Gatorade All-Star Workout Day

Overthinking La Russa’s snub of R.A. Dickey

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I remain firmly in the camp that Tony La Russa made a bad decision in deciding not to go with R.A. Dickey as the All-Star Game starter. The arguments for Dickey over Matt Cain are pretty clear both statistically (Dickey has been the better pitcher) and thematically (Dickey has been the better story), so I won’t rehash them.

But what there has been less-than-satisfying talk about is why La Russa made this decision.  The official line is that there are concerns about Buster Posey catching Dickey’s knuckleball, but that seems less than satisfying for a couple of reasons and is actually inconsistent with La Russa’s own statements.

Specifically, La Russa said that Dickey will still pitch in the first part of the game. Which means either (a) he’s going to have to pitch to Posey anyway; or (b) La Russa is going to pull Posey in the first part of the game and replace him with Carlos Ruiz, thereby leaving the NL with no catchers on the bench for most of the game, as they are only carrying two.  Not very La Russaian of him to be so incautious.

So, the reasoning is still nebulous. But Tony Manfred Business Insider thinks he knows why La Russa chose Matt Cain:

The baseball world sees Dickey and his knuckleball as a gimmick, an odd and fleeting path to effectiveness that automatically disqualifies him from the realm of great pitchers and places him his own separate and inferior category … The basic lesson is this: Greatness in sports is not about objective superiority, it’s about satisfying popular assumptions about what greatness ought to look like.

There’s an inherent bias against players who succeed differently.

So Dickey is being penalized, consciously or otherwise, because he doesn’t adhere to baseball orthodoxy?  That’d be a swell explanation if the man who made the decision was anyone but Tony La Russa, who has been the least orthodox great manager in baseball history.  He fundamentally changed bullpen usage. He batted his pitcher eighth. He never had any problem mixing it up with established figures in the game be they players, other managers or members of the media.  Indeed, La Russa’s m.o, would have him more likely to make some unorthodox move than anyone.

Which probably best explains the choice of Cain over Dickey.  Any old manager can pitch the best, most deserving guy to start the All-Star Game. But it takes a singular, genius-infused maverick like Tony La Russa to go with the less obvious choice.

MLB implements another player-unfriendly rule, this time targeting draftees

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 28:  MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred speaks to the media before Game Three of the 2016 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians at Wrigley Field on October 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Jon Morosi of MLB Network and FOX Sports reports that the MLB draft has a new program in which the top-50 pitching prospects are asked to undergo a voluntary pre-draft MRI on their throwing arm. At first glance, it seems reasonable because, hey, pitchers are injury-prone and players sometimes hide injuries. It would feel bad if my favorite team drafted a lemon!

The reality is that this is just another player-unfriendly rule that shifts financial risk away from the owners and onto the players. The players, in this case, are often not wealthy and are about to begin life in the minor leagues where they earn less than $8,000 per year. Signing bonuses help alleviate some of the immediate financial discomfort of minor league life.

The pre-draft MRI is “voluntary” with quotes around it. Choosing not to undergo the MRI will only give prospective teams more reason to be skeptical of one’s durability. It’s a lot like those voluntary workouts in football that aren’t so voluntary due to superior and peer pressure. You don’t show up, you’re lazy, entitled, a bad teammate, etc. In this case, a pitching prospect refuses to undergo the MRI, it’s because he’s hiding an injury.

Ian Anderson was the first pitcher taken off the board in the 2016 draft, going to the Braves at No. 3. He got a $4 million signing bonus. Let’s say this new MRI program had already been instituted and Anderson refused, or something came up that caused the Braves to change their minds. Anderson’s draft stock falls, let’s say to 21 where the Blue Jays took T.J. Zeuch with a $2.175 million signing bonus. Falling 18 spots in this case costs Anderson about $2 million, perhaps more because he loses a lot of negotiating leverage. Maybe he falls further, even to the second round.

In a column for FanGraphs nearly two years ago, Nathaniel Grow showed that, as a percentage of total league revenues, player salaries have been declining since the early 2000’s. In 2002, player salaries made up 56 percent of league revenues. In 2014, it was only 38 percent.

In isolation, the MRI program isn’t a big deal. The injured player loses stock, but another player moves up to take his place and earns a bit more money. As part of the bigger picture, however, this is part of an ongoing trend in which owners abdicate financial risk and push it all onto the players. The new collective bargaining agreement, for example, capped international signings at $5-6 million per team per year. That removes any incentive for overseas stars like Shohei Otani from coming over to play Major League Baseball. If he wanted to anyway, he would make much less money than he otherwise would on an open market. The amateur draft itself is almost entirely risk-avoidant for owners and it’s terrible for the players because they, too, would earn much more on an open market. And let’s not forget how owners have fought tooth-and-nail to keep minor league salaries suppressed.

Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick once paid $2.8 million for the Honus Wagner T-206 baseball card. Let’s not act like these owners can’t afford to shoulder the risk on young pitchers.

EDIT (4:40 PM EST): As I’ve seen others mention it, it’s worth bringing up the Astros/Brady Aiken issue. The Astros took him first in the 2014 draft, but they took issue with his elbow health. The two sides had agreed to a $6.5 million signing bonus, but the Astros wanted to reduce it to $5 million as a result. Aiken didn’t end up signing with the Astros. He underwent Tommy John surgery and was later selected by the Indians 17th overall in the first round of the 2015 draft. He got a $2,513,280 signing bonus.

Your 2016 Winter Meetings Wrapup

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Gaylord National Resort
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OXON HILL, MD — The 2016 Winter Meetings are over.  As usual, there was still no shortage of excitement this year. More trades than we’ve seen in the past even if there are still a lot of free agents on the market. Whatever the case, it should make the rest of December a bit less sleepy than it normally is.

Let’s look back at what went down here at National Harbor this week:

Well, that certainly was a lot! I hope our coverage was useful for you as baseball buzzed through its most frantic week of the offseason. And I hope you continue coming back here to keep abreast of everything happening in Major League Baseball.

Now, get me to an airport and back home.