Play ball, with in­formed in­tel­li­gence

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - OPINION - WASH­ING­TON POST WRIT­ERS GROUP

Even if, in­ex­pli­ca­bly, you oc­ca­sion­ally think about things other than ma­jor league base­ball, con­sider this: Why are many pre­mier free agents, par­tic­u­larly slug­gers and start­ing pitch­ers, un­signed even while we are hear­ing the loveli­est four words, “Pitch­ers and catch­ers re­port”? The Ma­jor League Base­ball Play­ers As­so­ci­a­tion an­grily says some teams are more in­ter­ested in econ­o­miz­ing than in win­ning. The real ex­pla­na­tion is that teams are in­tel­li­gently align­ing their be­hav­ior with chang­ing in­for­ma­tion.

Teams in­creas­ingly be­have alike be­cause in­creas­ingly they think alike. They all have young grad­u­ates of elite col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties whose data sup­port the fol­low­ing judg­ments:

Play­ers be­come el­i­gi­ble for free agency af­ter six years of ma­jor league ser­vice, which comes close to co­in­cid­ing with the be­gin­ning of the down­side of most ca­reers. Be­sides, base­ball has be­come younger since ban­ning per­for­manceen­hanc­ing drugs (am­phet­a­mines as well as steroids) that ex­tended some ca­reers.

Base­ball to­day is played as an all-or-noth­ing, strike-out-or-home-run game. So, the mar­ket is sat­u­rated with home run hit­ters, some of whom have spurned nine-digit of­fers. Their agents should have an­tic­i­pated soft­en­ing de­mand for a sur­plus com­mod­ity.

Base­ball “an­a­lyt­ics” demon­strate that most start­ing pitch­ers are most ef­fec­tive when con­stantly throw­ing hard, and are sig­nif­i­cantly less ef­fec­tive the third time through the op­po­nent’s lineup. Hence re­lief pitch­ers are in­creas­ingly im­por­tant— and in­creas­ingly well paid in even to­day’s se­verely ra­tio­nal mar­ket.

Sev­eral high-rev­enue, high-spend­ing teams (e.g., the Dodgers, Yan­kees, Red Sox) might be sav­ing their money for a splurge eight months from now on the best free-agent class ever— the Na­tion­als’ Bryce Harper, the Ori­oles’ Manny Machado, the Dodgers’ Clay­ton Ker­shaw and oth­ers. Fur­ther­more, in the col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment run­ning through 2021, the MLBPA agreed to a com­pet­i­tive bal­ance tax of 20 per­cent on any por­tion of a pay­roll over $197 mil­lion, with the rate ris­ing to 30 and 50 per­cent on sec­ond and third con­sec­u­tive sea­sons over the thresh­old.

MLB and the MLBPA col­lab­o­ra­tively de­vised a sys­tem whereby the teams with the worst records get ad­van­tages in draft­ing young tal­ent. The Cubs and Astros lost 288 and 324 games, re­spec­tively, in re­cent three-year spans, reloaded, then won the 2016 and 2017 World Se­ries, re­spec­tively. Their fans, and most teams, think those two suc­cesses val­i­dated the strat­egy of ac­cept­ing short-term pain for long-term gain. Not, how­ever, for con­stant suc­cess.

The Cubs’ and Astros’ suc­cesses have en­cour­aged other teams to en­gage in what the MLBPA says is a “race to the bot­tom.” Ac­tu­ally, teams that are tear­ing down old and medi­ocre ros­ters are ac­cept­ing a plunge in or­der to pro­duce mo­men­tum for a surge to the top. What fans most dis­like, and what con­sti­tutes base­ball mal­prac­tice, is con­sis­tent medi­ocrity.

Be­fore 1994’s cat­a­clysm— the strike-short­ened sea­son, the can­celed World Se­ries— base­ball had suf­fered seven work stop­pages (in­clud­ing spring train­ing) in 22 years. Since then there have been none, base­ball has gone from a $2 bil­lion to a $9 bil­lion-plus busi­ness and the av­er­age salary has risen from $1.2 mil­lion in 1994 to $4.1 mil­lion in 2017, when 50 per­cent of MLB rev­enues went to play­ers’ salaries and ben­e­fits (56 per­cent in­clud­ing mi­nor league sign­ing bonuses and salaries).

Base­ball, like the Amer­i­can econ­omy gen­er­ally in this era of high-quan­tity, high-ve­loc­ity in­for­ma­tion, is more ef­fi­cient at pric­ing as­sets and al­lo­cat­ing re­sources than it was un­til re­cently. This in­ten­si­fied dy­namic has win­ners and losers, but many more of the former than the lat­ter. And to op­pose this churn­ing, in the na­tional pas­time or the na­tion it­self, is to op­pose the ap­pli­ca­tion of in­formed in­tel­li­gence.

With the stock mar­ket tum­ble, War­ren Buf­fett re­port­edly lost $5 bil­lion.

Then he stuck his hand in his couch cush­ions and said, ‘Never mind, I found it.’”

Co­nan O’Brien “Co­nan”

Ge­orge Will georgewill@ wash­post.com

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