Because the Yankees are the Yankees, people seem to think that baseball is an inherently unfair sport. It’s not that I disagree with that sentiment exactly, though I am going to tweak it a little bit today. At least that’s what I hope to do. But it’s going to take some time, so bear with me.
One of the things that people moan about when suggesting that baseball is unfair is that free agency is out of control, and that only teams like the Yankees and Red Sox can afford the good free agents. On this front, I happen to agree completely: good free agents generally go to one of three or four places. But I’m not so sure that makes baseball unfair—at least no more so than any other sport. After all, is it fair that a bunch a basketball players enjoy South Beach? Is it fair that some owners happen to be Art Modell? Not really, no. But we deal with it and move on.
So today I thought I’d take a look at the rosters of some well-run organizations and see where they got their best players. Then I’d compare those teams to the Indians. If other teams’ best players are all coming from free agency and the Indians aren’t, then maybe we can call the system broken and move on. Then maybe we can all adopt a more equitable hobby—like knitting. But maybe there’s something else to find. Let’s see.
For this exercise, there are a few ground rules. First, I’m going to call a team’s “best players” any player who has contributed more than one win above replacement (WAR) for the 2010 season, and I’m going to use Fangraphs WAR figures to do this. Second, I’m going to assign players to one of four categories to describe the way they were acquired: (1) free agency; (2) trade; (3) draft; (4) Latin American signing.* Finally, I didn’t have time to look at every franchise in baseball. So I picked some that are generally respected as “well-run organizations”. Notice that some of these teams have high payrolls, some have average payrolls and some have low payrolls. Here are the teams we’ll look at: the Yankees, Red Sox, Rays, Cardinals, Phillies, Twins and Indians.
*I know there are more nuances than this, but for our purposes, the classification works fairly well. I’m throwing minor league free agents and major league free agents into the first group, and Rule 5 draftees into the third. Believe it or not, that will cover all our bases.
You’ll notice that the Red Sox don’t have any significant players they acquired from Latin American signings, and they rely more heavily than the Yankees do on free agency acquisitions. This surprised me, actually, given the narrative of the Yankees’ rabid spending. Let’s look at one more “high-payroll” team—the Philadelphia Phillies:
The Phillies have garnered a plurality of their talent through the draft, which looks to be an anomaly for large-market teams. And it’s not a coincidence that they have the lowest payroll of these teams—a draft-based philosophy makes sense for those on a budget.
But those three teams aren’t really good comparisons for the Indians: they exist in markets that can support payrolls vastly higher than Cleveland. Let’s look to more medium-payroll teams to see how they get their most talented players. Here are the St. Louis Cardinals:
You should be noticing a pattern: as team-payroll decreases, the share of value that comes from the draft (and smart trades) goes up. The share coming from Latin American signings and free agent signings goes down. To confirm, let’s look at the Minnesota Twins:
More than half of the Twins’ production this season came from the draft: Mauer, Morneau, Span, Baker, Slowey, Valencia, etc. The Latin American signing portion is overstated, since Liriano contributes nearly all of the value in that category. Regardless, the draft is the best source of talent, followed by getting good value in trades (think Delmon Young, J.J. Hardy, Carl Pavano, etc.).
But even the Twins have a payroll close to $100 million this season, so perhaps they’re not quite the comparable team to the Indians that they used to be. Let’s look at the smallest of small-market teams, the Tampa Bay Rays. I’m guessing you’ve spotted the trend by now:
Nearly 75% of the Rays best performances came from the draft. Listen to these names: Crawford, Longoria, Price, Upton, Shields, Jaso—all draft picks. And the next largest contribution comes from trades: Joyce, Garza, Soriano, and Bartlett. They eschew Latin American signings and rely on free agency for pieces and parts.
Obviously, we know that Mark Shapiro can make decent trades: Choo, Masterson, Santana, and Talbot all produced more than one win above replacement this season. The only player of consequence we lost in those trades was Victor. That’s good stuff.
But do you see that maroon line of nothingness? That’s the percent of contribution from players acquired through the draft. That’s right: not one draft pick has accumulated more than one win above replacement for the Indians in 2010. In fact, check out this depressing list of draft picks who have played for the Indians this year:
|Name||Draft Year (Round)||WAR|
|Jensen Lewis||2005 (3)||0.3|
|Aaron Laffey||2003 (16)||0.5|
|David Huff||2006 (1s)||-0.4|
|Tony Sipp||2004 (45)||-0.8|
|Trevor Crowe||2005 (1)||-0.9|
|Chris Gimenez||2004 (19)||0.0|
We’ve had six draftees contribute to the 2010 squad—which is remarkably low—and they’ve collectively cost us between one and two more wins than if we had just thrown a bunch of AAA kids out there. That is pathetic production. We haven’t had a draft pick significantly impact this club since CC Sabathia, who was drafted in 1998! As a comparison, here’s how all the teams in this study did with their draft picks in 2010:
So what’s the point of all this? The point is that good teams draft good players: they’re cheap, young, and, as the Rays demonstrate, capable of leading a team to the playoffs. Not one team in this study ever spent more than $10 million on a draft–peanuts when it comes to a baseball operations budget, even for the Indians. The point is also that the Indians have not, as a rule, drafted any impact players since CC Sabathia. That is not a factor of a small-market, but of a misguided set of priorities. Spending $6 million on the likes of David Dellucci and Jason Michaels rather than investing that money into the draft has consequences.
But even more, the point is that while baseball may not be fair, nothing in life really is. And while we complain about the awful free agency system, teams like the Twins and Rays are making the playoffs. And while we whine about the prodigality of the Yankees, the Reds—playing to similarly small Ohio crowds—just clinched their division. And they did it using draft picks.
Nothing in sports (or life, for that matter) is fair. But teams (and people) find a way to get beyond these difficulties, and do great things. While Cleveland will never be New York—one of many things for which I’m particularly grateful—we can certainly aspire to the likes of Tampa Bay or Minnesota, can’t we?
Hopefully in a few years, these charts will look like ancient history. Soon we’ll see Jason Kipnis and Alex White and Lonnie Chisenhall and Cord Phelps and Drew Pomeranz piling up massive WAR totals. But until then, I think it’s too easy to play the “baseball isn’t fair” card: it’s no more unfair than anything else in life. It’s time to start coping with that, and begin to draft players who can impact this club.