Career Year Free Agents

Yesterday, Sky Kalkman (of Beyond The Box Score fame) made a comment on Twitter to the effect of “Is a free agent coming off his best season? If so, try to resist signing him.” It sounds like perfectly good advice, but it also sounded like an interesting topic to look into, so I went through the 2009 rosters and found 19 players who had career years in the recent past and then were signed to free agent contracts (excluding 2008 and 2009 so that there’s more data about what happened after the fact). I took a look at how those deals turned out over at MLB Notebook. An excerpt’s below; click through for the full version.

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“A career year was defined as a season in which the player posted the highest Wins Above Replacement mark up of that point in their career. The WAR was taken both from BaseballProjection.com and FanGraphs.com (going back through 2002), and only counted if both were in agreement that the player had his top season. I’ll go through them here to try to get a flavor of what happens when a guy is given a nice shiny new contract after playing his best baseball.

[Note: There are certainly more qualifying players than this – both because I likely missed someone and because some of those players were already out of baseball by this year. I think I got a pretty good selection though. Dollar figures based on production are all from FanGraphs, as well as any WAR figures unless specified otherwise.]

Kyle Farnsworth
Career Year: 2005
FG WAR: 1.7, PB WAR: 2.1
16 saves and a 2.19 ERA, 2.75 FIP, and 2.93 xFIP for the Tigers and Braves
Signed by the Yankees for 3 years, $17 M

You know it’s a good day when you get to write about The Farnz. After his big season, Farnsworth went to New York (and then Detroit) and caused a bunch of headaches for Yankee (and Tiger) fans while accumulating just 0.4 WAR and $1.1 M in value. Obviously the Royals had to compound the mistake by giving him a bunch of money last off-season.

So there you have it. 19 contracts – 10 of which turned out not so well for the team (Matthews, Pavano, Sheffield, Isringhausen, Giambi, Hawkins, Farnsworth, Ponson, Thome, Soriano), and 6 of which turned out good to great for the team (Escobar, Drew, DeRosa, Suppan, Guillen, Beltre). Furvcal wasn’t that bad of a deal; A-Rod might have been a “bad deal” but was probably worth it; and Matsui is TBD but seems OK.

I don’t think categorically avoiding guys coming off career years is a good plan (and Sky certainly wasn’t advocating that), but it looks like often enough the team giving out the contract is still able to end up with a bargain.”