Baseball teams do not try to lose

Here’s the rub of things:

There’s one scene that sticks out in my mind, though, if only because it made me realize something about the Moneyball phenomenon as a whole. You’ll remember it from the book as the chapter where Billy Beane simultaneously wheedles Ricardo Rincon out of the Indians and leaves Brian Sabean wandering around the Embarcadero wearing a barrel. That moment is the heart of Michael Lewis’s book. In the film, it seems almost out of place, as if some poor assistant rushing a latte to Mr. Sorkin had tripped and fallen and gotten his script crossed up with 10 pages from another movie. What to that point had felt a little like, I dunno, The Bad News Bears Learn Microsoft Excel became something else entirely. Pitt works the phones, and Jonah Hill beaches himself in the corner of the screen, and the whole enjoyable hustle unfolds like something out of another movie—Glengarry Glen Ross, maybe. And that’s when it occurred to me: Moneyball is, very quietly, a story about a con.

I don’t mean the lesser cons that Beane perpetrates on his fellow GMs. I mean the large-scale one that the book never mentions, the one that’s central to how baseball teams do business in the Bud Selig era—the one about hopeless cheap-asses like the A’s who soak the wealthy clubs on revenue sharing and win just often enough that no one points out they’re really just the Pirates with better marketing.

It’s an attractive idea, I guess, one that mixes a “free-market”, pro-rich guy, opposition to revenue sharing with an anti-rich guy, pro-everyman fan disdain for the fat cat owners of small market teams who supposedly only care about making as much money as they possibly can, even if they have to deliberately lose games to do it. My head already hurts from the cognitive dissonance.

Of course, there are a number of extremely obvious problems with this line of thinking. First of all, the notion that the A’s win “just enough” is pretty laughable. At the height of the Beane era in Oakland, the A’s were one of the most successful franchises in all of baseball. From 1999 to 2006, the A’s won no fewer than 87 games, won fewer than 90 games just twice, and also won over 100 games twice. That’s not the picture of a franchise just muddling through, it’s the picture of a team enjoying a run of sustained success anyone short of the Yankees and Red Sox would sign up for in a minute, and given how few financial resources the A’s were working with, it’s nothing short of remarkable.

And frankly, the 2002 season that was chronicled in Moneyball might well have been the most remarkable of all. That year the A’s won 103 games, one more than they did in 2001 and more than any other year in the franchise’s post-Bash Brother period, despite losing Jason Giambi before the season. Rincon would throw 20.1 innings for the A’s that season, with a 6.33 strikeout-to-walk ratio along the way. There’s supposed to be a problem here?

The second fallacy here, really an oddity more than anything, is invoking the Pirates as the wink-and-nudge post child for allegedly profiting-through-losing. That’s an allusion to the revenue sharing reports that leaked to Deadspin, of course, but in light of the aggressive manner in which the Pirates just spent money on the draft, including giving top ten money to their second round pick and reportedly earning an admonishment from Selig for spending too much money, it seems a bit out of place to say the least. Craggs might not agree with how the Pirates are going about trying to build a winning team, but to say they aren’t trying at this point is utterly ridiculous.

The final, and biggest, flaw with this view of things is that it plays to the relatively common but completely inaccurate view that “spending money” is equivalent to sustained on-field success. This isn’t true, of course, mostly because the best, most productive players are either in their pre-free agency years of enforced cost control or have signed an extension at a below market rate before becoming eligible for free agency. Players who become free agents usually do it when they’re already in their primes, or near the end of their primes, and the higher salaries they command are generally spent on their decline years. That can be a worthwhile trade off for a team ready to compete at the time of the signing, but doesn’t really help a team that probably won’t compete during the player’s remaining prime years anyway (I don’t come across many Nationals fans still feeling good about Jayson Werth‘s contract, for example).

Of course, most of this commentary is quite ignorant of the actual costs of free agents. Craggs throws out the number $30 million for the amount of a revenue sharing check collected by a team like Oakland or Pittsburgh, so let’s run with that for now. Where could the A’s or Pirates conceivably spent $30 over the offseason that would have them in playoff contention right now? Anyone?

Fans don’t want to hear it, but it’s still the case that the only way to build a team from the bottom up is through good, cheap, young talent. Building a team through free agency just isn’t possible, and fans will not gravitate to an expensive loser any more than they will a cheap one. What’s more, the money that gets spent retaining players that teams supposedly “have to” spend big for end up being big mistakes more often than not. Big money deals for Todd Helton in Colorado, Eric Chavez in Oakland, and Travis Hafner in Cleveland certainly wound up being drags on those franchises, and Joe Mauer‘s new deal looks like it will be a similar, if not bigger, problem for Minnesota. Compare those decisions to the ones the Rays made this past winter, when they barely even pretended to be interested in retaining Carl Crawford and Rafael Soriano. Re-signing those players would have made the average Rays’ fan very happy, to be sure, and it would make them a much more expensive team now, but it wouldn’t make them a better team, and Crawford in particular would go on to be a big drag on the team for most of the next decade.

Meanwhile, the Rays are on their way to their 4th straight winning season, and have a decent chance at winning 90 games (they need to finish the season 13-9). And if either the Yankees or Red Sox were in one of the other two divisions, the Rays could very plausibly be on their way to a wild card berth. That the two best teams in the American League this year are in the same division as them is totally outside of their control.

And even once you get past all of this, the simple fact remains that a handful of baseball teams really do face significant financial constraints. Baseball doesn’t have the structured contracts of the NBA or the giant pool of central revenue money the NFL gets from their television contracts, so the very small market teams just can not afford to have $80 million+ payrolls for very long. But as the last decade decisively proves, you don’t need to spend a lot of money to build a contender, and the real market inefficiency continues to be finding talent where others see only junk. And luck. Lots and lots of luck.

Born in Southwestern Ohio and currently residing on the Chesapeake Bay, Brien is a former editor-in-chief of IIATMS who now spends most of his time sitting on his deck watching his tomatoes ripen and consuming far more MLB Network programming than is safe for one's health or sanity.

5 thoughts on “Baseball teams do not try to lose

  1. friend

    I remember hearing ad nauseum about how great the Mauer contract was for MLB. 'Nuff said.

  2. Mike

    Brien, Great post. My one contrary thought would be your take on the Pirates. Over the last 10 years or so, they seem to have done very little in terms of wise, Beane-type spending. You cite their recent moves, but I see this as more a knee-jerk reaction to the leaked Deadspin story, vice any concerted strategy. And their early (and mid) season success this year seem to be more dumb luck than anything as they've regressed heavily.

    • BrienJackson

      I think that was more about stupidity than nefarious intentions. They were bringing in guys like Sean Casey, Adam LaRouche, Matt Morris, etc to put around Jack Wilson and Freddy Sanchez. I don't really think they weren't trying, they just didn't do a very good job, because they couldn't have afforded quality free agents anyway.

    • Mike in NYC

      Mike – my thoughts exactly when I was reading the article. I remember when the Pirates first jumped into the free agent market this year my first impression was “they got busted gaming the system and now they’re trying to look all innocent.” The fact of the matter is that for the last 5 – 6 years the Pirates WERE better off financially if they lost. They had an owner who was spending less in payroll than he was taking in from revenue sharing (and that was BEFORE they got their local tv/radio $$ or sold one ticket, hotdog, t-shirt).

  3. hugh

    Wow. Washington will be paying Werth $21mill in his 39th year. Hadn't fully appreciated that before. Was there that big a market for his services last off-season that they had to offer seven years and that much money?

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