MLB State of the Game Part 2

Smart spending, versatility and the evolution of pitching

It’s safe to say that baseball has changed drastically, and will continue to do so, in all facets of the game. One of the most tangible shifts in the sport can be found in the philosophies executives use to build their clubs into championship-caliber teams. The days when the “best” clubs spent millions of dollars to sign top free agents to lucrative contracts are ending. Instead, teams are smarter with their money, which should terrify small market teams.

In the old days, teams like the Yankees and Red Sox, with deep pockets and the hunger to win at all costs, would sign free agents to absurd deals. In the process, these teams would hurt themselves in the long run because the contracts would quickly devolve into financial burdens that prevented them from spending money on other players. Even though teams like the Rays and the Athletics were often priced out of these expensive players, they could take some comfort in the likelihood that their opponents would be limited by these contracts.

Times are changing, though, as explored by Sam Miller of ESPN, who discusses the changing state of free agency in great detail. Even the teams in the biggest markets, with the most pressure to win, aren’t chomping at the bit to dump millions upon millions of dollars on one top player. The contracts recently signed by Bryce Harper and Mike Trout are anomalies because they’re two players capable of single-handedly changing a team’s fortunes. By and large, executives are waiting out the market. As seen in the past two offseasons, nobody’s buying right away, which gradually drives down the price and length of most contracts. Now, small-market teams can’t even count on the inevitable downside to long-term contracts. Combined with the fact that these clubs can’t compete with the salaries big-market teams can offer, free agency is becoming a no-win situation.

Signing players to one-year contracts, sometimes with an option for a second, is becoming an increasingly popular strategy. This past offseason, the Braves gave Josh Donaldson a one year “prove it” deal for $23 million. While the price tag is still hefty, the long-term risk is minimal because the contract is only for one season. Rather than essentially marrying players by signing them to long-term deals, teams are shifting towards trial runs instead: they’ll sign a player to a one year deal and see if the player “deserves” a longer stay with the team. Frankly, this method of team building is smarter and more efficient but, for the reasons listed above, it’ll likely make the gap between big-market teams and small-market teams more noticeable than ever.

The shifts in these team-building strategies aren’t confined to the philosophies themselves. They can also be seen in the ways executives construct their teams on the field. More than ever before, versatility is one of the most valued traits a player can have. Teams seek utility players like Marwin Gonzalez, Enrique Hernandez and Ben Zobrist because they can play practically any position. In February, the Twins gave Gonzalez a two-year, $21 million dollar deal because he’s a solid, versatile player. Teams are becoming reluctant to dish out millions to a player who can only play first base; instead, clubs value the ability to plug in players at various spots. The Brewers resigned career third baseman Mike Moustakas and moved him to second base, a position he’d never played before because they had a surplus of infielders. Here, Milwaukee was more concerned about getting Moustakas’’ bat in the line-up and, thankfully, the gamble has paid off so far. Still, the message is clear: versatility is becoming one of the most coveted traits in baseball.

The mindset about pitching is changing even more drastically than that of hitting. For most of the sport’s history, the starting pitcher was arguably the most valuable player on the field; few players influence a game more than the starter. Every team wanted to have an ace who could go out and dominate for nine innings. Some of the greatest pitchers of all time meet that description. But, again, the game we see in 2019 is becoming unrecognizable when compared to old-school baseball. Here, a combination of shifting philosophies has converged with tangible results on the field.

In the ‘90s and the 2000s, teams pushed their starting pitchers harder than ever; pitch counts climbed higher and higher and let’s just say some teams could have been better at protecting the health of their pitchers’ arms. Tommy John surgeries became an epidemic because pitchers’ bodies were breaking down at unprecedented rates. While this surgery used to alter the course of a player’s career, evolving medicine has allowed some players to become better than ever after they get Tommy John surgery. David Adler of lists some of the major success stories, such as Jacob deGrom, the Mets’ ace who won the 2018 N.L. Cy Young award and bounced back after getting the surgery. Teams are becoming increasingly conscious of protecting their pitchers; you’ll rarely see a pitcher throw nine innings or over 110 pitches these days. Subsequently, clubs are taking different approaches in their efforts to handle this evolution.

Most teams focus on building better bullpens. Relievers are valued more than ever; in 2017, the Rockies gave Wade Davis $52 million, one of the most expensive contracts ever given to a reliever. While that deal hasn’t consistently paid off for Colorado yet, they sent a message by giving Davis such a lucrative deal: teams covet relievers and they’ll spend tons of money to get a good one. Clubs are stockpiling these pitchers who can step in for an out or two, throw 100 M.P.H. and shut down the opposing offense. Other teams follow a similar idea but use different methods to do so.

Last year, the Rays revolutionized baseball by using the opener strategy. Soon, other teams also began adopting the new philosophy. After all, what’s not to like? Throw out a reliever to begin the game, then plug in a starter for a few innings and, finally, revert to the traditional bullpen usage. Wash, rinse, repeat. The opener strategy bucked all conventions and, to the surprise of many, it worked because it markedly improved the Rays’ pitching statistics. Ironically, the Rays have been even more successful using a more traditional pitching staff but other clubs will likely continue to use the opener. Long-term, the philosophy raises a lot of questions. For our purposes today, the most pressing one is, “how does this affect the ways teams financially value pitchers?” In a nutshell, it’s too soon to tell. But, in all likelihood, the divide between starting pitches and relievers will become pretty blurry, if not entirely obsolete, because the two positions will overlap.

For better or worse, baseball is changing. Plenty of fans and analysts will tell you that the old ways of the game are better than what’s happening now. Others strongly support the evolution of the game. In the end, time will tell if these changes are actually good or bad for baseball. Right now, all we can do is recognize that these shifts are happening and wonder how they’ll continue to alter this game.

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