Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Alien Perspective on Baseball (PART 2)

Read part 1 here for an intro to the concept of "alien perspectives".  Also, note that these posts are taking the shape of one alien question per post.  After the aliens have had the chance to ask their questions / point out their concerns, solutions to their concerns will be offered on this very blog.

In part 1 of this series of posts, aliens asked about uneven divisions in MLB.  Here in part 2, they are asking:

Why do some teams have a payroll 4, 5, or even 6 times that of other teams?

OK, elephant in the room: Yankees. There, I said it. And since they’re the most consistent perpetrator, I’ll say “Yankees” in this post as a label for a group of teams most regularly plays the role of “culprit du jour” (usually the Red Sox, and to some degree the Phillies and Cubs, and sometimes others). But regardless of the specific team, the situation is something like this: Some teams have more resources (like coal, natural gas, and—oh, and money) than others, so they get to pay more for their players. So whenever there is a free agent of any note or a player on the trade block, the Yankees are immediately considered a “potential suitor,” and the backlash of this (usually accurate) recognition of the Yankee’s desire to acquire said player is for commentators to tritely point out that “it’s another case of the ‘have’s’ versus the ‘have-not’s’.” Most people think that the Yankees behaving like Audrey II in “Little Shop of Horrors” is annoying and then shrug their shoulders and move on.

But to truly grasp the significance of the payroll difference between the Yankees and the bottom feeders, we need perspective of the intergalactic variety. What are some things that aliens think this discrepancy is comparable to?

It would be like two captains of kickball teams in grade school. The first captain gets 5 picks. Then the second captain gets 1 pick. Then the first captain gets 4 picks. And the second captain gets 2. Then the first captain rounds out his team with whoever he wants to from the players that are left. Then the second captain gets to do the same. Game on, right?

Or it would be like a fantasy football draft. I had my first auction draft this year. We each had $200 to spend. Imagine if one of us got $800 to draft our team. The draft would become a matter of “team 800” drafting and spending until he literally didn’t have any more roster spots to fill. Then the rest of the teams could draft and play. Actually, it would like if no “budget” was assigned at all, and people just showed up and got to bid on players with real cash that they would fork over out of their bank accounts.

This would be completely goofy way of going about things that none of us (except the ones who are wealthiest among their friends) would go for. But this is effectively what happens in the big leagues every year. I’m not complaining about the disparity, per se. I’m trying to point out how silly it is to downplay the impact this disparity has on the MLB and fans of MLB.

Here are a few arguments I’ve heard on the “It’s not that big of a deal” side of the coin regarding team payroll disparity:

“Small market teams with significant salary restraints still do win the World Series”
Yes, of course they sometimes do. In fact, it so happened that a team in the bottom half of total team payroll won the World Series back in 2003. That was the only time in the last 16 years that that happened.

But considering playoff appearances as opposed to actual world championships, the field opens up a little bit. Teams like the A’s, Mariners, Rays, and Marlins have made it to the post season in the past 16 years. These teams, however, have all had short shelf-lives as far as winning goes. There is a relatively short window in which they must win—then, whether they do or they don’t, their best players will migrate to the Yankees.

So in order to win, these teams must bank on a core of young players developing quickly and simultaneously and delivering winning seasons before the next batch comes up. Yes, these teams have had winning seasons. And then the window closes for years on end. Consider some of these names that have left those four teams via financially motivated trades or via free agency for greener pastures (money, you see, is green): Jason Giambi, Mark McGwire, Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey, Cliff Lee, Carl Crawford, Gary Sheffield, Edgar Renteria, Josh Beckett, A.J. Burnett, Mike Lowell, Miguel Cabrera, Kevin Brown, Dan Uggla. Of course, some of those players bombed after departing, and that might be where discernment rather than deep pockets is to be valued. But whether or not your team is actually winning, a fan can receive significant satisfaction in rooting for a team that he knows, has been rooting for a long time, and sincerely and legitimately believes has a chance at winning.

I am of the opinion that teams who are forced to put all of their eggs in a three year window, knowing that there will probably be at least 3 years after that of losing in obscurity, will naturally draw a fan base that is less-loyal, less-impassioned, and less willing to fork over cash for season tickets than a team that can regularly re-sign even a token number of its home grown stars—even if that “3 year window” team manages to win a World Series during that 3 year window. Fans may say that they want world champions. But even if your team just won a World Series, nobody wants to give away their passion and dollars for an extended “get to know you” period after their favorite players just let town with their shiny new World Series rings.

It is this regular exodus of players—players usually able to sign 5 year contracts for 2-3 more prime years of playing, plus another 2-3 years of good-but-not-prime years—that breeds skepticism among fans, regardless of post-season appearances or even World Series championships in the previous few years. Rays fans wanted to see Carl Crawford play out his days with the Rays. And now, because he’s gone, they are going to be less excited to pull for Evan Longoria in any sort of personally involved sort of way, ‘cause he’ll be gone in a few years, too.

In other words, the argument that small market teams can still win is not only barely true, it’s also somewhat missing the point. Having a contending or even championship team every 6 years in exchange for getting perpetually kicked in the gut for a few years AFTER those 6 years just stops being worth it after a while.

“The Yankees have still done a good job at developing their own players.”
I actually heard Peter Gammons say this on ESPN, and remember thinking, “That’s not the point.” EVERYONE has developed their own players. Yes, some teams have done better than others. But the point is that only a couple of teams can afford to overpay their own developed players (Jeter, Cano, Rivera, Posada) AND still supplement with overpaid free agents (Beckett, Sabathia, Texeira) while picking up a salary dump or two before the trade deadline (Berkman).

The other misleading thing about the Yankees home-grown talent is that the Yanks can afford to wait around on their players to see if they are actually worth overpaying. The Yankees have little incentive to sign young players to long-terms contracts with the purpose of “buying out” arbitration years plus a free agent year on those players. An example of a team making use of this “buying out” strategy can be found reported on’s archive, dated March 29, 2006:

“The Cleveland Indians locked up their center field position into the next decade, agreeing Wednesday to a $23.45 million, six-year contract with Grady Sizemore.

Sizemore's deal has the most guaranteed money for a player with less than two years of major-league service, $200,000 more than the Boston Red Sox guaranteed shortstop Nomar Garciaparra in a five-year deal agreed to in March 1998.

Sizemore gets a $1 million signing bonus and salaries of $500,000 this year, $750,000 in 2007, $3 million in 2008, $4.6 million in 2009, $5.6 million in 1010 and $7.5 million in 2011.

Sizemore has played only one full season in the majors, but the 23-year-old outfielder did enough to impress the Indians.”

The Indians—wisely, thought most people at the time—signed Sizemore to this contract in the hopes of having his services for a couple more years than they would have if they had taken the year-by-year approach that allows players to file for arbitration and eventually for free agency. Sizemore puts off free agency by a year or two but gets to bank enough money to retire on two years before he otherwise would have.

The Indians gambled. Had they not signed him to this contract, Sizemore would have been a free agent after the 2010 season, when he batted .211 with zero home runs in 33 games. The year before, he batted .248 in 106 games. These numbers would NOT likely have translated into the $7.5 million that Sizemore is making in 2011 had he not signed for that amount after the 2006 season.

The Yankees, knowing that they can overpay their own free agents when the time comes, don’t have to make these kinds of gambles. Take Joba Chamberlain, for example. After showing off for 19 games in 2007 and posting a 0.34 ERA, Joba looked like the real deal in 2008, pitching 100.1 innings without a well-defined role and still posting a 2.60 ERA, more strikeouts than innings pitched, and a WHIP of 1.26. The next two years saw big drop offs for Joba, with ERAs of 4.75 and 4.40.

How much do you think he’d be making this year had he come up with the Indians or the Rays, who likely would have tried to lock-up Joba to a Sizemore-structured deal after his second season? 2 million? 3? This year, he’ll be making $1.4 million from the Yankees. Of course, the verdict is still out on Joba. But that’s the point: the Yankees can afford to wait on the verdict. If he settles in as an average middle reliever, they’ll let him go. If he shapes himself into a number 2 or 3 starter, they can pay him like a number 1 starter and everyone will say how great it is that the Yankees develop their own talent despite their financial resources.

“A lot of Yankee free agent signings don’t work out—they still have to overcome that just like everyone else” or "They still have to sign the right players."
Some of their signings have been busts. Carl Pavano is notoriously the worst, at 4 years/$40 million. He won 9 games for the Yankees. They also bid for and won the rights to sign Kai Igawa from Japan, who cost the Yankees $46 million (bid plus contract) over 4 years. And this past year, A.J. Burnett probably put up the second worst season ever for a pitcher making $16.5 million (shout out to Barry Zito!). The Yankees off season solution to this flopping pitcher? Outbid everyone else for the latest, best free agent pitcher on the market, Cliff Lee. (Lee shocked the baseball world by taking a competitive offer from the team he most wanted to play with: the Phillies, themselves not exactly the Bad News Bears.)

So everyone makes bad free agent signings. Some teams can absorb a mulligan on a significant signing. Some can even absorb 2. The Yankees can just tear up the score card. Paying $16.5 million to a pitcher with a 10-15 record and an ERA over 5 would shut down a lot of teams for years. For the Yankees, it’s an annoyance.

“You still have to play the games.” or “You can’t buy a championship.”
In the 16 years of 3-division leagues, the Yankees have made the playoffs 15 times. The mini-Yankees up in Boston have made it 9 times. In 8 of the 16 years, the Yankees and Red Sox have both made it to the playoffs, taking up 2 of the 4 playoff spots in their league. Though the playoffs CAN be something of an equalizer when it comes to salaries, the Yankees or Red Sox have won 7 of the last 16 World Series.

Teams that have pulled off upsets to win the World Series haven’t exactly been strapped for cash. I mentioned that just one time in the past 16 years has a team with a payroll in the bottom half of MLB won the World Series. It was the Marlins in 2003, and they ranked 25th. For the other 15 years, the average payroll rank of the team that won the World Series was just above 6th.

So to someone who would say, “You can’t buy a championship,” I would respond, “You actually kind of can.” Or, at the very least, it is more accurate to say that you CAN buy a championship that to stubbornly apply some idealistic “any given Sunday” motif to an entire baseball season and insist that you can’t.

The only question is “What percentage of a championship can be bought?” That is to ask, “In the average year, how much can the World Series champion attribute their success to having more money?” I doubt this could actually be figured out statistically, but if it could, you gotta wonder. Things like injuries, scouting, trades, and “on the field play” (to use a quaint little expression) SEEM like important factors. But money looks strikingly like a trump card that can influence outcome of a season more than luck and scouting ever could.

Aliens think that the Yankees playing the Royals or the A’s is more like the Globetrotters traveling the country and offering to play the local talent that can be assembled from nearby playgrounds. They think it’s like the first Olympic “Dream Team” plowing through the competition, or Hulk Hogan in his prime going up against the latest heal, or heavyweight boxers fighting as featherweights. And the Yankees playing the Royals or the A’s IS more like these things than it is like a reasonable competition where anyone can win “any given season”.

The Yankees don’t want to admit this, because they like to win. The players don’t want to admit this because they want to be able to make money from the Yankees. The commissioner’s office doesn’t want to admit this, because if the players and the Yankees are fine with it, there’s nothing they can do. And the fans are across the spectrum: Some maybe can’t put their finger on it. Some just stop following their favorite team with the kind of zeal that MLB ostensibly would like them to have. Some are fans of the Yankees. Some are fine with the idea that maybe in a few years their team will experience a Marlin-esque run to the World Series.

But aliens? They think it’s kind of a ruse.

More concerns from the aliens are forthcoming, along with the eagerly anticipated post that promises to offer universally loved solutions to all alien problems seen with Major League Baseball.

Again, not this Friday, though. Not all readers of WPFF are sports fans and I try to please all of the people as much as possible. So more not-sport stuff this Friday. Until then…


Addendum: This article showed up today on  Yup.  $200 million can make you look pretty savvy.


  1. This is really good, Rob. I am not a fan of the MLB, probably because I am from Kansas City. This post helps me understand why I am not that interested. And for not being very interested in baseball, I found your thoughts were very intriguing and convincing.

  2. I totally believe that we could collect the data and run a statistical model to provide further evidence that money CAN buy you MLB success. Unless some sports statistican already has....hmmm. I will have to look into this.

  3. Thanks for the words, Peter. It sounds like I inadvertently dug up some painful feelings for you. If you would like to talk more about what's going on, feel free to call me. Or just post more about them here so strangers can help, too.

  4. Domestic Goddess PhD, is it too late to change your dissertation topic?