Bernie Pleskoff, a former scout for the Astros and Mariners and a current scout and analyst for ClubhouseCorner.com, tweeted earlier today that various individuals in the media he has spoken to feel that the absence of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado at the All-Star Game hurts the MLB Players Association’s case regarding free agency. There’s a lot there, so let’s unpack it.
MLB’s free agency has been dreadfully slow in recent years. So much so, in fact, that Craig Kimbrel (one of the greatest closers of all-time) and Dallas Keuchel (a Cy Young Award winner just four years ago) couldn’t procure contracts until June. Keuchel in particular wasn’t able to get what a player of his caliber would have been able to get even five years ago.
Harper and Machado signed in late February, which is still really late by historical free agency standards. They did get paid. Harper signed a 13-year, $330 million contract with the Phillies while Machado inked a 10-year, $300 million deal with the Padres. Neither player has quite lived up to expectations, though each has still been productive. Harper is batting .253/.370/.470 with 16 home runs and 62 RBI in 395 plate appearances. Machado is hitting .266/.339/.489 with 20 home runs and 58 RBI in 372 PA. Baseball Reference’s version of Wins Above Replacement places Harper at 1.4 and Machado at 2.1.
Going strictly by on-field production in the first half of the season, are they All-Stars? Eh, probably not. However, that neither player was an All-Star in the first year of their lengthy contracts also does not negate the complaints the MLBPA has made recently about the state of free agency.
The first problem is that a large component of the baseball media landscape has been pro-ownership since time immemorial. This had the effect of skewing generations of fans’ perceptions of labor issues within baseball. As an example, how many columns have been written about the likes of Chris Davis, Jason Heyward, and David Price not living up to their contracts? Thousands. But how many articles are out there highlighting the big contracts (e.g. Zack Greinke, CC Sabathia, Mike Trout) that have gone right? Or what about the articles highlighting the skewed balance of production versus salary for pre-arbitration players who make close to the major league minimum? Frankly, if we’re pinpointing issues that hurt free agency, the media-at-large’s instinct to side with ownership on every issue should be at the forefront.
Secondly, Harper and Machado’s value lies well beyond what they do on the field. Both are dynamic personalities who draw fans to the ballpark and get fans tuning in on cable or MLB.tv. They’re responsible for driving ticket sales, online subscriptions, merchandise sales, concession sales, advertising sales, and generally bolstering their team’s brand. We highlighted here during spring training just how well Harper’s Phillies jersey and Phillies tickets were selling shortly after the announcement of his signing. That absolutely must be taken into consideration if we’re hemming and hawing over contracts.
At any rate, why is making an All-Star Game a metric of success here? Getting into the All-Star Game isn’t wholly a function of skill. It’s an amalgamation of popularity, perceived skill and production, and opportunity. Mark Redman is one of my favorite examples as he made the 2006 AL All-Star team with a first-half ERA of 5.27 for the Royals. How many more deserving pitchers were there that year? 50? 100? Any one of however many more deserving players were out there could not say that year, “I was an All-Star,” because Redman and his 5.27 ERA made the team as the Royals’ guaranteed representative. Granted, recent All-Star rosters have been pretty good and Redman’s case is an outlier more than anything, but it shows that gauging a player’s success on whether or not he was an All-Star is a flawed pursuit at best.
Additionally, All-Star selections are based on less than three months’ worth of data. Voting began in late May, when Machado carried a .769 OPS. Between June 1 and July 7 (the final game before the All-Star break), Machado posted a .924 OPS to raise his overall OPS to .828. If Machado’s successes and failures had been reversed — a hot start followed by a slump — he would’ve had more votes. He might’ve been voted in to start, even. Timing is everything.
The first three months of the season represent 1/26th (about four percent) of Harper’s contract and 1/20th of Machado’s (about five percent). Suggesting already that neither player has lived up to his contract and, in fact, has hurt the MLBPA’s case regarding free agency only serves to carry water for ownership. If various members of the media actually care about the state of free agency as much as they claim to, they would be well served to take a good look in the mirror and figure out who they’re really fighting for.