Expert: No, the Yankees DID NOT buy their title

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A week and a half ago I asked whether or not the Yankees bought their title.  Given that, as of this morning, 652 people have commented on that, I feel comfortable saying that the subject struck a nerve.

Today noted sports economist Andrew Zimbalist says in the Wall Street Journal that, nope, the Yankees did not buy their title:

It’s a little surprising, but the statistical relationship between a team’s winning percentage and its payroll is not very high. When I plot payroll and win percentage on the same graph, the two variables don’t always move together. In other words, knowing a team’s payroll does not enable one to know a team’s win percentage.

More precisely, depending on the year, I find somewhere between 15% and 30% of the variance in team win percentage can be explained by the variance in team payroll. That means between 70% and 85% of a team’s on-field success is explained by factors other than payroll. Those factors can include front office smarts, good team chemistry, player health, effective drafting and player development, intelligent trades, a manager’s in-game decision-making, luck, and more.

Interesting, sure, but this should all be taken with a grain of salt.  For one thing, while Zimbalist is the most famous sports economist out there, he has had his butt handed to him over what appears to be some pretty sloppy work in the past.  He obviously knows more about sports business than you or I do, but whether he always uses that knowledge to reach sound conclusions, as opposed to starting with conclusions and using that knowledge in an effort to justify them, is an open question. Indeed, it’s an open question with all supposed experts.

Secondly, while the Yankees have always had money, with the opening of their new stadium, that money is reaching unprecedented levels (another sports economist, Vince Gennaro, thinks that their revenue went up by $100 million based on the stadium alone). Zimbalist talks about how the contracts they buy now may eventually become burdensome as the players age and “will weigh on the team’s ability to acquire other players,” but with the kind of cash flow the Yankees are seeing now, that conclusion is questionable.  Sure, there’s some payroll number that the Yankees can’t afford, but there’s no indication that they’re anywhere close to reaching it. 

Finally, while the Yankees have long been free agent players, we may very well be seeing something new in the past couple of years in terms of their ability to consistently and effectively use their money to get the right players.  Ask yourself: what could have happened in the early part of this decade if the quiet Hal Steinbrenner had been in charge instead of the boisterous and emotional George?  Can we say for certain that the Yankees wouldn’t have won more titles if, rather than waste their time with the Jaret Wrights and Kei Igawas of the world, they had done what they did last winter and simply decided to sign the absolute top free agents?

Maybe those are unanswerable questions, but two things are certain: (1) while the Yankees have always had a fat wallet, that wallet is now fatter than it has ever been; and (2), while the Yankees have always spent their money freely, they have only recently really started to spend their money wisely. Each of those factors may radically change Zimbalist’s dollars/wins graph going forward.

Yordano Ventura represented the best and worst of baseball’s culture

BOSTON, MA - AUGUST 28:  Yordano Ventura #30 of the Kansas City Royals delivers in the first inning during a game against the Boston Red Sox on August 28, 2016 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
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It was reported this morning that Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura was killed in a car accident in the Dominican Republic. Former prospect Andy Marte was also killed in a separate car accident. Along with Jose Fernandez and Oscar Taveras, the baseball world has lost a lot of young, exciting talent in a very short amount of time.

Ventura was, like all of us, a complex human being. At his best, he was an exciting, talented, emotive pitcher who featured an electric fastball which sat in the mid-90’s and occasionally touched 100 MPH. At his worst, he was an immature, impressionable kid trying to fit in by exacting revenge against batters he felt had wronged him by slinging those electric fastballs at vulnerable areas of their bodies.

Baseball needed Ventura when he was at his best. It is players like him and Fernandez, not Mike Trout, that bring in new fans to the sport. To baseball die-hards, Angels outfielder Mike Trout is the pinnacle of entertainment because we know he’s an otherworldly talent. But to the average fan, Trout is just another player who hits a couple of homers and doesn’t do anything particularly interesting otherwise. Trout is milquetoast. Ventura was never an All-Star, but fans knew who he was because he made his presence felt every time he made a start. He was fun, if sometimes vengeful.

Ventura’s baseball rap sheet is rather lengthy for someone who only pitched parts of four seasons in the big leagues. Early in the 2015 season, Ventura found himself in a handful of benches-clearing incidents in quick succession. On April 12, he jawed with Trout, apparently misunderstanding the motivation behind Trout yelling, “Let’s go!” Though catcher Salvador Perez intervened, Trout’s teammate Albert Pujols ran in from second base and the benches cleared shortly thereafter. On the 18th, some drama between the Athletics and Royals continued. Ventura fired a 99 MPH fastball at Brett Lawrie, resulting in his immediate ejection from the game. More beanball wars ensued in the series finale the following day. Finally, on the 23rd, Ventura hit White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu with a 99 MPH fastball in the fourth inning. Ventura was not ejected… until after the completion of the seventh inning. Walking back to the dugout, Ventura barked at White Sox outfielder Adam Eaton and — you guessed it — the benches cleared. All told, Ventura was fined for his behavior with the Athletics and suspended seven games for the White Sox incident.

In August 2015, Ventura called Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista a “nobody” and accused him of stealing signs. He apologized shortly thereafter. Two months later, during his start in Game 6 of the ALCS against the Blue Jays, Ventura got into it with Jays first base coach Tim Leiper. Nothing happened beyond that, but apparently it was part of the Jays’ plan to try to put Ventura “on tilt.”

Most recently, in June this past season, Ventura hit Orioles third baseman Manny Machado with a pitch. Machado charged the mound and got in at least one punch before the players spilled out onto the field in a blob of royal blue and orange. Ventura was suspended for eight games.

Ventura was by no means a model of civility, but he was a product of baseball’s intransigent culture forcing players to assimilate or be ostracized. The old culture taught players to never show emotion. Hit a home run? Put your head down and circle the bases in a timely fashion or risk taking a fastball to the ribs. Players like Fernandez and Bautista — typically players from Latin countries — challenged those old cultural norms and are, as a result, the vanguard of the new culture. Ventura displayed aspects of each, the worst of the old culture and the best of the new. He was not a one-dimensional person; he was strikingly complex. At one moment willing to use a fastball as a weapon, the next stopping by some kids’ lemonade stand and giving out fist bumps. Baseball is made more entertaining and more interesting by its personalities and Ventura’s was a behemoth, for better or worse. His absence from the sport will be felt.

MLB remembers Yordano Ventura and Andy Marte

BOSTON, MA - AUGUST 28:  Yordano Ventura #30 of the Kansas City Royals delivers in the first inning during a game against the Boston Red Sox on August 28, 2016 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
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Following the tragic passing of 25-year-old Yordano Ventura and 33-year-old Andy Marte, both of whom were killed in separate car crashes on Sunday morning, players and executives from around Major League Baseball expressed an outpouring of grief and support for the players’ families and former teams.

Fans have gathered at Kauffman Stadium in memory of the former pitcher.