If you’re interested in free agency or the draft, chances are you’ve heard about the Elias rankings. The Elias Sports Bureau takes player stats from the previous two seasons and classifies all players as Type A or B or unranked. If Type A or B free agents turn down their teams’ offers of arbitration to sign Major League deals elsewhere, the clubs collect picks in the upcoming Rule 4 draft.
But there’s a lot of history to the rankings, which are now in their 30th edition. Here are the essential facts about the Elias rankings system:
How did it all begin?
Free agent compensation was at the center of the 50-day strike that took place between the teams and the players in 1981. Baseball owners wanted compensation for losing top free agents, but the players association was reluctant to diminish free agents’ bargaining power. The association argued that teams would be less eager to bid on free agents if that meant surrendering a big league player or amateur draft choice.
The sides determined statistical formulas through collective bargaining and hired the Elias Sports Bureau to track players’ stats and provide rankings. The rankings aren’t exactly the same as they were 30 years ago and teams don’t approach the rankings as they did in the early ‘80s, but the Elias Bureau has tracked them the entire time.
Then and now
The rankings are not much different now than they were 30 years ago. Players are still ranked on their stats from the previous two seasons and divided by position (for example, catcher) or position group (for example, second base, third base and shortstop). The stats used have been tweaked, but the MLBPA and MLB have generally asked the Elias Bureau to track the same stats. For example, plate appearances, batting average, on-base percentage, home runs and RBI still figure prominently into the rankings for non-pitchers.
The rankings themselves haven’t changed much in 30 editions, but signing ranked free agents used to have significantly different consequences for clubs. Teams that signed ranked free agents once had to expose major league players to a winter draft. The clubs that had lost top free agents would select players from a pool created from unprotected players on the rosters of teams that decided to pursue that year’s crop of top available players. Teams could opt out and protect all of their players, but that would prevent them from signing the top names.
For example, the Mets decided to pursue free agents after the 1983 season and left Tom Seaver, unprotected in January of 1984. The White Sox pounced on the future Hall of Famer, who had just posted a 3.55 ERA (103 ERA+) in 231 innings in his age-38 season. Seaver would spend two and a half years in the White Sox rotation, pitching deep into games with ERAs slightly better than the league average.
Draft pick compensation, always an element of the system, became more prominent once major league players were no longer exposed to MLB teams.
The top 20% of players are still Type As if they’re free agents, but the remaining players are now categorized differently. There were once Type C free agents, but that classification no longer exists; it’s now Type A, Type B or unranked.
Changes in compensation
Today, teams obtain two draft choices for losing Type A free agents who turn down arbitration and one draft choice for Type Bs who turn down arbitration.
Teams once obtained amateur draft choices and professional players for losing Type A free agents, as explained above. But after the 1985 strike, big league players were no longer involved in compensation.
In the early 1980s, teams obtained two amateur draft choices for losing Type B free agents (now they just get one pick).
Players would occasionally use the rankings to prove their worth in negotiations with teams. After the 1986 season, for example, Blue Jays catcher Ernie Whitt was acting as his own agent. And as he explained to the Toronto Star, he used the Elias rankings in negotiations with Toronto GM Pat Gillick.
“Out of the 63 catchers who were ranked," Whitt said, "my client, Ernie Whitt, is No. 6. The rankings are based on the performances of the last two seasons – plate appearances, on-base percentages, RBIs, home runs, defense – the works. I got this information through the players' association. Naturally, I feel it's powerful information."
Steve Hirdt has been a statistician at the Elias Sports Bureau since the rankings were implemented and he expects the bureau to continue producing the rankings.
“As long as they’re a part of the CBA and we’re baseball’s official statistician, we’ll produce them as we’ve continued to for the last 30 years,” Hirdt told MLBTR.
Data compiled from the Elias Sports Bureau and historical reports in the New York Times, the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail and the Miami Herald.