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Contract Year Phenomenon (2021 Fantasy Baseball)

by Lucas Babits-Feinerman | @wsonfirst | Featured Writer
Feb 21, 2021

 
What if I told you that hitters in the final year of their contract produce an adjusted OPS 6.7% higher than in non-contract years?

According to an article written by Heather M. O’Neill, originally published in the Fall 2014 Baseball Research Journal, it’s true. Although O’Neill’s article examines only hitters, I believe the same principle applies to pitchers. 

O’Neill used MLB data from 2006-2011. She recorded the player’s age; position; contract year status; adjusted OPS (OPS100); games played; years of experience; if the player’s team made the playoffs; if they spent any time on the IL; and if the player retired after the season; or if they signed a new contract. 

She used this data to compare a player’s performance in one year to the same player’s performance in a different year. O’Neill found a significant caveat in her study: The more likely a player is to retire after the season, the less impact contract year status had on their adjusted OPS. Retiring players are older and on the wrong end of their development curve.

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What does this all mean for fantasy managers in 2021? An awareness of which players are in their contract year can give you an edge. It doesn’t mean that a journeyman player will become a superstar overnight because they’re playing for a new deal. After all, we are talking about an average improvement of 6.11 adjusted OPS points. But if a drafter is stuck with a coin-flip choice between two players ranked close to each other, they would be better off selecting the player whose contract expires after the season. 

In conclusion, the Contract Year Phenomenon is real. It affects both hitters and pitchers and implies that players in the final year of their contract perform moderately better than expected. However, it is critical to remember that the closer a player is to retirement, the less impact contract status has on performance. Older players, players with more experience (and therefore more lifetime earnings), or players whose production is in a downtrend are more likely to retire than their younger, less experienced, better performing teammates.

How to Use This List

Fantasy managers can expect the Contract Year Phenomenon to uniformly affect all players. In other words, the expected improvement for a player in their contract year is always 6.7%. In percentage terms, it doesn’t matter how skilled the player is. What does matter is if a player is close to retirement; Charlie Morton might not get as much of a bump as Trevor Story. I would use contract-year status as one consideration among many to help me decide who to draft or as a tie-breaker when uncertain about two equal prospects. 

This list is sorted by players inside the top 250 of FantasyPros Consensus ADP and includes players with options.

Contract Year Players

Hitters

Pitchers

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Lucas Babits-Feinerman is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Lucas, check out his archive and follow him @WSonFirst.

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