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The lockout is Theo's fault, sorta
And Billy Beane's and Michael Lewis', and Peter Brand's...
Before the Aaron Sorkin penned a, surprisingly good, Moneyball movie, there was a book. Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan was not what you’d call a reader, but he knew all about that book. He knew it was about the Oakand A’s general manager Billy Beane (it basically was) and that Billy wrote it (he most certainly did not) and that it claimed that nerds with fancy computing boxes knew more about how to evaluate baseball players than tobacco chewing, sunburned, tavern dwelling scouts did (and yes, it did do that.) Joe and other likewise enlightened thinkers such as Hawk Harrelson (TWTW!) told anyone that would listen that the nerds were going to ruin baseball.
And here we are, twenty years later and those “nerds” like Beane and Theo Epstein and Andrew Friedman and the real Paul DePodesta and the fictional Paul Depodesta—Peter Brand—have ruined baseball. But they didn’t do it firsthand. And they didn’t want or mean to do it.
What they did was they taught a generation of baseball fans, and worse yet, owners, that it was inefficient to spend big money on players once they got to actual free agency. The better bet was to milk the best years you could out of players while they were young and cheap, and then when those players got to the age where they could finally test the open market, it was smarter to find someone 80% as good and pay them a quarter as much. It was simple math.
And, the thing about it was that they were right, and their methods worked. Granted, Friedman’s worked better when he left the small market Rays for the humungous market Dodgers and could paper over his mistakes, but the nerds started winning World Series. Theo won two in Boston with the previously hapless Red Sox and then incredibly he won one with the Cubs. Friedman finally won one (in a 60 game season [wank motion]) with the Dodgers. The Astros tanked and nerded their way to a title (the blatant cheating also helped), and on and on.
The current lockout is a bastardized result of how guys like Theo and Billy and Andrew got their bosses to look at how to build a team. The owners learned from them. And took all the wrong lessons from it.
How many times did we hear Theo say some version of the best way to win a championship was to just get to the playoffs where everything’s a crapshoot? What Theo meant was that his job was to build the best team he could and keep it that way for as long as he could so that it would get multiple cracks at a title. What his owners in Boston and the Cubs heard was if he could just maintain a roster that could squeak into the playoffs every year they had as good a chance to win a title as anybody else.
Again, it’s the wrong lesson to learn from that given that Theo’s three World Series champions won 98, 96 and 103 regular season games. Owners are content to try to replicate the 2006 Cardinals who won 83 games and somehow fell ass backwards into an alleged title.
When Theo and the Cubs were accused of blatantly manipulating Kris Bryant’s service time in 2015 by sending him to the minors to start the season and then calling him up one day after it was impossible for him to accrue enough service to earn his free agency1 after his sixth season, Theo thought he was gaining leverage in future negotiations with Bryant and his agent, Scott Boras, when it came time to finally sign an extension. The Rickettses learned that they’d get an extra year out of Bryant before they replaced him with somebody cheaper. 2
While Beane’s lot in life has always been to go free agent shopping in the irregulars section, Theo and Friedman (at least once he got to LA) were able to splurge on top end talent on occasion.
And that’s a big part of the current labor dispute. Over the last ten years baseball has become a marketplace where the very best players are still able to command huge salaries, prospects are valued internally like never before and young players are the most attractive commodity on the market. Just like in America itself, there is no middle class anymore. In the old days good players who were free agents always found jobs by the first of the year. On occasion a guy would overvalue himself3 and hit Valentine’s Day still looking for a job. But in recent years camps would open and there would be dozens of quality free agents still looking for jobs. Then they would find themselves in reverse bidding wars, hoping to sign a deal before the offers hit rock bottom.
It’s pretty instructive that over the life of the CBA that expired in November, that despite some players getting PAID (like Manny Machado, Fernando Tatis, Francisco Lindor, Mike Trout, etc.) and the minimum salary going up, that the average big league salary went down.
It went down because non-elite free agents weren’t getting offers. It used to be that once a guy got through his arbitration years he could really, finally get paid. Now, once a guy gets through his arbitration years he’s facing years of pay cuts, if he can get a job at all.
Rosters are built with one or two high paid players (maybe), a few arbitration eligible players in their supposed primes and then as many minimum salary guys as a team can cram onto their roster.
And so when players rightly demand that the owners’ precious Competitive Balance Tax thresholds go up, the owners say no. Even though the increases the players are asking for are insufficient, and would be made up by the ever increasing revenues the owners are reaping, several times over.
The owners say no because what they took from the lessons their analytics staff taught them is that they don’t need to spend like that to have a shot at winning. So why the hell should they do it?
And that’s why they want to increase the number of teams in the postseason. More playoff series are more money for them, as the players don’t make their regular salaries once the regular season ends, and the lower the threshold to gain entry into “Theo’s crapshoot” is, the less they need to spend on their rosters and they might still accidentally win that big piece of metal.
At the end of the day, the Epsteins and Beanes and Friedmans and Hoyers and Hahns are to the billionaires who own the teams that same as the accountants they hire to help them avoid paying real taxes. The players are just employees and most of the current iteration of owners are people who could give two shits about any employees and “how dare any of them ask for more of anything?”
Something will give in the next two or three weeks and a deal will get done and baseball will resume. It’ll be some combination of the TV partners and other corporate partners getting pissed at the owners and the players giving in even more than they already have until they reach whatever number the owners have decided allows them to extract the maximum indignity from them. Baseball will resume and it will be damaged. The players and owners will be even more adversaries than before. Fans will be pissed. The really dumb fans (of which there are lots) will be somehow pissed at the players.
Because after all, it’s not just owners who heard the haughty explanations about how baseball’s system rewards players with their highest pay after they have already begun their descent.
We’re all guilty of it. We should just enjoy Javy Baez somehow scoring from first on a single to left field, instead of also allowing ourselves to complain, “how can you pay a guy with a .307 lifetime on base average $23 million a year?”
And it’s not fair to blame Theo or Billy or Andrew for any of this. They aren’t the first and they won’t be the last to have asshole tycoons co-opt sound ideas for malicious reasons.
No, I’m going to blame Michael Lewis.
He’s the guy who wrote Moneyball the book. He’s the guy who made it easy to understand, and somehow very entertaining.
Then again, he does this with everything. He’s an incredible writer who somehow takes these weird ideas and finds the exact right people to profile to make entertaining and educational books out of them4. He’s a great writer and he’s rich and he married someone I had a crush on all through high school and college from MTV News. No, not Kurt Loder.
Damn you, Michael Lewis. This is actually all your fault.
The only way to make it up to us is to write a book about how Splinter kept getting all of the Ricketts family emails.
I would guess all of this Moneyball talk has you in the mood to revisit the Movie Deep Dive that Mike Pusateri and I did on that really good film.
Hey, if you paid attention to the second story in that random Tabitha Soren MTV News clip, you might wonder whatever happened to that Jessica Kaplan script, “The Powers That Be” that Michael Stipe’s production company bought.
Well, in typical Hollywood fashion, the script was completely rewritten, it took 12 years to get made and when it did it was with a completely different story with a completely different name. Havoc starring Anne Hathaway, Bijou Phillips and Joseph-Gordon Levitt.
It has Michael Biehn in it playing—I guess the principal? Nothing like having Johnny Ringo in charge of the kids.
“I’m afraid the strain was more than he could bear.”
Oh, and Channing Tatum has a small part in Havoc, too.
As for Kaplan, her story is even sadder. She died in a small plane crash (the plane was small, not the crash) before the movie was ever made.
To be honest, we all know that the great Mike Olt’s magnificence would have kept Bryant in the minors all season if he hadn’t broken his hand. Sure. (wink - wink) And remember that Olt had that weird thing with his eyes where they wouldn’t make tears? That poor bastard.
And they did. They replaced him with a rookie who is somehow older than he is.
Remember when the Dodgers offered Jody Reed almost $8 million over three years and he turned it down and then ended up signing for one year with the Brewers for $350K?
His track record is pretty stunning. He’s done it with baseball, the stock market, the mortgage crisis, the pandemic, and somehow maybe the most interesting book he’s written was about the two million federal jobs that need to be filled when a new president is elected and just how badly the Trump administration fucked all of that up. That book is “The Fifth Risk” and I highly recommend it. I also recommend “The Premonition” which is the book he wrote about the government’s preparedness and haphazard response to COVID. The only book of his I just couldn’t get through was “The Big Short” and then Adam McKay made it into a movie that I could completely understand, especially the part where Margot Robbie explained mortgage bonds while naked in a bubble bath.