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.
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A hamstring injury put Alex Rodriguez on the shelf, but it's been his approach that has ruined his return.
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Notable pitching performances this year from Chris Sale, Matt Shoemaker and CC Sabathia.
Sale altered his approach this season, aiming for more efficient at-bats by trimming the strikeouts and gunning for weak contact early in the count. Everything was going swimmingly for the first two months of his new style. Sale posted a 1.58 ERA through his first nine starts with just 39 hits allowed and a modest 62 strikeouts against 10 walks in 68 1/3 innings, while averaging a robust 7.6 innings per turn, including three complete games. He then coughed up six runs in just 3 1/3 frames against the Indians, and though he has exceeded six innings in each of the four starts since, he has also given up three or more runs in each of his last three turns.
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A wild game at altitude, an exclamation point by Taillon, and a near-injury to Maeda.
The Tuesday Takeaway
Coors Field is a beautiful ballpark. The field itself is always well tended, as is the little forest beyond the center field wall. The building is constructed with an eye toward grandeur and comfort.
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Justin Morneau returns to the AL Central and Ike Davis returns to New York.
This year sucks for one of last year's most exciting pitchers.
Does the rarity of steals of home make them even more exciting, or just make all our lives dull and useless?