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Baseball & Economics: Are The Pirates a Paragon Of Financial Success?

The Pittsburgh Pirates have not had a winning season since 1992. That’s nearly twenty years. 

But recently leaked financial documents indicate that perhaps a different kind of success is sweeter– the Bucs made nearly $30M in profit in 2007 and 2008.  For a team that expended only $100M in payroll during those two years, that’s pretty impressive.  Essentially, the Pirates derived so much profit by pocketing the $39M they received from MLB revenue-sharing in 2008 rather than using it to acquire better players. Revenue sharing is a mechanism meant to funnel profit from highly competitive teams to bottom-dwellers like the Pirates who draw fewer fans for the home team when they are on the road.  Yet the Pirates lack the incentive to spend money to improve their performance on the field and have instead chosen to sit complacently on top of a hefty profit at the bottom of the division each year.

To what extent is the management of a baseball team driven by economics?  The Yankees and Red Sox “buy” championships; the Pirates run their team like a cost-cutting, profit-driven business with little regard for where they end up in the standings; the Marlins’ front office plays the venture capital game by building up promising young prospects, turning them into big leaguers, and then “re-selling” them to wealthier teams to turn a profit.  There is a diverse range of strategies for the best allocation of financial resources in a world free from a salary cap.

How much do regional differences play a role?  Teams in cities like Boston, New York and Philadelphia are catering to an impatient and fickle fan base—a guy strikes out the side one inning and you love him; he gives up a home run in the next and suddenly you hate him, ridicule him for being an embarrassment to the game and tell him your grandmother could pitch better than him.  Fans in these places want to see results, and they want to see them fast.  Are Yankees’ and Mets’ GMs Brian Cashman and Omar Minaya under more pressure from New York fans to make the big deal and get the big name on their roster before the trade deadline?

Do teams like the Rays, Astros and Marlins who play in slower paced cities feel less of a time crunch, thus enabling them to spend less on young prospects in the hopes that one day down the road they might become a star and lead the team as underdog contenders?  Or perhaps this “strategy” is actually out of necessity rather than a luxury as tight budgets force them to take an approach with a slower return on investments.

So who’s more successful?  The Yankees win championships more frequently but pay a higher price to do so; the Rays and the Marlins manage to eek out a title every once in a while in an economically responsible fashion; maybe it’s the Pirates, if you value profit-driven returns over a respectable win-loss record.  But even if the Pirates are a paragon of financial success, well, all I can say is I admire the loyalty of any enduring Pirates fans out there.


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MLB To Lose Two Extraordinary Managers in Lou Piniella, Bobby Cox


Some take the hard-hand, run-suicides-until-you-puke approach. Some give the motivational “Go get ‘em” speech. Some throw you in the fire and force you to fight. 

The way sports coaches choose to manage and motivate players differs considerably and has varying degrees of success. How do you get the most out of your players? How do you instill a culture of dedication and hard work? How do you establish the kind of reputation that makes even the most hard-headed, arrogant and temperamental professional sports player trust and respect you enough to follow your lead?

Today, Lou Piniella managed his last game as a Major League Baseball manager. At the end of the year, one of his contemporaries, Bobby Cox, will do the same. This is consequential not only for the direct, near-term effects on the Cubs and the Braves, who will now have to seek replacements for two likely future Hall of Fame managers; the examples they have set will resonate for years to come.

Earlier this year, the sports world lost one of its most legendary and respected figures when John Wooden, who led UCLA to ten NCAA championships, died at the age of 99. Among the thousands of people he touched and inspired is Manny Acta, the current manager for the Cleveland Indians. 

“I read just about everything from him… I won two championships… Everything was just following his approach. He preached patience, hard work, and controlling your emotions. I’m a big believer in that.”

Yet Acta struggled in managing the Washington Nationals, perhaps precisely because of this approach, and he was criticized for what was perceived as an overly easygoing managing style. To some degree, this is less reflective of Acta’s managerial flaws and more a result of the particular status of the Nationals’ ball club at the time; apparently what was necessary for the Nats, who were 25-61 halfway through the season, was the invigorating hard hand of Jim Riggleman rather than the sympathetic ear of Acta.

Or maybe the flaw was the failure on Acta’s part to understand the Nats’ needs and adjust. Acta himself admits “Wooden’s approach doesn’t work 100 percent at the big league level. You have to make a lot of adjustments.” Still, Acta believes in the slow-and-steady method. “He did it and it worked for him. I’ve done it. So far it has worked for me and I’m sticking to it.” And despite an encouraging 17-14 start to the season, the Nationals find themselves yet again in last place, 20 games back under Riggleman.

Neither Piniella nor Cox exactly take from Wooden’s book—Cox is the all-time leader in ejections, and Piniella has been described as “irascible,” facetiously called “Sweet Lou” and once ripped first base out and threw it down the right field foul line after being ejected. But both are immensely respected by their players and among the league as passionate, loyal, and fiercely competitive managers. And, oh by the way, they have managed to do pretty well for themselves—Cox is 4th overall in all-time wins and Piniella is 14th.

So what works best? The John Wooden/Manny Acta patient, controlled demeanor? Piniella and Cox’s loyalty-induced temper tantrums? Different teams, different players, different situations call for different styles. But, if all else fails, there’s always Ozzie Guillen’s hot-headed and sometimes culturally insensitive M.O. that, if nothing else, gets media attention and PR.

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Is Chipper Jones Hall of Fame Material?


If Cooperstown is meant to be a place for players that demonstrate a certain standard and integrity, and in doing so serve as role models to others, Chipper Jones has my vote.

There has been some discussion about whether Chipper is Hall of Fame material or not, in light of the recent injury to his ACL and the potentially career-ending surgery that will be required. Among third basemen, he’s the all-time leader in slugging percentage and OPS and is third in home runs.

His stats among switch hitters boost his status even more—third all time in home runs and RBI with a nearly identical batting average against rightys and lefties. 

But is this reason enough? Should hitters be measured relative to all other hitters rather than a particular subset? While Chipper has consistently produced impressive stats at the plate throughout his career, he is rarely a league leader or even among the top 10 percent in significant batting categories.

Still, there is value in his contributions as a switch hitter—to be able to produce consistently from both sides of the plate is a pretty commendable feat in and of itself, not to mention the fact that it forces opposing teams to rethink their strategies when bringing in rightys versus lefties from the bullpen.

And, given his permanence with the Braves organization throughout his entire 15 year career, he has played an important leadership role, acting as the face of the franchise and a pillar of consistency through the team’s identity changes over the years. 

Not to mention the fact that on numerous occasions, Chipper agreed to smaller contracts with the Braves when he had more lucrative opportunities.  as a free agent so that he could stay with the team, and resources could be used to build it up with other prospects. 

A player’s value stretches beyond the output produced in measurable stats; there is a reason we hold Ken Griffey, Jr., Derek Jeter, and Chipper Jones to a certain esteem as compared to other players with similar or better stats.


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Jim Joyce: A Perfectly Human Call


In the wake of umpire Jim Joyce’s missed call in the Tigers-Indians game that cost Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game, arguments for increasing the use of instant replay in baseball have resurfaced with renewed intensity.

Joyce called Indians infielder Jason Donald safe at first in what would have been the final out; replays later showed that Donald was clearly out at first, but baseball commissioner Bud Selig refused to reverse the call.

As heartbreaking as it must be for Galarraga who misses his opportunity to go down in baseball history, I have to say that I agree with Selig’s decision. It was a human error, something both Galarraga and Joyce acknowledged, and if Selig makes the exception this time, who is to say there won’t be the same expectation every  time there is a controversial call in a crucial game or situation?

The issue of instant replay in baseball is a little more complicated. I have always enjoyed the “human element” of baseball and maintaining the sport’s more traditional characteristics. The lack of digitalization, varying field dimensions, the Green Monster at Fenway—all of these things detract from the game’s precision and an even playing field, but all of these things also add to the character of the game as well.

At the same time, however, I wonder if this “old-school” perspective is a close-minded view towards potentially beneficial advancements that could improve the game, in an unnecessary attempt to cling to the past.

You want to be fair to players and have results that reflect reality, but there is always going to be some limitation to the amount of precision and accuracy you can impose on an imprecise game, and the consequences of human error every once in a while may be a worthwhile price to pay in exchange for the benefits of the character and intricacies it elicits.

In fact, perhaps even more astonishing than the missed call was the reaction afterwards. Joyce was clearly upset about the missed call and apologized to Galarraga afterwards, a rare occurrence in baseball.

Even more impressively, rather than deriding Joyce, Galarraga commented, “We’re human, we make mistakes.”

Selig later commented, “The dignity and class of the entire Detroit Tigers organization under such circumstances were truly admirable and embodied good sportsmanship of the highest order.”

In a sport full of opportunity for retribution, which players tend to capitalize upon more often than not, the situation is actually very encouraging; Joyce’s call was, in a sense, a perfectly human error.

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