Tuesday, 15 July 2014

2014 Mid-Season Baseball Post (not really)



It's the middle of July, and thus back in the US of A, the baseball All-Star Game is set for tonight (it will be played at 2 AM here Central European Time).  It's the traditional point at which the season is broken (reporters refer to 'the first half' and 'second half' of the season. and player statistics are often split into pre- and post-All Star summaries), even though in truth, slightly more than half of the 162 games is in the books for each team.

My team, the Toronto Blue Jays, got off to a hot start, at one point winning 20 of 24 games (83%), but since then, have lost more than two-thirds, to fall back to about a 50/50 winning percentage.  I fully expect them to continue losing, and wind up with their 21st consecutive dismal season.  The only thing more depressingly futile for a Toronto sports fan is the fact that that NHL Maple Leafs have not made the Stanley Cup Finals since 1966, and hockey is the true first passion back there.

My interest is waning as I age, and I've only been to one baseball game in the past 15 years - we took my then three-year-old son to see a game at the old Yankee Stadium the year it was closed and demolished - so the perennial disappointment of my favourite team is less and less significant each year.

An interesting development has been reported via the internet.  Namely, New York Yankees have placed their rookie superstar pitcher Masahiro Tanaka on the disabled list, and he may miss the rest of the season. Tanaka, who signed a seven year, $160 million contract (on top of the posting fee that New York paid to his team in Japan of $20 million), has had damage to his ulnar collateral ligament (UCL).  Tanaka is that good, posting an unbelievavle 30-0 mark in his final year in the Japanese professional league, and thus far dominating in the Major Leagues (Tanaka's loss to the Chicago Cubs at the end of May was his first professional loss in two years).  The Yankees are in the unusual position (for them) of fielding an aging roster that may not be in competition much over the next few years, and the loss of Tanaka is a serious blow to their chances this year.

The report acknowledges that Tanaka may require the famous "Tommy John" surgery, in which case he would miss the rest of this year and all of next.

A couple of points about this.

First, it's hard to believe that what is now viewed as a fairly routine - if time-consuming and unfortunate - surgery was remarkable when it first occurred.  I am old enough to remember the real Tommy John, who underwent the procedure in which the UCL from his right elbow was removed and used to replace the UCL in his left (Tommy John was a left-hand pitcher).  At the time, we were living in Los Angeles, where John pitched for the Dodgers, and the surgeon, Dr Frank Jobe, estimated the chances that John would ever pitch effectively again at about 1 in 100.  Since it was the first time such a procedure was employed, one could forgive Dr Jobe for the magnitude of error in his estimate.

We were living in Los Angeles at the time, and thus my mother and older brother were Dodgers' fans; it's not an exaggeration to say that the surgery and recovery of Tommy John was considered miraculous at the time.

40 years later, the surgery is estimated to be successful about 90% of the time, but it's worth noting just how revolutionary the procedure was in 1975, and it was nothing short of a wonder that John went on to pitch another 14 years, and to win 160 more games.  Thus, today a pitcher with a torn UCL will lose a year, but will not necessarily lose the rest of his career.

An odd aside- 2012 Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey pitches with a congenital defect in which he has no UCL in his pitching arm.  No physiological explanation for this is yet available.

The second thing I was reminded of was the economics of baseball and especially the way that young pitchers today are handled.  Pitching is an action that requires an atypical motion with the pitching arm - throwing an object overhand is not something for which the shoulder and elbow were naturally designed to do, and thus, career-threatening injuries are an omnipresent.

As the contract for Tanaka - $160 million plus $20 million posting fees - indicates, teams are investing an enormous amount of money in talent, and they do not want to see that money wasted.  Tanaka will collect his salary even if he never picks up a ball again.  Therefore, all sort of regimens have come in to fashion in the days between Tommy John and Masahiro Tanaka to protect pitchers' arms.  Fewer throw 'exotic' pitches like a screw-ball, pitch counts per game are scrupulously monitered, teams carry extra pitchers on their rosters, and not one team in professional baseball has a four-man starting rotation (some even use six), which was the standard in 1975.

In the year before he was hurt, Tommy John pitched in 39 games, including 8 relief appearances.  It was common for pitchers to start more than 40 games, complete half of them, and throw more than 300 innings.  Mike Marshall - a teammate of John's, was used in 106 games one season, and Wilbur Wood of the Chicago White Sox started 49 games in 1972, pitching 377 innings.  No pitcher has pitched as many as 300 innings in a season in 34 years.  Only once in the last 10 has a pitcher thrown 250.

This approach makes some sense if you are in a situation as the Yankees find themselves now, having sunk more than a hundred million dollars into a player.  If he gets hurt, that money is gone.

But does it make sense, economically, if you are a smaller market team babying a young star?  Consider, for example, the Tampa Bay Rays and their star David Price. Price has been talked about for many years as a trade/free-agent target, and it's presumed that at some point, he will land with the Yankees, Dodgers, or Boston Red Sox for a huge contract.

If Tampa Bay 'protects' Price's arm, whose future are they hoping to assure?

I commented at one point several years ago that it appeared that the World Series was becoming out-sourced in many ways.  The opening game of the 2009 World Series featured a battle between two aces - CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee - who the year before had started for the Cleveland Indians.  It's not unusual for a player like Sabathia to play for his first few years, at a relatively low salary, for a small market team like Cleveland or Kansas City or Pittsburgh, and then when he is eligible for free agency, jump to one of the teams that can afford his price tag.

Does it make economic sense for Tampa Bay to limit David Price's innngs? For whom?

I suggest that it may not be such a smart move for teams like Tampa Bay to over-protect their young stars.  The window of opportunity for a small market team to win is relatively small.  Unlike the Dodgers, Red Sox, or Yankees who can afford to refresh their rosters when their stars get old, or when a player gets hurt, as a long-term strategy, teams without huge payrolls must either draft stars every single year, or succeed at a "Moneyball" strategy in finding under-valued talent.  The latter becomes increasingly difficult as the tactics of the Oakland Athletics become well-known and duplicated.

If Billy Beane is the only guy using this approach, it can work.  If every small-market team is doing it, then you are more or less back to the point where everyone is competing for free agents or trade prospects with equal information; i.e., the strategy is common practice and does not provide any sort of competitive advantage.

Thus, when a team like Tampa Bay or Cleveland gets a star like Price, in taking steps to prolong their careers are in a sense acting as guardians for the future of the Yankees.

This in economics is why when modelling budgets, inflation and depreciation factors are built into the models.  Put simply, because of uncertainties and currency devaluation, a dollar today necessarily must be worth more than one three, four, or 10 years from now.

I suggest that these realities at some point will dawn on baseball GMs.  Tampa Bay should pitch David Price as much as they can right now.

I expect they will eventually realise this; very soon thereafter, so will Scott Boras.


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