It's not often that free agents wait until March to sign. They tend to sign sooner, thus assuring themselves a normal spring training. Sun. Bus rides. Split-squad games. The whole nine yards.
But what about the ones who don't? For those who wait to sign until March, is missing the bulk of spring training a curse? A blessing? Neither?
Going off recent history, "neither" is the safest answer. What's there, however, is more discouraging for hitters than it is for pitchers.
First, some background. This topic is on the table because of something interesting mega-agent Scott Boras said recently in regard to Stephen Drew, one of his clients. When Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe asked why Drew hasn't yet signed, Boras said:
I tell my clients all the time that free agency is a long process. It just doesn’t end at Christmas. It’s a January, February, and even a March process. Teams assess their needs, explore their trade options, and when things finally settle there’s still a free agent market for them to turn to...
Boras has recent experience waiting until March to find a deal for a big-name client. It wasn't until late March last year that he got a three-year, $33 million contract for Kyle Lohse.
Maybe Boras will do the same with Drew, who, like Lohse, is enduring a market slowed by ties to draft-pick compensation. The same goes for another of Boras' clients: Kendrys Morales.
Heck, maybe ties to draft-pick compensation will also result in Nelson Cruz, Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez lingering on the market. Perhaps Matt Garza, Grant Balfour and Fernando Rodney will join them.
Unlikely? Of course. But because the prospect does seem a bit realer than usual, that was my cue to look back at how other recent March signees ended up faring.
I used MLB Trade Rumors' transaction tracker to gather 10 years' worth (2004-2013) of March free-agent signings. Going back further than that inevitably would have involved me wading into the heart of the Steroid Era and all its misleading stats, hence the 10-year compromise.
To make sure I was dealing with only relevant cases, I stripped away signings that involved one team picking a player up after he had been released by another organization, as well as players who were signed in March but opened the season in the minors or in extended spring training.
As you can probably guess, there wasn't much left once the fat was stripped away. Just a small group of pitchers and an even smaller group of hitters. Sadly, only enough for take-'em-for-what-they're-worth "Well, maybe..." conclusions rather than definitive ones.
Oh well. We'll look at both hitters and pitchers individually and see what they have to say anyway, starting with the hitters and what they might tell Drew, Morales and Cruz.
Between 2004 and 2013, seven relevant case studies emerged: B.J. Surhoff in 2004, Alex Gonzalez in 2006, Corey Patterson in 2008 and Ivan Rodriguez, Orlando Cabrera, Nomar Garciaparra and Manny Ramirez in 2009.
We're going to look at how these seven guys performed the ensuing April and the year as a whole in relation to the previous season and a larger three-year sample. We'll use wRC+, a FanGraphs specialty, as our measuring stick because A) it's based off the ever-useful and catch-all offensive metric known as "wOBA," B) it's scaled to league average (100) and C) it's park- and league-adjusted.
What we get is this:
|Player||Year||Age||3-Year wRC+||Previous wRC+||April wRC+||Final wRC+|
There are no obvious narratives here, but one thing you notice is that four guys—Surhoff, Gonzalez, Cabrera and Garciaparra—got off to slow starts relative to their recent performances. Ramirez got off to an amazing start, but that might have had something to do with the PEDs he eventually got busted for.
Ramirez fell short of his usual production in the long run. So did four other guys. One of them, Gonzalez, didn't even make it to June before deciding to retire. And while Surhoff and Cabrera hit like themselves in the long run, only Cabrera did so over a full season's worth of plate appearances.
Mind you, this doesn't mean Drew, Morales and Cruz should be scared out of their wits at the prospect of remaining unsigned until March. Correlation doesn't equal causation, and there are other forces conceivably at work here. Indeed, the ugly numbers in the above table belong mainly to older, over-the-hill hitters. There's also the reality that Patterson, the one young guy, was a lousy hitter to begin with.
At the same time, however, there is one scary notion at play: that it would make sense for missing spring training to lead to struggles at the dish.
Say what you will about the quality of play in spring training games, but for hitters it's a chance to face live pitching carried out largely by MLB-caliber hurlers. That's something that can't be simulated in a batting cage. Maybe that's what messed with the players featured above.
That's the "Well, maybe..." conclusion relevant to Drew, Morales and Cruz. If it's conceivable that missing the bulk of spring training messed with the seven hitters from the last decade who were in their shoes, perhaps it could mess with them too.
Now then, let's talk about pitchers.
I counted 11 case studies relevant to Santana, Jimenez, Garza, Balfour and Rodney: Scott Elarton, Shawn Estes and Greg Maddux in 2004, Aaron Sele, Mark Redman and Steve Trachsel in 2007, Lohse in 2008, Will Ohman, Joe Beimel and Dennys Reyes in 2009 and Lohse again in 2013.
In this case, I chose SIERA as a measuring stick. That's "Skill-Interactive ERA," an ERA estimator that strips away the luck that goes into ERA itself. FIP and xFIP do too, but SIERA is more sophisticated in that it actually takes batted balls into account rather than ignoring them.
Here's what we find:
|Player||Year||Age||3-Year SIERA||Previous SIERA||April SIERA||Final SIERA|
If we're focusing on the April numbers, things are even less encouraging here. Seven of 11 got off to slow starts relative to their recent performances. Four of those seven (highlighted for your convenience) never recovered.
The good news is that those are the only four who didn't pitch like themselves in the long run. I'm taking comfort in that if I'm one of the big-name pitchers still out there now. And if I'm Santana, Jimenez or Garza in particular, I'm finding additional satisfaction in the tales of Maddux and Lohse.
In 2008, Lohse was in the same age group that Santana, Jimenez and Garza are in now. Signing in March didn't stop him from being himself early on in the season, and it's worth noting that SIERA was downplaying a 2.36 April ERA. By ERA's reckoning, what ended up being a career year for Lohse got off to a fantastic start.
Lohse was more established when he found himself in the same boat last year, and once again he ended up doing just fine. Maddux, plenty established in his own right at the time, was able to shrug off a lousy start and pitch like himself in 2004.
The "Well, maybe..." conclusion hanging in the air here is essentially the exact opposite of the one for hitters. Where hitters might be wary at the prospect of not facing much live pitching before the start of the season, maybe pitchers can take comfort in the notion that them facing live hitting in spring training isn't quite as essential.
It comes down to a pitcher being able to do more with a mound and a catcher than a hitter can with a bat and a soft-tossing coach or pitching machine. Facing live pitching helps a hitter tune his timing, plate discipline and pitch recognition, all vital to being an effective hitter. A pitcher, on the other hand, need not have a batter in the box to keep his arm in shape and practice executing his various offerings.
Therefore, I'd probably be more worried about missing out on spring training if I were Drew, Morales or Cruz than if I were Santana, Jimenez, Garza, Balfour or Rodney. If I'm one of the former trio, I'm wary of how missing out on spring training at-bats could affect me once the real games begin.
Again, this is more a theory than a conclusion. There's not enough in the last decade to support any conclusions. A free agent waiting until March to sign has been too much of a freak occurrence.
The only thing that's likely to change that is if the circumstances that stranded Lohse on the open market until March last year end up doing the same to Drew, Morales, Cruz, Santana and/or Jimenez this year. Maybe the trend will continue next year, and the year after that and so on. In that case, we'd have significantly more data to go on.
If so, well, we'll talk again then.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.
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