Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Free Agency is a Minefield of Risk for MLB Teams

MLB is trending younger, which is why so many veteran free agents remain unsigned

The average Major League Baseball salary increased for the 13th consecutive year in 2017, reaching $4.47 million, though the rate of growth is slowing, according to USA TODAY Sports’ annual salary survey. Meanwhile, industry revenues topped $10 billion.

While player salaries are increasing, the average age of MLB players is falling.

At 30.4 years, the Atlanta Braves had the highest average player age in 2017. In a change from previous decades, MLB rosters are now driven by a youth movement and tend to be filled with players in their mid to late-20s.

The average age of the oldest Major League Baseball player for every team is now 37 years. The numbers show that the game is skewing younger. In fact, this is a Golden Age for players 25 and younger.

The All Star team is now populated by young stars in their 20s, rather than players in their 30s. Players age 25 and under made up more than a quarter of the two All Star teams in 2015. The game’s biggest, brightest stars are relative youngsters.

Among position players in their age-25 seasons or younger, nine of the top 11, in terms of Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR, were on the two All Star teams in 2017. On the pitching side, six of the top seven were under age 25.

Another indication that All Stars are trending younger is this: of the 68 players named to the 2017 All-Star Game, 28 were first-timers.

In 2016, Kris Bryant was the National League MVP at age 24, while Mike Trout won his second American League MVP at 25. Last season, Jose Altuve and Giancarlo Stanton each won their league’s respective MVP Award at age 27.

The age of the best hitters in baseball fell to 26.8 in 2012 from 30.1 in 2002, a decline of over three years in just a decade.

The use of steroids, human growth hormone (HGH) and other PEDs once allowed players to extend their prime years into their mid and late-30s. However, stringent testing no longer allows older players to artificially extend their careers. Their declines now come earlier and are more pronounced.

During the Steroid Era, a 34-year old player might have been viewed as still in his prime; not any more. Now he’s considered over the hill or, at the least, in decline.

There are still some good 35-year-old players; there are just fewer of them these days. There are even less great 35-year-old olds at present and there are hardly any great players from the ages of 36-40.

Teams see older players as riskier; in other words, likelier to be injured and to decline precipitously.

This is why so many older free agents remain unsigned. It’s the reason why teams are reluctant to grant expensive, long term contracts to players in their 30s. Most clubs would prefer to overpay a player for three or four years than to be constrained by a six, seven or even eight-year deal.

This is why the Red Sox, for example, are hesitant to give JD Martinez the seven-year contract he desires at age 30. Such a pact would take him through his age-36 season, when he will surely be in decline.

Front offices across baseball are now populated by highly-educated, young executives who are obsessed by statistics, especially sabermetrics. There is no chart, graph or diagram that agent Scott Boras can present them about a player that they don’t already know. These execs are fully aware that players peak in their late 20s, as they have for many decades.

For organizations, a player’s 30s are a decade of risk, at best, and of uncertainty, at least. In fact, the only certainty is that players in their 30s are in a steady decline. That’s why baseball executives are very cautious about giving them the guaranteed, long term contracts that often make them the highest paid players in the game.

Smart franchises — which means all of them these days — draft and develop their own players, creating a core, and then hang onto them until they reach free agency, which is often around age 30. As I noted previously, it’s a bad system for the players too. A merit-based system would not only be more equitable; it would make more sense.

In time, the player’s union will push the owners to be both more equitable and more sensible. It will be good for baseball.

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