First off: Happy holidays! Or, to be more politically correct, Merry Christmas!
I’m not sure I got that right but either way — I believe it was my friend Mike Dicenzo who made this point: Why does the song go, “Have yourself a merry LITTLE Christmas.” That seems pretty rude. If those weren’t words sung along to such sweet music, it would sound like the sort of thing you would say after a fight, no?
“Yeah, you know what? Have yourself a merry little Christmas, all right? No, really, you just do that. Seriously, let your heart be light. From now on your troubles will be out of sight, OK? Jerk.”
I don’t think “Jerk,” is actually in the lyrics, but you get the point.
At The Athletic
Well, today’s the day: The Baseball 100 begins! One hundred players, one hundred days, one hundred essays. I’m going to call it the most daring feat in sports journalism history — it might not quite be that, but it’s definitely the nuttiest.
Wrote a little something on yet another devastating Browns loss. This one followed the Browns giving a bizarrely timed vote of confidence to coach Freddie Kitchens. I have noticed that people have stopped trying to speak up for Freddie … oh, there are plenty of people who think the Browns should bring him back because he’s a first year coach and the Browns’ problems go so much deeper than him and the team has had so little stability that firing another coach would only add to the woes. But that’s not the same thing. I am still waiting to hear from people who can point to a single way he’s doing an actual good job.
I also wrote a piece about baseball salaries and how skewed our views tend to be of them. That, as it turns out, is also the main topic of today’s newsletter.
— I cannot say this with any more pride: I’m pretty sure Mike Schur and I — with the help of a bunch of great friends — managed to put together the dumbest PosCast in our astonishingly dumb history. I realize this probably isn’t the best way to actually promote the PosCast, but we try to be truth-tellers here.
— Had a wonderful time in Milwaukee and Atlanta last week talking a little Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini. Travel should slow down a bit until after the holidays now, but I do have a few media hits. If I can take just a moment to be serious: This has been a wonderful Houdini year. I so loved writing this book, and I’m so proud of it. Yes, it was a complete departure from my normal life, and I know that Houdini is hardly everybody’s cup of handcuffs, but this book gave me a chance to write and talk about wonder, which is undoubtedly my favorite topic. Thank you all for reading.
— I have mentioned here before that most authors I know live in two stages: We are either writing a book or thinking about the next one. I am thinking hard about the next one. I am thinking hard about it being a big, messy, sprawling, joyous baseball book. I haven’t quite figured it out yet, but I am working on it. Thoughts?
Inspired by tweets from Bill James and Tom Tango, I put out this poll:
The group included:
A. Carlos Beltrán
B. Andruw Jones (misspelled because of stupid autocorrect)
C. Kenny Lofton
D. Jim Edmonds
The point of the poll was not actually to find the best player — I have my opinion and you have yours — but to point out that there were FOUR centerfielders who played in the 1990s-2000s not named Ken Griffey Jr. who have fascinating and wonderful Hall of Fame cases. Four players. And I could have added Bernie Williams and Torii Hunter.
This point, while seemingly obvious, really did not hit me until Bill made the point that he does not think Jones is anywhere close to being a Hall of Fame player. This, obviously, outraged a whole bunch of people who are Jones fans, and I get that. Andruw Jones was a fabulous player. His most cogent Hall of Fame argument — best defensive centerfielder ever who also hit more than 400 home runs — is pretty compelling.
Not to speak for Bill, but it’s clear that he believes that argument to be less than convincing for two reasons:
(1) He questions Jones’ case as greatest defensive centerfielder ever because it is based on new defensive stats that were not available for his most notable competition such as Willie Mays, Garry Maddox, the DiMaggios, Devon White, Paul Blair, etc.
(2) His home run total of 434 is less impressive because of the time when he played. Everybody hit home runs. From 1990 to 2012, so ending the year Jones retired, he ranks 16th in home runs, just one ahead of Juan Gonzalez, four ahead of Jason Giambi and seven ahead of a catcher, Mike Piazza.
I want to make a different point. The basic theme of the Hall of Fame is that those elected are players who have separated themselves from the pack. There are good players, there are great players and there are Hall of Famers … that’s the idea, anyway. It doesn’t always work. Sometimes players who definitely did not separate themselves from the pack are elected. And sometimes the whole “pack” concept hurts Hall of Fame caliber players. Tim Raines should not have had to wait so long just because he wasn’t Rickey Henderson. Ted Simmons should not have fallen off the ballot after one year just because he wasn’t Johnny Bench, Gary Carter or Carlton Fisk.
But sometimes the pack concept — how does a player rate against contemporaries — is really enlightening. Yes, absolutely, Andruw Jones was a wonderful player.
But was he really better than three other terrific players of his time.
By WAR (bWAR/fWAR — total):
Carlos Beltrán: 70/68 — 138
Andruw Jones: 63/67 — 130
Kenny Lofton: 68/62 — 130
Jim Edmonds: 60/65 — 125
Does Jones stand out here? No, he doesn’t. And while many people do not like WAR, truth is it is Jones’ BEST argument. By other stats, Jones has a low batting average, a low on-base percentage, etc. By Bill James’ Win Shares, Jones only had one MVP type season in his career.
Now, look, you might think all four belong in the Hall of Fame (and there are those who would like to put Bernie and Torii in this group too, though their 94 and 93 Total WAR respectively puts them quite a few wins behind).
You might think two or three of them belong, and you have a way of separating them out.
You might believe only one of them belong — the poll has Beltán substantially ahead of the rest — because you can see a clear line of demarcation.
But the point is that it is so easy to forget how many fantastic players are not in the Hall of Fame. People may shout that Jones is getting shortchanged but there were SO many good centerfielders during his time. Rremember: Kenny Lofton fell off the ballot after only one year. So did Edmonds. The Hall of Fame is a tough place to get in, at least through the BBWAA door.
My friend Dan pointed this out to me — and it’s a fascinating topic. You probably know that over the last few days, Stephen Strasburg and Madison Bumgarner both signed big deals. Strasburg’s, obviously, was MUCH bigger. He signed a seven year, $245 million deal while Bumgarner signed a five-year, $85 million deal.
Let’s get out of the way up front that ALL of this involves an insane amount of money. Madison Bumgarner will do just fine with his deal, and I do not mean to imply otherwise. Someone always wants to jump up to make that literal point about the money much in the same way that someone always wants to say that bringing your favorite albums to a deserted island is dumb because there’s no power on the island.
But that out of the way, it’s instructive to look at the two pitchers and how much they have been and will be paid.
To start with: Bumgarner is actually more than a year younger than Strasburg — I was actually surprised to see that, but it’s true.
Bumgarner is 119-92 with a 120 ERA+, a postseason record that stacks up with the greatest pitchers in baseball history and five seasons where he received some Cy Young support (though he never came all that close to winning one).
Scherzer is 112-58 with a 130 ERA+, an excellent postseason record himself including a World Series MVP, and three seasons where he received Cy Young support though he too never came all that close to winning one.
Through 2016, Bumgarner was probably the better pitcher. It was close, but Bumgarner positioned himself as the pitcher you absolutely wanted on the mound in the big game (he was Sports Illustrated’s SportsPerson of the Year) while Strasburg was hurt a lot and generally seemed more inconsistent and not quite as sturdy.
Since 2017, it is Bumgarner who has dealt with injuries — he injured himself in a dirt-bike accident, and he was hit in the hand by a line drive during spring training — while Strasburg had, by far, his two best seasons. And at the same time, Bumgarner’s Giants went into the tank — meaning Bumgarner was given no more chances to pitch in big games — while the Nationals had their miracle 2019 season with Strasburg playing the hero.
So it is not surprising, with the seasons they each had in 2019, that it is Strasburg who cashed in for the really big money while Bumgarner signed the more modest deal.
But this might be a little bit surprising to you: Even before the big deal, Strasburg made double what Bumgarner did. He received more than $110 million while Bumgarner took in about $57 million.
That means that Strasburg will be paid at least $350 million for his career while Bumgarner will be paid closer to $145 million.
How does THAT kind of gap happen? Well, plainly, it’s a consequence of timing and, frankly, representation. This will sound like a commercial for Scott Boras but we are where we are. An agent’s job, entirely, is to take care of the client. Boras did in this case. And Bumgarner’s reps, with the best of intentions, did not.
Take a look for yourself:
Boras: He protected Strasburg in 2012, one year after Stras got Tommy John surgery. The Nationals made the playoffs that year, but Boras and Nationals GM Mike Rizzo sat Strasburg and protected his arm. It was extremely controversial at the time and is still controversial in some corners, but an agent’s job is to get the player to free agency healthy and that’s what happened here.
Bumgarner’s reps: MadBum pitched at least 200 innings every year from age 21 through age 26. He also pitched an extra 200 innings in the postseason, some of that on short rest. He threw three postseason complete games. He began breaking down long before he became a free agent.
Boras: Yes, it helped that Strasburg was considered by many the best college pitching prospect ever. But Boras took full advantage of it. He got Strasburg a four year, $15 million deal right out of college. Strasburg’s first year in the big leagues was 2010 — he was paid $2 million for 12 starts. His next year, which he missed with Tommy John surgery, he was paid $4.3 million.
Bumgarner’s reps: MadBum was, perhaps, the best high school pitcher in America when he was drafted with the 10th overall pick. The agents did not have nearly as much to work with there; they got him a a $2 million signing bonus, but no major league deal. Bumgarner’s timing was terrible — he came up JUST in time for his rookie season in 2010 for it to not count as a year of service. That was not an accident on the Giants part; it pushed off his free agency a full year.
Boras: Strasburg signed year-to-year deals. Boras was not giving the Nationals any breaks. There were no hometown discounts. He wasn’t willing to give up money for security. Strasburg just let arbitration do the work, and his salary jumped from $4 million to $7.4 million to $10.4 million.’ Then he became a free agent and signed a huge deal followed by an even. bigger one after opting out.
Bumgarner’s reps: They had him sign a bizarro five-year, $35 million deal. It was called “record deal,” at the time because it was the largest ever given to a pitcher with one year of service time. But there were two problems with it.
First: He really had TWO years of service time; he got fleeced out of his rookie year. At that point, had Bumgarner bet on himself the way Strasburg did, he surely would have made millions more dollars.
But the bigger issue is the second point: Yes, Bumgarner got security. But it came at a devastating price: He gave the Giants two precious option years at $12 million apiece, which was about how much he made in the last year of the deal. That was a a crusher. It tied him up until he was age 30; and by this time Bumgarner had pitched 2,000-plus innings, counting the postseason, and many GMs considered him used up. In an offseason where teams are throwing around big, big money for starting pitching, Bumgarner settled for a sizable but hardly record-breaking $17 million a year while Zack Wheeler, who is not nearly as accomplished and is only 10 months younger, will make $24 million per year.
Yes, again, Bumgarner has made and will make serious money. But everyone else at his level will make a lot more.
And the interesting part of all this to me is: It just shows how the momentum of everything in baseball’s salary structure points toward the owners. The Bumgarner deal was celebrated for the most part when he signed it. There are obvious reasons for this: As fans, we want our teams to get the best players, and billionaire owners have convinced us that they CANNOT AFFORD the best players.
We want players like Bumgarner to give the team a hometown discount. We want players like Bumgarner to sign lower-than-market deals with our teams. We want players like Bumgarner to give up their youth for the team because, again as fans, we are not super interested in what happens to them later.
Let’s leave Bumgarner for a moment and think about Matt Harvey. He was an absolute phenomenon as a 24-year-old. Led the league in FIP, made the All-Star team, finished fourth in the Cy Young voting. He had Tommy John surgery, missed a year, then came back in time to lead the Mets to the playoffs (for $614,000). The smart thing would have been for him to sit at that point, protect his arm, protect his future, but no, people attacked and embarrassed him for even thinking about it. These are the playoffs, man! This is the once chance!
Harvey pitched brilliantly in the playoffs. Then, in the World Series, the manager sent him out to pitch the ninth inning, even though he had thrown 100 pitches and had the lead. People quickly say that he DEMANDED to go back in the game, and he did, but I’m sorry, you cannot let a 24-year-old hyped up on the moment make that call.
Anyway, we’ll never know if his postseason pitching had anything to do with him getting hurt later. What we do know is that Harvey did get hurt, and he’s never been the same, and he’s a free agent now who is probably hoping just to get a minor-league deal.
And the larger point is: All those fans who insisted he put his future on the line for the team when he wasn’t getting paid are nowhere to be found. Maybe the feel bad. Maybe, more likely, they’ve just forgotten him. He was worth tens of millions of dollars to the Mets, he helped give the Mets fans priceless joy, and he was paid a few hundred thousand for the effort. But, as I wrote at the time, nobody would be there if Harvey got hurt and if his career went off the rails. And nobody is there now that he got hurt and his career went off the rails.
What I’m saying is: Players should take care of themselves because fans do not care that Madison Bumgarner will get paid millions and millions of dollars less than he was worth while baseball owners pocketed the difference.