The Length of World Series Games

There has recently been a lot of discussion over the length of baseball games. But to really understand the problem or even decide if there is one, we first need to put it in context and examine what’s behind the increase. To that end, I have looked at changes in World Series games over the past 100 years.

In SABR’s 2000 Baseball Research Journal I highlighted changes in pitch counts based on data I found in the Spalding Guide for the 1919 World Series. I have since found pitch count data for the 1916 World Series in The Sporting News. With this information and wanting to include recent seasons (particularly given the recent shifts that seem to have occurred after the 2015 All-star game), I thought it might be interesting to compare averages over five year periods. Accordingly, I averaged the World Series data over the years ending in five through nine, including only those seasons where I found complete statistics (using baseball-reference.com). The most recent averages, therefore, cover 2015 to 2017, while 1915 to 1919 includes only 1916 and 1919.

Here’s the evolution of World Series game times over the past century:

TOG
1915/19 1:56
1975/79 2:41
1985/89 3:05
1995/99 3:18
2005/09 3:31
2015/19 3:34

A century ago a World Series game lasted right around two hours. By the late 1970s it had increased to slightly over two and a half hours. The late 1980s saw World Series games finally break the three hour mark, on average. Today a World Series game lasts just over three and a half hours. Thus, over the last 100 years, the average time of a World Series game has nearly doubled, increasing by 85%.

World Series data is not fully representative of the regular season in that teams obviously manage differently in a short, winner-take-all series than over the grind of a regular season. Today, regular season games average closer to three hours than three and a half, but comparing World Series games against each other offers an interesting and valid look at trends over time.

Defining the number of pitches in a game as the “clock,” two possible explanations exist for the increase in game times: more pitches per game and/or fewer pitches per minute. Let’s look at the number of pitches per game first.

Pit/G/Tm
1915/19 116
1975/79 130
1985/89 141
1995/99 149
2005/09 147
2015/19 145

The number of pitches per game has clearly surged from 100 years ago. From the teens of the twentieth century through the late 1990s, the number of pitches per game increased by around 30—roughly 25%—and has held relatively steady since. As an aside, this has interesting connotations when comparing pitcher workloads over time. Assuming workload is closely tied to pitches per game, Corey Kluber or Max Scherzer tossing 7 1/3 innings today is equivalent to a complete game out of Walter Johnson or Grover Cleveland Alexander a century ago.

At a macro level, there are only two ways for the number of pitches per game to rise: an increase in the number of batters faced per game and/or an increase in the number of pitches per batter. In fact, as the table below makes clear, both have occurred. As the run scoring environment jumped at the end of the Deadball Era around 1920, a pitcher would have to face more batters to get his three outs in an inning. More recently, however, over the past 20 years as a smaller percentage of runs are accounted for by sequentially generated offence of multiple hits and more through home runs, the number of batters faced per game has come back down.

While the increase in BFP per game is meaningful, most of the increase in pitches per game can be attributed to an increase in pitches per batter. Pitchers have been going deeper into counts with each hitter, highlighted by the recent increase in strikeouts.

BFP/G BB/BFP SO/BFP BB&SO/BFP
1915/19 36.4 7.4% 9.9% 17.4%
1975/79 37.9 8.1% 14.0% 22.0%
1985/89 38.8 8.6% 17.1% 25.7%
1995/99 39.2 11.5% 17.0% 28.5%
2005/09 38.6 9.4% 20.3% 29.8%
2015/19 37.4 8.1% 22.5% 30.6%

In the World Series over the last three years, just over 30% of each plate appearance ended in a walk or a strikeout. Clearly, the average plate appearance ends deeper in the count today than it did thirty years ago and much later than it did a century ago.

The 25% increase in pitches per game—from both the increase in BFP per game and the number of pitches per batter—does not fully account for the fact that game times have increased by 85%. The second possibility, pitches per minute, shows an even more dramatic shift, highlighted in the table below.

Pit/Min
1915/19 2.01
1975/79 1.62
1985/89 1.52
1995/99 1.51
2005/09 1.40
2015/19 1.36

Over the last century there has been a significant and steady decrease in the number of pitches per minute during a World Series game. One hundred years ago there were roughly two pitches per minute when averaged over the length of a game. Today this has fallen to 1.36.

In sum, game lengths have expanded as pitchers have gone deeper into counts and the time between pitches and innings has risen. Quantifying these causes helps provide a framework into how we might roll back game lengths without affecting their watchability or integrity. Reducing the number of pitches per game is likely a much more difficult or intrusive challenge than reducing the time between pitches. Any change to the number of strikeouts and walks will require a fundamental change to the way the batter/pitcher matchup is now approached by each. The huge number of strikeouts has been receiving a large amount of scrutiny recently due to the negative aesthetic of pitches not being put in play. Any rule change that transforms the current approach and leads to a decrease in strikeouts in favor of balls being put in play will likely also decrease the times of games, at least at the margins.

My sense is that there is more low hanging fruit on the number of pitches per minute front. Limiting mound visits this year was one relatively easy action that should be having at least a marginal impact. There are many other possibilities that have been floated as well, such as a pitch clock, limiting time between innings, and regulating the batter’s ability to step in out of the batter’s box, as well as more radical ideas.

A century ago a fan’s time commitment for a World Series game resembled what now might be required for a college basketball game. A World Series game today requires a time commitment closer to a college football game. While that might be acceptable for a short, highly intense series, having a 162 game season with game lengths approaching the time required to play out the spectacle of a college football Saturday—without the requisite increase in on-field action—is a recipe for a shrinking interest in our national game.

 

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The Latest CBA (2016)

Part 25 of our series on Important Moments in Team Building.  See introduction, and up-to-date list.

 

TroutTeam building today has become depressingly homogenized. Front offices seem to share much the same philosophies of player valuation, and their approach to team building, coupled with the terms of the current CBA, agreed to in December 2016, continued the pattern from the previous one of closing off many of the avenues used by teams to differentiate themselves. Four CBA items in particular have led to this state of affairs.

  1. Teams are now capped at what they can spend on international amateur players at a surprisingly low amount. Prior to this latest CBA a rebuilding club could emphasize international signings in a particular year, though they would then be limited in the next signing periods. In the 2016 signing period, for example, the Padres paid $35 million in bonuses to roughly 40 international amateur prospects. This ended up costing over $70 million because of the 100% tax for going so far over the spending guidelines and limited their bonuses during next two signing periods to just $300,000. Nevertheless, the Padres found a way concentrate all their resources into one year and land much more talent than they would have otherwise been able to secure. The current CBA closed this “loophole,” instituting a hard cap at $5.75 million (less for larger market teams).
  2. The hard cap covering the amateur draft of American, Canadian, and Puerto Rican players remained in place in this CBA. Teams are allocated a pool of money based on where their picks fall in the draft, and they are prohibited from exceeding this amount. Teams can still creatively try to sign a high pick at below his “slot value” so as to spend more to try and sign a later pick, but this is generally at the margins. The days of teams aggressively going after higher-risk signings with larger bonuses are effectively over—such as the Pirates outspending everyone else from 2007 to 2011 as they tried to rebuild their talent level.
  3. The luxury tax (technically termed the “competitive balance tax”) has also become more onerous. The penalties for exceeding the payroll threshold, particularly by large amounts over multiple consecutive years, are now more punitive, though the potential exposure has occasionally been overstressed this offseason. The luxury tax threshold for 2018 is $197 million. As the maximum exposure, if a team exceeds the threshold for three consecutive years and is at least $40 million over, their tax will be 95% on that portion above $40 million over (50% on the portion $0 – $20 million over and 62% for that portion $20 to $40 million over). A new penalty comes on line this year: any team that is $40 million over the threshold also sees its highest draft choice drop 10 positions (with the first six overall slots protected). Though these are not necessarily cost prohibitive amounts for the top revenue teams, much has been made of the Yankees and Dodgers, typically the two highest payroll teams, showing renewed concern this offseason about getting below the threshold so as to reset their consecutive year count. Neither team was as active in the free agency market as it often is.
  4. Revenue sharing has apparently begun to reach a point where it affects teams’ internal calculus on how competitive they need to be. With essentially the same overall revenue sharing percentage from the previous CBA, plus increasing revenues from national sources such as MLBAM and merchandizing, smaller market teams are receiving significant additional revenues in addition to their local sources.

CorreaWith the recent World Series championships of the Cubs and Astros, fans are also more tolerant of losing seasons if they believe in the front office. Both teams essentially tore themselves down to the studs and then rebuilt from scratch with young players acquired in trades or as high draft picks. That said, this is extremely difficult to execute on command.   And it is even harder today as more teams are apparently trying to execute this strategy simultaneously and the prospects available in return for veterans may be diminishing. The higher revenue sharing simply reduces the penalty for failure.

One of the maxims commonly heard today is that teams do not want to be in the middle of the pack; they are either competing to win championships or they are willing to sacrifice the present while hoping to rebuild with high draft picks. This binary approach may not be particularly valid right now, especially with the hard caps on the draft and international signings. Obviously, it is nice to be really good, but the idea that rebuilding from scratch is better than from a middle position is not convincing. Baseball is not like the NBA where a high draft pick can make a material difference quickly, and there is much less certainty over the ultimate value of a pick as well. Moreover, the amount of talent a 65-win team needs to add is enormous and fraught with risk as counted on players never develop as anticipated.

Moreover, there is a huge range of possible outcomes for any team in any given year. A team that looks like an 83-win team at the beginning of the year could win anywhere between 75 and 90 games just by the vagaries of fate: injuries, slumps, unforeseen player development, etc. Every year it seems we are surprised by how different the final standings are from the preseason predictions. Giving up on a middle of the pack team and accepting a number of losing seasons in the hope that it can be rebuilt into a contender with some slightly higher draft picks seems both unlikely and unnecessary. Instead, there seems to be a real opportunity to move in the opposite direction—witness the Brewers for 2018–make a few positive moves and give the team a legitimate shot at the postseason.

 

The Theo Epstein Effect

Part 24 of our series on Important Moments in Team Building.  See introduction, and up-to-date list.

 

Perhaps Theo Epstein saved Moneyball. Because the book claimed mainstream front offices and traditional scouts were either unaware of or ignoring important realities—and did so in a highly polemic manner–many within baseball were dismissive and hoped the surprisingly popular reception and ensuing public debate would just fade away. And in fact it could have. The A’s under GM Billy Beane, the central character of the book, won over 100 games in each of the two years before the book’s release in 2003. But in 2004 and 2005, though still moderately successful, Oakland failed to make the playoffs. The traditionalists could have pointed to this backsliding as evidence that Oakland’s success was simply an aberration due to a trio of top starting pitchers and had nothing to do with Beane’s innovative approach.

theo-epsteinAnother team, however, was about to become the new face of analytics. Boston Red Sox principal owner John Henry made a fortune as a commodities trader by taking the emotional element out of trading decisions, and he recognized a similar opportunity to bring a more data-driven approach to baseball. Henry and CEO Larry Lucchino initially tried to hire Beane, but the GM eventually decided to remain in Oakland. After this rebuff, the two promoted 28-year-old Theo Epstein, a young Yale graduate who had come with Lucchino from San Diego, to general manager. For good measure they engaged Bill James, the godfather of the sabermetrics movement, as a consultant.

Epstein’s hire was extremely risky. If the team backslid the owners would be ridiculed both for their new-fangled embrace of analytics and the hiring of a 28-year-old to run this storied franchise. Epstein and the Red Sox, however, were not only successful, but succeeded beyond what anyone could have expected. Not only did the team win the World Series in 2004 for the first time since 1918, they repeated three years later. The Red Sox victories validated to nearly all observers the value of incorporating analytics into baseball operations. The dichotomy was never as stark as Moneyball author Michael Lewis drew it, but clearly there were valuable insights into team building that could be learned by delving into over 100 years of baseball data.

But the Moneyball approach was not the only lesson teams seemed to have learned. Everyone now wanted their own Theo Epstein, and the leadership of major league front offices has changed dramatically over the 15 years since his hiring. Acknowledging that all front offices in 2003 were run by men, and nearly all white men at that, within that group there was a surprising diversity of experience and background. A number had played major league baseball, others peaked in the minors, some only played in college, and a couple not at all. Some broke in through scouting, others through coaching, a few though other departments, and some after starting out in other professions. As to schooling, the GMs of 2002 came from a widely diverse group of colleges, many of which would not have been categorized as exclusive. Beane was a thoughtful ex-player who had gone to UC – San Diego during his offseasons; Epstein was a talented, energetic young man from an Ivy League school. As it turned out, Epstein became the ideal for the future of front offices, not Beane.

In 2003 only two other teams were led by Ivy League graduates. The Cleveland Indians, perhaps the other most analytically inclined team at the time, and the Baltimore Orioles. Baltimore’s case is a little misleading, however, as they had a bizarre dual-headed structure of two ex-major league pitchers, Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan, running the front office; Beattie had gone to Dartmouth. Regardless of background, men generally had an opportunity prove their worth and move up the ladder—often jumping back and forth between organizations. For example, Gerry Hunsicker, the Astros GM who won the division four times and finished second four times from 1996 to 2004, starred at St. Joseph’s University and then went to Florida International University for a master’s in education where he was an assistant coach for the baseball team. He didn’t get into professional baseball until 1978, six years after graduating from St. Joes, when he joined the Astros, before moving to the Mets. He was 46 when named Houston’s GM.

2016-11-03T052932Z_1003068188_NOCID_RTRMADP_3_MLB-WORLD-SERIES-CHICAGO-CUBS-AT-CLEVELAND-INDIANSToday, of the 30 top baseball operations executives (identified somewhat subjectively), 13 now have degrees from Ivy League schools, while several others are from elite colleges like Amherst and Georgetown. Only two, Beane (a leftover from the pre-Epstein revolution) and Seattle’s Jerry Dipoto, played major league baseball.  Plus, several of the GMs that serve in organizations where they are not the senior baseball executive are themselves Ivy League grads. In another mirroring of the Epstein hire, 17 of the 30 were named to their position at age 40 or under. The past two seasons have only reinforced this model, as teams run by Epstein and other youngish front office execs have captured the four pennants. Baseball organizations are currently mainly run by very smart young men from elite schools with little professional baseball playing experience. This trend will likely continue for many years—until someone tries a new route, is successful, and another model for leading front offices emerges.

 

 

“Moneyball” (2003)

Part 23 of our series on Important Moments in Team Building.  See introduction, and up-to-date list.

 

51AEIBfJvuL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_In the spring of 2003 author Michael Lewis created a sensation in the baseball community with the release of Moneyball, a book that related the story of how Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane kept his undercapitalized team competitive. A one-time financial trader turned writer who had unprecedented access to Beane’s activities, Lewis identified two related causes for the A’s success: Beane understood the concept of market inefficiencies and the analogous benefit of finding undervalued players; and Beane believed that these players could be better identified using statistical and analytical techniques than by traditional scouting methods.

The second issue caused a fair bit of controversy. Lewis is a terrific writer and much of the charm of his book came from the dichotomy he drew between the old-school scouts and the new-fangled statistical analysts. As Lewis put it, “Billy had his own idea about where to find future major league baseball players: inside [assistant general manager] Paul DePodesta’s computer. He flirted with the idea of firing all the scouts and just drafting kids straight from Paul’s laptop.” The two most prominent statistical insights of the A’s, as highlighted by Lewis, were that most organizations undervalued hitters with a high on-base-percentage who didn’t otherwise stand out, and that teams undervalued college players when compared to high school players in the amateur draft.

Baseball statistical analysis had been evolving and developing for roughly 50 years and had begun to find an audience with the writings of Bill James starting in the late 1970s, but this audience mainly consisted of independent researchers and a particular type of fan. Sabermetrics, a word coined by James, did not prescribe a set of formulas and answers as its critics might have thought. It is a process, a philosophy that teams should make decisions based on evidence and data. This was not a new idea – scouts had been using radar guns and stopwatches for decades rather than merely trusting their eyes – but sabermetrics suggested that baseball’s vast statistical record could tell a team which players were actually helping the team score or prevent runs, which strategies would increase the team’s chances of winning, which minor leaguers were likely to be good major leaguers, and more. Much more, in fact.

By the late 1990s sabermetrics had begun to creep into some of the more progressive baseball front offices. For example, Rockies general manager Dan O’Dowd and major league administrator (and current Twins GM) Thad Levine were making sophisticated mathematical evaluations of the effects of their high-altitude Coors Field in 1999. But most teams, before the publication of Moneyball, kept their analytical efforts out of the public eye. Not surprisingly, Lewis’s portrayal of a general manager who seemed to be rejecting 100 years of supposedly hide-bound traditionalist scouting in favor of novel statistical methods created a rift between the proponents of traditional scouting and statistical analysis.

Beyond player evaluation, statistical analysis was and is being used to evaluate in-game situations. The mountains of data that have recently become available allowed comprehensive analysis of on-field events like batter-pitcher matchups, strategic decisions such as bunting, and defensive positioning. As the front offices in some of the more statistically oriented organizations began to better understand these relationships, a natural tendency developed to impose some of this knowledge on the manager. Not surprisingly, this reset the line that had been observed between the front office and the field staff for nearly a century.

“You’re the manager and you’re going to get no interference or second-guessing from me,” Yankees general manager Ed Barrow told manager Miller Huggins in the 1920s. “Your job is to win, and my job is to see that you have the players to win with.”

Analytics has changed this relationship; the front office now had information that might contradict what a manager ordinarily would want to do. As one writer recently observed, overstating a little, “Teams don’t want a seasoned, master tactician anymore so much as they want a manager with a small ego and an open mind. At the root of this change is the proliferation of statistical analysis, which can make decisions for managers if they’re willing to embrace it.” Lewis described Beane’s preferred approach in Moneyball: “Beane ran the whole show. He wasn’t just making the trades and supervising scouts and getting his name in the papers and whatever else a GM did. He was deciding whether to bunt or steal; who played and who sat; who hit in which spot in the lineup; how the bullpen was used; even the manager’s subtle psychological tactics.”

billy-beaneThe debate in the immediate aftermath of the book was between those who supported the traditional scouting model and those who thought, as Beane did in Lewis’s book, that sabermetrics could dramatically reduce the need for scouts. In fact, much of the acrimony was due to Lewis’s overstated caricaturization of scouts’ limitations. His unflattering portrayal of traditional scouts poisoned even his more compelling statistical arguments and encouraged an unnecessary choosing of sides. The smartest and most successful teams, as it turned out, grew their analytics staff to provide information that could enhance and augment what their scouts were telling them, and that, in the ideal environment, the scouts and analytics staffs could work together and learn from each other. On the field, even in the most analytically focused organizations, managers have remained critical to success given all the complexities in leading 25 men.

Back in 2003 Lewis thought that Beane’s advantage would eventually dissipate because other teams were going to start mimicking his strategies. “He [Beane] may feel pretty happy with himself now, because his team reflects inefficiencies exploited in the past, and looks pretty damned good. He might even get through this whole year without having to use the trade deadline, one of his favorite things. But two, three years down the road, he has problems.”

Beane thinks we have finally reached that point, though it took longer than two or three years. “Eventually, it was going to happen,” Beane recently acknowledged. “The big teams are run very wisely now. There are really smart guys who have capital. There’s no soft spots. They’re smart guys, and they’re surrounded by smart guys. It’s a very intelligent industry right now. In fact, one of the most intelligent [of any industry] … The big teams look like they’re going to be good for a long time.”

 

Collusion and Tim Raines

Part 21 of our series on Important Moments in Team Building.  See introduction, and up-to-date list.

 

RainesTimTim Raines may not have been the best player in NL in 1986, but he was certainly among the top five. He led the NL in batting and OBP, stole 70 bases, and had his fourth consecutive top 12 finish in the MVP balloting. After the season he became a free agent, and at only 27 years old, he should have been near the top of every team’s list. Instead, he and agent Tom Reich heard practically nothing.

The previous offseason the free agent market had been suspiciously slow. After receiving no free agent offers, Kirk Gibson, Carlton Fisk, Donnie Moore and others had accepted much less money than they had hoped for and reluctantly returned to their old teams. There was some hope among the players and their agents that the slow offseason was simply an aberration and that the stronger 1986 class, including Raines, Jack Morris, Andre Dawson, Lance Parrish, and Bob Horner, would loosen the owners’ purse strings. It did not.

The Expos offered a three-year $4.8 million contract, a raise of about $100,000 per year. Reich initially pushed for a three-year contract at $2 million per year; once he realized the market was stagnant he lowered his asking price to $1.8 mil per year. And then he was forced to continue lowering it. Houston, Seattle, and Atlanta showed some nominal interest, but none made a meaningful offer. Only San Diego displayed any real interest, but at less than the Expos were offering.

On January 8, Raines had a big decision to make. If he didn’t re-sign with the Expos by this date, he couldn’t sign with them until May 1. He would have to trust that the system wasn’t completely rigged, and that he would be able to come to terms with another team. Raines and seven other free agents—Andre Dawson, Rich Gedman, Ron Guidry, Bob Horner, Lance Parrish, Doyle Alexander, and Bob Boone—elected not to take this chance, to take a chance with the other 25 clubs.

Once again only San Diego showed any real interest in Raines, but they would go no higher than a two-year contract at $1.1 million per year, well below the Expos. According to Raines, the Padres declined his desperation proposal of one year at $1.3 million plus incentives. On May 1, having lost his gamble, he went back to the Expos for roughly what they offered originally: $5 million total for three years.

Parrish
Lance Parrish

In the end, of the eight free agents that went past the deadline, only two switched major league teams (Horner went to Japan); the others returned to their original teams at well below market prices. Dawson offered the Cubs a blank contract and told them to fill in whatever they wanted. They filled it in for $500,000 plus $200,000 in incentives, well below what a veteran of Dawson’s ability and stature would typically be paid. Parrish left the Tigers for the Phillies at roughly the same pay he had earned in 1986. Even with no raise, the Phillies were reportedly subjected to calls from Detroit’s GM Jim Campbell, AL President Bobby Brown and owners Bud Selig and Jerry Reinsdorf to consider what they were doing.

In fact, the owners were acting in violation of their collective bargaining agreement with the players, which stated: “Players shall not act in concert with other Players and Clubs shall not act in concert with other Clubs.” Baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth, the mastermind behind this illegal conspiracy, had struck a chord with the owners in late 1985 when, as John Helyar wrote, he told them: “You, singular, are responsible for your own downfall, and you are so dumb that you are paying all kinds of money to players that aren’t playing so you’re losing money and don’t have money to play players that are playing, please don’t throw stones at anybody. It’s your fault, Mr. So and So, don’t rant and rave. Nobody is forcing you to do anything. It is your own stupidity.” He followed this up a week later at the general managers meeting, advising the attendees that if they want to sign a free agent, he wanted them to justify the deal economically.

Under this new banner of “fiscal responsibility”, the owners began working collectively to make sure salaries stayed in line. As Raines’s ordeal highlighted, in this they were successful. One study leaked to the Associated Press looked at players with six or more years of service who signed new contracts. Salaries increased 74% before the 1981 season, 50% for 1982, and 43% for 1983, 9% for 1984, and 7% for 1985. Once collusion kicked in, however, salaries for this subset began to plummet. In 1986 salaries dropped 18% and the next year 22%.

From a team building perspective, the biggest problem was strong deference given to a player’s current team. If a team made it known that they wanted to re-sign a player, this was code to the other teams to lay off. Even if the new salary was not a material increase from his previous salary—as in  the cases of Parrish and Raines—teams generally shied away from free agents still wanted by their current club. If it had just been about the money, Cubs GM Dallas Green would not have been so defensive about signing Dawson in one of the greatest bargains in baseball history.

The players, their agents, and the union quickly recognized what the owners were secretly up to, and the union filed a grievance for the 1985 free agent class, later followed by grievances on behalf of the 1986, and 1987 classes. After hours of testimony, 31 interviews, and thousands of pages of transcripts, in September 1987 the arbitrator ruled in favor of the players in the 1985 free agent class. Roughly a year later, an arbitrator similarly decided in favor of the players for the 1986 class. Finally, in October 1990, while waiting for the verdict on the 1987 class the owners and players agreed to a $280 million damages settlement for all three cases. Additionally, several players who had gone through the process in these years were given a fresh opportunity at free agency.

With the advent of free agency to the game in 1976, the reserve clause no long applied to players with six years experience.  But for these three years—1985 through 1987—the owners essentially acted to restore the reserve clause for these players. GMs were restrained from working to improve their clubs and, as a result, pennant races were artificially constrained and influenced. The lack of player movement during this three-year window underlined how much team building had changed with the coming of free agency.

 

Pat Gillick and the Rule 5 Draft (1977)

Part 19 of our series on Important Moments in Team Building.  See introduction, and up-to-date list.

 

Building an expansion team is difficult. The talent available from other teams in the expansion draft rarely consists of players one can build around or will still be valuable once the team eventually contends for the playoffs. When Pat Gillick took over as GM of the Blue Jays after their inaugural season in the fall of 1977 he began to implement his “many rivers” approach to finding ballplayers: Look everywhere.

Most famously he teamed up with his old friend, scout Epy Guerrero, and began building a presence in the Dominican Republic, well ahead of other organizations, excepting perhaps the Dodgers.

UpshawGillick also began to exploit another little-used “river” in December 1977 when he selected first baseman Willie Upshaw, whom he and Guerrero knew from the Yankees organization, in the Rule 5 draft. A holdover from the early days of organized baseball (under slightly changing guidelines and sections in the rulebook), the Rule 5 draft was designed to prevent players from being buried in the minors. Teams could control any player in their organization who was younger than 19 on June 4 of their signing year for four years and those who were 19 or older for three years. Practically, this translated to high school and college signees respectively.   After this control period, players had to be placed onto the team’s 40-man roster or be exposed to the Rule 5 draft. Held in December, this draft allows teams to claim veteran minor leaguers unprotected on their club’s 40-man roster. (As of the 2007 the control period was increased by one year to five years for prep players and four years for the college players.) The cost of each draftee was $25,000 (the price jumped to $50,000 in 1985 and is $100,000 today).

The catch is that the selecting team has to keep the player on its major league 25-man roster for the entire upcoming season or return the player to his previous club for half the original drafting price. As most of the available players were not ready to jump to the major leagues, a club would often have to waste a roster spot for a full season if it wished to keep the player. Accordingly, only about ten to fifteen players a year were usually selected in the Rule 5 draft. But if a team could find a player of value, the price was cheap compared with trying to develop a major league ballplayer.

download (16)Gillick recognized that the young Blue Jays were still in the talent accumulation stage and while an unprotected player may not fit into their team’s plans, they might still be good enough to play for the Blue Jays. He and his scouts focused their energies on this draft much more than the other clubs. Over the next several years Gillick mastered the Rule 5 draft to an uncanny degree. In addition to Upshaw he uncovered a number of additional valuable contributors, including OF George Bell (1987 MVP), SS/2B Manny Lee, P Jim Gott, and 3B Kelly Gruber.

Bobby Cox, who managed the 1985 team to its first division title, deserves special credit for this championship because he was effectively limited to just 23 roster spots. Gillick saddled Cox with two Rule 5 players, Manny Lee and Lou Thornton, and neither were yet ready for the majors. During the years that Toronto was still uncompetitive the burden of carrying these players seemed a fair tradeoff. One of the many things Gillick appreciated about Cox was that his manager bought into the overall program, even when it made his job a little harder.

Gillick’s success in the mostly overlooked Rule 5 draft of veteran minor leaguers was legendary; no one else came close to his success, and he forced teams to be much smarter about protecting their assets from this draft. Moreover, in no small part due to the success of Gillick in using this approach to uncover talent, baseball changed its rules. In 1985 the cost of a drafted player was increased, as noted above, to $50,000. Moreover, the majors and minors agreed to increase the control period from three to four years. Gillick understood better than just about anyone the need to look for talent anywhere and everywhere.

Binding Salary Arbitration (1973)

Part 16 of our series on Important Moments in Team Building.  See introduction, and up-to-date list.

 

In the 1968 collective bargaining agreement the players union had achieved grievance arbitration, with the commissioner acting as sole arbiter. While this was an important gain, and Commissioner Eckert had ruled in their favor on many issues, an experienced labor negotiator like players’ union leader Marvin Miller understood the importance of getting impartial grievance arbitration into the agreement with the owners.

“[An impartial arbitrator] is the key thing in any labor negotiation,” commented sportswriter Leonard Koppett, “because that’s the only weapon the union has. If you don’t have that, you don’t have anything.” Without a third-party, impartial arbitrator there was no way for players to get a fair hearing. Owners had been acting with impunity, unencumbered by the limitations of the antitrust statutes, since they introduced the reserve clause in 1879.

download (15)In negotiating the second CBA agreement in early 1970 Miller hoped to wedge the door open for binding arbitration for player-owner grievances. The owners point person in the negotiation was Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, a priggish attorney who nevertheless loved baseball and was particularly concerned with the commissioner’s mandate to uphold the integrity of the game. Unfortunately for the owners, he also was a neophyte when it came to labor negotiations and didn’t really understand the long-term implications of some of Miller’s approaches. As for grievance arbitration, as long as it didn’t impinge on his ability to rule on integrity issues, he had no real objections.   So, among other small but real gains, in the second CBA approved on May 23, an outside arbitrator would now be used for all grievances not involving integrity of the game, an achievement Miller called the “Association’s most important victory,” to that point.

As has been noted in several previous posts in this series, under the existence of the reserve clause leverage in salary negotiations was blatantly skewed to the owners. Players had no alternative but to sign with whatever team owned their rights if they wanted to play baseball. With the principal of arbitration in place, Miller and the union next pressed for binding salary arbitration. Under Miller’s proposal, if the two sides could not agree to a salary, the dispute would go to a neutral arbitrator. Arbitration, with its defined criteria for the arbitrator, would force the clubs to play fair and would minimize the inequities among them.

The union successfully pushed through binding salary arbitration in the third CBA, concluded on February 25, 1973. Players with at least two years’ service time would have the right to have their salary dispute heard by a neutral arbitrator. That the newly agreed upon arbitration process was structured as “final-offer” arbitration also benefited the players. In final-offer arbitration, now commonly known as baseball-style arbitration, each side presents its salary request and the arbitrator must pick between them. He only has those two options; he can’t split the difference or pick some third amount. This helped force both sides to be reasonable and try to negotiate in advance—as opposed to taking an extreme position and hoping the arbitrator would split the difference. It also placed the owners in a position of having to negotiate in good faith.

136293Minnesota hurler Dick Woodson became the first player to have his salary arbitration case heard on February 11, 1974. Woodson asked for $29,000; the Twins offered $23,000. Over an 11 day period, 29 arbitration cases were heard before neutral arbitrators. Another 24 cases were filed but settled before the hearing, an additional benefit of final-offer arbitration. Woodson won his case, but overall the owners prevailed in 16 of the 29 arbitrated cases. Nevertheless, the players were clearly benefiting: even with their losses, 23 of the 29 received raises. Moreover, as Miller had grasped, arbitration forced notoriously tightfisted owners such as Charley Finley to pay competitive wages, increasing the salary scale for everyone. More than one-third of the hearings (10) were for Oakland A’s; nine received raises, some significant.

For the first time in many years, teams would have to manage around some payroll uncertainty when building their roster for the upcoming season. The final payroll would not be known until all the arbitration decisions were rendered. Team building was about to enter a new era in which creating and managing payroll flexibility would become a significant factor. And a couple years later, its importance would snowball.