Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Strasburg Redux

A couple times last week I wrote in passing about Steven Strasburg and how silly I think it is that people (mostly writers and "experts") are so riled up about the amount of money he's apparently going to demand before ever throwing his first professional pitch.

To one of those posts, Ron commented like so (unabridged but compressed for space):
Strausburg hasn't proven anything. They're asking $50 mil who might be the biggest bust of all time, and he's not worth the money. I hope the Nats lowball and him, and Boras has to make the decision of taking less money or having him sit out the year. No college or high school 'deserves' that kind of money, no matter how good they were at a previous level. Players today get big arbitration and free agent contracts by putting up numbers at the major league level. Last time I checked, Strasburg had 0 professional wins, 0 professional strike outs, 0 professional shutouts, etc. How is he worth anything more than a basic contract and a chance to prove himself?
And over at his own site yesterday, tHeMARksMiTh chimed in with somewhat similar sentiments phrased in an entirely different way.

I replied to Mark's directly over at his site, but here, rather than tackle either of these arguments head-on, I'm going to try to explain my own position a little better.

1. I'm not saying Strasburg should get $50 million. Only Boras and Conlin have said that, as far as I can tell, and only Conlin seems to actually believe it. I don't believe anyone is worth that kind of money, and there's no way the Nats or anyone else would pay it. He should, however, get something approximating what the highest bidder would be willing to pay him. And:

2. there's absolutely nothing wrong with a kid hiring a representative to zealously advocate for him. Otherwise it's just the kid against the zealous advocates on the other side, and that's how you get the reserve clause and collusion and all that. Strasburg might be a bust. He might throw out his arm this fall and be back in school (for real this time) by spring. But that's exactly why he should be trying to get every penny he can, right now. And the Nationals should be willing to give him a lot of it, because:

3. Strasburg has proven plenty, thank you. He's probably the best college pitcher in history. He throws 100 miles an hour with control for 100+ pitches. Scouts say he can step in right now and hold his own in the majors. Scouts can be wrong, but many of them are very, very good at their jobs, and they all seem to agree on this one. His skills have a value apart from any statistics, professional or otherwise, you might want to tack onto them. And that value is a very, very large number. If you graduate at the top of your class from Harvard Business School, you're (even in this economy, I think) going to get your choice of a number of prestigious and lucrative job offers. You haven't written a single professional report or given a single professional presentation, but there's plenty of evidence you can do your job well. And you'll be making a lot more money than the guy who graduated at the bottom of your class, and more than a lot of other guys who went to Muncie State and have been writing reports and giving presentations for a less prestigious company for 20 or 30 years. That's the way the world works, and there's no real good argument for treating baseball as though it were any different in that regard. All that said, though:

4. I'm not really in favor of abolishing the draft. This has been something that's been discussed a lot lately, and I have to admit that the revolutionaries (like David Pinto) have a lot of great points, and probably make a stronger rational/economic case than the traditionalists do. But baseball is different, and there's a lot to be said for the (theoretical) best players going to the worst teams. However, there's a lot that needs to be done to make this fairer to the kids. Get rid of the ridiculous slotting system entirely (though it's increasingly being ignored by most teams anyway). Make draft picks tradeable, so that a team that doesn't value (or have the cash for) the top pick can immediately get value from a team that does. And so on. On the other hand,

5. We already know what a draft-free world would look like. There's no draft for overseas players. Any team is free to bid on any player. And you know what? The Yankees and Red Sox don't have anything like a monopoly on the best international talent, and never have. So I can't quite go so far as to endorse it (yet), but the world without the draft might not be such a bad or scary place.

So anyway. That does a slightly better job of explaining where I come down on this thing than I was doing last week. No, Strasburg shouldn't get $50 million. Nobody should, and nobody seriously thinks he will. But he should be able to get something like the top of what the market will pay for his services. And if the nature of sport prevents that from happening (which the international market suggests it probably shouldn't), the constraints on the draft should be loosened or lifted to get as close to that as realistically possible.

Lastly (maybe most importantly): there are a lot of arguments against amateurs "deserving" this kind of money and against changing the system. And I think most of them are shockingly weak, but I get where they come from. But what are the arguments in favor of keeping the system as it is? Why do we want to continue artificially shifting wealth from the kids to the(ir) owners? I'm all ears (er, eyes)...


  1. Bill,

    Just so you know, I wasn't calling you out on your take on things. Some of us are right and some of us are wrong. Who knows who?

    My only issue was that you said you wouldn't listen to some one like Harold Reynolds (a former player), but that's where I disagree. To me, the former players have more of a right to comment on this (either for or against) than any sports writer.

    Beyond that, I agree with some of what you said, and disagree with other things. But that's the beauty of baseball.

  2. Thanks Ron. I certainly didn't take offense or anything. I think it's an interesting discussion.

    I have more respect for HR than a lot of internet baseball wonks do, I think. I think he's very good at breaking down things like mechanics and in-game strategy (there was one show on MLB Network that was pretty much just him analyzing video of different hitters' swings, and I thought it was very interesting). But I don't think he deserves any special deference when he's talking about things like player salaries or advanced statistics. I don't think you get any special insight into these things by playing the game (and in some ways I think you can argue that having played actually distorts one's view of things). But to each his/her own. A lot of sportswriters are certainly no more qualified to talk about those things.

    I don't even remember whether I've heard HR speifically talk about Strasburg, so maybe it was unfair that I just pulled him up as an example of a player/analyst. I could just as well have said Kruk, or Dibble, or EY, or Morgan. I do think there's a natural human tendency to resent people who come after you when you perceive them to have things better/easier than you did, so that they're not really the most even-handed sources on this topic.

  3. For the international situation (I said this somewhere else but can't remember when), it isn't the same situation as over here.

    In the US, scouts are everywhere, internet sites also scout players, players are publicized, there are special tournaments for the best players, and the system is in place to know how player A from college/high school should be developed.

    I think they're still working out the kinks for international players. International players are usually not in very developed leagues, so teams don't always know where they fit. The players are usually very raw (making them unpredictable), and when you can't really depend on their competition, it makes it more difficult. There are some tournaments, but the academy system usually shields prospects from other teams. Teams don't know if they have the best prospect of all Latin players. They just know they have a good one.

    The Yankees and Red Sox don't spend millions overseas because it's too big of a risk. A couple thousand for a bunch of Latin prospects (what usually happens) is a perfectly good idea (but let's not get into the ethics of it; that gets ugly), but spending millions on such a raw prospect is really gutsy and maybe stupid. They are more undeveloped than high school players are.

    AS risky as it is to sign US players, there's quite a bit more certainty with them than foreign players. Will they buy all the good prospects? No. No one has that much prospects. But I'm guessing they and the Red Sox (who spent $20-30 million less on their payrolls this season) would nab most of the top ones. The question from here is how that works out. Most of the top prospects at least end up as decent major leaguers. Lower prospects could still become stars, but it is less likely. But would a few higher priced busts cause the big-market teams to hurt a bit more, thus causing them to back off some of the higher priced players? I guess none of us know.

  4. I think international players, from traditional baseball playing countries, should be part of the draft also.

    I'm for the draft, but it isn't fair (regardless of my personal opinion) for there to be two systems.

    It's a game played in the states (or under the auspices of American laws/rules), and why should a kid from Panama have more leeway then a kid from the Panhadle.

    One gets to be a free agent, and sign wih any team, while one has to be part of a draft system?

    I don't get that one. International players should have to apply for the draft just like everyone else, and go through the same set of rules.