Thursday, February 21, 2008

Schilling, Clemens, and steroids

I'm hardly the first to say that we're only beginning to understand what the steroids era has done to player evaluation in baseball. One of the most underappreciated elements of the steroids controversy, it seems to me, is that the impact of steroids seems to have been greatest at the same time that new methods of statistical evaluation were gaining influence. I keep remembering moments that have taken on new meaning in retrospect: an argument with a friend, for instance, about whether Paul LoDuca could hit Major League pitching. The stats said no; the news out of spring training said yes. The statistical models were wrong. My friend won the argument, but now we know that LoDuca had juiced himself out of the statistical models. Again and again, I was bewildered by the ability of players such as LoDuca to avoid the fates marked out for them by comparable predecessors.

Similarly, when I saw Curt Schilling's much-publicized reaction to the Mitchell Report naming Roger Clemens, I remembered another moment. When Dan Duquette made his notorious remark that Clemens was in the "twilight of his career" and opted not to re-sign Clemens for the Red Sox after the 1996 season, I was living in Philadelphia and participating regularly in an email group of hundreds of Phillies fans. The Clemens situation arose for discussion on the group. I supported Duquette's position: Clemens' struggles and age indicated that he wasn't worth the money he was asking.

Taking the other side and defending Clemens was the group's most famous member: Curt Schilling, then a Phillie, who thus became the most notable person who has condescended to argue with me. Roger had plenty left in that tank, said Curt, citing Clemens's famously maniacal training regimen. It wasn't hard to see what Schilling had at stake in the debate, as a power pitcher thinking of his own value and future.

Obviously, Dan Duquette would have done much better by himself and the Red Sox if he had agreed with Schilling and not with me. And Schiling's identification with and support of Clemens at the time helps explain his investment in the findings of the Mitchell report now. Schilling had invested a lot of faith in Clemens in 1996.

So how will steroids continue to make us rethink our knowledge of the past? Yes, the issue clouds the statistical achievements of Clemens, Bonds, LoDuca, and the rest. But consider how deep the implications of this story are: Duquette's decision was a major reason for his downfall in Boston and a key test case pitting statheads like Duquette and me against the legions of anti-statheads who held almost undisputed sway in those pre-Moneyball days. If Clemens responded to the Duquette "twilight" comment by getting juiced, as has been alleged, and thus changed the shape of his career, was Duquette's tenure as GM of the Red Sox another casualty of the steroid era? And how fundamentally was the process of talent evaluation altered as a result?

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Why the Twins got so little for Johan Santana

Say I call you up tonight and offer you a wonderful car--a loaded, new BMW that was once owned by Tom Hanks, your family's favorite movie star. And then I say that what I'm really offering you is the chance to buy that car from a dealer. Oh, and that I've already told your family that you're giving them that exact car for Christmas. And I told the dealer how much you all adore Tom Hanks. Think how much stuff you'd want to give me in return for the favor I've done you.

That's why the Twins got such a crappy package for Johan Santana.

On his podcast last week, Bill Simmons (this blog's eponymous Sports Guy) proposed that the Minnesota Twins' general manager had done so poorly in trading Johan Santana that he should be fired. This got me thinking about the kinds of value that were involved in the Santana trade, and my thoughts helped me understand how the Twins might have received so little in return for such a terrific player.

Every sports analyst I've heard is talking about the Santana trade as a gift to the Mets, a deal in which the Twins received 60 or 40 or even a very few pennies on the dollar. This view comes from what seems like common sense: the Twins traded one of baseball's best players and received nobody who appears likely to become anywhere close to as good as Santana. I accept that assessment of the quality of the players involved.

But this is the crucial fact of the trade: the Mets didn't exactly trade for Santana. They traded for a brief window of time in which they could negotiate a contract that would persuade Santana to waive his no-trade clause. The negotiations did not involve the competitive bidding of free agency, but the lack of competing bids arguably made the Mets' position weaker: they could not withdraw gracefully after being outbid, as they could after making an offer to a free agent. Instead, they faced a situation in which every observer I know of thought they absolutely had to sign Santana to consummate the deal and thereby avoid the insupportably embarrassing circumstance of appearing to steal Santana from the Twins and then give him back.

In other words, the trade gave Santana overwhelming strength in the negotiation, to the extent that he could easily force the Mets to pay as much or more than Santana would have received as a free agent.

And reader, the right to pay market value or more for a commodity is simply not worth very much. Santana now has a gargantuan contract; he may be the best pitcher in baseball, but he is now also the highest-paid pitcher by a fair margin. Given legitimate questions about his health and his poor performance at the end of last season, Santana does indeed seem to have benefited from his extraordinary leverage in negotiating with the Mets.

The Mets, therefore, traded four prospects of some value in order to overpay a player. The Twins received not only the prospects but many millions of dollars. They would have paid Santana more than $13 million in 2008; his replacement will make vastly less, and the lost ticket revenue will--unfortunately--be balanced by the income the Twins will receive from the perversely structured revenue sharing agreement. I'll guess that the total savings comes to about $8 million, but I welcome refinement of the estimate.

Therefore, instead of thinking about the quality of the players alone, we can think instead of the stuff each team actually received.

The Mets received a terrific player but one with (at least) a fully valued contract.

The Twins received four prospects and maybe eight million bucks.

The only reason for a team to give up substantial value for Santana would have been defensive: a team could reason that Santana's value was literally incomparable because he so thoroughly outclassed players available by trade or free agency, so even above-market compensation made sense if it meant blocking anyone else from gaining a uniquely desirable asset. This is the Yankees-Red Sox scenario, in which either time could have overpaid to block the other from acquiring Santana--just as both were willing to overpay for the rights to negotiate with Daisuke Matsuzaka. Matsuzaka's case was, in fact, much more closely analogous to Santana's in economic terms than more apparently similar trades such as that of Erik Bedard, who had no negotiating power with his new team.

If the Yankees and Red Sox did not view Santana as a singularly market-altering property, or if each team simply realized that the other was not seriously pursuing Santana, the Twins were left with almost no trade leverage. Their weakness seems surprising given Santana's raw value as a player, but in economic terms, the Twins had very little to offer another team. Having little to offer, they received little in return.

Addendum: The Twins appear to be using the money they've saved to piddle away millions on medium-sized contracts for replaceable players. If they want to know how that will work out, they might investigate the track record of the 1990s Pirates.