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The Hot Stove: A User’s Guide

Hot stove league

The phrase calls up images of baseball fans gathering around a hot stove during the cold winter months, discussing their favorite baseball teams and players. The term has also come to refer to the wave of MLB player transactions (contract negotiations, re-signings, trades, free agency, etc.) that occur between seasons. Since most free-agent signings and trades occur during the off-season, this time of significant player transactions (including rumors and speculation about possible trades), is often referred to as the hot stove league or more simply, the hot stove.

Congratulations on your new 2022-23 model Hot Stove! Three weeks into your Hot Stove experience we hope that you’re enjoying it, and to enhance your enjoyment below are some tips to keep in mind.

(we’ll focus on free agency here, and in particular each year’s top 50 free agents that most fans are interested in, as tracked at or “MLBTR”)

1. No one knows where free agents will go*

Baseball writers often go through an exercise predicting where top free agents will wind up. They do the best they can, based on team needs, budget, “fit” etc. but in the end these predictions are only slightly more successful than picking names out of a hat.

For example over the four off-seasons, from 2017-18 through 2020-21, MLBTR predicted the right destination only 29 times out of 200 — a 14.5% success rate.

Which is why last year (2021-22) MLBTR dropped the destination from their predictions. They brought it back this year, but only by listing the four writers’ choices for each player, rather than try to arrive at a consensus.

2. Salary predictions are also difficult

Salaries can also be off quite a bit. Over the past five off-seasons, only about 2 out of 5 contracts have come in within 25% on either side of the predicted total contract value. For example for a $60 million prediction, that would mean the actual signed contract would be between $45 and $75 million. Only 41% of predictions have been within that relative range.

Even in aggregate, where misses on the high side and low side could largely offset each other, writers can still misjudge the market as a whole:

  • In both 2017-18 and 2018-19, the top 50 free agents on average received contracts worth about 20% less than what was predicted.
  • In 2019-20, maybe the predictions overcorrected based on the prior two years, but the total contract value was 12% more than predicted.
  • In 2020-21, the MLBTR team nailed the aggregate payout for the top 50 exactly, at $1.20 billion, but of course even then there were significant differences among individual contracts. e.g. Liam Hendricks was predicted at 3 years/$30 million, but got 3/54. Jake Odorizzi went the other way: predicted at 3/39, but got 3/23.5.
  • And in the crazy lockout-interrupted off-season of 2021-22, contract values ended up pretty close in aggregate, 4% below what was predicted.

One could look at the trend in the variance and conclude that MLBTR has been getting a better and better beat on the market. We’ll see how this off-season goes, though the very early returns indicate the predictions may be on the low side.

3. The Hot Stove may take a while to heat up

Recent history has shown that the rate at which the hot stove gets going can vary quite a bit from year to year. In the last “normal” off-season, i.e. one without a lockout, only 12 of the top 50 were signed in Nov-Dec, while 38, or 34, signed in the new year.

As this monthly breakdown shows, the year before (2019-20) saw 35 of the 50 signed by December 31st, but that was unusually fast-moving off-season:

There were two top-50 signings through November 30 this year, Jose Abreu (#19), and Mike Clevinger (#49). Zach Eflin (#31) will count in December. Other players who’ve signed, like Matt Boyd and Carlos Santana, didn’t make this year’s top 50 and are in MLBTR’s honorable mentions list.

Another, daily view of the same data as above:

As a general rule, the biggest free agents sign even later than the top 50 overall:

Looking at just the top 10 of the top 50 over the last four non-lockout off-seasons, 57% (23 of the 40) signed in the new year, and 32% from Feb. 1 on.

The top 5 biggest free agents skew even later: 70% (14 of 20) signed in the new year, including 50% from Feb. 1 on.

Because of this, if we were to look at it in terms of total contract value signed, rather than the number of free agents, it would again skew later. Over those four off-seasons combined, exactly half of the total contract value was signed by Dec. 31, and half in the new year. But it varied quite a bit, with 2019-20 pulling up the average:

2017-18: 39% by Dec. 31
2018-19: 39%
2019-20: 87%
2020-21: 17%

Now let’s add in the 2021-22 offseason to the above graph, with the lockout by the owners (and the associated freeze on transactions), taking effect at 12:01 a.m. on December 2nd.

That may not have been much fun for teams or players, but it sure was for fans. After the frenetic pace of NBA and NFL free agent signing periods, MLB’s interminable free agency season and its waiting game have always been a relative snooze fest. Not so last year, and it’s slightly surprising that MLB didn’t try to build parameters into the new CBA to recreate that excitement. Perhaps they had enough other things to worry about in their negotiations with the MLBPA.

As we begin this year’s off-season, teams reportedly want the top free agents to sign quickly, preferably during next week’s Winter Meetings in San Diego. That’s all well and good, but it takes two sides to make a deal, and players and agents (Scott Boras in particular) have preferred to wait until the new year, and sometimes even closer to Spring Training.

It’s very early still, and while it’s been characteristically slow so far, we don’t know how it will go. There could well be a December like in 2019-20, when 26 of the top 50 were signed, for a total contract value of almost $1.5 billion. Or, it could be more like 2020-21, with very little happening before January.


P.S. one final tip for the season, in the immortal words of Santa himself: if you see gum on the street, leave it there. It’s not free candy.