2019 Free Agents Got 91.5% of What We Expected

(…or “Fun With FanGraphs’ Free Agent Tracker and Excel”)

The 2019 offseason was an interesting and surprising one. It continued the recent trends of free agents signing later and of several prominent free agents getting less than expected. There was debate here at FanGraphs and elsewhere on whether free agency is broken, no longer working as intended, and if it could lead to a labor shutdown. Others see the big money earned by Harper and Machado as evidence that all is fine. I wanted to take a closer look, informed by data and some quick-and-dirty analysis.

On March 3, 2019, I went to FanGraphs’ free-agent tracker and selected the first 60 free agents listed in descending order of total value of newly signed FA contract. I removed the 13 players who were not featured in reader contract crowdsourcing, leaving 47 players, ranging from Bryce Harper ($330M) to Lonnie Chisenhall ($2.8M). I then compared the total years and total dollar values from crowdsourcing to the actual signed contracts. Here’s what I found.

FA’s signed for about 91.5% of what we predicted

These free agents signed for a total of 109 years and $1.615 billion, and an average of 2.32 years and $34.46 million each.

In the crowdsourcing project, the median FanGraphs reader projection estimated that these free agents would sign for or a total of 119 years and $1.771 billion, or an average of 2.53 years and $37.69 million each.

Quick math shows that 2019 MLB free agents signed for 91.4% of the years and 91.6% of the money that the FanGraphs crowd predicted.

Is this cause for alarm, or did everything eventually work out relatively normally? I don’t think there’s a clear take-away. Alas, like so much in life, the results are somewhat inconclusive and open to interpretation. (I’d love it if we could debate/discuss in the comments section below.)

Some got a lot more than predicted, some got a lot less

The other interesting little investigation I performed was looking at the differences between what the FG crowd predicted and the actual signings. Again, I compared total contract value to the median crowdsourced prediction.

Some free agents signed for considerably more than we expected (Manny Machado, Patrick Corbin, and Nathan Eovaldi signed for $44 million, $40 million and $26 million more than predicted, while Joe Kelly and Anibal Sanchez were the only others to sign for more than $10M above our estimates).

Many more free agents signed contracts below our predictions, most notably veterans who settled for short-term deals (e.g., Josh Donaldson, Yasmani Grandal, Brian Dozier, and Nick Markakis signing for $35 million, $27 million, $27 million, and $14 million below crowd estimates). However, most other under-signings were not too far off from predictions.

The “Top of the Market” did better than the rest

Eyeballing the data, a pattern seemed to emerge in which the “top of the market” did as well or better than expected, while the middle-to-bottom of the market fared worse (this would be consistent with many author and reader hypotheses of how the market would shake out). So I ran a quick correlation between the rank of the size of the signed contract and the difference between prediction and actual total contract value. The correlation coefficient was -.43, indicating that indeed those who signed the smaller contracts signed for less than predicted moreso than those who signed larger total contracts.

Thank you for reading some of my thoughts on the FA market. I’d love to hear yours below.

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Were these predictions taking into account the changing free agent market and last years contracts? If yes, then perhaps the prediction shows more about the change in free agency than evidence about whether the system is broken.