Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Alien Perspective on Baseball (PART 3)

I wasn't 100% sure of the scheduling of the "Alien Perspective" posts when I wrote the first one a few days ago, but as I'm writing, the format is taking shape.  The first one was 2 Wednesdays ago, and introduced the "Alien Perspective" motif, as well as the aliens' first question: "Why are divisions so numerically uneven?"  Last Wednesday, the series continued with the aliens asking "Why do some teams have a payroll of 4, 5, or even 6 times that of other teams?"

Aliens, it turns out, are both more inquisitive and more verbose than one may have thought.  Thus, they will need more than WPFF's regular calender of posts to express their concerns properly, especially since I have promised them that after they have had their say, I will take the time to offer solutions.  (They, in turn, have promised not to abduct and probe me.)

Today--in my first-ever Tuesday post--I'm going to offer a couple of follow up thoughts to the last question about payrolls, then introduce and consider the aliens' 3rd concern.

First, the follow up thoughts concerning the salary disparity among teams: After the first version of "Alien Perspective on Baseball (PART 2)" went to press, a timely little article on ESPN.com caught my eye.  Buck Showalter, the manager of the Baltimore Orioles, said something a bit snippy about the general manager of the Red Sox, and how easy it is to have that job since you have more money with which to buy players than almost any other team.

No surprise that I agree with Buck, and it's also no surprise that Buck's comments did NOT initiate a ripple effect of enlightenment, with journalists and fans saying, "Hey, wait a minute--he's got a point there."  Most fans and journalists already know about this disparity and are either numb to it or have decided that it is only one small factor (not necessarily the most significant one) of many in determining the success or failure of a team and that it is not worth framing every comment on baseball with "But the money's in New York, Boston, Philly, and a few other places here and there, and that's really going to be the deciding factor for all World Series titles in the foreseeable future."  But that would be funny though if they DID say that!

But I'm not surprised at the lack of reaction.  Buck's comments were too brief and did little to really infuse an alien perspective on the situation.  Bloggers and journalists are the ones who get to have a go at really dissecting the situation for what it is in a way that MIGHT just reveal things for what they are; managers and owners are the ones who get quotes and soundbites.  The former have the time and means for layered analysis; the latter have the headlines and potential for influence.  For something to change, Buck either needs a blog, or the Hungry Preacher needs to become the manager of the Orioles.

What might have gotten more of a stir is if Buck had made it a point to call out everyone who ever said or will say that Crawford's signing was a "good signing."  What makes it good?  Because the Red Sox are a better team for it?  That's not enough.  No, seriously.  Because almost literally EVERY signing immediately makes the team "better".  Has a free agent signing--i.e., the adding of a player without the subtracting of another--EVER made a team immediately WORSE?  Most GM's can at LEAST competently add a player through free agency whose replacement of the 25th best player on the big league roster will improve the overall talent of the team.

So assuming that almost every signing is to some extent "good", what makes Crawford's ESPECIALLY good?

One may suggest Crawford is WAY better than the 25th player on any roster, even the Red Sox.  Doesn't that make the signing especially good?  Short answer: no.  I'm not saying that the player isn't good.  And I'm not saying that the team isn't significantly better for having Crawford--they are, by a lot.  But for the SIGNING per se to be considered "good," there needs to be something else that was overcome by the GM in order for it to have happened.

Here are some circumstances surrounding a free agent signing that would persuade me to categorize a signing as "good":
  • The GM scouted the targeted player and recognized talent--either measurable or subjective--that had been overlooked by other GMs and could more confidently and aggressively target said player based on the GM's particular insight into the talent or potential talent of the player.  Crawford was pretty universally regarded as the best free agent position player on the market, and would get some votes as the best left fielder in baseball.  If Theo has an "eye for talent" in any distinct sense, it was not evident in his pursuit of Crawford.
  • The GM paid less for the player's services than other teams had offered the player, or had correctly anticipated a buyer's market and in so doing was able to pay less than experts or the player himself would have expected.  It seems that Theo offered more money than any other team for Crawford's services.  Not only that, but he appears to have jacked up the entire "going rate" for top tier left fielders, especially given that Matt Holliday had signed for an average of $17 million just the year before.  Crawford, probably about an equally valuable player (though differently skilled than Holliday) will be making more than $20 million a year.
  • The GM had shrewdly maneuvered his finances in anticipation of accommodating the significant contract that he planned to offer.  Perhaps there was some maneuvering.  But since Boston doesn't seem to have either a history of doing that or any apparent need for doing that, that's a hard assumption to make.  When a team has a budget that is at least moderately comparable to that of the majority of other teams in the league, such maneuvering may be necessary and should be commended.  But when there is essentially no opportunity cost for a signing, giving credit for budgeting is silly.
  • The GM's team had a particular need that could be uniquely filled by the signed player.  It's a matter of perspective, I guess.  Before signing Crawford, the Sox had one of the 3 or 4 best starting line ups in baseball.  They had an outfield of Mike Cameron, Jacoby Ellsbury, and J.D. Drew, which could probably be called "very good" as far as ML outfields go.  Now Crawford, being arguably the best LF in baseball, BY DEFINITION improves the outfield no matter who he is bumping (hint: it rhymes with "Tameron").  But was there a particular need among the Red Sox?  Was there a gaping hole?  I'm not seeing one, myself.
  • The GM had to persuade the player to overlook certain negative intangibles to join his team.  If a team lacked a winning track record, or a loyal fan base, or the resources to improve in upcoming years--those would all be factors that may cause one to tip their cap to the GM's power of persuasion.  None of those issues seemed to be in play with Theo's signing of Crawford.  Of course, maybe Crawford is a warm weather guy and really likes newer stadiums--I'm not privy to that sort of information--and maybe Theo had to really, REALLY get Crawford to overlook those things and focus instead on the most lucrative annual salary for a left fielder in baseball history.  Maybe THAT'S what people are saying when they say "Crawford was a good signing."
Methinks not.  So the question is this: "Is paying the highest annual salary that has ever been paid to a left fielder who is regarded as the best available free agent when you have virtually no budget constraints, no gaping need, and numerous appealing intangibles to sweeten the deal a 'good signing'?  Uh, kind of, I guess.

But "good signing"--to me, at least--carries some connotation of variables being addressed in a way that they may not have been had certain proactive savviness NOT been exercised in the right way and at the right time.  Since the Sox have virtually no external competition and no internal restraints when it comes to offering big money to the best players, the signing may as well be judged as though it took place in a vacuum, as though Crawford's agent called up and said, "Hey, do you want the best left fielder in baseball to play for your team?"  What's Theo going to say?  "Yes!" of course.  Any other GM would say, "Yes--what's the catch?"  Of course, the "catch" for almost any other team would end up being a deal breaker--$142 million has that effect on most teams.  For Theo, it's barely a "catch" at all.  It's a no brainer.

But I promised that the aliens would also break new ground today with their questions, and they've got a doozie.  It'll be a short one that won't need much elaboration, but the aliens are certainly confused by this issue.  Their next question, then, is:

"Why do baseball players get to chew tobacco while they're playing?"
I have an old friend whose grandpa was a chain smoker when her little sister was born prematurely with significant health problems.  My friend's parents told her grandpa that he could not see her in any situation where smoke from his habit may contaminate the air--even a little--that this fragile baby girl would be breathing.  My friend's grandpa quit on the spot.  Never smoked again.  He realized that the benefits he received from his habit were not worth what he would have to pay, namely unhindered opportunities to see his granddaughter.

There are a lot of differences between that story and what baseball players do.  But the comparison is this: Couldn't baseball players be told--or even (gasp!) take it upon themselves through their union--to similarly say, "Hey, we're doing something that some children see, imitate, and eventually die from.  That's not worth the benefits we get from doing it."  Aliens think it's that cut-and-dried.

But no one forces children who watch ballplayers chew become teenagers and adults who chew.  Yeah, yeah, aliens get that.  But they also think is bizarre to pretend that hero-influence can be so inconsistently recognized as a real force .  Any ballplayer who downplays the influence they exercise on their fans is probably referring to very fans who fork over $85 to wear MLB replica jerseys of them.  Yes, ballplayers, you influence people to the extent that they proudly wear your shirts, pretending to be just like you--or, if they're still young enough, actually HOPING to someday be just like you.  You think at least of a few of them are gonna try some chaw in large part because they saw you do it?  Or would you like to continue to milk the positive influence of your position while denying the existence of (or your ability to stem the tide of) the negative influence of what you do WHILE YOU ARE SIMULTANEOUSLY ENTERTAINING CHILDREN?  It's OK--your silence is your answer.

It's unhealthy.  It's unsanitary.  It's addictive.  It's influential.  Its closest comparable behavior is smoking a cigarette--anyone think THAT'S a good idea to do while playing baseball in front of children?  And it's done brazenly in front of thousands upon thousands of impressionable children who want to be just like them.

It would be one thing if ballplayers had no opportunity to solicit accountability for their addictions.  If ballplayers were told just to have more willpower because this is important--I can see how that would be tough.  But the players--addicts or friends-of-addicts--theoretically COULD ask their union to outlaw chewing while playing.  You know, for longer life-spans and that sort of thing.

Or, the union could decide that chewing is a right in the CBA, and one that would not be given up without some concession from the owners.  Giving up a right like that without some offsetting concession from the owners would be the beginning of a slippery slope to...  uh, I can't even think of something.  Where's the MLBPA president when you need him?  Owners, of course, would never pick tobacco as the hill to die on in any CBA negotiation, since the deaths of the players from tobacco will happen only AFTER the players are no longer in their employ.

So players continue to chew because it has always been that way.  "It has always been that way" is nonsense to aliens taking in the status quo of all things pertaining to MLB.  And players chewing tobacco while entertaining children is one of the most non-sensical things that they see.


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