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The deep dark truth about signing free agents

Twins fans always complain about the team not spending more money in free agency... but should they?

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MLB: Minnesota Twins at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Every offseason the Twins have the opportunity to sign new free agents. Regardless of who the team signs, it seems that every year a vocal section of the fan base laments that the team “doesn’t spend enough money” or “doesn’t go after the top free agents.” The Twins sound like they are looking to make Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano competent baseball players again before making a big push, making it seem highly unlikely the team will make a big splash this offseason.

That’s ok. Free agency isn’t nearly the be-all, end-all to creating a winning team that fans make it out to be — and I’m here to prove that to you with statistics.

I looked through the last four offseasons to track how free agents performed for their new teams. I used MLB Trade Rumors Top 50 Free agents from each off season to decide which players to track and used Baseball Reference’s WAR to judge the value of the players. WAR is only one statistic, but i think it works well when comparing large groups of players like in this little experiment thing.

Free Agents in Their First Season

In general, it is very difficult to hit it big when signing a free agent. The top 50 free agents in the past four seasons combined for an average WAR of 1.04. According to Baseball Reference’s scale, anything below a 2 is a reserve level player. Shockingly, of the 196 players I looked at, only 50 (25.5%) of players had a first season WAR of 2 or greater, or good enough to just be considered a starter.

When you look at the opposite end of the spectrum, 56 players (28.6%) finished their first season with a NEGATIVE WAR. The odds of signing just a starter level player are less than signing a straight up replacement level player.

And if you’re hoping to sign a legitimate super star, good luck. Baseball Reference classifies a WAR of 5 or more as an All Star. Only 6 players (3.1%) had a first season WAR of 5 or more.

However, if you look at just the top 10 free agents, the odds obviously become better. In the last four seasons 21 of the 40 top 10 free agents had a first season WAR of 2 or better, only 8 had a negative WAR, and 6 had a WAR of 5 or better.


Free Agents as the seasons go on

Excluding the 2017/2018 free agent class as they have yet to play a second season and excluding the players who didn’t play a second season leaves us with 125 players. Of this group, players had an average WAR of 0.97 in their second season after signing as a free agent. Only 22 players (17.6%) had a WAR of 2 or better. 35 players (28%) had a negative WAR. 4 players (3%)had a WAR of 5 or better.

The number of starter level players went down while the number of replacement level players and All-Star level players stayed the same. Part of the reason for this is a surprising number of players didn’t even play a second season after signing as a free agent. 20 players from the 2016/2017 free agent class (13.8%) didn’t play in 2018.

This trend continues for the most part as the seasons go on.

Now excluding the 2016/2017 free agent class who has not played a third season yet and the players who didn’t play a third season we are left with 73 players. These players had an average WAR of 0.93 in their third season after signing as a free agent. Just 13 (17.8%) had a WAR of 2 or more, 24 (32.9%) had a negative WAR, and 1 (1.3%) had a WAR of 5 or greater. There were 24 players (24.7%) who did not play a third season after signing as a free agent.

48 of 73 players (65.8%) either had a negative WAR or weren’t even playing three years after signing as a free agent. Yeesh.

Players into their fourth season is obviously the smallest sample size, but I think it’s important nonetheless. For the final time, excluding the 2015/2016 free agent class and the players who didn’t play a fourth season leaves us with only 26 players. Only 26 players from the top 50 class of the 2014/2015 season played in the 2018 season.

These players combined for an average WAR of 0.99. Only 5 (19.2%) had a WAR of 2 or better, 7 (28%) had a negative WAR, and 1 (3.8%) had a WAR of 5 or better. 21 players (44.7%) didn’t make it to their fourth season.

It appears that the players improved going from their third to fourth season, but this is largely due to the players who didn’t play into their fourth season. 14 of the 21 players who didn’t make it to their fourth season had a negative WAR in their final MLB season. When all those players with negative WARs leave, it bumps up the numbers of those who remain.

In summary, not only is it difficult to sign a player to have an immediate impact, it’s even more unlikely to sign a player to have a continuous impact. Of all the players, only 9 had back to back seasons of 2 WAR or better at any time, 4 had three straight 2 WAR or better seasons, and 2 players (Max Scherzer and Nelson Cruz) had 4 seasons of 2 WAR or better.

That was A LOT of numbers. If that was too much numbers, I put them all in graph form for you to see below. The main thing to note is as time goes on, teams are much, much more likely to have a free agent signee provide negative WAR or not even be playing than to provide even starter level value.

But What about the Twins?

The Twins have actually done decently well when it comes to free agent signings. Before the 2015 season they signed Torii Hunter and Ervin Santana. Hunter didn’t do so well statistically, ending the season with a –0.6 WAR in his final season ever, but Santana was an excellent rotation piece. His first three seasons provided a 1.5, 3.9, and 4.6 WAR campaigns before his final season was a disaster with a –0.6 season.

The lone signing before the 2016 season was Byung Ho Park. His 0.1 WAR season was not impressive. Jason Castro joined the team the following season and provided a solid 2.5 WAR before only appearing in 19 games last season.

Last season saw a flurry of free agents join the team. Lance Lynn, Logan Morrison, Addison Reed, and Michael Pineda all joined the Minnesota squad. Fernando Rodney also did, but was not on MLB Trade Rumors Top 50 free agents list.

Lynn pitched to a bad 0.3 WAR, Reed pitched to a not great 0.1 WAR, Pineda didn’t pitch at the MLB level at all, and Morrison surprisingly finished with a WAR of –0.3 despite his dreadful stat line. Rodney was actually the best of this squad, despite not being a top 50 free agent. He contributed a 0.8 WAR for the Twins before being traded to Oakland.

So, to add it all up, in the last four years the Twins have signed eight top 50 free agents. Excluding Pineda, they averaged 1.05 WAR in their 11 combined seasons. Three of them (27.3%) had seasons of 2 WAR or better, two of them (18.2%), had negative WAR seasons, and none of them (0% lol) had a season with a WAR of 5 or above.

All of those marks, except for All-Star players, are better than average, even if just barely. So, signing free agents usually ends up badly for the signing team sooner or later. But all in all, the Twins have done a totally average job at signing free agents over the past four seasons.