Braves: MLB Offseason Guide and Assorted Gripes

Braves FanGraphs Acuna

It’s the MLB offseason, and the Braves haven’t made any consequential moves yet, so I figured I’d ramble about a few important free agency and contract-negotiation concepts that will be relevant throughout the next few months, and maybe clear up some common misconceptions while I’m at it.

1) The value and duration of a Qualifying Offer (QO) isn’t determined by the team.

This is already last week’s news, but when Dansby Swanson rejected the QO from the Braves, people used this as evidence that he was intending to leave, or somehow disloyal. The 1-year, $19.65M offer, which seems shockingly low for a premium shortstop expected to fetch a 5- or 6-year deal worth $20-$25M AAV, also led some to believe the Braves went cheap on the hometown hero.

But the Qualifying Offer is kind of like the franchise tag in football. It’s defined as a 1-year deal at a pay rate equivalent to the average salaries of the 150 highest-paid players during the previous season—in this case, 2022. Every player in the league who receives a QO this year is given the exact same offer: 1 year, $19.65M. The team benefits from extending a Qualifying Offer because, if that free agent signs elsewhere, his new team must tender one or more compensatory draft picks to the original team. There are rules that govern the quantity of these picks, and what round they’re in, based on the financial situation of the team and the value of the new contract. Those can all be found on MLB’s website.

2) Arbitration doesn’t work like that.

In May of this year, the Braves won their arbitration case against Austin Riley, right in the middle of his fantastic 2022 season, meaning they only needed to pay him $3.95M for the year instead of the $4.2M he’d filed for. At first glance, this seems like a real cheapskate movethe Braves are going to let a paltry quarter-million stand between them and their franchise third baseman? Why couldn’t the third-party just split the difference and award him $4.075M?

However, the only thing the third-party arbitrator can do is pick one of these two values. They can’t “split the difference,” or find a more “fair” option in between; once the case reaches the third-party, they can only select one of the two numbers presented to them, and that’s it.

Players and teams enter arbitration specifically because they couldn’t agree on a salary, and probably weren’t particularly close. They don’t choose arbitration when they’re hovering right around the same amount, because those small differences can be easily resolved without  it. And if $250,000 seems like a “small difference” between the Braves and Riley, put yourself in Austin’s shoes; who among us wouldn’t spend a few hours in front of a mediator for a chance at an extra $250k in the bank?

Finally, arbitration arguments are not based on current performance, but only on the previous year’s output. Due to the lockout last year, arbitration hearings that typically would’ve happened in February ended up being bumped to mid-season. It’s a little awkward to sit down with your franchise third-baseman and argue, during the season, that he deserves to be paid less than he wants, but that process is supposed to happen in the offseason.

3) Free agents are not traded or tradeable.

Unfortunately, this one’s not obvious. Thanks to Twitter, I’ve seen real people express sentiments along the lines of the Braves should not have traded Freddie Freeman to the Dodgers. To their credit—if that situation had happened, I would agree. But it didn’t. If I had $44B and had just acquired Twitter, this offense would be punishable by mandatory account deletion, but sadly I don’t have the authority to enforce that (yet).

4) The length of time you’ve been a fan doesn’t affect the correctness of your opinion.

Just ran into this one recently—just because you’ve been a fan since the 1980’s, 70’s, or 30’s doesn’t mean you know what’s best for the team. Stop suggesting Ronald Acuña Jr., the most dynamic and talented Brave in decades, should be traded because he’s “too flashy,” “self-centered,” and “doesn’t speak English.” Ronald, who is often accused by ignorant fans of being “self-centered” because he likes to  bat-flip or whip out LeBron’s “silencer” move when he hits home runs, is playing on a $12.5M AAV team-friendly contract, when a player of his caliber could easily command twice that. Yet again, this falls into the “please delete your account” category.

Oh, and he speaks English too; it’s just easier to avoid public mishaps when you do interviews in your native language, especially given how tricky English can be.

5) My wish for a Christmas miracle.

When Yuletide rolls around, some kind souls unselfishly wish for nothing more than peace on earth and goodwill to mankind. But my wish is a lot simpler, and more selfish: to the multitiude of baseball fans out there, I wish that you would please stop evaluating players based solely on batting average. I always love to talk free agents and trades with the good people of Twitter, but if you’re discussing the merits of two different players and the only stat you provide for comparison is batting average, then you have a fundamentally flawed understanding of how runs are created in baseball. Batting average certainly sometimes indicates whether or not a single player is a good hitter, but is only useful as a comparison in extremes cases. A .400 hitter is obviously more valuable than a .050 hitter regardless of how many home runs the latter hits. But if you try to tell me that one player is a better option than another solely because the first guy bats .250 and the second bats .220, please know that I will enjoy a hearty chuckle at your expense.

Batting average ignores walks and the relative value of different hits; it turns out that home runs are actually better than singles. In my opinion, the best estimate for total offensive production is wRC+, which you can easily find on FanGraphs. It’s designed to summarize total offensive contributions, factoring in walks, relative values of hits, and frequency of hits. It also adjusts for ballpark factors, like the Coors Effect or Yankee Stadium’s short porch. The stat is scaled so that a 100 wRC+ is exactly league average, and every point you go up is a single percent better than that. A 200 wRC+ player is exactly twice as valuable in producing runs as a (theoretical) league-average, 100 wRC+ player.

If you need more evidence that batting average falls woefully short as an effective holistic comparison tool, look at how these pairs, with 20- to 40-point differences in batting average, match up from this past season:
Kolten Wong: .251 AVG, .769 OPS, 15 HR, 116 wRC+
Anthony Rizzo: .224 AVG, .818 OPS, 32 HR, 132 wRC+

Tommy Edman: .265 AVG, .724 OPS, 13 HR, 108 wRC+
Juan Soto: .242 AVG, .853 OPS, 27 HR, 145 wRC+

Ozzie Albies: .247 AVG, .703 OPS, 8 HR, 93 wRC+
Giancarlo Stanton: .211 AVG, .759 OPS, 31 HR, 115 wRC+

Michael, are you saying that players with higher batting averages are bad? Of course not! But a higher average doesn’t necessarily equal a more productive hitter. Every stat is just a sliver of a player’s abilities, and some stats—like wRC+ and OPS—provide a much more complete picture of a hitter. While batting average is a small sliver of a guy’s offensive profile, wRC+ is a massive slice, like the unbelievably large pieces of pumpkin pie I spent most of Thanksgiving weekend devouring. So please, this holiday season, do your part to help out the needy by recognizing that no single number will perfectly summarize an individual player’s offensive contributions, but that some metrics are far better than others at doing it.

Photo: David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire

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