Even as recently as a decade ago, Sabermetrics was a niche interest among baseball fans. As various concepts began to gain acceptance in the mainstream, players slowly began to accept them as well. Players like Brian Bannister and Zack Greinke were hailed as examples of a new breed of player — one who marries his athleticism with the utilization of analytics. This year, much was made of certain players’ data-driven adjustments, including Daniel Murphy and J.D. Martinez. Both had great seasons as a result of focusing more on hitting more fly balls instead of ground balls and line drives.
Statistics can clearly benefit players. They can also be used against them, and not just by opposing players. The Astros, who are in the World Series for the first time since 2005, are a great example of this. The Astros spent a few years rebuilding after a complete overhaul of the front office, which included bringing in analytically-fluent Jeff Luhnow as GM after the 2011 season. That overhaul instilled so much confidence that, in 2014, Sports Illustrated writer Ben Reiter predicted that the Astros would win the 2017 World Series. He’s only four Astros wins away from being proven correct.
The Astros’ front office, though, took advantage of its players at various times throughout the process. Their success is owed, in part, to exploiting its players. On Twitter, user @chicken__puppet chained a few tweets together exemplifying this:
At its core, analytics is about optimization: getting the most bang for your buck. If you read Moneyball, you know this. Wins Above Replacement (WAR) quickly became synonymous with the field and $/WAR was a natural next step. Sabermetrics defaulted to ownership’s perspective, so highly-paid players who performed poorly were scorned. Cheap players who performed well were lauded.
It is no mere coincidence that once most front offices installed analytics departments, teams stopped handing out so many outrageous contracts to free agent first baseman/DH types. Instead, teams focused on signing their young players to long-term contract extensions to buy out their arbitration years ahead of time, ostensibly saving ownership and the team boatloads of money. Teams began to pay close attention to service time as well. Service time determines when a player becomes eligible for arbitration and free agency, so teams that are able to finagle their players’ service time can potentially delay that player’s free agency by a year. The Cubs tried to do this with third baseman Kris Bryant in 2015, as Craig wrote about.
There is a very real ethical component to covering and being a fan of Major League Baseball, despite the common plea to separate sports from politics. The Astros and Cubs aren’t the only ones exploiting their players; the Angels, for example, made some odd personnel choices earlier this season that happened to allow them to avoid paying some players incentive bonuses. Every front office, in one way or another, games the system because the system is set up to benefit ownership first and players second. And if the likes of Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa can be taken advantage of so freely and openly, what hope does anyone else have?
Fans have been conditioned to group players and owners together as one group of rich people. In reality, the player earning $30 million has more in common with the office worker making $35,000 a year than with team owners. When fans hear about Correa making $507,500 instead of $550,000, or about free agent who wants a nine-figure contract, they wonder why he had the nerve to ask for so much money in the first place. We praise players, like Cliff Lee, who “leave money on the table.” Both the player and that fan, by virtue of existing and participating in this system, are locked in an eternal battle with those who cut their paychecks. Regardless of salary differences, the player deserves to benefit from the fruits of his labor as much as the office worker. Part of being a baseball fan should also include rooting for the players’ financial success and not just the owners’.
Praising the Astros for being smart and savvy will only create more incentive for other front offices to mimic these unethical behaviors. This is not to say the Astros are breaking any rules, but to say that the rules disproportionately favor certain people. The whole theme of the World Series shouldn’t be about smart, analytically-inclined teams reaching the summit; it should in part be about teams getting ahead with a multitude of exploitative practices against their players.