Everything you ever wanted to know about the McCourt divorce but were afraid to ask

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Molly Knight of ESPN the Magazine has a long but very interesting and very comprehensive article up about Frank and Jamie McCourt, their ownership of the Dodgers, their divorce and what it’s done and continues to do to the team.  It’s must-read material for Dodgers fans or anyone who is interested in the politics of baseball ownership.  It’s still highly entertaining reading for anyone else.

For all of the stuff about the legal battle and the McCourts’ opulent lifestyle, this passage stood out to me:

While the McCourts were living large, the Dodgers, in 2008 and 2009,
spent less than any other MLB team on the draft and international-player
signings, an area the team once dominated. Frank told reporters during
spring training that the divorce has nothing to do with the payroll; and
multiple former club execs say there’s truth to the claim. “It was
Frank’s plan all along to run a team with a payroll of about $80
million,” says a former high-ranking club official speaking on condition
of anonymity. “His thinking since he bought the team was: ‘This isn’t
the AL East. Why would I spend $150 million to win 98 games when I can
spend half that to win 90, if that’s all it takes to make the playoffs
in our division?’

All along I had been dismissing McCourt’s claims that his divorce had nothing to do with the Dodgers’ decisions to skimp on player development and payroll. Turns out I was wrong. It’s not the divorce doing that, it’s McCourt’s very business plan.

Too bad that “I can spend half that and win 90” logic falls apart when the major leaguers you depend upon get old and you have (a) no farm system to replenish the roster; and (b) you’ve arranged your business affairs in such a way that upping Major League payroll to go get free agents to make up for it is impossible.

Tony Clark thinks front offices have too much of an impact on baseball

AP Photo/Richard Drew
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Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post spoke to MLBPA executive director Tony Clark, who said he feels that front offices have too much of an impact on the game of baseball. Clark said, “You hear players saying it’s even hard to recognize how the game is being played. If those on the field see it and experience it, then those who are watching it will notice, too. It’s not to suggest I don’t like home runs or strikeouts or walks. I like all those things. But I also like more of the strategy and the dynamics that have always determined the outcomes in our games.”

Clark continued, “The decisions that are being made are changing the game. When you’re in a climate where the decisions about how the game is being played are being made less by the players who are playing and the coaches and managers who are coaching and managing it, we find ourselves in a climate that seems to be focused in on what everybody’s calling the three true outcomes: the home run, the strikeout and the walk. I would argue that there are two true outcomes: whether you win or you lose. … I’m not saying data is a bad thing. I’m saying it’s morphed our game and its focus quite a bit.”

Clark also discussed tanking, saying, “This isn’t a player problem. It’s reflective, I believe, of very deliberate business decisions. Players as a whole compete on every pitch and every at-bat. Our industry is predicated on competition from the top down. … What it appears that we are seeing in that regard is teams withdrawing from that competition for seasons at a time. It becomes challenging when it’s more than a couple of teams that are going that route, whereby you have a considerable chasm between those that are competing at one level and those that are competing at another.”

The current collective bargaining agreement expires on December 1, 2021, so the union and the owners will have three more years of talking about these issues before they are concretely addressed. The tanking issue seems like it will almost certainly be addressed.

Clark’s concern over the impact of front offices may not be misplaced, but it’s difficult to envision any kind of rule making a difference. Limit what data teams can access? Centralize the data? The “scienceification” of baseball, if you will, was an inevitability, an evolution. In order to go in a different direction, the game will need to evolve again. Trying to tamp down data usage in baseball is akin to playing whack-a-mole with various ways with which teams will find advantages over other teams.

Major League Baseball could try to cut into the ever-increasing three true outcomes rate by changing certain things about the game without touching the data. Back in 1969, the pitcher’s mound was lowered to encourage more offense. In a similar vein, to encourage more doubles and triples and fewer home runs, stadiums could be adjusted to have the fences back to a certain distance (e.g. at least 340 feet down the lines, 410 in center). The pitcher’s mound could be moved back a few inches, lessening the impact of higher velocity, which has been a big factor in the ever-increasing strikeout rate. There are surely other ideas that smart people can come up with to bring the game towards a more active, enjoyable experience. We still have three years to go so we’ll certainly be seeing some interesting suggestions.