In 2012, Mike Trout was the best baseball player. He was so good that his delayed call-up to the Angels—for, it should be noted clearly here, completely non-service time reasons, but legitimate and honest concerns about his ability to produce after a difficult offseason (healthwise) and an interrupted spring training—might have even cost the Angels a spot in the postseason. He was so, so, so, so, so good.
And he entered 2013 with a) options, meaning he could technically have been sent down to the minors and b) 1.070 years of service time, which means that if he had been sent down for (by my math) 24 days, the Angels would have controlled him for an extra season.
Correction: My reading of his service time was wrong. He'd have had to have been sent down for 70 days—that's what the number after the decimal point refers to—which clearly changes the specifics here and moves Trout's case into more of a hypothetical, rhetorical arena. I think you can keep reading the article without harm, but there are substantial differences between the Bryant service time math and the hypothetical Trout service time math. You could also use 2014 Jason Heyward as the stand-in for Trout. Or Jacob deGrom. Thanks, Craig.
They are in essence trading roughly 10 games of 2015 value in exchange for a full season of Bryant in his prime, and while the Cubs clearly want to win this year, no player is so great that missing 10 games would meaningfully alter a team's expected results. Even Mike Trout, clearly the best player in baseball, is only expected to add about half a win to his team's ledger every 10 games, and Bryant is no Mike Trout. Even an optimistic projection for Bryant would have him adding maybe a quarter of a win to the Cubs' season total if he started in the big leagues versus being held down for a few weeks. Baseball isn't basketball; one guy matters only so much.
You don’t remember this conversation about Mike Trout before the 2013 season, because nobody had this conversation about Mike Trout before the 2013 season. That’s because if you had recommended sending Mike Trout to the minors—the best player in baseball, on a competitive team, after he had just produced a 10-win season—you would have been called a drunkard and a fool. Imagine! Just imagine!
And yet, you’d be making the same case that the Kris-Bryant-To-Triple-A argument depends on: Baseball teams operate on a long timeline, and sometimes reaping large gains later justifies taking smaller hits now, even if it comes at the expense of a player’s seemingly justified earnings.
Why do we consider one conversation acceptable and one unacceptable?
Trout is better than Bryant.
But this basically comes down to that old “We have established what you are, madam” line. It doesn’t matter whether Trout is better than Bryant; it matters whether Bryant is better than the alternatives on the Cubs. If he is, and we still defend his assignment to Triple-A, then we are saying that it is acceptable to send the better player down for service time manipulation. A widely held belief. If we are saying that it is acceptable to send the better player down for service time manipulation, then it would apply wherever it applies—even, potentially, with Trout in 2013.
I haven’t seen anybody really argue that Bryant isn’t better than the alternatives for the Cubs.
Sending down Trout would have cost the Angels more, in present-day performance, than it will likely cost the Cubs.
True! Trout is better, and more likely to produce wins and WARs than Bryant is. But he’s also likely to be better in year seven than Bryant will be, which means the gain at the end of this gambit is greater, as well. And if the math works, and if we're beholden to the math…
It just looks worse.
Ah, and this is it. It looks so much worse to send down Trout. The Cubs have defended a Bryant demotion using plausible—if, to me, unlikely—explanations: He still has work to do (on defense, versatility); and he might suffer from the pressure of being on an Opening Day roster. To the latter we might simply point out that this is what September call-ups are for; to the former we might sniff unimpressedly, and counter that there is always something about a player’s game that a front office could claim needs work. In either case, though, there is plausibility to it; with plausibility, the non-cynical parts of our characters must allow that decisions are complicated and maybe, just maybe, there’s more to it than we see. It also provides defense against more legalistic remedies, like union complaints involving binding arbitration.
But while this last one provides an explanation for why the team feels confident in making the Bryant decision while never entertaining the Trout option, it doesn’t explain why many fans support sending Bryant down but wouldn’t support sending Trout. If we, the fans, can ace the marshmallow test with Bryant, why do we gobble up the now marshmallow with Trout?
This, I don’t know. I’d like to think that, somewhere in our souls, there is a rejection of a do-anything approach to winning. As I wrote about last winter w/r/t the Astros, there is a point where we declare lawyerball to have gone too far. When a player or team figures out a strategy that is distasteful, boring, undefensible, or simply tacky, we change the rules to outlaw it, we (or they) institute unwritten rules that become in their own way binding, or we collectively vote with our wallets and feet. There are likely all sorts of ways a winning-obsessed club could gain small competitive advantages—forfeiting any game in which their win probability dips to zero, for instance, would save the bullpen and prevent injuries—but even winning-obsessed clubs are only comfortable going as far as we let them, or as far as they personally feel ethically justified in doing.
It seems clear to me that this is a rule-following that borders on rule-breaking, except the rule that prevents it hasn’t been written yet (and would likely have its own loopholes, anyway). Nobody likes that clubs can do this, though given that roughly 29 other teams do it we tend to support our teams when they do it, too. The rule could be changed, but in absence of rule changes it’s still within our power as fans to shame clubs for it. I don’t deny that the Cubs are making a smart decision; I don’t deny that, if I were the GM, I would make the same decision; I don’t deny that the Cubs front office should sleep just fine with this move. They might even be irresponsible if they didn’t do this. They are smart!
But, because they are smart, we are unhappy, just like we would be unhappy if they forfeited a game in the fourth inning. The Bryant decision makes baseball worse for us,
woooo go team go! *waves pennant that says COST CONTROL YEARS*
— ken shamrock v kimbo (@weed_mouse) March 30, 2015
it’s an obviously unfair situation for a young man who has had his leverage taken from him for no great reason, and if the loophole were closed it wouldn’t create any significant shift in the competitive balance. It serves nothing. In lieu of a rule change, it’s okay for us to shame teams for it. A Mike Trout demotion was never talked about because to do so would have raised such a shaming that it would have overwhelmed the Angels. How things look matters to these decisions, and how we react matters to how they look. If we quit talking about how smart the Cubs are for this decision and instead complained about how unhappy it makes us, if we shamed them for observing the letter of the law instead of the spirit of the game, this conversation might quit happening. And we’d get what we want.