So we sit here in February and the two top free agents haven’t yet signed. This usually wouldn’t concern me that much, but every time I open any application that allows me to browse baseball news, I get hit with the “Why Hasn’t Bryce Harper Signed Yet?” or “Are the Owners Colluding Against Manny Machado?” or even the lesser ones like “Does the Reliever Revolution Screw Dallas Keuchel?” and undoubtedly some snarky comment about Craig Kimbrel. The point everyone tries to make is that they are good players, just expecting contracts over what they’re worth. So what?
Maybe teams got smarter? Is that the answer? Harper probably isn’t worth $350 million, but the problem is that the market has dictated that he should get that much. He’s young, reasonably good, and should be a fine mid-level star on a championship-caliber team for at least the next 5-7 years. Heck, even the Marlins offered a 31-year-old Albert Pujols $250 million back in 2011. Then maybe the problem is that teams don’t want to pay these players anymore. Which is just as well, if they were spending their money on smart things. But they’re not, and multiple teams have cited “cutting payroll”, which I guess is a worthwhile goal. But it’s February! Why are you going into the season with the goal of “cutting payroll”? Cut payroll in the middle of the season, but not before it even starts! Is this even fair to fans?
Maybe as teams have gotten smarter, they realize that the playoffs are truly a crapshoot. Currently, 10 of the 30 teams make it, but 4 of them have the potential to be one-and-done. The Wild Card game is cool, but it throws a wrench into everything. Multiple times have I heard a variation of the statement, “sure, we can limp into the playoffs, but why would we trade valuable assets for the opportunity to play one playoff game?”
The problem with teams becoming smarter is that they can look at the numbers and realize when they really don’t have a chance. Whereas a rebuilding team might’ve signed a veteran to mentor a team and hope that they could sneak into the playoffs, now teams can analyze teams as a whole and realize that one free agent probably doesn’t move the needle that much. Even if some team were to make the playoffs, if they get bounced in the first round, it’s not really worth it. So is analytics contributing to parity?
Do we fix it? Do we want to fix it? Is baseball lost? We can expand the playoffs to include more teams (the NBA and the NHL already allow more than 50% of the league into the postseason), but would that really encourage teams to buy free agents? The salary floor? Good luck getting that passed.
I think the real problem is that baseball is that because of analytics, baseball is becoming less luck-based and more skill-based. Since 2014, when the San Francisco Giants won, the winner of the World Series has either been seeded #1 or #2 in their league. Fewer and fewer Wild Card teams are finding success. The outcomes are becoming more and more predictable. Home runs and strikeouts are sure things. Fewer and fewer bloop hits, grounders that make it through the infield (because of the shift), mean that luck matters even less. A GM once said “Velocity is the greatest predictor of success,” and that is part of the truth. Pitching to contact doesn’t work like it used to, simply because anyone would rather have a freaking strikeout.
Yes, it is frustrating when the better team loses, especially if it’s your team, but I think that luck is a very important aspect of sports. In basketball, the better team wins at an extremely high rate, and that ends up being very boring. In hockey, each team has close to a 50% chance of winning each game because of the random bounces that go, and that is more fun.
The ultimate goal is to reduce strikeouts and reduce home runs. Maybe the real issues stem from here. I don’t know how to do that without making too drastic a change to the game, but there are good ideas floating around there. Proposing rule changes is a good thing. Just make sure it’s the right ones. Bring the luck back.