So why didn't anyone sign Barry?

Let’s start out by stipulating to something.  Barry Bonds* would have made at least one team in baseball (and probably a lot of teams) better on the field.  Word on the street was that Bonds* was willing to play for the MLB minimum, and as the season progressed, it was clear that there were teams that could have used a good power-hitting DH, or maybe just a guy to stick into LF once in a while, even if he was inching into his mid-40s.  Sure, some teams wanted to go with a youth movement, and others already had a dandy DH.  But, no one wanted him?

It’s not hard to figure out why teams were shy on signing Barry in 2008.  After all, he might have inhaled.  And so last week at Hardball Times (on Christmas Eve… which is when I basically checked out of society for a few days…), a gentleman named Jack Marhsall posted a piece looking at the question of “Why not?” from an ethical perspective.  The article generated a bit of discussion, sadly, more of it heat than light.

Marshall’s argument rested on a psychological concept called cognitive dissonance theory, which talks about what happens when someone faces up to the fact that they hold two contradictory views and has to reconcile that.  As a psychologist myself, I don’t recommend reading his explanation of the subject, as he missed some technical, but important details.  Equilibration, which is what he proposes, isn’t the only defense mechanism that one can use against cognitive dissonance.

Basically, his argument goes something like this.  That queasy feeling that you would have gotten in the pit of your stomach because Barry Bonds* was playing for your team would make you feel more negatively about your favorite team.  Even if Bonds* were hitting a home run every 3 PA, it would still be hard to reconcile the fact that your team might very well win a World Series championship on the back of a cheater.  It might raise your opinion of Bonds* to see him in your team’s uni.  But a team would be dealing itself a self-inflicted wound by signaling that they were willing to sink to Bonds* (alleged) level.  So, therefore a team would have no incentive to sign Bonds*.  Makes sense on the surface.

Let’s stick with the equilibration argument, and suppose that there were a team that really didn’t have a lot going for it to begin with (aka, nothing to lose.)  They hadn’t won a championship in a while, but Barry Bonds* might well have been the difference-maker between a legitimate shot at a championship and another season in third place.  Yeah, signing Bonds* might have had a negative effect on the team’s perception, but perhaps it would spark some interest in the team itself, whether for reasons of making the team better or sideshow curiosity.  People would go from being un-interested to very interested, and even given the debit from the bad Bonds* karma, the team might just come out ahead in those stakes for having signed him.  Cognitive dissonance is not a static process.

Marshall says that if his beloved Boston Red Sox had signed Bonds (and after David Ortiz was injured mid-season, a few people in the media floated the idea), he would have forsworn the Red Sox until they brought in new management.  I guess the queasy feeling would just be too much for him.

The real question is why is that queasy feeling there to begin with?  For that, I turn to another psychological theory, this one by Abraham Maslow, on the hierarchy of human needs.  Maslow’s theory says that human being are ultimately striving for what he termed “self-actualization”, a term that he reserved for such “peak experiences” as mystical commuinion with the divine.  Interpreted more broadly, and in the context of baseball, we might say that the peak experience in baseball is winning the World Series.  Not coincidentally, that’s everyone’s stated goal at the beginning of every season (and I don’t believe them for a minute… but that’s another chapter).  Before getting to those peak experiences, humans have to take care of other needs first, and in a specific order.

The first needs are for things like food and air.  The second is for safety, both immediate (no one around trying to hurt me) and future (financial security).  Then, comes the need for love and then respect and admiration.  The needs have to be filled in this order, according to Maslow’s theory.  Only after fulfilling all four can those peak experiences be pursued.  Think about it.  If you don’t have food, you don’t care what it looks like to other people, you find food.  But if you do have food (and security), you begin to think more about what other people think about you.  All 30 teams surely wanted to win a World Series last year, but apparently all of them decided that the loss of respectability wasn’t worth it.  So teams actually did the strangely counter-intuitive action of refusing to sign someone who would have brought them closer to their stated goal and the fans celebrated them for it.

Perhaps under different circumstances, a team owner/GM/decision maker might have figured that they had enough esteem from elsewhere that they wouldn’t mind the bad press.  It didn’t happen, clearly.  But it might have.  And certainly some of the fans of the team would have decieded that rooting for a cheater just wasn’t something that they could have their friends catch them doing (although I’m guessing that there would have been a lot of subterranean fans …)  Some of them, on the other hand, might not have felt that their needs were being threatened and cheered openly and proudly.

I suppose that whether winning at all costs is ethically permissible is a question for the philosophers.  Frankly, I was never much on the subject of philosophy… it always seemed to be a game that ended in a standstill with both sides having large words to justify their positions and their upset stomachs.  But I would put forward that teams weren’t thinking about their duty to the American culture.  It’s much more base than that.  I’d say that they were more thinking with their stomachs, and it was simply a matter that none of the teams who would have benefitted from Bonds*’s presence could stomach having Barry Bonds* on their team.

So why didn’t anyone sign Barry?

Let’s start out by stipulating to something.  Barry Bonds* would have made at least one team in baseball (and probably a lot of teams) better on the field.  Word on the street was that Bonds* was willing to play for the MLB minimum, and as the season progressed, it was clear that there were teams that could have used a good power-hitting DH, or maybe just a guy to stick into LF once in a while, even if he was inching into his mid-40s.  Sure, some teams wanted to go with a youth movement, and others already had a dandy DH.  But, no one wanted him?

It’s not hard to figure out why teams were shy on signing Barry in 2008.  After all, he might have inhaled.  And so last week at Hardball Times (on Christmas Eve… which is when I basically checked out of society for a few days…), a gentleman named Jack Marhsall posted a piece looking at the question of “Why not?” from an ethical perspective.  The article generated a bit of discussion, sadly, more of it heat than light.

Marshall’s argument rested on a psychological concept called cognitive dissonance theory, which talks about what happens when someone faces up to the fact that they hold two contradictory views and has to reconcile that.  As a psychologist myself, I don’t recommend reading his explanation of the subject, as he missed some technical, but important details.  Equilibration, which is what he proposes, isn’t the only defense mechanism that one can use against cognitive dissonance.

Basically, his argument goes something like this.  That queasy feeling that you would have gotten in the pit of your stomach because Barry Bonds* was playing for your team would make you feel more negatively about your favorite team.  Even if Bonds* were hitting a home run every 3 PA, it would still be hard to reconcile the fact that your team might very well win a World Series championship on the back of a cheater.  It might raise your opinion of Bonds* to see him in your team’s uni.  But a team would be dealing itself a self-inflicted wound by signaling that they were willing to sink to Bonds* (alleged) level.  So, therefore a team would have no incentive to sign Bonds*.  Makes sense on the surface.

Let’s stick with the equilibration argument, and suppose that there were a team that really didn’t have a lot going for it to begin with (aka, nothing to lose.)  They hadn’t won a championship in a while, but Barry Bonds* might well have been the difference-maker between a legitimate shot at a championship and another season in third place.  Yeah, signing Bonds* might have had a negative effect on the team’s perception, but perhaps it would spark some interest in the team itself, whether for reasons of making the team better or sideshow curiosity.  People would go from being un-interested to very interested, and even given the debit from the bad Bonds* karma, the team might just come out ahead in those stakes for having signed him.  Cognitive dissonance is not a static process.

Marshall says that if his beloved Boston Red Sox had signed Bonds (and after David Ortiz was injured mid-season, a few people in the media floated the idea), he would have forsworn the Red Sox until they brought in new management.  I guess the queasy feeling would just be too much for him.

The real question is why is that queasy feeling there to begin with?  For that, I turn to another psychological theory, this one by Abraham Maslow, on the hierarchy of human needs.  Maslow’s theory says that human being are ultimately striving for what he termed “self-actualization”, a term that he reserved for such “peak experiences” as mystical commuinion with the divine.  Interpreted more broadly, and in the context of baseball, we might say that the peak experience in baseball is winning the World Series.  Not coincidentally, that’s everyone’s stated goal at the beginning of every season (and I don’t believe them for a minute… but that’s another chapter).  Before getting to those peak experiences, humans have to take care of other needs first, and in a specific order.

The first needs are for things like food and air.  The second is for safety, both immediate (no one around trying to hurt me) and future (financial security).  Then, comes the need for love and then respect and admiration.  The needs have to be filled in this order, according to Maslow’s theory.  Only after fulfilling all four can those peak experiences be pursued.  Think about it.  If you don’t have food, you don’t care what it looks like to other people, you find food.  But if you do have food (and security), you begin to think more about what other people think about you.  All 30 teams surely wanted to win a World Series last year, but apparently all of them decided that the loss of respectability wasn’t worth it.  So teams actually did the strangely counter-intuitive action of refusing to sign someone who would have brought them closer to their stated goal and the fans celebrated them for it.

Perhaps under different circumstances, a team owner/GM/decision maker might have figured that they had enough esteem from elsewhere that they wouldn’t mind the bad press.  It didn’t happen, clearly.  But it might have.  And certainly some of the fans of the team would have decieded that rooting for a cheater just wasn’t something that they could have their friends catch them doing (although I’m guessing that there would have been a lot of subterranean fans …)  Some of them, on the other hand, might not have felt that their needs were being threatened and cheered openly and proudly.

I suppose that whether winning at all costs is ethically permissible is a question for the philosophers.  Frankly, I was never much on the subject of philosophy… it always seemed to be a game that ended in a standstill with both sides having large words to justify their positions and their upset stomachs.  But I would put forward that teams weren’t thinking about their duty to the American culture.  It’s much more base than that.  I’d say that they were more thinking with their stomachs, and it was simply a matter that none of the teams who would have benefitted from Bonds*’s presence could stomach having Barry Bonds* on their team.

Batting Runs Above Position

There’s been a lot of talk around the net the past week or two about positional adjustments. Everything that a player does is relative to the production of those players around him. Both his offense and defense are compared to average and replacement levels in order to calculate that player’s relative worth. Defensively, a shortstop is compared to other shortstops but offensively, shoudl he be compared to all players in the league, or only other shortstops? How are the adjustments determined and how are they applied?

Things got going at Rob Neyer’s blog at ESPN where our own Eric Seidman was quoted trying to explain Tom Tango’s system of defensive adjustments. The idea is, to get a players total, add their offense above league replacement, defenase above position replacement, league adjustment and position adjustment. More discussion took place at Baseball Primer.

Most of Neyer’s readers had problems grasping the concept of what is labeled a “defensive” adjustment, not sure if it means players higher on the defensive spectrum are valued more because they are playing a more difficult defensive position, or if it has something to do with the offense. Tango has done studies of players at multiple positions to see, for example, how much better a shortstop who moves to second may play.However, in another thread, he calculates the average at each position by decade in order to determine the offensive differentials between the defensive positions.

This is the approach I have favored. A players value is in how hard he is to replace. At age 30, Rafael Furcal projects to hit 282/345/415 next season, a 335 wOBA, fourth highest among major league shortstops, behind only Hanley Ramirez, Derek Jeter and Jose Reyes. Furcal was highly coveted on the free agent market, and re-signed with the Dodgers for $39m over 3 years. Meanwhile, Lyle Overbay projects at 269/340/424, for an almost identical 336 wOBA. However, that puts Overbay ahead of only Mike Jacobs and Sean Casey offensively among major league first baseman. Furcal is a precious commodity at short, but if he is moved over to first base, his bat is very replaceable. There are a good number of players who can hit as well or better than Furcal, but only three of them also play shortstop.

Therefore, when calculating a player’s value, compare his defense to others at the same position, and likewise compare his offense to others at his position. An argument against this method is that if a few teams put a high offense player at a traditionally low offense position (Aaron, Mays, Mantle Snider is centerfield) that it make everyone else look less valuable in comparison. They seek a more stable baseline than a yearly average. In addition, offensive levels have changed over the years. The major leagues combined for a 295 wOBA in 1968, then rising to 348 in 1999 and 2000. I believe the answer is in a Marcel, rolling weighted mean model, where I weight the most recent season at 1.00, the year before at 0.70, the one before that at 0.49, etc. That way, the baseline is modeled on the same years, with the same weights, at the stats to which it is being compared.

I first calculated the wOBA for each position, and for all players, for each season from 1954 to 1978. Starting in 1956 (the first season with three years of data), I used Marcel to calculate the expected wOBA for each position. (Table 1). Then for each season, I took the wOBA for each position, subtracted the league mean, divided by 1.15 (to convert to runs per PA) and then multiplied by 700 to get the plus/minus run values for each position (Table 2).

 

Year

C

1B

2B

3B

SS

LF

CF

RF

DH

1956

0.323

0.348

0.308

0.331

0.302

0.348

0.345

0.343

 

1957

0.317

0.345

0.307

0.326

0.303

0.351

0.342

0.338

 

1958

0.316

0.344

0.305

0.324

0.298

0.354

0.341

0.340

 

1959

0.312

0.343

0.306

0.327

0.301

0.348

0.339

0.342

 

1960

0.308

0.344

0.302

0.326

0.301

0.348

0.339

0.339

 

1961

0.312

0.350

0.298

0.326

0.303

0.346

0.340

0.345

 

1962

0.313

0.349

0.298

0.325

0.303

0.347

0.338

0.347

 

1963

0.310

0.340

0.295

0.319

0.298

0.342

0.332

0.343

 

1964

0.308

0.336

0.291

0.319

0.299

0.340

0.328

0.341

 

1965

0.303

0.335

0.291

0.319

0.295

0.337

0.325

0.339

 

1966

0.302

0.334

0.289

0.319

0.293

0.333

0.324

0.338

 

1967

0.295

0.332

0.289

0.315

0.286

0.331

0.320

0.333

 

1968

0.291

0.328

0.285

0.308

0.277

0.327

0.315

0.327

 

1969

0.292

0.333

0.289

0.309

0.281

0.329

0.318

0.332

 

1970

0.299

0.338

0.289

0.317

0.284

0.336

0.322

0.336

 

1971

0.300

0.339

0.291

0.317

0.279

0.335

0.322

0.334

 

1972

0.299

0.339

0.289

0.312

0.275

0.333

0.320

0.329

 

1973

0.299

0.339

0.294

0.316

0.272

0.334

0.321

0.329

0.318

1974

0.299

0.337

0.294

0.315

0.274

0.334

0.321

0.328

0.313

1975

0.301

0.338

0.296

0.316

0.273

0.333

0.321

0.329

0.315

1976

0.298

0.334

0.294

0.314

0.275

0.330

0.319

0.327

0.313

1977

0.306

0.337

0.296

0.319

0.275

0.332

0.321

0.334

0.319

1978

0.305

0.335

0.295

0.319

0.278

0.332

0.319

0.335

0.318

1979

0.307

0.338

0.298

0.321

0.280

0.333

0.323

0.338

0.321

1980

0.307

0.339

0.297

0.320

0.281

0.335

0.321

0.336

0.324

1981

0.304

0.334

0.295

0.320

0.279

0.332

0.319

0.332

0.321

1982

0.305

0.334

0.297

0.321

0.282

0.333

0.319

0.331

0.325

1983

0.305

0.334

0.299

0.323

0.285

0.333

0.319

0.328

0.329

1984

0.303

0.335

0.300

0.320

0.284

0.332

0.321

0.331

0.329

1985

0.303

0.338

0.303

0.321

0.285

0.331

0.321

0.332

0.325

1986

0.303

0.339

0.305

0.323

0.288

0.332

0.322

0.333

0.327

1987

0.302

0.346

0.308

0.328

0.292

0.335

0.327

0.337

0.330

1988

0.300

0.342

0.304

0.323

0.291

0.332

0.322

0.335

0.328

1989

0.297

0.343

0.305

0.319

0.288

0.331

0.317

0.332

0.324

1990

0.300

0.343

0.306

0.317

0.289

0.331

0.320

0.330

0.322

1991

0.298

0.340

0.308

0.317

0.290

0.329

0.320

0.330

0.327

1992

0.298

0.339

0.308

0.317

0.290

0.326

0.319

0.327

0.327

1993

0.303

0.344

0.310

0.321

0.294

0.331

0.322

0.329

0.328

1994

0.307

0.351

0.315

0.325

0.299

0.336

0.326

0.337

0.337

1995

0.310

0.355

0.316

0.330

0.301

0.339

0.326

0.342

0.343

1996

0.314

0.359

0.316

0.334

0.305

0.345

0.330

0.346

0.349

1997

0.317

0.362

0.319

0.334

0.306

0.343

0.331

0.350

0.348

1998

0.316

0.364

0.320

0.335

0.307

0.343

0.332

0.352

0.350

1999

0.319

0.366

0.324

0.337

0.312

0.346

0.335

0.356

0.354

2000

0.323

0.370

0.327

0.338

0.315

0.352

0.337

0.358

0.356

2001

0.319

0.368

0.326

0.337

0.315

0.353

0.335

0.357

0.352

2002

0.315

0.366

0.323

0.334

0.315

0.353

0.334

0.357

0.349

2003

0.315

0.364

0.323

0.331

0.314

0.354

0.333

0.356

0.348

2004

0.316

0.363

0.323

0.335

0.315

0.355

0.334

0.353

0.347

2005

0.314

0.361

0.324

0.336

0.315

0.352

0.333

0.351

0.345

2006

0.317

0.363

0.324

0.340

0.317

0.352

0.332

0.351

0.347

2007

0.316

0.361

0.326

0.340

0.319

0.351

0.332

0.350

0.348

2008

0.316

0.359

0.327

0.339

0.318

0.349

0.331

0.349

0.345

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Year

C

1B

2B

3B

SS

LF

CF

RF

DH

1956

-4.9

10.2

-14.1

-0.3

-17.5

10.1

8.4

6.9

 

1957

-7.4

9.6

-13.4

-1.9

-15.6

13.4

8.1

5.8

 

1958

-7.5

9.4

-14.1

-2.3

-18.2

15.6

8.0

7.4

 

1959

-9.6

9.3

-13.1

-0.3

-16.4

12.3

7.2

8.8

 

1960

-11.0

10.8

-14.9

0.0

-15.3

13.2

7.8

7.4

 

1961

-9.8

13.8

-17.8

-1.1

-15.3

10.8

7.7

10.2

 

1962

-9.2

13.2

-17.9

-1.9

-15.3

11.6

6.2

11.8

 

1963

-7.7

10.6

-16.7

-2.0

-15.3

11.7

5.5

12.5

 

1964

-7.6

9.5

-18.0

-0.8

-13.0

12.0

4.2

12.5

 

1965

-9.4

10.0

-16.5

0.2

-14.0

11.4

4.2

12.6

 

1966

-9.0

10.4

-16.8

1.4

-14.4

9.7

4.7

12.7

 

1967

-10.8

11.5

-15.0

1.4

-16.5

11.1

4.3

12.3

 

1968

-10.1

12.2

-13.7

-0.1

-18.5

11.8

4.7

11.9

 

1969

-11.5

13.7

-13.4

-0.9

-18.1

10.8

4.4

13.1

 

1970

-10.1

13.7

-16.2

0.9

-19.4

12.7

4.3

12.3

 

1971

-9.0

14.6

-14.4

1.1

-21.6

12.1

4.2

11.4

 

1972

-8.3

16.5

-14.4

0.0

-22.5

12.6

4.4

10.0

 

1973

-8.6

15.6

-12.2

1.4

-25.0

12.4

4.8

9.5

1.2

1974

-8.4

14.4

-11.7

1.1

-23.9

12.4

4.8

9.3

-0.3

1975

-7.9

14.5

-10.8

1.2

-24.7

11.5

4.5

9.4

0.3

1976

-8.6

13.7

-11.0

1.5

-22.6

11.1

4.2

9.0

1.0

1977

-6.2

13.2

-11.9

2.1

-24.6

10.1

3.3

11.2

1.7

1978

-6.0

12.2

-12.4

2.0

-22.8

10.1

2.5

11.8

1.6

1979

-6.4

12.4

-12.2

2.0

-23.3

9.4

3.0

12.3

1.8

1980

-6.8

12.7

-12.5

1.5

-22.6

10.5

2.1

11.2

3.7

1981

-6.6

11.7

-12.4

2.7

-21.9

10.2

2.1

10.4

3.6

1982

-7.0

11.0

-11.8

3.0

-21.0

10.0

1.8

9.2

5.1

1983

-7.6

10.6

-10.8

3.4

-19.4

9.8

1.3

6.8

7.2

1984

-8.6

11.1

-10.1

2.0

-20.4

9.0

2.2

8.8

7.0

1985

-8.8

12.3

-8.7

2.0

-19.7

8.0

1.8

8.6

4.2

1986

-9.8

12.1

-8.8

2.6

-19.0

7.7

1.9

8.5

4.9

1987

-12.5

14.3

-9.2

2.8

-19.0

7.6

2.4

8.8

4.2

1988

-11.9

13.7

-9.7

2.0

-17.6

7.4

1.6

9.5

5.0

1989

-12.4

15.4

-7.6

1.2

-17.8

8.2

0.0

8.6

3.9

1990

-11.1

15.6

-7.2

-0.3

-17.7

8.3

1.3

7.5

2.7

1991

-11.8

13.8

-5.9

-0.2

-16.8

6.8

1.2

7.7

5.6

1992

-11.5

13.5

-5.4

0.4

-16.3

6.0

1.7

6.2

6.0

1993

-10.7

14.7

-6.1

0.4

-15.7

6.6

1.2

5.4

4.6

1994

-11.6

15.6

-6.6

-0.3

-16.0

6.2

0.4

7.1

6.6

1995

-11.6

16.2

-7.5

0.7

-16.9

6.4

-1.5

8.1

8.7

1996

-11.4

16.0

-9.8

0.8

-16.6

7.5

-1.5

8.3

9.9

1997

-10.3

17.2

-9.2

0.1

-17.0

5.5

-1.7

9.5

8.8

1998

-11.5

17.5

-9.1

0.0

-16.7

4.9

-1.9

10.5

9.6

1999

-11.7

16.7

-8.4

-0.5

-16.2

4.8

-1.8

10.9

9.8

2000

-11.1

17.7

-8.7

-1.8

-16.0

6.4

-2.3

10.1

9.0

2001

-12.9

17.4

-8.4

-1.5

-15.3

7.9

-2.7

10.6

7.2

2002

-13.8

17.2

-9.2

-2.6

-14.1

9.0

-2.6

11.5

6.8

2003

-13.3

16.5

-8.7

-3.9

-13.9

10.0

-2.6

11.3

6.9

2004

-13.1

15.2

-8.7

-1.5

-13.8

10.7

-2.2

9.6

5.9

2005

-13.4

15.0

-7.4

-0.3

-13.1

9.2

-2.2

8.8

5.0

2006

-12.4

15.4

-8.2

1.2

-12.6

8.9

-3.4

7.7

5.4

2007

-13.3

14.4

-6.9

1.4

-11.6

8.1

-3.5

7.6

6.2

2008

-12.7

13.9

-6.1

1.5

-11.6

7.3

-3.4

7.8

5.1

Why aren't free agent contracts front-loaded?

‘Tis the season.  No, not that season.  It’s free agent season, when teams take a look at would-be employees and sign them to ridiculous-sounding contracts.  For a moment, I can leave aside the thought that no person should make $20 million dollars for playing baseball, and even put aside the sour taste in my mouth from the most recent Yankee spending spree.  There’s something else that confuses me in free agent signings.  Why is it that the contracts are all backloaded?

Recently, players have been signing contracts for multiple years which gently increase in value over the term of the deal.  (i.e., Smith makes $10 million this year, $11 million next year, $12 million the year after that).  At the very least, the contract simply pays the same flat salary over the course of the contract.  Why do teams and players sign these contracts with one another when it would make more sense for both to have the contract front-loaded?

Let’s get a few things out of the way.  Because of the way that the labor contract is set up, most players on the free agent market are in their late 20s at the youngest, and some of them are well into their 30s.  Statistically, we know that players start to decline at this point.  They may be descending slowly from great heights, but in terms of on-the-field performance, it’s all downhill from here.  Why pay more for a depreciating asset?  The following strategies wouldn’t really apply to signing a young player on the upside of the growth curve.  So, let’s assume the player in question is a player at his peak or even past his prime.

Some of the answer of why salaries are back-loaded probably has to do with the escalating salaries that the market will bear.  I chuckle to think that in 1997-1998, there was talk of the Indians trading for/signing Pedro Martinez, then of the then-Expos, but they balked at the thought that Martinez would command a 6 year deal at $12M per year.  (If only…)  That same deal will now get you Carlos Silva and a utility infielder.  This year’s player worth 9 million might command 10 million next year or in two years.  So maybe the teams are just building in cost-of-living adjustments, but is the COLA based on the player’s current talent level or his projected actual value adjusted for inflation.  Either way, the inflation of the market is something that can be built into a projected value system.  I’m not an economist, but it can’t be that hard.

So why would it make sense to front-load a contract?  From the player’s perspective, it’s simple.  Suppose a team is willing to pay me 10, then 11, then 12 million dollars over three years.  When would I rather have the 12 million dollar payday?  If I’m a wise player with a good financial advisor, I’d say give it to me now.  Better that the money be sitting in my account gathering interest than in the club owner’s!  I come out ahead if I make the money as 12-11-10 instead of 10-11-12.

Why would it make sense for the team to front-load the contract?  The case is less clear-cut here, but I think there are a few strategic advantages to be had.  In last week’s roundtable, Eric asked a question that contained a rather astute observation on the status of the market.  Teams often seem to value players by thinking “What is he worth now?” and signing him for that much over the course of 4-5 years, not even taking deteriorating skills into account.  Let’s leave aside how flawed the thinking in how to value players often is.  They have a formula (HR + RBI + SB) that they use and it spits out a number.  We’ll go with it.

I have to wonder if this failure to recognize diminishing skills is partially responsible for the salary “explosion” in recent years… consider the following for a moment.  Smith is a free agent third baseman in 2006 and signs a 5 year deal worth 10 million per year.  At the time, he really was worth 10 million a year, but on the false assumption that he would stay young and pretty forever, he gets 10 million in each of the next 5 years.  After 2008, his skills have dulled a little bit, but he’s still getting paid 10M, even though he’s really only putting up about 7 million in results.  Jones (not Chipper) is a free agent third baseman after the 2008 season, and has been an up-and-comer.  He points out that he had a better year in 2008 than did Smith, maybe something around the neighborhood of $8 million worth of value.  But, Jones says that since he had a better year than Smith, he deserves more than Smith is being paid ($10M) and asks for $11 million, if not more.  In three years, the cycle will repeat itself.

But other than controlling salaries, there’s another advantage to front-loading the contract.  Consider how many teams have “albatross” guys on their rosters.  They are guys who aren’t useless and should have a roster spot, but are in the later years of long-term deals and due to those diminishing skills, are now scheduled to make an amount of money well beyond what they will be worth.  They’re hard to move in a trade because of the big salary, but the contract eats up a lot of this year’s payroll, so his team can’t go out and sign someone else to bolster the roster.  In a front-loaded contract, his salary is now much lower and either he’s easier to move if he needs to be traded or his salary number doesn’t look so out-of-line with his production.

With this in mind, why contracts continue to be back-loaded?  On the player’s side, I often hear about players wanting to guarantee themselves a good income later in the future.  Considering that we have a country where the savings rate is negative 3% (Americans spend 3% more than they earn, on average), it’s not shocking that there’s a lot of financially illiteracy out there.  Take the money up front and find a nice investment manager who will grow the money.  You’ll actually make more in the long run.  Plus, in that last or next-to-last year, you’re more attractive to a contending team at the trading deadline.  If the team you originally sign with is floundering, you’ll have made your money and maybe you have a better chance at going to a contender.   The logic makes sense to me. 

But I think that from the player’s perspective, back-loading has more to do with the fact that in America, no one wants to be told that they will grow old.  In America, growing old is apparently the worst thing that could ever happen, even though all of us will.  Rationally, we know that players’ skills will regress as they get older, and I’m sure that the players probably understand that too.  Except that people are very good at assuming that the laws of physics apply to other people and not themselves.  Oh sure, Jones and Smith will fade out, but I won’t.  And teams don’t have the guts to tell players that they will grow old.  Who would want to play for a team that thought he would depreciate, when in his own mind, he (falsely) believes that he is an exception to that particular rule?

Then there’s the (how to keep this PG?) “I have a larger nose than you do” (in the 18th century sense of the word) factor.  I want my salary to keep going up because I know that next year, someone will sign a slightly bigger contract and I want to continue to be the highest paid (shortstop/guy from Pennsylvania/third starter) in the game.  We’re dealing with a bunch of guys.  When have you not known guys to try to one-up each other?

On the team’s side, there is something of a justification for back-loading a contract.  Suppose that a team needed “one more piece.”  They know that in the long run, they’re signing a bad contract, but in the short run, it maximizes their chances for this year.  Baseball executives live from year to year and have very little incentive to think about the distant future (primarily because they will be fired in the meantime).  So, the system is set up to reward bad, long-term contracts, which push up salaries, which breed things like the New York Yankees.  All because people can’t think rationally.

There’s one other problem.  My plan wouldn’t work in isolation.  It would require… well, collusion.  Suppose that one team made an organizational decision to use front-loaded contracts.  For the above reasons, free agents would simply go to other teams… and someone has to play for your team.  A good number of teams would have to wise up (on their own, as collusion is illegal), and that would take years.  Game theory at its finest!  The reward of simply sticking with the status quo is a chance at short-term success, even if it has all the unfortunate side effects of higher salaries and lessened roster flexibility.  The price of trying to buck the system is probably getting fired before it caught on, if ever at all.

Why aren’t free agent contracts front-loaded?

‘Tis the season.  No, not that season.  It’s free agent season, when teams take a look at would-be employees and sign them to ridiculous-sounding contracts.  For a moment, I can leave aside the thought that no person should make $20 million dollars for playing baseball, and even put aside the sour taste in my mouth from the most recent Yankee spending spree.  There’s something else that confuses me in free agent signings.  Why is it that the contracts are all backloaded?

Recently, players have been signing contracts for multiple years which gently increase in value over the term of the deal.  (i.e., Smith makes $10 million this year, $11 million next year, $12 million the year after that).  At the very least, the contract simply pays the same flat salary over the course of the contract.  Why do teams and players sign these contracts with one another when it would make more sense for both to have the contract front-loaded?

Let’s get a few things out of the way.  Because of the way that the labor contract is set up, most players on the free agent market are in their late 20s at the youngest, and some of them are well into their 30s.  Statistically, we know that players start to decline at this point.  They may be descending slowly from great heights, but in terms of on-the-field performance, it’s all downhill from here.  Why pay more for a depreciating asset?  The following strategies wouldn’t really apply to signing a young player on the upside of the growth curve.  So, let’s assume the player in question is a player at his peak or even past his prime.

Some of the answer of why salaries are back-loaded probably has to do with the escalating salaries that the market will bear.  I chuckle to think that in 1997-1998, there was talk of the Indians trading for/signing Pedro Martinez, then of the then-Expos, but they balked at the thought that Martinez would command a 6 year deal at $12M per year.  (If only…)  That same deal will now get you Carlos Silva and a utility infielder.  This year’s player worth 9 million might command 10 million next year or in two years.  So maybe the teams are just building in cost-of-living adjustments, but is the COLA based on the player’s current talent level or his projected actual value adjusted for inflation.  Either way, the inflation of the market is something that can be built into a projected value system.  I’m not an economist, but it can’t be that hard.

So why would it make sense to front-load a contract?  From the player’s perspective, it’s simple.  Suppose a team is willing to pay me 10, then 11, then 12 million dollars over three years.  When would I rather have the 12 million dollar payday?  If I’m a wise player with a good financial advisor, I’d say give it to me now.  Better that the money be sitting in my account gathering interest than in the club owner’s!  I come out ahead if I make the money as 12-11-10 instead of 10-11-12.

Why would it make sense for the team to front-load the contract?  The case is less clear-cut here, but I think there are a few strategic advantages to be had.  In last week’s roundtable, Eric asked a question that contained a rather astute observation on the status of the market.  Teams often seem to value players by thinking “What is he worth now?” and signing him for that much over the course of 4-5 years, not even taking deteriorating skills into account.  Let’s leave aside how flawed the thinking in how to value players often is.  They have a formula (HR + RBI + SB) that they use and it spits out a number.  We’ll go with it.

I have to wonder if this failure to recognize diminishing skills is partially responsible for the salary “explosion” in recent years… consider the following for a moment.  Smith is a free agent third baseman in 2006 and signs a 5 year deal worth 10 million per year.  At the time, he really was worth 10 million a year, but on the false assumption that he would stay young and pretty forever, he gets 10 million in each of the next 5 years.  After 2008, his skills have dulled a little bit, but he’s still getting paid 10M, even though he’s really only putting up about 7 million in results.  Jones (not Chipper) is a free agent third baseman after the 2008 season, and has been an up-and-comer.  He points out that he had a better year in 2008 than did Smith, maybe something around the neighborhood of $8 million worth of value.  But, Jones says that since he had a better year than Smith, he deserves more than Smith is being paid ($10M) and asks for $11 million, if not more.  In three years, the cycle will repeat itself.

But other than controlling salaries, there’s another advantage to front-loading the contract.  Consider how many teams have “albatross” guys on their rosters.  They are guys who aren’t useless and should have a roster spot, but are in the later years of long-term deals and due to those diminishing skills, are now scheduled to make an amount of money well beyond what they will be worth.  They’re hard to move in a trade because of the big salary, but the contract eats up a lot of this year’s payroll, so his team can’t go out and sign someone else to bolster the roster.  In a front-loaded contract, his salary is now much lower and either he’s easier to move if he needs to be traded or his salary number doesn’t look so out-of-line with his production.

With this in mind, why contracts continue to be back-loaded?  On the player’s side, I often hear about players wanting to guarantee themselves a good income later in the future.  Considering that we have a country where the savings rate is negative 3% (Americans spend 3% more than they earn, on average), it’s not shocking that there’s a lot of financially illiteracy out there.  Take the money up front and find a nice investment manager who will grow the money.  You’ll actually make more in the long run.  Plus, in that last or next-to-last year, you’re more attractive to a contending team at the trading deadline.  If the team you originally sign with is floundering, you’ll have made your money and maybe you have a better chance at going to a contender.   The logic makes sense to me. 

But I think that from the player’s perspective, back-loading has more to do with the fact that in America, no one wants to be told that they will grow old.  In America, growing old is apparently the worst thing that could ever happen, even though all of us will.  Rationally, we know that players’ skills will regress as they get older, and I’m sure that the players probably understand that too.  Except that people are very good at assuming that the laws of physics apply to other people and not themselves.  Oh sure, Jones and Smith will fade out, but I won’t.  And teams don’t have the guts to tell players that they will grow old.  Who would want to play for a team that thought he would depreciate, when in his own mind, he (falsely) believes that he is an exception to that particular rule?

Then there’s the (how to keep this PG?) “I have a larger nose than you do” (in the 18th century sense of the word) factor.  I want my salary to keep going up because I know that next year, someone will sign a slightly bigger contract and I want to continue to be the highest paid (shortstop/guy from Pennsylvania/third starter) in the game.  We’re dealing with a bunch of guys.  When have you not known guys to try to one-up each other?

On the team’s side, there is something of a justification for back-loading a contract.  Suppose that a team needed “one more piece.”  They know that in the long run, they’re signing a bad contract, but in the short run, it maximizes their chances for this year.  Baseball executives live from year to year and have very little incentive to think about the distant future (primarily because they will be fired in the meantime).  So, the system is set up to reward bad, long-term contracts, which push up salaries, which breed things like the New York Yankees.  All because people can’t think rationally.

There’s one other problem.  My plan wouldn’t work in isolation.  It would require… well, collusion.  Suppose that one team made an organizational decision to use front-loaded contracts.  For the above reasons, free agents would simply go to other teams… and someone has to play for your team.  A good number of teams would have to wise up (on their own, as collusion is illegal), and that would take years.  Game theory at its finest!  The reward of simply sticking with the status quo is a chance at short-term success, even if it has all the unfortunate side effects of higher salaries and lessened roster flexibility.  The price of trying to buck the system is probably getting fired before it caught on, if ever at all.

World Famous StatSpeak Roundtable: December 24

Well joy to the world, the roundtable has come.  The table is only set for three this week.  As you might imagine, we’re all stretched tight with the holidays.  But, the show must go on!!!  So, let’s talk about free agent outfielders, and what you hope Santa is bringing to your team.

Question #1: Hopefully it isn’t too late to get that letter in to Santa – what should he bring your team this Christmas?

Colin Wyers: The Cubs seem to be set in the rotation – although I wouldn’t turn down a reasonable Jake Peavy deal, Santa! I guess I just want the Cubs to not sign an albatross of a deal for the LH-hitting OF they covet. (Asking for an upgrade at shortstop would probably just be greedy.)

Eric Seidman: Santa, is it too much to ask to rescind the Ibanez deal and just bring Pat Burrell back for a 1-yr deal?  Derek Lowe would be nice, too, given that the Phillies fifth starter is now going to be between Kyle Kendrick and JA Happ, neither of whom provide extreme confidence in this Phillies fan.  Hamels, Lowe, Myers, Moyer, Blanton works for me.

Pizza Cutter: Dear Santa, I want a pony, and a bike, and for Fausto Carmona to stop walking more people than he strikes out.  And a new shoulder for Travis Hafner.  And Randy Johnson on a one-year deal.

Question #2: Dunn, Burrell, Abreu, Garrett, Griffey – who do you want and why and for what position?

Colin Wyers: Dunn is by far the youngest, and so the most likely to provide value over the course of a long-term contract. Griffey is the one who is most likely to play below replacement level in the next season.

Eric Seidman: According to my post at Fangraphs today (oh yeah, totally pimping myself), of these four, only Garrett Anderson’s value decreases as a DH compared to as a leftfielder.  Dunn projects to be the most formidable offensive threat, with Burrell about 0.4 wins behind.  Abreu is then 0.4 wins behind Burrell, and Griffey is staked at 0.60 wins.  Dunn is also the youngest, so… Dunn.  I may have a Burrell fetish, but the soundest investment would be Dunn as a DH.

Pizza Cutter: Pat Burrell would make someone a dandy DH.  He wasn’t the worst left fielder in baseball last year.  Just the third worst… ahead of Adam Dunn (shot!), who would probably make someone a dandy first baseman.  Or a DH.  I guess in Dunn’s case he would be a designated walker.  Griffey is one of those guys who’s a fourth OF on a good team and a starter on a bad team, but probably doesn’t want to do (or get paid like) either.  Abreu actually rated out as an average right fielder last year according to OPA!, so he can stay out there. 

Question #3: Is Milton Bradley worth it?  Where will he land?

Colin Wyers: I suppose that depends on what “it” is. The problem is that you can’t rely on him as an outfielder, which hasn’t stopped the Cubs from trying to snag him to play right. If he can rack up enough PAs to keep him from being a fourth outfielder in all but name, sure he’s worth “it,” so long as “it” isn’t an absurd amount of money.

Eric Seidman: I don’t buy into the whole “don’t sign him, he’s a clubhouse cancer” argument.  The bottom line is that the guy is talented.  And his problem with fielding isn’t talent-related, but rather with regards to durability.  As an outfielder, Bradley has actually shown solid skills, but his health usually prevents him from manning the position for too long a period of time.  As a DH, of course he is worth it, especially considering he isn’t going to earn a ton of money with a surplus of similar players on the market.

Pizza Cutter: With all the talk of Josh Hamilton being the five-tool “upside” outfielder who finally put it all together in Texas last year despite a troubled past, there was another guy who pretty much did the same thing.  Bradley’s trajectory wasn’t as meteoric, but he did have a .999 OPS last year and he’s going to be 30 next year.  And he’s on the open market.  My guess is that he’ll end up in Wrigleyville.  I suppose that there’s the question of his “anger issues” that have probably seen him passed along from team to team over the past few years (Bradley’s been with the Expos, Indians, Dodgers, A’s, Padres, and now Rangers).  Speaking as a psychologist, there are ways to deal with that, and for all I know, Bradley has availed himself to those.  But let’s say he is still a jerk… what if he were also the last piece to your team’s puzzle?  Is it worth the bad citizenship points and bad karma to win a championship?  Maybe that’s why Bradley’s name doesn’t come up a lot.  No one wants to face that particular dilemma.

Literature review

So now it’s not enough for us to have the old, hackneyed stats versus scouts debate (hint: it’s almost over, and everybody won) – now, we can have internal debates between academic and hobbyist sabermetrician.

Of course, it’s possible that the academics don’t want to be considered sabermetricians. (Although the name of his website may have confused a few on this point.) The (or at least a) premise of the debate (you can read more here and here) is that neither community is paying enough attention to what the other is doing.

To the extent that I have a set of cheap aphorisms that guide my life, one of the big ones is “tend to yourself, and let others tend to themselves.” So I can’t really make academics start reading the hobbyist stuff, but I can look over the academic stuff and see what there is for the taking.

Fair warning: I’m a liberal arts major who didn’t finish college, who works in television production. I’m mostly self-taught when it comes to the programming and statistics stuff, and my stats textbook comes from the book rack of the Salvation Army. So take what I say with whatever grains of salt you like.

Basically what I’m going to do here is sift through what academic papers about baseball I can find and locate a few of interest to sabermetricians. It should be noted here that a lot of academic research on baseball is on topics that don’t intersect with sabermetrics – looking at baseball from a media effects or historical perspective. These are actually the ones I’m more familiar with – unfortunately I can’t find my course notes from History of Sport in the US, but I recall some very fascinating papers on the history of baseball. (One I believe was called “Hands Were All Out Playing,” but for the life of my I can’t find it.) That’s not the sort of paper I’m going to be dealing with here, though. Others are strictly medical or economic, without intersecting with any of the areas I consider sabermetric. I won’t be examining those, either.

On other point – I’m only going to be looking at articles that are, well, free. I’m not paying $20 per day – per day! – just to read one article.

I am skimming these, to prepare a reading list – there’s nothing to say that I won’t come back later and to a more in-depth look.

Improving Major League Baseball Park Factor Estimates
This seems like an interesting paper, although a lot of the interesting math seems to not be spelled out. (The dummy indicators for offensive and defensive strength are something I’d like to explore in more detail.) I dislike the use of Basic Runs Created, of course (is anyone surprised?)
BAYESBALL: A BAYESIAN HIERARCHICAL MODEL FOR EVALUATING FIELDING IN MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL
This is a fantastic-looking paper about Shane Jensen’s SAFE fielding evaluation model.
Slugging Percentage in Differing Baseball Counts
Seems interesting. The real reason I bring it up? They actually did their own scorekeeping for the purposes of the study, and used… well, they say "Data is collected from 1260 MLB games played between March 20, 2008 and April 20, 2008." Retrosheet lists 282 games in that time period, so…
Did Steroid Use Enhance the Performance of the Mitchell Batters? The Effect of Alleged Performance Enhancing Drug Use on Offensive Performance from 1995 to 2007
JC Bradbury doesn’t seem fond of this study. Neither am I – RC27? Not adjusted for league context or park factors? Ugh.
A Markov Chain Approach To Baseball
As a run estimation maven, this is right up my alley. The math seems a bit intimidating to me, however.

This isn’t meant to be comprehensive, just a starting point. Things I’ve learned while writing this list:

  1. Academic papers are expensive. Very expensive. I mean wow-factor expensive – for the price of some papers you could buy the whole THT annual. [Full disclosure - I'm published in the Hardball Times annual.]
  2. Even ignoring expense, academic papers are pretty inaccessible. I served in the Marine Corps for five years doing public affairs work, and so I have a decent handle on the difference between information you’re trying to get out and information you’re authorized to use lethal force to prevent the unauthorized access of. Academic research on the Internet really feels like the latter category.
  3. Runs Created appears to be the run estimator of choice among academics. Please shoot me now.

Mentioning how dryly they all seem to be written may be belaboring the obvious, but I can see why the casual, yet interested, baseball fan would rather read Joe Sheehan or Rob Neyer. I can see why I would, too.

What I’ve come away from, if anything, is that it’s possible that there’s some very good sabermetric research going on in academia. There’s also some stunningly mediocre stuff – the Mitchell Report study is laughably unusable, and the slugging percentage study looks like a casual afternoon’s work once you have a proper Retrosheet database.

One thing to bear in mind is that in academic contexts, peer review likely means "other economists/physicists/etc." That’s fine, that’s great, that’s wonderful. But having the baseball stuff peer-reviewed by someone who knows baseball wouldn’t be the worst idea, either.

I would also argue that – as it stands now – it is much easier for an academic to become well-versed and even involved in the sabermetrics community than it is for sabermetricians to interact with academics studying baseball. Academic inquiry seems to happen behind walls; there are walled sabermetricians as well, but a surprising amount of research is happening out in the open. Maybe that’s not quite as good as peer review, but peer review isn’t a cure-all itself.

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