Money still buys success, but the league's payroll disparities appear to be shrinking. This is good.
Baseball fans are, I believe, somewhat self-conscious about the sport. Maybe that’s true of fans of every sport, but I don’t know about other sports, and I do know that when something monumental happens in one of those other sports, baseball fans are quick to use it to illustrate why baseball is (supposedly) supreme.
Something monumental happened in basketball last week, when Kevin Durant announced he was signing with the Golden State Warriors. This is a big deal, because the Golden State Warriors were extremely good this past year, winning the most regular season games ever and coming one game short of the championship, and because Kevin Durant is also extremely good, apparently one of the top three or so players in the game. This leads to a team that, on paper, is extremely, extremely good. (I don’t know anything about basketball.)
Basketball free agency is really different from baseball free agency, since basketball teams are limited in how much they can offer any single player. A number of teams made “max offers” to Durant, and tried to differentiate themselves from the others with various creative pitches. The Celtics crossed sports, and brought Tom Brady, a football player, to their meeting with Durant. He eventually chose the team that was staffed by tons of other incredibly talented players in the Warriors, whose pitch was probably something like “we win a lot already, and will win even more with you, and winning is super fun.” Good pitch!
We don’t have that kind of thing in baseball, with no caps on the salaries an individual player can make. Soft factors might still come into play sometimes—there were reports that some of the players the Cubs signed this offseason did so to play for Joe Maddon, and to try to break the Cubs’ championship drought—but teams can always offer more money, and that’s usually what drives the decision. So when Durant signed with the Warriors, in the baseball-centric milieu I reside in, I saw a lot of praising of baseball’s more egalitarian set-up. Players get paid, and while there’s a much larger gap between baseball’s rich and poor teams than basketball’s, the prevailing wisdom is that baseball is actually more fair. Poor teams can still win, and the elite players don’t flock together to form “super-teams” that might threaten the competitive integrity of the league.
That’s not exactly wrong, but it certainly leaves a lot out. Baseball might have a reputation for fairness, but its mostly due to the isolated successes of a few low-spending teams. It’s true, poor teams can succeed: from 2001 to 2015, about 25 percent of teams with the lowest, second-lowest, or third-lowest payroll in the league won 85 games or more, and about 15 percent won 90 games or more. The 2001 Athletics won 102 games, and had a payroll just slightly more than half of league average, the 29th lowest in the league that year. The 2008 Rays won 97 games with the 28th-lowest payroll, also about half of league average. Last year’s Pirates won 98 with the 24th-lowest payroll, at 72 percent of league average. It is clearly possible for poor teams to win. But I’d argue that for a league to be “fair,” it also has to be possible for the rich teams to lose, and that hasn’t really been the case in major-league baseball.
If an owner is willing to spend enough, he or she can basically guarantee a successful team. Over that same period, 2001–2015, there have been 14 teams with payrolls more than double the league average: the Yankees, every season from 2003–2013, and the Dodgers, from 2013–2015. They averaged a cool 95 wins each season, and broke the 100-win threshold three times. These super-rich teams win 100 games at nearly the same rate the teams with the three lowest salaries win 85 games. They never won fewer than 85 games, and only won less than 89 once.
The Pirates' struggles this year might have more to do with the entire rest of the league than Pittsburgh's pitchers themselves.
Francisco Liriano has been a Pittsburgh Pirates success story. Signed as a free agent for $1 million after compiling a 5.34 ERA, 4.29 FIP, and 4.02 DRA in 156 2/3 innings split between the Twins and White Sox in 2012, he became a hero in Travis Sawchik’s book about the 2013 Pirates and their embrace of analytics, Big Data Baseball. In Liriano’s case, the approach was to junk his four-seam fastball, focus on his sinking two-seam fastball, and generate a lot of groundballs for shifted Pirates infielders to gobble up. The success of this strategy was evident through last year:
Practice, practice, practice really might get you to Carnegie Hall, but probably not. What then?
While it’s rightly fallen out of the zeitgeist after this week’s traumatic and violent events, it was just last week that Major League Baseball attempted an end-around on the salary question for minor league players. Baseball Prospectus’ excellent Kate Morrison did a thorough savaging of MLB’s press release supporting the “Save America’s Pastime Act” and Samuel Mann has worked up a comprehensive account of the legal ramifications of the death of said bill, so I’m going to let those two articles deservedly do the heavy lifting on the topic in general. What I want to focus on in particular is one specific logical turn in the release that caused much of the anger we saw on Twitter and elsewhere, namely the designation of minor-league baseball player as “not a career, but a seasonal apprenticeship.” Essentially, I want to delve into the rhetorical and theoretical magic that allows MLB to transform 7,500 professional baseball players into 7,500 interns.
As Morrison notes in her piece and as I’ll echo off the top, this transformation is magic not in the “witchcraft and wizardry” sense, but in the “smoke and mirrors” sense. Seasonal apprenticeships rarely last 6-14 years, Morrison reminds us, and the rhetoric all over the MLB and MiLB websites is such that we’re encouraged to see these players as professionals, not amateur talent. And yet, there’s a bit of a semiotic dilemma for us now that MLB—essentially God in this scenario, thanks to some very generous antitrust loopholes—has spoken and redefined its employees. Make whatever argument you’d like about what players should be called or paid, ultimately MLB has a far bigger say here, so the rhetorical move is simply a blunt force object: We say they’re seasonal apprentices, so that’s what they are.
But what are the theoretical underpinnings that license the force of this shift? Why are professionals so much different than seasonal apprentices or interns? Ostensibly, shouldn’t an apprentice or an intern be aiming to get the same job as a professional? Isn’t the former just a step on the path to the latter as opposed to two entirely separate categories? Well, yes and no.
In order to understand how baseball can have it both ways—how MLB can have a hold on its minor-league employees as if they were full-time workers while also designating them as a much less fully employed category—we need to delve a bit into the concept of human capital. Human capital, which has had a bit of a brand resurgence thanks to Deray McKesson’s appointment as Interim Chief Human Capital Officer of Baltimore City Schools, is the idea that self-improvement is the great equalizer under capitalism. And it’s essentially been the prime mover of modern capitalism from at least 1978 to the present. Coined by University of Chicago economist Gary Becker, human capital reimagines the “means of production” so important for Adam Smith and Karl Marx’s conception of capital accumulation as part of an internal drive to self-improvement. So, one need not seize the means of production because—to paraphrase any number of famous moments in shlocky cinema—the means of production were inside you the whole time. Which also means that the product is, well, you.
Think about it this way: Within you is a bit of a factory, and that factory builds you a job. The bits of the factory that work to build you that job are all limited by what you’re given at birth. Maybe you’re smart but not very athletic. Maybe you’re smart and athletic, but you have a tough time relating to other people. Maybe you’re a totally balanced person with no real “standout” biological skill. You get the idea. From there, you build on this foundation by going to school, learning a trade, starting a hobby, writing a book—whatever you think will improve you as a person. And as you improve yourself immanently as person, you are also improving your hireability on the market, since the market wants people who have certain skills, qualities, and abilities. Essentially, your factory puts out what it gets in, and as you issue more effort toward building your human capital, the more profit it will realize for you.
Well, it’s a nice story anyway. Unfortunately, as many people—your fair author included—will tell you, merely improving yourself doesn’t always open up employment opportunities. Sometimes your PhD or your new skill or your ability to hit or throw a ball extremely hard gets you nothing in a highly competitive marketplace. None of this stops human capital from being a powerful ideological tool to convince people that outside education and self-improvement are more efficacious than a good union or worker protections, and I don’t totally blame people who buy into it. It’s very seductive to think that life is like a Super Nintendo RPG, where you can level up through hard, repetitive work until you get the best possible job you can. It’s why Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours-to-expertise theories are so popular, and why our schools insist children “learn” critical thinking, as if it’s a rubric point to check off. We want to live in a world where our best efforts yield consistent material results.
Let's spend some time looking slack-jawed at Chris Young's season.
Chris Young has always been an oddity. For one thing he’s an Ivy Leaguer in the major leagues. He’s also 6-foot-10, but Young was never a power pitcher and his average fastball hasn’t topped 89 mph in a decade. Not particularly durable and frequently on the disabled list, he’s nonetheless managed to pitch 12 seasons in the big leagues and is currently signed to a multi-year contract at age 37. For that entire career he’s been baseball’s most extreme flyball pitcher, posting an absurdly low groundball rate of 26 percent, yet Young’s homer rate is barely worse than average and his rate of homers per fly ball is one of the lowest around.
Or at least it was, until this season.
After more than a decade of mostly successfully walking a very thin line as a soft-tossing extreme flyball pitcher, Young has seen those soft-tossed flyballs leave the ballpark at an alarming rate. In his most recent start Tuesday night Young allowed four homers in 2 1/3 innings against the Blue Jays, which is only tied for his second-most homers allowed this year. He also surrendered four homers to the Indians on June 5 and served up five homers to the Yankees on May 9. Combined in those three starts Young allowed 13 homers in 9 2/3 innings. This year 25 pitchers have thrown at least 100 innings while allowing 13 or fewer homers. Last season Jake Arrieta allowed a total of 10 homers in his Cy Young-winning campaign, during which he logged 229 innings.
The introduction last week of a bill to exempt minor leaguers from overtime and minimum-wage standards didn't come out of nowhere. A look at what's at stake in Senne v. Office of the Commissioner of Baseball this week.
With its co-sponsor no longer in support, it is safe to assume the bill is dead. But given that this proposed legislation was largely a response to a series of lawsuits against MLB under federal law, it is worthwhile to examine the litigation challenging MLB’s wage practices.
While Senne v. Office of the Commissioner of Baseball is the most significant pending litigation, it is not the only one challenging Minor League Baseball’s (“MiLB”) wage practices. [Note that MLB and MiLB are used interchangeably here because individual teams select, employ and release minor-league players with no input from MiLB affiliates]. In Miranda v. Selig, former minor-league players challenged the MiLB compensation system on the basis of federal antitrust law, alleging MLB and its 30 organizations unlawfully collude to artificially restrain player movement and depress minor-league salaries through the use of the minor-league version of the reserve clause, which provides the organization up to seven minor-league seasons of control before the player would become a minor-league free agent. The origin, wisdom and consequences of MLB’s vaunted antitrust exemption have been covered in great depth, but it has continued to be fairly effective in defeating suits like this one. Consistent with the exemption, a federal district court in California granted MLB’s motion to dismiss, ruling that the antitrust exemption precluded any challenge to the MiLB reserve clause on antitrust grounds. The Miranda plaintiffs have appealed the case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, where it is awaiting oral argument before an appellate panel. Barring a surprise reversal from the Ninth Circuit that directly contradicts both Supreme Court precedent and its own decision in the City of San Jose/A’s relocation case, MLB should be safe from antitrust scrutiny on this issue.
Enter the Plaintiffs in Senne, who challenged the same underlying conduct but avoided the antitrust exemption. Led in part by former minor leaguer turned attorney (and Effectively Wild guest) Garrett Broshuis, the purported plaintiff class of minor leaguers alleged violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) and a series of similar state laws concerning minimum wage and overtime pay. Having mostly survived motions to dismiss and a motion to transfer the case to Florida (eight teams were dismissed on jurisdictional grounds), the Plaintiffs successfully moved for preliminary class certification under the FLSA.
FLSA representative actions like this one differ from other federal class actions; in fact, courts generally refer to them as “collective actions” in order to distinguish the more widely used federal standard. Under the process laid out in the FLSA, an employee may bring a lawsuit on behalf of “similarly situated” employees, a less stringent standard than required by the federal class standard. This more lenient standard is intended to be more favorable to the employee, at least at the initial stages of a case. If granted, preliminary certification allows the plaintiffs to provide notice to other potential members of the collective action. Those potential members then must “opt in” by filing written consent to benefit from a judgment in the litigation. Once discovery is completed and the facts are before the court, defendants are permitted to ask the court to decertify the proposed action whereby the court will decide whether to permit the claims to be tried as a collective action.
The court granted preliminary certification of the collective on October 20, 2015. The court found that Plaintiffs succeeded in identifying uniform policies and provisions described in the Uniform Player Contract in connection with the alleged violations, including no pay for offseason work, fixed pay without regard to whether players worked more than 40 hours in season, and fixed wages in-season without regard to number of hours worked for minimum-wage purposes. Notably, the court did not reject any of MLB’s principal defenses, including that the FLSA either does not apply to minor leaguers or, even if it does apply, minor leaguers meet criteria for certain statutory exemptions for seasonal and entertainment employees or creative professionals. Instead, the court simply disagreed with MLB on whether the Plaintiffs are similarly situated to other minor league players based on their allegations. Thus, this was not a determination of whether MLB has violated the law, but rather simply that the Plaintiffs met their threshold showing.
Imagining an All-Star game that was For The Win, not for the special interest groups (and fans).
Baseball would like you to care about the outcome of its midsummer All-Star game, because watching baseball that doesn’t count is like eating food by going “numnumnum” while pretending to stuff your face with the Play-Doh hot dog that a child handed to you. The obstacle to this is the way the game is, by tradition, played: Not remotely in the style of a team interested in winning.
So the premise of this article is to imagine a fantastical world where This Time It Really Actually Counts, i.e. the losing manager gets dropped off a pier. Rian Watt will be managing the NL team; I, Sam Miller, will be managing the AL team. (Meg Rowley will pass judgment on us both at the bottom.) There are no rules or limitations imposed on us, except a) those of baseball at large (e.g. no spitballs, no axe attacks), b) common sense pragmatism (e.g. no threatening to drop your players off a pier as motivational tactic), and c) every major-league team must be represented by at least one player on the roster. Everything else is the manager’s call. Here are our strategies, which were written with no knowledge of the other manager’s strategies—and, because of the demands of our publication schedule, no knowledge of Clayton Kershaw's disabledness.
Three months ago it looked like the Orioles' off-season signing was a failure before it even had a chance to fail. Not so much now.
One of several prominent Korean hitters to make the jump to America this offseason, outfielder Hyun-Soo Kim signed a two-year, $7 million contract with the Orioles after a decade spent hitting .320 for the Doosan Bears of the Korean Baseball Organization. Kim was coming off a monster KBO season, batting .326/.438/.541 with 28 homers in 141 games. He drew 101 walks compared to just 63 strikeouts, hit above .300 for the seventh time in eight seasons, and capped his Korean career by winning a championship at age 28. While not generally viewed as having star potential in the big leagues, Kim seemed like a solid, low-cost pickup for the Orioles. PECOTA projected him for 1.3 WARP in 540 plate appearances, which is decent-regular territory.
And then spring training happened.
Kim went hitless in his first 23 at-bats and by the time he finally started hitting a little bit near the end of camp the Orioles had all but decided he wasn’t going to make the roster. He finished the spring with a .178 batting average, but when the Orioles attempted to send Kim to the minors he refused the assignment citing a clause in the guaranteed, multi-year contract that both sides had agreed to just a few months prior. Rather than releasing Kim and eating the entire $7 million, the Orioles begrudgingly gave him a spot on the Opening Day roster while publicly discussing their displeasure with the team’s hand being forced and then glued him to the bench in what became an awkward, tense situation.
Professionalism isn't something to pick and choose, though some might have you believe that.
Guilder Rodriguez played 14 years in organized baseball, and seven games in the major leagues. Nick Williams was just publicly humiliated by his manager for not showing whatever arbitrary amount of hustle was needed on an obvious out in a hum-drum game. The Frisco RoughRiders finished up a baseball game close to 11:00 PM CT, boarded a charter bus, and arrived in Midland, TX at 5:00 AM to play a game at 2:00 PM that afternoon.
Major League Baseball would have you believe that these are all well and good things for players who are, according to them, not actually “professionals,” but instead seasonal apprentices or interns, per their press release supporting the abomination that is H.B. 5580.
Let’s take a look at that press release, why don’t we? Nothing is more fun than breaking a piece of what one would assume is carefully constructed communication down line by line.
A world of research and development has been put into the very problems and questions that baseball clubs face. Applying instructional design to player development.
With draft day in the rear view, perhaps this is as good a time as any to talk about player development and how those newly-drafted players might refine those myriad skills that make up professional baseball performance. After all, the biggest mystery in the sport is how some players find success while others don’t, despite having similar body types, backgrounds, and amateur performance numbers.
How does Matt Shoemaker find success after years of toiling away in the minors? How does Zack Cozart start hitting for power all of a sudden? How does a first-overall draft pick like Delmon Young never figure out how to have an approach that matches his physical tools? Why does Matt Carpenter succeed where Zack Cox fails? And most of all: Why is it these particular guys?
It’s a big question that requires more time and intelligence than I have. But it all boils down to baseball’s last great black box: player development. The goal of player development—ultra-simplified—is to turn raw human resources into valuable big-league production. PD departments do that by augmenting or creating knowledge, skills, and attitudes in their body of assigned players.
How much "major change" should there be in baseball and what counts as enough "progress"?
For the past week and change, I’ve been totally transfixed by the British political scene, and more specifically by the vote and aftermath of the referendum to leave the European Union. In case you’ve been under a rock or just, as you always should be, watching highlights of web gems and dingers, the United Kingdom voted to exit the European Union, in a decision that even supporters of the move regretted almost immediately. And, sure, there are probably a lot of people who are pretty pleased to be out of the EU, but there are also a bunch of folks left wondering “what have we done?”
It might be because I’m seeing everything through the lens of a British exit (Brexit), but I couldn’t help but think of our own imperfect unions in baseball, the American and National Leagues. Between the Brewers switching the NL from the AL and the Astros doing the reverse, through the dawn of interleague play and all of its various tweaks, and approaching the occasion of the fourteenth time that the All-Star Game “counts,” the AL and the NL have never enjoyed a stable experience. And at the core of this persistent tweaking is a whispered suggestion: Why not just get rid of both?
I’m sure that you’ve all seen various suggestions for how we might be rid of the two leagues, so I won’t do those suggestions the injustice of quick glosses here, but you also probably know the general idea: Break up the two leagues, and create four or five divisions based purely on geographical proximity. These divisions would allow for greater parity in travel distances, new and exciting regional rivalries, and, ostensibly, a fairer balance of playoff spots, punishing weaker teams and rewarding stronger ones across the board. A more perfect union, as opposed to a house divided.
In this way, the hypothetical “united” MLB looks more like an idealized EU than a post-Brexit UK, but I think the desire for change for the sake of change is important to consider. Much like the referendum that’s put the UK in its current troubles, any proposal to demolish the current MLB bi-league setup is a proposal to fix a clock that isn’t quite broken. There are flaws in the AL/NL split: Teams have uneven travel arrangements; the Designated Hitter is not universal; interleague play remains unbalanced. But those flaws are probably not fatal, not a cultural détente as in Brexit. At least not yet. And as Brexit has shown us, there is some truth to staying with the devil you know as opposed to the unified super-league of five divisions you don’t.
Effectively, as a fan, were you given the power to decide the fate of the league’s overall structure, you’d be in a paradoxical situation: Stick with the old and reify the bad things about our current situation in baseball, or blow it all up and take the risk that what you find next is somehow even worse? Do you open it up to mass fan votes, knowing the risks of ballot box stuffing and fraud could produce an Omar Infante as Vice President of Baseball Operations situation, or do you declare yourself God Queen or King of MLB Decision Making? Do you consider the players or the fans? Or do you chuck those two and consider the owner? What do you do?
Part of the difficulty of this question derives from the problem of who does and does not “have a say” in corporate decision-making for MLB. But I think the disenfranchisement of fans and democratic solutions to that problem should wait for another column. Instead, I want to think about the league owner as a politician in a classical sense. We expect MLB owners and especially the MLB commissioner to be baseball enthusiasts like we all are. We expect them to love the game, and perhaps most or all of them do. But at core, I want to argue, that love for baseball itself cannot be their guiding motivation. Instead, they’re playing a game of comparative risk, the stakes of which are the life or death of an entire industry.
Manny Sanguillen had more intentional than unintentional walks in 1970, 1971 and 1972. In '71, he drew 13 IBBs against just six UIBBs. If I could retain all of the technological advantages of 2016, I would dearly like to experience one entire season of baseball from the mid-1970s. It was almost an entirely different game.
--Joe Sheehan Newsletter, June 15, 2016
If baseball were different, how different would it be? Would it be slightly different or very different?
The Rangers haven't been the team their record suggests. Here's why that's OK.
The Texas Rangers are currently sitting pretty atop the MLB standings, and through games played on Monday stood one win ahead of the ever-popular, ever-publicized Chicago Cubs. Both teams currently lead not just their divisions, but their leagues, and by wide margins at that.
But things aren’t all rosy in Arlington. The Rangers are currently running out an ailing rotation that can’t seem to catch a break, the numbers suggest that that they have one of the worst bullpens in baseball, and they’re middle-of-the-pack offensively.
Taken in isolation, that combination of facts leaves you scratching your head, wondering how the Rangers have gotten to this point and how they’ll manage to make it any further.