August 25, 2004
Lies, Damned Lies
The Tiger Plan
As it happens, there's a pretty interesting story taking place in Detroit this summer that could have profound implications for the way that struggling teams go about their rebuilding process. For a long time, the Prospectus party line has been that it is folly for a team to devote substantial resources to veteran players when it has little or no chance of reaching the playoffs. What difference does it really make, we like to say, whether a team wins 74 games or 67?
Apparently, it makes quite a bit of difference. Take a look at the Tigers' attendance figures over the past four seasons:
2001 24,016 per game
That's a 49% jump in attendance from last season to this one; in fact the Tigers are well ahead of their turnstile pace from 2001, just their second season in Comerica Park. Although clubs throughout baseball are having a fantastic year at the gate, the only teams that approach the Tigers' improvement are the Padres (48.9% jump in attendance) and the Phillies (42.3%). Both of those teams opened new ballparks. It is reasonable to estimate that the Tigers will make something like $15 million more this season than last from the boost in home attendance alone.
The idea that fans need to see a 'meaningful' baseball game (e.g., one that has a direct impact on the playoff race) in order to bother showing up at the park is incomplete at best. Certainly, being in a pennant race assists with walk-up sales, especially in September when the weather turns worse and the kids go back to school. But first and foremost, fans to want to see a competitive baseball game that the home team has a reasonable chance of winning.
Furthermore, more so than most other types of purchases, the decision about whether to buy baseball tickets is a political one. Though baseball teams are privately owned, they are still conceived of by most fans as a sort of quasi-public trust, a position that is probably enhanced by the growing number of municipalities in which fans have financed new stadium construction out of their own pockets. Purchasing tickets for the benefit of an ownership that is not perceived to be upholding that trust is tantamount to voting for a mayor who has used city funds to purchase his own LearJet, or a garbage commissioner who lets the trash rot on the sidewalk. If fans are truly offended--as they have been, for example, on the South Side of Chicago ever since Jerry Reinsdorf took a hard line position during the 1994 labor wars--they may penalize the offending owner for years at a time, even if he puts a quality product on the field.
We need to be careful, therefore, about belittling general managers for the practice of making 'token' off-season acquisitions for the purpose of appearing to build a championship baseball club. Ignoring for a moment the fact that the line between appearing to be competitive and actually being competitive is pretty thin in a division like the AL Central (if the Tigers had played up to their Pythagorean record they'd still be in the thick of the division race), it's worth remembering that appearances do matter. For teams that rely heavily on season ticket and advanced sales, fans' perceptions of how the team is going to fare may be far more important than the reality of it. For those teams without substantial season ticket bases, the marketing department needs to be given enough to work with to tell a good story.
The follow-up question, then, is whether taking baby steps forward in one season helps a team to make bigger steps forward in following ones. Obviously, if you look at a table of Really Bad Teams, and observe how they perform in the season following their Really Bad Year, those that demonstrate substantial improvement will be more likely to perform well going forward than those whose performance remained stagnant. That's a simple function of the fact that a team retains many of its players from season to season; if the improvement is brought about, for example, by the emergence of a couple of quality rookies, those guys are going to be around to help in the future too. But I'm talking about something a little bit more subtle. Suppose that you take two ballclubs:
Team A fields a team full of Triple-A veterans, all signed for one-year contracts at the league minimum, and wins 55 games.
Notice that, since none of the contracts last beyond the season, the teams head into the winter with identical rosters. I think it is nevertheless reasonable to conclude that the second team is better positioned for the future. It will, in all likelihood, start the season with better season-ticket sales, and if they negotiate on a year-to-year basis, more favorable local television and radio deals. It will probably have an easier time attracting premium free agents. It will very probably have an ownership group that is more tolerant of the different options that the general manager might want to pursue. I believe, in short, that there is a 'momentum' of sorts that carries over from season to season, above and beyond the actual quality of a team's personnel.
(This would normally be the point at which I inserted a table of some sort or another in an attempt to prove my point. That won't work here because (i) there are not all that many teams that have been in the Tigers' position in the free agency era; (ii) there is no good variable for 'making an effort'; (iii) there are so many other factors that affect the fate of a baseball team that it is hard to isolate one factor from another. So for the time being, you'll have to accept my contention based on its naked logic alone; in a couple of years' time, the Tigers should make for an interesting case study).
This ought not to be taken to mean that I think the Devil Rays had it right all along when they signed Wade Boggs and Vinny Castilla and company. Overpaying for washed-up talent is a horrible strategy whatever a team's strategic milieu. However, I do think that a bad team can potentially benefit from signing two classes of free agents, even if these signings do not provide it with a material likelihood of reaching the post-season in the year upcoming.
First, a team may benefit from signing 'average' players that can be acquired reasonably cheaply and do not block a good in-house option. A club needs to pick its spots carefully--the Tigers hit with Rondell White but missed (badly) with Fernando Vina. Nevertheless, there is something to be said for keeping fan morale intact by avoiding fielding an entire team's worth of replacement-level players. Replacement-level players have their uses in a lineup that contains some bright spots; nobody ever suggested that good strategy involves maintaining an entire roster's worth of them. Second, if a team can persuade a legitimately good player to join its ranks, like Ivan Rodriguez, it ought to seriously consider it, as the acquisition is likely to pay immediate dividends at the box office.
It is my hope that, in a year's time, the Tigers will be making some real news, and the women's 80 kg judo final will be back at the YMCA where it belongs.