On the Humanity of Being Irrational

On Sunday night, Ken Rosenthal wrote a provocative piece over at FoxSports, based on an experience he had at a PITCH Talks event up in Toronto last week. Given the recent success of the Blue Jays and the impending free agency of both Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, the question of whether or not the organization would re-sign either naturally came up. I’ll let Rosenthal take the story from there.

The fan in Toronto made his sentiments quite clear — he was in favor of extending Bautista, even wanted to know the player’s chances of getting into the Hall of Fame. I explained that the Jays were unlikely to keep Bautista, who will be 36 when he becomes eligible for free agency at the end of the season; the team’s new president and CEO, Mark Shapiro, operated with extreme and necessary discipline during his tenure with the Indians.

Nicholson-Smith pointed out that it would make little sense for the Jays to extend Bautista unless they raised payroll. Zwelling added that Bautista likely would want a market deal, further increasing the odds against such an agreement. The understanding among everyone on the panel was that in a $9 billion business, teams make tough, calculated decisions to protect their long-term interests.

Zwelling made an abrupt and somewhat mischievous shift, announcing with a smile, “Part of me just says: Ask Jose Bautista what he wants and give it to him!” The audience hooted, and for several minutes Zwelling built his argument, point by well-reasoned point. As he continued, the crowd grew edgy and animated. Some yelled, “Preach!” Others hollered and clapped. It was the baseball equivalent of a revival meeting. It was a side of the game – the fan’s side – that writers and executives do not always take into account.

Zwelling cited Bautista as one of the best hitters in baseball the past five years and one of the best in Blue Jays history. He talked about the possibility of Bautista aging well, saying that his body has less wear and tear because he did not become a regular until his mid-20s. He mentioned Bautista’s impeccable mental and physical preparation, his understanding of the strike zone and finally, his position an ambassador for the game and for Latin American players.

Maybe it was Zwelling’s heartfelt delivery. Maybe it was the frustration that some Jays fans harbor toward the team’s aloof ownership, Rogers Communications. But by the time Zwelling finished — explaining that if ever there was a player the Blue Jays should pay, it’s Bautista — the place was rocking as if we were back in Rogers Centre after Bautista’s legendary home run and bat flip in Game 5 of the Division Series.

Rosenthal goes on to conclude that, in this day and age of efficiency and analytical processes, it’s worth remembering our humanity, stating that “baseball needs that, too.”

This is the point where I think, as a member of the sabermetric community, I’m supposed to lay out the reasons for why I disagree with him, pointing to mistaken humanity-driven deals like the Ryan Howard contract, and argue that fans really just want to win, and the way to win is by spending your dollars as effectively as possible, even if that means letting the aging franchise icon walk out the door. After all, perhaps no single free agent in recent years had a more human connection to his team than Albert Pujols with the St. Louis Cardinals, and their willingness to let one of the best hitters in baseball history leave town has proven to be the best decision the franchise has made in years.

But here’s the thing; maybe I’m getting soft in my old age, but I actually agree with Rosenthal to a large extent. The connection that most fans have to the game is not based on their front offices making as many efficient choices as possible, but instead, the enjoyment they get out of rooting for their favorite players and seeing them succeed. While the “rooting for laundry” joke from Seinfeld has a good amount of truth to it — we can see the fickle nature of a fan’s attachment to a player after they change teams, for instance — there are also deep and abiding connections between some players and the towns in which they play. Cal Ripken is synonymous with baseball in Baltimore, as is Tony Gwynn in San Diego, and Derek Jeter in New York; pretending that they don’t have a special place in the history of their franchise would be to ignore reality.

Here at FanGraphs, and frequently elsewhere in the analytical community, we tend to focus on maximizing wins, and looking for ways for teams to be as competitive as possible given their resources. But it’s worth noting that wins are more akin to the vehicle than the destination, and while winning almost always produces the kind of fan engagement — and, let’s be honest, profits — that teams are ultimately looking for, teams are ultimately looking for fans to feel satisfied that watching and following the team was a good use of their time and money. The easiest way to provide that satisfaction is to put a winning product on the field, because fans like winning, and I can’t think of too many scenarios where anyone was satisfied when a formerly great player got overpaid to stay on a losing team.

So there’s absolutely a trap there, and we can justifiably look at something like how Joe Mauer’s extension has gone in Minnesota as reason to tread carefully when considering the long-term goodwill a franchise will get from retaining a beloved local hero. What fans want is constantly changing, and their affections are not always predictive of how they’ll react if the star player stops playing like a star player. Fans in Toronto love Jose Bautista now, but will they love him if he’s hitting .190 while making $25 million a year?

But at the same time, none of us are perfectly rational beings. We make decisions all the time that are inefficient to our long-term health because they bring us momentary joy; I had a couple of donuts this weekend that were quite delicious, but I’m sure did some harm to my life expectancy. Just as there is room in our daily decision making for irrational decisions that provide short-term joy at a long-term cost, there should also be room in baseball for organizations to make similar decisions.

So how does a team make room for irrational humanity while also avoiding the trap of getting hamstrung by awarding a bad contract to a player headed into his decline years? Does efficient spending have to be at odds with the emotional attachment to a player? Perhaps not.

The only reason we care about a player’s salary, or how well a team is maximizing its payroll, is that the dollars spent on one player represent an opportunity cost, and prevent the team from spending on other players. Even the teams with the largest payrolls in baseball have to make choices, and the Dodgers lost Zack Greinke to the Diamondbacks this winter because the bidding reached the point where they believed they could get a better return on their investment by signing other players instead. For teams without the Dodgers revenues, the decisions are even more critical, and one bad contract can do a lot of harm to a team with a mid-tier payroll.

But as has been noted many times, every team in baseball is rolling in money right now. The rise in television money has dramatically increased the amount of money pouring into MLB, and the league itself is growing a separate tech company that is worth billions of dollars on its own; this is probably the best time in history to own a Major League Baseball franchise. Every owner in baseball has the financial capability to make irrational, human decisions if they want to, and could still fund a winning baseball team even after signing an inefficient contract.

But instead of forcing the baseball operations staff to maneuver around an albatross, ownership can remove the tension between efficiency and humanity by absorbing the extra costs of these deals in a separate budget. The Chris Davis contract for the Orioles isn’t a good one based on the expected ROI from what Davis will provide on the field, but as Jeff Sullivan noted after the deal was signed, the deal won’t hurt the franchise too much if the money provided to sign Davis was essentially given to the baseball operations staff as a bonus allotment to spend on that particular player because of the owner’s human connection with Davis. If ownership simply makes up the difference between the efficient asking price and the price the player demands by growing payroll to the degree necessary to bridge the gap, then there’s no additional opportunity cost beyond just signing the player at the efficient price.

Now, one could argue that the most effective way to win in the long-term would be to provide the baseball operations staff with that additional payroll anyway, and let them spend it more efficiently, and if winning games was the destination, I’d whole-heartedly agree. But winning really is more of the tool that gets teams to the destination, and there should be room in the sport for spending on goals beyond just maximizing expected number of wins. Those kinds of human decisions just shouldn’t limit front offices from having the resources necessary to put a winning team on the field as well. If an owner is willing to offset the cost of the irrational expenditure on his own, well, more power to him. Rogers can certainly afford to be a little irrational with Jose Bautista if they want to.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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8 years ago

This is exactly how I felt about the Braves and Jason Heyward. It made all the analytical sense in the world for them to trade him when they did, and yet all I really wanted was for them to sign him to an absurd extension and keep him with the team for his entire career. If their rebuild works, I’m sure I’ll become a big fan of the new players in time, but the beginning of Heyward’s career coincided with the renewal of my Braves fandom, and for me he’s irreplaceable.

8 years ago
Reply to  Anon21

While I’ve been a Braves fan for much longer than Anon, I completely agree about Jason Heyward. Hope he has a great career and wins a WS with the Cubs this year.

The player the Braves traded that actually hurt the worst to me was Andrelton Simmons. Maybe Newcomb becomes an ace and leads to many wins down the road, but the trade seems to ignore the fact that MLB is in the entertainment business. Even when the Braves were terrible last year, they were incredibly watchable for those 2-3 plays a game when Simmons would do something defensively that didn’t seem possible. The team may be better in the long run as a result of the Simmons trade, but they lost a ton of watchability for me, and I’m going to miss seeing one of the best defensive SS ever play every day.

8 years ago
Reply to  Anon21

This, in turn, is exactly how I feel about Andrew McCutchen.

I know that he’ll be a free agent after 2018(*). I know that, assuming he’s still a superstar at that point, resigning him could easily be a mistake that cripples the franchise for ten years.

But can’t I hope that my kid gets one player to idolize for his whole childhood? Someone to root for like I rooted for Pops Stargell? (Sorry – I’m not quite old enough to remember Clemente.)

(*) Yes, 2018 is a team option, and Cutch could suffer a catastrophic injury tomorrow. But the fan in me would want the Pirates to exercise that option even if he can’t play.

8 years ago
Reply to  Anon21

(1) If Heyward wanted to sign an extension with the Braves, he could have. Before the 2014 season, the Braves went about locking up all their young talent with multi-year extensions: Freddie Freeman, Andrelton Simmons, and Craig Kimbrel. I really think that if at that point, Heyward and his agent had been willing to do an 8-10 year deal at $20 million AAV (without all the opt-outs that would have allowed him to leave right around the time the Braves are now hoping to once again be competitive), then the two sides would have found a way to get something done. At that point he was two years from FA, and he wasn’t going to agree to something that the Braves could make work with their payroll.
(2) The Braves organization runs on the revenues it makes, so there is no such thing as a one-time grant of additional funds from ownership to sign a beloved player. Big increases in payroll mean shortfalls elsewhere in the organization. The hypothetical with the Orioles and Davis doesn’t apply here.
(3) The Braves parlayed one season of Heyward into 6-7 seasons of Swanson, 6-7 seasons of Aaron Blair, 5 seasons of Ender Inciarte, 6-7 season of Tyrell Jenkins, and one season of Shelby Miller. I love Heyward as much as the next Braves fan, but that is a deal I’d do if Jesus were the Braves rightfielder.

8 years ago
Reply to  HarryLives

I’m aware of all this. I wish circumstances were different. I wish the Braves still had an individual owner, like Ted Turner, who might spend irrationally and have tendered Heyward an extension offer so large that he’d have taken it. As I said, it made all the analytical sense in the world to trade Heyward, and the assets they’ve acquired as a direct or indirect result of the trade have been a big boost to the organization. But I don’t really care about Dansby Swanson as an actual player, and I do care about Heyward. Your comment is really just reasserting the analytical perspective, and Dave’s point in the article is that that isn’t the only way sports fans engage with their teams.

8 years ago
Reply to  Anon21

Most of the direction of this post has been on retaining aging stars, but as a Cards’ fan I have a little different take. I get a bigger thrill watching developing youngsters play, than new free agents. Yeah, the Cards occasionally acquire free agents, but in the recent past it has mostly been the advance of their own.

Not only does this create internal cohesion, it also breeds fan interest. Following player development, through failures, injuries, and bounce backs is intriguing. And it is especially gratifying when those guys exceed expectations. I know people get tired of “The Cardinal Way,” and they should, so too are most Red Bird fans, but when that “way” incorporates an emphasis on drafting, developing and teaching a “winning,” style, it becomes more difficult to ignore. Watch out for guys like, Wong, Adams, Diaz, Grichuk, Piscotty, Pham, Martinez, Wacha, Maness, Seigrist, and Rosenthal. They provide a Cardinal youth movement that is much better than most realize, and it sure is fun rooting for those guys.

Jason Bmember
8 years ago
Reply to  Spudchukar

“developing and teaching a “winning,” style”

This is why people tire of the “Cardinal Way”. It tends to insinuate that other teams are like, “We sure do enjoy losing, let’s do some more of that!” or are at best indifferent to winning.