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November 6, 2013
The Stupidest Part of Baseball
The most common (and my favorite) type of question that we get for our Effectively Wild email shows goes something like this:
What if Major League Baseball made a rule that the first hit by pitch of a game counted as a home run, but every hit by pitch after that counted as an out? Would teams (long list of hypothetical ramifications are pondered, with request for Ben and I to ponder further)?
I made that one up, but it’s representative. What if there were no outfield fences? What if baseball’s bases suddenly ran clockwise? What if you could put on full body armor and stand five feet in front of the batter? What if, instead of nine innings, the home team got to choose how many runs the game would go to? What if there were no rain delays; they just played through no matter what? What if teams alternated offense and defense only once, nine innings of offense followed by nine innings of defense? What if fans got their money back when the home team lost? What if baseball was played on ice?
These are great because, even though they’re mostly unrealistic and absurd, we get to talk about them from scratch, and to really think about why baseball is played the way it is and what’s truly entertaining, fair, or durable about it.
There are actual practices in baseball that are every bit as outlandish as the hypotheticals we get asked about. Some of them make almost no sense beyond the fact that they’re grandfathered in. Some of them should really be thought about, from scratch, and eliminated. They actually did play baseball on ice, you know. Then they stopped, because it was stupid.
Draft pick compensation is just the stupidest thing.
Let’s approach draft pick compensation like you would if somebody suggested it out of the blue, into a non-compensation system. If you were really wise, you’d spot three parties that are affected, in three different ways:
1. Teams that sign the best players would be taxed
If you determined that these were three goals you actually had for your baseball league, then you would be encouraged. But these are not actually the goals of the compensation system. (Note: Two-thirds of the consequences of this system are taxes. It might be more accurately labeled the free agent tax system.)
1. Teams that sign the best players are not taxed. Only teams that sign a particularly defined subset of the best players are taxed. Some team will sign Matt Garza, and not be taxed, because Garza was traded in mid-season. There is no tax unless the player is leaving a team with whom he began the previous year. But none of that—the mid-season trade—has anything to do with the team that signs Garza, so we can conclude that the system does not actually want to tax the signing team. If it did, it would tax Garza’s new team. Because it doesn’t, this is an unintended consequence of the system.
2. Players that leave one team for another are not taxed. Andres Torres can change teams without getting taxed. Mark Ellis can change teams without getting taxed. Hundreds of players can. There are only 13 players who can’t change teams without getting taxed. Now, we might say that the rule specifically wants to tax the very best players who switch teams, except this isn’t true, either. Bronson Arroyo doesn’t get taxed not because he’s worse than Kendrys Morales, but because his team was unable to afford him while Morales’ team decided it could afford him (or decided that Morales, and his agent, were unlikely to accept the offer). If compensation were connected to the players who actually got paid the most over the offseason, you could sort of accept it. But that’s not how it works; instead, we use a strange sorting mechanism—a totally unnatural one-year contract offer that rich teams can extend without blinking but poor teams can’t—and we make teams measure the risk that it will be accepted. The qualifying offer system doesn’t sort the best players; it basically makes teams do a little IQ-test puzzle to decide whether the risk and reward are worthwhile.
Further: The system actually benefits players who switch teams—all the players who aren’t in the 13. The compensation system, as it is now, is a league-sanctioned rebate to players (like Bronson Arroyo, Jason Vargas, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Omar Infante, Mark Ellis, Andres Torres, etc.) who switch teams without dragging compensation requirements with them.
Long paragraph short: the system does not actually show interest in keeping players on their original teams. There are maybe two players in this year’s free agent market who are likely to stay with their original teams because of this system. Of the two, maybe one is actually homegrown.
3. Teams that lose their compensation do get compensated. This one works! Sort of, only.
If the goal is to compensate teams regardless of the size of their loss, then a) lol what, that doesn’t make any sense, and b) we move on to asking why teams get compensated at all. Teams don’t get compensation if their player is injured. Teams don’t get compensation if their player is suspended a year for PEDs. Teams don’t get compensation if their player retires. That last one is particularly apt for a comparison: We’ve already concluded that the system (by indication of its own actions) doesn't want to tax teams that sign players, or tax players that sign. If the goal, then, remains compensating teams for their losses, then why do the Yankees get nothing for losing Mariano Rivera? Why would the Pirates (had they offered A.J. Burnett a qualifying offer) get compensation should he sign with Baltimore but not get compensation should he simply walk away? The effect is the same for the Pirates. Presumably, then, the system doesn’t actually care about compensating the team that loses the player, either.
(Nor should it. It makes sense to compensate a team that loses an asset it actually owns. If the Dodgers had somehow signed Robinson Cano away from the Yankees in July, the Yankees would rightfully be aggrieved and demand restitution. But their contract with Cano is up. He is not part of their portfolio. “Losing” a player whose contract has expired is not a loss, any more than you “lose” your home to somebody else when you check out of a hotel room. This seems like a suspiciously obvious point, which makes me nervous.)
Further, if the point of the system is to keep players on their original team—by giving teams a disincentive to sign another team’s players—then why give teams an incentive to not sign their own? The incentive should reward the team that keeps its players. If that’s what the point of the system is, at least.
And while an admirable ambition of such a system might be to preserve competitive balance by rewarding small-market teams, you don’t need me to point out that this doesn’t come close to working. Expensive free agents tend to come from rich teams. And rich teams have the financial might to make more qualifying offers.
So the system doesn’t seem to care about compensating teams, or taxing other teams, or taxing players. Those are just consequences. What the system does care about is limiting players’ ability to move around. It doesn’t do that particularly well, impacting a small handful of players at most. But that’s what it’s for. That’s what it’s always been for. The league has tried various schemes in the past to do this, each dumber than the next. They tried to limit how many teams could actually negotiate with free agents. They allowed a player strike over compensation for free agents. Remember the free agent compensation draft? In the early-to-mid-80s, teams got to protect a certain number of players in their organization. The rest went into a pool. When a team lost a top free agent, it got to draft a player from that pool. Not from the signing team, mind you; from any player from any team in the pool. What a stupid, stupid idea, peaking in stupidity when the A’s (having lost a pitcher to the Orioles) got to steal the no. 1 overall pick, Tim Belcher, from the Yankees because he was drafted too late to be protected from the compensation draft.
Which, fine. Owners were worried about free agency. They thought it would bankrupt some of them. They thought it might bankrupt all of them. Nobody knew what free agency’s effects were going to be on competitive balance and the league’s finances, and so owners took steps to limit the impact. Now we do know free agency’s effects on competitive balance and the league’s finances. We all survived! We actually all like free agency, I daresay. It turns the four dark months of winter into an extended party. It gives last-place teams a chance to spend smartly and win the World Series. If it hurts competitive balance—which seems probable, but which I wouldn’t concede—the effect on the league seems to be relatively small. Why, without free agency, the Mariners might have been stuck with Alex Rodriguez all these years; imagine the horror, Seattle. Imagine.
The hypotheticals we get asked on the show often come down to one question: What really is the role of the league? The answer, more often than not, is to get out of the way. The league had a respectable reason to engineer a “fix” to free agency 35 years ago. That fix turned out not to be necessary, and the engineering was sloppy. It’s the stupidest part of baseball, and somebody should feel bad about imposing it on us.