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.

 

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.

 

Interleague Trading (1959)

Part 12 of our series on Important Moments in Team Building.  See introduction, and up-to-date list.

 

In December 1958 major league owners agreed to the first interleague trading period. Prior to this, teams could trade with clubs in the other league only if the players involved first cleared waivers in their own league, a non-starter for dealing any front-line talent. For all practical purposes, prior to 1959 a big league GM only had only seven teams he could trade with.

One of the instigators of the new rule was Frank “Trader” Lane, GM of the Cleveland Indians and famous for swapping players, often just for the thrill of the deal. The AL approved the new rule 7-1, the NL by a narrower 5-3 vote.

In a trade today, which league a player is moving to or from barely registers, but at the time it was revolutionary enough that the new trading window would only be open for a very short interval, November 21 to December 15. It’s important to remember that the two leagues were distinct and occasionally hostile entities. Though they recognized each other’s territorial rights and reserve lists, they were very competitive and parochial. In addition, the leagues were fighting off the upstart Continental League and beginning to jockey for possible expansion cities.   To many, agreeing to trade with the hated “other league” seemed heresy.

Those believing that an interleague trading window was bad for the game included baseball’s leadership: Commissioner Ford Frick, NL President Bill Giles, and AL President Joe Cronin. Giles, in particular, was afraid of losing some his league’s stars to weaker AL. Frick hoped to get the owners to rescind the rule, scheduled take effect after the 1959 season, at the meetings around the All-Star break. He was unsuccessful, and in November 1959 baseball’s GMs could finally start swapping with the other league. Over the first few years, though there were several significant interleague trades, none of baseball’s recognized superstars switched leagues.   That all changed during the 1965 interleague trading period.

FrankRobinsonCincinnati President Bill DeWitt wanted more pitching. His team had finished fourth in 1965, leading the league in runs but coming in ninth in ERA (in the 10 team NL). DeWitt felt he could bolster his squad by relinquishing his best player, right fielder Frank Robinson, in return for pitching. Robinson wasn’t only the Reds best player, he was one of the best in baseball. Over the previous five years in the highly competitive NL, he had finished in the top four in the MVP voting three times, winning the award in 1961. Nevertheless, DeWitt, believing it was better to trade a man a year too early than too late and that Robinson was “not a young 30”, began shopping his superstar.

The offers were not overwhelming. The Astros would not part with more than third baseman Bob Aspromonte and pitcher Dick Farrell; DeWitt wanted at least outfielder Jim Wynn and reliever Claude Raymond. He wanted pitcher Sam McDowell included in any trade with the Indians, but GM Gabe Paul was unwilling to surrender his young fireballer. According to DeWitt, the White Sox offered pitcher John Buzhardt and right fielder Floyd Robinson (no relation).

Orioles GM Lee MacPhail was also highly interested in Robinson. DeWitt initially wanted Milt Pappas, a 27-year-old pitcher who had gone 13-9 with a 2.60 ERA in 1965, and right fielder Curt Blefary. Baltimore was unwilling to surrender Blefary, but also unwilling to give up their pursuit of Robinson. MacPhail made a couple of lesser trades and soon had a couple of other pieces that would satisfy DeWitt: reliever Jack Baldschun and 22-year-old outfield prospect Dick Simpson.

Before he could finalize any trade, however, MacPhail accepted a new position with MLB as special assistant to the commissioner, and the Orioles promoted Harry Dalton to take over. As his final act as the Orioles GM, MacPhail attended the 1965 winter meetings where he struck the deal with DeWitt that would bring Robinson to Baltimore in exchange for Pappas, Baldschun and Simpson. “I told [Reds GM Bill] Dewitt that I was leaving and would have to clear it with Harry Dalton, the general manager-to-be.” Three days into his tenure, Dalton approved the deal.

The trade could not have turned out any more lopsided. For Baltimore, the arrival of Frank Robinson transformed the Orioles from a consistent contender into a great team. Robinson was a superb all-around player who led the Orioles to the world championship in 1966 while winning the Triple Crown and the MVP. Brooks Robinson, the Orioles top star at the time, enthusiastically welcomed his new teammate, and the rest of the team came on board. “You talk about teams that hoped they could win,” remembered pitcher Jim Palmer. “That was the Orioles before Frank. After he got here, we expected to win.”

In Cincinnati the Reds fell to seventh, Pappas struggled, and DeWitt’s legacy was forever tarnished. A solid baseball man, DeWitt had led the St Louis Browns to their only pennant in 1944, made a couple great trades for the Tigers around 1960, and several more with the Reds after taking over in Cincinnati at the end of that year, leading them to the pennant as well. His son, Bill DeWitt Jr., currently the owner of the Cardinals, has built one of baseball’s best organizations. DeWitt Sr., however, will always be remembered for the Frank Robinson trade.

The lopsidedness of the trade infuriated NL president Giles. What he had feared back in 1959 appeared to be coming to pass. In December 1966, MacPhail, now GM of the Yankees, negotiated a deal to acquire Maury Wills, the Dodger’ star shortstop. Giles stepped in and “used the weight of his office and also his personal powers of persuasion” to block this and potentially other trades of National League stars to the WillsAmerican League. “I heard the Yankees and the White Sox were especially eager to get Wills,” Giles said. “This was during the winter meetings. So I went to Buzzie [Bavasi] and asked him not to rush into such a deal, because he had until December 15 [the trading deadline] . . . As a matter of fact, [Yankees President] Mike Burke and Lee MacPhail could have killed me when they lost out on Wills. Burke told me, ‘Thanks for sabotaging our deal.’” Bavasi instead swapped Wills to the Pirates.

Players are traded between leagues without a second thought today. With eight-team leagues and no interleague trading, a GMs options were severely limited until 1959. Without new innovations, such as the farm system, or new sources of talent, such as through the elimination of the color line, baseball could become ossified. The 1950s AL, with their mostly embarrassingly slow integration of African Americans, highlights what can happen in this type of environment: the lessening of competition and the accompanying loss of fan interest. The introduction of interleague trading was only a small part of rectifying this condition, but it opened up a few more options for creative dealing.

The Farm System Goes Legit (1932)

Part 8 of our series on Important Moments in Team Building.  See introduction, and up-to-date list.

 

images (3)While Branch Rickey pioneered a rudimentary farm system for the St. Louis Cardinals during the 1920s, other teams remained skeptical that such a scheme was worth its huge cost. Was it really more productive and cost effective than buying fully-seasoned players from independent minor league clubs? One of the fundamental concerns for the naysayers was that these proto-farm systems never really got around the 40 man roster problem—at least legally. The 1921 major league agreement set the major league player control limit at 40 (an increase from 35), and limited teams to 25 active players during the bulk of the season—the limits still in effect today. With one major difference: If a franchise had a working agreement with a minor league team or owned it outright such that it asserted control over those players, they all counted against the 40 man roster, leaving no room for anyone else. In effect, a big league club couldn’t even control one farm team’s worth of players.

During the 1920s the independent minor leagues were relatively profitable and liked the existing structure. Their fans cared about the pennant races, and the owners could make extra money selling their stars to the majors. But like Rickey, many big-league team owners began to chafe and the uncertainty and cost of having to buy players from the minors and being limited to a reserve list of only 15 players beyond their 25-man roster. Today of course teams still have a 40 man roster yet also control all the rest of the players in their minor league system.

To get around this limitation the major leagues resorted to all sorts of subterfuges with friendly minor league owners. The most common dodge involved sending a player to a minor league team, technically surrendering control to that minor league team, but with a handshake agreement that you could buy him back when you wanted him. Another tactic—a favorite of Branch Rickey’s–was to have an option on any one player on a team; that is, not identify a specific player and try to have that count as just optioned roster spot. Though technically not legitimate, it was common practice and often not challenged.

With the advent of the Great Depression, the minor league owners were struggling to stay afloat and willing to surrender some of their independence for a cash infusion from major league owners. This led to a far-reaching discussion at the 1931 winter meetings, where the major leaguer owners debated liberating the roster rules while providing financial support to minor league franchises.

images (4)Yankee owner Jacob Ruppert bluntly asked Commissioner Landis, who was in charge of enforcing the player control rules: “I would like to ask a question: in the event of a club lending a man, or giving a club at least $3,000, and he gives you an option on his ballclub, or an option on one or two players, are those players counted in the player list?” “Yes, sir,” answered Landis. In other words, Landis was confirming that any player on a minor league team—even one that a club controlled or invested in—would occupy a roster spot if the major league team had his option.

Rickey offered his secret for getting around the issue: “I have for several years of taking an option on the club of one man, say $3,000; I have the option on this club to take one man at a certain time, for $3,000. I don’t believe there has ever been a time that any man who has taken an option on a club in those circumstances have ever lost the second man to anybody else, if he wanted the second man. I have never known of it in my experience.” This workaround was not approved by Landis, but apparently the Commissioner did not recognize the extent of some of these tactics and often failed to crackdown on these gentleman’s agreements (Landis had very little staff for investigating the many under-the-table deals).

Unlike Rickey, Ruppert accepted Landis’s answer: “Two years ago at Chattanooga, when the Nebraska State League wanted different clubs financed, at that time you remember we were going to finance a club, I believe they had eleven players on that club; and we were then to select from that club one, or as many players as we saw fit. And at that time, Judge, you ruled those eleven men on that club would count in our player limit.” After some additional discussion it became clear that many owners did not actually understand all the roster and option rules.

The result of all of this talk was that the owners voted that to allow teams to invest in teams in Class B, C, or D leagues, and that those players would not count against the 40 man roster. Under this new rule, a major league team could own a minor league team, have full rights to all its players, and none would count against the major league limits until the major league team actually designated a player for call-up. This rule was eventually implemented for the higher classification minor leagues as well.

It was this rule that really freed up major league teams to create more expansive farm systems in the years ahead. The top teams over the next several years would be those, like the Yankees, that aggressively gobbled up minor league teams or created working relationships to build top-notch farm systems. While there were only 18 MLB-owned or affiliated minor league teams in 1928, a decade later the number was approaching 200, over 10 per big league club.

The Anti-Trust Exemption (1922)

Part 6 of our series on Important Moments in Team Building.  See introduction, and up-to-date list.

 

In December 1915 the Federal League’s still solvent owners reached an agreement with the Major League owners to fold their competing league. In return, the Major League owners agreed to pay roughly $700,000, with FL’s owners receiving widely varying payouts. One problem with the deal came when the owners of Baltimore’s FL franchise, a large collection of Baltimore business and professional men, did not want to fold their club and disband the league—they wanted major league baseball in Baltimore.

Baltimore’s shareholders were angry with the other Federal League owners for agreeing to settle, and particularly angry with major league baseball’s owners for all the underhanded tactics used against the Federals in the battle for players. Rather than take the $50,000 they were offered as part of the settlement, Baltimore elected to file suit against their fellow FL owners and major league baseball.

PepperGeorgeWhartonAfter one misstep in court and some behind scenes negotiations that led nowhere, in September 1916 Baltimore filed suit charging major league baseball with numerous antitrust violations. Baltimore’s attorneys highlighted the myriad ways that Organized Baseball had interfered with the Federal League, noting in particular the reserve clause and the blacklist. Organized Baseball’s lead attorney George Wharton Pepper, later a US Senator from Pennsylvania, sloughed off his clients’ unseemly behavior and reliance on the reserve clause. Instead he argued that baseball was not subject to being regulated under Congress’s antitrust legislation because it was not actually commerce, and even if it was, it wasn’t interstate commerce.

Baltimore prevailed at the initial trial in 1919. The jury awarded the group $80,000 in damages; under the Sherman Antitrust Act provisions the award was trebled to $240,000 and Baltimore was also awarded legal costs of $24,000. In total, the Baltimore shareholders received a verdict for $264,000. In the months after the jury award, a compromise settlement seemed likely as both sides had strong reasons to consider one. At this point a monetary payment was the best Baltimore could hope for; a major league franchise for their city was simply not on the table. For Organized Baseball, a settlement offered the opportunity to pay a sum they could afford, admit no wrongdoing, and continue business as usual.

Nevertheless, no settlement was forthcoming and the case was eventually appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court where Organized Baseball won a complete victory. In a unanimous opinion written by Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and released on May 29, 1922, the Court ruled that the personal effort of baseball players was not trade or commerce, and, furthermore, that as baseball wasn’t fundamentally interstate in nature, it was not interstate commerce. Thus, Organized Baseball could not be in violation of the antitrust laws because it did not meet two conditions necessary to be subject to them.

HolmerOWJr
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

This opinion was not as strange at the time as it seems today. The definition of interstate commerce used at the time was much more restrictive than how it has evolved. In addition, the court was much more concerned about the line between federal and state authority.

So what did this decision mean for team building? We can get some insight into what a counterfactual might have looked like by examining other professional sports. Other sports leagues behaved as if they had an antitrust exemption as well until 1957, when the Supreme Court oddly ruled that the antitrust exemption was an anomaly given to only baseball, and the other major sports were in fact subject to antitrust laws.

Unfortunately for football, hockey and basketball players, making sports leagues subject to antitrust laws did not lead to more evenhanded player control rules. The leagues instituted other expedients to limit the impact of the Court’s ruling on player freedom. For example, the National Football League introduced the “Rozelle Rule,” named after Commissioner Pete Rozelle, which gave him the power to decide on compensation to a team losing a free agent from the team signing one. The fear of losing one’s top players or draft picks as compensation was a strong deterrent against signing players at the expiration of their contract. Not until the 1970s and 1980s did the other sports begin to have true free agency.

The players in these other sports benefited indirectly, however, from the emergence of rival leagues. The antitrust laws tempered many of the more blatant actions–such as the blacklist and inducing players to break contracts–used by Organized Baseball against the Federals. These laws clearly made a difference. Successful rival leagues emerged in all three other major professional sports. The existence of these rival leagues benefited the players as the competition for their services helped drive up salaries. Roster building took on its own challenges as owners and GMs addressed both possible defections from their own squad and the potential new source of talent by going after players in the competing league. With its antitrust exemption baseball was effectively immune from this competition. After the demise of the Federal League, no competing major league ever again took the field.

For more on the Federal League settlement see this book.