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Money, money, money (and Bud Selig’s nirvana)

Aug 26, 2014, 4:46 PM EDT

Bud Selig

You probably know that one of Bud Selig’s big objectives as commissioner of baseball was to even the playing field – that is, to give the small-market teams a chance to contend. A luxury tax was instituted. Wildcards were added to the playoffs. The amateur draft had numerous rules changed. Sure, many people thought it was all a ploy to take money from the players and give it to the owners – and let’s not be naïve, I’m sure some of it WAS a money grab – but I always thought that competitive balance really was an issue close to his heart. Selig had been a small-market owner. He had grown up a small-market baseball fan. He will talk passionately and often about how every fan should have hope on Opening Day – he borrowed that from me, by the way — and I feel sure he believes that.

Funny thing: Here at the end of his tenure, baseball is closer to Selig’s nirvana than perhaps ever before. As Brian McPherson writes in the Providence Journal, the correlation between money spent and winning is at its lowest point in a long, long time. McPherson writes that the correlation right now between wins and money is actually smaller than the correlation between wins and alphabetical order.

Why is this a funny thing?

Because, I believe the reason for whatever actual effect we are seeing is pretty directly tied to the steroid years that Selig has been running away from for more than a decade.

Before we get to that, let’s look quickly at the playoff picture. As it stands right now:

American League

East: Baltimore (15th in Opening Day payroll)

Central: Kansas City (19th)

West: Oakland (25th) and Los Angeles Angels (6th)

Wildcard No. 1: Oakland or LA

Wildcard No. 2: Seattle (18th)

National League

East: Washington (9th in Opening Day payroll)

Central: Milwaukee (16th)

West: Los Angeles Dodgers (1st)

Wildcard No. 1: St. Louis (13th)

Wildcard No. 2: San Francisco (7th)

So, as you can see, the game is not being dominated by the highest-payroll teams anymore – of the Top 5 payrolls, only the Dodgers are in the playoffs in the season ended today. This, however, is at least a bit deceiving. Detroit has a Top 5 payroll and is just 1 1/2 games behind Kansas City – I suspect most people suspect the Tigers will catch the Royals before it’s all done. And those vampire Yankees, the team Michael Schur will tell you cannot be killed, linger two-and-a-half games behind the Mariners for the second wildcard spot. If just those two things switch, suddenly six of the ten playoff teams will have Top 10 payrolls. So it’s possible to get carried away by the moment.

Still, something is happening. Philadelphia is in shambles with a huge payroll. The Red Sox are again in last place with a huge payroll. The vampire Yankees have been hot lately but I’m still not buying them and they have flashed a whole lot more mediocrity than promise this year. The Rangers have a huge payroll and are the worst team in baseball. The Blue Jays and Diamondbacks and Reds and even the Twins are trying to spend money but seem to be spinning their wheels or are in screaming descent.

So, why is this happening? I have a theory – one that directly relates to my belief that many baseball teams are doing something that is monumentally stupid. I’m referring to the huge, long-term deals that they are giving players – deals that last until the players are in their mid-to-late 30s, and sometimes even carries them into their 40s. These contracts are a death trap, a suicide rap, and while there are exceptions to every rule, there are never more than a few exceptions. Giving huge, long-term contracts to players in their late 20s or early 30s is self-destructive. Period.

Let’s look at those big payroll teams that are struggling.

No. 2 in payroll: Yankees. Even with Alex Rodriguez mostly off the books for a year, the Yankees have these suffocating long term deals with Mark Teixeira, C.C. Sabathia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, heck, they just scooped up the next two years of Martin Prado for some reason.

No. 3 in payroll: Philadelphia. Covered this one. Almost 70% of their payroll is going to big deal guys — Ryan Howard, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Chase Utley, Jonathan Papelbon, A.J. Burnett and Jimmy Rollins. Throw another $16 million in the pot for Carlos Ruiz and Marlon Byrd. What the heck could Ruben Amaro have been thinking?

No. 4 in payroll: Boston. The Red Sox salary structure is a bit different from the Yankees or Phillies… but they are still putting an old team on the field. Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Mike Napoli, Daniel Nava, all in their 30s. You can see them trying desperately to get younger now.

No. 8 in payroll: Texas. Lots of terrible contracts here – Prince Fielder for another six years, Shin Soo Choo for another six years, some big money about to kick in on Elvis Andrus. The Rangers have had terrible luck this year with health but this is a team staring into the barrels of some serious financial pain anyway.

So … what does this have to do with the Selig Era?

Well, there were two things that happened during the late 1990s and early 2000s that were unusual. One, of course, was the crazy proliferation of home runs. But the second was the way players aged. For a long time before the 1994 strike, players tended to age at more or less the same rate. There are countless ways to quantify this – I did a simple spreadsheet looking at players with 3.0 WAR or better. A player with 3.0 WAR is a good player (but not necessarily a great one) and there are usually 25 to 30 of them in any given season, sometimes a few more, sometimes a few less.

For decades before the late 1990s, about 72% of those good 3.0 players were younger than 30. Almost all the rest were between 30 and 34. Very few were older than 35 –  from 1972-1997 only 16 of the 594 players with 3.0 WAR were 35 or older. This seemed the natural aging pattern of players.

Here, for your information, is an incomplete list of Hall of Famers and all-time greats who never had even a 3.0 WAR season after age 35: Rickey Henderson, Rogers Hornsby, Mickey Mantle, Cal Ripken, Johnny Bench, Robbie Alomar and Yogi Berra.

It changed in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In 1998, for instant, HALF the 3.0 WAR players were 30 or older. It was similar in the the surrounding years. If you include all the years from 1996 to 2004, more than 40% of all the 3.0 WAR players were at least 30 years old.

Beyond that, we suddenly started seeing 35-year olds performing at very high levels. People will immediately say that this was because of the popularization of PED use, and that was certainly a factor. It’s also possible there were other factors – smaller strike zones, smaller parks, better bats, many others. But whatever the reasons, there were a few years there where the idea of a player performing well until his mid-to-late 30s suddenly seemed reasonable.

My guess is that this seemingly reasonable conclusion that baseball players had started to beat the aging process was, in fact, quite unreasonable and it is probably the biggest factor in these massive, sprawling and utterly doomed long-term contracts. Teams started trying to lock up player’s last year for huge dough. Best I can tell, there are 22 players who are signed for big money for at least five seasons after this one. They are:

Atlanta: Freddie Freeman.

Boston: Dustin Pedroia.

Cincinnati: Shin-Soo Choo; Joey Votto.

Colorado: Troy Tulowitzki.

Detroit: Justin Verlander; Miguel Cabrera.

Los Angeles Angels: Albert Pujols; Mike Trout.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Matt Kemp; Clayton Kershaw.

Milwaukee: Ryan Braun.

New York Mets: David Wright.

New York Yankees: Jacoby Ellsbury; Masahiro Tanaka.

San Francisco: Buster Posey.

Seattle: Robinson Cano; Felix Hernandez.

Texas: Elvis Andrus; Prince Fielder.

Washington: Ryan Zimmerman.

How many of those contracts would you want? Before you answer, consider that these are mostly newer contracts – we don’t have any perspective on them yet. But we do have perspective on the LAST batch of big-money contracts – here are the big money contracts running out the next three years: Vernon Wells; Alfonso Soriano; Cliff Lee; C.C. Sabathia; Matt Holliday; Ryan Howard; Mark Teixeira; Josh Hamilton, Jayson Werth; Matt Cain; Carl Crawford; Alex Rodriguez; Jose Reyes.

How many of THOSE contracts would you want?

Baseball owners’ and GM’s madness for big money contracts to aging players has, in its own way, evened the game more than anything else Selig or any other commissioner has done. The Yankees stopped developing their own players and bought their way into a pit. The Red Sox had a couple of only moderate seasons, went on a shopping spree, and bought their way to their two worst seasons in the last half century or so. The Phillies spent a crazy fortune in a hopelessly misguided effort to keep a good team together well past its expiration date.

Even the high-spending teams that are doing well this year – the Angels and Dodgers in particular – are basically tiptoeing around some calamitous contracts.

There’s a great line in The Office where the HR representative Toby – who knows that the boss Michael despises him – finds himself stuck in the back with the impossibly annoying Kelly and Ryan, who spend all hours fighting and making up and fighting more. “I don’t think Michael meant to punish me by putting me here with them,” he said. “But if he did – genius.”

That’s what I see here too. I don’t think Bud Selig meant to even up the game by getting the big teams to wasted their huge money advantages on old and rapidly declining players. But hey, if he did – genius.

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