238. That tied him for 13th in baseball with Robinson Cano and Mike Trout, and it placed him ahead of hitters like Albert Pujols, Andrew McCutchen and Carlos Beltran.

    So as far as ISO is concerned, LaRoche is basically a walking, talking example of the term "slugging first baseman." Slugging is really all he did in 2012.

    Since he was a better slugger than all but a few players in the league, he deserves a little extra cash.

     

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