Monday, December 6, 2021

Newsletter Excerpt, December 6, 2021 -- "Better Defense, and the Tigers"

This is a preview of the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider. Joe Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and has been a contributor to Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. He has been writing about baseball for nearly 25 years.

Your subscription gets you the newsletter and various related features two to five days a week, more than 150 mailings (more than 200,000 words) a year full of smart, fun baseball writing that you can't find in the mainstream. Subscribers can also access the new Slack workspace, to talk baseball with me and hundreds of other Newsletter subscribers.

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"In 2021, the Tigers had their best defense, by Defensive Efficiency, in years (.698, 11th-best in MLB). Per Outs Above Average, a defense that was bottom-five in its previous two full seasons improved to 19th overall. The Tigers have doubled down on that improvement, and it positions them to contend for the first time in six years."

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Newsletter Excerpt, December 2, 2021 -- "$561 Million, and the Rangers"

This is a preview of the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider. Joe Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and has been a contributor to Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. He has been writing about baseball for nearly 25 years.

Your subscription gets you the newsletter and various related features two to five days a week, more than 150 mailings (more than 200,000 words) a year full of smart, fun baseball writing that you can't find in the mainstream. Subscribers can also access the new Slack workspace, to talk baseball with me and hundreds of other Newsletter subscribers.

You can subscribe to the newsletter for one year for $59.95 using your PayPal account or major credit card.

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"For all the money they spent, the Rangers are also nowhere near what they can spend. Cot’s has their 2022 payroll at $136 million, matching their 2019 low over the last decade. Their 2023 payroll is projected at $90 million. The Rangers can go into the market next year and add starting pitching, add a big outfield or first base bat, and be one of the AL’s best teams heading into ’23."

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, December 2, 2021 -- "Competitive Balance"

This is a preview of the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider. Joe Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and has been a contributor to Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. He has been writing about baseball for nearly 25 years.

Your subscription gets you the newsletter and various related features two to five days a week, more than 150 mailings (more than 200,000 words) a year full of smart, fun baseball writing that you can't find in the mainstream. Subscribers can also access the new Slack workspace, to talk baseball with me and hundreds of other Newsletter subscribers.

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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 13, No. 81
September 2, 2021

A couple of weeks back, the owners’ first offer to the players for a new Collective Bargaining Agreement leaked. I wrote about it here and, because I just can’t help myself, posted about it on Twitter. What I saw a lot that day and in the days that followed was this:

“@respectthehorn: #mlb simply needs a salary cap and a salary floor and the two of them can’t have a large gap.”

I’m not picking on that guy. I just landed on that reply when digging through my replies for an example. He’s hardly alone. In the same way that anything you say about baseball on Twitter now generates a complaint about blackouts, anything you say about baseball economics generates a demand for a payroll cap. 

The vox populi case for a payroll cap is that it levels the playing field and allows for better competitive balance. This argument is startlingly resistant to evidence, as the competitive balance of the league without a payroll cap has been far better in this century than in the leagues with them. For example, in the regular season the best NBA and NFL teams have higher winning percentages than the best MLB teams. In the regular season, the worst NBA and NFL teams have lower winning percentages than the worst MLB teams. An MLB team playing .700 or .300 ball is an anomaly. A quarter of NFL and NBA teams do it every year. 

What’s another measure of competitive balance? Well, one way or another every team eventually makes the playoffs. Every team in the three leagues has reached the postseason this century. If we just consider the 2010s, which allows us to ignore the pandemic season, that’s not much more helpful. Three MLB teams (Mariners, White Sox, Marlins), two NFL teams (Browns, Jets), and one NBA team (Kings) missed the playoffs for the entire last decade. Keep in mind that the NFL and NBA allow more teams, on both a raw and a percentage basis, into their playoffs than MLB does.

(The NBA, we should note, does so pointlessly, inflating their perceived competitive balance and watering down their playoffs with teams that have no chance to win a title. The last four teams in the NBA playoffs, the #7 and #8 seeds, have not won a series in their last 32 attempts. The last win from those seeds happened in 2012, when the #1 seed Bulls lost star Derrick Rose to a knee injury while winning the first game of their first-round series. The #8 seed 76ers would win that series in six games. In the last eight full seasons, the #7 and #8 seeds are 0-32 in series and 41-144 (.222) in games. #16 seeds in the NCAA tournament have advanced more often! A quarter of the NBA playoff field is just wasting everyone’s time.)

The NBA, famously, is dominated by dynasties. A mere ten of its 30 teams have won championships in this century. In that same time, 12 of 32 NFL teams have won the Super Bowl. In baseball, 14 teams have lifted the Commissioner’s Trophy. Back up a level, and you find that 14 of 30 NBA teams have played in The Finals, 19 of 32 NFL teams have played in the Super Bowl, and 19 of 30 MLB teams have played in the World Series.

That’s a lot of numbers, so let’s summarize the data. MLB has the most in-season competitive balance as measured by the spread in winning percentages. There’s no difference in the three leagues as measured by teams making the playoffs, even though the other two leagues allow a higher number and percentage of teams into their playoffs. More baseball teams have won championships than NBA or NFL teams, and MLB is tied with the NFL for the number of teams that got to play in the final round -- again, despite having the highest threshold for getting into the playoffs.

Contrary to the populi’s vox, baseball has the best competitive balance of the three major sports. It’s not particularly close. The idea that baseball has bad competitive balance is something that Bud Selig lied into the air supply 25 years ago, and has been regurgitated ever since as fact. I used to say, and it still holds up, “‘competitive balance’ is code for ‘the players make too much money’.” 

Let’s play with numbers some more. Here are the standings with 32 days to go in the season.


Rays        8-5  .615  --
Yankees     8-5  .615  --
Red Sox     7-6  .538   1
Blue Jays   7-6  .538   1
Orioles     4-9  .308   4

White Sox   8-5  .615  --
Indians     7-6  .538   1
Tigers      6-7  .462   2
Royals      6-7  .462   2
Twins*      6-7  .462   2

Astros      8-5  .615  --
Athletics   7-6  .538   1
Mariners    7-6  .538   1
Angels      6-7  .462   2
Rangers     5-8  .385   3


That’s wild. With about 20% of the season left to play, only the Orioles have been eliminated from playoff contention. Fourteen of the 15 AL teams have a shot at a playoff berth, and in fact a division title. Is the NL also this exciting?


Braves      7-6  .538  --
Phillies    7-6  .538  --
Mets        6-7  .462   1
Nationals   5-8  .385   2
Marlins     5-8  .385   2

Brewers     8-5  .615  --
Reds        7-6  .538   1
Cardinals   7-6  .538   1
Cubs        6-7  .462   2
Pirates     4-9  .308   4

Dodgers     9-4  .692  --
Giants      9-4  .692  --
Padres      7-6  .538   2
Rockies     6-7  .462   3
D’backs     4-9  .308   5


There are a few more teams playing out the string in the senior circuit, but you still have incredible three-team races in the East and Central, plus the two best teams in baseball battling out West. With just a few weeks left, 12 of these 15 teams have a shot at winning their division!

The above standings, as should be clear, are what you get if you scale the baseball season down to the size of a football season. (Don’t get too caught up in the rounding.) NFL teams play 16 (now 17) games over 17 (now 18) weeks, and you simply can’t get significant separation in that time. Few teams play out the string in the NFL the way they do in MLB, because the “string” isn’t long enough. In MLB, a team that has played .440 baseball through most of the schedule is long done. An NFL team that has done the same might control its own destiny if the tiebreakers fall just right.

The perception of competitive balance in the NFL is almost entirely due to a short schedule that doesn’t allow for falling off the pace the way MLB teams can. If Rob Manfred declares that baseball teams will play just 16 games over 17 weeks, MLB standings would look like NFL standings, and 25 teams would be sweating their playoff chances in July. The difference in the perceived competitive balance between the two leagues isn’t a payroll cap. It’s math. 

Truthfully, though, I think the answer is even simpler. Tautological, really. Having a payroll cap, in the minds of most sports fans, means you have competitive balance, full stop. Never mind that in the three major U.S. leagues, the presence of a payroll cap is inversely correlated with the league’s level of competitive balance. The leagues and the team owners, with oceans of help from co-opted media terrible at this stuff, have convinced fans that agreeing to only spend so much on payrolls, to only try this much, has created competitive balance.

Payroll caps do one thing: Limit competition for the available talent. The relationship between having a payroll cap and having competitive balance is nonexistent.

As we go into this CBA cycle this winter, MLB won’t propose a true payroll cap, but they’ll propose similar structures, trying to limit the competition among teams for talent. That’s the primary goal, as it has been since about 15 minutes after Peter Seitz handed down his ruling. From the re-entry draft to the free-agent compensation schemes to collusion to the luxury tax, baseball owners have been trying to roll back the clock to a time when they didn’t have to compete with each other for talent.

They’ll say their proposals are designed to enhance competitive balance. Don’t believe them. Baseball has excellent competitive balance on the field. What it needs is a freer market for talent off of it.

 

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Newsletter Excerpt, November 30, 2021 -- "Lockout"

This is a preview of the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider. Joe Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and has been a contributor to Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. He has been writing about baseball for nearly 25 years.

Your subscription gets you the newsletter and various related features two to five days a week, more than 150 mailings (more than 200,000 words) a year full of smart, fun baseball writing that you can't find in the mainstream. Subscribers can also access the new Slack workspace, to talk baseball with me and hundreds of other Newsletter subscribers.

You can subscribe to the newsletter for one year for $59.95 using your PayPal account or major credit card.

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"Players don’t lose paychecks in an offseason lockout, and owners don’t turn away customers. Shutting down the baseball business is a hassle, but it’s just not that big a deal for fans. MLB has never lost a regular-season game to its three prior lockouts (1973, in addition to 1976 and 1990)."

Monday, November 29, 2021

Newsletter Excerpt, November 29, 2021 -- "Contracts Fly"

This is a preview of the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider. Joe Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and has been a contributor to Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. He has been writing about baseball for nearly 25 years.

Your subscription gets you the newsletter and various related features two to five days a week, more than 150 mailings (more than 200,000 words) a year full of smart, fun baseball writing that you can't find in the mainstream. Subscribers can also access the new Slack workspace, to talk baseball with me and hundreds of other Newsletter subscribers.

You can subscribe to the newsletter for one year for $59.95 using your PayPal account or major credit card.

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"It’s the difference between league action and team action, a dichotomy that has played out many times before. When free agency began in the 1976-77 offseason, the league decried the process collectively and then the individual teams went out and signed players like madmen. Collusion in the 1980s, which had successfully crippled the market for free agents, cracked when some teams began misreporting their free-agent offers to a central database and secretly trying to sign other teams’ players. In 1996, Jerry Reinsdorf was both a labor hawk...well, he still is...in negotiations with the union, and the guy making Albert Belle the highest-paid player in baseball."

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Newsletter Excerpt, November 23, 2021 -- "AL East Notes"

 

This is a preview of the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider. Joe Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and has been a contributor to Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. He has been writing about baseball for nearly 25 years.

Your subscription gets you the newsletter and various related features two to five days a week, more than 150 mailings (more than 200,000 words) a year full of smart, fun baseball writing that you can't find in the mainstream. Subscribers can also access the new Slack workspace, to talk baseball with me and hundreds of other Newsletter subscribers.

You can subscribe to the newsletter for one year for $59.95 using your PayPal account or major credit card.

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Tampa Bay Rays

I wasn’t sure where I was going in this space, so here’s a hearty “thank you” to Wander Franco and the Rays for providing a topic.

As reported by ESPN’s Jeff Passan, the Rays and Franco have reportedly agreed on a contract that would guarantee Franco $185 million through 2032, with an option for 2033 of $38 million. The deal is the largest for any player with Franco’s limited service time -- he’s got just about 3 1/2 months in the majors -- and the largest the Rays have ever committed to. It locks in a player whose very short track record marks him as not just a future star, but as one of the best players in baseball over the next decade.

Any time we get one of these deals it opens a debate as to what the player has given up on the back end for security on the front end. In this particular case, I don’t think you can criticize Franco at all. It’s $185 million guaranteed before his 21st birthday. I can tell you about expectations and projections and historical comps, but he’s the guy who has to keep playing well and avoid career-altering injuries every day.

The way the game is structured now, it would be 2025 before Franco was able to get even a fraction of his market value as a first-year arb player. That’s three productive seasons away from even being able to ask an arbitrator for $7 million or $8 million. It’s three more before he can go into the market and get paid what he’s worth, and even then there are brakes built into the system -- maybe even more of them by then. Franco wouldn’t become a free agent until after the 2027 season, which is one additional CBA down the road. Who knows what rules will be in place restricting his compensation at that point? I don’t think we have any sort of handle on what Franco is leaving on the table here.

These long-term, pre-arb contracts aren’t going to pay a player his full market value. The team assumes injury and performance risk in making this commitment. They’re not a charity, though, they’re trying to lock in a potential franchise player through his peak at a discount. Every now and then there’s an Ozzie Albies deal that is a failure of representation, but for the most part everyone is acting in their best interest and trying to reach a fair deal.

This deal, in fact, compares better to what Franco’s peers have made through age 31, the guaranteed part, than you might think. It guarantees him $185 million. Bryce Harper, through age 31, will have made about $230 million. Mookie Betts around $160 million. Mike Trout will be around $250 million by then. Francisco Lindor, $209 million.

(Note: These are all approximations that don’t adjust for 2020 reductions in pay or salary deferrals, and I’m assigning signing bonuses as paid out according to the essential Cot’s. Season to taste.)

Those players, of course, have money coming to them after the age of 31 owing to long-term deals signed as they approached free agency. That’s where the “he left X on the table” comes from. It’s a false comparison, though, because it compares years for which the above players are guaranteed money to years in which Franco’s compensation is as yet unknown. It is very likely that Franco will be paid and paid well from age 32 into future years, and in the case that he isn’t, it likely means that he was fortunate to guarantee himself $185 million at 20 years old, because his career has probably gone sideways.

The only way to see this as a bad deal for Franco is to project a career path in which he is so good in the years under contract that he is far underpaid for his performance, while also having something go so wrong in 2032 or 2033 to wreck his market value at that point. That’s what the comps to older players with guaranteed deals into their mid- and late-30s do -- compare known salaries to a zero for Franco, which is silly.

This elides any soft factors, of course. I don’t know what the value of never having to sweat your next contract is for a pre-arb or pre-free-agency player, but I’ll guess “not zero.” I don’t know what the value of guaranteeing yourself to be set for life is, but I’ll guess “not zero.” There’s the time value of money as well -- the money Franco makes in the next few years that he wouldn’t have made otherwise is money that can be invested to earn more.

This will be the biggest thing the Rays do this offseason, the thing that they supposedly never do, even though they did it with Evan Longoria twice and with Kevin Kiermaier and now with Franco. Maybe Franco won’t play out the contract as a Ray, being traded down the road, as Longoria was. The Rays, of course, invented the move of trading a player when his compensation began to catch up with the value of his performance, and it’s revolutionized baseball. You wonder what Branch Rickey or George Weiss or Charlie Finley could have done with that idea, if they’d only thought of it.