Moneyball: Major League Baseball’s Headed Down a Dark Path

As though the title of the blog didn’t already give it away, MLB is headed toward a state of disarray, where nearly every team’s trying to be the ’02 A’s (the rhyming was unintentional). At the heart of baseball — of any game, really — is one core principle: You play to win the game. Now, for the billion-dollar franchises we find ourselves rooting for every year, the expectation of fans and responsibility of the organization is that this same principle is carried out on a daily basis, year-round, whether it’s the offseason, regular season, or postseason. But something is threatening the integrity of the game: Greed.

People tend to roll their eyes at the hundreds of millions star athletes are paid to play a kid’s game, so it’s only natural that when it comes to drawn-out contract negotiations — be it through extension or free agency — outsiders blame the players. Why? Because they see them. As fans, we don’t see the owners all of the time, the ones making the vast majority of profits from the “kid’s game”, but we do see the hundred-million-dollar players — the ones whose work brings in the enormous revenues we see in sports today. On the whole, people believe that salaries for professional athletes just go up, and up, and up, and up… but this is a myth. In truth, some salaries have gone up over the years, your absolute stars’. Players like Alex Rodriquez, Albert Pujols, Giancarlo Stanton, and yes, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado as well, will always get paid. But, on the whole, the median MLB salary has gone down every year since 2014:

Sean Doolittle, closer for the Nationals, has been spot-on this offseason in his assessment of the state of baseball. In fact, the interaction above is a perfect microcosm of the disillusionment of casual fans. The thread continued and it’s ironic that Doolittle’s a pitcher, because he hit this one out of the park:


However, it’s this third and final interaction that stands out to me the most:


After criticizing Doolittle for making millions, yet lamenting the state of baseball, “Bird Watcher” defends the owners by saying “it’s a business”. And that’s true, it is. But that statement ignores the fact that baseball — and any professional sport — is a different kind of business. Other businesses “win” by increasing profits or customer satisfaction — in baseball winning and maximizing profits often don’t line up. So, the question becomes, what should the goal of an owner be? Complicated question, but in short, I think a reasonable expectation for an owner would be to try to maximize profits while maintaining the integrity game: Always trying to win.

Yet, in each of the three major sports — the NFL, NBA, and MLB — that notion, “trying to win every year”, is vanishing. You see it in “The Process”, made famous by the 76ers, and tanking; they’re strategies founded on extended losing and subsequently building through the draft. As a competitive, optimistic person this idea of losing now to win later makes my blood boil. I don’t get it. And more importantly, it’s not even a guarantee. Essentially, teams could justify years and years of losing by playing it off as a means of amassing picks or giving young guys a shot. For any fan to accept that is naïve. It’s completely ignorant of the fact that teams whiff on picks, make mistakes scouting, and mismanage player development all of the time. Even the 6ers, who began that Process in 2013, have only recently become contenders after a half-decade of ineptitude.

Around the same time that the 76ers coined “The Process”, the Houston Astros accomplished arguably the most embarrassing feat of any team in the history of professional sports. Like the 6ers, the 2013 Astros decided that they were going to field a historically bad team in hopes of building up the farm system. Their highest-paid player was Erik Bedard, who made a whopping $1.15 million. That’s how the ’13 Astros, the worst team in all of baseball that year (51-111) became the most profitable team in baseball history[1]. Contrary to popular belief, Houston is the fourth largest sports market in the US and the Houston fans refused to give up on their team despite its horrific roster — but the owner, Jim Crane, did. Granted, the Astros ended up benefitting in the long run from their renewed farm system and won the World Series in 2017, but maybe they win two more if Jim Crane had supplemented their young talent with high-profile free agents in 2015 and 2016. Even then, while the Astros made the leap, they’re the exception. The Browns, Marlins, Pirates, and Athletics are just a few examples of teams bogged down by poor ownership, unwilling to go all in on winning.

Unlike the NFL and NBA, baseball doesn’t have a salary cap; it’s the sport of hope. Any given year, a team can decide to go all out on supplementing whatever core it has with high-end free agent players. Yes, the Competitive Balance Tax serves as a soft, de facto cap, but being that 28 of 30 MLB teams don’t come within $12 million of this year’s $206 million threshold, I don’t believe it’s a major issue or deterrent. Despite this, last year we saw some of the brightest stars in the sport, including Jake Arrieta and J.D. Martinez, remain unsigned through the start of Spring Training. This year, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, two generational athletes who, at 26, are both still ascending as players, remain unsigned as of February 6th. Some fans, maybe even most, see this as two players holding out for more money, and that’s true in a way. However, when you really break down why holding out has become a trend over the past two years, the fault falls primarily on the shoulders of the owners. No player, not even Harper or Machado, wants to be in the dark, at this point in the offseason, on where they’re playing this year. Essentially, this comes down to a lack of aggression by the owners to sign two players, potentially bound for Cooperstown, at 26 years old. Sure, people are going to point to Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera as cautionary tales, as each was the best player in baseball when they were signed but drastically fell off soon after. But, honestly, I pay no attention to that, because there’s a monumental difference between signing a player to a massive deal at 26 years old versus 31, as was the case with Pujols and Cabrera. Even in an extreme circumstance, where one or both gets a 10-year deal, Harper and Machado would only be 36 by the end.

Every single team in baseball could sign either one of those players — and every single team would massively benefit from their talents — but about 85% of the league has chosen to not even be in the running. Both the Yankees and Mets, playing in the largest market in the country, could afford either Harper or Machado. As it stands, the Yankees’ total payroll rests at about $193 million, good for 3rd in baseball. It’d be fairly simple for a GM as deft as Brian Cashman to swing a trade for salary relief and sign one of Harper or Machado — the Steinbrenners choose not to. Across boroughs, Brodie Van Wagenen’s done an excellent job adding both talent and depth to the Mets’ roster, but for a team who just made a “win-now” move by trading away two prospects many consider top 100 in all of baseball, it’s important to truly go all-in. Oh, yeah, and signing Bryce Harper costs exactly zero blue-chip prospects. For the Mets, whose total payroll currently sits around $157 million (7th in MLB, not accounting for money recouped through insurance), to go halfway-in by not making a move for one of the top two free agents, it comes off as a disingenuous ploy by the owners to elevate fan interest in the upcoming season. The Wilpons are choosing not to go all-in. Just to be clear, I believe both the Yankees and Mets are serious World Series contenders this year thanks to masterful jobs by Brian Cashman and Brodie Van Wagenen, but for ownership of both New York teams to balk at the opportunity to sign perennial MVP candidates in their mid-20s, that’s an embarrassment.

The thing is, the issue goes so much deeper. At the very least, the high-end free agents know they’ll end up somewhere, with an incredible salary to boot. The fringe guys — non-roster invitees and players that typically round out the end of your 40-man roster — are the people that are being hurt the most. They don’t know where they’ll end up, or if they’ll end up anywhere. Those players are also waiting, with bated breath, to find out if they’ll have a job this season. For a lot of guys, that won’t happen until Harper, Machado, Keuchel, etc. are signed. Simply put, owners are hurting the game — they have too much power. As I’m sure many of you don’t know, when a team goes up for sale, the other owners in the league need to embrace you; collectively, they have the power to refuse any potential owner that doesn’t fit their shared vision for the league. So, the next time you criticize Jerry Jones or Mark Cuban for being too involved in their franchises — at least their trying to freaking win. These owners we have in MLB? Winning’s just extra to them.