Baseball Toaster Bad Altitude
Or The Hamster Wheel
by Mark T.R. Donohue

Writing in the Post, the redoubtable Troy E: "...Monfort told me recently that it's unlikely Colorado will keep its kids beyond arbitration, replacing the most pricey with a new wave of Toddlers. In Oakland, this is known as the Menudo rule. When guys get a certain age, they have to leave the band." That's what I'm worried about. When I was in college I followed the A's very closely and it was a little disheartening to see all of these excellent players (particularly Miguel Tejada) leave all the time. But Oakland has uncommonly good judgement about when to let go of guys. The Rockies on the other hand haven't had many guys who were good enough to resent losing. It's not like Preston Wilson and Shawn Chacon are tearing it up for other teams now. That's changing, which is a good step. Better to have good players and lose them than never have good players at all. But the issue is whether the Rockies can ever hold on to enough good players at any one time to win a substantial number of games. It's possible to win on the Oakland/Minnesota model of constantly cycling out older, expensive players and replacing them with younger, cheaper ones but it allows for a rather small margin of error, one the Colorado franchise has never quite shown the cleverness at which to operate.

Should I be worried that my favorite English soccer team is being bought by the same knucklehead who engaged himself in a ruinous bidding war with...himself before finally signing Alex Rodriguez? It's too late, I already am. In Dallas the spin is about how Hicks' third major sports franchise purchase won't effect the Rangers or Stars, but it might be better for them both if he got real interested in looking for the next A-Rod contract in European football. From a Liverpool perspective, the new ownership could either be disastrous or a lamentable but necessary evil.

Liverpool hasn't won more Premiership titles than anyone else, as the Morning News article linked above erroneously claims. In fact, they haven't won any. (The Premiership has only been around since 1992. Liverpool has won 18 Football League First Division titles, which I'm sure is what they meant, but details count.) In any event, they're the Yankees of English soccer, until as of late when they've been more like the Blue Jays. That's the catch with Tom Hicks and co-owner George Gillett Jr.'s purchase of Livepool FC. Liverpool has been subject to a lot of third- and fourth-place finishes in recent years with the out-of-control spending binges the foreign owners of Chelsea (Russian Roman Abramovich) and Manchester United (American Malcolm Glazer) have brought to the league. It's harsh to compare Liverpool to the Orioles, but Arsenal, the other major player in the EPL, competes more consistently in a similar financial situation. Both teams are willing to spend what it costs to win championships and expect to do so, but within budget constraints. Think of the Braves or the Cardinals. Manchester United is more like the Mets or Red Sox, who might have theoretical limits but are constrained by them quite loosely. Chelsea on the other hand spends with complete illiberal glee, assembling fabulously costly, inefficient but monstrously effective rosters of pedigreed superplayers. I can't think of an MLB comparison for them.

In order to compete with the financial head starts Man U and Abramovich's goofy fantasy league team get and Arsenal's better management and coaching (and presently, talent), Liverpool needs more cash, and the North American guys clearly have money to burn. The team has been disproportionately successful in tournament play in the last few years, winning two major cups in as many years, but the real prize is a Premier League title, and there's no shortcuts to those. Brutally but elegantly, the EPL has no playoffs -- the team with the best regular season record wins. You have to have both frontline talent and extreme depth to grind out the lengthy, 38-game Premier League schedule, especially when your season is regularly interrupted by another dozen or more games in league and European cup tournaments. The club's recent strategy has been to concentrate on winning the less depth-taxing tourneys, but if the Hicks group wishes to win over Liverpool's fanbase quickly, the best thing they could do would be to win the league next year. They have some problems right now but it's nothing $252 million or so can't fix, I'm sure.

I know I often get cynical about all of the spin every party involved in every major sports story puts on...well, everything, but sometimes legalese can be music to my heart. Check out what Tyrus Thomas is quoted as "saying" by the ESPN article regarding his large team fine for his ill-judged comments about participating in the slam dunk contest just for the money. The writer obviously is quoting the press release that Thomas's representatives have composed on his behalf, but it's still funny to visualize Tyrus Thomas actually verbalizing the following: "I truly feel honored to be invited to participate in this year's slam dunk contest...I regret the extent to which my comments indicate otherwise." I regret the extent to which my comments indicate otherwise! There's a neck tattoo for you!

2007-02-07 09:01:01
1.   Ali Nagib
See, I thought that TT might have been trying to be funny when he said it was only about the money. (Maybe he should have dropped a "Straight cash, homey" in there for clarity). But seriously, 10 grand for a guy making rookie pay over one comment, that wasn't offensive or anything of that nature? Please.

Your comments on the EPL also tie in nicely to the article that Timmerman posted on the Griddle the other day about bringing Moneyball to world football. Suffice it to say, the fact that you can't come up with an MLB version of Chelsea is not just a coincidence.

2007-02-07 10:49:51
2.   Ken Arneson
I think if you had true free agency instead of the six-year waiting period, MLB probably would look an awful lot like EPL, with the same three or four teams winning every year. Johan Santana and Joe Mauer would probably be on the Red Sox by now (so much for the Twins), and the Oakland A's would be no different from the Kansas City A's, making their money by serving as a farm team for the Yankees.
2007-02-07 10:58:33
3.   Ali Nagib
2 - In theory, that might be the case, but the big difference is that MLB isn't connected to the other baseball leagues in the same way that the EPL is to the other top FIFA leagues. Even if the EPL wanted to try to impose some league-wide measures to decrease the gap between the highest and lowest payrolls, they'd end up screwing themselves. Almost by definition, any plan of this sort would have to find a way to directly or indirectly decrease the payrolls of the top clubs, which in turn would make them less competitive in the Transfer market. The top players would stay away from England and go to the Spanish Primera, or Italian Serie A, etc.

MLB, on the other hand, has the advantage that, even with the luxury tax and revenue sharing, the players still make far more than any other league in the world. So even if you depress the top salaries by 10 or 20%, they'll still be much higher than in Japan (I'm guessing the closest competitor). While I certainly agree that MLB COULD try to make themselves look like the EPL, they obviously realize that having the Yankees and Red Sox only spending 4 to 5 times the lowest (non-2006 Marlins) team, is a good thing, and letting the gap rise to 10 or 20 times, like the EPL and other top soccer leagues, would be a bad idea in the long run. They're just fortunate that they're in the position where they get to call the shots (by "they" I mean the collected negotiations of the MLB and MLBPA).

2007-02-07 23:42:15
4.   Ken Arneson
3 Good point about competition with other leagues.

An interesting question to explore would be how competitive balance is affected by both payroll differences, and player ages when they reach free agency. I think the reason Moneyball works is that the A's can hold players through their peak ages of 27-28, and let them go when they begin their decline. It doesn't really matter if the Yankees pay 20x the A's, as long as they get those peak seasons cheaply. If free agency happened at age 26 instead, they'd get clobbered.

An example question--which league would be the most competitive:

a) a 2x difference between top and bottom teams, with pure free agency

b) a 5x difference between top and bottom teams, with free agency at age 28

c) a 10x difference between top and bottom teams, with free agency at age 30

d) a 20x difference between top and bottom teams, with free agency at age 32

What's the peak age is for soccer players? Is it somewhere around age 27, like other sports?

2007-02-07 23:54:26
5.   Ken Arneson
4 Found one web site that claimed the following:

Position: Peak Age
Goalkeeper: 33
Defender: 31
Midfielder: 29
Striker: 28

2007-02-08 09:39:47
6.   Ali Nagib
4 - I think the tradeoffs you imply in your example are important ones, but the other thing to consider is that the "age of free agency" isn't ever going to be a specific age (unless you combined an NBA-style age limit with total free agency instead of a draft, but I don't see that happening). But as an average, your point definitely holds. If MLB changed its rules to have free agency occur after 4 or 5 years instead of 6, teams like the A's would likely just keep their players in the minors longer. I'd guess that a graph with axes of "Free Agency Age" and "Payroll disparity" would probably be fairly continuous, without any huge jumps or spikes.

5 - I'd be curious to know the source of those. If it's the equivalent of a "traditional" baseball site, I'd guess that those ages are on average a year or two too high. If you polled all the managers in baseball about what the peak age is, the average would probably be around 30, 2 or so years higher than the reality. But maybe soccer analysts are better at that sort of thing.

2007-02-11 22:58:58
7.   Ken Arneson
6 Yeah, I meant an average, or typical, age at free agency, although the NHL had age-based free agency until their latest CBA, which changed it to a mix of age and experience.

My source was just one article written by an (apparently) well-respected manager. The article was copied to multiple web sites. I don't know the original author's source.

I do know that Europeans track this sort of thing, though. I recall distinctly that when I lived in Sweden in 1979-81, the semipro basketball player who coached my team told us the peak age for basketball players is 27.

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