In almost every industry that exists in society, there’s a general principle that is pretty much universally accepted: the more money a manufacturer puts into creating an end-product, the better that end-product will be.
There are exceptions to this, of course, because there are exceptions to everything: there are cheap, counter-service restaurants in Jamaica Plain that make better food than any restaurant in the Seaport with a $22 martini on the menu; and there are shoestring-budget indie films that are far more entertaining the latest, bloated Marvel movie. But even in those cases, just about everyone would agree that the counter-service restaurant would be even better if they could afford premium ingredients or build a bigger kitchen; the indie film would be even more watchable if the director could afford to put together her dream cast and shoot everything on location. Money makes end-products better. This is, sadly, an incontrovertible law of Western capitalism.
The 30 Major League Baseball owners, however, want you to believe that baseball is somehow the exception to this universal truth. Since the day that Moneyball was published (by an author who, as is becoming increasingly clear, maybe isn’t quite the brilliant observer of corporate trends we’ve made him out to be) the owners have been laser-focused on one goal: convincing the fans who consume their end-product that ACTUALLY, GUYS, SPENDING MONEY IS BAD!!
The owners have, very successfully, convinced significant portions of both the fans and media that every long-term deal is a disaster in waiting, that going over the luxury tax threshold destroys a team’s chance at sustainable success, that taking 3-5 year breaks from competing while you lessen long-term payroll liability and build up your farm system is absolutely necessary to win. They have hoodwinked almost all of us into believing something plainly farcical: that in their industry alone, the end-product (that being, in this case, a baseball team) is better if the manufacturers put less money into it. They’ve convinced us that using money to build a baseball team is, somehow, not the smart way to build a baseball team.
This is not true. It is plainly and statistically not true. Despite a few outlier exceptions like this year’s Mets on one end of the spectrum and the Rays on the other, the correlation between payroll and winning has been incontrovertibly observed and proven over and over again:
A cheaply-made baseball team is, on average and objectively speaking, a worse end-product than an expensively-made baseball team. But there are ways to make it seem like the opposite is true, and the owners have spent the better part of this century pulling at those levers.
One of these levers is the expanded postseason. In the latest collective bargaining agreement, completed in the Spring of 2022, the owners negotiated yet another expansion of the postseason field. A sport that, for most of its history allowed just two teams into the postseason, now admits twelve. Tellingly, there was little public debate about this most recent round of expansion. Every previous round of expansion was preceded by years of back-and-forth amongst fans and media about the potential impact a new postseason format would have on the game. And, moreover, these new formats were always implemented as an attempt to fix some perceived flaw in the existing postseason system.
The postseason was expanded for the first time in 1969, when divisional play was introduced and the winners of the East and West divisions were pitted against each other in a league championship series to determine who would advance to the World Series. This new format was plainly a response to an on-field dilemma: between 1953 and 1969, the number of MLB teams exploded from 16 (the number that had been in place since 1903) to 24, and teams were now spread all across the continental US. The added travel made it too difficult to maintain balanced American and National League schedules, and competitive integrity made divisional play a necessity.
The next postseason expansion came in 1994, with the advent of both a third division and a wild card winner. Once again, this format was introduced in response to a problem of competitive integrity created by the further growth of the game, this time from 24 teams to 28, with further plans for 30 teams on the immediate horizon.
A new format was next introduced in 2012, when a second wild card team was admitted, along with a one-game playoff between the two wild card entrants. This format was also introduced directly in response to a perceived issue of competitive integrity. In this case, there was a growing sentiment in the game that the existing format deprioritized winning the division, making the regular season less competitive and interesting. The idea behind introducing the second wild card along with what was essentially a coin flip game, was to incentivize teams to try to win their division during the regular season.
And now the field has been expanded again, this time with a third wild card team and a whole new round of postseason play, as the one-game playoff has been replaced by two best-of-three series. But . . . what was the impetus behind expansion this time? What was the on-field competitive issue this expansion was designed to address? The answer is: there wasn’t one. This isn’t to say that everyone was satisfied with the system that preceded it — indeed, a number of fans disliked the one-game wild card playoff and wished to see it turned into a series. But there were no widespread calls to add yet another wild card team in order to fix some flaw in the old system. The current postseason format was not devised to address any issues of competitive integrity. It was devised because it makes the owners more money.
First, more postseason games means more postseason revenue in the form of both gate reciepts and TV rights, that much is clear enough. But what the owners also came to see — and what was thrown in to sharp relief as mediocre teams like the 83-win 2006 Cardinals went on to win the World Series — was that the expanded playoffs gave owners an excuse to spend less money on building their teams. Baseball, more than any other major sport, is governed by random chance — a ball hit on the screws can land harmlessly in the third baseman’s glove while a perfectly executed breaking ball on the corner can be blooped over the first baseman’s head for a single. The 162-game season blunts this random variance to an extent, but the short series of the postseason are essentially crapshoots. Any team, no matter how mediocre it proved itself to be over the course of a long six-month season, can win the World Series if it sneaks into the postseason.
This brings us to the latest ugly truths uttered by Seattle Mariners boss Jerry Dipoto. The Mariners are, historically, one of the least successful clubs in baseball history. They are currently the only team that has never even been to the World Series, let alone won it, and they only recently ended a 21-year postseason drought, the longest such drought in all of North American sports. But, led by the generational talent of Julio Rodriguez, the Mariners have recently tasted some success. In 2021, they finally posted a winning record, just their fifth in the previous thirteen years. The next season, they finally made the postseason again. And this year, while they won two fewer games than in 2022 and failed to qualify for the postseason, they were in the hunt for the AL West division crown, which would have been their first since 2001, right up until the second-to-last game of the season.
Mariners fans are finally excited about baseball again. Mariners players are finally excited about the future again. And there have been calls from both groups for the front office to spend more in free agency in an attempt to push the team over the top, to, in other words, increase its investment in order to make a better end-product.
But yesterday, Jerry Dipoto let us know that, sorry, that’s not going to happen:
Jerry Dipoto says he operates with a 10-year plan to win 54% of the time.— Jake García (@Jake_M_Garcia) October 3, 2023
"We're actually doing the fanbase a favor in asking for their patience to win the World Series while we continue to build a sustainably good roster." pic.twitter.com/EUfd04TsTo
In other words, Jerry Dipoto and the Mariners have no intention of trying to build a great baseball team. Instead, they're aiming for just 88 wins — slightly above average — knowing that, under the framework of Major League Baseball that the owners have created, there’s no need to spend money on being anything more than that.
Many fans, like our own Jake Wallinger, interpreted this as an example of “saying the quiet part out loud”:
You can literally never say this out loud https://t.co/yJ8hw18aGi— Jake (@JakeWallinger) October 3, 2023
But the fact is that MLB owners have been saying this for years, they’ve just mainly been saying it through their actions instead of their words. Every time a team reset the luxury tax, traded a pending free agent for minor leaguers, or left one of its 26-best players in AAA in order to gain an additional year of contractual control, they were telling us that building a great baseball team was not their primary priority.
Jerry Dipoto doesn’t view it in exactly these terms, of course. He says he’s trying to manage long-term risk. But in doing so he’s being dishonest to the fans, if not to himself. Teams can succeed over the long-term by spending money and aiming for greatness. The Dodgers have averaged 95 wins over the last 14 seasons (excluding the shortened 2020 season). The Yankees haven’t had a losing record in over 30 years. There’s no mystery as to how they’ve achieved this: they’ve spent more money on producing their end-product than anyone else in the game.
Of course, there’s a catch to the success of the Dodgers and Yankees: these two teams have combined for just three World Series championships this century. But this is merely a statistical anomaly produced by the randomness of postseason baseball — randomness that the owners continue to increase at the expense of competitive integrity.
The Dodgers and Yankees haven’t had a relative lack World Series success because spending money doesn’t work, but because the owners have made it look like spending money doesn’t work. Don’t fall for it.