One month in, Major League Baseball’s free-agent market hasn’t been lacking for action. Per, over $600 million has already been spent on free-agent contracts.

But by now, you’ve probably noticed the weirdness. If not, it’s like this: Though the open market is saturated with quality pitching—particularly starting pitchingit’s hitters who are hogging the cash so far.

Here’s a quick look at hitters and starting pitchers who have signed, in order of how much money they’ve signed for:

  • Hitters: Pablo Sandoval, Hanley Ramirez, Russell Martin, Yasmany Tomas, Victor Martinez, Nelson Cruz, Billy Butler, Adam LaRoche, Michael Cuddyer, Torii Hunter, Chris Young and Justin Smoak.
  • Starting pitchers: A.J. Burnett and…uh…yeah…

True story. We’re one month into an offseason in which hurlers like Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, James Shields, Ervin Santana and Francisco Liriano are up for grabs, and not one of them has signed. In the meantime, almost all the quality hitters on the market are already spoken for.’s Jerry Crasnick agrees this is unusual:

So what’s going on? Are MLB clubs telling us they think this winter’s selection of starting pitchers is overrated? Heaven forbid, is there some kind of collusion thing at work?

Well, I suppose nothing should be ruled out. But the real explanations would appear to be much simpler. Rather than some kind of conspiracy, the way in which the market has favored hitters would appear to be a lesson in supply and demand and market-setting.

We’re used to treating that old “you can never have too much pitching” saying as gospel, and for good reason. It’s hard to win without good pitching, and teams have long tended to prioritize adding arms in-between seasons.

But things are a little different now. Offense has been down for a couple of years now, but things got truly bad in 2014. The league averaged only 4.07 runs per game and a .700 OPS, two of its worst offensive marks in decades.

So, for the first time in a long time, teams legitimately have too much pitching and not enough hitting. That desperation would explain not only why clubs have been in a hurry to get their hands on bats this winter, but also why they’ve been willing to pay big prices for seemingly less-than-awesome products.

Case in point, the Boston Red Sox spent nearly $200 million to sign Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez. One of them (Sandoval) really isn’t that much better than a league-average hitter, and the other (Ramirez) is an injury-prone hitter who’s past his prime.

Another thing we can point to is how clubs have been perfectly willing to spend money on bat-only players. The bad-fielding, slow-running Michael Cuddyer fits the bill, and designated hitters Victor Martinez, Billy Butler and Nelson Cruz certainly do as well.

As AJ Cassavell put it at Sports on Earth:

A few years ago it seemed absurd to think teams would be this eager to shell out such sums of money for players offering no value defensively. But the dearth of offense in this year’s free-agent market has changed the dynamic entirely.

In so many words: At a time when every team needs offense, teams are perfectly willing to take what they can get.

That’s one explanation for why the pitching market is lagging so far behind the hitting market. By all indications, another is that there’s something blocking the pitching market from getting going.

Specifically, this guy:

Jon Lester hasn’t done anything wrong. As you would expect with a guy who owns two rings and is coming off a 2.46 ERA in 2014, the veteran left-hander has been drawing a lot of interest. You can’t blame him for taking time to explore and weigh his options.

And yet, it would also be understandable if other stud starters are growing impatient with him. Unwittingly or not, Lester has stumbled into the role of being a market-setter for starting pitching.’s Anthony Castrovince has touched on the idea. So has ESPN’s Buster Olney, who writes: 

But many other pitchersincluding those who could be traded, like Oakland’s Jeff Samardzijamay have to wait for Jon Lester to set the price. Almost everything in the pitching market seems to be on hold until Lester makes his choice among offers from the Boston Red SoxChicago Cubs and San Francisco Giants (and perhaps others). Once that happens, the price ceiling will be established. 

In the words of one agent: “Then everything else will fall in line after that.”

Why Lester? A couple of reasons, really.

One is that his level of talent can set market prices in both directions. He’s not considered to be as good as Max Scherzer, so his contract will present figures for Scherzer to beat. But since he’s better than James Shields, Ervin Santana and Francisco Liriano, his contract will present figures for them to strive for.

Another is that whatever market price Lester sets won’t be clouded by draft-pick compensation. The trade that sent him from the Red Sox to the Oakland A’s in July barred him from getting a qualifying offer, so whatever market price he sets will be about money and nothing else.

Hypothetically, the hitting market could have gone through something similar. Beyond the widespread need for bats, part of the reason it’s not is because the market was set very early on in the process.

The two-year, $21 million contract Cuddyer signed with the New York Mets in early November established a baseline for the price for a solid hitter. The four-year, $68 million deal Martinez signed with the Detroit Tigers soon after established a baseline for an excellent hitter.

Like that, the floodgates opened.

So as much as the early run on hitting and general disregard for pitching might feel like some kind of grand conspiracy at work, in reality it’s no such thing. Clubs are going after hitters largely because they need them, and they’re waiting on pitchers because they’re waiting to know the going rate.

But rest assured, the deals are coming. Lester will sign first, and then many more will sign. And in time, we’ll forget that things were ever weird.


Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted/linked.  

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