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A Hypothesis on Free Agency


This is not a new theory necessarily, but a reminder.  It’s easy to look at the movement of players in today’s game and yearn for the old days when a ball player stayed with his team forever.  The fact is, players didn’t stay with their teams forever – even in the old days.  They were simply forced to move as opposed to moving by choice as free agency allows.  However, the advent of free agency, as much as it has changed the game, has helped the competitive balance of the league.

Free agency was adopted as in December of 1975, but not without a fight.  The players had long sought the freedom to leave their current clubs and pursue more advantageous scenarios with other teams.  The battle was not just waged behind the closed doors of Major League Baseball, but in a court of law.  An arbitrator finally made the decision in 1975 to put an end to the “perpetual renewal rights clubs had.”  There’s a lot more detail that we could delve into in regards to the advent of free agency, but that is a history lesson for another day.  The MLB Player’s Association has some nice details about free agency’s history I would encourage you all to check out.

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Prior to free agency, clubs could essentially own a player for their entire career.  Owners would still trade players, but as superstars developed, owners did not pay them what a free market would command.  Players demanded raises, and they got them, but they rarely got what they deserved.  Of course, “deserved” is a relative term.  To one man, a baseball player’s salary is much more than any man deserves, but to another man, a salary should be based on the competition of those in like-professions.  In the case of baseball, players were not ranked against each other and paid accordingly.  In most other capitalist businesses, employees were granted salaries in just that way.  This caused inequities in the game.  Teams with great players got better, and teams with mediocre players had little incentive to compete.  Some owners could earn wonderful revenues without shelling out too much on their players.  Players were often underpaid when compared to what they would have made if competitive teams were allowed to acquire them.  These profits led to owners with little interest in competition.

From the origin of the World Series in 1903 to 1975, the final season without free agency, just 16 different teams won the World Series.  Now it would be easy to say there were very few teams in baseball prior to free agency, but the truth is even in 1903, there were 16 teams.  In 1965, there were 20 teams.  By 1975, there were 24 different teams.  Over the course of 72 baseball seasons, only 16 of the 24 total teams* won a World Series.

*24 teams is based on the number of teams in 1975.

The introduction of free agency changed the competitive balance of the game.  Players were able to move about freely once their contracts were played out.  Superstars were suddenly given leverage.  Competitive teams found themselves far more interested in spending money to acquire players that were previously unavailable.  And non-competitive teams were forced to spend more to keep players the fans had grown to love.  Players were suddenly making a lot more money, which of course has led to contracts like Albert Pujols‘ and Prince Fielder’s, and owners were now faced with the prospect of trying to compete by spending money on free agents or possibly losing out on profits from ticket sales.

In the 36 seasons since 1975, 19 different teams have won the World Series.  Now to be fair, the league expanded to 28 teams, then to 30 teams.  However, six additional teams since 1975 does not account for the impressive number of different teams winning a title.  Players were spread out across the league, more evenly dispersed.  Free agency opened the gates to competitive balance.

It’s easy to get lost in the Yankees payroll and the Red Sox payroll.  It’s easy to say free agency allowed these juggernauts to over-spend and squash the little guys.  And those who say that aren’t wrong.  However, before we can jump to the conclusion that free agency caused such negative changes to the game, it is important to review the actual competitiveness it created.

16 of the eventual 24 teams around between 1903 and 1975 won the World Series, 66% in 72 years.  19 of the 30 teams between 1976 and 2011 won the World Series, 63% in far less time.  Free agency forced teams to compete.  Save for a few teams who openly spend their money in ways that don’t lead to winning, the league is now built on a win now or lose revenue mentality.  We can thank free agency for that.

So the next time you’re at the bar (or on Twitter – the new age version of a sports bar) and someone tells you free agency was the downfall to small-market success, tell them more different teams have won a World Series in a shorter period of time since the start of free agency than before.  Or if all else fails, just confuse them with percentages.  63% in 36 years as opposed to 66% in 72 years.  Most people will take the former over the latter.  Based on the trend, a far higher percentage of teams in the league will have won a World Series in the years following free agency than the years preceding it.

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