Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Alien Perspective on Baseball (PART 4)

The aliens are on a roll, and resistance is futile.  And they are truly feeling like they have been heard, and are grateful that so many earthlings have considered their perspective (I told them that that each page view on the stats page represents one million views.  Tee-hee!)

So far, they have asked:
"Why are divisions so numerically unbalanced?"
"Why do some teams have a payroll that is 4, 5, or even 6 times that of other teams?"
"Why do baseball players get to chew tobacco while they're playing?"

Today, they are wondering:
Why are Americans discriminated against in the MLB draft?

This is a little embarrassing--aliens don't know how strong the phrasing of that question comes across.  They also don't realize it's a little awkward to suggest that Americans are discriminated against in any sort of "worldwide context," especially since the people for whom the present MLB draft arrangement most benefits may or may not have things like baseball gloves made out of actual leather or even running water.

Also, they don't realize that it's also Canadians and Puerto Ricans who are being discriminated against, but that's just a detail.

Here's what they see (this is a shorthand summary sans a lot of details not crucial to their concern): Each year, MLB teams get to draft players from college or high school.  The teams draft according to their record the previous year, with the worst team drafting first.  Once a player is drafted by a team, that team has exclusive rights to try to sign that player to a contract.  Some players are just happy to get drafted and sign right away for whatever the team is offering.  Other players have more leverage and can use that leverage for driving up the price to sign with the team that drafted them.  For example, a player drafted out of high school can say, "If you don't pay me enough, I'll just go to college and play for a couple of years then get drafted again later."  One piece of leverage that a drafted player does NOT have is the threat of signing with another team--not until after next year's draft, and then the process starts all over again.

There are a few criteria that must be met for a player to be drafted, one of which is that the player must live in the United States, Canada, or Puerto Rico.

But many players in the major leagues are not from any of those countries.  How ever did THEY get signed?

It went something like this: All the scouts and GM-types for all the teams sat in a nice room and took turns drafting, in an orderly, civil manner all of the draft-eligible players that they cared to.  Then, after the draft, the commissioner lined all of those folks up on the the border of the United States and said "On your mark!  Get set!  Go!"  Then it was something like "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," with the prize being big league prospects instead of a treasure buried under a "big W".  Good luck, everyone!

The focus of this comparison isn't the synchronized start of it all (some teams have been out "Searching for [baseball's] Bobby Fisher" since before other teams were even born).  The similarity is the relative disorganization of it all and--more significantly--the fact that any ballplayer outside of the U.S. is automatically a free agent, no service time or draft eligibility required.

All for being born outside of the U.S.

Now I'm actually basically OK with kids who can play baseball well but have never had running water in their houses having millions of dollars dumped on them by Americans.  Good for them.  And the aliens aren't TOO concerned about the players who are "discovered" by diligent, hard-working, lead-following scouts hired by particular teams and who--based on that single connection with the team of that scout--sign a fair or even lucrative contract before other teams can swoop in and jack up the bidding, mooching off the hard work of others.  In that regard, the system rewards teams who employ the best scouts, and rewards players for being good with contracts that are probably comparable to those that would have been signed had the player been drafted instead of "found."

The problem arises when players are too good and too well known to feel any sort of need to negotiate solely with the team that discovered them.  These players may have impressed the world in international competitions or may be able to throw a baseball 100 mph (word gets around about that sort of thing).  These players are then able to market their free agent status and create bidding wars, just like regular-old American free agents, but without having to go through all that pesky draft business.

Thus, international free agent movement tends to look a lot like American free agent movement: the best players go to the teams with the most money.  Furthermore, deep-pocketed teams have an advantage in searching for unknown prospects as well, since scouting across borders takes both and eye-for-talent AND money.

So the end result is that last place teams drafting first MAY get to add the best amateur player to their team, if he happens to be American (and seems signable).  But for all intents and purposes, teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, et al, are given an extra top-ten pick in the draft EVERY YEAR, because probably 3-5 of the top 10 players signed each year don't happen to be American.  Incidentally, this also makes it less painful for teams like the Yankees to forfeit their first round picks for signing top free agents from other teams (as per CBA rules).  "Hey, that's cool.  You can have my 27th pick--we'll be signing a couple of top 20 prospects anyway because they happen to be international free agents."

As an added bonus, big market teams get to spin these guys as "home grown talent", proving that their scouts are as good as any one else's.

The draft is supposed to help bad teams get better, and it can.  But it was developed when it was the primary (by a large margin) way of acquiring amateur talent to improve your team's chance of on-the-field success.  Now, the draft is just one way of acquiring that talent.  Now, "the opportunity to acquire amateur talent" is--when taken as a whole, virtually unweighted towards teams with a bad records.  Benefits of drafting high are on par with benefits of having cash, and teams like the Pirates and Royals are no more likely than the Yankees or Mets to acquire the top amateur players each year.

And tilting the acquisition of amateur talent towards the teams most in need of it has become an alien way of thinking.

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