Week of March 22, 2019

Pretty much sums up everything great about going to a game. Photo: Al Bello


The Best Baseball Player Is Paid A Lot, But Is It “Enough”?

On the heels of the Phillies’ signing Bryce Harper to a 13 year, $330M contract ($25M per year, which is frankly a relative bargain), came news this week that the Angels had come to an agreement on a massive extension with Mike Trout, the best baseball player in the world.

The total: a 10 year extension for $360M ($36M per year), and on top of what Trout is owed the next two seasons, he’ll be paid $426.5M over the next 12 years. It’s the biggest total deal in American sports history, and so much more than Harper got, fairly.

But was it as much as Trout could have gotten? When Harper signed with the Phillies, I joked that the Giants should go after Trout when he becomes a free agent in two years with an unfathomable sum:

(Pardon my language!) A billion was obviously never going to happen. But what is a “fair” amount for Trout, who has been the best in the league pretty much since he was called up in 2011. First, a caveat from Ben Lindbergh of The Ringer:

We’ll stipulate something that hardly needs to be said: If making $426.5 million is a problem, it’s one we’d all like to have. It’s never easy to argue that an athlete is underpaid even though he’ll make far more money in a decade than most of us can imagine making in multiple lifetimes. Admittedly, in a world where earnings were parceled out by an all-knowing entity based on societal utility or Good Place points, not even Trout would make so much more than the average citizen. In this world, though, the money that’s now going to Trout wasn’t going to go to teachers or ticket buyers or hungry minor leaguers, but to Angels owner Arte Moreno. Begrudging Trout the millions he’s making is akin to being upset that Moreno isn’t making more.

Seconded! Got it? Good. Ok. So, how good has Trout been? Well, Trout is the best player ever through his age-26 season:

Or how about: this winter, Harper and Manny Machado signed for a combined $55M per season. Since their rookie years in 2012, though, Trout has been better than Harper and Machado combined (Trout: 64.0 WAR; Harper+Machado: 60.9 WAR). So is Trout worth $55 million per year? Maybe! He’s projected to produce something around 80 WAR over the next ten years, and he only has to produce 44.5 WAR to make this deal a win for the Angels:

In other words, Trout will be paid a lot, but it very likely won’t be nearly enough. As Lindbergh says, “The problem for Trout is that he’s too good to be paid exactly what he’s worth.”

I’ll also add this: after mostly seeing him on highlights and box scores the last 8 years, I was very excited to watch him Trout for three days in a row when the Giants traveled to Anaheim last season. He did not disappoint: He hit 6/12 with three dingers and two doubles, a walk and a stolen base, good for a batting average of .500 and an OPS of 2.129 (!!). Every time he came up I was terrified. It was Bondsian. -TOB

Source: Mike Trout Isn’t Worth $430 Million – He’s Worth Much More”, Ben Lindbergh, The Ringer (03/19/2019)

PAL: This is the first time I wish I was an economist. TOB highlights the key caveat to Linbergh’s article: yes, $426MM is an unfathomable amount of money, so the rest of this is more or less an fun exercise on quantifying how good Trout is at baseball. But for the greatest of the greats, I wonder if we can quantify their value in dollars relative to what other players make. There’s something more to it, and I’m going to try to put my finger on it here. These are half-baked:

  • At what point is the dollar the wrong unit to measure the value of an asset? My dad likes to say, “A buck’s a buck.” At some astronomical number, does the value of a dollar mean less than it does at a lower point? And at what point is that? 
  • $1,000,000 is a huge number unless it’s $1,000,000 within $500,000,000. More specifically, it’s .2%. That is a relatively miniscule amount. There is no felt difference between $426MM (Trout) and $360MM (Harper) to everyone on the planet except for about 5,000 people.
  • How could Mike Trout truly be worth $1B really over the course of his career if the Angels franchise is worth maybe $2B? In comparison to other players – sure – he’s undervalued. In comparison to asset of a team he seems he would be overvalued?
  • The last five years of this contract will still suck. Players don’t decline at a consistent rate.  He’ll likely earn the money in the first chunk of the contract (can any single person “earn” that amount of money?), but I bet this gets painful to watch.
  • God, it really sucks he plays for the Angels.

TOB: When you consider Trout is as productive as Machado and Harper, then you are essentially getting production from two fringe-MVP level players at one position. That allows an incredible flexibility – they can pay Trout and then fill the second spot with a light hitting defensive wizard, or a cheap replacement level player, or they can go big and try to sign another good/great player for an embarrassment of riches. That’s why I think Trout is “worth” something along the lines of 90% what Harper+Machado are paid (allowing for around $5M to go to that second player). And, keep in mind, in terms of average annual value, Harper’s deal was well under market.

So, even given the slow market this year, Harper and Machado still did get big deals. If Trout were a free agent this year or next (which he won’t be and wouldn’t have been even without this deal), I do think somewhere around 8 years, $400M was in play, and he might have talked someone into 10 years, $500M.

Regarding the team’s value vs what he could be paid: First, a billion was never going to happen. But I do think your question is comparing apples and oranges. “Value” isn’t the same as revenue. The Angels will certainly pull in multiple billions of dollars over the course of the deal. This is simplified, but in 2018, MLB teams pulled in a collective $10.3 billion. That’s roughly $350 million per team. Over the next 12 years, that’s $4.2 billion, and that’s not assuming any increases in inflation or revenue.


Retirements Let The Writers Sing

When a true great retires, one treat we get is a great sportswriter showing what they can do with an entire career from which to pull. Barry Petchesky is one of my favorite sportswriters. We featured a lot of his articles on 1-2-3 Sports!. Ichiro’s retirement – in Japan after a MLB game – is the type of occasion for Petchesky to bring his fastball (emphasis mine):

For that he can thank his insane training methods and commitment—he once claimed he swore off taking vacations after a weeklong trip to Italy in the winter of 2004 threw off his exercise schedule. Again, it’s kind of hard to believe that’s true—but Ichiro apocrypha is one of baseball’s treasures. We expect foreign players to arrive attached to legends too good to check, but Ichiro created his own myths, even here, before our eyes and cameras and notepads. How he was reliably a beast in batting practice and could’ve hit 40 home runs a year if he wanted to be that type of player. (Barry Bonds once said Ichiro could win the Home Run Derby.) How he could instantly discern a good bat from a bad bat by tapping the barrel once with his fingernail. How he had no idea who Tom Brady was. How he would shit-talk opposing players in their own language, English or Spanish. Were these stories true? Does it matter? For Ichiro as for no other player, certain things felt possible.

That’s the good stuff.

If it’s hard for you to understand just how much Ichiro meant to baseball (it was for me) – not just Japanese baseball, but baseball – look no further than this clip:

Yusei Kikuchi is a 27 year old rookie. That’s what happens when you meet a legend in real life.

Consider this: Ichiro has been playing professional baseball since I was a freshman. In high school. Great writing, and – damn – Ichiro can still throw for a 45 year old. Let’s get him a manager job in MLB right now.  – PAL

Source: Ichiro Forever”, Barry Petchesky, Deadspin (03/21/19)

TOB: That video was fantastic. Kikuchi said he grew up idolizing Ichiro:“Mr. Ichiro is kind of a person in the sky, a legend. I don’t know if he really exists.” Masahiro Tanaka, who played with Ichiro for a year with the Yankees had a similar sentiment: ”

“He is a legend in Japan. To me, he was in some other category, out of reach, out of reality. When I was small and I would watch TV, he was one of the biggest superstars in Japanese baseball. It wasn’t something that I could realistically relate to. But for me, he was always somebody unreachable, like somebody above the clouds.”

I also want to point out how emotional Felix Hernandez is in the video, just before Kikuchi appears. King Felix’s career is winding down, but he came up as a 19-year old in 2005, and played the next 8 seasons with Ichiro. You can imagine how much he looked up to Ichiro. What a cool thing.


How A Minor Move May Actually Be a Large Domino, Or: How to Be a Great Beat Writer

Andrew Baggarly is one of my favorite beat writers (really, Giants fans have an embarrassment of riches feeding them info – in the booth and on the page). He’s whip smart (he won Jeopardy, you know!), funny, and knows what he’s talking about. The story he wrote about a trade the GIants made this week involving two minor leaguers is a perfect example of how well he sees the big picture.

The Giants traded minor league pitcher Jordan Johnson to the Reds for minor league utility man Connor Joe. 

Looking at this on a transaction log, I wouldn’t even blink. But Baggs grabs you right away:

[I]f those names don’t trigger an emotional response, then perhaps this will: Pablo Sandoval’s chances of making the Giants’ Opening Day roster just took a major hit.

Wait, what? Then he tells you why the trade for Joe is important:

Last December, the Reds plucked Joe away from the Dodgers at the Winter Meetings. Now that the Giants have acquired Joe, the same Rule 5 provisions apply: he must remain on the 25-man big-league roster all season or be offered back to the Dodgers for half the $100,000 claiming price.

At this late stage, it’s hard to imagine the Giants sacrificing a durable minor-league pitcher like Johnson, who made 26 solid if unspectacular starts between Double A and Triple A last season, if they didn’t intend to carry Joe on their Opening Day roster.

Then he breaks down the math of the Giants’ Opening Day roster and why Panda might be impacted:

If the Giants carry 13 pitchers and limit themselves to a four-man bench, they’d need spots for:

— Joe

— backup catcher René Rivera

— at least one backup outfielder (Cameron Maybin? Mike Gerber? Henry Ramos?) capable of spelling Steven Duggar in center

— and at least one backup infielder (Alen Hanson? Yangervis Solarte?) capable of spelling Brandon Crawford at shortstop

Hanson is out of options as well. He cannot be sent to the minors without exposing him to waivers.

Sandoval does have a minor-league option, actually. But he has enough service time to refuse an assignment and immediately elect free agency.

Then he breaks down some deeper ramifications for losing Panda:

It’s a move that would come as a shock to some of their core players. Prior to Thursday’s pregame workout, one of their stars appeared dumbfounded when I raised the very real possibility that Sandoval would not survive to Opening Day.

And if Sandoval, the 2012 World Series MVP, loses his place to a 26-year-old newcomer who hasn’t played a day in the big leagues? It’s going to be a tough one for the clubhouse to understand or accept.

There’s more, and I recommend you read it. It’s to smart, informative, and to the point. Like I said, that’s some damn good beat writing. -TOB

Source: Why the Giants’ Minor Trade with the Reds Could Become a Much Bigger Deal Within the Clubhouse”, Andrew Baggarly, The Athletic (03/21/2019)

PAL: The Red Sox are paying Pablo $18MM to not play for them this year. Suck it, Rabeni. I know your Boston Sports kids expect to win every title every year, but still, suck it.


How To Use (And Not Use) New Information in Baseball: A Case Study

As baseball teams continue to get smarter and continue to use modern technology to gather new information previously unavailable, they are faced with a challenge: how do you present information like launch angle and spin rate to players in a manner that allows them to digest it and put it to good use.

Likewise, players are faced with a challenge: how do you react to new information, especially when it contradicts something you believe? There are hundreds of big leaguers, and many hundreds more minor leaguers and college players, and the reactions to how players accept the new information undoubtedly run the gamut.

In a recent article in the Chronicle on the topic, two stark reactions were placed in contrast. In my opinion, one of those was Good; the other was Bad.

First, the Good, from fringe major leaguer Ray Black, who touches 99 MPH on his fastball but has struggled in his short career to consistently locate his breaking balls:

On the pitching side, Black can cite specific ways tracking data have helped him.

He recalled an encounter last season with Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, who kept fouling off sliders until Black threw another and got the strikeout. Moments later, Schwartze asked Black what he did differently on the final pitch because the spin was better.

“I went back to the video trying to see exactly what it was that got the swing and miss,” he said. “I got some extra spin rate on it. It had to deal with a little bit of extension and staying on top of the ball a little better.”

That sent Black into study mode.

“How can I try to mirror that?” he said. “How can I throw that pitch more frequently and consistently so I have tighter spin, more spin, and have better depth on my slider instead of side-to-side movement?”

Black showed an excellent attitude toward new information and an even better job of understanding that new information and then implementing what he learned.

And, now, The Bad, from Jeff Samardzija:

“They can bring anything new in and odds are I’m just going to keep it at arm’s length because I want to keep it as simple as possible,” Samardzija said. “To me, it’s a simple game and I don’t want to make it any more complicated than it is.”

Hey, Jeff. You’re 33 years old and you have been better than league average (100 ERA+) just once since 2014. Maybe you could try an open mind, instead of getting paid millions to suck, buddy. -TOB

Source: How the Giants are Elevating Baseball Innovation in S.F.”, Hank Schulman, San Francisco Chronicle (03/19/2019)


Video(s) of the Week: So cool

And this one, c/o Pep from work:


Tweets of the Week

PAL Song of the Week: YEBBA – ‘Evergreen’


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I had a very good thing going with David Wallace. He was a good guy, was somebody I could trust. There he is. [picks up a framed photo of him and David] You can really see that he is ok taking a picture with me. Even though I was there for disciplinary reasons.

-M. Gary Scott

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