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The anti-Moneyball

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  • The anti-Moneyball

    Maybe you've heard: Major League Baseball is awash in money. Between the new TV deal and the booming attendance at the new ballparks and the satellite radios in every new car, MLB can't keep track of the revenues. Big gleaming piles of gold nuggets. Stacks of greenbacks higher than the Chrysler Building. More T-bills than the Treasury issues every day to cover our skyrocketing national debt.

    OK, that last one's an exaggeration (nobody's got as much money as we borrow). But MLB is swimming in revenues and there's no end in sight. Someday, the poorest major-leaguer will earn a million dollars per season, and the typical major-leaguer will earn $5 million or $6 million or perhaps much more. Barring some sort of national economic collapse, it's simply a matter of time.

    We're not there yet, though, unless you're an experienced starting pitcher, in which case there's really no limit to how much you can make, regardless of your actual skills or performance. It's a little like those infomercials arguing that you, too, can make a million buying and selling real estate, and the only real work involved is driving to the bank in your new Hummer. But this one's true.

    Last winter, the market was flooded with Proven VeteranTM starting pitchers. Theoretically, when there are many of something the price of the something is supposed to be depressed. It didn't work out that way with the Proven VeteranTM starting pitchers. There were a bunch of them, and most of them wound up signing for significantly more years and money than any sort of rational analysis could possibly have justified.
    Brother, can you spare a dollar? 
    Pitcher Salary ($M) Innings W-L ERA 
    Pe. Martinez  10.9  212  15-7  2.80  
    Ke. Millwood  7.0  179  8-11  2.97  
    Derek Lowe  7.0  210  11-13  3.65  
    Kris Benson  5.3  168  9-8  4.09  
    David Wells  4.1  170  13-7  4.49  
    Matt Clement  6.5  180  13-6  4.65  
    Eric Milton  5.3  172  7-14  6.84  
    Jose Lima  3.8  159  5-16  6.95  
    Russ Ortiz  7.4  111  5-11  6.73  
    Carl Pavano  9.0  100  4-6  4.77  
    Jaret Wright  5.7  59  5-3  5.61
    (Those salary numbers don't actually do justice to the contracts, but most of these pitchers signed multi-year deals and most of the deals were back-loaded. The Reds, for example, gave Milton $25.5 million for three seasons, but only $5.3 million of that money is 2005 salary. Also, I'm sure I missed a few pitchers here, but I'm confident that I got all, or nearly all, of the big names, and I threw in Lima for comic effect.)

    I count among those 11 pitchers two unqualified successes (Martinez and Millwood), four qualified successes (Lowe, Benson, Wells and Clement), and five train wrecks. Consider: Milton, Lima, Ortiz, Pavano and Wright have combined for 26 wins, 50 losses, and a 6.38 ERA. Also consider: Ortiz and Lima and Milton all have personal ERAs just a bit south of 7.

    (Funny story: With Lima, the Royals were on the hook for only $2.5 million, but Lima's already earned another $1.25 million for making a certain number of starts. Of course, Lima could, and should, have been removed from the rotation long before earning that extra $1.25 million, but of course it's only $1.25 million. Sure, the Royals would have been better off spending that money on draft picks, or donating it to some ramshackle public high school. But Allard Baird had X dollars to spend on his payroll and by golly he was going to spend it.)

    All of this is nothing new. In 1990, the Giants broke the bank to sign free agent Bud Black, and other teams followed suit and threw big dollars at Tom Browning, Teddy Higuera, Danny Jackson and Matt Young. Why? Apparently because left-handed pitchers were, at that time, considered magical creatures, somewhere between gremlins and sprites.

    Fifteen years later, the obsession with left-handers seems to have subsided some, but the related obsession with Proven VeteransTM certainly has not. A.J. Burnett has gotten most of the attention, but there are a great number of other Proven VeteransTM who will be available this winter. Among them: Matt Morris, Jeff Weaver, Brett Tomko, Kevin Brown, Paul Byrd, Kevin Millwood, Jamie Moyer, Shawn Estes and Jarrod Washburn. There are others who will become free agents if their teams don't exercise 2006 options: Jason Schmidt, Jeff Suppan, John Thomson and Steve Trachsel. Others are subject to mutual options. My point being, there are plenty of Proven VeteransTM to go around ... and so there's no reason to pay each of them a king's ransom.

    Or to put it another way (and here's the real point) ... just because somebody spends $11 million on A.J. Burnett doesn't mean you have to spend $7 million on John Thomson or $5 million on Steve Trachsel. Burnett doesn't deserve $11 million, exactly, but he is a fairly rare commodity. There just aren't many like him available, whether through free agency, trading, or from your farm system.

    But when there are Joe Blantons and Danny Harens and Brad Halseys and John Pattersons and Gustavo Chacins and Aaron Harangs and Bruce Chens floating around out there, ripe for the plucking, there's simply no reason to throw many, many millions of dollars at pitchers like Eric Milton and Russ Ortiz. None. Every winter, we get to witness what's essentially an intelligence test. And with all due respect, when the Reds committed $25.5 million to Eric Milton, they failed the test. Miserably.

    Postscript I: In case you think I'm exaggerating, note the following passage from the Associated Press story about Milton's deal with the Reds: "Milton gives the Reds a proven left-hander in a rotation that desperately needed one."

    Postscript II: Maybe it's not fair to pile on the Reds. After all, according to the same AP story, five other teams were interested in Milton and his gopher balls -- and two of them were, supposedly at least, the Red Sox and the Dodgers. Granted, those clubs can more easily afford a disaster than can the Reds. But if the Red Sox had got their man, they would be in second place rather than first. Maybe nobody is immune to Proven VeteransTM Syndrome. Do you think Don Fehr will be swayed by this argument when the owners renew their quest for a salary cap?

  • #2
    Danny Haren's floating out there ripe for the plucking, huh? When was he granted free agency?
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    "This is a heavyweight bout indeed."--John Rooney, Oct. 27, 2011


    • #3
      QUOTE(kah @ Sep 22 2005, 11:01 PM) Quoted post

      Danny Haren's floating out there ripe for the plucking, huh? When was he granted free agency?



      • #4
        Danny Jackson....ugh

        "Can't buy what I want because it's free...
        Can't buy what I want because it's free..."
        -- Pearl Jam, from the single Corduroy