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Monday, February 28, 2011

Reading Dan Rosenheck (and vice versa): The Continuing Search For Pujols Comparables

To make sense of what follows, it's probably sensible to read Dan's original column and my unnecessarily condescending response.

Upfront I'm going to admit that there were some aspects of my argument which were ill-conceived and underdeveloped.  Some of this has to do with my own limitations when if comes to advanced sabermetrics, more has to do with my haste in posting.  The following points I concede without hesitation.  I'll let Dan take it from here:

1.) "If you don't 'timeline' - that is to say, credit today's players for a higher quality of play relative to the past - then absolutely anyone with access to a calculator would rank Gehrig as the top first baseman in MLB history."

2.) "Pujol's baseball-reference WAR is inflated...Ultimate Zone Rating, which needless to say is a far superior statistic, puts him at a much more reasonable 62 runs above average for his career, which is consistent with 'outstanding defensive first baseman' rather than 'God with a mitt.' So Let's knock off those nonexistent 45 runs/4.5 wins, and drop Pujols down to 79.3 WAR."

3.) "Cherry-picking a few players who had decent seasons at age 40 is no more convincing than if I randomly named three players who were cooked by 40."

4.) "PECOTA was designed to project on season ahead, not ten...I would gladly bet my life savings that Pujols underperforms the career WAR total implicit in that projection - it's downright crazy."

5.) "Hmm, why did Greenberg and Mize only have 44 WAR each by age 30?  What possibly might have prevented them from playing in the major leagues for some of those years?  Here's a hint...what does WAR spell?" (Very tasteful snark.)

5.) "My last name is Rosenheck, not Rosencheck." (Though I got it right 9 out of 10 times, as somebody with a somewhat uncommon Eastern European last name, I should be more conscientious.)

After those concessions, we are left with a few substantive disputes.  I'm going to address these in order of what I'll call "intensity of dissent":

1.) Is is fair to compare?  Or, as Mr. Rosenheck puts it, to "timeline"...
"First off, the size-of-the-player-pool argument is pretty overblown.  The US population was about 130 million in the 1930s, versus 300 million today, an increase of 130%, while the number of major league teams has risen from 16 to 30, an increase of 87.5%.  After counting segregation and Latin America, there were probably 6.5 million people per team in the 1930s, and 11 million today.  That's a significant difference, but I don't think it's so vast as to support a claim that older comparables are completely irrelevant.
"Second, as for better training and nutrition and equipment, etc., of course that's true, but if you put Hank Greenberg in a time machine to 2011, he would presumably benefit from the same advantages as well.  
"Third, I wasn't willfully ignoring more recent or non-white players in my analysis - there just weren't any first baseman in Pujols's league from about 1950 to 1990 (and I have no idea why not).  If you want to expand your consideration set to all position players from more recent time, then leaving aside Bonds (who I discount due to chemical enhancement), their track record is no better - none of Schmidt, Rickey, Morgan, Boggs, Brett, Carew, Griffey, etc. did much at age 39+.  
"Finally, the whole thing is irrelevant if you ask me, because even if you concede that the quality of play is higher than it's ever been and therefore Pujols is the greatest player ever because he's the greatest active player, the same is true of his opponents.  If he is likely to age better than his predecessors because he is a modern player, then so will all the pitchers he has to face, and the hitters he will compete against for batting an HR titles, etc.  In figuring how much a team can afford to pay a player, all that matters is his value relative to his cohort - in which case players from the 1930s or even the 1890s are every bit as useful as those from more recent times in projecting his future.  Indeed, the single best-case scenario for the second half of Pujols's career is probably Cap Anson, is it not?"
Obviously the meat of our disagreement lies in this idea of "timelining."  I've got strong feelings about this, as I've expressed previously in these pages, but I haven't really gotten into it for years, so this seems as good a time as any to attempt to lay out the argument in detail.

I'm pretty certain that upon further reflection, Dan would agree that, even if his figures are dead-on accurate (which is a near impossibility), an increase of 69.2% in terms of potential players per franchise represents a radical alteration in the level of play.  (5-10% shifts in potential employment pools are frequently more than enough to effect massive upgrades in the proficiency of labor markets.) Baseball considers itself a pure meritocracy.  Whether it is or not is certainly up for debate, but the politics and economics of the game are definitely build upon this assumption.  Meritocracies are designed upon the express idea that increasing the size of the employment pool is the most effective way of making the system more productive and/or efficient.  For this very reason, since the days of integration, franchises have been highly motivated to increase their allocation of resources to scouting in Latin America, Japan, Korea, Europe, and, most recently, China and India.

I won't argue that baseball is fully globalized, but the search for talent definitely extends beyond the Americas.  Which is just one reason I think Dan's "people per franchise" figures are conservative.  In fact, I think statistics are inherently misleading in this situation.  Those statistics have to be based, after all, on census data.  In America, especially prior to the revolutionizing of sampling protocols in the 1940s, census data was a long way from accurate.  And, as historians like Margo Anderson have shown, the census frequently inflated white populations and deflated minority populations, by as much as 30% in some regions, for obvious reasons (let's just start with the fact that census data effected political districting).  Dan, as a former bureau chief covering Mexico, Central America, and the Carribean for The Economist, will know better than I, but I suspect that population statistics for many of the baseball-rich countries of that region are still less than stellar.  [Dan adds, "I've never heard any suspicion or doubt about Latin American population statistics (as opposed to economic statistics, which are indeed sometimes poorly compiled or willfully doctored).]

Moreover, and specific to the baseball argument, we must remember a few significant cultural differences between the pre-WWII game and that of today, which no doubt influenced franchises' ability to fully exploit what player pool was at their disposal.  For starters, scouting was in its infancy.  Dodgers GM, Larry MacPhail, and manager, Leo Durocher, were frequently responsible for fleshing out new talent, in addition to, obviously, their management of the major-league club.  The absence of commercial airlines and the infancy of highway travel meant that even parts of continental U.S. were inaccessible to baseball scouts in any meaningful way.  Obviously, great players did frequently find there way to the majors by way of barnstorming and semi-pro ball, but one could hardly argue that the system for finding and developing talent was anywhere near as efficient as it was today.

Not only that, but the dramatically different labor structure under the "reserve clause" meant that professional baseball was not "a gentleman's game."  To be a baseball player meant almost certainly being without an income, without a profession, and without any meaningful job training by the age of 35.  For this reason, as Ken Burns so often points out, the teams were comprised mainly of farmboys and street urchins, men with little education and few other prospects.  One of Dan's examples, Hank Greenberg, was, of course, famous for being among the few college-educated men in the major leagues and, as Dan pointed out, for leaving the game at something of an early age, in part because he wanted to get into the business side of things.  Again, a competitive meritocracy which does not pay a competitive wage in relation to other fields is going to be extremely inefficient at acquiring the greatest talents.

Moving on, I want to reiterate something Dan says - there just weren't any first baseman in Pujols's league from about 1950 to 1990 (when we get Frank Thomas and Jeff Bagwell, more on them later).  Dan and I actually agree about more than we disagree (more on that later), in part because we're both fully prepared to acknowledge that there are few precedents for Pujols.  From Dan's perspective, that means you have to go all the way back to the Depression.  From my perspective, that means you have to stop looking and start considering that we may be dealing with a true outlier, at least as far as first base is concerned.  I will point out that I am not alone in seeing the Cardinals current offer as underwhelming reasonable projections.  See Rob Neyer and Dave Cameron.

I know I've been using the word efficiency a lot in this rebuttal, but it is exactly why I don't agree when Dan says "value relative to cohort" is inherently relevant, regardless of era.  Inefficient systems are bound to yield a different pattern of results from efficient systems.  The contemporary game is, I believe without doubt, far more efficient at identifying, developing, and retaining the highest level of talent.

Hopefully, the meritocracy is still moving towards more efficiency (by way of scouting new populations, increasing longevity, etc.), however, I doubt we will ever see the rate of efficiency increase as drastically as it did in the first boom decades of professional baseball.  Think about how many paradigm shifts altered the game during the careers Gehrig, Foxx, Greenberg, Williams, et al.  You've got the ascendency of the power-hitter, you've got the popularization of baseball via mass media, you've got the interruption of the war, and, last but not least, integration.  All the while, the model for running a franchise is improving, technology is improving, etc., etc.  Although it would be difficult for me to display this in meaningful statistical terms, I think you can see why this era was operating under wildly different constraints from those with which we're now familiar.  This alone could explain why players of the '30s and '40s had shorter careers.  If the game keeps getting better by leaps and bounds, most veteran players are likely to have a hard time keeping up.  Unless we discover a large baseball-playing community in the remote regions of China or Argentina, I sincerely doubt Pujols is going to face a radical change in the level of competition over the next ten seasons.

If one were not in favor of "timelining," Cap Anson wouldn't be a horrible analogue for Pujols's upside.  From 31 to 40, Anson accumulated  60-65 WAR, which would make him worth about $220 Million, which is more than the Cardinals have offered, but not quit "A-Rod money."  I'm going to assert instead that, since I don't "discount," Barry Bonds is closer to my ideal of Pujols's upside. Certainly, I don't expect him to peak in this later thirties.  But Bonds, even pre-allegation Bonds, was roughly the same player from 31 to 35 (8.3 WAR/YR), as he was from 26-30 (8.5 WAR/YR).  [Bonds in his 20s lost some games to the strike, but Bonds in his 30s lost roughly the same number of games to injuries.]  I think Pujols could easily have 3-5 more years where he is as good, if not even a little better, than he has been so far, followed by a gradual decline into his early 40s.

2.) Is there a more recent precedent?
"Lining up Thomas's raw offensive stats with Pujols's is silly, since the first half of Thomas's peak was in a significantly lower run environment.  Thomas was a slightly better hitter, as OPS+ will tell you.  Furthermore, I don't know what you're talking about in terms of durability--Thomas averaged 154 games a season during his peak.  But of course there's a significant gap in defensive and baserunning value, making Pujols's best seasons around 0.8 wins per year better than Thomas's.  And obviously Thomas's body type suggested the early decline he eventually suffered. 
"WAR through age 30 is a pretty poor metric to assess Bagwell, since he debuted at 23 and didn't develop his power stroke until 26.  Bagwell averaged 8 WAR a year from ages 26-30 (remember to adjust for the strike), which is a perfect match for Pujols's production in those years.  Bagwell had his last star-caliber year at 34, and was out of baseball by 37.  In my article I say Pujols is probably a good risk up through age 37."
I'll admit, I'm jumping to conclusions about Pujols durability in comparison to Thomas in large part because of "body type" and quickness.  Thomas was incredibly durable early in his career and quite to opposite from 2001 on.  The "triceps tear" which ended his '01 season may have had something to do with that.  That said, Thomas was still far more than a "fringe" player even at the age of 39, at least when he was on the field.

The reason I was attentive to "WAR through age 30" stats is that I do think Pujols early ascension and success at the major-league level is relevant to his contract negotiations.  Maybe if Bagwell had been promoted earlier he could've had a comparable career to Pujols, but he wasn't, and the evidence suggests the Astros were right in delaying his arrival.  After all, his first three seasons (averaging 4.3 offensive WAR) were excellent, but not Pujols-esque (7.4 oWAR), even though he was several years older.

While I do think that Thomas and Bagwell played under similar enough circumstances to make the comparison justifiable, I don't think either lives up to that comparison.  Pujols was better earlier that either of them, has sustained that pace for longer than either of them, and has a wider diversity of talents than either of them.  Now, could Pujols's elbow be his Achilles heel, like Bagwell's back or Thomas's foot.  Sure, it could.  But if the Cardinals bring that to the negotiating table, they've hardly got a leg to stand on, because the elbow is reportedly fixed and even when it was bothering Pujols it barely effected his production.  The possibility of catastrophic injury exists with all players and cannot be accurately accounted for.

3.) Why do terms matter?

Dan says, "Why does it matter how they structure the contract?  The only thing we care about is net present value."  But, actually, as I'm reading this from the perspective of labor negotiations, there are other things I care about.  Several writers, as well as Tony LaRussa, have speculated that the major roadblock in the negotiations is that Pujols, his agent, and the MLBPA are looking to set a new bar.  It's a completely rational strategy when you're dealing with a player who is arguably amongst the best ever and is pretty much universally regarded as the best right now.  Moreover, unlike Alex Rodriguez, Bonds, or many of the other groundbreaking players of the free agency era, Pujols comes free of PR problems.  He's hard-working and charitable, has a highlight reel smile when he's signing autographs and a demon scowl when he's sizing up his opponents.  Prior to these negotiations there's been pretty much zero indication that Pujols does anything wrong...ever.  If a player like Pujols can't get a groundbreaking deal, the union is in trouble, and the agent should look for a new job.

(Sidebar: Why is it that we keep hearing about how Pujols is disloyally handcuffing his franchise, but we never hear about how by not paying Pujols what he's worth, the Cardinals are stealing from the Pujols Family Foundation, the down syndrome charity to which Albert is so avidly committed.  How about this headline: Billionaire Owners Withholding Millions From Retarded Kids.  Just because Pujols doesn't need $300 Million for himself, doesn't mean he should give it to Bill DeWitt.)

The reason creatively structuring the contract matters is that it could provide an avenue for both sides to save face.  For instance, the Cardinals could offer Pujols $200 Million over seven years.  That way, the contract would have the highest average annual value in history, but the Cardinals wouldn't be on the hook much past the point when, as Dan suggests, the risk might outweigh the reward.  There is also the option of building in incentives, vesting options, opt-outs, etc. on the backend, thus protecting the Cardinals from the catastrophe scenario, while giving Pujols the assurance that he will continue to get paid according to his market value in the waning years of his career.

4.) What's the riskiest risk?
"Yup, marquee/brand value is indeed the great unknown.  I'm skeptical anyone can contribute $80 million above and beyond their on-field playing value--that's a significant chunk of the purchase price of an entire team. What did I write to suggest I was 'tickled' by a 'discovery' that three solid players were worth the same as Pujols?  I just used them to illustrate the comparison to a combination of players with the same on-field value but no marquee value.  And I don't see why there's significant extra value in concentrating your WAR in fewer roster spots for a mid-market team like the Cardinals.  Sure, it frees up more room to buy more valuable players, but you'd also have to pay those players more money.  (I do think it matters for teams like the Yankees with no real payroll ceiling, who just want the best team money can buy).  Moreover, I can't understand your risk analysis for the life of me.  Surely you have less risk (and less potential reward) with three two-WAR players than you do with one six-WAR player!  Just from an injury standpoint, assuming the players have an equal risk of going down, if one of the two-WAR players get hurt, you still have four left, whereas if the six-WAR guy goes down, you're out the whole package.  The converse of this is that it's much less likely that you'll have three players all outperform their projections and give you a combined MVP-type year than it is that you'll have one star put together some magical season.  Finally, of course I wouldn't recommend signing any of Harang, Matsui, or Johnson to an 8-year deal.  But unless you expect the free agent market to be more overpriced in the future than it is in the present--and I don't see why that would be the case--then there's no compelling reason why signing a series of short-term free agent deals is a worse idea than signing one big one is."

First off, in snide terms, I was merely observing that Aaron Harang, Kelly Johnson, and Hideki Matsui seemed particularly likely to appear to NYT readers as "fungible" players and therefore make Pujols demands seem more ludicrous.

Now, assuming all players have the same risk of injury, would you rather have three relatively inexpensive two-WAR players or one ridiculously-expensive six-WAR player?  There are logical arguments on both sides, which, as Dan suggests, have a lot to do with the franchise's market, budget, player development system, and the make-up of the rest of their roster.  A couple weeks ago Jason Rosenberg made a pretty compelling argument, based upon the A-Rod/Rangers debacle, that no team should use more than 25% of their payroll on a single player.  The Cardinals have yet to top the $100 Million mark as a franchise, so giving Pujols $25+ Million a year would be breaking Jason's rule.

The reason I prefer the "Pujols risk" to the "Johnson/Harang/Matsui risk" is that my team gets not only his WAR, which we're presuming is roughly equal to that of the other three players combined, but WAR from additional positions (preferably occupied by cost-efficient homegrown or at least cheaply-acquired talent).  Assuming the health of all parties, in the Johnson/Harang/Matsui equation we are topping out at 2-3 wins per roster spot, while in the Pujols equation that's the bottom line.  Yes, Johnson/Harang/Matsui will come cheaper and are almost certain not to decline to 0 WAR over the short term, but they are more likely to fall short of 6 WAR.

Obviously, as Johnson/Harang/Matsui would cost substantially less than Pujols, you could spread the money around even further and, in many situation and many offseasons, that may be the most sensible way to build a team.  However, it is misleading to treat Johnson, Harang, and Matsui as fungible commodities.  The Rockies recently brought the term "cost certainty" into the common parlance of baseball media by wrapping up Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki in long-term contracts.  The "Johnson/Harang/Matsui risk" is part of the reason why.  There is little certainty that you can consistently identify and sign even two-WAR players on the free agent market.  In Pujols, presumably, the Cardinals have a player in whom they are confident, who has done nothing but flourish in St. Louis, and about whom they know pretty much as much as any franchise can know about a player.  When you're constantly buying free agents, not only are you subjected to the whims of the market, you are also constantly being "sold" on players.  Nobody can sell the Cardinal the "Pujols factor."  They know not only how he contributes to production on-the-field, but his box office draw, his public relations value, his clubhouse chemistry assets, his relation to other players, coaches, etc.

Generally, it's safer to bet on the devil you know, as it were.

5.) Whose side are we on?
"When did I ever say how much money I though Pujols 'should' be paid?  I don't have any opinion on what the morally correct outcome is.  My column was about how much money the Cardinals could offer him and still make a profit on the contract."
The problem here is that Dan's column fell under two different headlines on the NYT website, which were "Albert Pujols May Be Asking Too Much of Cardinals" and "Asking For a Lot, Perhaps Too Much, from St. Louis."  Dan did not choose these headlines, but they inflect our reading of his research with a "morally correct" overtone.  Such headlines fit right into the evolving narrative (at its most ridiculous extremes in the commentary of Seth Everett and the similarly simple-minded), which accuses Pujols of "disloyalty" and "greed."

I think, on these counts, actually, Dan and I are in full agreement.  1.) Pujols has every right to negotiate according to recent market precedents like Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Howard, and Mark Teixeira.  In comparison to those precedents, there's no denying that the Cardinals offer is short.  2.) The Cardinals would be completely within reason if they decided that they could not afford pay any player, even the best player, $300 Million, considering the constraints of their market.  3.) If the Cardinals don't make Pujols an offer approaching at least $25 Million/yr., somebody else will.

You can assume "asking too much" is an allegation of unreasonable greed on Pujols part.  Or, you can read it as an acknowledgement of the Cardinals limitations.  For some reason I assume the general public read it in the former fashion.  But I could be wrong.

Finally, thanks so much to Dan Rosenheck for reading and responding in such great detail and with such a generous and perhaps undeserved level of collegiality.


Anonymous said...

Neat. Did he e-mail, or is this online somewhere? Also, love the MLA-style title.

Hippeaux said...

Email. Dan was very gracious. I'm highly appreciative.