Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Farming Out the World Series

Tonight the Fall Classic (to be completed in November) begins. Yankees. Phillies. Baseball's all-time winningest franchise (26 titles) versus its all-time losingest (first team to amass 10,000 losses). The Jersey Turnpike Series.

There was an interesting article today at MLB.COM that made the case that money alone does not account for the Phillie-Yankee series; the implication here is that the two teams have more or less gotten to the pinnacle of the baseball world along the same, home-grown model.

In a nut-shell, I wonder what reality the article's author is operating in.

Now, I have great respect for the Yankees' success. The team certainly is a collection of great talents, and winning in New York is not always the easiest thing in the world. The fans are demanding. The Boss is legendary. But friends, the idea that money does not play a role - in fact, an enormous role - is nuts.

I am a mathematician, and in maths, there are two ideas that are complimentary. One is that evidence be necessary; the other that evidence be sufficient. NO ONE is saying that money is sufficient as a criterion for success (c.f., the New York Mets). But it is becoming harder and harder to argue that it is not necessary.

The New York Yankees have the highest payroll, by a wide margin, in professional sport. They also have been in the playoffs in 12 of the past 13 seasons. During that span, the Pittsburgh Pirates, with a payroll that is less than the Yankee infield collects, not only have not made the playoffs, but have not had a winning season since 1993. Ironically, that's also the year that Barry Bonds left Pittsburgh when shown the money by the SF Giants.

The argument in the article is that the Yankee core (Jeter, Petite, Posada, River, Robinson Cano) are home-grown talents.

That much is true.

But the point is, in order to build a winning team, you need more than two or three good players, and those players need to play together to develop. Given the economics of baseball today, to draft three high quality players, you realistically need to get good picks over a period of five years. Those players then need to be "hits" (i.e., they cannot be guys like Mark Lewis or Corey Snider). They cannot get hurt or wash out. And it takes time for them to reach the big leagues, mature, and gel.

There is a reason why New York could keep Jeter and Posada and Rivera, and that the Cleveland Indians could not keep Cliff Lee and C.C. Sabathia. When these players get near their peak value - i.e., when you are in position to build a championship team - they will be going off to New York. Or Boston. Or the Dodgers.

And that ignores the fact that the Yankees are able to add to this "core" with stars like Mark Texeira and Alex Rodriguez when necessary, to fill gaps. Teams like the Yankees sign Johnny Damon. Teams like the Toronto Blue Jays sign guys like Lyle Overbay.

The fact that the Yankees can shop for all-stars is covered to some degree by sports writers. The other side of the coin - that they need not worry about their best players bolting - is not, and I would argue is at least as important a result of the economics of the game today.
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