Remember the Olympics?
They were in Rio? They happened a few weeks ago?
The two-week thing with gymnastics and track and swimming and wrasslin’ (the real kind) and whatever the horse thing is called?
As a result of the Olympics, my oldest daughter now wants to invite both Freddie Freeman and Simone Biles to her next birthday party. (I might be able to get you Scott Bailes, sweetheart. No promises.) Well, we won’t have another Olympics until 2020, but the good news is that at those games (in Tokyo), both Ms. Biles and Mr. Freeman could conceivably win gold in their respective sports. Baseball, not played in the Olympics since 2008, will return to the program in 2020. And y’know… the NBA and NHL let their players go to the Olympics and represent their countries.
Has the time come for Major League Baseball to do the same? Both former Commissioner Bud Selig and current Commissioner Rob Manfred have been lukewarm to the idea of sending the superstars, or even anyone on the active 25-man roster, to the Olympics. In 2008, non-rostered minor leaguers were allowed go, but frankly, no one was going to tune in to see Taylor Teagarden play. And frankly, I wonder if any Rangers fans noticed that he wasn’t in Triple-A for those two weeks. But so far, there’s been no movement from MLB to support the idea of active major-leaguers going for the gold.
Those who favor the idea are quick to bring up the NBA and 1992 “Dream Team” U.S. Olympic basketball team, which consisted of the best NBA players of the time. (Also, Christian Laettner). It was essentially an All-Star team, but this time not playing like it was a Rock ‘n’ Jock special or the NFL Pro Bowl. They’ll point out that the Dream Team did wonders for marketing the NBA internationally, and having a couple of similar All-Star level teams made up of major-league players and draped in the flags of their respective countries could do similar things for MLB.
They also usually neglect to mention that one major reason that the NBA did (and still does) allow players to play in the Olympics is that the Summer Games happen during the NBA’s offseason. (The NHL, however, shuts down the whole league for a few weeks every four years so that hockey players can go play for their countries in the Winter Olympics.)
Those who oppose the idea of major leaguers at the Olympics point out that baseball already has a quadrennial showcase event in which MLB players don their country’s colors, the World Baseball Classic. (And indeed, the WBC has already helped spread the brand and it pulls in pretty good ratings internationally, although not as much in the United States.) Like its cousin, the World Cup, which has the top soccer stars of the world competing for their homeland, it’s separate from the Olympics. In fact, next spring, there will be another WBC, along with another one in 2021, right after the 2020 Games. Why cannibalize that event?
The WBC is nice, but it has a few drawbacks. Namely, it happens in March and has all sorts of rules about pitcher usage mostly because it’s really Spring Training with national team uniforms on. It’s like an All-Star game that counts, except none of the teams like sending their All-Star pitchers. Or their ever-so-slightly hurt players. Or their hot prospects who are battling for a job on the 25-man roster. Because while national pride is nice, you don’t want anyone being used like it’s the playoffs (or even the regular season) in March. Their bodies aren’t ready yet.
The Olympics sidestep that issue, as they are scheduled for late July/early August, when MLB will be in high season. Players would be used to playing every day and pitchers will have the benefit of four months of regular starts. No Spring Training here! Olympic baseball presents the possibility of a video game fantasy come to life. Players playing for their nations at full speed in a tournament where it’s basically playoff stakes every day. That would be amazing to watch. The WBC is lovely, but it can’t quite match that.
Is it time for MLB to send its best and brightest to the Olympics?
Warning! Gory Mathematical Details Ahead!
Who Would Go?
A formal baseball tournament was played at the Olympics from 1984 to 2008, although medals weren’t actually awarded until 1992. In all of those years, there were eight nations who were invited to play. They played a simple seven-game round-robin tournament, with the top four teams entering a single-elimination medal round. The winners of the semi-finals played for gold and silver, and the losers played for bronze. All told, a team played a minimum of seven games and a maximum of nine.
Early reports say that the 2020 Games will only have a six-nation format, with Japan—as host nation—being the only country guaranteed a spot. In 2008, China as the host qualified, as well as the top two finishers in the North American qualification tournament (United States, Cuba), the top finisher in the European tournament (Netherlands), and the top finishers in the Asian tournament (Japan). Three additional spots (eventually going to Canada, South Korea, and Taiwan) were awarded through a final play-in tournament among runners-up from those regions, as well as winners from the African, Australian, and South American tournaments.
In the past, Olympic rosters have been 24 players long. It’s not clear whether teams would be allowed to send a small taxi squad in case of injuries. Unlike the WBC, where reinforcements are a relatively short plane ride away, we’re talking about Tokyo. It’s not yet known how qualification will happen for 2020, but someone has to make it. We also know that if MLB gives the green light for nations to recruit their players, some nations will be able to write more major-league names onto their lineup card than others.
It’s impossible (though fun) to try to figure out who exactly would be good enough (and still active in 2020) to be on each nation’s Olympic roster in four years, but let’s try to estimate some of the possible effects.
I based my analyses on birthplaces, which aren’t a guarantee of which nation a player would represent (the aforementioned Mr. Freeman was born in California, but his parents are both Canadian citizens, making him eligible to play for either the United States or Canada, under Olympic rules), but that’ll give us a starting point. I looked at countries that had more than 24 players who have appeared in the majors in 2016. The United States, Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Cuba, and Puerto Rico (counts as its own country for Olympic purposes) could all fill out a 24-man roster with just major leaguers.
In addition, we also see that (as of this writing) Mexico (15), Canada (13), Japan (9), and South Korea (9) would be able to fill their rosters one-third to one-half full of major leaguers. In Europe, only the Netherlands (6) and Germany (technically, 4) would be able to call on any major leaguers now. (Then again, at the World Baseball Classic in 2013, none of the roster of the Spanish team that entered was actually born in Spain. The Italian team had five native Italians.) There’s going to be a little room for players who opt out of the Olympics (or are hurt), but also for some players who decide to compete for their ancestral homelands, rather than their places of birth.
The numbers for 2016 may or may not hold in 2020, but we’ll use them for the moment. We also don’t know that just because MLB gives a full unfettered release of its players to their respective countries that the qualifying nations would include them on their teams or that the players would want to go or that they wouldn’t be injured. Plus the politics of this can get weird. Cuba and Japan both brought rosters composed entirely of players from their domestic leagues to the WBC in 2013. However, a field composed of Japan (nine major-league players), two North American qualifiers (likely two teams able to fill their rosters fully with major-league players), an Asian qualifier (South Korea with nine?), a European qualifier (the Netherlands with six?), and Wild Card qualifier (again, probably a roster full or nearly full of major-league players), we’re talking somewhere in the neighborhood of 80-100 major-league players who could call themselves Olympians.
Of the 750 players in 25-man rosters, that represents about an eighth of the labor force. It’s not everyone, but it’s a sizeable chunk. Your “average” team would see three of its players head over the Pacific.
What would they be doing?
Presumably, there would be a day where MLB released the would-be Olympians to hop on the plane to Japan, and they would start playing baseball. Hopping on a plane wouldn’t be too strange an event for a big leaguer, although taking a trans-Pacific flight would be. Between physical flight time and the difference in time zones, a trip from the Seattle to Tokyo “takes” about a day and a half, and if your last game with your team was on the East Coast, you’ll need extra time to get to Seattle. It’s a longer plane flight than they might be used to, but it’s not completely disconnected from what they normally do.
In 2008, in an eight-team format, the teams played a seven-game round-robin, with games on four consecutive days, an off-day, three more consecutive days, and then a day off before the medal round games, which were played on two consecutive days. The whole affair was completed in 11 calendar days. With a six-team format, it’s reasonable to guess that there would be three-day bank of round-robin games, a two-day bank, and then a two-day medal round with days off in-between, meaning that the games themselves could all be done in nine calendar days. On the surface, it doesn’t sound all that different from a long road trip in terms of the lived experience of the players who actually go.
Or would it?
Major-league managers, both of the general and field variety, would likely fret over what would be happening in those games. The entire point of doing something like this would be to see what All-Star caliber teams might do when put in a short, every-game-matters sort of situation, where the normal rules of 162 games don’t apply. I can see that USOC calling the Dodgers and pleading with them, “We know that Clayton Kershaw just pitched and won the crucial final game of the round-robin, but now it’s the Gold Medal game and I know he’s on two days’ rest, but it would normally be his throw day and… pretty please?!?!?!?!?!” Or maybe they wouldn’t ask and they might just do it. It’s the sort of move that a team might make in the World Series, but in that case it would be a move made by the people actually paying Clayton Kershaw $30 million per year.
At the very least, MLB would want assurances that the games would be played like “normal” games. The ideal strategy for winning one game and for winning over the course of 162 games have some important differences. (You’re perhaps familiar with the phrase “All hands on deck.”) And frankly, if there were no restrictions placed on Olympic managers, there would be plenty of temptation to do things like pitch elite closers for three innings at a time or have starters go on short rest or perhaps throw 150 pitches in one game. And there would be pitchers who would do it for their country, though perhaps not their team. It’s strange what people will do for a piece of fabric that they won’t do for the person who writes them a check with eight numbers in it. These “extreme” usages are things that we know contribute to injury risk for pitchers, and also the sort of things that would be oh-so-tempting in a short high-stakes tournament.
Let’s put a number to that. I’ve estimated that the “red line” for pitch counts within a single game is somewhere around 115 pitches. After that, risk starts accumulating toward a catastrophic injury (usually that just means “Tommy John”) for a pitcher. It’s not that he’ll fall apart after 115 pitches. It’s that his risk is now elevated somewhat. I estimate that the chances go up by about 5 percent each time a team lets a pitcher cross that threshold. A couple of teams would therefore be lending what is likely to be their star pitcher and putting him in a situation where there’s a decent chance that he would be pitching well and his manager would want to ride that arm for one… more… inning. (USA! USA! USA!) It’s like lending your expensive sports car out to your 17-year-old nephew, or in this case, your not entirely stable Uncle Sam. It’s entirely possible he’ll bring it back in one piece, even if he does do something stupid with it. But would anyone really fault you for saying “No”?
Even if we say that there’s a 20 percent chance of an Olympic manager using a pitcher in an abusive way, it means effectively, the team, by lending the pitcher out is accepting a 1 percent increased chance of losing a guy for a whole year. A good pitcher (that’s how he got the Olympic nod). If he’s a five-win type pitcher, using expected value theory that would be .05 wins. No one knows exactly what the dollars-per-win quick converter factor will be by then, but .05 wins will be worth something in the mid-six figure range. We tend to dismiss numbers in the six-figure range in baseball, but that’s a lot of money.
It invites a rather interesting form of game theory though. Someone who favored the inclusion of big leaguers might point out that the risk is counterbalanced by the possibility that this becomes a marketing ploy for MLB that brings all sorts of new fans into the game, and eventually trickles down to the teams in the form of increased TV revenue. The trick is that all teams would benefit from the spectacle, but only the team releasing the star pitcher would take the associated risk. The Giants might be asked to release Madison Bumgarner, but suddenly they discover that he has a horrible snoring problem that will put him on the DL for the duration of the Olympics. The Giants would be just fine with the Dodgers sending Clayton Kershaw overseas. But did you hear about Kershaw’s runny nose? His doctor said that he’ll need a few weeks to clear that up. #ThoughtsAndPrayers
Now starting in the Gold Medal game for the United States, Tyler Chatwood?
I think a good part of the fantasy of major-league players in the Olympics would be the All-Star teams not just playing at regular speed, but at breakneck playoff speed. And I don’t think that would actually happen. Either MLB would demand some sort of pitch count and resting days concessions or they would hold back the good ones as much as they could. Either you get the All-Stars or you get the ability to play “all hands on deck” ball. In other words, the reality of the Olympics would likely fall short of the fantasy.
What would everyone else be doing?
What would the 90 percent of players who aren’t called to be Olympians be doing? MLB could shut everything down for two weeks or they could keep playing games. If they chose to keep going, we need to first address the fact that it’s likely that a lot of the players who would be sent overseas would be the best players on each team. MLB could create some sort of roster exemption allowing teams to bring up Triple-A players to fill in the gaps, but those are replacement level players and a lot of them would be subbing in for superstars and first-division regulars. Sure, most teams would lose someone, but there’s the fairness argument to be had here. We can estimate that the “average” team would lose three players, but would some teams be more affected than others?
To get some idea, I looked at the World Baseball Classic rosters from 2013. The WBC had 16 teams, 10 more than the Olympic tournament will have, but for that tournament, 115 MLB players, who were on the active roster at the time, were “drafted” onto their country’s roster. In 2013, the Milwaukee Brewers led baseball with eight of their players asked to go on international duty, along with seven Giants, Twins, and Royals. On the flip side, the Red Sox, Cubs, and Yankees sent only two representatives, and the Mets and Angels sent one apiece. Again, there’s no reason to suspect that in 2020, this exact distribution would repeat itself. This is just to show that teams could be very disproportionately affected. You could have a two week stretch in which one team is playing with half of its regulars missing while another is getting by without one of its relievers. Over two weeks’ worth of games, that advantage/disadvantage might swing a game or two. Maybe that swings a playoff race. Maybe not, but I’m sure someone would complain about it.
To put a number on that, let’s assume that we have a team that is “missing” three players playing a team who is “missing” five. Both are .500 teams at full strength, but the Olympics have taken away some average (2 WAR) regulars. At full strength, we would expect a game played between the two teams to be a 50/50 toss-up. Let’s say that they are now a 75-win team and a 71-win team respectively, and using the log5 formula, we would expect that the game is now a 54/46 proposition. The chances of “winning” a three-game series for the team that doesn’t have as many Olympians goes from 50 percent (at full strength) to about 56 percent, and that’s just a difference of two players. In theory, each team would play four series during the two weeks while their Olympians were away. That’s gonna swing a few games league-wide. Sure, swings like this happen because of injuries keeping guys out for two weeks, but injuries happen whether you want them to or not. This would be a purely elective surgery on the part of MLB.
The other option would be to have the league shut down for two weeks. I’m sure that teams would love the idea of giving up two prime summer weeks’ worth of ticket sales. They could make up the games (Joe Sheehan suggests dropping the All-Star game and break and reclaiming those dates for regularly scheduled games), or cut the schedule by a few games (156-game season?) or perhaps add dates in either late March or late October. In the case of the former, teams have enough trouble selling tickets in April because of spring rain and sometimes cold. In the latter case, it would likely mean a World Series that stretched into November. Sure, it could be done, but now teams are losing out on some major cash.
In 2015, games in April drew an average of 29,364 fans and in September, the average was 28,611. In July, that number is 33,075 and in August it’s 31,589. Moving games from July and August to April or September probably means taking a hit of 3,000-4,000 tickets per game. That’s not a bank-breaker, but it’s real money. If a team had to relocate six home games to either late March or early October, at an average ticket price of $31, that’s $651,000.
If the schedule is shortened, that’s 30,000 tickets (on average) that a team can’t sell each night. Even if schedule is simply reduced to 156 games and each team loses three home games, that’s 90,000 tickets. Again at $31, that’s $2.8 million in revenue that each team loses on average, and that’s before anyone buys an $8 beer.
Also, dropping the All-Star Game, which is still a nice night of ratings, wouldn’t go over well at Fox. While the host of the 2020 All-Star Game hasn’t yet been named, MLB’s contract with Fox, including rights to the All-Star game, runs until 2021. I’m sure that would spark some “discussions” at the corporate level.
What Would Become of the World Baseball Classic?
The next WBC after the 2020 Olympics would be scheduled for eight months later in March, 2021. If MLB had let its players go to the Olympics, what exactly would be the point of the WBC?
It’s worth pointing out that the WBC was carried in 2013 (and will be again in 2017) by MLB Network. As a way to provide content, promote the MLB Network platform, and probably pull in some good advertising revenue, the WBC sounds like something that MLB wouldn’t want to mess with. Plus, we know that the ratings for the WBC are good outside the United States. It features more countries (16 to the Olympic six), so there would be a natural “pull” to more international markets who could see their compatriots compete in the national colors. It seems that from MLB’s perspective (and they are the ones being asked for the favor), the WBC is the superior venue for MLB to promote itself. Plus, the majority of the event is held in North America, it has pitch count controls already built in, and it doesn’t interrupt the MLB season. Plus, it doesn’t seem to adversely affect the players who play in it.
I suppose that they could still have the WBC logistically, but there’s a reason that big signature events like the Olympics and the World Cup only happen once every four years. If you do them too often, they lose their cool factor. For example, there actually are World Championships in track and field (they now prefer the term “Athletics”) every year. It was in Beijing in 2015, and if you know any of what happened, you are a true track and field junkie, because it was broadcast mostly on Universal Sports. By allowing MLB players to go to the Olympics, MLB risks relegating the WBC to the same fate. At that point, they probably wouldn’t bother having it.
For this to make sense for MLB, you’d have make the case that the for all the hassle, lost revenue, and risk that they’d take on from saying “yes” to the Olympics, they’d get some multiplier effect from the Olympics that they wouldn’t get from the WBC. Would there be a different group of people who watch Olympic baseball who wouldn’t watch the WBC? Would any of them stick around and become baseball fans as a result? Maybe that case is out there, but I have a hard time seeing it, and that has to be the “replacement level” baseline that we work from.
Are You Not Entertained?
I get the hunger for the spectacle that Olympic baseball with major-league players could be, especially if they did play “all hands on deck” baseball for two weeks. It would be glorious if it ever really happened, but I think the structural obstacles are too great. It isn’t MLB’s job to turn video game fantasies into real life. I get that the WBC is tantalizingly close to what we hope the Olympics would be, and perhaps that tantalization is what drives some of the desire for MLB to go for the gold. If MLB said “yes”, it could actually happen, but just because something is possible doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.
We’d be asking MLB and its teams to take on a lot of risk, and to mitigate that risk, we’d need to take away some of the lawlessness that people claim would give Olympic baseball that extra shine over the WBC. We’d also be asking teams to forego a few millions in revenue, and potentially jeopardize the integrity of the pennant races. It’s not entirely clear where the marginal benefit would be coming from, over what exists now with the WBC. Yes, it would be so cool, and it probably would bring in some new fans, and that’s great. But you have to look at these things in terms of the marginal effects and compare them to the marginal costs. There are a lot of those costs.
And yes, as much as we all wish it didn’t, it comes down to money. MLB is a business. They own the car. We are the ones asking for the keys. There’s that awful moment when you do a sober cost-benefit analysis on an idea that would be so cool and realize that it probably doesn’t make sense. Part of being an adult is living with that awful feeling. The good news is that you don’t really have to feel awful for too long. For those who like the idea of nations competing against each other (if only at 85 percent speed), there is still the WBC. For those who like watching All-Stars face off against each other, there’s MLB.TV. And the All-Star game. For those who love playoff-type baseball… there’s the playoffs.
Thank you for reading
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