Last week in this space, I made the #GoryMath and business case that MLB organizations spending money to improve conditions for minor leaguers is a sound and solid investment. It will make a team better on the field for having done it and do so at a cost-per-win rate that is better than most other ways that teams try to improve themselves. It’s not cost-prohibitive, with a fairly robust package of improvements checking in around “a few million dollars” in new net spending (the final score would depend a lot on what exactly a team did, but that’s the correct order of magnitude) and data that we have from the odd natural experiment that is the draft bonus system shows us that low-bonus players bleed away value that high-bonus players don’t on their journey through the minors. The effect doesn’t wipe low-bonus players off the map. Some still make the majors and contribute, but the data show that they could have done more than that. The effect is exactly what we would expect based on the study of how the types of conditions that minor leaguers experience (food and housing insecurity, likely partial sleep deprivation) affect people in general.
The amount of unrealized potential adds up to a good chunk of value, certainly enough to justify the cost. According to the asset valuation model (dare I say “Moneyball”) of running a team, teams should try to get in on the ground floor of this one, before the other teams figure it out too.
If there is something that we have learned over the last year and a half, it’s that you can present people with accurate information and scientific research and some of them will still take horse medication. Once you’ve laid out the case for something in numbers, you still have work to do, maybe even more to do than the work you invested in laying out the numbers. As someone who does public health program evaluations for a living, I know that it would be irresponsible to dump some numbers on the table and assume that people will simply fall in line.
Frankly, if you’ve been paying attention to Sabermetrics over the last two decades, you should know that one.
The first question out of anyone’s mouth when any big change is proposed— and this would be a big change—is “Are you sure?” The honest answer is “Well… pretty sure…” which is the honest answer to just about anything. It’s also not a great thing to say when the natural human reaction to change is to look for any reason to say “no.” But, I’d argue that the risk profile for spending the money on the minors is much better than other things that a team might spend its money on to get better.
Realistically, if a team is going to spend “a few million dollars” then that money is going to either be money that the franchise owner decides to (less likely) pump into the franchise from the profit margin or (more likely) from the payroll/free agency budget. There’s no other area where a team could re-direct “a few million dollars” away from it and not completely obliterate that line item, unless we’re pulling from non-baseball operations sections, like stadium operations. That’s not happening either.
The case that I made last week was that those few million dollars spent on minor leaguers will have a better expected return rate than the same money spent on free agents. Free agent salaries in baseball are guaranteed before the player delivers the goods, and sometimes, players turn out to be better than their projections. That’s always nice. Sometimes, the player gets hurt and logs 220 plate appearances and hits .220. There’s risk in everything, but the risk of a free agent is all localized in one or two players. Time remains undefeated against humans, and players who have reached free agency, even the ones who have a good track record of recent success, aren’t guarantees. They’re “old” in baseball player years. This is broadly understood in front offices. You plays your games and you takes your chances. They all have their own projection systems and they all have a margin of error.
Spending that money on minor leaguers works differently. For one, the money gets spread out over a hundred or so players. The case that I’ve tried to make is that the money removes the effects of chronic stress on players. If they don’t have to worry about food or having to live wherever they can afford, they eat better and sleep better. Over time, that adds up. It’s hard to make the case that over time, this would make players worse than they otherwise would have been. But variance will happen here too. Some players won’t really benefit from the additional resources. Some will see a great deal of benefit. From a major league roster construction point of view, a team doesn’t need everyone to benefit. The fact of minor league baseball is that not everyone will make it to MLB. Teams naturally select the best of the bunch and some folks eventually wash out. The same principle applies here. Teams are more likely to benefit from the upper end of the variance distribution and the ones that didn’t benefit will simply wash out.
In addition, the financial risk of the program can be lessened based on how organizations go about it. Money spent on food and utilities is effectively gone once it’s spent, but one of the proposals that I’ve made is that teams might consider buying pre-existing housing units or building their own, and then allowing the players to live rent-free in them. They could instead decide to simply subsidize rental units already on the market, but if they choose to own the housing, then they will own a tangible asset that retains value. One concern that I’ve heard around this plan is that sometimes teams move their affiliates, and obviously, they can’t take a building with them. Even in that situation, it’s an apartment building. You can sell those. It doesn’t even need to be sold to the next organization.
Finally, spending money on minor leaguers has the advantage of not being an upfront commitment like a free agent signing. Once a team signs a free agent who turns out to be a dud, that salary is guaranteed. There’s some room to release the player (at which point, the player might sign with another organization, though the original signing team is still on the hook for all but the pro-rated cost of a minimum MLB salary) or to try to do a salary dump trade. In our “money for the minors” program, teams can monitor and evaluate the program as it goes along. If things aren’t working out and need changed, then an organization can just change them.
If the proposal has one flaw, at least from a return-on-investment perspective, it’s that it rests on the idea of relieving chronic stress. The case that I’ve made is that over several years in the minors, a player is exposed to stress on a pretty consistent basis. Over time, we see a slow bleed of skills as a player progresses through the minors. The program that I’m suggesting would work because its effects would compound year over year.
In the first year of this program, any players at the Triple-A level who have already lived through a few years of rough conditions would probably breathe a sigh of relief, but it’s not like they can go backward in time and un-do all of that stress. There would probably be some effect, though it won’t be the full one yet. The players who are just entering Low-A will hopefully progress through the minors with much less stress than those players before them, but it will be a few years before they make it to MLB.
The full effect will take multiple years to emerge. Last week, I promised that for “a few million per year” a team could easily expect more than a win’s worth of value. The exact number is hard to pin down, but what we can pin down is a pretty good chunk of value. But in that first year or two, a team might not clear value equal to what they could have gotten for a free agent.
It would take a team committing to this idea, probably over five years or so (one full turn of the minor league cycle, where most or all of the players drafted five years ago have either washed out or made the majors) for them to fully see what the program would bring. That’s a very long time in a major league front office. Looking backward, 19 of the 30 currently serving General Managers got their title within the last five years. (Some of them were promoted into the role as a nominal “GM” while still serving in a second-in-command role to someone else who was title inflated from general manager to another more impressive-sounding title.)
The good news is that a team who took the plunge might end up with a significant advantage for a while. Those of us who read (and write at) Baseball Prospectus might have a slightly over-inflated idea of how quickly teams take up the latest Sabermetric trends, even the ones that are pretty airtight. It takes about 10 years for an innovation to work its way through the majors. But there will be a lot of pressure to be a “second mover” on this one. If you’re nervous about whether something will work (and it costs a few million to do), you might wait for someone else to try it first and see if it works. But as we just pointed out, it would probably take a couple of years before it would be apparent to an outsider whether the program was working or not, but if it worked, the first mover would have a good head start over the second movers and even more on the doubtful.
Then there’s the objection that’s going to be hardest to argue against, mostly because it’s not based in reality. It comes in a few different forms, but it’s based on the idea that improving conditions for minor leaguers will somehow deprive them of some key formative experience. They need to be “hungry for it” (literally?) They shouldn’t be “coddled.” Or the ever-popular “If I had to go through it, so should they.”
If any of that were true, we’d see many more low-bonus players in the majors. We don’t. The problem is that we never interview the ones who don’t make it to MLB. All we ever see are the ones who do. When you only ever hear success stories, you assume that success is easy.
The problem arguing this one is that it’s a moral argument. You hear the same type of objection when people talk about bunting in baseball. “Sacrifice bunting” has a wonderfully noble name and it suggests a player who is willing to put the team’s interests over their own. You even get an excuse note for making an out when you bunt. It isn’t counted against your batting average. We know that bunting isn’t a great strategy and that a “successful” sacrifice does more to hurt a team’s chances of scoring runs than help it. Try telling that to someone who thinks that civilization is surely ending because no one can drop a good bunt any more.
If improving minor league conditions would improve life for the players and make the team better, why would an organization not do that? Deprivation isn’t a virtue and suffering doesn’t produce character, it produces cortisol. But in all honesty, there’s going to be at least one voice in the front office even on the most “progressive” teams that’s going to bring this up. Even if we can make a #GoryMath case, we’ll need to address this one, and you can’t just regression yourself out of it.
There is value in overcoming adversity. It’s how people learn and grow. In the fields of child development and education, there’s a concept known as scaffolding. You provide an environment in which the child can approach a problem. You begin by teaching the basic principles, and then as the child masters those, build the “scaffold” higher by using those as a base for teaching still more advanced skills. It’s a measured process. You most certainly don’t just say “Here, figure it out.”
It holds even if you’re an adult. The first rule of child psychology is that it applies throughout all of life. But it also takes a lot of work. It takes showing up every day ready to learn and pushing yourself even on the bad days. Or bad weeks. It means working on your weaknesses. It means being willing to listen. It means taking extra grounders. Learning to become a major league player is hard and there will be plenty of adversity along the way.
If you want to know about a player’s character and what they’re willing to sacrifice for the team, ask about that stuff. And at the same time, make a pact with the players. If you’re willing to go all-in on building yourself into the best player possible, we are going to create the environment where you can focus entirely on that and help you build that scaffold.
Eventually, this conversation will go on in all 30 front offices. Even if the data hold up, there will be objections. It’s not enough to just yell, “But the data say it would work!” even if the data say it would work. You have to be ready to address not only the justification for the change, but the change process as well.
Thank you for reading
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