The Yankees signed Neil Walker to play second base this week. In most off-seasons, the Yankees signing an All-Star caliber free agent to play second base and bat eighth is a dog-bites-man story.
This year? Walker’s cheap contract is a sign of (relatively) difficult times for Major League Baseball players.
Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports chronicles how free agents have struggled to find work this year, and the rising discontent within the players’ union. The hand-wringing comes down to a simple fact: The current market simply values free agent players differently than the market did even five years ago.
There are many reasons for this: advanced analytics, exciting and fruitful youth movements (i.e. cheap talent) on big market teams, and harsh penalties for signing other teams’ free agents (i.e. lost draft picks and international spending restrictions).
Looking at the way teams have spent money, one has to conclude MLB’s postseason format dampens offseason activity, too.
In 16 full seasons with an eight-team playoff format (three division winners plus on Wild Card per league) from 1996-2011, the average Wild Card entrant totaled 93.1 wins. Major League Baseball moved to its current, 10-team playoff format in 2012, with two Wild Card teams in each league facing off in a one-game play-in after the regular season. In six season from 2012-2017, the average Wild Card team’s win total was 90.2. For good measure, the second Wild Card – the one with the lower record – averaged 89.2. During that time, the average division winner tallied 95 wins.
In the winter of 2007-2008, if you were the general manager of a team that looked like it could win somewhere in the neighborhood of 87-90 games, you might look for players in free agency who could help you add a handful of wins over the course of the season. If everything broke right and you brought in some extra talent, you might bump your win total up to 93-94 games, enough to grab a Wild Card and a chance to see if your elite signees could dominate a short series or two.
In the winter of 2017-2018, your 87-90 win projection might put you in the playoffs already. If you bust your hump to improve to 93 games, you might still only be a wild card, playing in a crap-shoot, one-game playoff. And anything can happen in a one-game playoff.
Is it worth spending money on more players in December if the payoff is a single postseason game which may not be decided by talent? Probably not. Teams who are in the middle are arguably better served to see how their season plays out, then making trade deadline moves if they find themselves in a position to contend for a division title.
Part of the rationale for the Wild Card round was to incentivize teams to push for the division; the unintended consequence has been the devaluation of winning the Wild Card. If winning is less attractive, it naturally follows that teams will spend less in pursuit of winning, right?
Of course, the MLB Players Association faces an uphill battle making any changes to the playoff format in their next round of collective bargaining. Going back to the old model would force owners to give up the gate and media revenues from two postseason games, which isn’t happening. The MLBPA’s best hope might be to propose eliminating one Wild Card but pushing the divisional round from a best-of-five to a best-of-seven format. That adds postseason games, though it sacrifices two teams’ worth of “MLB Postseason” merchandise.
The current collective bargaining agreement doesn’t expire until 2021, though, and the concerns of the MLBPA might be very different by then. Heck, next postseason, teams may spend boatloads of cash on free agents, and this year’s peculiarities will be forgotten. Still, the MLB postseason starts with a game of chance; as long as that stays true, teams will be hesitant to gamble – which will remain bad news for the game’s most expensive players.