Free agency is the best thing that’s ever happened to baseball

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Want a reason that Marvin Miller should immediately be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame?

It’s the best rule change in the history of baseball. It’s called free agency.

Because of free agency, something that no one other than Miller pushed for, the former MLB Players Association leader deserves a plaque in Cooperstown and maybe even a statue and a new wing in the museum.

Free agency, which was instituted in 1975 when the reserve clause was banished, has done more good for the game of baseball than any rule change or procedural development in history.

Miller’s genius was the realization that the best thing for the players was “limited free agency.” It would do no good for every player to be eligible to sign with any team every year. That would flood the market. The system needed to be managed to control  supply and demand. The result, Miller predicted, would be more lucrative contracts for the players. But the high salaries are not the reason baseball has been transformed since the mid-1970s.

Here we are more than forty years later and the proof is clear: free agency has been a rousing success. But why? The answer is obvious if you look for it: competitiveness.

Since 1979, only three years after free agency began, Major League Baseball has seen an unprecedented period of competitive balance and parity. In that span there have been 37 World Series played and 21 different franchises have won championships.

Here’s more proof that baseball is riding a long wave of competitive balance since free agency matured:

— Since 1979, 28 of the 30 MLB teams have won at least one pennant. The only teams to miss out: the Mariners and Expos/Nats.

— From 1979 to 1987, a span of nine seasons, nine different teams won the World Series.

— Since 1979 there have only been two teams that have repeated as champions: the 1992-93 Blue Jays and the 1998-2000 Yankees.

— In the 19 years from 1979 to 1997, 15 different franchises won the World Series.

Clearly, there’s never been a better time to be a baseball fan. Over the last 40 years, since free agency leveled the playing field, teams have a much better chance to contend for and win a pennant.

Criticism of free agency in baseball

Critics of free agency are wrong. Allow me to get that out of the way. I’ll make their arguments for them: (1) free agency allows big market teams to snatch up the best players; (2) free agency has driven salaries through the roof, making ballplayers less like the fans who root for them and thus, less admired; (3) skyrocketing payrolls have resulted in high ticket prices for the average fan; (4) allowing players to go to the highest bidder has destroyed team loyalty with fewer players staying in one city for their careers.

Let’s refute each point:

— True, in the free agent era there have been a few teams who have spent a lot of money to attract high-priced free agents: the Yankees, Dodgers, Angels, Orioles (at times), Mets (at times), and Rangers have carried high payrolls. But during the same era, small-market teams such as the A’s and Cardinals have fared well too. Since 1979, St. Louis has won as many pennants (seven) as the Angels, Dodgers, Mets, Cubs, and White Sox combined. The tiny market, small payroll A’s have been to the postseason 13 times since 1981. Expansion teams have had tremendous success: the Blue Jays were in the playoffs in their ninth season and went on to win two World Series; the Diamondbacks went to the World Series and won it three years after their birth; the Marlins have won two World Series in less than 25 years of franchise history; even the Rockies and Rays have won pennants. And baseball revenues have been universal, allowing teams in small markets to attract big free agent names, and even when they haven’t, there have been paths to success through smart signings and the compensation draft picks that are part of the free agency system.

— As Miller foresaw, and owners warned, salaries have exploded since the advent of free agency. But there’s no evidence that higher salaries have hurt the connection between fans and players. Sure, some fans whine about the “millionaires playing a child’s game” but they still show up in droves. MLB has never been more popular in every way: attendance, ratings, culturally.

— Prices for an average box seat in the major leagues in 2016 were (adjusted for inflation) $14 higher than they were in 1976. I’m not saying it’s easy to take a family of four to a ballgame, but it’s still one of the most affordable forms of entertainment, and as mentioned above, attendance is at all-time highs.

— There has been a little more player mobility since free agency was instituted, but not much. According to Baseball-Reference, the average number of teams a ten-year veteran played for was 2.1 from 1945 to 1975. Since, that same average is at 2.3 and standing pretty steady. Players generally stay with teams as long as they used to.

Free agency has leveled the competition in baseball

If you want your favorite city to be a winner, your best bet is to root for and invest your time in their baseball team.

— From 1977 to 2016, only 13 different NBA franchises have won a title.

— During that same period, from ’77 to 2016, the Stanley Cup has been hoisted by only 15 teams in 39 seasons (one year was lost to a strike).

— The NFL has been very exclusive too: 17 franchises have won at least one of the last 41 Super Bowls, dating back to January of 1977.

— Meanwhile, in MLB we’ve seen 21 franchises win a World Series in the last 40 years.

Even if we don’t focus on championships, baseball has more parity. As I stated above, only two MLB franchises have failed to win a pennant in the last four decades. In the NFL six teams have failed to make the Super Bowl during the same time; in the NBA eleven franchises have failed to advance to the NBA Finals; in hockey there have been eight teams left out.

And baseball has the fewest playoff spots, only four from 1977 to 1994, and five in recent years. The NBA and NHL let 16 teams into the postseason dance and football has expanded to six in each conference.

When a quick fix or a tweak will do

Let’s examine two teams for examples of how free agency has helped baseball. In 1983 the Detroit Tigers were a good team, winning 92 games and finishing second to the Orioles, who won the World Series. Detroit had a young, talented team with several stars in their prime. That offseason they dipped into the free agent market, something the franchise hardly ever did, and signed Darrell Evans. That move added a veteran bat to the team. They went on to win the World Series. Similarly, there have been dozens of teams since the advent of FA in the 1970s that have added players to boost their chances.

The second team is the 1997 Florida Marlins, who acquired most of their core via free agency. Outfielders Moises Alou and Devon White were free agent signings, as was third baseman Bobby Bonilla. Their ace, Kevin Brown, was in his second year with the team after coming over as a free agent. Number two starter Alex Fernandez was also a free agent acquisition who was invaluable in ’97. The team got into the postseason as a wild card, caught fire, and won the World Series in just their fifth season. In 2017 that championship team will be honored on their 20th anniversary. Without free agency, their magical season would not have been possible.

Any way you measure it, MLB is more competitively balanced than any of the other leagues. That wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for free agency, the rule change that brought about free agency was engineered by Marvin Miller. In this case, one man was a visionary, and his vision transformed his sport for the better.

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Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes is the author of three books about baseball, including Ty Cobb: A Biography. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and Major League Baseball Advanced Media. He lives in Michigan where he writes, runs, and enjoys a good orange soda now and again.
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