Brian Wilson signs to be the Dodgers' second-best reliever.
With our dear Editor-in-Chief leaving Baseball Prospectus for his next chapter, we wanted to highlight some of our favorite chapters of his career here. There's an incredible number of timeless Sam Miller articles to choose from, but we whittled it down enough to not break the internet. This article originally ran on December 6, 2013.
The Dodgers' rookie had sky-high expecations entering the season, and has surpassed them.
Saturday, September 3rd will mark one year since Dodgers rookie shortstop Corey Seager’s major-league debut. Since then, Seager has been the talk of Los Angeles baseball fans for reasons that continue to mount. The preseason favorite for Rookie of the Year has become the presumptive ROY, and he hasn't stopped there: The 22-year old is threatening to do something only two other players have in history have done: He just might win the National League MVP award.
The world's been terrible, but the Seagers have been joy.
This is a curiosity, really, more than anything else. There’s no deeper meaning to it, and you probably won’t leave this piece with a better sense of why the sky is blue, the sea deep, or the winter cold. But it’s a fun curiosity, I think, and moreover it’s possible you’ll find the 10 minutes you invest in reading the words I’m about to write a worthwhile diversion from your ongoing journey toward nonexistence. Here’s Corey Seager’s 2016 line, through games played on Monday night:
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.
Has all the Dodgers spending and talk about solving the injury riddle led to any real progress?
The Los Angeles Dodgers have a $250 million payroll, at least six former or current general managers stashed away in their front office, and one of the deepest staffs of numbers crunchers in the game. When they decided to tackle one of baseball’s most perplexing mysteries—The Injury—under Andrew Friedman’s watch, it wasn’t particularly surprising. In fact, the Dodgers might possess the perfect combination of dollars and smarts to best pursue an injury elixir; their front office depth chart includes a whopping 12 different baseball operations analysts—behind only Friedman’s old team in Tampa Bay—and a 12-person medical staff. The A’s, by comparison, have just a handful of full-time analysts on staff, and when prodded about the injury issue—in a seven-year-old New York Times article, coincidentally about Stan Conte and the Dodgers—Billy Beane responded, “I just don’t have the money to let someone spend all year looking into this.”
Teams only have so many resources to devote to analytics, and every minute spent on injury research is one that could be spent on the draft or on aging curves or on figuring out what to do with terabytes of Statcast data. While some teams—like the A’s, perhaps—have struggled divvying up limited resources, the Dodgers have enough money to hire multiple people to study injuries while hiring more people to study the people studying injuries. That’s what they’ve done, apparently, beefing up their front office with the partial goal of getting a better handle on player health. The resulting strategy has featured the Dodgers acquiring extreme injury risks, guys like Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson, stacking bargain-bin depth pieces next to established stars like Clayton Kershaw and Adrian Gonzalez.