Aug 26, 2014, 4:46 PM EDT
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:
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)
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.
Colorado: Troy Tulowitzki.
Milwaukee: Ryan Braun.
New York Mets: David Wright.
New York Yankees: Jacoby Ellsbury; Masahiro Tanaka.
San Francisco: Buster Posey.
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.
Mar 29, 2015, 11:55 PM EDT
Ryan Ludwick didn’t hit much during Cactus League play, resulting in the Rangers releasing him on Sunday.
Mar 29, 2015, 11:20 PM EDT
Nick Martinez beat out the field to win the final spot in the Rangers’ starting rotation.
Mar 29, 2015, 10:25 PM EDT
Mike Pelfrey took back his comments about being happy with a trade to a team that would use him as a starter.
Mar 29, 2015, 9:20 PM EDT
Ben Revere broke a promise to Rajai Davis when the Phillies’ left fielder robbed a home run.
Mar 29, 2015, 8:15 PM EDT
Nationals reliever Casey Janssen is dealing with more shoulder problems, which could lead to a stint on the disabled list.
Mar 29, 2015, 7:10 PM EDT
Dan Uggla, who is having a strong spring training showing, says he wouldn’t be comfortable sitting on the Nationals’ bench.
Mar 29, 2015, 6:05 PM EDT
Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg shook up his outfield a bit on Sunday, announcing that Ben Revere would be moving to left field.
Mar 29, 2015, 5:01 PM EDT
Hamels tossed five scoreless innings in his latest Grapefruit League start. He’ll take on the Red Sox on April 6 — a team he has been connected to in trade talks throughout the offseason.
Mar 29, 2015, 3:37 PM EDT
Ryan Hanigan is expected to open the season as Boston’s starting catcher. And season-ending surgery for Vazquez would likely accelerate the timetable for top prospect Blake Swihart’s debut.
Mar 29, 2015, 2:23 PM EDT
Uehara originally strained his right hamstring on March 17 while doing conditioning drills in Red Sox camp.
Mar 29, 2015, 1:15 PM EDT
Russell Wilson spent nearly seven minutes with the Rangers’ television crew on Saturday …
Mar 29, 2015, 12:08 PM EDT
According to Sean McAdam of CSN New England, the Red Sox have named right-hander Clay Buchholz their Opening Day starter.
Mar 29, 2015, 11:12 AM EDT
Jose Fernandez would have been given the nod, but he’s not expected to be recovered from Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery until sometime in June.
Mar 29, 2015, 10:14 AM EDT
MLB.com’s Mark Bowman reports that the Braves have released left-hander James Russell.
Mar 28, 2015, 11:25 PM EDT
Let Marlins outfielder Ichiro Suzuki tell you how being a free agent is like being a puppy in a pet shop.
Mar 28, 2015, 10:35 PM EDT
Promising Mariners pitching prospect Victor Sanchez died on Saturday night after he was involved in an unfortunate boating accident in February.
Mar 28, 2015, 10:10 PM EDT
Outfielder Nate Schierholtz is a free agent again, opting out of his contract with the Rangers after a disappointing spring showing.
Mar 28, 2015, 9:05 PM EDT
Two baseball superstars put their talented display in spring training action on Saturday afternoon.
Mar 28, 2015, 8:05 PM EDT
More shoulder problems for Jaime Garcia, who has made 16 combined starts since the beginning of the 2013 season.
Mar 28, 2015, 7:15 PM EDT
Shane Victorino didn’t like the way a pair of radio personalities in Boston interpreted his desire to see the Red Sox acquire Cole Hamels from the Phillies.
- Mariners prospect Victor Sanchez has died 22
- 2015 Preview: Chicago White Sox 15
- Did David Ortiz admit to more than he realized with his Players’ Tribune editorial? 83
- 2015 Preview: Atlanta Braves 15
- David Ortiz: “Nobody in MLB history has been tested for PEDs more than me” 118
- 2015 Preview: Chicago Cubs 14
- Unsigned 2014 No. 1 overall pick Brady Aiken undergoes Tommy John surgery 61
- 2015 Preview: Seattle Mariners 15
- Ex-Cardinals outfielder Curt Ford was assaulted in St. Louis and told to “go back to Ferguson” (122)
- David Ortiz: “Nobody in MLB history has been tested for PEDs more than me” (118)
- Rob Manfred says it would be hard to reinstate Pete Rose in a limited way (89)
- Mo’ne Davis says college ballplayer who wrote an offensive tweet about her deserves a second chance (88)
- Did David Ortiz admit to more than he realized with his Players’ Tribune editorial? (83)