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Does baseball still dig the long ball?

The short answer: Yes, baseball still digs the long ball. But as this bizarre winter has shown, big bopper free agents -- including Chris Carter -- aren't as prized as they used to be. And there's more than one reason why. AP Photo/Darren Hauck

Hey, remember the days when it actually used to be a big deal to be a home run hitter? Whatever happened to those days anyway?

Mike Napoli would love to know. Chris Carter would love to know. Mark Trumbo spent months wondering about that. And they had plenty of company in one of the strangest free-agent markets of the 21st century.

  • Of the 18 free agents who landed in the marketplace this winter after thumping at least 20 home runs last season, more than half -- 10, to be exact -- were still unemployed when January rolled around. Five of them still haven't signed.

  • Of the five free agents who hit more than 30 home runs, just one -- Yoenis Cespedes -- found a team before he popped his New Year's champagne cork.

  • And how bizarre was it to find the home run champs in both leagues -- Trumbo and Carter -- still unemployed in the third week of January? Then Trumbo finally went back to Baltimore. But Carter, who tied Nolan Arenado for the NL title, is still hunting for a team, even after hitting 41 home runs for the Milwaukee Brewers. A lot of good that did him.

So if you take a step back and ask what all this means, it's telling us something, isn't it? Those paying customers in the seats might still love the long ball as much as ever. But in front offices across North America, eh ... not so much.

"My take is, it's not about home runs now," Toronto Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins said. "It's about the complete player. And the value of the complete player."

The complete player. When we began digging into this trend, we heard that phrase from multiple front offices. And that, too, is telling us something.

Mostly, it's telling us that teams are squeezing the emotion out of every decision, because they now have the data to do that. And the more sophisticated the data, the easier it is for them to rank players according to the value of their complete array of skills, as opposed to the value of any one skill.

Yep, even if it's a skill that once made Babe Ruth kind of famous.

But let's just say that not everybody is on board with the idea that there's no longer anything special about the good old-fashioned home run. And by "not everybody," we mean, of course, "agents," who aren't very happy with how modern front offices are yawning at the sight of all their favorite free-agent mashers.

"They obviously have forgotten that chicks dig the long ball, that one swing of the bat can change a game and that there is a real entertainment value to the fans who love to see the long ball," said an agent for one free-agent slugger who had a rough time finding a team. "They don't understand that pitchers fear the potential game-changers in a lineup."

And that was about the nicest thing he had to say about this development. But let's put aside his vested interest. Doesn't he have a point?

Is there any play in baseball that changes a game faster than a home run? Is there any play in baseball that lights up a ballpark like a home run? Is there any player in baseball who can intimidate the other team like a home run hitter?

The answer to those questions would be: No. No. And no. But when we mentioned that line of thought to one AL executive, his reaction went like this:

"A run is a run is a run."

"What you're looking for now is good players," said that exec, who requested anonymity because his organization prefers to have its GM talk publicly about topics like this. "And a good player is a guy who puts runs on the scoreboard or keeps them off. It doesn't matter how."

So how does that work? Let's take a look at how many runs above average a player (and home run hitter) such as Kris Bryant can produce if you add up the number of runs amassed by all his different "complete-player" skills over the course of last season, according to FanGraphs:

Batting runs* -- 41.8
Baserunning runs* -- 7.3
Fielding runs* -- 12.4
(* -- runs above average)

"Then you look at somebody like Chris Carter, who hits 40 home runs," the same AL exec said. "Now there will always be a value to hitting 40 home runs. But when you look at everything around those 40 home runs, what do you have? He's not going to hit for average. He's going to strike out a ton. He can't run. He's a bad fielder. So 40 home runs, minus all the subtractions, is maybe not as valuable as you'd think."

Yeah, apparently. Take a look at how FanGraphs valued Carter last year, and you'll see what he means.

Batting runs* -- 9.2
Baserunning runs* -- minus-4.1
Fielding runs* -- minus-5.2
(* -- runs above average)

So not only is the ability to hit 40 home runs now officially overrated, according to modern baseball thinking, it's now so overrated that it enabled Carter to make history -- by becoming the first home run champ in the free-agent era to get non-tendered.

And what motivated the Brewers to decide, less than a month into the offseason, that it wasn't a good idea to even offer the league leader in home runs a contract? That, too, was a function of mathematics, said their general manager, David Stearns -- arbitration mathematics.

"Over the last couple of years," Stearns said, "the arbitration market has valued home runs, power hitting and counting stats [much higher than] the free-agent value of the same types of players."

In other words, if Carter had played out the arbitration process, as a player with four-plus years of service and a 41-homer season as a selling point, he was likely to make somewhere in the neighborhood of $8 million this year. That would have made him the third-highest-paid player on the Brewers, behind only Ryan Braun ($20 million) and Matt Garza ($12.5 million).

"God bless the entertainment business. But we're here to win baseball games."

MLB executive

But metrics like the ones above valued Carter as just their 13th-most valuable player last year. So as much as they enjoyed watching those 41 long balls leave the premises, the Brewers had a tough time making that math add up.

"So that's what ultimately happened to Chris," Stearns said. "And ultimately, I think you'll see it happen to future players as well."

But does that explain why Carter still doesn't have a job? Or why so many of the big boppers in this year's free-agent class had so much trouble finding employment? Obviously, there are also other forces at work here.

One is the makeup of this particular market, which was overstuffed with first basemen/DH/corner-outfield kind of guys, many of whom were too one-dimensional for a sport now looking for (repeat after us) "the complete player."

"You had a good number of players in a similar category out there," Atkins said. "I understand that Mark Trumbo is not the same as Kendrys Morales. But there were a number of players like that."

The Blue Jays, of course, were well aware of that glut, since two of their own middle-of-the-order monsters, Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista, were free agents. So when Encarnacion's asking price got beyond the years and dollars they had in mind, the Jays just pivoted to Plan B and signed Morales for almost half (three years, $33 million) of what Encarnacion wound up getting in Cleveland ($60 million for three years).

And what should we make of that? On one hand, the Blue Jays project Morales' home run numbers to increase in their park. But on the other hand, don't interpret his signing to mean the Toronto brass looked at him and Encarnacion as basically interchangeable.

"Once we determined that Edwin was asking what he was asking ... we didn't want to hold up our offseason," Atkins said. "I think what it came down to was: What was our next best alternative at that position?"

But it also came down to another theme that ran through this market. Personally, we wouldn't bet the Powerball pot that the big spike in home runs in this sport, which welled up almost out of nowhere a season and a half ago, is here to stay. But the industry is clearly making that bet. And if the industry is right, you know what that means?

It means that guys who hit home runs won't be anywhere near as hard to find as they used to be. That's what.

We still haven't run across anyone in the game who has a good explanation for why there were almost 1,500 more home runs hit last year than were hit just two years earlier, or why the number of home runs per game suddenly ballooned to the second-highest rate in history. But that happened. So the sport is assuming it's going to keep on happening.

"We're all kind of guessing, obviously," the AL exec quoted earlier said. "But if you look at historical trends, you don't see a lot of one-year blips."

Well, if that's true, here's one historical trend that has lasted a lot longer: You know those people who pay real money for real tickets? Those people love home runs. Which means they really, really love big dudes who hit a bunch of home runs.

So we totally get why all the sophisticated data is saying home runs are overrated. But there's a reason Baseball Tonight runs a "Going, Going, Gone" highlight reel every night, as opposed to a "Gappers, Gappers, Gappers" reel. Which makes us wonder again if everyone is 100 percent sure that baseball's brightest front-office minds are getting this right.

"As an industry, we might be over-adjusting," said another AL exec -- one who works for a data-driven franchise, we should add. "It's true that guys who drive the ball out of the ballpark impact pitching staffs. And there's no doubt those guys are attacked different than guys who don't hit home runs. So it's very possible this could be an over-correction."

It's especially possible, because this is still the entertainment business, right? And for the past 90 years, nothing about baseball has ever managed to provide more entertainment than the sight of baseballs floating through the sky, on the way to landing where nobody can catch them. But does that even matter anymore?

"Let me put it this way," said one of the execs quoted earlier, with a laugh, when we laid out that very argument. "God bless the entertainment business. But we're here to win baseball games."