Baseball’s Very Tepid Offseason Is Finally Over

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Moneyball. Photo: Bobby Doherty

Kenny Williams had a fruitful six-year Major League Baseball playing career as a journeyman before, at the age of 27, starting as a scout for the Chicago White Sox, the team that had drafted him in 1982. Over the next 25 years, he worked his way up to general manager and constructed a team, the 2005 White Sox, that won the World Series — ending one of the longest curses in baseball, almost as long as the one the Cubs would break in 2016.

But to a large number of baseball fans and connoisseurs of literary nonfiction best sellers, not to mention (and this is key) hundreds of people who currently work in baseball front offices, Williams isn’t any of those things. In their eyes, Kenny Williams is a chump. Specifically, the chump whom writer Michael Lewis, in his still massively influential 2003 book, Moneyball, portrayed as a useful idiot being duped by Oakland A’s Master Strategist Billy Beane into making what Lewis called a “fucking A” trade. (The trade was complicated, but Lewis basically paints second baseman Ray Durham as one of the most vital assets in the game, and Williams as the idiot who didn’t appreciate him.) The movie’s irresistible narrative of underdog disruption of a flabby, lazy system cast Beane as the insurgent and Williams as the Establishment, the new guard taking advantage of the clueless old one. Never mind that, 15 years out, it sort of looks like Williams won the trades Lewis wrote about. The message was clear: Moneyball was the vanguard, the future.

That future is here, though. For two decades, there have been old-school baseball guys to serve as foils for the math nerds and Harvard Business kids bum-rushing the sport. But all general managers are smart now, and they’re all smart in the same way. The nerds have taken over. Which means there are no more marks for them to exploit.

That fact is the reason that Major League Baseball, now approaching its opening day, just had the strangest off-season in recent memory. For the first time that anyone can remember, baseball’s hot-stove season just … never warmed up. Top free agents like Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish, J. D. Martinez, and Eric Hosmer spent most of their winters waiting for huge offers that never came: Arrieta reportedly told teammates that he’d be signing a six-year, $200 million deal for 2018; ultimately he agreed to a three-year, $75 million contract with the Phillies well after he should have reported for spring training (typically, rosters are mostly set by Christmas). And agent Scott Boras, who has essentially single-handedly run baseball’s off-season for two decades, had to watch as clients like Mike Moustakas parlayed their career years into one-year deals worth many millions less than they were expecting. (Moustakas, 29, who broke the Kansas City Royals’ franchise record last year with 38 home runs, was rewarded in his free-agent walk year with a Royals salary smaller than last year’s.)

So what happened? Many in baseball — including Boras and other agents — have hinted that baseball front offices are colluding, to use the dreaded, Voldemort-esque word from baseball’s past, to artificially deflate the market in order to keep salaries down. These suggestions have been echoed, much more loudly, by fans frustrated by inactive owners. And one can understand the concern: The average team payroll in MLB in 2018 is $128.6 million, down nearly $25 million from last season despite reported record financial windfalls throughout the game. (It’s worth noting that the average payroll will likely go up when the season begins, but not enough to account for $25 million.)

But the answer is not as simple, or as sinister, as collusion. Part of it is a weak free-agent crop: There are roughly half a dozen free agents coming next winter who are better than the best free agent this year, and many teams claim to be saving up to spend then. Part of it is the way the tactics employed by Boras — who represents many of the straggler free agents and often holds them out as long as possible, usually to great effect — backfired when no robust market materialized for his clients. And part of it is the success of the Astros and the Cubs, who put together extended “rebuilds” and were rewarded with championships, thus encouraging other franchises to copy them. But the real reason is the lack of a metaphorical Kenny Williams. After decades of fans and smart commentators lamenting the shortsightedness and poor judgment of executives, GMs are finally too smart to sign dumb contracts. Unfortunately for people like Boras — and Moustakas — thanks to the structure of baseball’s labor agreement, just about all free-agent contracts are dumb, at least at the size players and their agents have grown to expect. As we now know, most of a player’s productive value comes in the first six years of his career, when the collective-bargaining agreement dramatically limits how much money he can make. The Cardinals’ Tommy Pham, for example, who was one of the best players in baseball last year, just turned 30 and has earned $1.6 million total since 2006 — just a little more than, say, an NYPD police sergeant would have made in that time.

When a player is finally in a position to sell himself on the market, he’s often already in decline. Which is how it came to pass that of the 25 highest-paid players in baseball last season — all of whom were, at one point, high-dollar free agents — almost one-third weren’t even average ballplayers. The worst player in baseball last year, according to FanGraphs, was Albert Pujols, who made $26 million — and is still under contract for four more seasons, for which he will be paid nearly $115 million.

But an entire industry realizing there’s a better way to do business isn’t collusion in the same way that car manufacturers all realizing the value of automation wasn’t collusion: It might not be great for the worker — and we can all agree that more money should go to the people who play the games than the people who sit in luxury boxes watching them play, yes? — but it’s hardly some grand conspiracy.

Of course, that doesn’t make it fair. But this is a system that was collectively bargained by a players’ union that has, in recent years, valued the comfort of veterans and retired players above what might be just for younger players, often minor leaguers who aren’t even in the union yet. If you force teams to pay more for older players, you are asking them to find ways to avoid using them; if you force them to pay younger players less, you are asking them to value them more.
It’s simple efficiency.

And efficiency is, as always, the operative term. The key misunderstanding of sabermetrics was that it was about a specific statistic — on-base percentage. But what it has always really been about is finding value wherever you can. When most executives were backward in their thinking, you could find value in acquiring players they didn’t appreciate. Now that those opportunities have dried up, you don’t need to exploit other owners to find value; you can just exploit the system.

So how long can that system, being exploited in this way, last? These conflicts, and this winter of ill will between both sides of the labor divide, may end up forcing the sport into a bit of a labor reckoning when the current collective-bargaining agreement expires after the 2021 season. And the chance of real conflict seems high: The temperature of discourse between the sides is higher than it has been since the 1995 season, the last time MLB lost games to labor disputes. (That remains the longest ongoing run of labor peace of all four major North American professional sports.) But 2021 is a long way away, and there is still a massive winter free-agency period coming next year, with Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Clayton Kershaw, and Josh Donaldson for sale. Money will surely be spent on all of them — lots of it. But it won’t be spent nearly as dumbly, not anymore. Sabermetrics and Moneyball always argued for baseball front offices to get smarter. Now they have. This is, for better or worse, what happens when they do.

*This article appears in the March 19, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Baseball’s Very Tepid Offseason Is Finally Over