Why Player Rating is Harder in MLB Free Agency, Trades Thanks to a Changing Rulebook and Baseball

Major League Baseball’s offseason begins in earnest today with the free agency opening bell. Players may now legally (Hm) negotiate with all teams to get the best deal for their manpower. Trade discussions between teams will certainly also intensify, especially when important dates are imminent. (Thankfully this winter, there’s no danger of an owner-imposed lockdown knocking out the hot stove.)

For the past few weeks, ahead of the teams that are putting together the rosters they hope will usurp the Houston Astros next year, CBS Sports has spoken to various industry insiders about the challenges they face when rating players face a point in time when the game begins constant upheaval. The variability of the rulebook and baseball, along with the recurring use of grip-enhancing substances, put MLB’s product into a state of change that would impress both Buddha and Bowie. The front offices, in turn, had to adapt their processes in order not to fall behind.

The people quoted in this article work for teams in a variety of roles, be it scouts, analysts, or player development specialists. They were all given anonymity in exchange for their candid insight into how their front offices worked.

Middle school science classes teach how independent variables work. Make a small change here or there and it doesn’t change much. Make a major optimization and all bets will be void. The same goes for baseball. Combine changes and apply them to fundamental aspects of the game and you invite chaos. You can understand why some raters think player rating has become more dangerous.

“It’s probably a bit harder now than it was 10, 15 years ago,” said one veteran analyst.

Change is one of the eternal certainties in life. It’s no surprise, then, that it visits baseball from time to time. What worries front offices is that change has taken root. Front offices have had to grapple with a steady flurry of tweaks in recent years, including but not limited to: the composition of the ball resulted in first the highest home run rate in league history in 2019 and then last season’s lowest since 2015; the sticky stuff ban, which went into effect in the summer of 2021 but suspectedly had zero violators in 2022; and the new restrictions on defensive positioning and the implementation of a pitch clock and wider bases.

2022

1.07

2021

1.22

2020

1.28

2019

1.39

2018

1.15

The rules of the game; the ferocity of the fingers dictating each pitch; and in other words, the interior of the ball, which determines the distance of each ball batted, has become the independent variable. To paraphrase Heraclitus, rest assured that no one steps in the same batter’s box or pitching mound twice – the last few years of steady transformation throughout the game have ensured that.

Most sources who spoke to CBS Sports were hesitant to say player ratings have become more difficult. What they have acknowledged is that certain player profiles now have a wider range of possible outcomes. This in turn can make it more difficult to know exactly what numbers you will get from the player as this depends on external factors. Imagine: hitters whose slugging production depended on the rabbit ball, or relievers who smeared themselves with SpiderTack to increase their swing-and-miss rate.

“I think the ball and the sticky stuff gives you insecurity about certain types of players,” Scout No. 1 said before praising baseball’s past year. “It’s nice that the real power hitters with 45 raw and an optimized swing plane have a real advantage over every Tom, Dick and Harry.” (“45 raw” is Scoutspeak for performance potential in the border area.)

2022

2,243 rpm

2021

2,234 rpm

2020

2,256 rpm

2019

2,252 rpm

2018

2,226 rpm

A good player rating includes, among other things, rating skills, institutional knowledge, and historical comparisons. These components require the parameters of the game to remain within the navigation buoys. When the game deviates too much from the recent past, the estimates based on the old form of the game become flawed assumptions and downright liabilities of a good player rating.

“Evaluating a player is the hardest thing anyway, so let’s talk fine margins,” said one front-office guy. “At the end of the day you have to evaluate what you see.”

Indeed, the challenge for front offices is to evaluate what they see. If a player gains strength or misses more shots, is that a byproduct of legitimate skill or sustained improvement — or is it a grand illusion sustained by potentially fleeting factors, like baseball’s unpredictable volatility or the latest applicable adhesives? The sources speaking to CBS Sports agreed that information is the equal, whether it’s in the form of data or in gathering information about (and from) players.

“Some of the trickier stuff is about keeping track of things, like z#2 said.

“The amount of data available today can signal when things are changing,” says Scout #3. “You don’t start spinning a ball 20 percent more out of the blue. Even if you learn a new grip or change your mechanics to maximize it, it gives the scout a chance to examine ‘why’.”

Another source indicated that the “why” may include open discussions about grip-enhancing substances with pitchers they suspect are still sucking up. It’s better to experience some embarrassment now than have buyer’s regrets later.

Teams that aren’t as adept at combining data with observations, or who are unwilling to do the investigative legwork, risk being thrown for a loop. Consider how some teams isolate data from their scouts so they aren’t influenced by the numbers. These teams may find that their scouts lack the necessary context to make accurate assessments. Finally, a player setting a new career high in exit velocity or spin rate may be more or less significant depending on the larger league context. If a scout has to guess the details, their assessment may turn out to be wrong.

“It’s a ball-chasing league now and if you don’t have the full picture, you’re going to have problems,” said Scout No. 2.

Front offices without the required skills could get in trouble, but teams that excel in these areas could gain a competitive advantage based on how they manage and commit to specific profiles and how quickly they adapt to new information and changes be able. As one player development specialist put it, “We’re at a point where teams are looking for the next advantage.”

Again, much of predicting where a player will go is based on history and knowing which traits and profiles lead to continued success and which are more transient. (“I still believe that characteristics are most important when it comes to identifying future talent,” said a fourth scout.) A prediction made by a scout or an algorithm is unlikely to stand up if the underlying assumptions about it change How the game is played proves to be wrong. This doesn’t just apply to the ball and the sticky stuff, those resident agents of chaos, it can also apply to the changes made to parts of the rulebook.

The league does the teams a favor by giving early notice of rule changes in line with collective bargaining guidelines. This runway will allow clubs to rotate before the new guidelines take effect. This winter, for example, teams will have to ask themselves several questions about their complexions when it comes to defensive shifts, pitch clocks, and wider bases. (Similar calculus will be required if and when the automated strike zone is introduced.) Is it necessary to have another ranked midfielder, or can a Max Muncy guy survive as a runner-up? Will flamethrowers who take a long time between pitches be able to withstand a faster pace? And how much will the wider bases affect running play and the ability to stop it?

Starting today, teams have the opportunity to provide their own answers. Just don’t expect them all to come to the same conclusions, at least not right away. “It might be necessary to recalibrate something [league-average] is in some cases.”



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