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Opening Day Open Thread

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Hannah Keyser explains in one tweet why MLB’s labor market is broken:

Michael Baumann goes into much more detail about this. But the basic problem is that norms that produced a rough justice for players, or at least players with substantial careers, have eroded. It’s not that the relevant finding of analytics — the vast majority of players have peaked before they hit their free agent years, and (relatedly) most free agent signings are bad risks from a dollar-to-value perspective — are new; both were among the conclusions of Bill James’s first published Abstracts. But these truths didn’t structure how most teams approached free agency for several reasons:

  • The integration of analytic insights into MLB’s front offices was a slow, conflict-ridden process. Some organizations — most notably Sandy Alderson’s A’s — accepted the empirical evidence and got ahead of the curve, but many more didn’t. 1990 was a time in which a small-market team would give a big contract to a replacement-level pitcher because he “won” a lot of games because his team scored a shitload of runs while he was pitching badly.
  • During the first couple decades of free agency, the top of the market was generally set by a George Steinbrenner or Ted Turner or Ewing Kaufman who cared more about maximizing wins that profit margins.
  • The effects of PEDs on the offensive explosion of the 90s have been substantially overstated, but one thing PEDs did do was alter the aging curve of elite players, causing more stars to have big years in their late 30s. As front offices were becoming more professionalized and reactionary old farts faded away, free agent investments were a better deal than they would be before or since.

For most of the free agency era, then, quality players could live with being paid far below their market value for six years because they could reasonably expect making up for it on the back end. But under current norms, this doesn’t happen — teams extract tons of surplus value while players are bound to their teams, and then play hardball with free agents, most of whom are leaving their prime years. Both the most and least competitive franchises put profit maximization above win maximization. Or, to put it another way, owners are only willing to let the market dictate prices when they have a lot more negotiating leverage. So the money being paid to players is declining even as revenues continue to increase. Which likely means we’re headed for a strike or lockout when the current CBA expires.

But with that looming, there’s still a lot of fun stuff to look forward to this year, and Jonah has a good breakdown.

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