It’s utterly meaningless to say “teams have spent $2 billion on free agents”

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I just read Jon Morosi’s latest column over at Fox. Don’t feel obligated to do so yourself, as it’s about how the Royals won because they have great chemistry and you can tell that they have great chemistry because they won. It’s Friday, man. I don’t have the energy to parse the nonsense in that and I doubt you do either.

But the lede is pretty interesting. He starts his column off with this: “Major League Baseball teams have spent more than $2 billion on free agents this winter, according to MLBTradeRumors.com.”

I’ve seen a lot of other reporters mentioning that figure, tweeting it and tracking it as the offseason has worn on. Sometimes with aggregations of years:

 

Sometimes there are only partial numbers:

 

Sometimes it’s parroted in a manner which takes the form of a compete and total non-sequitur:

I’m not sure how that last dude can say they’re “doing well.” Indeed, I can’t for the life of me figure out what these figures are supposed to tell us. Two billion is a big number, I guess, but to frame it the way it’s framed above is utterly meaningless.

The gross free agent expenditure is a numerator with no denominator, for starters. How many player contracts does that cover? It covers lots of contracts of wildly-varying lengths too, yes? Also, where does that stand historically? Is that a lot? It’s probably more than last year because salaries tend to rise, but maybe not depending on that denominator. And if more, how much more? Have raises increased or decreased? What’s the graph look like? Also: how does that $2 billion — even if it were even remotely moored to a reference point — compare to baseball revenues? Are the owners making more too? How much more? How do these free agent expenditures relate to overall expenditures?

We never get great answers to those questions and, as such, these sorts of numbers are worth nothing.

Indeed, they’re worse than nothing. They’re a form of subtle propaganda. Perhaps not intentionally so, as I don’t think the reporters cited above mean it in this way, but it certainly serves baseball owners’ interests to have that $2 billion figure out there, floating in the ether. It plays directly into “those players are FILTHY STINKIN’ RICH” sentiments which owners have always used in the grand P.R. game against the players. In less than a year the players are going to be bargaining for things like a higher minimum salary or more friendly arbitration and free agent compensation terms. As all past bargaining has gone, public sentiment will play an indirect role in things, as each side tries to sell its particular brinksmanship strategy to the fans. The owners have always cried poor and have always tried to paint the players as rich and greedy. This helps that cause.

I realize there isn’t a lot of news happening in January and that big shiny figures are fun to repeat, but this stuff is misleading in the extreme. And, like so much else related to the economic side of baseball, it is distinctly slanted against the players in such a way as to make them look like they’re spoiled rotten for making a few billion across a couple of thousand employees.

Meanwhile, precious little scrutiny is ever directed at 30 men who own baseball teams and rake in several billion more by virtue of the players’ labor.