Do MLB Owners Wield Sabermetrics as a Hammer?

Mariners' ownership is putting a lot of faith in Nelson Cruz to not be an albatross. (via Keith Allison)

Mariners’ ownership is putting a lot of faith in Nelson Cruz to not be an albatross. (via Keith Allison)

Money has been complicating baseball since before the National League was founded in 1876. Everyone hates the Yankees because they have too much of it, other teams’ fans hate their owners for not spending enough of it, and the players’ complaints about it have operated as a sort of angsty, blue collar anthem that has accompanied the entire history of the game.

The economics of baseball are more visible and far more researched now than they have ever been. And thanks to the sweeping sphere of influence of billionaires, much of that research has begun to favor team ownership.

The advanced statistics put forward by sites like FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus have been a renaissance of sorts for the game of baseball. Personally, I could spend embarrassing amounts of time looking over player pages and articles at either site, as well as this one. It’s fascinating and it brings an amazing aspect to the game that is absolutely exclusive to baseball. No other sport can claim the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) and the snowball of game-enriching information that has grown around its advancements.

The conventional detractors of sabermetrics seem to despise new(ish) stats out of sheer unfamiliarity and ideological fealty. Every flaw in the infinite imperfection of statistics seems to bloat the confirmation bias inherent to some that adhere to this line of thinking. Sometimes they seem like they’re trying to hide their stubbornness, but for the most part, their ideas aren’t ideas at all. They’re nothing but basic oppositions to a field that is, at it’s core, simply additional information.

However, when these evaluations are lifted up and placed on a pedestal above players getting a fair shake financially, they supercede their purpose. They begin to become a tool for owners to use in their efforts to perform their systemic, exploitative duties. And they affect the way fans talk about the game.

In fact, baseball teams are moving toward privatizing all of its analytics work, which would, in effect, inhibit outsider critiques of their labor work. This would allow teams to operate largely behind closed doors, and presumably, do so much more effectively. The privatization of data also benefits teams in that they are able to ensconce that data from the prying eyes of other clubs in order to gain an advantage on the field, but in keeping as much data as they can to themselves, they are also limiting player agents and the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) from being able to perform due diligence on behalf of the players.

If they control data, they control evaluation.

Teams already operate with their own private metrics. As they continue to lock up analytics talent from the online community and elsewhere, would teams ever try to philosophically influence the inner workings behind publicly available metrics as part of their recruitment efforts? If they were successful, a more pronounced gap between management and critics would develop because critics couldn’t decipher how decisions are being made.

Public sites also take cues from team management and ownership because their new-school evaluations are seen as “baseball’s best practices.” Most teams have to be financially efficient in order to compete, with the rare exceptions of teams like the Yankees and Dodgers, who have seemingly endless revenue streams and can afford to make expensive mistakes. But with most teams, financial efficiency is just a reality of team building. However, older players who have earned their way into consideration for high-dollar free agent deals—like recent Mariners signee Nelson Cruz—are evaluated as being surefire albatrosses in the future rather than celebrated for having earned a share of their new owner’s profits based on past performance.

As a result, all information sources have a bias and fewer ways to discover, correct for, or critique the bias that remains. The latter bit is the big problem for labor, because if you think players are being taken advantage of but can’t prove it, management—and their ambitious public empathizers—laugh it off. Therefore, fans get even more of an owner-positioned look at the game and fewer avenues to empathize with players.

Baseball analysis and information websites are great avenues for this information to be shared publicly—unless they aren’t. As teams poach the most talented statisticians and innovators, they corner the market on information as best they can. They’ll never be able to do so entirely, but they can cast a pretty wide net.

The positives of WAR, WAR/$, surplus value, market value, and market inefficiency are readily apparent. WAR/$ is, essentially, just a basic breakdown of production vs. cost. It seems as though it would be overwhelmingly useful to a general manager, and it is for some. They might not use the same WAR formula as FanGraphs or Baseball Reference—they might not use WAR at all—but many of them probably are using something similar to the stats writers and fans alike already have integrated into their everyday conversations about the game. Essentially, we discuss the game in the language of management now more than ever.

Other stats are able to delineate the probability of a number of events at a given point in a game, which can be useful in determining which levers should be pulled. But when something defies that probability, it doesn’t disesteem the ideology of statistics. All it means is that something amazing probably just happened, and if you’re too busy scoffing at the manager for making a statistically imperfect decision, you might’ve missed it.

The advanced stats that are still publicly available make the game of baseball much more interesting than it was before they entered the mainstream, and value-cost determinations have been vital to the success of small-market clubs like the Athletics and the Rays in the recent past. However, at times these stats can be adhered to by some as a weird stat-canon outside of which is only misinformation and the improper enjoyment of baseball itself exists. And if similar evaluative tools become—or are already—privatized, they could act as a yardstick by which to measure player value and the resulting compensation without any critique from writers, agents, or the players union.

Players are exploited because they are laborers in a capitalist system. That truth is the foundation of our economic system. The WAR/$, cost-benefit dance between players and owners isn’t specific to baseball; it’s immanent to the economic system to which it belongs. Companies around the world view underpaid laborers as an asset. It’s the nature of the pus-bloated, butter-suckling beast.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Some fans see team-friendly deals as a way for their team to become better, others see it as a game in and of itself. The goal of that game within the game is always to exploit the players to develop the best WAR/$ ratio possible. In other words, slavery would be ideal. While asset allocation and WAR/$ can be useful in many ways, those particular methods of evaluation often lead to the devaluation of players as they approach fair market value (see: immiseration thesis). When they cross that line in the sand, or much of the time before that moment—i.e. someone saying, “He’s getting expensive” when the given player is still in the arbitration process, a method by which player raises are mitigated by a panel of lawyers and judges using antiquated statistics to determine value — they are quickly exiled from the world of great value and labeled as a burden by certain corners of the advanced stats community.

If surplus value is fetishized, the demand to create it increases; and when that happens, players get screwed.

It’s the emergence of this owner-friendly line of thinking as the norm—not some grand conspiracy—that causes a highly paid player to be seen as a burden on his team. However, some begin to take these ideas of WAR/$ and surplus value as the gospel of value exchange between teams and players. As a result, we favor the exploitation of our heroes, if you want to call them that. We have started to evaluate players as burdens that haven’t even signed high-dollar contracts for us to criticize yet. It’s just another way owner-friendly evaluations result in us talking about the game in the language of management.

If team-friendly contracts are the lifeblood of financially efficient organizations, what are “player-friendly” contracts? The formaldehyde? If given the choice between being team-friendly—which should read predominantly as “owner-friendly”—and player-friendly, would any fan on the planet choose the owners outside the context of surplus value fetishism?

For example, Cole Hamels is currently the topic of a lot of trade speculation this offseason. He’s an ace, no doubt about it. He’s one of the best starting pitchers in the game, but some people in the advanced stats community don’t see him as a desirable trade target because of his contract.

Hamels will earn $22.5 million per season through 2018 with a $19 million vesting option for 2019. Since becoming a full-time starter in 2007, he’s been worth 32.4 fWAR — about four wins per season. Most people in the advanced stats community seem to agree that a win is worth somewhere between $6 million and $8 million. With that in mind, Hamels’ contract is at market value or below. Even if Hamels’ production begins to decline toward the end of his contract, he should be close to producing at market value unless he completely falls off the table.

However, when compared to a young pitcher who hypothetically could put up similar numbers and is cost-controlled due to the arbitration process, Hamels looks like an awful investment.

The only conclusion that one can really come to, if folling this ideology, is that a player having continued success and finally earning the money he deserves is a markedly bad thing—not only in the eyes of executives, but in the eyes of fans as well.

Casual fans might not care to learn the details of Hamels’ contract, but when his status as a burden permeates the hardcore baseball community, that devaluation has a way of trickling down into the casual fan’s thoughts. Hamels becomes a less-than ideal player, even though he continues to be one of the best pitchers in the game.

For a further example, Giancarlo Stanton has now officially signed a 13-year, $325 million contract with the Miami Marlins. That might seem like the most absurd deal you’ve ever seen, but league revenues are at an all-time high and the average annual value (AAV) of the deal is a competitive—but not world-shaking—$25 million per season. Yes, $325 million is a big number, but given the basic concepts of capitalism, the Marlins must have evaluated the deal as a financial positive for them, which means, in a nutshell, they view Stanton as an asset worth more than $325 million.

For yet another example, would it have mattered if Bo Jackson was overpaid when he threw out Harold Reynolds from the warning track? Would a player-friendly contract have taken something away from his running sideways on that wall in Baltimore in 1990? Did we get robbed of a potential Hall of Famer because of the owners’ greed that resulted in the 1994 player strike, after which Jackson left the game?

Player strikes are seen as greedy cash grabs on the part of the players. This is almost always the opposite of the truth. For example, in 1972 the players went on strike over their pensions and arbitration; in 1981, they were disputing changes to free agency; and in 1994, they went on strike to protest a salary cap. Every instance of work stoppage in major league history has been an effort by the players to get a more appropriate share of the profits from the product they create by taking the field.

The players get a cut—massive compared to the average fan, of course. But they are the only reason anyone really cares about the game. Owners make too much money. Just as American CEOs tower over the rest of us, owners sit on their billion-dollar assets and claim the business itself isn’t really making all that much money. Meanwhile, we widen ours eyes in shock at a deal like Stanton’s.

The intricacies of roster-building and how teams become successes on the field are an interesting aspect of baseball, but when we allow the players to be vilified as greedy jerks, we side with ownership. I don’t think that’s something any fan intends to do.

The owners’ “job” is to keep the lights on or something along those lines. What they bring to the game could just as easily be done by a committee of fans. That’s really an altogether separate issue that has no basis in reality because if someone can own something in a capitalist economy, they will. That’s just the way things are. But even if that is a problem that cannot be solved by making teams public property or something to that effect, it’s rather apparent that the value being brought to Major League Baseball is in the form of the players. The owners do not make this game what it is. They simply profit from it.

There is no easy way to compensate players fairly within a system that has multi-multi-millionaires and billionaires in control of almost everything while they contribute almost nothing to the game itself. In many ways, entrenched analytics fetishists—for lack of a better way to describe them—have turned underpaid players into superheroes and overpaid or even fairly compensated players into jokes. It’s not necessarily the fault of publications like FanGraphs or Baseball Prospectus. It’s mostly just a byproduct of the way the public has canonized those ideas and lifted them up as dogma.

However, such thinking aligns itself with the interests of modern ownership by evaluating players in this way, and perhaps more importantly, has encouraged a pivot in this direction as far as the public perception of player value is concerned. And you can see why. MLB teams have begun to handsomely reward them for doing so by treating statistics blogs as a farm system for their ever-mutating baseball operations departments.

Who wouldn’t want to work for a baseball team?

Appreciating the merits of advanced stats evaluation isn’t synonymous with fetishizing these stats and the owner-friendly results they produce to the point of no longer appreciating the players themselves, even if those players aren’t in ideal financial situations. Baseball is about the players, but it’s also about the fans.

If those fans find themselves becoming more and more aligned with the interests of the owners—the men scrambling to corner the market on information on the game—rather than those of the men that actually take the field and create this thing we love, perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate the narrow lens through which we have begun to look at the game—if we can.

References & Resources


Tyler Drenon is a freelance writer and graphic designer living in the southwest corner of Missouri. He has written for VICE, The Classical and SB Nation. Follow him on twitter @basteball.
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Jim S.
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Jim S.

I am surprised you didn’t mention the horrific, low salaries of minor-league players. That is truly a scandal.

TYLER DRENON
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TYLER DRENON

That’s a good point. It’s a much more saturated example of management attempting to minimize player compensation. Some of them make less than $300 per week and receive no compensation during the offseason. In November, Howard Megdal wrote a great article on that at VICE that breaks down “the plight of the minor league baseball slave wage.”

Joshua
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Joshua

The best article I have ever read to the players defense. Fans are becoming more owner-friendly without even knowing it. In the end, the game is about the players not the owners. We need to stop caring SO MUCH about how bad/good a contract is and focus on what the player is doing. When we classify players as you said “greedy jerks” we only side with the owners who would like to take ALL the money and give none to the players. Look at what happening for the minor leaguers. Not getting paid minimum wage! Fast food workers get paid… Read more »

The Stranger
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The Stranger

I disagree that sabermetrics has been a major driver in aligning fans with owners. I think free agency started that ball rolling by forcing us to root for the laundry rather than the players. Which isn’t to say that free agency is a bad thing, but when a whole roster can turn over in a few years it’s hard to get invested in the players. So as a fan observing the free agent marketplace, I’m coming in emotionally aligned with my team, and I want to see my team make good decisions – bring in good players at good prices… Read more »

asdf
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asdf

It’s kind of enlightening. I enjoyed reading it.
I didn’t ever think the way in which this article sees the baseball world. Very good.

Mike
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Mike

First off, I like this “stick it to the man” article. However, I am curious Tyler, your impetus for writing this article, does it have anything to do with MLB installing all the cameras in these stadiums capturing defensive Statcast data that we as avid fans, and analysts of the game do NOT have access to, due to, as you so clearly and convincingly state, “MLB privatizing all its analytics work…if they control the data, they control the evaluations”? And thus, the business owners become the only ones aware of the “actual true” value of the player, and thus, also… Read more »

Matthew
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Matthew

Fans want their team to win. The more surplus value the team has, the more good players it can buy, and the more it is likely to win.

From most fans’ perspectives, I don’t think baseball is about labor v. management but rather about rooting for my team to win. Efficient spending by ownership helps teams win, and player salaries out of line with player value ultimately hurt the effort to win.

TJ
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TJ

Interesting article. It does not mention the dollars thrown particularly at Latin American baseball factories to come up with relatively cheap labor. Those dollars are quite enticing to escape poverty, for the players lucky enough to win the talent lottery; those not so talented end up making minimum wage in the minors, likely still a step up and thus no player revolution there. Interested in your thoughts here. Especially since, if the Latin American players unionized to deal with those first negotiations, they could change the equation, as baseball needs (currently) their talent base to have such a successful commercial… Read more »

Tesseract
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Tesseract

In the owner’s defense, they are business people, they own corporations to make a profit. But to make it sound that they cash on billions of dollars by owning a MLB franchise is not an accurate representation; and it varies from team to team. Most ownership groups own different entities besides the team (other real state companies, networks, etc). But you would be surprised that the MLB team is not their cash cow, the average MLB organization only profits tens of millions a year, while some even operate at a loss, sure there are some greedy owners in baseball but… Read more »

Free_AEC
Guest

“In the owner’s defense, they are business people, they own corporations to make a profit. “

Which should be a prison offense, rather than the excuse for theft you make it out to be.

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Highlight and Google: John Powers Middleton Felony Fraud

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Tesseract
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Tesseract

I don’t understand why people seem to think the free enterprise system is a bad thing.

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

So, are you suggesting that all private enterprises should be socialized and profit abolished?

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

Wow, a true socialist who, I’m sure, has his own ideas about a better economic system.

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

Tyler, Some of what you say makes sense, other parts are just absurd. To say the owners contribute nothing to the game is ridiculous. You can’t just take players and throw them out on the field and say, play ball, and expect it to be anything like the major league experience we have. There has to be some structure; leagues, stadiums, marketing (yes, you can’t just open up the doors) and all the facets of organized sports. You can argue about whether owners spend too little on the product or whatever, but unless you subscribe to the Marxist labor theory… Read more »

Free_AEC
Guest

MLB is a criminal mafia. Read the wiki for Houston Astros owner Jim Crane. He made his fortune as a widget supplier to the Pentagon. Books have been written about how the taxpayers have been ripped off for perhaps more than a trillion dollars through this corruption whereby the Pentagon is supplied by contractors at three times the cost for which the Pentagon could do it themselves. One of the owners of the Red Sox – Phillip H. Morse – lent his private jet to the CIA – in exchange for a lot of money – for one of the… Read more »

Derek Sanderson
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Derek Sanderson

Great article. I thought your analysis of the player owner dynamic was dead on. The fetishization of player economic value is something I’ve been thinking for while and I think one of the main reasons for this is the perception that the players are at least being paid fairly, if not being overpaid. Anyone who has studied baseball history knows that owners will do everything legal, semi-legal, and all but illegal, to screw the players. I think the most damaging aspect of this mentality is it sabermetric community’s approval of payroll friendly but possibly competitively detrimental actions liking keeping super… Read more »

Luis Torres
Guest

Good article. I think it’s fair to say that the players get criticized for being “greedy” far more than the owners do, when really it should be the other way around. This is worse in other sports because they have salary caps. Baseball players have the fairest market of any sport, and they have every right to take advantage of it. I never criticize a player for getting overpaid. Part of what fuels the “greedy player” narrative is that there are players out there that take discounts in order to play where they think they’ll be the happiest. It’s noble,… Read more »

Joe
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Joe

An interesting article, that leads to an interesting corollary: if independent and open sources of analytic data are in the best interests of the players, for the purposes of negotiating contracts on an equal informational footing, then the MLBPA’s interests are aligned with the likes of FG and BP and THT and the fans that read those sites. The question is: do they realize that? If they do, the MLBPA would make a point in the next CBA to keep information like PitchFX open, and to make FieldFC and HitFX data freely available as well. However, given that negotiations involve… Read more »

Detroit Michael
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Detroit Michael

What a very disappointing article. The most telling excerpt in my opinion is: “Players are exploited because they are laborers in a capitalist system. That truth is the foundation of our economic system.” No, that is not a truth. That is a viewpoint. Furthermore, it is a viewpoint that most of us recognize as inconsistent with the facts. If it were true, then we would have read a bunch of articles during the last two days about how U.S. baseball players might find work in Cuba due to the thaw in international relations but yet we know that the professional… Read more »

Mountain
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Mountain

I’m curious, Tyler, why you don’t start your own baseball league? Surely, if you treat the players more fairly, they’ll all want to play in your league, rather than in the exploitative MLB. Instead, you’ve written an article. C’mon, don’t tell me– show me! As the saying goes, put your money where your mouth is.

WaldoInSC
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WaldoInSC

Bo Jackson couldn’t have retired after the players’ strike in 1994 because there was no strike in 1994. The owners locked out the players. This important distinction seems to be lost to history.

Tums
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Tums

So much wrong with Detroit Michael’s comment. It’s quite ironic that he tells the author “you could debate that contention on a website that is not devoted to baseball,” and decides to continue the debate on this contention on this very same website. As I’m not so concerned with some politics in my sports articles if they’re relevant (and it is to this subject), I’ll say your (Detroit Michael’s) arguments have multiple logical fallacies. First, MLB players are not flocking to Cuba because they would get paid less there as well as for geographical/family/other personal reasons. That doesn’t mean that… Read more »

Detroit Michael
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Detroit Michael

You don’t seriously think I’m supposed to post a comment on an article from HardballTimes.com on another website. The author wrote “Players are exploited because they are laborers in a capitalist system. That truth is the foundation of our economic system.” I am asking him or anyone else who believes that to be true to point to another country where players are significantly less exploited than the USA or where players are not exploited because they are not laborers in a capitalist system. People exploit each other because it is human nature to do so, not because a capitalist system… Read more »

Jackie Ballgame
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Jackie Ballgame

Interesting article and interesting comments. Thinking out loud as I write this: we root for cost-controlled, owner friendly contracts because of a *perception* that dollars saved from one such contract = MORE dollars available for free agent talent. “Keeper” Fantasy baseball auction leagues have cemented this thinking. If you get, say Corey Kluber in an auction for $5 (where $260 is the total cap per team) and he performs like a $40 player (which happened in thousands of leagues this year), you now have the ability to keep him the following year giving you a $35 surplus – which you… Read more »

BMarkham
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BMarkham

I think you’re misreading the situation with Hamels. Any of the teams tied to Hamels would gladly pay his salary as it is below market, what they’re balking at is the Phillies’ asking price. Hamels has a reasonable surplus value but it’s not worth giving up your three best prospects for, which is what the Phillies say they want. Sabermetrics is what the owners/FO use because they’re the only ones that see it’s value. I’ve been saying for a while that field managers and players are in a strategy dark ages. There’s a lot of ways sabermetrics could inform and… Read more »

Jackie Ballgame
Guest
Jackie Ballgame

Interesting article and interesting comments. Thinking out loud as I write this: we root for cost-controlled, owner friendly contracts because of a *perception* that dollars saved from one such contract = MORE dollars available for free agent talent. “Keeper” Fantasy baseball auction leagues have cemented this thinking. If you get, say Corey Kluber in an auction for $5 (where $260 is the total cap per team) and he performs like a $40 player (which happened in thousands of leagues this year), you now have the ability to keep him the following year giving you a $35 surplus – which you… Read more »

Calvin Liu
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Calvin Liu

Great article. I would just note that the player salaries at the MLB level are very much experiencing the “winner takes all” effect present in most entertainment – whether music, sports, art etc. While it is understandable that owners want to keep costs low – the sad fact is that the true exploitation occurs in the minor leagues, only somewhat ameliorated by the large signing bonuses received by a handful of top prospects. On the data side: I also am in complete agreement. Fundamentally, if there is in fact true value being delivered by SABR analysis, then it is in… Read more »

Jeff Fahey
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Jeff Fahey

Great piece, been preaching this for a while. I don’t have a problem with the owners so much as the fans, mostly working class people, who are so heinously anti-labor when it comes to athletes. It’s vile, they don’t see what they’re doing or worse, don’t care because they think it never comes back their way. What they don’t see is that labor is getting its ass kicked, everywhere.