Regarding the Yankees’ Payroll

A couple of sharply contrasting articles about the New York Yankees and their payroll coming in the wake of their World Series victory: Sportswriter Joe Posnanski believes it’s an unfair advantage, somewhat obscured by baseball’s 3-tier playoff structure (some follow-up comments here), while Apple blogger Jon Gruber thinks the Yankees are just trying to win, which is more than can be said for some teams. My own opinion is closer to Posnanski’s than Gruber’s, although Gruber has a few good points.

(It’s very hard for baseball fans to objectively discuss this issue. Anti-Yankee bias is extremely strong throughout baseball – as a Red Sox fan, I admit to chortling gleefully whenever their season comes to a premature end. I suspect Posnanski has some of this bias, and that Gruber is colored by bias as a Yankee fan; indeed, his gloating at their championship and his past comments on sports makes me think he can’t really assess his team rationally. Then again, it’s sports; rationality isn’t required.)

I think the Yankees’ market and payroll do represent an unfair advantage, but they don’t give the Yankees a “pat hand” as Posnanski puts it. You also have to try to win, as Gruber says (and I do think there are teams that don’t try seriously to win), and you have to be skilled in your trying. The Yankees’ days in the wilderness in the 1980s were because they had fallen behind other teams in collecting talent and assembling their roster. Their approach changed in the early 1990s, which laid the foundation for their run of success since then. But once you have all three elements – a huge payroll, a desire to win, and the skills to assemble winning talent – you’re going to be a winning team most years.

There are teams which have two components, but who lack the large payroll, and they are simply and clearly at a significant disadvantage compared to the Yankees (and to a lesser extent the Red Sox). The Athletics are a popular example. The Angels are a well-run team which have been regularly run over by the Yankees and Red Sox since they won their 2002 championship. And the Rays are one of the best-run teams in baseball (a few years ago if I’d said that you would have asked me what I’ve been smoking), but not only are they at a payroll disadvantage, but they’re in the same division as the two richest teams in baseball and so were on the outside looking in coming the 2009 playoffs. (The Blue Jays are in some ways the Rays writ small.)

To look at it another way, you could be the best-run team in baseball, but given their financial resources, if the Yankees and Red Sox are among the top five best-run teams, then their payrolls give them a huge ability to cover for their mistakes and outbid other teams for the top free agent talent, that they’ve just got a huge built-in advantage over you.

Revenue and payroll are not the whole story, but they’re a significant factor.

There have been some interesting articles about market size written over the years. The seminal work, by Mike Jones, seems to no longer be available. Nate Silver wrote some articles in 2007 keying off of that work, but you have to be a Baseball Prospectus subscriber to read them. (If you are, you can find them here: One, two, three, four.) One point I recall from Jones’ original article was that the New York City area is a large enough market to support four teams, maybe as many as five or six, teams, each with a revenue stream competitive with other Major League teams. NYC is a really big market, folks.

And that’s kind of Posnanski’s point: You can’t really underestimate how big the New York market is, and how much that plays into the success of the Yankees. The Yankees have been a well-run franchise for nearly 20 years, and that counts for a lot, but their market counts for an awful lot as well.

I agree with Gruber that the Steinbrenners’ drive for success and excellence is admirable (is it, though, any more admirable than Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis’ stated desire to win?). Also admirable is the fact that they put their revenue back into the team, creating a feedback cycle of economic and on-the-field success. Not every team does this. (Gruber seems to imply by omission that the Yankees are special in this way, which I think understates what many other teams have done with much less.) And I’m certainly in favor of putting the earnings of baseball back into the game, and ultimately funneling much of it to the players who are, after all, where the true value in the game is created.

It’s not that I blame the Steinbrenners or the Yankees for this state of affairs. I do believe there are some structural problems in the business of baseball, for which the Yankees are somewhat culpable as co-owners of Major League Baseball (how much they specifically are culpable I can’t tell). But having purchased the most lucrative property in baseball and owned it for nearly 40 years now, I can’t fault them for exploiting what they’ve got for the greatest gain and success possible.

But I don’t think we can or should paper over the fact that the Yankees do have a large built-in advantage over every other team in baseball. (And I readily admit that the Red Sox have the second-largest built-in advantage, although the margin between #2 and #3 is much smaller than that between #1 and #2.) I think this is unfair, and it does make the Yankees’ successes less impressive by comparison with those of other teams. (I wonder who the team of the decade would be if you somehow adjusted for market and/or revenue stream? The Cardinals?)

I don’t know of a solution to this problem. Revenue sharing will never be big enough to have an impact. MLB isn’t going to put 2-3 more teams in New York City. (Look at how difficult it’s been just for the Athletics to move to a county which doesn’t even have another Major League team, since the Giants ostensibly claim the San Jose area as their market.) A salary cap would punish the players unfairly. What else is there?

In any event, complaining about the Yankees’ built-in competitive advantage will never go away, and that’s because it really exists.

Just Sick

I’m home sick today – with a cold, not the flu, thank goodness. (At least, it feels like just a cold!) Slept in, read comic books, noodled about on the Internet, blew my nose a zillion times (but that’s better than the sore throat I had last night). Grabbed In-n-Out Burger for dinner while Debbi went shopping with her friend Lisa.

Some other year this would have been a great day to curl up in the evening and watch the World Series. But I just can’t watch playoff games with the Hated Yankees (not even Red Sox/Yankees series), so no World Series for me. Someday maybe MLB will put a couple more teams in New York City and level the playing field a bit. But I won’t hold my breath.

I read a tweet tonight that said “Yankees:Apple::Red Sox:???”. Given the Yankees’ cash flow, free agent signings and aging roster that looks like it had a very healthy dose of luck this year, it’s clearly the Red Sox who more closely resemble Apple, with their more blended line-up, and cutting-edge analytic approach to team management. Just the notion of comparing the Yankees to Apple makes my head hurt. Probably another reason why using sports as a metaphor for real life is a bad idea.

(Besides, if you’re honest about it, it’s the Devil Rays who look the most like Apple.)

Anyway, yeah yeah yeah, as with all things sports, wins by New York teams make the world a little blacker. But I guess it wouldn’t be dramatic without some black hats to root against.

Hopefully things will look brighter tomorrow assuming I can shake the rest of this cold!

What a Series!

The first Red Sox/Yankees series of the year concluded, and it’s hard to imagine later series getting any better than this one!

Unless you’re, uh, a Yankees fan. Because the Red Sox swept the 3-game series at Fenway Park.

Friday’s game one was a 12-inning affair in which the Sox were down 4-2 in the bottom of the 9th, Jason Bay tied it with a 2-run homer, and then Kevin Youkilis hit a walk-off shot to win it. Joba Chamberlain and Jon Lester pitched well to start the game, but two of the better relievers on both teams (Mariano Rivera and Hideki Okajima) imploded later on.

Saturday’s game two was epic. I’d expected the Josh Beckett-A.J. Burnett matchup to be the series’ best chance for a pitcher’s duel, but it was anything but: Beckett imploded, giving up 8 runs in 5 innings. The Sox were down 6-0 in the 4th, but closed to 6-5 in the bottom half thanks to Jason Varitek’s grand slam. Burnett also ended up giving up 8 runs in 5 innings. The bullpens provided little relief (Okajima got hit hard again), but the Yankees’ bullpen completely melted down, leading to a 16-11 Sox win, in a little under 4-1/2 hours.

Game two included such plays as Johnny Damon being picked off base, Jorge Posada getting caught in a rundown heading for home plate and tagged out at third when two runners ended up at that base, and Jacoby Ellsbury reaching base on catcher’s interference.

Sunday’s game three will be remembered for some months for Ellsbury stealing home on Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada, mainly because the Yankees had the shift on for J.D. Drew and Pettitte wasn’t really paying attention. (Video recap here.) It hardly mattered since Drew hit the next pitch for an automatic double, and the Sox won 4-1. Justin Masterson started for the Sox and pitched quite well against one of the better offenses in baseball, and then two rookie pitchers combined to shut down the Yankees the rest of the way, allowing just one hit over 3-2/3 innings. Ellsbury’s accomplishment is being overrated by fans and the media, but stealing home happens so rarely it’s quite a thing to see. Masterson was the true Sox MVP of the day.

Three hard-fought games, and the “right” team won them all (well, as far as I’m concerned!). What a great weekend of baseball!

Oh, and Sox manager Terry Francona seemed pretty happy, too:

Happy guys!