Overpaying Always Better in Baseball

Sabermetrics can help, but if you can't afford relievers who don't allow multiple grand slams, you're rarely going to win. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

The Oakland A’s missed out on a three-game sweep against the Yankees Thursday because their bullpen allowed 16 earned runs in 3 2/3 innings. I followed the game during the final chunk of my drive home from the Midwest with my new car. With me was my mom, and she asked me if this blowout loss was because there just aren’t enough good pitchers to combat all the great hitters in the MLB. A decent question, but a better one is, “Why do teams like the A’s perpetually fall short against the Yankees?” The answer: money, plain and simple.

Skyrocketing free-agent contracts and negotiations have created a situation where every free agent is overvalued. It doesn’t matter how good you are– your contract will to at least some extent be overblown. The reasons for this lies in the current baseball trend of signing young talent to long-term deals before they reach free agency. The assumption underlying it: once a player reaches free agency, he will always take the highest salary available, perpetually favoring big-money teams like the Yankees, Red Sox and Mets, who can afford to overpay for talent.

This strategy may keep young players in the system, but it indirectly creates free-agent classes with fewer players competing for more jobs. This favors the players immensely: If there are only four first basemen available in the off-season, and at least four teams need a first baseman for the following season, then each player only really competes against three other players for that big paycheck. Teams feel they need to solve their problems immediately, so they overpay for those who can immediately fit their needs. The MLB has become short-sighted, always favoring the immediate solution over the long-term.

A perfect example of this is John Lackey, whom the Red Sox signed following the 2009 season. They were still pissed over the Yankees swiping Mark Teixeira the previous off-season, a move that seemed too similar to the Alex Rodriguez fiasco five years prior. The Red Sox wanted to show they could make big, splashy signings as well as the Yankees, so they went after Lackey, who was the best free-agent starting pitcher available.

It didn’t matter that Lackey’s 2009 season wasn’t actually all that good. His 11 wins were the fewest since his sophomore season in 2003. His 3.83 ERA was the highest it had been since 2004. His 176 1/3 innings were the second-fewest since his rookie season. His strikeout-walk ratio had dropped each of the last two seasons. Who cares? The Red Sox wanted the best pitcher available, and they paid $82.5 million to get him. Excluding his recent winning ways (a product of Boston’s lethal offense, not his pitching prowess), how’s that working out?

The Red Sox have the money to sign players to contracts above and beyond what the players are worth, which is good, because every free agents gets paid this way these days. The A’s however, have always been a team with no money, a team that tries to win cheap. The central premise of “Moneyball” was that Billy Beane found a way to win more games over three years than any team ever had before by using sabermetrics to find valuable players who slipped beneath other teams’ notice. Beane used a sort of “baseball calculus” to determine how valuable each player was to his team, and whether that player was worth what the agent was asking.

Thursday’s game showed the downside of this strategy. Statistically, individual relievers contribute the least to a team’s success across the season. While it’s important to have one “bullpen ace” (not necessarily the closer), it’s far more important to have a lineup that can get on base and at least two (or even three) high-quality starters. Given a super-limited budget like the A’s, the bullpen is often crippled to divert resources to more valuable parts.

That crippling puts extra pressure on the Oakland starters. If they can’t go deep, the team suddenly has to entrust its win to its weakest part. Against a team that can afford to overpay for multiple relievers who are just above average (like the Yankees), the A’s usually fall.

Sabermetrics may have initially provided a means for low-budget teams to compete with big boys, but that time is over. In this free-market atmosphere, it’s the teams with the big budgets who usually win.