A Lesson in Hindsight and Small Market Baseball

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A Lesson in Hindsight and Small Market Baseball
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Hindsight has the ability to make decisions look foolish or obvious, calculated or accidental.

Looking back without careful examination, Harry Frazee would never sell Babe Ruth to the Yankees, the Indians would think twice before signing Wayne Garland to a ridiculous 10 year deal, and perhaps, Cleveland would finally accept Detroit’s offer of Ty Cobb for Elmer Flick.

Hindsight, coupled with discretion, becomes a wonderful tool to evaluate past successes and mistakes. But it can also distort decisions by viewing them in a vacuum isolated from all influencing factors.

Babe Ruth’s threats of not playing until his high salary demands were met forced Frazee to deal the unabashed, swashbuckling slugger to a terrible Yankees team. A court ruling in the fall of 1976 allowed players to become free agents for the first time in history, and precedence had not been established in regards to contract lengths before Cleveland signed Garland. And former Cleveland manager Nap Lajoie rejected Detroit’s offer because he viewed Cobb’s hellacious attitude as an avoidable risk.

Fans tend to remember the mistakes after years of heartbreaking losses.

Red Sox Nation only recently exorcised the Curse of the Bambino. Every misfortune is viewed under heavy scrutiny, especially in Cleveland where the Indians have not won a World Series since 1948.

The Tribe seemed ready to take the final step towards making the playoffs, and perhaps, a World Series title, in 2007 after posting run differentials (runs scored minus runs allowed) of +1, +148, and +88 the previous three seasons. But one caveat existed: The looming free agencies of Jake Westbrook, Travis Hafner and C.C. Sabathia.

The Indians eventually resigned Westbrook and Hafner for approximately $25 million annually, or in different terms, $2 million more, on average, than what New York is currently slated to pay Sabathia over the next seven seasons.

In retrospect, the Indians swung and missed on both Westbrook and Hafner, as each spent far too much time on the DL while Sabathia further established his dominance in the American League.

Was the team’s thought process flawed for allowing Sabathia—the franchise’s best homegrown pitcher in the last 50 years—to leave or was the organization unlucky?

Well, fans tend to forget the impressive resume Hafner accumulated prior to 2007. He ranked 6th, 14th, and 9th in WAR (Wins Above Replacement) for hitters in the American League the 3 previous seasons.

As an offensive catalyst for the team, Hafner ranked 2nd, 3rd, and 1st during that time, well.

Each player’s WAR totals from 2004-2006 are listed below:

 

Name

2004

2005

2006

3 Year Total

Jake Westbrook

4.4

-0.4

3.8

7.8

C.C. Sabathia

3.3

1.8

4.7

9.8

Travis Hafner

5.0

4.7

5.9

15.6

 

All of a sudden a little more light is shed on the decision.

At the time the Indians were signing one of the most feared hitters in baseball, and local papers loudly applauded the extension.

On average small market teams can contend for three to six seasons before management is forced to enter another rebuilding phase. In 2007, the Indians entered year four of competitive baseball, so it made little sense to extend Sabathia well past the team’s expected window of competition.

 By signing Sabathia, the team could have extended the window an additional season or two. But as the other players entered arbitration years his contract would have been a millstone around the organization’s neck.

The decision was not about signing the best player or even the player with the greatest potential. It was about risk vs. reward and maximizing the return on investment.

Successful small market teams have to pursue players that outplay their contracts. As good as C.C. Sabathia was, and promised to be, is it logical the Indians to expect him to outperform a $23 million a year contract?

As much as mathematicians dislike the term luck, it plays a vital role in today’s sports world – both in performance and health.

The Indians made the correct decision to sign Westbrook and Hafner to more manageable contracts but, unfortunately, the team was unlucky and both players spent considerable time on the DL.

It happens.

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