Regal Blue

In re Dave Cameron on player salaries related to MVP candidacy

Posted in Sports by gklarsen on November 24, 2009

As you probably gathered from the title, Dave Cameron has a thought-provoking post on Fangraphs today.  He asks, essentially, why it is we do not take a player’s salary into account when judging him for MVP.  We talk about salary, he says, in virtually every other situation, just not MVP.

Yet, we never factor in the opportunity cost of a player’s portion of his team’s budget, even though it is the exact same concept. If a player makes $15 million and his team has a $100 million budget, he comes with a significant opportunity cost, as he has effectively lowered the budget for his 24 teammates to $85 million. If he made the league minimum, the franchise would have $99.5 million to surround him with talent, and he would invariably have more talented teammates, given that the guy picking them was not named Dayton or Minaya.

In other words, how much a player costs has massive implications for a player’s overall value if we understand value to mean more than production (which we certainly do).  To take an extreme example, Vernon Wells is of negative value to his team because of the size and length of his contract balanced against his output.  But imagine we take away the contract and long-term commitment and instead say that he gets paid about a million a year on a two year deal.  His value shoots through the roof because he’s now something of a bargain and allows those resources (hundreds of millions of dollars, or so it seems) to be distributed elsewhere in the organization.  Vernon Wells would be a moderately valuable player because he comes cheaply.*

*I say ‘moderately’ valuable because he still sucks even if he worked for free.

So, as the article asks, why don’t we think about salary when we ponder these awards?  I believe that this is no mere oversight.  Rather, not talking about a player’s salary is a result we, the baseball enjoying society, like even if we don’t consciously express it.  I really believe that if it were put to a vote whether to adopt salary as a factor in considering MVPs that it would be roundly rejected.

The MVP award is basically symbolic.  It holds no real, tangible value except for a comparatively small bonus a player may receive.  The award, and the process involved in giving it out, holds merit to us as baseball fans because it invites us to reflect on all that is good about this game that we love.  It’s about who rose to the top, salary be damned.

Reading Dave Cameron’s post made me think of college athletics and the fiction it promotes.  Namely, that there’s such a thing as an amateur, scholar athlete.  Top high school athletes may not be given a salary per se but are certainly compensated for their labor through free education, housing, numerous documented and undocumented perks and in many cases relaxed academic standards.  But because there is no salary, they are considered amateur.  Because they are enrolled at a college, they are scholar athletes.

Is this to preserve the integrity of the colleges?  Possibly, although colleges profit enormously from athletics, especially if the team is any good.  More likely, I believe, is that the amateur scholar athlete fiction is promoted because it adds something for the consumer of college athletics.  There is a perceived ‘purity’ in amateur athletics.  The players are not motivated by money, there is no trading or free agency and the whole process is not tainted by profit.

This is all a fiction, as I said.  But the perception remains.  That perception is valuable because it shields fans from the economic realities that sport is a huge, massive business motivated primarily by profit.  There’s no romance in that.  The glory of sport is reduced to efficiencies and inefficiencies, marketing and lifestyle commodities.  It is more fun and more fulfilling to see competition for competition’s sake instead of competition to sell ad space and jerseys.

Baseball, and indeed professional sports as a whole, do not get this benefit of the doubt.  We all accept that profit and economics plays a role.  Players get paid and get paid well.  Yet due in part of our affection for the spirit of amateur sports and the spirit of purity in athletic competition we (perhaps subconsciously) deny certain economic realities to the extent that they affect the game itself.

This relates directly to the unstated presumption that players are rewarded for their valiant and successful achievement on the baseball field with a lucrative contract.  In reality, the  fact is that many many players are motivated not by reaching the pinnacle of success, but by the enormous payday that their success brings.  If we consider salary in the MVP award, we would be compelled to think of salary and talent as intertwined and fans are not prepared to do so.

My point, in this admittedly long and rambling post, is that if we were to consider player salaries in our symbolic consideration of the “Most Valuable Player,” it would be impossible to deny the role that money plays in every single aspect of the game.  We would essentially reward players for earning their paycheck instead of earning our admiration through their performance.  Far too many people would feel their fandom threatened by such a calculation.  Similar to why so many fans feel threatened by the proliferation of advanced statistics, many fans would feel like their visceral enjoyment of the game was diminished.

I believe that the good majority of fans are far more comfortable denying economic value even as it stares them in the face every single game.  We like our perceptions that the sport is pure, untainted by cold economics.  And baseball benefits from it as well.

Note that I don’t actually believe that my enjoyment of the game would be diminished by consideration of player’s salaries for MVP.  Far from it.  I like reading about that stuff.  I still cheer at the games, still love James Loney even though the numbers tell me he’s going to be of poor value once he hits arbitration.  But it’s pretty clear from the national discourse that people are very wary of the intrusion of rational (read: mathematical) realities into their style of enjoyment.


p.s. I went ahead and changed the name and appearance of the blog.  I figured “Regal Blue” was a nice enough name for now.  It’s short and encompasses the Dodgers and Kings, two subjects of primary coverage here.  As far as the blog appearance goes, that needed a change for quite awhile but I just never got around to it.

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