Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Bryce Harper's Legacy .... Or, what this tells us about baseball

As the baseball winter meetings start, fans and journalists in various baseball cities reflect on their teams, their needs, and -- in what has become annual fare -- where high priced free agents will go. I should begin by saying that I have nothing against free agency. It is clearly better than what preceded it. I agree, however, with the premises of Moneyball: most of the people who make decisions about large salaries in baseball are guided by things other than an assessment of the overall talent on their teams. Or, said differently, they are not always good at assessing talent. The result is that they often make bad decisions. How much one someone will pay Bryce Harper might end up being one of those bad decisions. I was reminded of this decision recently after reading Jesse Dougherty's column on Harper's legacy in the Washington Post. If you haven't read it (and you might because it is well written and managed to find its way via syndication into one of the local papers in south-east New Brunswick, which is pretty far from Washington), let me recap. Harper will likely leave Washington but the Nationals owe him a significant debt. He made the team better, put it on the map, established it as a major league team (as it were) and became the "face of the franchise."

These are all subjective points and I would rather have had Harper on my roster than not have had him. There is no doubt that he is -- and will continue to be -- an appreciable talent. He might even become a Hall of Fame player, noting that he is still young for a regular and his best days likely lie ahead of him. But ... and this is a big but ... I wonder ...? I don't think Harper should be the first 400$ million player. Someone will pay him a lot of money but, if I were making baseball decisions (and, there is a reason I am not), I'd likely not pull the trigger on Harper. I'd take a pass. There is a lot of talent here; a real lot. But, Harper has -- quite simply -- not been one of the best players in baseball over the course of his career to date (acknowledging again that he is still young). In fact, he has not even been the best player on his team over the last five years. Is he the most talented ...?  Sure, I'd say that is likely true. Has he been the best on the Nationals? The evidence we have simply does not bear that out.

How so?  And, what do I mean by bad decisions?   Let's use Harper's impending pay day -- and a potentially comparable case from the Blue Jays -- to think a bit about baseball. Let's start with the last question first. Bad decisions are actually more difficult to determine because we don't necessarily know the reason why people made the decisions that they made. Every fan in baseball -- me included -- talks all the time about bad decisions because they think they know what they are talking about, but they are really making assumptions. A bad decision must actually be determined within the framework of its own criteria. Fans and many commentators assume that the goal of a baseball team is to win because that is their goal: they want to see their team win. And, if that were simply the case, then, well, one would go out and get the best (and, we can have a debate about that word too!) players around, sign them to your team, and Bob's your uncle ... off you go.

But, the situation is more complicated than that. Baseball teams are business and they also want to make money. You can be as competitive as you want but if you lose money ... well ... that will affect the decisions you make in terms of your players.  Because baseball is a business, it is also about making money and that complicates decisions. How so? Well, you might want to sign the best player but what if that player wants a heck of a lot of money (say, something north of 300$ million, like Harper reportedly wants)?  And, what if he wants a multi-year contract whereby you are going to be paying him, say, 30$ or 40$ million per year for many is the year? The Jays have a couple of those players on their roster right now. Tulo, for instance. Troy Tulowitzki was, when the Jays acquired him (via trade; not free agency), a very good baseball player. His numbers were inflated because he played in Colorado but he was a five time all-star, a two-time Gold Glove winner, and regularly discussed -- even while he did not win -- as an MVP candidate.  There were warning signs, too, he had a huge -- I mean huge!! -- salary and he had injury problems (he'd missed s significant time in 2008, 2012, and 2014 and some time in 2010) and he was not getting any younger so injuries were bound to become more important.  He was also 30 years old, young in human terms but mid-career+ for a baseball player.

But, the Jays wanted to win, had a problem at shortstop (particularly with defence) so they were willing to spend the money and bring in Tulo, who did indeed help them out. However, there are a couple of further points to this calculation.

1. If the goal of the Jays in bringing in Tulo was to win ... that goal was not accomplished.  One can argue that the Jays were good and that they made the playoffs and "had a good run" but that is not the same as meeting one's goal. Think about it differently: imagine your goal is to cook a pot roast. You put the roast on but your oven goes and the roast remains uncooked. It can still be a nice looking roast but you can't eat it.
2. However much Tulo helped the Jays in 2015 make the playoffs by soliding up their D, he cost them a lot of money to do so. So much, in fact, that it has become a drag on their resources for years thereafter.

I am not shooting Tulo down. I like him as a player and have for years.  The value of that playoff run, however, if gauged just in terms of Tulo's salary alone is high and getting higher. The Jays paid him 20$ million last year, the same the year before, the same the year before and a hunk the year before that. They will pay him 20$ this year coming, 14$ million in 2020, and either 15$ million or a 4$ million buyout (and, I think it safe to say that it will by then be the buyout) in 2021. My numbers are a bit low but, said differently, the Jays will have laid out close to 100$ million for Tulo by the time things are said and done, unless he retires.

Why mention all this and how does it relate to Harper? It illustrates, in my view, a bad decision. What makes the decision bad is not the money, which does strike me as a serious drag on the Jays resources, but the fact that this money did not do what it was supposed to: win.

Moreover, Tulo's injuries have continued. He played 41 games when they first brought him in, in 2015. His defence was good but his offence wasn't, with an OPS (a measure of total offensive ability) below .700 ... that is, at a point where you start to think about replacing the player.  He was better offensively in 2016 but missed 30 games; his 2017 numbers were not good and he missed nearly 100 games as a result of injury. He did not play at all in 2018. So, so far, the Jays have gotten good defence out of Tulo when he has played and average offence. He has played a total of 238 games over more than three seasons or a total of 1.4 seasons out of, say, the slightly less than the 3.5 he could have played. And, this has cost the jays north of 60$ million so far with another almost 40$ million still on the books. 

I think I have made my point.  It is, of course, not that Tulo is a bad guy (indeed, judging from interviews -- not always the best source -- he sounds pretty reasonable and team oriented), nor that he is not talented. The issue is that those people who made the decision to bring him in did so for specific reasons (I'll get more into those in some future blog) and those reasons were not met and the price was high. You could live with the high price if you met the goals (and the price is even higher, of course, because the Jays also had to pay people to play Tulo's position when he was not), but if you don't .... ?

This is the kind of calculation I make when I think about the value of Bryce Harper.  Harper is an amazingly talented player who will command a high salary. By trying to sign him, one in fact ups his salary by creating a bidding war. He is also a player with a history of injuries, questions about his leadership ability and effort, and, from what we can tell, weak defence.  I'd prefer to have him on my team, but am I willing to pay him a whole bunch of money to be on my team and not play two or three or four years down the road since he will want a very long term contract? Am I willing to put 400$ million down to find out?

The fact that someone in baseball will, tells us a lot about baseball. In fact, it tells us much more about baseball than it tells us about Harper.

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I began teaching at university over two decades ago and in that time one (well, more than one but this is the one about which I am blogging ...