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Verducci: Machado contract proves ‘free agency isn’t broken’

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The signing of superstar free agent Manny Machado, by the Padres to a 10-year, $300 million deal, immediately brought out the hot takes. Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci had perhaps the hottest of the takes, declaring that “free agency isn’t broken after all” because Machado got paid. This is Verducci’s opening paragraph:

Let’s discuss the “free agent is broken” narrative and the “one-third of the teams are tanking” canard. Just one day after players association chief Tony Clark wickedly called out teams for not trying to justify the cost of a ticket, a low-revenue team without a winning team in six years under its current ownership just spent $300 million on a guy called out as a dirty player and who projects as Ryan Zimmerman with a better glove.

Verducci adds that Harper will also likely sign for a similar amount of money. Free agency is fine, everyone!

Before getting into it, can we just acknowledge that the comp of Machado as “Ryan Zimmerman with a better glove” is one of the most ludicrous things ever written by a baseball writer? Zimmerman was a terrific player — and still is to an extent — but had problems staying healthy. Additionally, across his 14-year career, he has had just two seasons above 5.0 WAR, according to Baseball Reference: 2009 (7.3) and 2010 (6.2). Machado has had four in his seven-year career: 2015 (7.1), 2016 (6.9), 2013 (6.7), and 2018 (5.7).

Before the last few years, Machado and Harper would’ve been signed by the end of December at the latest and there would be nothing but scraps on the free agent market when spring training opens. In 2019, not only has spring training started, but the likes of Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel are still teamless. Exhibition games begin in just a few days. I did a meager illustration of the slower progression of the free agent market in December 2017. It would only look worse having added the last two years’ worth of data.

Machado and Harper were always going to get paid, even if that meant waiting until late February or March to sign the dotted line. Machado signing a lucrative contract is not proof that “free agency isn’t broken.”

According to Maury Brown of Forbes, players last year received their second-smallest percentage of revenues dating back to 2006. They got 54.8 percent last year after hovering around 57 percent for most of the last five years. It might not seem like a big difference, but it is for a business that took in over $10 billion in revenues last year. That’s because front offices across the sport pretty much all adopted the same way of thinking, thanks to analytics, at roughly the same time. One of the more analytically-oriented beliefs is that paying free agents, who tend to be close to 30 years old or older and thus past their prime, is a bad investment. So teams just stopped signing free agents as quickly and as much.

The problem is that players are taken advantage of for years prior to becoming eligible for free agency, including making poverty wages in the minors. Free agency was always the carrot at the end of the stick where players were finally paid for their production. Consider that Mike Trout was paid the league minimum salary in 2012, putting up 10.5 WAR, per Baseball Reference. The next year, he put up 9.0 WAR for slightly more than the league minimum. The Angels bumped him up to $1 million in 2014 for 7.6 WAR. The Angels decided to sign Trout to a contract extension in his final year before becoming eligible for arbitration. He had a 9.4-WAR season and was paid about $6 million. Add that all up and the Angels got over 36 WAR for roughly $8 million. Trout is an extreme example, but he illustrates the problem well.

Keuchel has been one of the game’s better starters over the last five years, accuring 18.4 WAR. He finished with a sub-3.00 ERA in three of those five seasons, won a Gold Glove Award in all five years, and won the AL Cy Young Award in 2015. But he’s currently teamless. What club couldn’t use a 31-year-old left-handed pitcher who, at minimum, would stabilize a starting rotation and act as a mentor to younger players? What club couldn’t use Craig Kimbrel, a seven-time All-Star with a career 1.91 ERA? Where are Keuchel and Kimbrel’s carrots?

If we align this offseason’s free agents on tiers, we would put Machado and Harper at the top, followed by Patrick Corbin, Keuchel, Kimbrel, and A.J. Pollock. We have another tier that includes players like Nathan Eovaldi, J.A. Happ, Yasmani Grandal, and Andrew McCutchen. Let’s talk about the tier after that, which would include players like Mike Moustakas. Moustakas was a bit slow to catch up to major league speed, posting an aggregate .668 OPS in his first four seasons. He broke out in 2015, hitting 22 home runs with an .817 OPS before injuries limited him in 2016. In 2017, he set career-highs in homers and RBI with 38 and 85, respectively. He followed up with a quality 2018 campaign, swatting 28 home runs with 95 RBI.

Moustakas hit free agency after his career year in 2017. He didn’t sign until March 2018, finally settling for a one-year, $6.5 million contract with a $15 million mutual option for the 2019 season. He had qualifying offer compensation attached to him, which limited his appeal on the free agent market. Moustakas followed up with another quality campaign, which included being traded to the Brewers. The Brewers declined that mutual option in late October, waited three and a half months, then signed him to a one-year, $10 million deal with a mutual option for the 2020 season (as yet unknown value). A decade ago, a player of Moustakas’s caliber would’ve easily gotten a three-year deal. These days, those players are getting meager one-year deals.

How about Derek Dietrich settling for a minor league deal with the Reds recently? Dietrich, 29, has a career adjusted OPS of 109 (100 is league average) with significant experience at second base, left field, and third base while also having spent time at first base. José Iglesias is still unsigned and will likely also have to settle for a minor league deal. He has an adjusted OPS of 84, but is one of the better defensive shortstops around. David Eckstein, for the sake of comparison, had a career adjusted OPS of 87, was a worse fielder, and made nearly $20 million in his career, which spanned 2001-10. Iglesias, to date, has also made about $20 million in his career, just about a decade later and he’s unlikely to earn much more on top of that.

Expectations for free agents have shifted downward in recent years. Those expectations are supposed to be constantly moving upwards. A similarly-skilled player should generally be earning more money than his predecessor. Despite being a better player, Machado couldn’t surpass the 13-year, $325 million contract Giancarlo Stanton signed with the Marlins in November 2014. The Keuchels and Kimbrels of the baseball world are waiting months longer to sign than they would have previously for fewer years and fewer overall dollars. The Dietriches and Iglesiases are settling for minor league deals when they previously would have been able to leverage guaranteed major league contracts. The carrots at the end of those sticks are smaller and further away. In some cases, the carrots are nonexistent. Team owners are taking advantage of baseball’s effective monopoly and systems of rules that artificially limit a player’s earning potential (such as the amateur draft and pre-arbitraton contract renewal). That’s why free agency is broken and it’s why we have a labor crisis on our hands, Machado and Harper be damned.

Myles Garrett and Mason Rudolph: meet Juan Marichal and John Roseboro

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Last night the Pittsburgh Steelers lost to the Cleveland Browns. No one is gonna be talking nearly as much about the outcome today, however, as they are the carnage.

Specifically, the carnage that led to Browns defensive end Myles Garrett getting ejected from the game after ripping Steelers’ quarterback Mason Rudolph’s helmet off, swinging it at him and connecting with Rudolph’s skull as the game came to a close. Things were already chippy as all get-out, but that obviously led to a brawl which will lead to a ton of suspensions, including a possibly record-breaking one for Garrett. For all your analysis on that, check out PFT, obviously.

The incident will dominate the sports shows today because malicious attempts to injure another player with a piece of equipment are pretty rare in professional sports. There was at least one incident in baseball history, however, that was analogous to what went down in Cleveland last night.

It took place on August 22, 1965 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco during a Dodgers-Giants game. That’s when Giants ace Juan Marichal, playing the role of Garrett, took a baseball bat to the head of Dodgers catcher John Roseboro, standing in for Rudolph.

The Dodgers and Giants are rivals, of course, and in 1965 the two teams were in a pitched battle for the N.L. pennant, with the Dodgers leading San Francisco by a game and a half as the day began.

Pitchers in 1965 were a bit more aggressive about claiming the inside part of the plate than they are today, and on that day, everyone seemed cranky. Marichal knocked Dodgers shortstop Maury Wills down with some chin music in the top of the second for, it appears, committing the terrible transgression of bunting for a single in his first at bat of the game. In response Koufax fired a fastball over Willie Mays’ head, sending the ball to the backstop. So everyone was even, yeah?

Nah. Marichal responded in the top of third with an inside fastball that sent Dodgers first baseman Ron Fairly sprawling to the dirt. At that point home plate umpire Shag Crawford issued a warning, indicating that that the next close pitch from either team would result in an ejection. Walter Alston’s Dodgers, though, were a clever bunch. Sure, maybe a close pitch was going to get an ace ejected in a pennant race, but there are other ways to buzz someone’s tower, right?

Pitchers batted in every game back then, of course, and Marichal came to bat in the bottom of the third. Koufax didn’t throw at him, though. Instead, Roseboro, catching for L.A., threw the ball back to Koufax in such a way as to have it sail close to Marichal’s head as he stood in the batter’s box. He later admitted in his autobiography that it was no accident, he was trying to intimidate Marichal.

Marichal flipped out, clubbing Roseboro with his bat, after which all hell broke loose (all photos, and the original caption from 1965, are from Getty Images):

 

Juan Marichal holding bat, John Roseboro attacked, and Sandy Koufax closes in.

 

Roseboro throws a punch at Marichal while latter swings bat and Koufax comes in to try and break it up.

 

On deck batter Giant Tito Fuentes pulls Roseboro away while Marichal wields bat at Koufax while umpire Shag Crawford and Giant coach Charlie Fox try to break it up.

 

Umpire Shag Crawford wrestles with Marichal while Dodgers Jim Gilliam (19) and Koufax come in. Rear is Giants coach Charlie Fox. Marichal falls to the ground on top of Shag Crawford while Giants Orlando Cepeda joins the melee.

 

Umpire Shag Crawford is shown here wrestling with Marichal as Dodgers Jim Gilliam (#19) and Sandy Koufax join in. In the rear is Giants’ coach Charlie Fox.

 

Identifiable L-R: Dodger Jim Gilliam (19); John Roseboro (with chest protector); Giants Orlando Cepeda (30); Cap Peterson (17); Warren Spahn; and Mgr. Herman Franks (3).

Willie Mays was credited with keeping the brawl from getting worse. Roseboro had military and martial arts training and, as you can see in the second photo, he was not slowed by his head injury — an injury that would require 14 stitches — from trying to take Marichal apart. Mays was the one who ultimately pulled Roseboro away and out of the fracas. He even held a towel to Roseboro’s head which by then had begun to bleed profusely. The fight eventually ended, with several players sustaining injuries due to kicks and accidental spikings of hands and legs and stuff.

The incident delayed the game for 14 minutes but the fallout beyond that was pretty tame compared to today’s standards. Marichal got an eight day suspension which, because of scheduled doubleheaders, caused him to miss ten games. He was also fined $1,750, which is around $15,000 today. Roseboro only missed two games due to his injury. The Dodgers would lose this game thanks to a big homer from Mays off of Koufax, but the Dodgers would go on to win the pennant and defeat the Minnesota Twins in the World Series.

There was additional fallout: Roseboro sued Marichal for $110,000 in damages. They’d eventually settle, with Roseboro receiving $7,500 from Marichal.

But there was no lingering bad blood. In interviews after the incident both players admitted that there was much more on their minds in 1965 that might’ve contributed to their aggression on that day. There was the rivalry, of course, and the pennant race. But Marichal had been much more personally distracted by a civil war in his native Dominican Republic that raged in 1965 and would not end until September. Roseboro had been, understandably, affected by the Watts Riots in Los Angeles which had taken place just over a week before this game. When you feel helpless about situation A, you often channel your feelings into situation B and both men said that something like that was probably simmering.

Marichal would play for the Dodgers for two games in 1975, the final year of his career. Roseboro had already retired, but Marichal’s cup of coffee with L.A. allowed them to meet up at a Dodgers old-timers game in 1982. There they posed for this photo: 

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“There were no hard feelings on my part,” Roseboro told the L.A. Times in 1990. Roseboro died in 2002. Marichal was an honorary pallbearer at his funeral.

Let’s check in with Garrett and Ruldolph in 37 years to see how they’re doing.