How to Find a Diamond in the Rough in MLB Free Agency

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How to Find a Diamond in the Rough in MLB Free Agency

I'm guessing most of us think of Major League Baseball's free-agent market as a dastardly place where good money goes to be wasted on players with absurd price tags.

There are always good bargain buys to be found on the free-agent market, however. They're just hard to locate, as it's not what's on the surface that makes them stand out. Finding a good bargain buy requires popping the hood and digging around inside in search of something—anything—that suggests a small investment can turn into a big payoff.

This is what we're here to talk about today, but here's a fair warning: There's no exact science that goes into the digging process. There aren't any trends among great bargain buys that can be fashioned into some sort of formula. There's too much randomness for that.

In lieu of a formula, we have an overarching idea: For both hitters and pitchers, finding a potential bargain in free agency is a matter of knowing where to look.

With that in mind, let's get to discussing a few notions and some corresponding examples.

 

Finding Bargain Hitters

Right Players + Right Circumstances = Win

Some players just need to be put in the right situation, and there are two easy ways to accomplish that: either put a guy in a ballpark or in a platoon role that suits his strengths.

The ballpark idea might be the oldest trick in the book, and we've seen it work wonders in recent years.

Take Fenway Park, for example. With the Green Monster looming in left field, it's long had a reputation as a haven for right-handed hitters who can pull the ball with power. And in 2012, the Red Sox brought aboard a guy who fit that description to a T: Cody Ross.

Ross only had a .730 OPS in 2011 and, at the time, bore a career OPS+ of 105. Nothing special there, but his ability to pull the ball with power placed him among the elites.

Between 2003 and 2011, Ross posted a .486 ISO (Isolated Power) in 551 at-bats in which he pulled the ball to left field. According to Baseball-Reference.com, only six right-handed batters had him beat in that same span.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

The Red Sox picked Ross up on a one-year, $3 million contract. He did his usual thing, with a .479 ISO on balls to left field, and that naturally made him a terrific fit for Fenway Park. Per FanGraphs, Ross ended 2012 with one of the highest home ISOs in the league.

For the Red Sox, that helped lead to a $10.5 million value on their $3 million investment. 

Meanwhile in Cincinnati, the Reds were showing that a ballpark doesn't necessarily have to have weird dimensions to be a good fit for a specific hitter. Ryan Ludwick proved to be a terrific fit for Great American Ballpark just because he hit fly balls.

Ludwick has long been one of the league's more extreme fly-ball hitters, and he was just that in 2011. His 46.8 fly-ball percentage was one of the highest in the league.

The reason the Reds were able to sign Ludwick for cheap at $2.5 million was because his 46.8 fly-ball percentage in 2011 had only yielded a 7.5 HR/FB rate. Ludwick was not helped by the fact that he had to play his home games at Petco Park and PNC Park, where he had only a 6.3 HR/FB rate

Ludwick posted 43.1 fly-ball percentage in 2012. The difference this time was that his HR/FB in home games jumped up to 22.9, one of the highest marks in the league. Not surprising given that he was playing at the second-best home run park in baseball, according to ESPN.

That helped translate in 26 home runs, and the Reds got an $11.8 million value for their initial $2.5 million investment.

For teams that have parks that are friendly to specific types of hitters, the idea is simple: See if there are any of those specific types of hitters floating around in the free-agent waters. It's an idea that only a handful of teams can take advantage of, but it works.

As for something that all teams can do to find free-agent bargains, how about taking advantage of the platoon advantage?

It's a straightforward concept. There are some right-handed hitters who crush left-handed pitching, and there are some left-handed hitters who do the same against right-handed pitching. The value that can come from these skills is considerable, and these skills can potentially be had for cheap.

Consider the contract Jonny Gomes signed with the Oakland A's ahead of the 2012 season. It was for a mere $1 million guaranteed, and Gomes certainly didn't seem to be worth much more than that given that he had posted a mere 98 OPS+ between 2010 and 2011.

Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Gomes, however, was quietly elite at hitting left-handed pitching. Between 2003 and 2011, he was 26th among righty batters with an .877 OPS against lefty pitching. This was compared to a .733 OPS against right-handed pitching over a much larger sample size of plate appearances.

Basically, Gomes hadn't been a platoon player for the bulk of his career. That's what the A's made him in 2012, as 196 of his 333 plate appearances (58.9 percent) came against lefty pitching. He finished with a .974 OPS in those plate appearances, good for 20th among right-handed batters.

For the A's, that meant a $9 million value on their $1 million investment.

To a much more extreme degree, we saw the Chicago Cubs do the same thing with Nate Schierholtz in 2013. He had logged 81.2 percent of his plate appearances against righty pitching in 2011 and 74.7 percent in 2012. The numbers showed pretty clearly that there was a good reason for this:

Nate Schierholtz 2011 and 2012 Platoon Splits
Year OPS vs. LHP OPS vs. RHP
2011 .562 .801
2012 .444 .826

Baseball-Reference.com

What the Cubs had to imagine was what Schierholtz could do if he played against right-handed pitching even more exclusively. They guaranteed him $2.25 million to find out, and 2013 ended with 437 of Schierholtz's 503 plate appearances (86.9 percent) coming against righty pitching.

Schierholtz set a new career high with 21 home runs. Of those, 20 came against right-handed pitching, and the Cubs got a $7.2 million value for their $2.25 million investment.

Superstar hitters do it just fine, but most hitters just don't hit same-side pitching very well. It makes way too much sense to make these players interchangeable on a daily basis, especially in a day and age when pitchers don't need to be given easy battles to win.

As such, picking up platoon players on the cheap is a better idea now than it's ever been. It's a good thing platoon candidates are relatively easy to locate and that they can fit at any ballpark.

Putting players in the right ballparks and in the right platoons aren't the only ways to come up with a bargain hitter in free agency, mind you. Teams can also score big by locating guys who are sure bets for a turnaround after a down year.

 

Targeting Turnaround Candidates

Yogi Berra famously said that 90 percent of baseball is mental and that the other half is physical. In reality, it's more like 90 percent mental, half physical and half luck. That luck can be good and bad.

The good news: Bad luck isn't entirely invisible.

Let's consider a mystery player who had a rough year in 2012. After coming into the season with a career .288 average, he hit only .249. That didn't happen because said mystery player was suddenly failing to put his bat on the ball, as he struck out in only 11 percent of his plate appearances in 2012.

The real culprit was the mystery player's BABIP. He had a career BABIP of .311 heading into 2012 but only managed a .269 BABIP throughout the season.

Did he deserve such a low BABIP? Well, check out his contact habits.

Mystery Player: Through 2011 vs. 2012
Split LD% GB% FB% IFFB% BABIP
Through 2011 22.2 42.8 35.0 8.6 .311
2012 24.7 45.8 29.4 6.2 .269

FanGraphs

This mystery player saw his line-drive and ground-ball rates go up while his fly-ball and infield fly-ball rates went down. Given that liners and grounders are much more likely to produce hits than fly balls, this player should have seen his BABIP go up rather than go down.

What's more, his 2012 line-drive rate was actually a career high. He had been hitting the ball better than ever to a certain degree, so by all rights, his BABIP should have gone up.

Here's what happened in 2013 after our mystery player was signed to a cheap contract:

Mystery Player: 2012 vs. 2013
Split LD% GB% FB% IFFB% BABIP
2012 24.7 45.8 29.4 6.2 .269
2013 29.8 42.2 27.9 6.0 .326

FanGraphs

The mystery player continued on the path he had set down in 2012 by upping his line-drive rate once again, and he also hit fewer fly balls and pop-ups on the infield. The difference was that he got the BABIP he deserved this time around and ended up hitting .299.

Have you figured out who this mystery player was yet?

It was none other than James Loney, of course.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Loney entered free agency fresh off a brutal 2012 campaign that all but killed his free-agent stock, but there was at least as much bad luck going on as there had been bad hitting.

Because they're a smart organization, one presumes the Tampa Bay Rays were aware of this (and probably much more) when they signed Loney to a $2 million contract. For that, they got a $13.5 million value.

Now, it's not just bad luck that can result in bad numbers. Sometimes a player just plain has a rough season. These rough seasons look particularly bad when they're attached to older players, as they can be indications that an older player is over the hill.

But let's consider another mystery player, one who went into the 2010 season with a .967 career OPS only to manage a .781 OPS at the age of 34. It seemed to be a legit decline based on these numbers:

Mystery Player: Through 2009 vs. 2010
Split LD% GB% FB% IFFB% HR/FB BABIP
Through 2009 20.0 41.9 38.2 11.0 19.4 .315
2010 16.0 47.6 36.4 15.5 12.1 .282

FanGraphs

Fewer line drives and more ground balls isn't good, and neither is a higher percentage of fly balls never making it beyond the infield. It therefore didn't appear to be a fluke that both this guy's HR/FB and BABIP declined.

But did this guy have a bad year, or did he just have one brutal half? You tell me:

Mystery Player 2010 Season: 1st Half vs. 2nd Half
Split LD% GB% FB% IFFB% HR/FB BABIP
1st Half 17.6 45.7 36.7 15.1 16.4 .289
2nd Half 13.3 50.8 35.8 16.3 4.7 .271

FanGraphs

The contact this mystery player was making in the first half was still somewhat off from his career norms, but not nearly to the degree that his second-half numbers were. For a good chunk of the 2010 season, this player hit more like himself than he did like some completely other guy.

Sure enough, here's what this player did in 2011 after he was picked up on a cheap one-year contract:

Mystery Player: Through 2009 vs. 2011
Split LD% GB% FB% IFFB% HR/FB BABIP
Through 2009 20.0 41.9 38.2 11.0 19.4 .315
2011 22.1 38.7 39.3 8.3 19.9 .315

FanGraphs

The degree to which this player went back to being himself in 2011 was uncanny. It turned out that the bad second half he'd had in 2010 greatly exaggerated his demise.

This mystery player was Lance Berkman.

The St. Louis Cardinals, another very smart organization, signed Berkman for $8 million ahead of 2011. For that, they got a $20.6 million value and a key hit that helped them win the World Series.

Finding turnaround candidates is not as simple as finding good ballpark fits or good platoon players. It involves digging deep as well as investing in numbers that might be there rather than in numbers that are hiding in plain sight. And no, not every guy with lousy numbers on the surface is going to have encouraging numbers down below.

But if those numbers are there, then a team might just be welcoming a steal into its midst.

Now then...how about pitchers?

 

Finding Bargain Pitchers

Never Mind Results, Look for Guys Who Can Pitch

Both hitters and pitchers get paid in free agency based on results, and that's less fair for pitchers than it is for hitters.

While hitters can fall prey to bad luck, they can also have a big hand in controlling their results by doing things like swinging at good pitches and making solid contact. 

A pitcher can make great pitches, but even if he does, he can still be victimized by bad luck, bad defense and a tough ballpark. All of these factors can impact his ERA, and that's a stat that can hold a lot of weight in free agency.

To this end, finding a good bargain pitcher is a matter of looking underneath a bad ERA in hopes of finding a pitcher who can flat-out pitch. Such players are rare, but they do pop up here and there.

Take Carl Pavano a couple of years ago. In 33 starts with the Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins in 2009, he posted a 5.10 ERA. Not exactly encouraging given that he had posted a 5.77 ERA in seven starts with the Yankees in 2008. Indications were that Pavano was finished.

Either that, or he was good pitcher in 2009 who just got really unlucky. Given the nature of this piece, you can guess what it was.

Leon Halip/Getty Images

Pavano turned into a strike-throwing machine in '09, finishing with a career-high strike percentage of 67 percent. Only six starters did better, including Roy Halladay, Johan Santana, Roy Oswalt and Cliff Lee. Pavano was also among the leaders in first-pitch strike percentage.

Pavano deserved better than a 5.10 ERA, as we know that throwing strikes is good and that getting ahead 0-1 is good. If a pitcher can do the latter consistently, he can put batters on the defensive consistently. If he keeps throwing strikes, he's going to avoid hurting himself with walks.

The trouble was that Pavano didn't benefit from getting ahead 0-1 as much as he should have. Hitters had a .694 OPS against him after 0-1 counts. The league average in 2009 was .629. Pavano was high enough above that mark for the fluke alarms to go off.

In the end, what he ended up with was a $7 million contract from the Twins. What he did for them in 2010 was basically the same thing he had done in 2009.

Pavano upped his overall strike percentage to 68 percent in 2010 and once again finished among the leaders in first-pitch strike percentage. And this time, he held hitters to a .622 OPS after 0-1 counts. And rather than an ERA over 5.00, Pavano finished with a 3.75 ERA over 221 innings.

For the Twins, that meant an $11.5 million value on their $7 million investment.

Later in 2012, the A's basically did the same thing with Bartolo Colon that the Twins did with Pavano.

In 2011, Colon was among the league leaders in strike percentage and first-pitch strike percentage. Yet he managed a pedestrian 4.00 ERA, thanks in part to Yankee Stadium.

Colon had a 4.68 ERA at the Yankees' digs, where he gave up more fly balls and had a larger HR/FB than he did on the road. He could pitch, but he clearly needed to pitch in a larger home ballpark.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The A's signed Colon for $2 million guaranteed for 2012 and re-signed him for $3 million guaranteed for 2013. What they've gotten is a guy who has thrown more strikes than anyone in the American League while posting one of the league's best home ERAs at 3.03. It's helped that Colon's 6.4 HR/FB at the spacious O.Co Coliseum is one of the league's lower marks over the last two seasons.

For the A's, this has meant more than $30 million in value.

In signing Pavano and Colon for cheap, the Twins and A's demonstrated the easy way to find bargain pitchers. All they did was look for guys who could pitch, and Pavano and Colon were clear standouts.

But more often than not, finding bargain pitchers isn't going to be that simple. Good pitching can occasionally lead to bad results, but it's going to lead to good results more often than not. Pitchers with good results are very rarely going to be up for cheap contracts.

Typically, the pitchers who get cheap contracts are career mediocre pitchers, has-beens and reclamation projects. That last group can contain pitchers from either of the the first two groups, and it's certainly a group that offers potential steals.

Teams shouldn't randomly draw names out of a hat, though. They should look for specific reasons why a reclamation project might pan out.

 

Look for Good Excuses to Take on Reclamation Projects

Some reclamation projects pan out better than they have any right to. One example that comes to mind is Fernando Rodney in 2012, as there were zero indications that he was capable of putting together one of the greatest seasons in the history of relief pitching. Another would be Scott Kazmir this past season, as he pitched very well for a guy with one major league start over the last two seasons.

But then there are the other reclamation projects: The ones that worked out because there were legit hints that they would work out.

We can once again turn to the A's for an example of how it's done.

Oakland's big find in 2011 was Brandon McCarthy, who hadn't even pitched in the majors in 2010. When he had last pitched in the majors in 2009, however, there had been something different about him.

Anyone who read Eddie Matz's feature on McCarthy for ESPN the Magazine will know the story. For those who haven't, part of Matz's feature focused on McCarthy scrapping his four-seam fastball for a cutter and a sinker and what he was able to accomplish with them late in the '09 season.

For starters, 65 percent of McCarthy's pitches in September of '09 went for strikes. And after never posting a ground-ball percentage over 40 in any season, McCarthy posted a ground-ball percentage of 49.1 in September of '09. Not a bad way for a guy who had problems with the long ball to turn things around.

Eventually, McCarthy signed a one-year contract with the A's that guaranteed him only $1 million. The 2011 season saw him make good on the promise he flashed at the end of '09, as he tied for the league lead with a strike rate of 69 percent and finished the year with a career-best (by far) 46.7 ground-ball percentage. 

This translated into a 3.32 ERA and, for the A's, a $20.4 million value on their $1 million investment. 

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Another guy we can look at is a lefty who took the National League by storm in 2013: Francisco Liriano.

When the Pirates signed Liriano, they were signing a guy who had posted ERAs over 5.00 in each of the last two seasons and who'd finished dead last in strike percentage along the way. He walked five batters per nine innings in both 2011 and 2012.

However, there was one thing Liriano did better than anyone in 2012, and this particular thing happens to be a very valuable asset. 

Liriano got hitters to swing and miss. A lot. He got swinging strikes on 13.2 percent of his pitches in 2012, the best in MLB among starters with at least 150 innings.

This was thanks to Liriano's two lethal secondary offerings. Per Baseball Prospectus, Liriano's slider boasted the third-best whiff/swing percentage among lefty sliders. Same goes for his changeup.

The biggest problem Liriano had in 2012 had to do with his hard stuff. He threw two fastballs, and one of them didn't do him any good. Here are some figures from Brooks Baseball:

Francisco Liriano Fastballs in 2012
Pitch Usage Strike % Whiff % GB/BIP AVG ISO
Four-Seam 22.12 23.70 3.03 34.65 .351 .297
Sinker 27.92 25.17 6.66 50.39 .289 .092

Brooks Baseball

While Liriano's sinker was a good pitch, his four-seamer was basically useless. Maybe if it was done away with and Liriano adopted a simpler three-pitch approach, success would follow.

The Pirates initially wanted to give Liriano a $14 million deal over two years to find out, but it became a $1 million guarantee for one year after he broke his right arm. 

For that, the Pirates got a guy who didn't throw a single four-seamer all year, led the league in swinging-strike percentage once again and finished with a 3.02 ERA. The Pirates' $1 million wager turned into a $15.5 million value.

The A's gambled on McCarthy's revamped pitching style and won big. The Pirates gambled on Liriano's talent and won big. Two different wagers, but they had the same outcome because neither club blindly threw money at their reclamation projects. With McCarthy and Liriano, the promise of success to come was quite real.

We have one last point to discuss, and it involves relievers.

 

Saves Are Not the Mark of a Dominant Reliever

Relief pitchers don't tend to do very well in free agency. Not unless a given relief pitcher is a closer with a high save count to his name, anyway. Saves, after all, are what get relievers paid because agents sell saves as being unique to dominant relief pitchers.

That is nonsense. Dominant closers are just dominant relievers who happen to work the ninth inning. To this end, saves aren't the mark of a dominant reliever. Actual dominance is.

Two guys proved as much in 2013: Jason Grilli and Koji Uehara. They saved a total of three games in 2012, but they were also two of the most dominant relievers in the league.

Here's how some of their key numbers (Uehara compiled his in only 37 appearances) compared to the league average for relievers:

Grilli and Uehara in 2012
Pitcher K% K/BB SwStr%
MLB Average 21.9 2.42 10.1
Grilli 36.9 4.09 14.4
Uehara 33.1 14.33 18.9

FanGraphs

Both Grilli and Uehara struck out way more hitters than the average reliever and also blew away the league-average K/BB ratio and the league-average swinging-strike rate.

Yet all Uehara got was a $4.25 million deal with the Red Sox, while Grilli got a $6.75 million deal that would only pay him $2.25 million in 2013. 

Relative to what they did in 2012, 2013 was basically par for the course for both pitchers:

Grilli and Uehara in 2013
Pitcher K% K/BB SwStr%
MLB Average 21.7 2.46 10.4
Grilli 36.6 5.69 14.5
Uehara 38.1 11.22 18.5

FanGraphs

The only real difference for Uehara and Grilli in 2013 was the role they filled for their respective clubs. Uehara spent the bulk of the year as Boston's closer, and Grilli spent the bulk of the year as Pittsburgh's closer. Together, they combined for 54 saves.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Of course, Grilli got an All-Star berth for his efforts and was a $7.5 million value on the $2.25 million salary the Pirates paid him.

Uehara, meanwhile, put together one of the most dominant runs of relief pitching in history, allowing only two earned runs in his final 50 appearances between the regular season and the postseason. For his $4.25 million salary, he was a $16.5 million value.

Uehara and Grilli could have been with any team for a reasonable price last winter, and it wasn't because they were mediocre relievers. They just weren't "proven closers."

Free agency can be stupid like that.

 

Wrapping It All Up

So what does it take to find a diamond in the rough in MLB's free-agent market?

In a word: effort. That's what looking underneath the surface requires, and underneath the surface is where the hints of a potential bargain reside.

For hitters, looking for a bargain means looking for the right guy for a certain ballpark or platoon role and/or for a guy who's coming off a season that wasn't as disastrous as it might seem.

For pitchers, looking for a bargain means ignoring the results and looking at the process, which is just as helpful with relievers as it is with starters. Reclamation projects should be taken particularly seriously if they're already onto something.

Maybe finding free-agent bargains will be an exact science one day. Until then, to the teams that do the most homework go the spoils.

 

Note: All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted. Contract information courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts.

 

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