A philosophical question

Let’s say that there was a team (we’ll call them the Mapleland Bees) that was faced with a choice between two free agents.  (And no, this isn’t one of those things where I reveal that these are two real players at the end and say “surprise!”)

Free Agent A is good at the types of things that people will pay to watch. 

  • He hits homeruns
  • He’s “basestealing threat”, which means he’s good for 15-20 SB per year
  • He has a reputation for “coming through in the clutch,” dating superstars and models, and being a pretty “face of the franchise.”  The reporters love him because he’s great copy.
  • He hits for a high (.300+) batting average and because of the guys in front of him had 120 RBI last year.

The problem is that he’s not so good at some of the “hidden” things in baseball that few people know to even look for and fewer would probably pay for.  He’s awful as a defender, and makes the routine plays look spectacular.  He doesn’t draw walks (and so has a low OBP), strikes out a lot, and while he steals bases, it’s primarily because he just runs a lot and gets lucky sometimes.  In other words, he’s something of a slightly altered version of Derek Jeter.  (I know, I know, there’s nothing wrong with Jeter’s OBP).

Free Agent B is not a homerun hitter, nor much with the batting average, and due to hitting behind an OBP nightmare, he had a mere 65 RBI last year.  He does put up his share of doubles, but isn’t a fun player to build a marketing campaign around (read: ugly) and is happily married to his college sweetheart, has two kids, and doesn’t say much after games.  However, he’s a fantastic defender who makes the tough plays look routine.  He also draws a lot of walks, so while his average looks low, he’s actually getting on base quite a bit.  Plus he doesn’t really strike out so much.

So, he’s what would happen if Mark Ellis and Brian McCann had a baby together.

Here’s the thing.  The Bees are an enlightened team and they see the two players for just just what they are.  And after crunching some numbers, they realize that Ellis McCann would actually stand the better chance of making the team better, once everything is considered (hitting, fielding, running, the fact that being pretty has no bearing on on-the-field results).

But wait, not all is that simple.  Jerek Deter, despite being the lesser player of the two, will sell a lot of t-shirts, tickets, and is worth a few million more in the TV contract and a lot more in getting his name mentioned on E!.  Ellis McCann is boring and will only be appreciated by a handful of nerds. After crunching some more numbers, the owner realizes that he stands to make more money by signing Jerek Deter than Ellis McCann, even after you factor in what is likely to be a big difference in salary… in Deter’s favor.  It even works out to favor more profit from Deter after you figure in the thought that a team that wins more (and Ellis McCann is worth more wins) makes more because everyone loves a winner.

So, whom should the owner of the Mapleland Bees instruct his GM to sign?  He’s a business man who’s running an entertainment venture, and if there’s nothing else that we learned from the unfortunate ten years that were the peak of Britney Spears’s career, it’s that you have to give the people what they want, no matter how stupid that is.

But… winning…


11 Responses to A philosophical question

  1. Brian Cartwright says:

    As fans, the only thing we care about is winning. Profit only matters if it drops to a point where the team might leave town.
    The owners, on the other hand, are running a business, and so look at profit first. Of course, winning can lead to more profit, but it’s not the bottom line.
    However, if it’s been 15 years since you’ve put a winning team on the field, even if you’re happy with the cash flow, you don’t have much good will left with the fans

  2. Pizza Cutter says:

    Brian, was that a thinly veiled reference to something specific?

  3. Brian Cartwright says:

    I read a lot about the Pirates, and am able to guage the attitude of their fans who post on these type of boards.

  4. Jeff says:

    It would matter on home many games the “better” player wins for the team. Here is a link to a good study on what brings fans to a stadium:
    Looking at his numbers it looks like the “better” player needs to be ~6 wins (39777/6184) better than the previous All-Star for the team to replace him.

  5. jw says:

    Nice post PC, it’s something that I’m curious about as well.
    I’ll go ahead and for the sake of argument assume that you factor in opportunity cost and a risk premium into the crunching of the numbers and Jerek Deter still comes out ahead. If that’s the case it depends on the opinion of the owner. If the owner cares only about winning, then sure sign Ellis McCann. But if he cares about his finances and has shareholders to consider, he responsibly has to sign Jerek Deter. That’s assuming the GM does not have an overall strategy (which he should), in which case you want to stick to that.
    In reality this situation is unlikely to happen. Players like Jerek Deter are way overvalued in the market so you’re almost always better off financially signing the Ellis McCann. If there is a situation where Jerek is worth more then take the money off the top and pay for an upgrade at another position (possibly by signing said Ellis McCann).

  6. Pizza Cutter says:

    This is the type of question where, no matter what you brought up, I would say, “OK, I looked at that, and Jerek Deter is still the more profitable player.” It’s a philosophical question. Money vs. winning. Yes, they usually go together, but what if they don’t?
    Although oddly enough, I wonder if the USA team for the WBC is facing a similar problem between (the, ahem, real) Derek Jeter and Jimmy Rollins. Neither “costs” anything, but Jeter is probably worth a few extra ticket and t-shirt sales. Rollins is the better player. Hmmm…

  7. Sky says:

    One reason Derek Jeter *might* not be currently overpaid is that the Yankees are cashing in on his name via jerseys, ticket sales, full-size cut-outs, etc. If they’re making $15MM per year from Jeter beyond what Joe Shmoe, a similarly talented (but ugly and unclutch) player, would provide, then he’s worth it.
    These more popular (but worse) players may both pay for their extra salary AND pay for more talent, such that a team is better off in the long run.

  8. Dan Novick says:

    I’m pretty sure that Jeter’s contribution to the Yankees’ bottom line is far greater than the amount he is overpaid. I will admit, though, that I’ve never thought about this kind of question before. Nice post.

  9. Goo says:

    Jerek Deter is actually Joe Carter, 1986:

  10. Pizza Cutter says:

    Oh sure, rip my heart out as someone who went to see his first baseball game in 1986 in Cleveland and asked my dad for a Joe Carter t-shirt. True story.

  11. KY says:

    I think there is a right answer. You sign Jerek Deter. Deter brings a profit to your team. You sign enough players like that and you can use the extra money you are earning to sign Ellis McCann as well.
    Obviously if every other roster spot is taken this would not be a valid point but if I were starting a team I would definitely put that in the numbers.
    Just like in Baseball Stars 2 for Nintendo! You could bump up “Prestige” so that your attendance went up and you earned money faster in future games for other upgrades.

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