Free agency changed the very fabric of baseball more than forty years ago. The champions of that battle, Curt Flood and Marvin Miller are ever-fading memories to those of us old enough to remember it. Younger fans are lucky to know anything about it all. But all fans know free agency as a fixture of the game’s reality. And with it come mechanisms unique to the process. Mechanisms like “The Walk Year”.
The final year of a contract before a player is eligible to become a free agent is crucial. Players gear up for it. Teams gamble on it. Fans thrill in it. The Walk Year, as it has become known, has gained a near-legendary status. Players sometimes achieve the apex of their careers in the year prior to entering the game’s highest-stakes arena. The Walk Year has even replaced The Trading Block on the front burner of the Hot Stove in the offseason.
The Class of 2021
This winter Trevor Bauer, George Springer, J.T. Realmuto, DJ LeMahieu, and Marcell Ozuna, among others, seek to alter the course of their lives with free agent mega-deals. Contracts that stand to be greatly influenced by the past season’s performance from each player. But how often is it that a walk year is so much better than what a player has done before? Just how much can a player be counted upon to deliver a ridiculously productive season in a walk year?
He’s brash and outspoken, to say the least. Trevor Bauer is likely the most shining example of what a walk year can look like. Prior to 2020, Bauer pitched the equivalent of eight full seasons in which he averaged a 9-7 record, 4.05 ERA, and a 1.29 WHIP. In 2020, the right-hander was 5-4, had a 1.73 ERA and a 0.795 WHIP. The abbreviated season not withstanding, the numbers speak for themselves. Trevor Bauer understood very well what the walk year meant and earned the National League’s Cy Young Award in the process.
The Houston Astros centerfielder’s meeting the walk year perception in 2020 was more subtle. Of course, his numbers were strong to begin with. George Springer’s career averages over six seasons produced a .269/.360/.488/.848 slash line. He averaged 26 home runs, 71 RBI and 88 runs scored. In 189 at-bats in the 2020 season, the Connecticut native produced a .265/.359/.540/.899 slash line. His 14 homers, 32 RBI, and 37 runs scored are near half his career averages in just thirty percent of the playing time.
DJ LeMahieu represents a different kind of free agency push. His seven seasons with the Colorado Rockies were highlighted by an NL batting title, three Gold Gloves, and career highs of 15 homers and 66 RBI. LeMahieu’s first walk year (2018) featured a .276/.321/.428/.749 slash line with 15 home runs and 62 RBI. Then the California native found a career boost after signing with the New York Yankees. His 2019 season boasts a .327/.375/.518/.893 slash, 26 home runs, and 102 RBI, all reflecting either career highs or top-two career seasons. This past year saw even greater improvement. LeMahieu cranked out a .364/.421/.590/1.011 slash with 10 homers and 27 RBI in just 195 at-bats. The .364 batting average earned him his second batting title, making him only the second player ever to accomplish the feat in both leagues. Those two years with the Yankees also netted LeMahieu his only two top-five MVP voting finishes.
The argument against the walk year perception was most recently bolstered by Marcus Semien’s 2020 season. The Oakland A’s shortstop was a terror in the American League in 2019 with a .285/.369/.522/.892 slash, 33 homers, and 92 RBI. Semien’s 2019 performance was good enough for a third-place finish in MVP voting. Then his walk year arrived and reality seemingly took over. A .223/.305/.374/.679 slash, seven home runs, and 23 RBI over 211 at-bats are all totals that are first or second-worst numbers of his career. While most players gear up in training and focus for their walk years, most feel that the Bay Area native faced the reality of the A’s not being able to meet the salary he was due. Having to leave the area where he went to college and found his greatest success as a pro likely had a strong influence on his performance.
The Class of 2020
Examining walk years would be powerfully incomplete with analysis of only a few players in an abbreviated season. However, the numbers from the previous season reflect a similar breakdown. One of the major free-agents in the class of 2020, Josh Donaldson, has to be excluded due to missing most of the 2020 Minnesota Twins season due to injury. The veteran third baseman had only 81 at-bats this past season and would only serve to skew the analysis.
Gerrit Cole spent five up and down seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates, sometimes dominant and sometimes looking pretty average. Then a trade to the Houston Astros prior to the 2018 season triggered a two-year reign of terror on the American League. In 2018 and 2019 combined, Cole compiled a 35-10 record, ERA’s of 2.88 and 2.50 respectively, and a combined 602 strikeouts over 412 innings pitched. The California native signed a nine-year, $324M contract with the New York Yankees last December and did nothing to disappoint their fans in 2020. Cole made 12 starts and compiled a 7-3 record. He struck out 94 batters in 73 innings and registered two of his career four complete games. Upon signing with the Yankees, Cole revealed that he had been a lifelong fan of the Bronx Bombers and his performance was a validation of his comfort with pitching for them.
Another season that exemplified the common perception of the walk year is the 2019 campaign of Anthony Rendon. The Houston native had put together a fine career for the Washington Nationals from 2013 to 2018. The third sacker produced a career .284/.363/.468/.831 slash line with single-season averages of 16 homers, 70 RBI, and 75 runs scored. Rendon’s 2019 season saw him produce career highs in home runs (34), RBI (126), runs scored (117) and tied a career-high in doubles (44). His 2019 slash line of .319/.412/.598/1.010 were all career highs. Rendon signed a seven-year, $245M contract with the Los Angeles Angels. The stresses of the odd and abbreviated may have taken a toll on the 2019 All-Star’s performance. In 2020, Rendon produced a .286/.418/.497/.915 slash line with nine home runs and 31 RBI in 189 at-bats. A good season, but a step down from his walk year.
Zack Wheeler represents a different kind of walk year. The right-hander had overcome Tommy John surgery that caused him to miss the entirety of the 2015 and 2016 seasons for the New York Mets. The next three years were an up-and-down road that ultimately settled in the same range of performance Wheeler had achieved in his two pre-injury seasons. The 2019 season was Wheeler’s walk year and he posted an 11-8 record and a 3.96 ERA over 195 innings. More than a few eyebrows were raised when the Philadelphia Phillies signed Wheeler to a five-year, $118M contract last December. He then went on to affirm why he had been the sixth overall pick in the 2009 draft by compiling a 4-2 record over eleven starts with a 2.92 ERA. The first season of Wheeler’s big contract was one of his best.
What The Walk Year Really Is
The Walk Year to free agency is truly when the pressure is on a player. Many players respond with marked improvement over their career numbers. Last year Marcell Ozuna drove in 56 runs in 60 games and produced an OPS almost three hundred points higher than his career mark. J.T. Realmuto nearly put an extra sixty points on his OPS in his 2020 walk year. They may very well turn out to be free agency success stories. But it’s the free-agent busts like Jordan Zimmerman, Matt Wieters, and Pablo Sandoval that we remember as “Walk Year Wonders”. Players that pumped up big numbers for a season, signed big deals, then whose performance fell through the floor. This winter Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Max Scherzer are just a few of the players headed into their walk years. What kind of walk years they’ll have is worth following.
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