Why the Home Run Has Lost Its Luster on the MLB Free-Agent Market

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistJanuary 10, 2017

BALTIMORE, MD - AUGUST 23:  Mark Trumbo #45 of the Baltimore Orioles bats against the Washington Nationals at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on August 23, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)
G Fiume/Getty Images

Chicks, they tell us, dig the long ball. The question is, do MLB offseason shoppers?

So far this winter, the answer has been a resounding "meh."

Edwin Encarnacion, arguably the best pure power hitter on the market, signed with the Cleveland Indians for three years and $60 million with a $25 million team option and $5 million buyout.

That's a decent payday, but it's well below the four years and $92 million MLB Trade Rumors projected. 

At least Encarnacion (42 home runs in 2016) found a home. As of this writing, a busload of sluggers remain unemployed with just over a month until pitchers and catchers report to spring training.

Between Mark Trumbo (47 home runs), Chris Carter (41 home runs) and Mike Napoli (34 home runs), two of 2016's top-seven home run hitters and three of the top 18 are flapping in the free-agent breeze.

Add Brandon Moss (28 home runs), Michael Saunders (24 home runs), Jose Bautista (22 home runs), Pedro Alvarez (22 home runs) and Adam Lind (20 home runs), and you're looking at 238 unsigned homers.

"It's a slow-developing market this year," Baltimore Orioles general manager Dan Duquette said in a contender for understatement of the offseason, per Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe.

Jose Bautista is one of many high-profile sluggers treading water in the free-agent pool.
Jose Bautista is one of many high-profile sluggers treading water in the free-agent pool.Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Part of the issue is supply and demand. In addition to those names, there are an array of power hitters potentially available via trade, including the Minnesota Twins' Brian Dozier (42 home runs), the Chicago White Sox's Todd Frazier (40 home runs) and the Milwaukee Brewers' Ryan Braun (30 home runs), to name three.

What about the "demand" part of the equation, though? Aren't we living in the post-steroid era (or at least the steroid-testing era), when the ability to launch the ball over the fence is a notable, marketable skill?

Up until recently, yes. The last two seasons, not so much.

In 2000, at the apex of the steroid era, there were 5,693 home runs hit across both leagues. By 2014, that number had plummeted to 4,186, the lowest total in nearly two decades.

Then, in 2015, the four-bagger came roaring back to the tune of 4,909 homers, a 17.3 percent jump. Last season, the total rose to 5,610, just shy of the 2000 high-water mark.

If it was juiced players then, could it be juiced baseballs now?

"Some playersnot just on our team, we were talking to other players in generalwe wondered if the cork was different," Orioles closer Zach Britton said in July, per Jerry Crasnick and David Schoenfield of ESPN.com. "I know MLB wanted to get more offense in the game, so you can do that without changing a strike zone or something in general? You can somehow change the cork maybe."

Free agent Chris Carter's 41 home runs were among the 5,610 hit across MLB in 2016.
Free agent Chris Carter's 41 home runs were among the 5,610 hit across MLB in 2016.Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Or maybe performance-enhancing drugs are still prevalent, with newer PEDs outpacing MLB's testing protocols?

Commissioner Rob Manfred dismissed both notions at his 2016 All-Star Game press conference. 

"We think it has to do with the way pitchers pitch and the way hitters are being taught to play the game," Manfred told reporters. "You've seen some unusual developments in terms of home run hitters being up in the lineup to get them more at-bats. So we think it has more to do with the game this time around, because we're comfortable we're doing everything we can on the performance-enhancing drugs front."

Whatever the cause, the trend is undeniable. Home runs are surging in a big way. Home runs hitters, by extension, are no longer a prized commodity.

It's telling that Yoenis Cespedes is the only player to land a nine-figure deal this winter. You could argue the Mets were desperate to rescue a dubious offense when they re-upped Cespedes for four years and $110 million. You'd be right.

But Cespedes (31 home runs) is more than a basher. The 31-year-old Cuban is an excellent overall athlete with a strong arm who grades as an above-average left fielder. He can even play center field in a pinch, though his skills there have diminished.

In addition to his pop, Yoenis Cespedes is an above-average left fielder.
In addition to his pop, Yoenis Cespedes is an above-average left fielder.Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Trumbo, Carter, Napoli and most of the other names listed above are one-dimensional sluggers with minimal defensive skills. Encarnacion, likewise, is a designated hitter who can be stashed at first base. That almost assuredly accounts for the disparity between his and Cespedes' contracts.

Free-agent position players in general have fallen behind their mound-straddling counterparts, as Cafardo noted:

The priority for most teams is pitching, both starting and relief, so teams tend to take care of what they deem most important first. Teams try to promote from within on offense as much as they can. They’d rather take a chance on a kid than pay a small fortune for a veteran. This isn’t always the best way to go about it, but it’s how it is done.

Every hitter mentioned here will be employed before Opening Day. Prevalence aside, a home run is still the best outcome a big league hitter can hope for in any given at-bat. Chicks probably still dig 'em.

When it comes to maximizing a paycheck in today's MLB, though, the long ball alone isn't enough.


All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.


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