Here’s the bigger issue, which I’ve saved for the second half of the article: Every other major league team takes it on the chin because of the relocation committee’s failures. The Expos make almost nothing revenue-wise. Since baseball bought them, they’ve run Opening Day payrolls of around $40 million for two straight seasons. Plus $35 million a year to keep the lights on in the offices…work out their share of MLB media deals, divide by pi, and…the Expos probably cost Major League Baseball $40 million more than if they were a team that could manage to break even. Consider revenue sharing, that’s easily going to be another $50 million, and now we’re talking about serious money. Unless you’re an Expos fan, the team you root for paid about $2.75 million a year under the old labor agreement and will pay more than $3 million this year. If this drags on for the entire season, 29 teams will have paid out a little shy of $10 million each for another team to compete against them. If it wasn’t so stupid and contrived, and if you didn’t know the history of how things got to be this bad, it’d be enough to make you sympathetic to contraction.
Some people don’t take spring training seriously enough. Fans head down to Arizona where they stay in cool hotels built around buttes, swap Tootsie Rolls for autographs, watch games in the sun, while poor saps like me toil away, pounding out columns under overcast skies as that day’s member of the executive committee whips us with the content-producing cat o’ nine tails. Teams play split-squad games. They’re required to send a couple of anticipated regulars so what fans come out see some recognizable names, but I have to ask: If you’re an average fan, it’s a beautiful day, you’re drinking your first beer in the sun, would you care if the Tigers sent out Fernando Vina or Cody Ross? Would you get up and demand a refund because Craig Monroe was out there in the outfield instead of Alex Sanchez? And some people take spring training far, far too seriously. I call these people “Ozzie Guillen.”
I’ve been looking for a gap in the Yankees armor this year, hoping to see where they might stumble and miss the playoffs. And, uh, it’s not looking really good for me.
It’s pretty easy for most teams. Despite the efforts of new GM Bill Bavasi, the Mariners can be taken apart pretty quickly: Edgar Martinez out for the season? Quinton McCracken subs at DH, and the offense dies. Bret Boone blows out his knee why playing weekend roller-hockey? Hello, Willie Bloomquist! An injury to Randy Winn or Ichiro Suzuki? Mmm, McCracken…we just can’t get enough.
The Yankees have problems, but there’s not much that causes a collapse. Last year we could look at the middle infield and see the lack of depth as a spike-filled pit, and when Derek Jeter got a knee dropped on his shoulder, in they fell. This year, a Jeter injury means the best shortstop ever goes back to his natural position. Sure, someone has to play third, but it’s not that hard to scrape together a stop-gap solution. Heck, they were about to do it before they decided to blow the doors off and bring in Alex. Aaron Boone the Honest could be back in time to bring adequacy to the position.
I wrote a piece in the Baseball Prospectus Basics last week (“How to run a bullpen.”) I got a lot of feedback that ran like this: Hey, that table you ran shows that it’s good to generally use the best reliever in tighter situations, rather than to protect three-run leads in the ninth…Facing a tie game in the eighth, wouldn’t it make sense that a manager would save his best pitcher for the ninth, which would be even more important? This is a fine question, and one I think deserves to be answered in some depth.
Closers are an aberration in baseball’s history, a massive misallocation of resources, and eventually will go the way of the dinosaurs Carl Everett doesn’t believe in. A pure closer is a reliever who only comes in to protect a one- to three-run lead, only in the ninth. The worst pitcher in baseball stands a great chance of pitching the ninth inning without giving up three runs. With no outs, a team with an average offense against an average pitcher can expect to score half a run. The best offense in baseball last year, the Red Sox, averaged about .65 runs/half inning over the course of the season. The worst reliever in the major leagues last year was Jaret Wright, who gave up 46 runs in just over 56 innings of work–.82 runs an inning. Given a three-run lead in the ninth, pitching against the Red Sox, Wright could reasonably be expected to give up an average of a run each appearance, and if he did it all season, he’d rack up 20 saves, be anointed a proven closer, and sign with the Mets for $4 million a year.
I was reminded of the game Go when the Red Sox and Yankees got into again over who’s the worst evil. John Henry, who made his fortune trading stocks and commodities on the free market, argued in favor of market restrictions to restrain his rival, while Steinbrenner fired back standard Boss comments. I was thinking of a shicho, where one side, trapped, continues to spend resources as they race towards the edge of the board, where they’re caught and lose everything they expended, and everyone else watches them chase. Curt Schilling to Alex Rodriguez…Jose Vidro next? Then what, Alfonso Soriano to Boston? Can these two teams run up on $600 million in combined payroll before spring training’s out? How would Bud Selig pocket all that revenue-sharing money? Will he have to buy a new coat?
Alex Rodriguez is a Yankee, and his timing is awful. It wasn’t two weeks ago the Rangers had a little song-and-dance routine that named him their captain after the botched attempt to get a trade done that would have sent him to Boston. Alex said the right things: “This is kind of like a double crowning for myself and my family. I feel very, very excited and very honored; one, at being recognized as the MVP of the American League and representing the Texas Rangers team, and almost equally important, if not more important, to be named the captain of the Texas Rangers and Mr. Hicks’ team and Buck Showalter’s team and John Hart’s team.” And he started to break out the lines the lines we’d heard in Seattle: “I definitely hope I’ll be here for at least seven years and hopefully I’ll be knocking on Mr. Hicks’ door and asking to do a little renegotiation to play here into my 40s.” In accepting a trade to the Yankees, Rodriguez makes a liar out of himself. Back when he was a free agent, he said this: “I would like to sign with another team and help dethrone the Yankees–they’ve won too much already.”
Last week’s column got some fine feedback. Let’s get right to it:
“I’m a little confused by the venom directed at the Cubs over their (admittedly farcical) attempt to pretend they’re not simply scalping their own tickets. If they were honest about what they were doing, would it really be that bad? Airlines do similar things with their tickets – they charge more for some tickets (last minute purchases) and less for others (Saturday night stayovers) because they know that business travelers will pay more than family vacationers. Why shouldn’t baseball clubs also price discriminate?”
The problem everyone has with the Cubs isn’t that they’re selling their own tickets for more, it’s something else entirely: 1) They’re breaking the law for profit; 2) They’re doing it for the express purpose of avoiding revenue sharing with other teams. The second one seems petty compared to the first. That the Tribune Company would construct a giant scheme to scalp their own tickets illegally–with a law on the books that says “Don’t do what you’re about to do”–because it would make them money is appalling. On the spectrum of crime, it’s not as if they’re serving poisoned milk to school-children who don’t subscribe to the Tribune, but it’s still pretty heinous.
Not long ago, a Chicago judge tossed out a lawsuit against the Cubs, who had set up their own company to scalp their tickets. They’d done so on the grounds that (essentially) by being two parts of the same company, it wasn’t like it was the same company doing it, as prohibited by the law. Explanations readers suggested for that finding ran from stark judicial incompetence all the way to the Tribune Company getting one of those Wrath of Khan creatures into the judge’s ear somehow.
Meanwhile in the gray, gray, gray state of Washington (contrary to our reputation, it’s only rained a couple of times this winter: October-December, then it snowed, December-January, then it snowed again, then January through today), where local government isn’t quite as corrupt as Chicago but is racing to catch up, judicial insight flared.
Aaron Boone hurt his ACL playing basketball on Monday, which could mean that he’s out for the season. His contract isn’t guaranteed if he plays basketball, which he did, so the Yankees aren’t going to pay him his full salary, which they shouldn’t. It may be a different situation if it’s a minor tear and he’ll be healthy for spring training in less than 30 days, though, so we’ll have to wait and see. (I can’t express the jolt of joy I just felt typing “spring training in less than 30 days,” by the way–only a month of this seemingly interminable purgatory remains, where I’m forced to watch whatever my wife has found on one of the 80 different home improvement channels DirecTV was kind enough to cram into my package.) If it’s minor and he’ll miss a little time, the Yankees might decide that 90% of Boone is worth 100% of the deal he signed (though that seems difficult to justify). But more likely they’re going to set fire to his contract and then mail him the ashes. Boone at $5.75 million for a year was high when he signed it, and considering comparable signings this offseason (Adrian Beltre was the only close signing, and he’s way younger, though BP’s PECOTA forecasts have Boone hitting better in 2004, while others like Scott Spiezio came much cheaper). The Yankees might just even call do-over and see what Boone will take, now that almost everyone else has signed their third basemen and are probably not going to offer Boone anything close to what he was scheduled to receive.
Bulk in baseball is a source of constant amusement. Just think about late-career Cecil Fielder, or the guy who ate Mo Vaughn. How amusing was it to watch those bulky fellows try to move around the basepaths. And yet, for too long this has been a neglected area of research. Until now. Today, Baseball Prospectus proudly presents VORPSkin, a new innovation in performance analysis that attempts to answer the questions “Who is the biggest waste of skin in baseball?” and “What happens when Keith Woolner gets really bored during the offseason?”
It’s possible to be selfish and arrogant and help your team. If a player hits a home run in an arrogant matter, that’s still worth at least one run. If Rickey selfishly stole second, that puts his team in a better position to score. Certainly, if he got himself thrown out all the time, he’d have been a detriment, but he was successful more than 75% of the time in his record-setting, 130-steal year. Baseball’s one of the most individual team sports. The game’s crux is a one-one-one battle, batter against pitcher, and even the most complex plays are serial actions–pitcher to batter to shortstop to first for the out. If everyone on a team was as good as Rickey and acted selfishly, they’d score 2,000 runs a year. In a strike-shortened season, where every game was rained out after the fifth inning. Playing in the Astrodome.
I’m a little ashamed to admit this now, but I used to hate Rickey Henderson. I grew up following the Giants and the Mariners, and Rickey beat the hell out of the Mariners on his way to making the Giants look stupid. And growing up in a rival city, you hear all the bad and not much of the good: Rickey’s arrogant, but not that he’s got a sense of humor.
Rickey changed baseball, too. Not for the better, unless you enjoy the motions of throwing back to first 20 times to make sure Edgar Martinez doesn’t steal second late to ignite a come-from-behind rally in an 8-1 game the M’s are losing.
We haven’t seen much base-stealing lately, for reasons that manage to hurt the understanding of how great both players were. Ruth’s marks don’t seem so impressive when even the bat boy hits 10 out a year. And power has eclipsed speed. While some (Luis Castillo,Juan Pierre) have gotten into the 60s, it’s largely forgotten that there were players like Henderson and Vince Coleman who reeled off a series of years where they swiped over 100 bases a year.
Is the current collective bargaining agreement solely responsible for the crash in free agent values? We mentioned this in passing during a recent Roundtable, but it’s worth a more in-depth look. As Doug Pappas has noted, revenue sharing reduces the marginal value of players. What that means is that if you’re the Red Sox, and you worked out that a win was worth $1 million to you in additional raw revenue from merchandise, next year’s radio deal, and so forth, if you share your revenue with the other 29 teams, that amount is reduced.
We can be pretty hard on front offices sometimes, whether they’re deserving of it or not. For instance, during a Roundtable recently, I stated the following: “I don’t think the Mariners have enough brain power to light a bulb, much less think through the intricacies of market dynamics.”
I doubt this comes as much of a surprise to anyone. It was a comment born out of frustration at an off-season that started with bringing back Edgar Martinez, but has gone downhill from there. Sometimes it seems like the people running major-league clubs are as clueless as that one owner in your fantasy league who just traded Rafael Soriano for Terrence Long.
Take Pat Gillick, a man who was frequently mentioned as one of the best general managers in the game. Gillick’s a smart guy; he and the Blue Jays set up a tremendous player development system in the Dominican Republic back when people thought they were a little loopy for doing it, and it paid tremendous dividends. His teams have won championships. So, to call him dumb… well, that was stupid of me, and it sparked some arguments.
It took me two weeks to wipe the surprised look off my face after I found out the Cubs got off. The Honorable Sophia Hall found on behalf of Wrigley Field Premium and the Chicago Cubs and dismissed the suit in what, I have to say, is one of the strangest decisions I’ve ever followed.
There’s a law on the books in Illinois that says if you hold an event, you can’t scalp your own tickets. The Cubs and their parent company, the Tribune Co., seeking to get around this law, set up a shell company, Wrigley Field Premium, with their own people, their own accountants running the books. They allowed the shell company to buy $1 million in tickets, then sell them at insane prices. Now, I don’t practice law, but that’s illegal. It’s also Chicago, though.
What’s weird is that the judge agrees with everything everyone’s said about the suit up until the point where she has to declare them guilty. Reading the opinion, it’s all there: “WFP is a subsidiary of the Tribune Company (p. 9).” In March 2002, this brand new ticket broker was allowed to purchase $1,047,766 of tickets (incidentally, go ahead and try that as an actual unaffiliated business and see what the Cubs tell you).
The opinion contains a nice little history of how Tribune formed it, the corporate officers overlapped, how WGN provided Premium free advertising…it’s crazy. And it contains this gem (on p. 13): “From the beginning Ball Club and Premium did not keep secret they were both owned by Tribune Co. […] To dispel possible confusion, Premium’s employees were instructed to tell customers that Premium is not a part of Ball Club.”
Gee, that’s not concealing ownership, or anything.