Locating the best free agents used to be a straightforward affair. Batting average. Home runs. RBI. Wins. Saves. These were the things teams wanted.
But somewhere along the line, shopping for free agents got complicated.
Farhan Zaidi has watched it happen from a front-row seat. The 2013 season was his ninth with the Oakland A's and fifth as the club's director of baseball operations. In a phone conversation with Bleacher Report, he discussed ways that the chore of evaluating free agents is still evolving.
It's not so much that teams treat free agents any differently than they treat other players. Like all players are, free agents are run through an analytic gauntlet that involves poking and prodding from both a scouting and a statistical perspective.
"Player evaluation in general has gotten more sophisticated," says Zaidi, "and I think that’s both on the scouting side—whether it’s in-person scouting or breaking down video—and on the analytical side, with the kinds of stats and data that are now available being way more advanced than even 10 or 15 years ago."
On the statistical side, one thing Zaidi says teams have a better understanding of now is aging curves, or how players' skill sets change over time. This is particularly important stuff when it comes to free agents, as they're players generally at the end of their primes or already past their primes.
There's still room for imagination, though. Zaidi says it's important to consider not just what a player is, but what he could be. To this end, one of his and Oakland's more notable achievements is the resurrection of Brandon McCarthy.
Injuries and poor performances rendered McCarthy an afterthought in the years following his debut with the Chicago White Sox in 2005, but the A's had long been interested in the lanky right-hander and were still interested when he was a free agent in the winter of 2010-2011.
"He had been kind of up and down and hurt a lot the previous couple years with Texas. We saw him throwing winter ball, and he threw great," recalls Zaidi. "I think he was probably looking at a bunch of different minor league contracts at the time. We very aggressively offered a big league contract for over $1 million, which I think was way more than anyone else was offering at the time."
Understandably so. McCarthy threw just 119.1 major league innings between 2008 and 2009. He pitched only in the minors in 2010, with his season coming to an early end thanks to a shoulder injury.
Since they still liked what they saw when they looked at McCarthy, the A's chose to ignore all this.
"That might have been a case of us sort of breaking out of this mold of, 'Well, he threw 10 innings in the big leagues last year, so he shouldn’t get a big league deal,' " says Zaidi. "It was all about, 'He’s throwing great now, he’s this old, we’ve liked him in the past. There’s no reason this guy can’t throw 180 innings for us.' "
Oakland's gamble paid off. Per FanGraphs, McCarthy did this for the A's in 2011:
Now, the A's weren't the first team to benefit from a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately approach to a free agent when they signed McCarthy. Nor will they be the last. Zaidi says one thing that's going on now is a greater openness among clubs to consider parts of the whole over the whole itself.
"I think you’re seeing a little bit more of that now, where a team will take a guy and maybe cut up his season into more than just looking what he did over the whole year. Instead, they’ll look at what he did in the second half of the season, what he did in the last month of the season."
Another player Zaidi pointed to is Brian Wilson.
The bearded right-hander got a deal from the Los Angeles Dodgers guaranteeing him $10 million for 2014 despite throwing fewer than 20 total innings in his return from Tommy John surgery at the end of 2013. Though that might look like an overpay on the surface, Zaidi says the market for Wilson was "huge."
"People may have been a little bit too dogmatic in the past, saying, 'I’m not going to give Brian Wilson $X million because he only threw 15 innings last year.' The fact of the matter is you’re not paying for those 15 innings. You’re paying for a guy who’s most likely going to be healthy on Opening Day of 2014 and who you’re hoping will stay healthy."
Wilson certainly looked healthy in his small sample of appearances in 2013, allowing only one earned run in 19.2 innings and increasing his velocity in October (see Brooks Baseball). With him, the Dodgers effectively chose to latch on to these positives rather than shy away from the negatives.
It's a habit that comes off as being a no-brainer for clubs to pursue. And in this day and age, it might be closer to a necessity.
Thanks to the recent rush of extensions, the talent on the free-agent market isn't on the surface like it used to be. Once elites like Robinson Cano and Jacoby Ellsbury are off the board, the hunt for obscure value is on.
"It does become a matter of trying to grind out value in different ways and maybe take novel approaches to player evaluation," says Zaidi. "Whether it’s a recent performance, taking injured players that you project to be healthy going forward, taking recent and innovative stats like catcher framing and trying to find value in players that maybe wasn’t fully understood or quantified in the past and trying to improve your team those ways."
Catcher framing is just the tip of the innovative stats iceberg. While Zaidi didn't bring it up—executives do tend to be hush-hush about organizational strategies—Andrew Koo has an article up on Baseball Prospectus about Oakland's latest Moneyball experiment with fly-ball hitters. It's just the latest way that the A's are showing how there are any number of ways to find obscure value.
Now, obscure value doesn't necessarily mean "cheap" value anymore. There are good reasons for that, with the simplest one being that there's more money in the game today.
Another reason: Agents aren't dumb.
"You have to know that teams are being more sophisticated, you have to be aware of that level of sophistication," says Zaidi. "That’s what agents need to do to make sure they’re getting top dollar for their clients, and I think agents have done a really good job of that."
Take James Loney, for example. Per MLBTradeRumors.com's transaction tracker, the three-year, $21 million deal the Tampa Bay Rays gave Loney is the first $20 million free-agent contract in franchise history. That they gave it to a first baseman who has never hit more than 15 home runs in a season is remarkable.
Loney did hit .299 with a .348 on-base percentage in 2013, however. Beyond that, Zaidi views Loney's contract as a clear case of both sides knowing there's value outside of Loney's bat.
"He got (his deal) because the advanced defensive metrics out there have him as a guy who saves a bunch of runs with his various defensive skills," says Zaidi. "Not just fielding the ball, but digging balls out of the dirt and all of the little intricacies that go into converting batted balls into outs."
If we use FanGraphs to take a look at Loney's place among all first basemen with at least 2,500 innings in the field over the last three seasons, we see:
It's not hard to make a case for Loney as a top-five defensive first baseman. Consider that next to the solid offensive numbers he put up in 2013, and $7 million per year over three seasons is hardly a bad deal for the Rays.
"A $20 million contract from the Rays isn’t like $20 million from the Dodgers or Yankees," says Zaidi. "It’s a very smart team with a very limited budget. They know how valuable Loney is, and their offer is an expression of that."
Several years ago, a powerless first baseman like Loney might have been signed for pennies on the open market. The same might have been true for guys like Kazmir and Wilson. For guys like them, free agency has evolved for the better.
It's hard to say what or where the next step is. But rest assured, there will be one.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked. Quotes obtained firsthand.
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