Getty Images

The Banality of cheap baseball teams


I know I don’t usually write on Sunday mornings, but a wind storm woke me up at 3:30am and some low-level existential dread kept me from going back to sleep. So, like any other person who is poor at self-care, I went downstairs, made coffee and went online for three or four hours to make the most of my insomnia.

And boy, oh boy, did I read some fun things from baseball front offices that shed a soft, banal light on this thus-far uneventful offseason. Let’s start with the Dodgers, who held their annual FanFest at Dodger Stadium yesterday.

As Dylan Hernandez at the Los Angeles Times reported, fans in attendance called out the names of players who they want the team to acquire. A 13 year-old kid asked Andrew Friedman to “sign Bryce for us.” Other fans chanted the name of J.T. Realmuto, who the Dodgers are reportedly looking to snag from Miami.

Later team president and part-owner Stan Kasten was asked about that fan enthusiasm, and about the concern on the part of some fans about the Dodgers’ less-than-ambitious offseason moves. Kasten wasn’t having it, though, saying “you keep making this stuff up.” His rationale: season ticket sales are strong so Dodgers fans must be happy.

Which, I suppose is one way to look at it. Another way to look at it is, as we’ve noted many times, to observe that there is a disconnect between how teams make money and what makes fans happy and that a sold out Dodger Stadium does not mean that there aren’t fans who would like to see a 92-win team that just barely avoided having to play in the Wild Card game get a little better. Either way, based on what I’ve seen, there are a lot of unhappy or, at the very least, confused Dodgers fans out there, wondering why arguably the richest team in baseball didn’t try to sign Bryce Harper or make any other big, impactful moves.

Maybe we just don’t get it, though. Here’s Kasten:

That’s also such a weird narrative,” Kasten said. “If we can do whatever we do and stay under [the luxury-tax threshold], there are a lot of advantages to being under — by the way, a lot more advantages than you all write about.”

Such as?

“I’m not going to go into that because that’s real inside baseball economic stuff,” Kasten said.

Told fans would be interested in the details, Kasten replied, “Hold on. Let me finish the answer. Some of the things are elsewhere in the collective bargaining agreement that no one’s bothered to look at. Some of the things are inside baseball. So there are more advantages than just a little tax.”

I presume he’s talking about how a team that significantly exceeds the luxury tax threshold can be subjected to an additional surcharge beyond the main tax rate and can have their top draft pick dropped ten slots. Which, yes, would stink, but it’s also worth noting that the Dodgers are nowhere near that on payroll right now, both because of where their current payroll is and because they got under the luxury tax last year, resetting the potential penalty schedule if they exceed it in the future. So, yeah, while Kasten is certainly coming off as testy here, it’s probably worse that he’s being disingenuous.

While Kasten’s stuff is interesting, I find the most significant thing in the article to be Andrew Friedman’s reference to the need for the Dodgers to have “financial flexibility.”

That’s a seemingly innocuous phrase. One we’ve heard from the mouths of virtually every front office executive who has been questioned about payroll this offseason. Those words are invariably joined by others such as “we want to be smart,” “we’ll add the right players at the right time,” and “we want sustained success.” We’ve also heard a lot of passive voice businesspeak about “our model” or “our plan.” We used to laugh at sports teams who talked about “trusting the process” but they all more or less say that now.

In a vacuum it all seems harmless, but when you try to keep tabs on every team like I do, you realize how banal and ridiculous it all is. You see how closely-related it is to the vapid and fatuous Silicon Valley-level chatter dedicated to making simple things seem complicated, cheapness seem like genius and greed seem like philanthropy. It has become so very common. I mean, I get it. It sounds kinda smart and it’s said by generally young, handsome, square-jawed guys with Ivy League and/or Wall Street pedigrees. We, as a society, give guys like the benefit of the doubt astonishingly easily, so why not use that tool if you have it in your kit?

So they use it. And it just washes over us. It washes over us so easily that we rarely question it. But question it we should. As I said last week, I have no actual evidence that baseball teams are colluding to stifle the free agent market and depress player salaries, but if they were doing such a thing, they’d likely come up with this exact sort of samey-same cloudspeak to cover for it, and yeah, that’s the sort of thing we should be questioning.

I decided then that I didn’t want to think about the Dodgers anymore, so I poured myself a cup of coffee and thought about my Braves. That was a mistake.

I should be pretty happy with them these days, what with the winning and Ronald Acuña and all of that. For those reasons I haven’t obsessed about their offseason as much as I usually do. The Josh Donaldson signing was pretty nifty, I thought, and even if the Nick Markakis signing wasn’t inspiring, it had the benefit of being something predictable in this mad, unpredictable age.

Then I looked at a Braves blog I like and realized that, at the moment, they have the 22nd-highest payroll in the game. A season after winning the division with the 19th-highest payroll in the game. All while (a) raking in massive profits thanks to their new taxpayer-funded stadium; and (b) presumably seeing an uptick across all revenue sources thanks to the return to winning baseball in 2018. Oh, and their general manager is offering up some of that couldspeak rebop about “the plan” and “the model” now too? “Excellent, excellent,” I thought, poured another cup of coffee and navigated away.

I was irked, but then I quickly realized that being a Braves fan this offseason is pure joy compared to what it must be like to be a Pirates fan.

The Pirates held their FanFest — PiratesFest! — yesterday too. Much of it was devoted to General manager Neal Huntington, manager Clint Hurdle and president Frank Coonelly defending just how damn cheap the Pirates are.

Pittsburgh is likely to have the lowest payroll in the National League this season and, probably, the second-lowest in all of baseball. Many fans called them out on it yesterday. In response to someone saying that it seems like the Pirates don’t want to win, Huntington said “there’s a lot to impact in that question,” Which is not how anyone actually talks in the real world, but like I said, these guys are operating on a different level than you and me.

Huntington later tried to explain the Pirates’ cheapness in plainer language, saying, “historically, we have proven you can win with a bottom-10 payroll.” This matches up with what Rob Manfred was arguing last summer when he talked about the Oakland A’s to the San Francisco Chronicle:

“I categorically reject the notion that payroll should be the measure of whether somebody is trying to win in our game today. I reject that not because I prefer low payrolls to high payrolls. I reject that because I know that the correlation between payroll and winning in baseball is extraordinarily weak.

Here I feel like Huntington and Manfred should’ve just reverted back to the truth-obscuring cloudspeak, because by speaking so plainly here, they reveal just how full of it they are.

It’s certainly true that in any one season there is no strong correlation between payroll and winning. The A’s can come from nowhere and win 97 games like they did last year. The Pirates can make the playoffs with a bottom-ten payroll like they did a few years back. The Tigers or the Giants or the Angels can stink up the joint despite spending a lot of money. It happens all the time.

As Craig Edwards of FanGraphs showed last summer, however, there is a strong correlation between winning over many years and spending over many years. Yes, you can have success on the cheap here or there, but if you want “sustained success” — and, as noted above, that’s what all of these handsome, square-jawed GMs claim they want — you’re far more likely to get it by spending more money on ballplayers. A lot of front offices have hired people who have worked at FanGraphs and all of them read it, so you’d think they’d be aware of this.

I don’t want to single out the handsome and square-jawed GMs when it comes to shoveling BS about payroll, though, because it seems that baseball’s 28th most-handsome manager is adept at it as well. Here’s Clint Hurdle talking about how the Pirates’ pitiful payroll actually makes his players better:

“They don’t get caught up in payroll,” he said. “They’re not going to get caught star-gazing at the names on the back of other teams’ jerseys.”

He suggested that coming from the bottom of the ladder in payroll puts a chip on his players’ shoulders.

“More often than not, that makes that edge a little bit sharper,” he said.

I’ll give credit to Clint Hurdle for that one. Sure, like all the other guys he’s being a good soldier and deploying nonsense to defend his cheap team, but at least he’s doing it in a novel way. Maybe it’s because he’s older and more worldly. Rather than only reading business books like a modern GM, he’s apparently spent some time reading Charles Dickens and some Victorian Era social scientists in order to pick up on that “deprivation makes you stronger” vibe. Or maybe he’s reading more modern theories on all of that. I’d ask Hurdle about that, but I feel like he wouldn’t want to discuss anything with a guy who has, basically, called him ugly for the past several years.

Insomnia is not fun, friends, but I experience it often. What they say about it always being darkest before the dawn is as true a thing as there is, both literally and metaphorically. By the time I got through with all of that I was as depressed as hell about the state of baseball this offseason and wondered if can get any bleaker than this.

Then I looked up from my computer and out my eastward facing window and noticed the first signs of light begin to chase away the long, dark and cold winter’s night. “I have to find some way to catch up on my sleep,” I thought to myself. “I need to find better way to deal with insomnia than going online and getting all pissed off about this stuff.”

Maybe I’ll go upstairs, lay down, close my eyes and say a mantra to myself to induce sleep. Something repetitive enough to sooth but uncomplicated enough that it doesn’t stir more thoughts. Something that is calmly meaningless.

Sustained success . . .

Sustained success . . .

Sustained success . . .

. . . zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

And That Happened: Thursday’s Scores and Highlights

Getty Images

Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Diamondbacks 4, Braves 1: 🎶Stop me, oh-oh-oh, stop me . . .stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before . . .🎶

Sorry. Just waylaid by this Braves bullpen. Nothing’s changed. It’s enough to make a shy, bald, Buddhist reflect and plan a mass murder. Me watching the game: 🎶 I drank one. It became four. And when I fell on the floor I drank more.🎶

Christian Walker hit a two-run homer in the seventh off of Chad Sobotka, who, didn’t get an out and who has given up five runs in his last two outings. The Diamondbacks have won four straight.

Nationals 4, Giants 2: Patrick Corbin took a one-hitter into the eighth inning and ended having allowed only one run on two hits while punching out nine. Not literally, though. If he punched out nine guys he’d probably be arrested.

Tigers 9, White Sox 7: Detroit ends a five-game skid. Nicholas Castellanos and Miguel Cabrera led the way, with the former going 3-for-4, the latter 2-for-4 and both driving in two runs. Dustin Peterson and Grayson Greiner also each drove in two, but they don’t get to be characterized as “leading the way” because baseball has a pretty strict seniority system and if you get too loosey-goosey with it you got a big hassle with the union and I’ve already had too many fires to put out this week, OK?

Blue Jays 7, Twins 4: Randal Grichuk, who got all “play the game the right way” on Tim Anderson on Wednesday, hit a homer. After which he gently laid his bat down parallel to the base line, assumed an expression which suggested mild pleasure but copious humility and then stoically ran the bases at a speed which reflected his obvious reverence for players past, present and future. I’m assuming at least.

Here’s what he actually said:

“I’ve never been one to flip a bat or do anything like that. I run out of the box always. I’ve hit some pretty far homers and I’ve sprinted out of the box like it was a wall-scraper. It’s just who I am. (Other) guys are different.”

Someone give that guy the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Justin Smoak and Teoscar Hernández hit home runs too. No word on whether Grichuk silently judged them afterwards. The Jays took three of four from the Twinkies.

Royals 6, Yankees 1: Homer Bailey — Homer Bailey? — yes, Homer Bailey held the Bombers to one run over six. Jorge Soler and Ryan O'Hearn hit dingers. New York got four singles in the game. That’s it. I guess with the Red Sox and Cubs being off someone had to step up and satisfy the “big money teams stinkin’ up the joint” quota for the evening.

Dodgers 3, Brewers 1: Before the game Dave Roberts announced that Julio Urías would head to the bullpen after this start since the Dodgers will soon be getting a couple of veteran pitchers back. Then Urías goes out and tosses six one-hit shutout innings while striking out nine. There are teams that would kill to have the sort of depth that would allow this kid to be shuffled off to long relief after a start like this. Cody Bellinger and Max Muncy homered in a winning cause. Christian Yelich homered in a losing cause.

Orioles 6, Rays 5: Joey Rickard drove in the winning run in the 11th inning with an RBI double. To even get him up to bat required Chris Davis to hit a two-out RBI single, and I wonder what the odds of that happening were. RIckard himself was no sure bet to play the hero here after coming into the game on an 0-for-15 skid, but he reached base five times and drove in two on the night. Dude used to be a Ray, too. Or at least in their system. Baltimore swiped him from Tampa Bay in the 2015 Rule 5 Draft. Here’s another killer for the Rays: Tommy Pham, who was 4-for-5 with two driven in, was on second base with one out in the bottom of the ninth and the score tied but . . . got picked off while trying to steal third base. Ouch.

Rockies 6, Phillies 2: Ryan McMahon homered twice and had five RBI. Kyle Freeland pitched six scoreless innings but had to leave with a blister, so that’s worth watching. Colorado was won four in a row.

Mariners 11, Angels 10: The M’s had a 10-2 lead heading into the seventh and totally blew it when the Angels scored seven runs on seven hits in the seventh and got a David Fletcher homer in the eighth to tie things up. Seattle rallied in the ninth, though, with pinch hitter Jay Bruce singing in Mitch Haniger for the winning margin. Before all of that messiness the M’s bottom of the order, in the form of Omar Narváez and Ryon Healy, combined to drive in nine. Healy homered twice. Narváez hit a three-run shot. Speaking of shot, all the pitchers in this one probably should’ve been.

Reds 4, Padres 1: Joey Votto led off in this came, which was odd, and he hit a homer to start the game. Padres starter Chris Paddack said after the game that he “thought I could blow a heater by him.” Bless his heart. Fernando Tatís Jr. led off too, which is also new, and went 2-for-4. Tucker Barnhart and Jesse Winker also homered, helping Cincy snap a four-game losing skid.