Late bloomers are a fascinating archetype in baseball. José Bautista is probably the modern example I think about the most, a slugger who didn’t hit his stride until 29. Nelson Cruz, as another example, was really only a superstar hitter in his 30s. Those two were lucky enough to make plenty of money throughout their career—Bautista to the tune of $103 million, Cruz just a shade under at $99 million.
That required a very fortuitous time where teams were still willing to shell out money for older sluggers, and I’m talking about less than a decade ago. Bautista received five years and $64 million from the age of 31 to 35, and then the Blue Jays were perfectly fine with taking him year to year given his retirement soon after. Cruz was signed to four years and $57 million at the age of 34.
Now we’re talking about another late bloomer, this time by the name of Max Muncy. Muncy, like both Bautista and Cruz was a non-factor until the age of 27 when he burst on to the scene with the Dodgers in 2018 after being cut by the Athletics and spending two years languishing in Triple-A.
His debut at 27 means that his free agency would hit at 33; this usually wouldn’t be an issue for late bloomers that aren’t that good, but Muncy almost immediately became a star. He placed in the top 15 in MVP voting both in 2018 and 2019, and he hit a collective .256/.381/.545 with 70 home runs over 1070 plate appearances. That’s no fluke.
In fact, he’s been worth, by most WAR measures, about 10 wins over just the past two seasons alone, and that’s setting aside his very valuable 129 wRC+ in the postseason. You don’t need a TI-84 to calculate that, with a conservative estimate, Muncy has been worth about $80 million or more in surplus value in just those two seasons.
He has made just the league minimum, too, and with his first-year arbitration on the horizon with a projected number of between $4 million and $4.675 million, the Dodgers instead opted to extend him for three years and $26 million with a fourth-year option for $13 million, which would cover his first year of free agency.
Obviously, good for him. I love late bloomers exactly for the reason they can still get payouts despite nearly flaming out by their late-20s, and Muncy is a testament to that sticktoitiveness. That being said, it also lays out a model for exactly why free agency is pretty broken, putting aside the usual arguments about buying out arbitration (where they undercut his desired earnings) and his free agent year.
The problem is that most players are in fact not Muncy and do not become immediate stars even if they do become late bloomers. The more likely outcome is that they spend years and years grinding it out in the minors only to finally get their cup of coffee, and what they receive is the league minimum scaled to playing time, so if you get to play a third of a season you make just under $175,000.
That’s not too bad, but you’ve also been paid below a living wage for nearly a decade at this point, and even if you were to stick with the club, you would need to hold on for dear life to make up for all that lost time. In a word, you have both age and the service time clock working against you.
In the wake of the landmark Kris Bryant case, people within the MLBPA are probably asking the same questions. According to The Athletic and Evan Drellich, and this is just speculation, he says that, “A major overhaul might determine free agency eligibility by age, rather than days of service. Or the players could offer to mix in a component of age into the current system: Once a player reaches X age or Y service, he is a free agent.”
This changes the Muncy formula entirely. If the union is able to say that free agency is 29—period—then Muncy can essentially leap-frog service time and jump straight to earning money once he’s an effective player. Seems much more fair.
Not only that, it addresses the concerns around that cup-of-coffee player. Maybe they’re nearing the end of their patience and they just can’t seem to crack it, and now they’re about 27 or 28. Instead of giving up on the sport they grind it out until they can at least qualify for free agent eligibility, and once they are able to get on the 26-man (still weird saying that), they can secure a one-year, higher-than-league-minimum deal after just a year of service time. We really have no idea the number of players who have quit and would have stuck around for that chance.
While Muncy is the lucky one, cashing in on his arbitration years and at least a year of free agency, most late bloomers have the unfortunate bad luck of nearing their physical peak just as their baseball skills round into form. For both him and the sport, and in the wake of nearly no relief from the service time manipulation world we live in, an age-based service time clock could give the rare late bloomer the bump he so desperately needs.